Analysis

Will biodiversity talks bridge governmental divide?

UN Biodiversity Conference offers best chance for holistic approach to managing biodiversity sustainably in natural and ‘working’ landscapes
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Elephant Training Center at Padang Sugihan Wildlife Reserve. Photo by Khairul Abdi / CIFOR-ICRAF

Look down on Earth from an eagle’s perspective, and you’ll see that almost half of the world’s habitable land surface is occupied by agriculture. Another one fifth is protected for biodiversity conservation, and fully 90% of all protected areas adjoin farmland.

It’s clear that agriculture dominates our impacts on biodiversity – and there’s no better argument for making both agriculture and environment sectors work together to protect the world’s biological diversity.

But as scientists at CIFOR-ICRAF, a CGIAR centre working in the global South with farmers, forest communities and governments to develop and implement land-use strategies that support biodiverse, inclusive, resilient and safe food systems, we see a huge disconnect between national agriculture and biodiversity policies around the world.

The new Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) being developed by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) offers a key political opportunity to bridge this disconnect and assist government agencies in implementing a joint agenda on food production, human well-being and biodiversity conservation. There is a risk, however, that agricultural landscapes may be left out of the new framework, with consequences that would be harmful for the Convention and all of humanity.

In a world where the welfare of 8 billion people depends on both natural and agricultural biodiversity, the GBF’s goal of “living in harmony with nature” can only be achieved if agriculture and environment ministries and their agencies work together in the monumental effort needed to avert the looming biodiversity crisis.

With well over 40% of the world’s habitable land surface devoted to food production, agriculture has a major impact on biodiversity, climate change and human well-being. In its historical focus on protected areas, however, the CBD has traditionally seen agriculture as one of the biggest threats to biodiversity.

At the UN Biodiversity Conference to be held from 7 to 19 December in Montreal, negotiators will finalize the GBF, which will guide global biodiversity efforts in the decades ahead. The conference offers an unparalleled opportunity to make the agricultural sector a partner in biodiversity conservation. But there is uncertainty about the framework text.

The final text of the GBF is emerging from a series of meetings of a comprehensive group of UN Member States, non-governmental organizations, international organizations and other observers. Early versions of the GBF were unequivocal in recognizing the importance of agricultural landscapes for the conservation of biodiversity, emphasizing ecosystem integrity and connectivity. Since the most recent meeting of the group in June, however, the language of the framework’s Target A (the section of the GBF that focuses on reducing threats to biodiversity) has changed.

Text now in brackets, to be negotiated in Montreal, raises concern that instead of recognizing the need to protect biodiversity in “all” ecosystems, the GBF will restrict the CBD to a narrow focus on natural ecosystems of high conservation value, in effect making it a convention on protected areas.

Farming for sustainability

The publication in 1987 of “Our Common Future,” also known as the Brundtland Report, catapulted the idea of ’sustainability‘ into common use, defining it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. For governments, this means that land currently used for food production must still produce food in 50 years’ time.

But what’s the best way to ensure that can happen?

In agriculture policy, ‘sustainability‘ implies more efficient production, resulting in higher yields with less use of land, water and fertilizer. But those policies often fail to consider that the sustained productivity of land depends on its biodiversity – the interaction of various plants, animals and other organisms that form a complex web of biological activity in the agroecosystem.

The way we use and work agricultural land matters, both for the sustainability of food production and for its contribution to biodiversity conservation at the landscape scale. Agricultural techniques that are friendly to biodiversity are well known and well proven. For example, reducing the disturbance of the soil during cultivation benefits the structure and health of the soil while also conserving organisms that benefit crops. Soil organisms play a key role in recycling nutrients, regulating carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions, modifying soil structure and water flow, and keeping plants healthy. Maintaining the diversity of these organisms is crucial for food production, but deep ploughing of vast areas of land sharply reduces soil biodiversity.

Introducing livestock into the mix provides manure, a valuable fertilizer especially rich in phosphorus, and leads to a circular form of farming where local biodiversity can find a home. Diversifying crops contributes to biodiversity conservation by creating niches for different animals and plants. Adding trees enhances this effect even more, because they help reduce soil erosion and maintain the water cycle and can also supplement farm families’ income.

Farmers can also enhance biodiversity by leaving uncultivated strips between crops and riverbanks or other natural areas, and by planting border hedgerows. Besides providing habitat for wild species, these areas can harbour pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.

Keeping the big picture in mind

Such measures to protect biodiversity can be implemented on individual farms, but their benefits multiply greatly when they are applied across agricultural landscapes. To facilitate landscape approaches to biodiversity conservation, the CBD must emphasize the importance of integrating biodiversity into agricultural planning and management at landscape and ecosystem levels, rather than depending on limited, site-specific actions.

Wildlife also benefits from an approach based on a mosaic of adjoining farmland and protected areas. Many wild species have adapted to agricultural landscapes, but even strictly forest-dwelling species use patches of natural forest or grassland in agricultural areas, which scientists call “natural habitat in working landscapes”.

Forest patches, grassland or natural habitat along streams and rivers allow wild species to move between protected areas. Flying insects and birds are the most adept at this movement, followed by mammals and reptiles that can travel long distances quickly. Animals that crawl slowly, however, are at a disadvantage. Similarly, some plants have seeds that travel or are carried long distances, but seeds of others, including many trees, disperse with greater difficulty in fragmented habitats.

With thoughtful planning and management, however, farmland and areas of high conservation value can be connected through ’linkage zones’, benefiting animals and plants. These corridors can allow large animals and slow-spreading plants to move across farmland from one protected area to another. Careful planning of land use and habitat protection can also reduce conflict between humans and animals in places like East Africa, where elephant migration routes are increasingly blocked by fences and farms.

Integrated approach for a healthy planet

Conservation scientists and experts who advise the CBD through its intergovernmental scientific advisory body stress that while “priority should be given to retaining existing natural ecosystems. … [t]he conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is also important in areas beyond ‘natural’ ecosystems including in agricultural and urban environments. Such ‘managed’ ecosystems (those whose biotic composition is the result of deliberate manipulation by people) can provide important habitats, and contribute to habitat connectivity, for some species, as well as being essential for ecosystem functioning and services.”

That’s why it is important to make sure the new Global Biodiversity Framework does not narrow the CBD’s focus to natural and protected areas, ignoring the potential of integrating these with agricultural areas. The framework’s aim of “living in harmony with nature” cannot be achieved without taking into account the large expanse of the planet where people live and work.

Agricultural ecosystems must be recognized, as the changes that are needed for agriculture to play its role in biodiversity conservation can only be achieved at a landscape level, where ecosystems can be managed for integrity, connectivity and the maintenance of ecosystem services.

Reducing the management of biodiversity on farmland to a set of site-specific activities would eliminate countless opportunities for making agricultural landscapes biodiversity-friendly. Removing agricultural landscapes from the CBD would reduce the convention’s scope and influence.

Finally, GBF negotiators are beginning to reach agreement on a decision to expand protected areas to embrace 30% of the planet’s surface. Because of the amount of land dedicated to producing food for the world’s population, that goal can only be achieved by incorporating agriculture into strategies and plans for protecting biodiversity. This will require the full participation of agricultural authorities, who are likely to continue to ignore biodiversity if agriculture is not included in global biodiversity policy.

Global biodiversity policy matters. Governments set spending priorities on the basis of agreed policy, whether it is their own investment in biodiversity conservation or the aid budgets that rich donor countries set aside for supporting conservation in developing countries. Currently, agricultural ministries and authorities around the world focus their activities almost exclusively on increasing farming efficiency.

Biodiversity conservation is often the remit solely of environment ministries and related authorities. Unless and until the importance of agricultural ecosystems to biodiversity conservation is recognized – and efforts are made to make agriculture part of the solution to the problem rather than the cause – we risk missing out on this vital element of biodiversity protection. The challenge of mainstreaming biodiversity into agriculture will remain beyond reach without full policy support, and that support must begin with the GBF.


For further information, please contact Anja Gassner at A.Gassner@cifor-icraf.org or Philip Dobie at P.Dobie@cifor-icraf.org.

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This research was supported by IKI Germany
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