Connecting the dots on biodiversity and agriculture

Shauna Sadowski
Shauna Sadowski and her daughter Mika in Costa Rica.

Earlier this summer, at the adventurous age of 6, my daughter Mika ate a termite. In fairness, I will say that her action was, while bold, quite fitting against the rich cultural backdrop of our family vacation to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

As a mother, I encourage my children to try a variety of foods. But in this recent experience, where I saw Mika crunch into a "carrot-like" (according to her) insect, just one of many life forms that make up what National Geographic calls "the most biologically intense place on Earth," it inspired deeper implications about the incredible life experiences anchored to our planet’s rich, but dwindling, biodiversity.

While exploring a region that makes up 0.001 percent of the earth’s surface area, but plays host to an astounding 2.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, we marveled at spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, a Baird’s tapir and scarlet macaws, among many other birds and mammals. The diversity of plant life was all around us, from the Cecropia to the strangler fig trees. We saw and heard more insects than I can name. It was here that my daughter tasted her first insect.

The fact that my daughter reveled in tasting termites was a delight for me. I encourage my children to make connections between the food they eat, where it comes from and the impact it has on the world. Being able to taste directly from nature is a unique experience, but the reality is that farms provide the bulk of our modern diet and the way these farms grow food raises important biodiversity questions beyond the protected parks.

Agriculture's long shadow

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation in the tropics. Not only does most agriculture destroy natural ecosystem diversity, it often replaces it with a single crop planted over large areas over multiple years, a practice known as a monoculture. As we were traveling to the Osa Peninsula, I saw hundreds of acres of homogenous palm plantations along the roadsides — a mere speck among the 145,000-plus acres of oil palm planted in the country (PDF).

While Costa Rica has managed to protect much of its forests, many farms still employ these monoculture practices and these palm plantations are unfortunately representative of modern industrial practices across the entire globe. In fact, only 12 plant species comprise 75 percent of the world’s food supply, and 15 animal species represent 90 percent of global livestock production. When we think about this from a risk-management perspective, we have most of our eggs in one basket. From a simple risk mitigation strategy, our food supply would benefit from greater diversity.

Modern agriculture is typified by specialization, mechanization and intensification, with top priority given to maximum productivity. This form of agriculture also relies heavily on fossil fuels, from powering the tractors that run across the fields to the chemical fertilizers applied to the land. With a narrow focus on yield, these agricultural practices bear costs, and the environment pays a high price in the form of soil erosion and degradation, water scarcity and contamination, fertilizer and pesticide pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and habitat conversion and biodiversity loss.

As of 2005, clearing land for crops and permanent pasture already had removed over 50 percent of natural wildlife habitat on agriculturally viable land worldwide, not to mention the carbon emissions from agriculture and land use changes, which, combined, contribute about 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The interrelationship among these issues is worth noting, as the changes we make on our natural landscapes reveal themselves in many ways.

As John Muir elegantly said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Promising solutions

Farming, through its dependence on the land, is inherently connected to nature. As the costs of modern agricultural practices are becoming better understood, many people — farmers and consumers alike — are looking for solutions. From incorporating wildlife corridors and pollinator habitat to enhancing the diversity of crop rotations and interseeding, farmers actively can promote biodiversity while they cultivate food.

Organic farming also can play a role in enhancing biodiversity, as common practices found in organic systems include crop rotations, including cover crops and avoiding toxic synthetic pesticides, all of which benefit biological life above and below the ground. In fact, a recent meta-analysis comparing biodiversity in organic and conventional systems found that organic farms, on average, had 30 percent higher levels of species richness than conventional farms.

Companies — particularly food companies — have a role to play in promoting biodiversity in agriculture. I work at Annie’s, where we have a strong commitment to organic farming, with nearly 90 percent of our sales coming from organic products. Furthermore, we and other brands of our parent company General Mills made a $4 million, five-year commitment in 2016 that will plant more than 100,000 acres of habitat and directly support the Xerces Society in creating and restoring pollinator habitats across the country.

As someone dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system, I am heartened by the positive impacts that farming can have, and the role that companies can play in promoting its importance. But we need to see more agricultural systems prioritizing biodiversity, among other ecosystem services. Considering the extent to which we depend on farming and the environment for our daily eating habits, it’s in everyone’s best interest to tackle this issue.

Conservation plays a critical role in protecting natural places like Corcovado Park in Costa Rica, and these efforts should continue. However, we also need to encourage better agricultural practices that place heightened emphasis on biodiversity. Agriculture does change the landscape, and people need to eat. But there are opportunities to farm in a way that aligns more closely with our natural environment. The two need not be at cross-purposes.

As I share in my daughter’s awe and wonder of the natural world, I am hopeful that the next generation will right our wrongs and create systems that take into account the value that nature provides. We can help change course and get on the right path — one that balances economic, ecological and social impacts for those living now and generations into the future.

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