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Protecting biodiversity through sustainable land use

EOS Insight
2 July 2020 |
The global pandemic has highlighted the causal links between biodiversity loss and climate change, and the emergence of infectious diseases. In the third article in our pandemic series, Sonya Likhtman explores how deforestation and industrialised agriculture contribute to biodiversity loss, and why companies must ensure sustainable land use throughout their value chains.

Fast reading

  • Land use change is one of the main drivers of habitat and biodiversity loss
  • Over two-thirds of the habitat loss in Brazil and Argentina is driven by beef and soy production
  • Companies should ensure that their agricultural supply chains support the replenishment of ecosystems

In the first article in this series, we looked at how the destruction of habitats and the subsequent loss of biodiversity contribute to the emergence of infectious diseases in human populations. Land use change is one of the main drivers of habitat and biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity includes “diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems.” It is essential to the continuity of the ecosystem services that sustain us as it ensures resilience and adaptability. In the context of changing climatic conditions, biodiversity protection should be seen as non-negotiable: it is one of our greatest assets in adapting to climate change.

Some ecosystems also provide opportunities for mitigating climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 23% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land use. Forests and soils are also major carbon sinks and habitats that support biodiversity, but only when the land is managed sustainably. It is thought that of the 20 solutions with the highest potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 11 are nature-based, such as tropical forest restoration and peatland protection.

Climate change is one of the five greatest threats to biodiversity loss, as identified by a landmark UN report last year. We cannot address one without the other. While climate change has risen up the corporate agenda, the impact from companies, and their dependence on biodiversity and ecosystem services, remain largely under-explored

Rising deforestation

Forests are natural stores of carbon and integral to the water cycle, reducing the risk of soil erosion and flooding whilst securing a reliable supply of clean water. Tropical rainforests are habitats for more than half the world’s estimated species of plants and animals.

However, according to the Rainforest Action Network the risk of deforestation remains high, despite many companies committing to achieving zero deforestation by 2020. Over two-thirds of the habitat loss in Brazil and Argentina is driven by beef and soy production, with soy grown primarily for animal feed. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has recently increased, despite the immense value of its biodiversity. Deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia arises from the destruction of tropical rainforests to create palm oil plantations.

In order to protect biodiversity, companies must ensure that the components for their products are not derived from deforested areas. We expect companies to take responsibility for deforestation in their supply chains, including monitoring the risk and going beyond certification to trace commodities back to their source.

Feeding the world sustainably

The global population has almost tripled from 2.6 billion in 1950 to 7.8 billion today. It is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 820 million people – 11% of the global population – still suffer from undernourishment. The challenge is how to feed a growing number of people sustainably.

The first necessary shift is to more sustainable, or regenerative, agricultural systems. Industrialised agriculture, which relies on chemical inputs and monocrops, results in high productivity in the short term. However, it gradually degrades the soil’s natural capacity for carbon sequestration, disrupts local biodiversity and causes chemical run-off into water streams. Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse those processes, to rebuild the natural capacity of soils.

Companies should ensure that their agricultural supply chains support the replenishment of ecosystems. This includes supporting farmers in transitioning to regenerative agriculture and encouraging other ways to boost biodiversity, as recommended by the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition.

The second essential transition is a shift to more plant-based diets. The EAT-Lancet Commission states that global consumption of red meat must halve by 2050 to stay within planetary boundaries and improve human health. Shifting to a plant-based diet would help to tackle climate change, reduce deforestation and protect biodiversity. As we will explore in the next article in this series, limiting our consumption of animal proteins would also reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance and enhance our ability to treat bacterial infections.

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