One out of five plant species are threatened with extinction. Almost a quarter of mammal species are endangered. The situation is just as bad or worse for reptiles (21% endangered), amphibians (30%), fish (21%), insects (22%) and mollusks (41%). Birds are doing slightly better (“just” 12% endangered).
Habitat loss, pesticides and fertilizer run-off are the main culprits in this tragedy. And agriculture plays the starring role. Check it out:
The sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture would go a long way towards protecting endangered species. Sustainable intensification means increasing yields on less land without adverse environmental impact. So that soils remain healthy, more land reverts to wild habitat, and the rest of the biosphere isn’t poisoned by pesticides and fertilizer run-off. Integrated pest management and sustainable nitrogen management are examples of SI practices that reduce the “negative externalities” of farming, such as killing off non-agricultural flora and fauna, without decreasing yield.
But better management of pesticides and fertilizer only goes so far in the battle to protect endangered species. That’s because over 75% of agricultural land is devoted to livestock (see above chart). Thus, the indirect driver of habitat loss is meat and dairy consumption. To make matters worse, the global appetite for meat keeps going up (despite the popularity of vegetarianism in affluent countries). To make matters even worse, most of the developing world is moving to beef and cows wreak much more environmental havoc than chickens and pigs. Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue at least for the next couple generations. Which is a long time if you’re an endangered species.
What to do? What not to do is expand grazing land for cattle, which would happen if the “grass-fed” beef movement ever gained traction. Of course, limited and well-managed grazing provides some environmental benefits (e.g., natural fertilizer) but scaled-up, the negatives outweigh the positives. Grass-fed cows trample on the habitat of other creatures and require a lot of land for their feeding needs (read: habitat loss). So the challenge is to grow more beef on less land. That may sound heartless but sometimes you have to be heartless to save the world.
Pretty, J., & Bharucha, Z. P. (2015). Integrated Pest Management for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture in Asia and Africa. Insects, 6(1), 152–182. doi: 10.3390/insects6010152