Protecting our greatest ally against the climate crisis: Agriculture, biodiversity loss and climate change

May 20, 2021

Through the way they practice agriculture, smallholder family farmers protect our greatest ally in the fight against climate change: biodiversity.

Agriculture, biodiversity loss and climate change - aerial shot of a tractor on a swath of deforested ground.

We know burning fossil fuels has a big impact on our climate. But did you know that biodiversity loss also increases greenhouse gas emissions? And when we’re talking about biodiversity loss, we need to be talking about agriculture.

Industrial agriculture drives biodiversity loss. But we can grow food in ways that not only protect biodiversity, but help it flourish too. This International Biodiversity Day, let’s take a look at the toll industrial agriculture takes on biodiversity, how that biodiversity loss contributes to the climate crisis, and what you can do to support change.

Agriculture, biodiversity loss and climate change

Food systems account for a full third of human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of that third—71 per cent of it—comes from agriculture and the “land use and land-use change” that comes with it. Agriculture and land use/land-use change, which includes deforestation, destruction of peatlands, soil degradation and more, account for more emissions than food transport, packaging, retail, processing, consumption and waste combined.

The destruction of this biodiversity—from trees right down to the microscopic ecosystems in the soil—in the pursuit of industrial agriculture is a one-two punch to the climate. Not only does it release carbon stored within that biodiversity into the atmosphere, it eradicates any of its potential to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, too.

There’s then a third punch, as the area that once supported complex ecosystems is replaced with monoculture agriculture (vast swaths of single, uniform crops like palm oil plantations). This in turn pumps more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere through synthetic fertilizer use, machinery, and soil degradation.

It’s a vicious cycle, with each blow to biodiversity helping to accelerate climate change, while the worsening climate crisis puts more and more pressure on biodiversity.

It’s clear, this isn’t the kind of agriculture we need.

We must shift the way we grow our food

To tackle climate change, we urgently need agriculture that respects and supports biodiversity. The family farmers we work with already know this. And studies are showing that their smaller-scale farms tend to house more crop biodiversity and wild biodiversity.

“That’s probably because, compared with industrial farms, modest farms rely less on insecticides, cover more-diverse landscapes and have more field edges between crops and non-cultivated land,” says this article in Nature about a recent University of British Columbia study into small farm biodiversity and yield.

Smallholder family farmers are protecting what should be our greatest ally in the fight against climate change: biodiversity.

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Around the world, we support farmers whose work to protect and grow biodiversity is twofold: they grow biodiverse crops while farming in ways that help the surrounding natural ecosystem flourish, too. They’re working with their ecosystems, not bulldozing them. Often, they are improving soil health and carbon sinking capacity of the marginal lands they farm, using techniques like compost, terracing and agroforestry, literally growing the biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil. Meanwhile, by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they reduce their farms’ emissions.

All this diversity means farmers are increasing their farms’ resilience to climate change too.

Smallholder family farmers are protecting what should be our greatest ally in the fight against climate change: biodiversity. They incorporate sustainable practices because they know we aren’t just connected to the natural world—we are dependent on it for our survival.

How can I help conserve biodiversity?

You can help grow a better relationship with biodiversity by taking care of the biodiversity around you, by reducing your own environmental impact. But importantly, you can also show your support for the farmers leading the path to a healthier future.

By becoming a SeedChange supporter today, or renewing your support by making a donation, you’ll be helping farmers grow a better world by fighting climate change now. Together, we’re leading the way to a better model of agriculture—one in which food doesn’t come at the expense of ecosystems, biodiversity can play its role in stabilizing the climate, and nature’s balance is restored.