Why is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity, the diversity of biology, refers to all the living things on earth, and the complex relationships they have with one another, which we refer to as the web of life. In this complex web of life is the human who co-evolved alongside these other species, becoming co-dependent for survival. As the human population has grown, many other species have declined, to the point that one in eight species on earth are now threatened with extinction. There are many factors driving the decrease in biodiversity, but one of the main ones is the change in land use and land management practices. To preserve biodiversity and the web of life we are in, humans need to reimagine the way we use land and produce food.
COP15 and Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy
To address the decline in biodiversity, at the recent UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 countries from all over the world, including Scotland, pledged to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2030. To do this, a number of goals and targets were agreed; most notably, was the aim to conserve and manage 30% of the world for the importance of biodiversity by 2030 (termed 30 by 30), and the phasing out of subsidies that harm biodiversity.
Within Scotland, the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy highlights how by 2030, Scotland will have halted biodiversity declines, and by 2045, will have restored biodiversity. To achieve this, it sets out the aim of transforming 50% of agricultural subsidies from unconditional to conditional, targeted toward biodiversity improvement. Furthermore, Scotland looks to increase its Nature Networks, which will increase the connectivity between nature-rich sites.
To share or to spare?
For agriculture, the question of how we can produce food whilst enhancing biodiversity often brings on two answers. The first is that we should farm in a more nature friendly way, where our farming methods can deliver food, albeit at a potentially lower yield, while increasing the biodiversity in the surrounding landscape. The second, is to put more land aside for nature and make up your losses in food output in these areas by intensification in more productive parts. This dilemma has been around for decades and was picked up the name ’Land sparing vs Land sharing’. Do we share our land with nature and farm with it in mind, or do we farm as productively as we can, so less land is needed for agriculture and therefore leaves more to nature? Each answer throws up a whole host of further questions and problems.
Land sharing will benefit species found in semi-natural ecosystems that can tolerate a moderate level of disturbance and increase soil and ecosystem health that deliver services for humans. However, its reduction in yields will require more land to meet demand and may require some habitats rich in rarer biodiversity to be converted to agriculture. This would benefit species that can thrive on agricultural land but would be detrimental to more specialist species that require undisturbed habitat.
Land sparing would benefit these species and could allow for a larger area to be set aside for biodiversity through an increase in efficiency on productive land. However, as most farmers on productive land are being as efficient as they can for economic reasons, increasing productivity is easier said than done. Furthermore, pockets of isolated ‘spared’ habitat may isolate the species within them if the land between is all intensive agriculture. This could fail to capture the importance of connectivity for preserving biodiversity.
The current understanding favours the land sparing, to allow areas of unproductive land to be preserved for natures’ sake, which the 30 by 30 policy will help deliver, if the mechanisms are in place to drive it. That said, land sharing is still required, for the benefits it delivers to generalist species, its connectivity between habitats, and its ability to improve soil quality. Furthermore, movements such as regenerative agriculture are finding innovative ways where working with nature can reduce impacts to surrounding nature without drastically reducing yields (ecological intensification) where the best of both worlds is achieved. These look to be supported though the governments ambitions to become a leader in sustainable and regenerative farming.
How to improve biodiversity on a farm?
The best way to improve biodiversity on a farm is to understand what you have already got. Doing a baseline estimate or measurement of the biodiversity gives an idea on what can be built on, and where creation would benefit the surrounding landscape best.
The creation and management of biodiversity rich habitat can be funded through sources such as the Agri-Environmental Climate Scheme. Habitats such as peatland can be restored through funding from Peatland Action, with the possibility of obtaining carbon credits through the Peatland Code. Other carbon credit schemes such as the Woodland Code can provide an income for woodland creation.
Sign up to the FAS newsletter
Receive updates on news, events and publications from Scotland’s Farm Advisory Service