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Why Have So Many Living Things Vanished?

Dr Oliver Moore explores how we can stop the rapid disappearance of a variety of species.


So many species have disappeared with many more set to vanish over the next number of years. To find out why Dr Oliver Moore takes a closer.

Are you on this planet long enough to remember wiping insects off the windscreen? If you grew up in the countryside, do you remember the birds swooping down to gobble up a feast of earthworms after the tractor ploughed the field?

It appears that, in my own lifetime, a huge amount of all living things have vanished. Some estimates reckon that half or even three-quarters of all the species on earth are gone, leaving behind ourselves, a few crops and farm animals; of all the earth’s mammals, 96 per cent are livestock and humans, while just four per cent are wild. Our lifestyle uses up so much of the planet’s resources that we have simply swept aside nature, from the smallest microbes to the biggest blue whales.

Whatever the exact rate and, notwithstanding the discovery of new things and some minor positives here and there, biodiversity loss now is astounding, far faster than any natural extinction rate and far faster than what’s gone on before.

Counting methods vary (e.g. species richness and abundance, weight) and different organisations look for different things. A World Wildlife Fund report last year found that “populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have, on average, declined in size by 60 per cent in just over 40 years. The biggest drivers of current biodiversity loss are overexploitation and agriculture, both linked to continually increasing human consumption.”

Mass Extinction

The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), a United Nations body, released a very detailed and thorough study which considered 15,000 papers in total. The body made a very conservative estimate of about a million species threatened with extinction. Working from the basis of 8.1 million animal and plant species, 5.5 million of which are insects, and taking a very low estimate of just 10 per cent decline in insect species, and 25% decline in the rest, IPBES found that about one million of these living things may go extinct.

It is worth emphasising that in highly industrialised parts of western Europe, huge losses of insect numbers have been recorded. A massive, though controversial, Germany study found that three-quarters of all flying insects in Germany have disappeared in just 27 years, with even greater loss in what should be the abundant summertime.

So what’s causing this? IPBES cite, in order: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; invasive alien species.

Beyond Land Sharing vs Land Sparing

Sometimes this debate comes down to what is called land sharing vs land sparing. In other words, do we farm intensively, thereby supposedly leaving more for nature, or do we try to somehow bring nature more into farming?

However, so much land is taken up with farmland, so many of our animals are now farm animals, and there is little evidence that we do actually leave much aside for nature when we farm super-intensively. So bringing more nature into farms, radically reducing food waste, changing diets and food distribution, as well as massive rewilding of huge areas all of these seem to be required to deliver what IPBES call “system-wide reorganisation”.

What Can Be Done?

Lots can be done to arrest this development. In Ireland, where there is also huge biodiversity loss, there are initiatives called EIPs (European Innovation Partnerships). Many of these EU-funded initiatives focus on biodiversity, with one of the most inspiring being the BRIDE initiative (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) in east Cork. The 47 farmers in the BRIDE river valley work with ecologists on a farm-to-farm basis to put up to 10 per cent of their entire farms into biodiversity functionality- the closer to 10 percent, the better the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) payments. That this is an intensive dairy country makes BRIDE all the more impressive.

Organic farming shows great biodiversity performance, in Ireland and elsewhere. Indeed a recent study from Finland found organic livestock farming was the only CAP measure that had a positive impact on bird populations – it was even more successful than dedicated biodiversity measures. In Ireland, there are few studies comparing biodiversity in organic and conventional systems, but those that do are positive about organic farming’s impact.

And you can just take things into your own hands. We are the Ark is a movement to give as much land as possible back to nature. Started this year by “reformed landscape gardener” Mary Reynolds, there already hundreds of arks around the world.

Author: Oliver Moore

Oliver Moore is editor-in-chief at ARC2020, the Agriculture and Rural Convention. ARC2020 is a European NGO dedicated to people- and planet-friendly people and policies and practices. With a background in rural sociology, he lectures in UCC’s Centre for Cooperative Studies, writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner farming, and works with the Cultivate NGO in Cloughjordan’s ecovillage, where he also lives. There, he is a Director of the community-owned farm. He is a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.