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Can Agriculture and Biodiversity Coexist? Still an Open Question

Introduction (Paula MacKay)

In the Fall 1998 issue of Wild Earth, paleontologist Dr. Catherine Badgley addressed the far-reaching question, “Can agriculture and biodiversity coexist?” This informative essay synthesized the ecological losses and threats associated with modern farming, whose footprint has expanded to global proportions since humans began cultivating the landscape some 10,000 years ago. Badgley also proposed actions to ameliorate our current agricultural plight, advocating profound changes in farming practices and consumer habits as critical steps forward.

Badgley’s essay described a continuum of agricultural intensification and associated agroecosystem transformation.

On one end of the spectrum, she wrote, “traditional” or “indigenous” practices (e.g., family subsistence farms) give rise to “agroecosystems that bear a strong resemblance to the native, pre-agricultural ecosystems of a region.”

Beautiful farm with patches of different crops set among a forested landscape, single farmer working in one of the small fields.
A diverse organic farm near San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Catherine Badgley

Such low-intensity farming contrasts with modern industrial agriculture, whose highly regulated monocultures depend on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy machinery. “These agroecosystems do not resemble any natural ecosystems and represent the most substantial transformation of the original native ecosystem, both in terms of displacing native biodiversity and altering soil-forming processes.”

Figure 2 from Badgley’s 1998 Wild Earth article. Changes in ecosystem properties in relation to agricultural intensification. (a) Soil health (texture, structure, biota, nutrient cycling). (b) Resilience, the ability to recover from perturbation. (c) Native biodiversity—the plants, animals, fungi, and other biota of the original ecosystem. (d) Planned biodiversity—the agricultural plants or animals intentionally raised in an agroecosystem. Associated biodiversity—species in addition to the planned biodiversity that inhabit the agroecosystem. The relationships depicted are speculative.

The ecological costs of modern industrial farming have elicited growing concern in recent years, with scientists now estimating that one-third of human-induced greenhouse emissions are linked to agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that livestock production alone accounts for 14.5 percent of these emissions, rendering the profusion of factory farmed meat and dairy a global security issue.

Badgley and others have argued that organic agriculture can, in fact, feed the world—and that the future of biodiversity depends on our willingness as a society to support ecologically sustainable food systems. In 2000, she and others (including me) co-founded the Wild Farm Alliance to promote wildlife-friendly farming practices and to strengthen the connections between our food systems and our ecosystems; Badgley still serves on the board. Among their priorities, the leaders of the Wild Farm Alliance are working to strengthen the integrity of the U.S. organic standards so that native ecosystems receive adequate protection.

Distant photo of woman among vegetable plants and flowers, with large pasture and a horse and birds in background. Trees are further beyond.
The author working in her garden, with a family of sandhill cranes in the adjoining pasture. Photo: Gerald Smith

Today, Dr. Badgley is Professor and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Michigan, where her general interest is “the history of biological diversity, especially from the perspective of ancient and modern mammalian assemblages.” Badgley continues to examine the relationship between agriculture and biodiversity in her research, and has conducted paleontological field work in Pakistan, China, Kenya and the western United States.

I asked Dr. Badgley to revisit the question she explored in her Wild Earth essay two decades ago, and to share any new insights she might have acquired since.

Can Agriculture and Biodiversity Coexist? Still an Open Question (Catherine Badgley)

As a paleontologist, I tend to take the long view on many current environmental problems. I was originally drawn into research and activism in food systems by the evidence that food and agriculture are the main drivers of the elevated rates of extinction and endangerment of wild species and ecosystems around the world.

Aerial view of landscape with rectangular farm fields extending as far as the eye can see.
Industrial agriculture in Kansas. Photo: Catherine Badgley

Paleontologists know a lot about extinction; most of the species that have ever lived have become extinct. Thus, extinction is a normal occurrence on geological time scales of millions of years. But mass extinctions—the disappearance of a large proportion of Earth’s species over a short interval of geological time—are rare anomalies in the history of life. What we’re facing now has the hallmarks of the early phase of a mass extinction: elevated rates of extinction across many branches of the tree of life, declining populations of wildlife over large areas of continents and oceans, widespread loss of apex predators, and disruption of ecosystem processes.

The main cause of habitat destruction in terrestrial ecosystems is agriculture.

Although the causes of each extinction, endangerment, and disruption today are varied, the most common is habitat loss or destruction. Here’s where agriculture enters in. The main cause of habitat destruction in terrestrial ecosystems is agriculture—through planting row crops, deforestation for pasture or row crops, and desertification from overgrazing.

In the oceans, the harvesting of wild species involves major habitat destruction through trawling, and aquaculture displaces native habitats in coastal waters. So, the food system looms large over the biodiversity crisis.

In my 1998 Wild Earth essay, I outlined the threats to biodiversity from agriculture and from the harvesting of wild species, and I described in some detail the spectrum of agricultural practices—ranging from diversified farming systems that promote biodiversity to industrial monocultures that suppress it. How has the situation changed in 20 years?

Agribusiness as Usual

Dozens of pigs living inside a large barn in tight quarters, with metal fences cutting them off from one another.
CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) like this one, where animals are raised in confinement, are a common feature of modern industrial farming. Photo: USGS

From a macroscopic perspective, one could argue that little has changed except for the worse. Industrial monocultures still occupy most of global cropland, and the economic policies that support industrial agriculture are still in place in the United States and many industrialized countries. The number of livestock animals, which consume more than one third of the planet’s supply of corn and soybeans, has increased at a faster rate than the human population, and the majority of these animals spend their lives in concentration camps.

The corporate agrifood system continues to hold great economic power, with evermore mergers and political alliances. Meanwhile, the cheerleaders for this system persist in proclaiming that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the growing human population.

Pale yellow and black butterfly on colorful orange flowers
Many pollinating insects are in decline. Photo: Paula MacKay

On the biodiversity front, certain populations of some charismatic vertebrates (e.g., wolves, grizzlies, pandas, eagles, and whales) are increasing in numbers and geographic range as a result of protection, reintroduction, or the regulation of particular pesticides.

But elsewhere, many vertebrate populations are declining, including those of elephants, rhinos, lemurs, frogs, and salmonid fishes (trout, salmon, whitefish). Among less conspicuous fauna, major declines are now documented for many insect populations, including pollinators. This last trend may be the most sobering indicator yet of an impending mass extinction, since insects are the most species-rich group of organisms in the world.

Change is Happening from the Ground Up

Yet a closer inspection reveals a profoundly different picture. For one thing, many more people are interested in the interconnections between food and the environment, biodiversity, health, politics, and culture than there were 20 years ago. The myths of industrial agriculture (the emperor has no clothes!) are widely known.

Large open landscape with fields mixed in among trees, mountains in background.
Quinoa fields in the highlands of Peru. Photo: Catherine Badgley

Energetic local food systems are expanding in farming regions and cities around the world, supported by an increasing number of small, diversified farming systems. New alliances have emerged—between environmentalists and ranchers, social justice activists and urban farmers, health practitioners and farmers markets.

At the grassroots level, the food system is experiencing an exciting transformation, away from industrial farms and supply chains and toward local farms and direct marketing between farmers and consumers. The concept of food sovereignty—the right to local determination of the properties of a culture’s food system—is uniting food system activists from peasant farmers around the world to the United Nations. The goals of racial justice now include access to fresh, healthy, affordable food, and the recovery of the culinary heritage of oppressed people. Many K-12 schools and college campuses have created working farms or gardens.

Young man accepts money as he stands over a large pile of green peas in pod
Transaction at a farmers’ market. Photo: TriviaKing, Wikimedia Commons

Finally, notable societal shifts in diet are underway toward more fresh produce, less processed food; more plant-based meals, fewer animal products; more pasture-raised animals and more organically grown foods.

All of these transformations have beneficial consequences for biodiversity. To name a few:

  • Conservation-minded ranchers are partnering with environmentalists and reducing the density of livestock on the range to provide more habitat for native ungulates and wild predators. (See Montana’s American Prairie Reserve for inspiration.)
  • Urban gardeners are supporting native pollinators by incorporating a diversity of flowers and nesting sites in their gardens.
  • Diversified organic farms are using beneficial insects, microbes, birds, and bats to control pests.
  • Rustic coffee farms are protecting the habitats of migrating songbird populations.

The path to healthier ecosystems, more vibrant local economies, and personal health travels through the heart of the food system.

The most important change I’ve seen is a more widely held understanding that the path to healthier ecosystems, more vibrant local economies, and personal health travels through the heart of the food system.

Overall, I am hopeful about the future of our food systems. Whether these changes will be enough to avert a mass extinction, no one can predict. But without them, the sixth mass extinction is inevitable.

3 thoughts on “Can Agriculture and Biodiversity Coexist? Still an Open Question

  1. Thanks, Paula. This, of course, is relevant to a conversation now going on in Iowa as we come to grips with the problems of our over domesticated landscape. Global consumer demand plus government subsidies and mandates are driving an agricultural model which fails to incorporate all of its costs (short and long term/human and non-human) at the market place. Unbridled destruction of natural systems (woodland, wetland, and prairie) dug us into this hole and the way out must begin with the restoration of those systems on steep slopes, floodplains, and in other places critical to biological diversity, health, soil protection, and the aesthetics of our state. Once the vision exists for a better way which is supported by both consumers and government, farmers will adjust spontaneously and a wilder, more enduring place will be in sight. Iowa is part of a watershed which includes 40% of the contiguous US, all draining into the Gulf of Mexico. What we do here is very important. The time for complicity and complacency has passed.

    1. Well said, Mr. Gipple. I, too, have faith that farmers will respond positively if consumer demand and government programs support them in doing so—and we, as consumers, must take a seat at the table and vote with our forks, as Michael Pollan and others have said. I’m inspired by Catherine’s optimism and her long view as a paleontologist. Now, I must go pick some delicious sun gold tomatoes from my garden!

  2. Ironically I brought that issue of Wild Earth to our meeting in Iowa with Greg and Rebecca to discuss but we ran out of time. Thanks for opening that door for discussion.

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