Biodiversity and Agriculture: A Love/Hate Relationship

Ideally, biodiversity and agriculture would be the perfect match… but this is far from reality. Despite the close relationship between the two, agricultural practices have disturbed the biodiversity of ecosystems, and what initially should increase crop production, is becoming their main stumbling block.

7 min. read

“Building a shared future for all life” is the slogan of the International Day for Biological Diversity that is being commemorated on May 22. It sounds like a pleasant occasion to celebrate, however, it is anything but. Nature is marked by exuberance, but it changes because of human influence due to exploitation of a few species motivated by economic interest. In this way, “habitats and ecosystems have been simplified or destroyed to generate monocultures, develop livestock and commercial fishing. Although such simplification has certain “efficiency” and economic advantages, it has also raised great costs1” such as one million species in danger of extinction2. Within this context, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main activity that causes biodiversity loss is agriculture, which is responsible for approximately 70 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss3.

Nonetheless, there is one fact that we cannot deny and that is that agriculture and biodiversity are completely intertwined. Thanks to biodiversity we have varieties of crops and species of livestock. In addition, the production of food for a global population in constant growth has been possible; pollination takes place and biodiversity naturally controls pests and promotes healthy soils. As for agriculture, it sustains human life providing 23.7 million tons of food every day and generates income for 2.5 billion people4.

But this relationship is under serious tensions. Currently, agriculture threatens directly biodiversity through crop intensification and conversion to monocultures, soil degradation, unsustainable consumption of water resources, and the negligent use of fertilizers and pesticides. And the results are totally contradictory. On the one hand, agricultural production has tripled since the 1970s, and on the other hand, biological indicators indicate loss of pollinators and soil biodiversity. “These issues extend beyond agricultural areas, affecting forests, inland waters and coastal ecosystems5”.

However, what can be done in the face of these opposites? It is clear that the response must be comprehensive, that is, to take into account the dynamics between agriculture and biodiversity. Ecosystems have a great variety of species in general, and that is reflected on the diversity within species of plants and animals. This, generally, translates into greater productivity compared to more basic (manipulated) ecosystems6. Also, if the objective is to control pests, and therefore, to increase crop yields, a larger diversity of plant types proves effective. Certain plants perform physical barrier functions; pathogens also compete more with each other to spread and this weakens the severity of diseases7.

Regarding ecosystem services, they have suffered from the interference of human presence since complex agricultural systems have been simplified. However, through the diversity of species in crops, services provided by ecosystems such as pollination can be recovered, which in turn improves agricultural production8. Another (obvious) aspect that affects agriculture is climate change. Changes in weather patterns are known to influence the number and distribution of insects, affecting pests and diseases, and the control mechanisms to contain them. “Adaptability and resilience9” will be needed to cope with these alterations, and farmers will have to rely on biodiversity to develop new varieties of plants and breeds of animals that adapt to these new conditions10.

The International Day of Biodiversity should not remain just that, a simple date. Governments, businessmen, landowners, farmers, academics, consumers must do our part by changing the way we use this generous resource that is arable land and demand better, more sustainable practices that respect native ecosystems with their plant and animal endemic species. As we have been able to confirm, efforts have been made to improve agricultural yields through the manipulation of ecosystems with formulas such as monoculture, which is causing an effect contrary to the desired one, and the biodiversity, on which crops depend on and are supported, disappears, yields decrease, food security is jeopardized and there are also economic losses. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, “recommends reorienting trends in food systems, seeking sustainable production and restoring ecosystem services in agriecological landscapes11“.

1 CEPAL. 2016. Daño y pérdida de biodiversidad. Access on 05/21/2022
2 Naciones Unidas. 2022. Día Internacional de la Diversidad Biológica, 22 de mayo. Access on 05/27/2022
3 Ibid. CEPAL. 2016
4 Convention on Biological Diversity. 2019. Agriculture Must be Part of the Solution, not the Problem. Access on 05/26/2022
5 Id.
6 Frison, Emile A., Jeremy Cherfas, and Toby Hodgkin. 2011. “Agricultural Biodiversity Is Essential for a Sustainable Improvement in Food and Nutrition Security” Sustainability 3, no. 1: 240.
7 Ibid. Frison, Emile A., Jeremy Cherfas, and Toby Hodgkin. 2011. p.242
8 Ibid. Frison, Emile A., Jeremy Cherfas, and Toby Hodgkin. 2011. p.243-244
9 Ibid. Frison, Emile A., Jeremy Cherfas, and Toby Hodgkin. 2011. p.245-246
10 Id.
11 Ibid. CEPAL. 2016