Biodiversity: understanding the basics to start taking action (for real)

— Anh NGUYEN

What is the thing that everyone agrees that it is of absolute importance, that everyone must protect and treasure without hesitation, but actually does not give a damn about?

Yes, you guess it right. It’s biodiversity.

Ask any random person you found on the street “Is Bioversity important and must be protected?”, it is 99% sure that they will answer yes (except, probably, very old and very young people who never heard of the word “biodiversity”). Throughout our educational system (no matter where you are in the world), you have learned about the notion of “biodiversity” and its vague importance and so when being asked such a question, our ape brain will automatically answer “yes”, without any further elaboration of why it is important and primordial to the survival of human beings ourselves.

2021 marks the end of the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity, is it a surprise to you? It’s not your fault. Maybe except for people who actually work on the initiative, it seems like no one else knows that the last decade was even the Decade of Biodiversity. Virtually no policy-makers, no industries and businesses, and no large number of citizens are actively discussing biodiversity loss as one of our two most dire existential crises, along with climate change.

Don’t look up – a recurring plot of our times

It seems like the battle with Climate change and Global warming has gained some success, at least there are fewer climate change deniers over the years and there have been more industries/ businesses/ people talking about it; some even start to actually plan their actions to reduce their emissions.

It’s not yet the case for Biodiversity. But, let’s be honest: we cannot protect what we don’t understand. We cannot take any action on the things whose importance is not visible to us. In this article, we would re-examine the knowledge on biodiversity – what is it, why is it important, and why do we need to tackle climate change and biodiversity as our two existential crises at the same time?

climate change, biodiversity collapse, covid-19, recession
The best image to sum up our situation. I am not saying that Covid19 and recession are not important topics to be discussed. Yet them being the focus of the media while climate change and biodiversity collapse as a substantial threat to humanity, these two topics are simply not being talked about enough. (Source)

Please rest assured: we have all learnt about this at school before. Let’s refresh our memories on this matter, in order to start to actively fight against biodiversity loss and make sure that we’ll leave this Earth not worse for our future generations. 

So, what is Biodiversity?

Here is the definition of biodiversity, according to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF):

“Biodiversity is all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area — the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life.”

WWF

There are three most important elements to remember from this definition: 

  • “variety”
  • “an intricate web”
  • “to maintain balance and support life”

Let’s have an example to demonstrate these complex interactions between species and organisms to maintain the balance of life. In a session of the “Collage of Biodiversity, we were told the story of how North Carolina’s century-old bay scallop fishery shut down in 2004, due to the overfishing of sharks between 1970 and 2004.

The food chain goes like this: Humans eat sharks, sharks eat rays, rays eat scallops. When humans overfished sharks on the East coast of the United States which led to the drop of 99% of the population, cownose ray fish benefited from this and the population went up tenfold in 30 years. The rays then consumed 840,000 tonnes of scallop flesh each year, which was three times the total catch of commercial scallop fisheries in 2003. 

Once the rays could no longer find enough scallops, they seek out food buried in sediment, which led to the uprooting of seagrass, which is home and food base for many other marine organisms, which are foods for other marine species – and so the damages continue. 

biodiversity through the case of sharks and scallops and cownose fish
Icons are retrieved from supercoloring.com, dreamstime.com, wdrfree.com, and iconfinder.com

It is safe to say that within an observable scale, in this case, humans have indirectly shut down the scallop fishery industry of other humans through the overexploitation and overconsumption of sharks. This example demonstrates perfectly the complex interactions of the biodiversity web – also in the sense of the “Butterfly effect” in which one random action from afar can cause a massive impact on another place/thing.

To wrap up the complex system of biodiversity, it is important to look at the three pillars of biodiversity —genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity:

  • Ecosystem diversity is the diversity of habitat in a given unit area (tropical rainforest, tropical grassland, temperate forest, temperate grassland, tundra, taiga, etc.)
  • Species diversity is the diversity among species in an ecosystem (different species of insects, mammals, roundworms, plants bacteria, etc. There are, for example, about 17,500 species of butterflies in the world, divided into six families). This is also what we think of most when we think about biodiversity.
  • Genetic diversity is the diversity of genes within a species (i.e the genetic characteristics within between individuals and populations of the same species, for example, different breeds of dogs, different colors of skin in humans, etc.)
ecosytem diversity, species diversity, generic diversity
Illustrations made from photos and information found on qsstudy.com, Wikipedia and nature.com

It is important to note that you cannot protect one pillar and neglect the others, as they are co-dependent: the more different ecosystems we have the more different species there are, the more different species there is the more different genetic diversity there are, etc.

Like many other species, humans have profited greatly from biodiversity and nature. To put things into categories, there are 3 main biodiversity services that we humans have been enjoying(for free):

  • regulatory services: pollination (so that we will have fruits and fruit-like veggies etc.), regulating services (decomposition, water purification, air purification, erosion and flood control, carbon storage, climate regulation, etc.), soil formation, and freshwater supply…
  • resource services: genetic and medicinal services (e.g 40% of the drugs sold in the Western world are derived from plants), food services (i.e we eat animals and veggies from nature), raw materials…
  • and cultural services (hiking, doing outdoor activities, enjoying sunsets and sunrises, bird watching, etc.)

If we really think about it, these biodiversity services are what make our lives possible and enjoyable. To protect and preserve biodiversity is to protect our lives and those of other non-human beings that make Earth such a wonderful place to live. 

How have humans created a massive biodiversity loss and how should we go from here?

We are already quite informed of this (unless you are biodiversity-loss deniers): our human activities – including agriculture, fishing, urbanization, industries, tourism, transport, land-use change, food homogenization, etc. – are driving a massive biodiversity loss. 

In the article “Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals” in The Guardian, the author points out that 96% of mammals on Earth are livestock and humans, while there are only 4% of wild mammals left, and 70% of birds on Earth are chickens and poultry served as food for humans. Soon enough we will watch wildlife on Netflix because they will no longer be found in real life.

populations of mammals, birds, wild animals, humans
In the book Sapiens, Harari said “Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story (in terms of numbers], but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.”. I totally agree, one would not wish the fate of industrially farmed cattle and chickens on their worst enemy.

But concretely, what exactly have we done to lead to such a massive genocide of species and organisms? The causes of biodiversity loss can be listed into 5 stressors: habitat loss, overexploitation of resources, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

In the next part of the article, we will discuss the first three stressors, and how can we reduce or eliminate them in order to maintain balance and support lives on Earth. We leave out pollution and invasive alien species for another time. 

Stressor #1: Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation

This massive occupation and alternation of land and natural habitats by humans was reminded in my head when I was on an airplane to Finland. Even in this far-flung region of the world when the human population is still limited (< 5 million people), from the airplane you can see human cities and habitats stretching out in all directions. 

Even in this far-flung region, there is not much space and habitat left for non-human beings, let alone denser regions such as East Asia, Western Europe or North America. 

Not much space left for non-humans (Photo on Unsplash.com)

In addition, deforestation and forest fragmentation due to intensive farming activities are also leading to massive habitat loss for animals. Stories such as “intensive palm oil production is pushing the Bornean orangutan population to the verge of extinction“, or “cryptic treehunter officially went extinct in 2019 due to the clearance of forests for sugar cane production”, are one of the hundreds of examples in the last few decades.

Palm Oil - Orangutan Foundation International Australia
Orangutans are losing their homes due to intensive palm oil production (Source)

This is why there is an urgent need to install as many natural reserves, parks and sanctuaries, almost without human interventions, as possible in order to preserve the ecosystem biodiversity and hence species and genetic biodiversity. 

In the upcoming months, we will be writing articles on this matter, while detailing the economic and social models that allow humans and wildlife to co-habit.

Stressor #2: Overexploitation of resources 

Globalization and the homogenization of food and lifestyles are two of the main reasons for overexploitation of agricultural and natural resources, which leads directly to the erosion of ecosystem biodiversity and species biodiversity. 

Almost in any capital city in the world, we can find a pizzeria, a sushi bar, or a hamburger restaurant. This homogenization of food and lifestyles leads to the overexploitation and overproduction of certain types of food – how many salmons do we need to produce if every city and every people living in a big city would want a sushi treat every week? how many avocados do we need to import to Europe if avocado sandwiches and salad are sold in almost every store? 

In an article on World’s Economic Forum called “Avocado: the ‘green gold’ causing environment havoc”, the author points out that due to the exponential demand for avocado (5 million tons consumed annually worldwide), intensive avocado production “has caused biodiversity loss, extreme weather conditions, extensive soil degradation of the soil and is on the brink of causing an entirely human-made environmental disaster”.

Finland: K-citymarket shoppers go mad for Malaysian exotics -  FreshFruitPortal.com
A supermarket in Finland with Malaysian exotic fruits. The king of exotic fruits in Finland, however, is avocado. Avocados seem to become a new staple in a Finnish meal in the cities – you can find tons of them in supermarkets and restaurants. (Source)

On top of the homogenization of food, the natural cycle and rhythms of seasons are also totally neglected. One example is Helsinki, you can still find tons and tons of tomatoes, zucchinis, and bell peppers in the cold dark winter, which all have very little taste

Refusing to join this unappealing feast, we enjoyed, instead, the traditional dishes of Finnish winter, such as salmon soup with root veggies, mashed potatoes, fried herrings and grilled rye bread. And contrary to the stereotypes on Finnish cuisine, those were some of the most satisfying winter meals I’ve ever experienced.

We have discussed overfishingexotic fruits in the Western world and how to enjoy local yields in our previous articles, and we wholeheartedly invite you to take a look if you are curious about how to reduce the food homogenization of food as a consumer. We also discuss micro-farming and forest gardens as more sustainable agricultural methods in case you look for more systemic alternatives as a producer. 

Stressor #3: Climate change

Climate change has become one of our most focused discussions in recent years, which is great news that needs to be celebrated. That being said, there have not been adequate action plans to truly tackle this crisis; while biodiversity loss and erosion have not even become a topic to discuss.

In June 2021, The Guardian published the article “Climate and nature crises: solve both or solve neither” in which the author explains the need to solve both climate change and biodiversity loss, in the way that “restoring nature boosts biodiversity and ecosystems that can rapidly and cheaply absorb carbon emissions”. 

“When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both no matter how challenging. […] This is the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.”

– Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature on the New York Times (2021)

In a previous article, we have discussed ways to reduce global emissions by decarbonizing our most carbon-intensive industries. We invite you to take a look at the article and we are open to your comments and suggestions on the matter. 

Conclusion

Now that we have examined the basis of Biodiversity – the roles and the importance of it, the current situation of massive biodiversity loss, and ways to reduce the impact of our human activities in order to preserve biodiversity, it is time for the next follow-up questions:

  • How to include biodiversity protection into the business and industry regulations, the way that carbon footprint is now included in a company’s business equation? 
  • How to build natural reserves, parks, and sanctuaries so that wildlife can thrive and how to make sure that humans will not interfere out of economical and financial needs?
  • How to avoid overexploitation of resources as a consumer in our daily life, in order to reduce our environmental footprint and give signals to companies and industries that the protection of biodiversity is a must?

Unlike the UN’s Decade on the Biodiversity (sorry we have to push you UN people under the bus again, but you deserve every bit of it), we commit to making Biodiversity a central topic in 2022 and we will continue to produce a series of articles relating to Biodiversity. Stay tuned! 

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