Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Biodiversity is as Important as Climate Change—How Regenerative Agriculture Can Help

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

According to a report(opens in new window) in 2010, only 13% of people surveyed knew exactly what biodiversity means and could explain it to a friend. The same thing is likely true today. They might know it has to do with the variety of species in an environment. They may have heard that monoculture (a single crop) in agriculture is risky because if a disease or natural disaster hits, a farmer could lose their entire income. But beyond that, most people have no idea why the topic is important.

Scientists, on the other hand, say we are in a biodiversity crisis(opens in new window) that is so serious it rivals climate change in terms of ecological disaster: the rapid extinction of species at a rate 100-1000 times faster than what is normal in the natural world. According to the World Wildlife Fund (PDF), wildlife populations have declined by 68% in the last 50 years with some regions suffering even more intense losses. In the Caribbean and in Latin America, for example, losses are as high as 94%.

And this is not just happening to well-known endangered animals like Black Rhinos and Sumatran Orangutans. Currently, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature(opens in new window), about 40,000 species across the globe are threatened with extinction, including 3,483 classified as critically endangered.

But it’s not just the loss of specific animals that has scientists alarmed—it’s how those species interrelate with each other and with the environment and what that means for ecosystem functioning as a whole. For example, one study(opens in new window) estimates that we’ve lost 76 percent of the insect population over the past 27 years. The average bug-hating person might not care about that, but we have also lost birds and mammals that depend on insects for a large part of their diet. According to a Cornell University study published in 2019, we have lost 3 billion birds(opens in new window) in North America alone since 1970. We are also losing beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators that we depend on to grow our own food.

The News is Not All Bleak But Needs Improvement

The statistics are frightening—some scientists call it “biological annihilation”—but we know that when actions are taken to interrupt the human activities leading to biodiversity loss, species can make a dramatic comeback. A short list of once or still endangered species that have now returned in surprisingly healthier numbers include:

  • Humpback whales
  • Brown pelicans
  • Mountain gorillas
  • North Atlantic green sea turtles
  • Bald eagles
  • White rhinos
  • Wild turkeys
  • Giant pandas

There are many other species that could be included here, and the recoveries, once started, occurred very quickly. The main factor in these comebacks were human efforts to protect and support their existence.

The 2021 UN report (PDF) on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) pointed to these successes with individual species as well. It means that conservation efforts can be very effective. However, they also report that efforts have been insufficient to stem the losses overall because only about 15% of land and 7.5% of the ocean is under protection and many of those areas are underfunded, understaffed, and under-managed. Furthermore, calls to save the biodiversity of the planet fall on mostly deaf ears because, while sad to think about losing elephants and cheetahs, people don’t yet understand what it means for human existence. They’re more concerned about climate change, even though the two issues are inextricably linked.

Climate change has been identified as one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. But even larger factors that reduce biodiversity stem from the destruction of ecosystems to make way for monoculture agriculture. Loss of tropical rainforests, for example, leads to a loss of species in those areas as well as a loss of natural carbon sinks that nature uses to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. The result is an acceleration of climate change with more extreme weather events and increased vulnerability to those events for all species, including human beings. Many of the proposed actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems for one issue have co-benefits for the other, so the IPBES report strongly recommends that climate change mitigation and biodiversity be addressed together.

That’s where regenerative agriculture could play a substantial role. 

The Impact of Agriculture

Multiple reports point to unsustainable large-scale monoculture agriculture practices as having the most negative impact on biodiversity. Crop or livestock production takes up over 33% of the world’s land surface and 75% of freshwater resources. 50% of agriculture expansion entails the clear-cutting of forests. The world needs adequate food at affordable prices, but crops produced in modern conventional ways is also accomplished through the use of extensive tillage and herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers that kill the biological life in the soil, pollute the air and water, and harm wildlife in the environments near the farms along with the insects and other creatures deliberately targeted onsite. The true cost of affordable food(opens in new window) is immense.

Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, protects and supports biodiversity below and above ground as its foundational guiding principle. Tillage is reduced or eliminated to avoid disturbing soil biology and microbiology as much as possible. Synthetic inputs are also greatly reduced or eliminated while measures are taken to feed and build the soil through natural inputs like compost and mulch. Diversity is then added through the use of diversified crop rotation, cover crops, adding legumes and other plants to pastures, planting pollinator habitats or buffer strips, and integrating animals. By working with nature instead of against it, natural processes help with pest management and other farm functions that currently require more damaging techniques.

Not Just Academics

 CRARS regenerative mentor farmers Greg Massa and Raquel Krach of Massa Organics(opens in new window) are big proponents of farming with biodiversity in mind. According to Greg, “For us it’s all about biodiversity so there’s no tillage in our orchard at all. And then we are planting cover crops in the fall so we have a place for all the bugs to go and we have a lot of habitat for the good bugs—the predatory insects that keep the pest insects under control.”

Raquel adds in that these choices were based on academic theory but they’re seeing it work in real life. “We’re not having outbreaks of those pests. We’re just not! . . . And the difference is night and day— from the bugs, to the birds, to the frogs and the lizards . . . of course, to everything. The diversity is amazing.”

Other regenerative farmers say they receive satisfaction from the same thing. Many of them chose regenerative practices to restore poor soil and help their farms survive extreme weather events. They also share excitement about carbon sequestration and doing their part for climate change. But after they get their farms on track, they tend to talk more often about the joy they receive by seeing the birds, frogs and bees come back as well as larger species.

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre of Alexandre Family Farm(opens in new window) put effort into caring for the wetlands, riparian zones, and land surrounding the part of their property that they actively farm. In 2009 a small herd of endangered Roosevelt Elk crossed the river on the property edge to enjoy the grass eaten by their dairy cows. They were delighted to see them and today the herd numbers 200. Blake says “They are absolutely here competing for the grass. We welcome that. We accept that. . . We really enjoy them! We look at it as tithing to nature.” They are also excited to see other species that used to be rare or endangered like Bald Eagles and Aleutian Geese.

Both Massa Organics and Alexandre Family Farm track the wildlife they see on their properties. The Alexandres have recorded 240 species of birds on their farm. Greg Massa has documented 220.

And they’re not alone. Check out what other regenerative farmers share about their experiences with improving biodiversity on the Mentor-Farmer section of our website(opens in new window).