In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release
No doubt this is designed to be scary.
Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.
I could be glib here, but for once I will not.
Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.
It is true.
We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.
The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.
300% increase in food crop production since 1970
This is a remarkable gain.
Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.
The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.
So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.
Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.
There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.
Here is another number to ponder.
23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation
This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.
At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.
This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.
This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.
We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.
“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”
Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.
Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.
The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.
It really should be.