Impacts on the world’s biomes

6.6.4 Agricultural landscapes

Box 6.5: Agrobiodiversity and gender

In many societies, women have traditionally been the keepers of deep knowledge of the plants, animals and ecological processes around them. The use of hybrid seed varieties (to which there has been a widespread shift in recent decades) can prevent women collecting seeds, undermining their status as seed collectors, as well as food security, especially in developing countries (Bhutani 2013). The erosion of biodiversity driven by industrial agriculture has therefore had specific impacts for women, including a loss of knowledge related to seeds, food processing and cooking (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems 2016). In recent years, community seed banks that preserve local seeds have been re-established in some areas and are frequently managed by women, including through local seed exchanges. Participatory plant-breeding schemes to improve seeds further enhance women’s status in farming (Galiè et al. 2017).

Beginning about 8,000 years ago, agricultural expansion and intensification has led to biodiversity loss in many biomes (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification [UNCCD] 2017). Global demand and supply chains concentrate production in ‘breadbasket’ regions (Khoury et al. 2014), where landscape transformation reduces and fragments natural habitat, and yield-enhancing inputs (fertilizers and pest control) can impact non-cropped areas, watercourses and air quality. Recent decades are notable for marked land-use change in tropical regions associated with increasing oilseed production, in particular for soya and oil palm, much of which has come at the expense of highly biodiverse biomes (Foley et al. 2011). A dramatic decline in animal populations both inside and outside protected areas (Keesing and Young 2014) is associated with increased risk of predators attacking livestock (Zheng and Cao 2015; Malhi et al. 2016), negatively impacting agricultural livelihoods. Agricultural practices, such as tillage, crop combinations, and application of fertilizers and pesticides, also have impacts on below-ground biodiversity. (FAO and the Platform for AgroBiodiversity Research 2011, p. ix). Importantly, agricultural landscapes can sometimes maintain rare species in semi-natural habitats, while abandonment of agricultural practices may even lead to biodiversity decline (Plieninger et al. 2014).

Loss of diversity in agroecosystems increases their vulnerability and thus reduces the sustainability of many production systems. Reduction in the provisioning of regulating and support services can drive additional chemical use and may create harmful feedback loops (WHO and SCBD 2015, p. 5). There is some evidence that farmers in homogeneous landscapes have higher incomes than farmers in heterogeneous landscapes (Watts and Williamson 2015), but their resilience to pressures such as climate change is often lower and income variability is greater (Abson, Fraser and Benton 2013). In addition, the homogenization of crop production has health impacts, contributing to the homogenization of diets and increasing consumption of processed foods associated with obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (Khoury et al. 2014). In contrast, production diversity is strongly associated with dietary and nutrition diversity among smallholder farmers whose market participation is limited (Sibhatu, Krishna and Qaim 2015) and local knowledge about seed varieties is often held by women farmers (see Box 6.5).

Box 6.6: Importance of traditional practices and knowledge in pollinator conservation

Indigenous and local knowledge has been recognized as an important source of expertise in finding solutions to declines in animal pollinators – wild species such as birds, bats, bumblebees and hoverflies, and managed species such as honeybees (Lyver et al. 2015; IPBES 2016, p. xxii). In 2013, the Indigenous Pollinators Network was established with a view to combining traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples with modern science for the benefit of conserving pollinators and their vital services (Platform for AgroBiodiversity Research 2013). As well as conserving pollinators, traditional practices of beekeeping may have wider benefits for biodiversity, for example strengthening watershed conservation in the face of climate change (Kumsa and Gorfu 2014) and in forest conservation (Wiersum, Humphries and van Bommel 2013).

Ethiopia is the largest producer of honey and beeswax in Africa (Begna 2015). These products are used for making candles and Tej or honey wine (an important drink in cultural life), and white honey from the Bale mountain region is used medicinally (IPBES 2016, pp.312-314). Women contribute to this value chain, usually by manufacturing honey products rather than beekeeping itself. However, there is potential for beekeeping to provide income generation and empowerment for women in rural areas of Ethiopia (Ejigu, Adgaba and Bekele 2008; Serda et al. 2015).

In some cases, intensive agriculture might also increase the prevalence of infectious diseases (Cable et al. 2017). For example, oil palm plantations in South America appear to increase the risk of Chagas disease (Rendón et al. 2015), and in Kalimantan, Indonesia, the burning of forests to plant oil palm may have contributed to the migration of bats, known to carry Nipah virus (Pulliam et al. 2011).

Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes is key to food and nutrition security (see Box 6.6). Pollination by about 100,000 species of insects, birds and mammals accounts for 35 per cent of global crop production (SCBD 2013; IPBES 2016), and up to 15 per cent of the value of economies based on cash crops (IPBES 2016, p. 209). Production is declining at local scales in places where the diversity of pollinators has been declining (IPBES 2016, pp. 154,185-186). Maintaining remnant patches within a few hundred metres of farms can help support pollinator populations and increase crop yield (Pywell et al. 2015; IPBES 2016, p. 394).