“Lake Chivero does not have the life it used to have. Today you only see green weeds and a distressed fish population”
No one talked about biodiversity — before it started disappearing. We just assumed that nature- the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe- would always be here for us. The recent United Nations IPBES 2019 Global Assessment report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services tells us that this is not the case.
According to their report, we are eroding nature faster than it can replenish itself and plant and animal species extinction is accelerating. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society and in response to requests from decision makers.
22 May was the International Day for Biological Diversity. The theme for 2019 is “Our Biodiversity, our food, our health.”
While more than 6000 plant species have been cultivated for food, fewer than 200 are cultivated for global food consumption. In 2014, three-quarters of the world’s crop production came from just 9 crops.
In Zimbabwe, despite efforts to diversify the production of staples, maize is still the main crop for many farmers. This makes food supply very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of mono-cultures. Remember the fall army worm, that wolfed down large quantities of maize in Zimbabwe last year and it still remains a threat.
Also, genetic and species diversity helps farmers to select crops and livestock breeds that are adapted to local conditions. For instance, pearl millet is well suited for poor, sandy soils in dry areas and the many varieties of indigenous chicken roadrunners are more drought tolerant than most exotic varieties of chicken.
A healthy ecosystem is the foundation for any agricultural production. On the farm it is easy to see how ground cover crops help to protect the soil against erosion or how a chicken may remove weeds or provide manure to fertilize crops.
But the farm is also part of a bigger web of ecological processes, which is complex and not always well understood. For instance, a crop on a field in Rusape may benefit from the soil enhancing work of earthworms just around the plant. The bees and wasps that support pollination of the crop or the ladybird beetle that remove aphids, depend on the biodiversity in the uncultivated edges of the field.
Healthy vegetation in surrounding wetlands, grasslands or forests helps to soak up the rainfall and store it as groundwater in the underground. The crop is also dependent on the climate regulating services provided by distant grasslands, forests and oceans.
On this background, it is worrying to note that forest area in Zimbabwe has dramatically declined from, 49% in 2000, to approximately 36% in 2014. This is largely due to agricultural expansion and cutting of trees for firewood and tobacco curing in areas, that were previously dedicated to wild nature.
It’s important to check how our consumption choices contribute to biodiversity loss. Depending on prepacked imports and grocery store shelves as opposed to growing our own has significant implications locally and beyond what we see and can imagine.
Discarded plastic packaging tends to end up in our waterways, contaminating water sources with microplastics and causing harm for wildlife (think about the plastic pollution in Lake Chivero). Buying products that contain palm oil may not directly lead to deforestation in Zimbabwe, but in Asian countries palm oil production is linked with severe habitat and biodiversity loss. Think about that next time you bite into a chocolate bar or feel hungry for crisps.
Healthy ecosystems locally and globally matter and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation is putting us in a very vulnerable spot. We depend on nature for full stomachs and healthy bodies — and we need to protect the complex web of life that sustains this.
We need transformative attitudes and actions to maintain our existence within safe ecological limits.
Written by Anne Madzara and Sidsel Vognsen , UNDP
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Footnote: (FAO, 2019)J. Bélanger & D. Pilling (eds.): The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture. FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Assessments. Rome. 572 pp. http://www.fao.org/3/CA3129EN/CA3129EN.pdf