Dozens of species have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by two-thirds, because insects they feed on have disappeared
Bird populations across the French countryside have fallen by a third over the last decade and a half, researchers have said.
Dozens of species have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by two-thirds, the scientists said in a pair of studies – one national in scope and the other covering a large agricultural region in central France.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Benoit Fontaine, a conservation biologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History and co-author of one of the studies.
“Our countryside is in the process of becoming a veritable desert,” he said in a communique released by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), which also contributed to the findings.
The common white throat, the ortolan bunting, the Eurasian skylark and other once-ubiquitous species have all fallen off by at least a third, according a detailed, annual census initiated at the start of the century.
A migratory song bird, the meadow pipit, has declined by nearly 70%.
The museum described the pace and extent of the wipe-out as “a level approaching an ecological catastrophe”.
The primary culprit, researchers speculate, is the intensive use of pesticides on vast tracts of monoculture crops, especially wheat and corn.
The problem is not that birds are being poisoned, but that the insects on which they depend for food have disappeared.
“There are hardly any insects left, that’s the number one problem,” said Vincent Bretagnolle, a CNRS ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize.
Recent research, he noted, has uncovered similar trends across Europe, estimating that flying insects have declined by 80%, and bird populations has dropped by more than 400m in 30 years.
Despite a government plan to cut pesticide use in half by 2020, sales in France have climbed steadily, reaching more than 75,000 tonnes of active ingredient in 2014, according to European Union figures.
“What is really alarming, is that all the birds in an agricultural setting are declining at the same speed, even ’generalist’ birds,” which also thrive in other settings such as wooded areas, said Bretagnolle.
“That shows that the overall quality of the agricultural eco-system is deteriorating.”
Figures from the national survey – which relies on a network of hundreds of volunteer ornithologists – indicate the die-off gathered pace in 2016 and 2017.
Drivers of the drop in bird populations extend beyond the depletion of their main food source, the scientists said.
Shrinking woodlands, the absence of the once common practice of letting fields lie fallow and especially rapidly expanding expanses of mono-crops have each played a role.
“If the situation is not yet irreversible, all the actors in the agriculture sector must work together to change their practices,” Fontaine said.
WASHINGTON — Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.
The 1,500-page report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization. A summary of its findings, which was approved by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries, was released Monday in Paris. The full report is set to be published this year.
Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in. When combined with the other ways humans are damaging the environment, climate change is now pushing a growing number of species, such as the Bengal tiger, closer to extinction.
As a result, biodiversity loss is projected to accelerate through 2050, particularly in the tropics, unless countries drastically step up their conservation efforts.Cattle grazing on a tract of illegally cleared Amazon forest in Pará State, Brazil. In most major land habitats, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
The report is not the first to paint a grim portrait of Earth’s ecosystems. But it goes further by detailing how closely human well-being is intertwined with the fate of other species.
“For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.”
A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.
But as these natural landscapes wither and become less biologically rich, the services they can provide to humans have been dwindling.
Humans are producing more food than ever, but land degradation is already harming agricultural productivity on 23 percent of the planet’s land area, the new report said. The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.
The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for “transformative changes” that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.
“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”
Scientists have cataloged only a fraction of living creatures, some 1.3 million; the report estimates there may be as many as 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have blinked out of existence, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands and the Guam flying fox.
Though outside experts cautioned it could be difficult to make precise forecasts, the report warns of a looming extinction crisis, with extinction rates currently tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years.
“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report concludes, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.”
Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.
Over the past 50 years, global biodiversity loss has primarily been driven by activities like the clearing of forests for farmland, the expansion of roads and cities, logging, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species around the globe.
In Indonesia, the replacement of rain forest with palm oil plantations has ravaged the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In Mozambique, ivory poachers helped kill off nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone. In Argentina and Chile, the introduction of the North American beaver in the 1940s has devastated native trees (though it has also helped other species thrive, including the Magellanic woodpecker).
All told, three-quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by people, the report found, and 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have vanished since the 18th century.
And with humans continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy, global warming is expected to compound the damage. Roughly 5 percent of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the report concluded. (The world has already warmed 1 degree.)
“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.”
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The dwindling number of species will not just make the world a less colorful or wondrous place, the report noted. It also poses risks to people.Trash in March in a mangrove forest in Brazil. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.CreditAmanda Perobelli/Reuters
Today, humans are relying on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals to produce food. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have gone extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. That means the food system is becoming less resilient against pests and diseases. And it could become harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with the extreme heat and drought that climate change will bring.
“Most of nature’s contributions are not fully replaceable,” the report said. Biodiversity loss “can permanently reduce future options, such as wild species that might be domesticated as new crops and be used for genetic improvement.”
The report does contain glimmers of hope. When governments have acted forcefully to protect threatened species, such as the Arabian oryx or the Seychelles magpie robin, they have managed to fend off extinction in many cases. And nations have protected more than 15 percent of the world’s land and 7 percent of its oceans by setting up nature reserves and wilderness areas.
Still, only a fraction of the most important areas for biodiversity have been protected, and many nature reserves poorly enforce prohibitions against poaching, logging or illegal fishing. Climate change could also undermine existing wildlife refuges by shifting the geographic ranges of species that currently live within them.
So, in addition to advocating the expansion of protected areas, the authors outline a vast array of changes aimed at limiting the drivers of biodiversity loss.
Farmers and ranchers would have to adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries would have to waste less food and become more efficient in their use of natural resources. Governments around the world would have to strengthen and enforce environmental laws, cracking down on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.
The authors also note that efforts to limit global warming will be critical, although they caution that the development of biofuels to reduce emissions could end up harming biodiversity by further destroying forests.An elephant in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, outside Nairobi. More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.CreditTony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
None of this will be easy, especially since many developing countries face pressure to exploit their natural resources as they try to lift themselves out of poverty.
But, by detailing the benefits that nature can provide to people, and by trying to quantify what is lost when biodiversity plummets, the scientists behind the assessment are hoping to help governments strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.
“You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park,” said Emma Archer, who led the group’s earlier assessment of biodiversity in Africa. “But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.”
In the next two years, diplomats from around the world will gather for several meetings under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, to discuss how they can step up their efforts at conservation. Yet even in the new report’s most optimistic scenario, through 2050 the world’s nations would only slow the decline of biodiversity — not stop it.
John Cherry bends down and takes a handful of soil in his hands, brings it up to his face and breathes deeply.
“You can smell when it is good,” he says, poking it with a finger. “This smells of roots … there is a rich, organic quality to it. It is a good smell.”
Cherry is one of a growing army of UK farmers who are turning their back on the plough – and centuries of farming tradition – in an effort to tackle a little-noticed but potentially devastating environmental crisis: the degradation of the Earth’s soil.
The UN has warned that soils around the world are heading for exhaustion and depletion, with an estimated 60 harvests left before they are too barren to feed the planet.Advertisement
That message was backed up in the UK by the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who warned that the country is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. He added: “Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”
The apocalyptic nature of the threat was underlined last month by a report that revealed that excessive use of pesticides had depleted the Earth’s soil and contributed to a drastic decline in insect numbers that threatened a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”.
But on his 800-hectare (2,000-acre) farm outside Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Cherry says that he and farmers like him around the world are fighting back.
The conservation agriculture movement he advocates means no ploughing or turning the soil, instead keeping the ground covered with crops all year round and growing a wide variety of plants.
The method involves more planning, but the benefits its advocates claim are remarkable – from plummeting costs on machinery and labour to a drastic reduction in fertiliser and chemicals. This in turn leads to a huge increase in insects, birds and wildlife, as well as fewer floods and more resilient crops during droughts.
Healthy soil can also absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions – playing a key role in the drive to tackle climate breakdown and the biodiversity crisis.
As kites and skylarks fly above his fields, Cherry says he first became interested in conservation agriculture – or no-till farming – after speaking to others who were trying it.
“I have always been interested in soil, which in the end is the most important thing about farming,” he says. “I went to see a farm where it was being done and when you see someone who is farming without moving the soil it is mind-blowing.”
The movement, which began in the US, is now taking off around the world. Conservation agriculture (CA) is widespread in the Americas because of its water-retention properties in drought-prone and hot areas – healthier soil can hold and retain much more water.Quick guide
What is the Upside?
Some experts have sounded a note of caution, though. The Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, says it backs conservation but warns that it should not be seen as a silver bullet.
A report written by Peter Melchett for the organisation , published in December shortly after his death, said that while CA minimised soil disturbance, reduced erosion and increased organic matter, by itself it was not guaranteed to increase biodiversity or the amount of atmospheric carbon that farmland can absorb and hold.
It said farmers should also consider planting trees (agroforestry), introducing livestock on to arable farms, and having more diverse crop rotations bringing grassland into arable systems.
Nonetheless, the movement is taking off in the UK. Three years ago, Cherry organised the Groundswell festival on his land to spread the word about the environmental and economic benefits of looking after the soil. He was amazed when 700 people turned up.Advertisement
Last year that number had jumped to 1,250, and this year, as word spreads to farms across the UK and Europe, he is worried the farm won’t be big enough to cope.
“This whole thing is farmer-led,” says Cherry. “It is coming up from below, with farmers talking to each other and seeing the benefits, then adapting that to work on their own farms. It is a groundswell of farmers doing it – that is where we got the name.”
Not ploughing avoids disrupting micro-organisms, including the fungal threads that drive the biological life of the soil. A mix of crops on the land increases the diversity and health of the bacteria in the soil, which in turn supports a wide variety of insects.
Cherry says that one of the many benefits is that he no longer needs slug pellets, as the soil supports a lot of slugs’ natural predators. However, he does still use some sprays to clear the winter crops.
Cherry says: “We are using fewer chemicals and less fertiliser year on year as the soil recovers. Our aim is to get to using no fertiliser or sprays at all.
“There are guys in the US who have been doing this for 30 years and their soil is so fertile, they have got so much going on in the ground, that you do not need to apply anything.”
Cherry, who works the farm with his brother Paul, turned to conservation agriculture eight years ago. The first few years they had their best ever returns as costs declined in terms of machinery, labour and pesticides but yields remained high.
Cherry says there were “a few disappointing years as the soil adjusted, but our costs kept going down”.Advertisement
He adds: “After 15 years or so, what most people find is that your costs are right, right down and your yields are better then they were at the beginning. On top of that, you have a genuinely sustainable future ahead.”
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) produced a report last year backing conservation agriculture as one method of replenishing degraded soils. It warned that a combination of industrial farming practices and poor land management have resulted in dangerous levels of soil erosion, compaction and declining fertility, which costs around £1.2bn a year in England and Wales.
Graeme Willis, the senior rural policy campaigner at the CPRE, says: “Soil is fundamental to delivering productive farming, a healthy countryside, and can play a key role in tackling climate change. But decades of neglect have degraded our soils to a point where much of this life-giving asset, which underpins the health of all living things, is no longer able to function as it should.
“Through conservation agriculture, farmers can reduce costs, use fewer chemicals and rebuild biological life in the soil, making it healthier, more resilient to extreme weather and able to support more wildlife. It’s win-win for farmers, the people they feed and the environment.”
Willis says there was a stark similarity between the human gut and soil in terms of planetary and human health. “Looking after the soil is much like looking after a healthy gut biome where variety is key: eat lots of different foods, especially plants, not too much wheat and cut back on the chemicals – for farming, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and for the gut, antibiotics and ultra-processed foods.”
Back on his farm Cherry is examining the soil and the tangle of winter crops that cover his field.
“The insects are the bottom of the food chain and there are so many things that eat them,” he says. “Since they have come back we have seen a huge increase in birds: skylarks, flocks of yellowhammers, kites, buzzards, and we are not doing anything special to attract them – they just love the fields, the system we have here.”
RADIO 4 “On Your Farm”
BBC RADIO 4 “On Your
Farm” came to our demonstration farm. We talked about our philosophy and
shared the results of 9-year continuous cropping. Please listen to
BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 5 May at 6:35am or catch up on the Radio 4’s
website at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0004sys
While all eyes are on human numbers, it’s the rise in farm animals that is laying the planet waste @GeorgeMonbi
This column is about the population crisis. About the breeding that’s laying waste the world’s living systems. But it’s probably not the population crisis you’re thinking of. This is about another one, that we seem to find almost impossible to discuss.
You’ll hear a lot about population in the next three weeks, as the Paris climate summit approaches. Across the airwaves and on the comment threads it will invariably be described as “the elephant in the room”. When people are not using their own words, it means that they are not thinking their own thoughts. Ten thousand voices each ask why no one is talking about it. The growth in human numbers, they say, is our foremost environmental threat.
limate summit approaches. Across the airwaves and on the comment threads it will invariably be described as “the elephant in the room”. When people are not using their own words, it means that they are not thinking their own thoughts. Ten thousand voices each ask why no one is talking about it. The growth in human numbers, they say, is our foremost environmental threat.
At their best, population campaigners seek to extend women’s reproductive choices. Some 225 million women have an unmet need for contraception. If this need were answered, the impact on population growth would be significant, though not decisive: the annual growth rate of 83 million would be reduced to 62 million. But contraception is rarely limited only by the physical availability of contraceptives. In most cases it’s about power: women are denied control of their wombs. The social transformations that they need are wider and deeper than donations from the other side of the world are likely to achieve.
At their worst, population campaigners seek to shift the blame from their own environmental impacts. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many post-reproductive white men are obsessed with human population growth, as it’s about the only environmental problem of which they can wash their hands. Nor, I believe, is it a coincidence that of all such topics this is the least tractable. When there is almost nothing to be done, there is no requirement to act.
If we want to reduce our impacts this century, the paper concludes, it is consumption we must address. Population growth is outpaced by the growth in our consumption of almost all resources. There is enough to meet everyone’s need, even in a world of 10 billion people. There is not enough to meet everyone’s greed, even in a world of 2 billion people.
So let’s turn to a population crisis over which we do have some influence. I’m talking about the growth in livestock numbers. Human numbers are rising at roughly 1.2% a year, while livestock numbers are rising at around 2.4% a year. By 2050 the world’s living systems will have to support about 120m tonnes of extra humans, and 400m tonnes of extra farm animals.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but were we to eat soya rather than meat, the clearance of natural vegetation required to supply us with the same amount of protein would decline by 94%. Producing protein from chickens requires three times as much land as protein from soybeans. Pork needs nine times, beef 32 times.
A recent paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that our consumption of meat is likely to be “the leading cause of modern species extinctions”. Not only is livestock farming the major reason for habitat destruction and the killing of predators, but its waste products are overwhelming the world’s capacity to absorb them. Factory farms in the US generate 13 times as much sewage as the human population does. The dairy farms in Tulare County, California, produce five times as much as New York City.
So why is hardly anyone talking about the cow, pig, sheep and chicken in the room? Why are there no government campaigns to reduce the consumption of animal products, just as they sometimes discourage our excessive use of electricity?
A survey by the Royal Institute of International Affairs found that people are not unwilling to change diets once they become aware of the problem, but that many have no idea that livestock farming damages the living world.
It’s not as if eating less meat and dairy will harm us. If we did as our doctors advise, our environmental impacts would decline in step with heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. British people eat, on average, slightly more than their bodyweight in meat every year, while Americans consume another 50%: wildly more, in both cases, than is good for us or the rest of life on Earth.
But while plenty in the rich world are happy to discuss the dangers of brown people reproducing, the other population crisis scarcely crosses the threshold of perception. Livestock numbers present a direct moral challenge, as in this case we have agency. Hence the pregnant silence.