UN Report Underscores Crisis in Biodiversity

(CN) – Tallying up the harm from overexploited resources, climate change, and mass species extinction among insects and plants, the United Nations urged international leaders in a report Friday to do their part to protect the global food chain.

The 576-page doorstopper by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is the product of more than 175 authors, compiling data from 91 countries and 27 international organizations. 

For four to six years, they’ve been tracking biodiversity, or the variety of living organisms key to sustaining an ecosystem. 

Biodiversity ensures that life adapts to changing conditions on earth, but the U.N.’s report finds that “key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline.”

“The proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing,” the report states. “Overall, the diversity of crops present in farmers’ fields has declined and threats to crop diversity are increasing.”

Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, the U.N. notes that fewer than 200 of those species actually make up the bulk of agricultural contributions to worldwide food production. And from there, a mere nine plant species account for 66 percent of total global crop production.

Numbers are stark as well when it comes to marine life: roughly one-third of the globe’s fish stocks are overfished, and of that fraction only 60 percent are fished using sustainable methods.

On land, the U.N. found that production on 20 percent of all surfaces where vegetation can grow has decreased.

Chief among the organization’s concerns, however, is the steady loss of pollinators like birds and bees essential to crop growth.

Some 87 percent of all flowering plant species are pollinated by animals, with bees serving as the chief delivery system for the life-sustaining substance. Crops at least partially pollinated by animals account for 35 percent of all global food production, and where bees and other organisms flourish, so too do crop yields, researchers found.

“Moreover it has been shown that pollination services are enhanced by the presence of wild insects where honey bees are abundant,” the report states.

But wild insects are harmed by urbanization, air and water pollution, and heavy pesticide use. All of those factors, according to the report, have a “strong influence” on international food systems, which in turn bear out negative consequences for the human diet.

The findings are admittedly “somber,” FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva wrote in a forward to the report.

“It is deeply concerning that in so many production systems in so many countries … are reported to be in decline,” the forward continues. “The foundations of our food systems are being undermined, often, at least in part, because of the impact of our management practices and land-use changes associated with food and agriculture.”

The report highlights deforestation as one example of a major global threat to biodiversity: Even with fewer trees being felled today than ever before, global forest loss has continued over the last 100 years.

Tree loss in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia is particularly high because those areas are overrun with illegal logging and fires. But the main cause of deforestation for those regions is the rapid conversion of the landscape to agricultural use.

Noting that trees protect against erosion and promote a favorable underground “microclimate,” the report says farmers may not realize that their failure to protect trees in or around their land harms soil conditions.

In this respect, another aspect driving down biodiversity is simple human ignorance. The report says most people have an “inadequate” knowledge about the components involved with biodiversity – particularly how bacteria or microorganisms contribute to food production.

For example, more than 99 percent of bacteria types remain unknown, and soil micro-organisms, or those organisms used for food processing, are also widely unstudied.

Several countries tapped for the study already have programs that help scientists and researchers identify or chart soil micro-organisms, but gaps in skills, facilities and equipment can easily hamstring that progress.

The solution to protecting the global food supply begins with greater knowledge, the report recommends: Legislators and policymakers should make biodiversity more mainstream by prioritizing the issue when developing their own local regulations or laws.

“There is an urgent need to change the way food is produced and ensure that biodiversity is not something that is swept aside but is treated as an irreplaceable source and a  key part of management strategies,” the report states.

More attention will be given to the subject this April during the G7 meeting in France. The World Conservation Congress, which meets every four years, is also on track to discuss the importance of biodiversity at its conference in Marseille 2020.

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