What do the corona-crisis, climate change and the Dutch nitrogen crisis have in common? They all sparked a new interest in an otherwise often neglected debate, namely the one about biodiversity and how humanity has chosen to order the natural environment. Here’s an overview and an opiniated conclusion.
Biodiversity loss and climate change are closely related: polluting activities that activate global warming processes often also harm the habitats of diverse species, and the destruction of natural ecosystems decreases the amount of greenhouse gasses, especially CO2, that can be absorbed and stored by plants. Often people or organizations that demand climate action, will also insist on the conservation of natural ecosystems (e.g. Extinction Rebellion). The term biodiversity originates from 1985, and from then on it has become clear that the global loss of biodiversity is a crisis that equals – or even surpasses – the crisis presented by climate change. It is the diversity of genes, species, communities and ecosystems that makes life on earth possible. And we are quickly losing this diversity (The Guardian, 2018).
Agrobiodiversity is a sub-category of biodiversity, and stands for the variety of “animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries”. It is not limited to the harvested species, but also includes the diversity of species that support production (soil life, predators and pollinators) and “those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems” (FAO, 1999a). Increasing the agrobiodiversity means that the agricultural systems become more resilient, more stable and more adapted to the specific characteristics of the environment they are in.
Sparing versus Sharing
A recurring discussion when it comes to agriculture and biodiversity, is the debate between proponents of “land sharing” versus proponents of “land sparing”. The latter means that land is set aside to conserve biodiverse ecosystems, while agricultural production happens on less land and therefore more intensively. Sharing land would mean that we would have more working land, which we would share with nature by “reviving small woodlands and adopting small-scale eco-friendly farming” (Yale Environment 360, 2018). The “land sharing”-versus-“land sparing” debate has been going on for over a decade, but was reignited among scientists and conservationists. The recent outbreak and pandemic due to the codiv-19 virus, has again brought up a fierce discussion about the interference of humans in natural ecosystems.
The leading argument for the conservationists that advocate for a land sparing-approach, is that most wild species have larger populations when the land used for food production is as small as possible. Even the most ecological farming practices are harmful to nature, and the goal is to keep them as limited as possible. According to Claire Kremen (2018), however, this approach represents a short-term vision, and isolating species in a fenced area, surrounded by, for them, inhabitable spaces, does not protect them in the long term. It is, she states, a fallacy to think that intensive, industrial farming can guarantee good conditions for biodiverse ecosystems. More likely to happen, is the phenomenon known as the Jevons Paradox, which refers to the fact that, when in the 19th century, more efficient coal engines were built, this did not reduce coal burning but rather increased it, leading to the Industrial Revolution. When smaller spaces are farmed more intensively, leading to a bigger production, it is more likely that the higher yields will be used to produce even more, and open new frontiers to do so (Yale Environment 360, 2018).
Furthermore, more and more research points out that a more nature-inclusive, agroecological farming model can prove to be more productive and has additional values, such as providing food sovereignty, promoting a more equal distribution of food and creating social cohesion. A combination of less intensive farming on less land, following agroecological principles seems to be the best outcome. This would mean to focus less on farming systems that require a lot of land, such as livestock farming, a better distribution of food globally and less food waste.
New frontiers and the development of corona
The new Corona virus that caused a world-wide pandemic, presents a new perspective on the discussion about biodiversity and farming. As are most new viruses, the covid-19 virus is a zoonosis, which means that it has been transferred from animal to human. This transference can happen by direct contact with the infected animal (covid-19 most likely came to be in a direct contact between human and a bat) through saliva or other bodily excretions, or through the interference of invertebrate vectors such as mosquitoes (which happened with the zika virus). In several articles, the interference of people in wild ecosystems, and the clearing of nature for agriculture, has been pointed out as one of the causes for the occurrence of infectious zoonoses such as corona, aside from the more obvious cause that is the consumption of wild animals. The reasoning is twofold. First of all, the destruction of natural habitats forces wild animals, that might be the carriers of viruses that are lethal for humans, to find new living places between humans. Secondly, damaged ecosystems are less resistant to viruses, meaning that in shrinking natural areas, the relative number of animals carrying a virus is bigger than in a larger area with healthy populations of diverse species. This is the same effect as when a monoculture is compared to an agrobiodiverse agricultural system. The latter is a lot less prone to suffer from large pests and diseases.
It seems that, to avoid pandemics as the current one, the best approach would be to “spare” the natural areas and protect them as well as possible from human interference, which can be guaranteed by implementing “buffer zones”. However, research by Chelsea Wood (2017) stated that, over a period of 20 years, the increase of woodland can be associated to an increased pressure of infections, in this case of malaria. The reason for this is mainly that the habitat of the animals that are a vector for the spread of the disease, such as mosquitoes, and that their populations also grow. Ironically, the best measure to avoid the development of a zoonosis that originates from wild animals, is to completely remove natural ecosystems and biodiversity. This is the amplification hypothesis, which states that when the habitat of the vector is amplified, the reach of the disease will also be amplified. This, obviously, does not seem like an adequate approach, and, in addition, this is only true for some zoonoses.
In reality, it depends on the complexity of the disease and on the life cycle of the pathogen. According to the dilution effect hypothesis, the spread of disease is limited by a higher biodiversity. The reasoning is that, in a more biodiverse ecosystems, there are a lot of more non-competent hosts, which are the organisms that can’t pass on a virus. This means that the virus is diluted and less harmful. Further, the hypothesis states that, when the ecosystem is harmed, the non-competent hosts die out faster than the competent ones, meaning, again, that there are relatively more organisms that carry the dangerous diseases.
Agriculture against nature in the Netherlands: threatening the Natura 2000 areas
The Natura 2000 areas are a classic example of the “land sparing”-approach. A number of – in the case of the Netherlands – small natural areas are enclosed and protected, while the rest of the land can be used intensively. In the Netherlands, many of these areas constitute of heathland – a man-made ecosystem that comprise a large variety of insects, fungi, grasses and more. The ecosystem can only be kept in place by continuously depriving it from nutrients, often done by grazing sheep. Especially in this ecosystem, the deposition of an excessive amount of nitrogen is detrimental.
The Netherlands chose to make a clear division between areas meant for nature and areas destined for agriculture. The enclosed natural areas are subject of nature conservation laws, while the rest of the land is ruled by almost a kind of impunity (De Correspondent, Van Poppel, 2020). Factories can keep on polluting, and the agricultural land is filled with monocultures kept alive by artificial pesticides and fertilizers. The rulebook that aims to conserve the natural ecosystems in the Netherlands has been renewed several times in the last decennia. In 1990, a plan was designed to create an ecological network (EHS: Ecologische Hoofdstructuur) that connected different nature areas, so that these got a more prominent place in society. Based on this Dutch policy, the European Commission designated the Natura 200-areas in 2000 in the whole of the European Union. The rules to protect these areas were very strict, but in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, the benefit of the economy again gained the upper hand over the conservation of nature, and the budget for nature management was cut with up to 72 percent. Nowadays, nature areas in the Netherlands are very small and not connected, which means that the battle to protect natural ecosystems in these areas becomes a losing game. At the same time, the biodiversity in the Netherlands dropped from 40 percent in 1900 to 15 percent in 2000 (PBL, 2010). It also means that the ecosystems are controlled in a degree that doesn’t allow them to adapt to new conditions or to a changing climate.
This story shows that, even though it might sound good to protect nature form the harming effects of intensive agriculture and industry, it seems to be difficult in this profit-driven society to keep defending nature for the sake of biodiversity, for the sake of healthy ecosystems, even when we know that these are the fundamental principles of our life on earth. As we have seen during the nitrogen crisis, the negative effects of our economy are not stopped by the borders of development plans. Globally, most of us seem to have chosen for a tactic of land sparing, where we lock up small snippets of nature in conservation parks and we designate specialists to protect these in their original state. But in the meanwhile, the pressure of growing economies, industrialized agriculture and fossil-fuelled transport makes that we, more often than not, make decisions at the expense of nature. If we want to limit climate change, decrease the risk of future pandemics and still have natural areas to enjoy in the future, we should reconsider the way we think about nature. We need strong ecosystems that limit the spread of viruses, that can survive climate change and can absorb polluting emissions. In my opinion, we should leave some spaces completely wild, but we should also realize that nature cannot be banished to a secluded area far away. Our direct environment is also a vulnerable, natural ecosystem of which we are dependent, and should be shared among people, polycultures, animals and a variety of other species.
Bringing back agrobiodiversity is part of the solution to produce food while keeping intact the natural ecosystem, within the idea of land sharing. Agroecology is, aside from a movement and a science, a collection farming practices that look at nature as the inspiration for the farming system. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that according to the FAO (2018), diversity is the first of ten guiding principles of agroecology. More radical decisions need to be made to move towards such an agriculture that is not separated from nature, a kind of agriculture against which nature doesn’t have to be protected at all cause. And then still, we need to keep natural areas as wilderness. This is the only way of combining land sharing and land sparing that can protect our society from more crises as we have seen in the last year, and at the same time, allow us to become resilient in a changing climate.
Carrington, Damian. 2018. “What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us?” In: The Guardian. Online version.
FAO. 2018. The 10 elements of agroecology: Guiding the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems. Rome: FAO.
FAO. 2004. Factsheet: Building on Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge. Rome: FAO.
Kremen, C. and A. M. Merenlender. 2018. “Landscapes that work for biodiversity and people”. In: Science 19: Vol. 362.
Konniger, Saskia. 2020. Is Corona de prijs die we betalen voor ontbossing? In: One World. Online version.
Pearce, Fred. 2018. “Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature” In: Yale Environment 360. Online version.
Van Poppel, Jan. 2020. “Natuurbeleid in Nederland: een hek om een lapje groen zetten en de rest van het land volbouwen”. In: De Correspondent. Online version.