Biodiversity, Planetary Health, and Food

September 21, 2021
3
 Min Read

Biodiversity, a hybrid of the terms biological and diversity, acknowledges the variety of all living things on earth1. In the absence of human intervention, synergistic relationships between diverse organisms form well-functioning, sustainable ecosystems. Yet population growth, the rise of industrial agriculture, and the lack of a symbiotic relationship between people and the land has led to unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss. This has caused subsequent ecosystem imbalances which negatively impact both the global climate and our food systems.


Many modern industrial agricultural practices may limit biodiversity through:

  • Monocultures, where farms plant only one crop with the goal of plant uniformity and maximized yield, may lead to the extinction of underutilized native plant species 2.  
  • Aggressive tilling of soil that agitates the soil ecosystem and can lead to a reduction in the beneficial bacteria and fungi that live in the soil 3.
  • Utilization of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or overuse of manure that can lead to chemicals leaching into the atmosphere and surrounding ecosystems. 

In contrast, regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices focus on promoting biodiversity by mimicking our natural ecosystems and aim to reestablish the inherent cooperation between environmental organisms. These methods enhance plant health and can reduce the impact of the agricultural industry on the environment. 

The value of biodiversity begins with soil, and efforts to maintain and enhance soil ecosystems can yield huge benefits to planetary health: 

  • No-till farming practices allow bacteria and fungi present in the soil to thrive. This can reduce the need for chemical inputs, as bacteria and fungi act as natural pesticides and decomposers, working to recycle nutrients and enrich the soil for future plants to use 3.  
  • Reusing plant and animal waste as fuel for plants allows them to naturally fix Nitrogen, a system where soil bacteria retrieve nitrogen from the atmosphere and bring it into the soil to be used as fuel, which reduces the need for added chemical fertilizer 4, 5.
  • Diversifying crops, minimizing chemicals, and reducing soil disruption can allow the soil to better absorb and retain water. Improved soil absorption can reduce water runoff, which happens when excess water that cannot be absorbed drains into nearby land or bodies of water, taking any chemicals and farm waste with it 5,6.
  • Healthy soil ecosystems may also have an enhanced ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. This process, referred to as carbon sequestration, contributes to a reduction in environmental greenhouse gasses 1,2.


Of course, optimizing biodiversity in agricultural practices is done with long term soil fertility in mind and ultimately improves our food systems and food quality 2. Nutrient rich soil has been shown to produce more nutrient dense plants. Additionally, plants grown without the use of pesticides have demonstrated superior amounts of phytochemicals, which function as antioxidants and nourish our beneficial gut bacteria 7. Eating these foods also means you are avoiding ingestion of pesticides, which can be damaging to gut flora 8. Encouraging plant diversity can also improve crop production, which may reduce the need to import food and means that access to sufficient and nutritionally diverse food is more obtainable for local communities 4.  


Regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices may also improve the health and quality of life for farm workers. By using fewer pesticides, farm workers will have less chemical exposure, which has been linked to various diseases including cancer, reproductive disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases 9. Rather than maximizing yield from a single crop or very few crops, as is common in industrial agriculture, sustainable systems focus on providing multiple production outputs 2.  Diversifying crops creates resiliency in the food system as it creates multiple sources of production, which minimizes the financial and supply chain impact of one crop performing poorly.


While modern agricultural systems have threatened biodiversity, careful and sustainable farming practices are gaining attention. These biodiverse-conscious methods can repair ecosystem imbalances and as consumers, we are in the position to continue to drive this change. By supporting sustainable growers, we invest in systems that help repair our planet’s health, improve the health of farm workers, and enhance our food quality.


References:

  1. “What is Biodiversity.” American Museum of Natural History, accessed December 19, 2020. https://www.amnh.org/research/center-for-biodiversity-conservation/what-is-biodiversity
  2. “From Uniformity to Diversity.” International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, June 2016. http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/UniformityToDiversity_FULL.pdf
  3. Chen, Huaihai, Dai Zhongmin, Allison Veach, Jianqi Zheng, Jianming Xu, Christopher Schadt. “Global Meta- Analysis Show That Conservation Tillage Practices Promote Soil Fungal and Bacterial Biomass.” Agriculture, Ecosystems, & Environment, 293, 1 (2020): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2020.106841.
  4. “The 10 Elements of Agroecology.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed December 19, 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/i9037en/I9037EN.pdf 
  5. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington (DC): National Academies Press, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305171/.
  6. Gomez, Jose, Sobrinho, Giráldez, Fereres. “Soil Management Effects on Runoff, Erosion and Soil Properties in an Olive Grove of Southern Spain.” Soil and Tillage Research, 102, 1 (Jan 2009): 5–13. doi:10.1016/j.still.2008.05.005
  7. Barański, Marcin, Dominika Srednicka-Tober, Nikolas Volakakis, Chris Seal, Roy Sanderson, Gavin Stewart, Charles Benbrook, et. al. “Higher Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: a Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analyses.” The British Journal of Nutrition, 112, 5 (2014): 794-811. doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366
  8. Fox, Elle. “Why Organic is Better for your Gut.” Better Food, accessed December 19, 2020. https://betterfood.co.uk/why-organic-is-better-for-your-gut/.

Kaur, Karashdeep, and Rupinder Kaur. “Occupational Pesticide Exposure, Impaired DNA Repair, and Diseases.” Indian journal of occupational and environmental medicine vol. 22,2 (2018): 74-81. doi:10.4103/ijoem.IJOEM_45_18