How can businesses address biodiversity loss? Start by being less bad for nature

Cosmetics firms can look at reducing palm oil use, while wineries can cut chemicals to help animal pollinators. Companies should examine ways to make production chains more friendly to biodiversity, said eminent scientist Sandra Diaz.

wild orangutan
A wild orangutan in Borneo. Every industry can look at ways to make its production chain more biodiversity-friendly. Image: Rainforest Action Network via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The link between businesses, and the task of protecting the eight million species of plants and animals estimated to share the Earth with humans, is not the most obvious.

But fixing supply chains and trade is one of the key ways to ensure that natural systems—on which humans depend for quality of life—halt their deterioration, said Argentinian ecologist Sandra Diaz at a public talk in Singapore this week.

Businesses in every industry have to examine their entire production chains to see how they can be more biodiversity-friendly, said Professor Diaz, the co-chair of a landmark report issued last year by an intergovernmental panel, which found that human activities are threatening around one million species of plants and animals with extinction.

Cosmetics companies can, for instance, study how much palm oil they are using in their products and if they can use less of it, said Diaz of Argentina’s Cordoba National University. They could also explore substitutes that are more nature-friendly. The unsustainable cultivation of oil palm has contributed to the destruction of forests and wildlife habitats in recent decades.

Wineries can take better care of animal pollinators by using less insecticides and chemicals, and plant flower verges and other shrubs among the grapevines in their vineyards, said Diaz. Some wineries in Australia and South Africa have begun to do this, and others are reducing the amount of water or detergent used in washing the wine bottles, she said.

It doesn’t really do any good if (a company) is giving a lot of money for tiger conservation if, at the same time, it’s destroying (tiger habitats) in its everyday business operations.

Sandra Diaz, ecologist and professor, Cordoba National University

In its report last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—dubbed the “IPCC for biodiversity”—found that pollinator loss was putting between US$235 billion and US$577 billion in annual global crop output at risk.

“If every industry looks at how it can be less harmful, that’s already a lot,” Diaz, a visiting scientist at Nanyang Technological University’s Asian School of the Environment in Singapore, told Eco-Business. “It doesn’t really do any good if (a company) is giving a lot of money for tiger conservation if, at the same time, it’s destroying (tiger habitats) in its everyday business operations.”

Ensure fair markets

Besides wild species, local breeds of domesticated plants and animals are also disappearing worldwide, posing a threat to food security, IPBES found.

Fewer and fewer varieties and breeds of plants and animals are being cultivated. By 2016, 559 of the 6,190 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct. At least 1,000 more are threatened.

To halt such extinction, countries must stop indigenous communities from being driven out of their land and recognise their rights and knowledge, said Diaz. Indigenous communities manage and occupy at least a quarter of global land area and just over one-third of formally protected areas.

Governments and food industry players, such as supermarkets, must also ensure there is a fair market for traditional varieties of food. Less common varieties of produce may not be grown in the large quantities or have as long a shelf life as the more common varieties. But they may have other attributes such as flavour.

Current food systems are highly simplified and toxic, using excessive amounts of herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers—and they are highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, said Diaz. The world is producing more food but hundreds of millions of people go hungry, she said, declaring that the global food system is not working.

Some celebrity chefs are helping to promote local varieties of produce, Diaz noted.

“But to me, the most important is making sure the people who know how to (grow local varieties of plants and animals) can still make a living, because otherwise they would just die off,” she said.

What could backfire?

A question Diaz often gets asked by journalists, is whether the world should focus on fighting climate change, protecting biodiversity, or on feeding the growing population and ensuring access to basic needs. All three issues are interconnected with the same root causes: flawed governance and trade and supply chains, lack of social equity and integrated planning, misplaced incentives and social values that need to be redefined, such as the association of greater consumption with success, she said.

“You cannot forget diversity (of species) when trying to solve climate change; you cannot forget feeding people when trying to solve diversity. If you try to solve one alone, it’s going to backfire,” said Diaz.

Many policymakers say they cannot afford more nature- and people-friendly agriculture, or that they cannot subsidise a better public transport system, but Diaz disagreed. “Actually, almost all governments have the money, if only they could shift the huge subsidies from sectors which are bad for people and nature, to sectors that are good for people and nature.”

It may sound “naïve”, but there is no other way but to place nature at the centre of considerations in all major sectors of the economy, be it energy policy, education, transportation or urban planning, she said.

Rather than a message of doom and gloom, the IPBES report is meant to be a call to action, she said.

Observers have noted that 2020 is a make-or-break year for climate commitments to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, and Diaz said she is hopeful because humans “don’t have a Plan B”.

“We don’t have many more opportunities. I think if we lose the opportunity this year, it is going to be too late,” she said.

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