House Confronts Daunting Task of Buoying Biodiversity

A panel of experts testified on June 4. 2019, before the House Committee on Space Science and Technology.

WASHINGTON (CN) — By 2050, the ocean will be home to more plastic than fish, and experts told House lawmakers Tuesday that it is not too late to turn the tide. 

“We can save the biodiversity on our planet but we must begin now,” said James Porter, a professor of ecology from the University of Georgia. 

One of several witnesses to testify this morning before the Committee on Space Science and Technology, Porter earned accolades from lawmakers for his alarming diagnoses of coral reefs. 

Though the professor noted that rising water temperatures and ocean acidification has wiped out 66 percent of coral on the Barrier Reef alone in the last two years, he said greenhouse gas reductions could buy coral reefs another 100 years to evolve greater thermal tolerance. 

“If the oceans had not been the Earth’s punching bag to take this heat, then the average temperature outside this room today would be 120 degree Fahrenheit,” Porter said.

Porter emphasized that the issue is not just environmental: corals generate billions in tourism for Hawaii and Florida in the U.S. alone, and their role in genetic and biochemical research has led to innovative drugs treatments for breast and prostate cancer. 

“They have evolved chemicals to defend their own territories and their own lives,” Porter said. “And we humans are benefiting from 400 million years of their evolution.”

Repeatedly at Tuesday’s hearing, members of the panel referenced a May 6 report by the United Nations that counted more than 1 million species at risk of extinction.

“It’s probably one of the most heavily reviewed documents you will ever find,” said Robert Watson, a past chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 

With Watson noting that 450 scientists from around the world contributed to the report, which was peer-reviewed with more than 15,000 comments, Representative Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., was critical of those who appear to be ignoring the report because its findings did not align with their political agendas.

At the domestic level, several lawmakers from areas that have been hit hard by natural disasters like floods and wildfires questioned the panel about the role of biodiversity in this dialogue.

“In California, we are seeing regions staying dry for so long that it is clear they are not bouncing back,” said Congresswoman Katie Hill. 

Kate Brauman, lead scientist at the Global Water Initiative and professor at the University of Minnesota, Institute on the Environment, confirmed there is a link between biodiversity loss and recent California blazes, but warned that biodiversity regeneration following a widespread fire can be a lengthy process. 

Touting the changes that can be made today in the short term, however, Steven Monfort, director of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, emphasized the importance of finding concrete ways to move forward.

“The ongoing and real threats to biodiversity are clearly daunting,” Monfort said. “And yet if we just bombard the public with messages of gloom and doom, absent any focus on solution, we risk fostering a sense that nothing anyone does is going to make a difference.”

On this front, Jeff Goodwin, a conservation stewardship lead with the Noble Research Institute Farming, spoke about the country’s appetite for what he called an “agricultural revolution.”

Goodwin called it a multipronged effort that requires regenerative farming methods for produce and livestock, incentivizes for farmers to plant perennial cover crops, and monetizing the reduction of carbon into soils.

“Many producers have had to make a choice; continue what they’ve always done or work with nature to find a new solution,” Goodwin said. 

With Pennsylvania Congressman Connor Lamb noting how soil biodiversity is affected by prolonged exposure to rain or floods, Goodwin said genetic modification can help achieve robust rooting structures that will increase soil structure and water infiltration for crops.

Goodwin described his institution as “keenly involved and interested” in researching how cover crops absorb carbon. 

“We’re most certainly interested in understanding, again, how that root dynamic adds to carbon sequestration, how do we increase the root’s ability to increase the productivity of that plant, but also, how does it attract the diversity of microbes?” Goodwin said. 

Brauman described similar research underway back home.

“In Minnesota, sewing cover crops is expensive and lots of farmers can’t afford to do it unless there’s a way to monetize that somehow,” Brauman said. “It’s just an extra cost on their shoulders when it’s a benefit to all of us to do it.”

Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma is the Republican ranking member of the committee. He asked why it was important to let producers develop their own policies and practices for maintaining land. 

Goodwin said blanket policies would not apply to all domestic farms, due to their diversity in soils, landscapes, climates and other factors. 

“In short, when we look at farms and ranches, no two are equal,” Goodwin said. “As we look at policies that establish blanket or one-size-fits-all regulation, we would largely end up with unintended consequences and ultimately limit our producer’s freedom to operate and freedom to innovate.” 

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