Conventional Agriculture and Biodiversity Loss

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Agriculture has enabled farming systems to evolve since it was invented 10,000 years ago, and has been responsible for supporting the growing human population on the planet. However, agriculture is a human invention, and is also a destructive force and major driver of biodiversity loss.  The population boom over the past 50 years and resulting agricultural expansion has put increased pressure on global ecosystems and the biodiversity they hold.  In most cases, agricultural expansion involves no consideration of overall environmental impacts, because it is embedded in a system driven by profit.  The resulting loss and decline in ecosystem services have significant consequences for the health and well-being of all species, including mankind.

Biodiversity is the basis of all agriculture – it is the source of plants and animals that form our farming systems.  It is essential for the production of the food that the entire human population depends on for sustenance.  Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes provides and maintains the ecosystems essential to agriculture.  The conservation of biodiversity is crucial for both the future of agriculture and humanity.

Population Growth
Between 1960 and 2000, demand for ecosystem services grew significantly as the world’s population doubled to six billion people, and the global economy skyrocketed.  In the next 50 years, the population is expected to grow to nine billion.  This population surge will cause the demand for food and livestock feed crops to nearly double.  Providing nourishment for nine billion people will be a major challenge for the planet, and will require significant contributions from large-scale intensive farming.  Because large-scale farming involves huge levels of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, the value of the environment must be included in the costs of production.

Currently the global population is growing at a faster rate than the increase in the yields of wheat, maize and rice – three resources which supply most of the planet’s nutritional needs.  The growing population is a huge threat to food security, as already one in three people suffer from malnutrition and/or inadequate access to food.

The most common response to increase in demand has been a combination of land conversion and the intensification of agricultural systems, both of which have negative impacts on biodiversity.  Agricultural producers respond to consumer demands and government policies.  Currently, the demand around the world is for cheap food, and producers are trying to increase their profit.  Therefore, producers will cut production costs wherever possible, and will utilize large-scale methods such as mono-cropping and synthetic fertilizer use, because they are cheaper than planting diverse crops on terraced lands and using sustainable pesticide alternatives such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  In order to keep the cost down, agricultural producers also do not account for externalized costs such as the fossil fuels required in production and transport of goods (7-10 calories of fossil fuel energy are consumed to deliver 1 calorie of food to an American plate), or the costs of environmental and developmental impacts.


<http://blog.ssis.edu.vn/terryp/blog/2009/10/25/millenium-development-goals-eradicate-extreme-poverty-hunger/>

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Economic implications
2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihood.  Agricultural livelihoods are based on the use of agricultural produce directly for subsistence or income derived from work and produce.  A loss in biodiversity of crops and in the surrounding ecosystem makes the farmer more vulnerable to economic devastation. 

The emphasis on yield in agriculture has led to selection and breeding for high production and a loss of traditional breeds that held other traits, qualities and adaptations.  Currently, the agroecosystems around the world are being homogenized.  Traditional agricultural systems, which involve diverse crops and low-impact cultivation methods, are being converted to monoculture systems that do not utilize crop rotation or crop diversity, and require high inputs of synthetic fertilizer.  This large-scale conversion around the globe leads to deforestation (of biodiversity-dense regions such as the Amazon), and the drainage of wetlands.

Additionally, these homogenized systems put farmers at extreme risk.  The conservation of diverse crop and animal varieties provide genetic insurance for adapting to changing conditions, and to meet consumer needs and demands.  Monocultural, genetically-modified crop species are less adapted to changing climatic conditions, such as global warming.  As we may be experiencing intense climate change in the coming years while our population base continues to grow, biodiversity in agroecosystems will be absolutely vital to our survival.

Trade liberalization
The liberalization of global trade has caused a shift in geographical patterns of agricultural production.  Not only does free trade hurt small farmers in developing countries, it is also hazardous to ecosystems and biodiversity.  More centralized agricultural production results in higher pressure on biodiversity in the production systems.

In his analysis of the globalization of market failure, the ecological economist James Boyce focuses on the erosion of crop genetic diversity in Mexican maize.  Mexico accounts for one-third of corn genetics, and the crop covers one-third of arable land in Mexico.  For years the Mexican government had strict regulations on maize imports to protect domestic farmers, which are now being phased out under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  As corn is highly subsidized in the US, importing US corn is cheaper than buying from small farmers in Mexico.  US corn crops are lacking in biodiversity; we have only a small number of corn varieties which are susceptible to pests and diseases.  The flooding of the Mexican maize market is contracting Mexico’s maize acreage, as the US is displacing domestic production.  The land abandoned by maize farmers will be converted into cattle pastures, requiring less labor and therefore causing job loss and increasing poverty throughout rural Mexico. 

More information on the globalization of market systems can be found here.

<http://knowledge.allianz.com/en/news/viewdetail/water_biofuels_usa.html>

 

Sources:

“Biodiversity and Agriculture: Safeguarding Biodiversity and Securing Food for the World.” Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity; UNEP.  22 March 2008.

Boyce, James, The Political Economy of the Environment, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2002) Ch. 7: The Globalization of Market Failure?

 

Read more publications by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity here.

 

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