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By Kate Cranney 10 September 2020 5 min read

The Cairns birdwing butterfly (Photo: fir0002flagstaffotos)

An increasing population. A hungry world. Global biodiversity loss. These are tough challenges that need to be met with the world’s best science.

From frozen tundra to tropical rainforests, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) covers a remarkable array of habitats and ecosystems.

In 2010, parties to the CBD adopted a ten-year Strategic Plan for Biodiversity — a framework for action to safeguard biodiversity and the benefits it provides to people. As the strategic plan comes to an end, the next round of negotiations will soon take place.

We need robust science to underpin tough global decisions on how to feed the world and look after biodiversity.

A study published today in Nature[Link will open in a new window] investigates how we can keep food on the table and reverse the loss of biodiversity due to habitat conversion.

Balancing global food demand and biodiversity

Feeding a hungry world has put increasing pressure on our lands, and the native plants and animals that rely on them. As natural habitats are converted for agriculture and forestry, we’re losing precious biodiversity: last year a UN report found that around one million species are threatened with extinction.

A team of 58 scientists, led by Dr David Leclère from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), investigated how humans can create a better future for people and the planet.

In this research, CSIRO scientists helped in the formulation of the seven different future scenarios. The scenarios ranged from business as usual to the most sweeping changes to land use, food systems, and economic reform.

The research collaboration took advantage of CSIRO’s global biodiversity modelling capability BILBI, which provides fine-scale estimates of the probability of species loss around the globe under different scenarios of land-use change, said Dr Simon Ferrier, co-author and a Chief Research Scientist in our Land and Water division.

Our scientists used BILBI to investigate how global biodiversity would fare under each of the seven scenarios.

“We used a mix of land-use and biodiversity models to look at how humanity can reverse terrestrial biodiversity declines due to habitat conversion,” Dr Ferrier explained.

The majority of tarsier species are now endangered or threatened, and some are critically endangered. Habitat destruction is a major threat to this Southeast Asian mammal. (Photo: Corella tarsier sanctuary)

How do we strike the balance?

The study found that conservation efforts alone have not halted biodiversity declines, and that, in a business as usual future, demand for land for food, feed and energy provision will increase, putting at risk the myriad of ecosystem services people depend upon.

But the team’s findings show that we can feed the world and bend the curve on biodiversity loss. How? Basically, it’s not enough for us to just create new protected areas and have bold conservation efforts: we also need to transform the food system around the world.

“The science shows that we need an ambitious, integrated program of conservation and restoration efforts, along with radical change in our demand for agriculture land,” said Dr Ferrier.

“You really need both. You can’t just focus on more protected areas and restoring ecosystems, without also thinking: ‘Well, how are we going to reduce this ultimate pressure on the environment resulting from our demand for food?’ We also need to transform our food-provision systems.”

Dr Mario Herrero, a Chief Research Scientist with CSIRO Agriculture and Food, said the study found that through further sustainable intensification and trade, reduced food waste, and healthier human diets, more than two thirds of future biodiversity losses could be avoided and the biodiversity trends from habitat conversion could be reversed by 2050 for almost all of the models used in the research.

Reversing declines

The kind of actions needed to reverse biodiversity declines include:

  • Sustainably increasing crop yields
  • Increasing trade of agricultural goods
  • Reducing waste of agricultural goods from field to fork
  • Shifting our diets to include a lower share of animal calories
  • Increasing the extent and management of protected areas such as national parks
  • Increasing restoration of land and landscape-level conservation planning
  • On top of all this, to truly reverse biodiversity declines, threats such as climate change must be addressed through ambitious mitigation initiatives.

“It will take a lot of work to stop us losing species. Like climate change, some species loss is ‘baked in’: it will continue to happen because of clearing that happened before we were born. But we can still turn this around. It all depends on how much we take species loss to heart, all the while looking after people,” advanced spatial modeller, Dr Tom Harwood said.

Australia’s orange-bellied Parrot is critically endangered. Current threats to the species include habitat loss and modification. (Photo: JJ Harrison)

A meeting of modelling minds

One thing the team noted was the unified message among the researchers and the model outputs.

“Typically, in this kind of research you often get mixed messages – because different groups use different assumptions or models. But we ended up coming out with a very unified result. This kind of collaboration is extremely important and powerful for the future. We used a range of models, with the same scenarios, the same assumptions, and ending up with a unified message about the future of biodiversity,” Dr Ferrier remarked.

A key message is that we can strike a balance.

“It was surprising that we can actually bend the curve. I thought it was aspirational … but to see that you could not only diminish the declines but also have potential increases in biodiversity was surprising. It’s a good thing. There is hope,” Dr Harwood said.

A worldwide effort

What’s clear is that we must work together, as a globe, to make a brighter future possible.

“Immediate efforts, consistent with the broader sustainability agenda but of unprecedented ambition and coordination, may allow the growing human population to be fed while reversing global terrestrial biodiversity trends from habitat conversion,” study lead author and IIASA researcher Dr David Leclère said.

These findings will feed directly into negotiations around the next UN Strategic Plan for Biodiversity.

“This paper was designed to inform future biodiversity negotiations. People crave evidence. The more consensus-based evidence, the better,” said Dr Ferrier.

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