For a global hazard to really get respect these days, it has to threaten Armageddon. Climate change, for instance, is the stuff of apocalyptic movies: it is about flooding, fire and famine.
The loss of biodiversity, on the other hand – the shrinking spread of species on the planet – ranks further down the scale. This is about dying bumblebees in Poland, or fewer species of fish in the Red Sea, or red squirrels being kicked out by grey ones. It is not the stuff of films starring Dennis Quaid as a divorced scientist who was right all along, and tends to reach headlines as a worry mostly for the bees and squirrels involved (with perhaps a line or two from experts about the knock-on effects). It does not seem to threaten the rest of us.
That perspective is changing. The first UN study into the natural systems propping up the human diet has found that shrinking biodiversity is affecting the Earth’s capacity to produce food. Our food, it says, is now under “severe threat”. The report finds that 20% of the Earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive, and what is growing on it is one notch away from being wiped out. The report mentions the Irish potato famine, and cereal crop failures in the US in the 20th century, and asks us to expect more of that in the future.
How have we created this situation? Well, primarily, because of our desperate attempts to produce food in the first place. Forests are being cut down to make space for crop fields, and crop fields are being sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, which leaches the soil and kills off vital pollinators such as bees, birds and bats. Cutting down trees and big plants increases the risk of flooding.
Mostly, though, the problem is that we are relying on monocultures – just one variety of potato or of sugar cane – which is a big risk. It means a single outbreak of disease or a climate shift could wipe out large portions of the world’s food supply. Two thirds of the crops the world produces comprises just nine species, marching across the globe, as the other 6,000 cultivated plant species wither, along with wild food sources.
Progress is possible – farmers need to diversify and preserve wild species – but it has so far been too slow: just 1% of US farmland is certified organic. This should change. Biodiversity finally has its dramatic headline: now will the world at last start paying attention to the bumblebees?