Farming Thinking

5 Ways We Can All Combat The Biodiversity Crisis

25th May 2019

This month, in what’s been described as the largest ever study of life on Earth, leading scientists urged the need for drastic change to address the loss of biodiversity the planet is facing. But why is biodiversity important, what’s that got to do with our food choices and what can we do about it? Hugh Thomas explains.

biodiversity-crisis

 World Wildlife Fund for Nature recently demonstrated for biodiversity in Paris

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity relates to the variety of plant and animal life in the world. Diverse organisms and the interactions that happen between them contribute to the lives of other organisms – us included – and are important for natural life to survive. Bees, for example, pollinate plants and help us grow many of the foods that we eat. Without bees and other pollinator insects we would struggle to grow a lot of the crops we rely on. This is a small example of how we rely on biodiversity, not to mention the many different plant and animal species that rely on other plants and animals for their survival. 

The biodiversity crisis relates to the rapid species extinction and the degradation of ecosystems happening now, with the world losing species almost 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. A crisis that is said to be potentially more threatening for our future than climate change

What’s that got to do with our food choices?

Diversity relates heavily to farming too. Over the years, pigs have been crossbred to have less fat and gain weight quicker; wheat to have higher yields and apples to have increased resilience. These are livestock and crops that have been selectively bred for thousands of years, developed for their resistance to disease and ability to produce high yields rather than for flavour or nutritional value. 

Reliance on a handful of varieties of livestock and crops gradually phases out the need for other varieties. The more we lose, the more organisms reliant on them we lose, and the less diverse the planet becomes. 

5 ways you can help counter the biodiversity crisis

These farmers, fishers, and go-betweens are doing their bit to foster biodiversity. Now it’s up to us.  

1. Go wild about beef

park farm

Andy Clark encourages his native breed cattle to forage a variety of wild flora 

Avoiding industrially reared meat and supporting farmers who are actively raising their livestock to work with the land is a good place to start. Among a particularly savvy bunch of farmers, Andy Clark at Park Farm in Kent rears native cattle breeds to graze on hedges and wild flower meadows that harbour a variety of plants, insects, and microorganisms. Thankfully, this works well for us too: ‘a varied diet always creates good flavour,’ says Andy.

2Eat a variety of fish

Rivers and seas contain some of the planet’s richest ecosystems, also dictating the ulterior systems that rely on them, but overfishing has led to a destabilisation of the food chain. Sebastian Candelon of The Fresh Fish Shop talks about the importance of eating lesser known species of fish – such as dab, witch, whiting, and flounder – which otherwise often get discarded when caught. ‘[Eating popular varieties] places more pressure on a smaller group of popular fish which imbalances the diversity in our oceans, not to mention the pressure it places on certain stocks.’ 

3. Think about variety

english apples

Read more on the many apple varieties grown native in the UK.

Orchards are hotbeds of biodiversity, containing habitats such as fruit trees, hedgerows, dead wood, and the orchard floor. Similarly, when fruit growers – such as Chegwoth Valley and Brogdale Farm ­– nurture a diversity of not just fruit species (such as cherries, pears, apples, and strawberries) but vegetables too, it encourages an assorted profile of different organisms. And it’s not just eating a variety of different fruit and vegetables, it’s eating many different types of those fruit and vegetables. Did you know 2,000 apple varieties, for example, exist in the UK? Yet only a handful are found in mainstream stores.  

4. Counter the monoculture

Travel through Britain on an early summer’s day and at some point you’ll see acres upon acres of bright yellow flowers. Rapeseed creates one of the UK’s most popular cooking oils and, though it might look pretty, is one of the largest monocultures dominating the countryside. A few of its producers, however, are bucking the trend.

Oscar at Duchess Farms encourages diversity on his farm. He tells me how he’s seeing the benefits not only in the wildlife population but who it brings together: ‘I have a handful of wonderful people that do their thing on my farm – a butterfly enthusiast, a bird watcher, some bee keepers, and a wild flower man, with a few more in the planning stages.’ 

5. Get serious about cereal

Food companies like Hodmedod’s are out to help diversify British agriculture and British people’s diets by supporting the farmers growing a wide variety of beans, pulses, and grains. 

hodmedods pulses

Cook with a variety of beans, pulses and grains.

Hodmedod’s work with Suffolk farm Wakelyns, established by Martin Wolfe – a true pioneer in organic farming who experimented with crop varieties and soils with the aim of promoting biodiversity. One of Martin’s more ambitious projects culminated in a strain of wheat bred from modern and old varieties that’s resilient but also of better quality than its more commercial counterparts.

Hodmedod’s Josiah Meldrum says; “More genetically diverse farm systems, that include a range of cereals in a long rotation, tend to be more resilient to disease and pests. These older varieties also have deeper roots and are better able to draw more of their water and nutrients from the soil than the input-hungry short rotation monocultures we’ve come to rely on”.

Why is eating locally and seasonally better for you and the planet too? This is why.

What are ancient grains and why should we be eating more of them? Read on here.

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