Room for all, board for us

We could con­serve half the planet for other species with­out go­ing hun­gry


Ev­ery day there are roughly 386,000 new mouths to feed, and in that same 24 hours, sci­en­tists es­ti­mate be­tween one and 100 species will go ex­tinct. That’s it. Lost for­ever.

To deal with the bio­di­ver­sity cri­sis we need to find a way to give na­ture more space — habi­tat loss is a key fac­tor driv­ing these ex­tinc­tions. But how would this af­fect our food sup­plies?

New re­search, pub­lished in Na­ture Sus­tain­abil­ity, found it could mean we lose a lot of food — but ex­actly how much re­ally de­pends on how we choose to give na­ture that space. Do­ing it right could mean re­think­ing how we do agri­cul­ture and con­ser­va­tion al­to­gether.

OK, but how much space are we talk­ing about here?

There have been num­bers fly­ing around since the early 1990s. Some re­searchers say a quar­ter of all the space on earth, while oth­ers say three-quar­ters of all land and sea. Those in the mid­dle ground, how­ever, seem to sug­gest one half.

Lead­ing sci­en­tists are in­creas­ingly en­dors­ing the fig­ure, in­clud­ing nat­u­ral sci­en­tist E.O. Wil­son, who wrote a book on it, and the former chief sci­en­tist at the World Wildlife Fund, Eric Din­er­stein. These in­di­vid­u­als are mo­bi­liz­ing funds, re­searchers, com­put­ing power and so­cial cap­i­tal to see what it takes to achieve this vi­sion — through their or­ga­ni­za­tions, The Half-Earth Pro­ject and Na­ture Needs Half.

The idea might seem crazy, but then again, maybe we need crazy ideas to get us to think about the bet­ter world we might be able to cre­ate.

And there is some­thing about hand­ing over half of the planet to na­ture that has an air of fair­ness to it — well, on the side of na­ture at least.

The re­al­ity is, most peo­ple would likely want to help save other species too (aside maybe from mos­qui­toes and some other pesky crea­tures). The up­side seems mas­sive and ob­vi­ous — not in the least that our chil­dren will be able to en­joy these beau­ti­ful be­ings for gen­er­a­tions to come.

But is it pos­si­ble to con­serve so much land and still feed ev­ery­one?

Agri­cul­ture and set­tle­ments al­ready cover 37 per cent of the Earth’s ice-free land. The prob­lem is the land we have al­lowed for na­ture is mostly deserts, moun­tain­tops and other hard-to-reach places that pro­vide for only lim­ited di­ver­sity of habi­tats and species across the planet. So it’s dif­fi­cult to see how we could set aside half the planet in a way that hon­ours the needs of other species, with­out los­ing some of our agri­cul­tural lands.

Din­er­stein and his col­leagues found that some lo­ca­tions, such as the Mid­west United States pro­duce so much food that it would be “delu­sional” to even sug­gest re­turn­ing them to na­ture.

But pre­vi­ous re­search didn’t quan­tify or map the scale of these trade-offs at a fine enough res­o­lu­tion to iden­tify what’s re­ally at stake. Our new re­search did just that. It found that con­serv­ing habi­tats for other species could cost up to 29 per cent of the calo­ries we cur­rently pro­duce from our food crops. But it also found that these food losses can be min­i­mized to as lit­tle as three per cent de­pend­ing on how that land is al­lo­cated to con­ser­va­tion.

If peo­ple man­age land­scapes so they are shared be­tween agri­cul­ture and na­ture con­ser­va­tion — and make agri­cul­tural land­scapes more kind to other species — it may bring ef­fec­tive re­sults while avoid­ing large losses in food avail­abil­ity.

The trick here is mak­ing our agri­cul­tural land­scapes less hos­tile to other life. This is no small ask.

Calo­rie losses un­der dif­fer­ent Half-Earth sce­nar­ios. Land al­lo­ca­tions were made by min­i­miz­ing calo­rie losses to show the low­est pos­si­ble caloric costs to HalfEarth un­der cur­rent pro­duc­tion. Mehrabi, El­lis, and Ramankutty 2018

At the coun­try scale, the study iden­ti­fied places where food losses would be large, in­clud­ing In­dia (22 per cent) and China (12 per cent). These two coun­tries have the great­est num­ber of un­der­nour­ished peo­ple on the planet, 195 mil­lion and 134 mil­lion re­spec­tively. It also iden­ti­fied other ar­eas, such as in In­done­sia, that may be less avail­able for con­ser­va­tion than pre­vi­ously thought.

Clearly, con­flicts be­tween na­ture and agri­cul­ture need to be nav­i­gated care­fully. Pro­tect­ing the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble, mal­nour­ished and food in­se­cure pop­u­la­tions must re­main a pri­or­ity. And syn­er­gies be­tween con­ser­va­tion and poverty re­duc­tion need to be the pri­mary fo­cus. But it isn’t all bad news. The study also showed that giv­ing half the planet to na­ture could in­crease tem­per­ate and trop­i­cal for­est cover by 30 to 40 per cent, which would help tackle cli­mate change and so likely re­duce the agri­cul­tural losses from ex­treme weather.

What’s more, giv­ing na­ture space might in­crease aspects of bio­di­ver­sity im­por­tant for crop yields like bees — boost­ing the amount of food we can pro­duce in a given area — and help to off­set some of the losses that might come from con­ser­va­tion.

Paula Ehrlich, the pres­i­dent and CEOoftheE.O.Wil­sonBio­di­ver­sity Foun­da­tion and head of the HalfEarth Pro­ject, shared her thoughts on the sci­en­tific study:

There can be lit­tle doubt that the idea of giv­ing half the planet back to na­ture is vi­sion­ary and as­pi­ra­tional. We think these new find­ings have im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for how humans see their needs against those of other species. Zia Mehrabi is a re­search as­so­ci­ate at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, Erle C. El­lis is a pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy and en­vi­ron­men­tal sys­tems at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more County and Navin Ramankutty is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. The au­thors ac­knowl­edge the con­tri­bu­tions of Carly Vynne Baker and Eric Din­er­stein to the writ­ing of this ar­ti­cle, and Paula Ehrlich for her com­ments. This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on the­con­ver­sa­


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