The commercial agricultural sector that feeds large portions of the world population has been referred to as the primary driver of biodiversity loss,

Dual dilemma: Agriculture in India suffering from and contributing to biodiversity loss

The commercial agricultural sector has been found to be responsible for the extinction of over 86% of species; a worldwide loss of all pollinators threatens to reduce annual agricultural output by about $217 billion, according to estimates

Nairobi: Decades ago, Shaji NM learnt farming from his parents and grandparents. Without using any chemicals, his ideal way of growing paddy and yams in Kerala’s Wayanad still depends on healthy nutritious soil, natural manures and the tiny insects that tirelessly maintain a healthy nutritional and ecosystemic balance. However, Shaji says that in the past few decades, species which earlier helped eliminate pests from his field, like frogs or insects, have reduced in number.

Biodiversity i.e. the variety of life forms including plants, animals, insects and even microbes are critical for the natural sustenance of life on the planet and people. Science estimates that the loss of all pollinators (including bees, butterflies, moths and other insects) may reduce annual agricultural output of about $217 billion.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the fifth edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook, amongst other scientific documents, have warned that biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide at rates unprecedented in human history, despite ongoing efforts to save it.

However, agriculture is not just the sufferer, but also a perpetrator of the assault. The commercial agricultural sector that feeds large portions of the world population and employs over 60% of the global workforce, has been referred to as the primary driver of biodiversity loss, responsible for the extinction of over 24,000 of 28,000 ( 86%) of species.

While organic farmers like Shaji constitute a small percentage of farmers, most agricultural production can be traced back to farms with heavy dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilisers to maintain economically viable yields. 

Governments around the world realise the threats of biodiversity loss, which is not limited to agricultural production, has wide reaching impacts for human and animal health, food quality, survival of various species, including survival of humans, amongst others.

For the first time in 1992, when countries met in Rio to discuss how to protect the environment and biodiversity, one of the conventions that came out of the discussions was the United Nations Conventions on Biological Diversity or UNCBD. Since then, countries have been meeting biannually to devise strategies for slowing the rate of biodiversity. In 2010, the countries met in Aichi, Japan, and developed a set of targets to limit the loss of biodiversity by 2020. However, the deadline lapsed with no substantial progress or achievements, and the countries—known in UN parlance as ‘parties’—are now trying to prepare a new framework to identify and monitor the threats to biodiversity, and offer guidelines on how to reduce them. 

In an attempt to produce a skeleton similar to the Paris agreement for climate, the most recent gathering of the parties took place from  June 21-26 in Nairobi. It was their fourth meeting since 2020. Concerns about the agriculture sector continue to be one of the most debated subjects.

But with business as usual, and changing climate, how practical is it to prevent the agriculture sector from further worsening biodiversity loss and indulge in sustainable methods of farming? Without having found much common ground, the countries are now supposed to meet in Montreal, Canada, in December, with high hopes of adopting a document, which will provide a comprehensive roadmap to deal with accelerating biodiversity loss. 

Agriculture and the roadblocks 

The term ‘sustainable agriculture’ is mentioned directly in target 10 of the proposed Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), but also appears in the framework as one of the primary threats to biodiversity. Agriculture is key to reducing pollution from chemicals, pesticides and plastics, while addressing the issues of harmful subsidies that contribute to the depletion of land and water-based genetic resources.

The GBF targets at this stage aim to reduce the use of agri-chemicals, and move to a more ecologically sustainable form of agricultural production which will protect and promote biodiversity. India’s neighbour, Sri Lanka, launched an experiment last year to turn the entire nation’s agriculture in a more organic direction. Pesticides were banned and chemicals blocked from being imported into the country. Initial results suggest that the rice yield has fallen by 20%, forcing the country to import food crops.

While some critics point out that the organic way of agriculture will not be sufficient to meet the needs of a developing country, referring to the management style of the organic movement in the country, Sri Lankan representatives Surani Pathirana, and HMHE Herath from the Ministry of Environment, who were present at the conference in Nairobi, said, “We cannot go organic suddenly. It must be done step by step with proper alternatives in place. The farmers should be given time to adapt and adopt. “

Sri Lanka’s knee jerk imposition, and its disastrous results, though have not deterred India from pitching for low-input organic agriculture. No less than the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister of India have explicitly advocated for natural systems of agriculture over the past year. How the country charts this shift remains an open question.

The case of Sri Lanka does not stand alone. Arguments around chemical intensive versus natural farming were incoherent even at the UNCBD negotiations, and different interest groups used different science to prove their estimates of the future. While science briefs suggest that nutrient loss can be reduced by 50% without compromising food security, the International Fertiliser Association (IFA) did not think that it’s possible. Quoting case studies from both developing and developed countries—including India, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, China and the USA—the IFA highlighted the need for nutrients to complement the lost natural nutrients of the soil. 

By the end of the meeting in Nairobi, further conflicts appeared on the use of words ‘pesticides’ and ‘productivity’ in the GBF text. But Lim Li Ching, senior researcher at the non profit, Third World Network (TWN), said there is no doubt about the impact of toxic chemicals, and suggested a phase out of the most “highly toxic chemicals” as a first step.

The role of subsidies

The discovery of high yielding seed varieties and scientific technology to produce nitrogen and other important chemicals gave rise to the Green Revolution, leading to increased production of food crops. But that came at a cost—the increased reliance on chemical and fertiliser inputs of increased exploitation of natural resources expanded the reach of resource-intensive agriculture, pushing out traditional crops and low-input practices. 

In India, an important part of the Green Revolution roll-out were the subsidies that helped farmers bear the high input costs of the new farming methods. The decades of subsidies for the purchase of agri-chemical pesticides and fertilisers that are supporting the farmers in India and elsewhere have significantly contributed to biodiversity losses. Reducing subsidies for such inputs by $500 billion by 2030 is another item on the GBF agenda. However many countries have raised concerns about the viability of such demands.

Vinod B Mathur, chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and the only Indian representative in Nairobi during the six-day discussions, mentioned that countries like India are very watchful as far as the language in these texts are concerned. “We are against the use of words like elimination, and are pushing for words like reducing, restoring or repurposing of the subsidies,” says Mathur. “The way the western world interprets subsidies is different from how countries like India do.” He further adds, “A subsidy can be pervasive or normal. Our farmers who are poor and disadvantaged need both social and economic support.”

“Different countries at the forum have different regional policies and interests. The prominent step should be to analyse where the subsidies are going and who has benefited from them,” says Luca Chinotti, senior specialist, Multilateral Affair World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “Some activities that may look naturally positive actually cause damage to the overall ecology.”

The co-chairs of the UNCBD mentioned in a press conference that reducing the subsidies by $500 billion would increase the availability of finance to redirect towards the biodiversity fund. Ching, from TWN warns, “Just because the subsidies are reduced, does not mean that the money will be invested in making the ecosystem better.”

Adding to Chinotti, Laurent Some, director, external relations and partnerships, WWF East & Southern Africa, emphasises that food security is another aspect that countries have to focus on. For many of the countries like Some’s motherland Cameroon, in central Africa, the priority remains to feed people and reduce imports of food grains.

Climate at the front, back and centre 

Early this year, India made history when it witnessed multiple heatwaves before summer arrived. Jailawar Singh, who grows potatoes and lentils on his five-acre farm in Punjab suffered immense loss. “The heat shrunk the size of the potatoes and the pests that attacked the lentil crop seemed to be unaffected by the pesticides,” said Singh. Singh’s experience is not an exception.

With high confidence, the IPCC report anticipates that extreme weather events will continue to affect global food security, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America. While agricultural production may increase in colder, high altitude regions, the crop yields are expected to decrease in tropical and subtropical areas. Similar predictions have been made about nutritional value of several mainstay crops and agricultural labour productivity, both of which are likely to see downturns under current agricultural systems and warming trends.

Science has also warned that under the garb of climate change, more and more extreme weather events like heat waves, floods and other natural calamities are bound to take place. Agriculture, which remains heavily determined by the external environment, will be on the frontline when it comes to climate change impacts.

In the UNCBD document, Target 8 discusses the issues of climate change and its role and responsibility in degrading biodiversity. The GBF also recognises that biodiversity loss, climate change, desertification, ocean acidification are all interlinked and “mutually reinforcing.” But the present challenges make the issue complex. 

While climate impacts squeeze productivity and threaten food security at one end, pressures on biodiversity hammer on at the other. What remains in the middle is an impossible choice. The path of least resistance is to increase dependence on chemical inputs to allay food security concerns in the short term, but this will inevitably come with an implied risk for biodiversity which could very well prove catastrophic in the long run.

Suresh Babu, senior fellow and a program leader at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says, “The extreme weather events will hit agricultural production at both micro and macro levels. In the long run, climate resilient or climate smart agricultural practices may help the transition from chemical intensive commercial farming to a more natural or organic production system.”

Modern and smart agricultural practices like protective farming, vertical farming, precision farming or using climate resilient seed varieties need less chemicals, but the research, scientific temperament and finance behind such advancements are hard to come by for developing countries. 

The GBF proposes a financial plan of raising $200 billion annually to help preserve biodiversity. But the promise is yet to be delivered. 

Babu also warns that in the long run, we may find better solutions, but in the short term, farmers may have to use more chemicals to deal with the ongoing challenges of raising food while the climate changes. With more pest attacks and degrading nature of soil due to weather events like surface runoff or extreme heat, short-term quick solutions will be to depend on more chemicals and nutrients. 

The Goal A of the GBF document proposes a halt on all human-induced extinction of species and allocating land, marine areas for the purpose of conservation and protection. However, the indegenious and local people have raised concerns on what this might mean to increase such protections in areas where they live. 

Amidst a multitude of uncertainties, one thing is clear—the world population is on track to grow by 34% by 2050. The FAO estimates that to feed a richer and more urban population of 2050, the food supply must increase by 70%.

Other scientific research joins the dots between food production and biodiversity loss and concludes that biodiversity hotspots in Central and South America will be affected by cropland expansion, while the biodiversity in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and China will be impacted by cropland intensification. Both tendencies are threatening the biodiversity and future of the species listed in the IUCN Red List compilation of threatened and endangered species. 

The overall hope of the parties is to slowly shed the old and mainstream methods of agriculture to adapt and adopt to agro-ecological methods of farming. Tanya Sanerib, International Legal Director & Senior Attorney at Center for Biological Diversity, suggests that the best way of approaching the issue is to address biodiversity locally. “Let’s take the extinction out of our plate,” she says, by bringing back the diversity of food crops and not directing all the resources and focus  on  commercial mono crops. She adds, “It would also need a system rethinking. Who is growing what and for whom? This is not just addressing biodiversity issues but also, an ideological flip.”

This story was produced as part of a reporting fellowship to the 2022 UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s fourth meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, led by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.