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Wild species can help feed the world

July 11, 2022

Biodiversity experts are calling for the preservation of often endangered wild species, which could provide food and income for billions worldwide.

A farmer carries a chainsaw at a coca plantation
Rapid deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is adding to the loss of global biodiversityImage: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

"Transformative changes" are needed to save wild species from extinction and preserve ecosystems that are essential to human life, say the authors of two landmark reports from the the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The reports examine options for using algae, animals, fungi, and land-based and aquatic plants in a sustainable way.

Almost 400 experts and scientists, as well as representatives of indigenous communities, were involved in the reports. In total, they evaluated thousands of scientific sources. The executive summary was released this week.

"Almost half the world's population actually depends to a greater or lesser extent on the use of wild species. And it's much more prevalent than most people think," said John Donaldson, co-chair of IPBES.

The sixth mass extinction

Currently, about a million species worldwide are threatened with extinction as biodiversity and ecosystem health deteriorate at unprecedented rates.

This undermines economic prosperity while harming the health and quality of life of people around the world.

A woman replants an epiphytic plant on a tree
Replanting: local women in India's Western Ghats mountains are protecting a last enclave of biodiversityImage: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Due to human-caused climate change, the Earth is currently heading for a warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by century's end compared to pre-industrial times. This level of warming will increase the risk to endangered species in extinction hotspots tenfold.

The report builds on findings by researchers that a sixth mass extinction is already underway.  

It notes that the nurturing of wild species of fish, insects, fungi, algae, wild fruits, forests and birds of any kind is fundamental to building and preserving sustainable ecosystems.

Wild species benefit people

Protecting wild species and their ecosystems will help secure the livelihoods of millions of people, says the report. Sustainable management of wild species would further bolster one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals of fighting poverty and hunger, it adds.

Two-thirds of all food crops, for example, depend largely on wild pollinators. Meanwhile, wild plants, fungi and algae are part of the diet of one-fifth of the global population.

Some 70% of low-income people globally are directly dependent on wild species, with the use of wild tree species forms an important source of income for millions worldwide.

But at the same time, the 2 billion people who need wood for cooking are destroying biodiversity. Most access timber unsustainably, with around 5 million hectares of forest lost annually through deforestation.

Wild species can also produce income, even without harvesting for food or cutting down habitat.

Nature tourism such as scuba diving, bushwalking or wildlife viewing generated $120 billion (€118 billion) in revenue in 2018. National parks and protected areas generated about $600 billion per year in revenue before the pandemic.

A brown snake on a leaf
Twin slug snake: recently found in the biodiverse Mekong region of Southeast Asia, it symbolizes the need to protect habitats Image: World Wildlife Foundation/AP Photo/picture alliance

Assessing impacts and factoring in environmental costs  

Undervaluing nature when making political and economic decisions is fundamentally worsening the global biodiversity crisis, say the authors. 

Basing policy decisions on economic considerations overlooks how environmental changes impact people's lives. For example, a focus on short-term gains and measuring growth and progress in terms as gross domestic product fails to account for negative impacts such as overexploitation or social injustice. 

Incorporating nature values into policy-making "entails redefiningdevelopment’ and 'good quality of life,and recognizing the multiple ways people relate to each other and to the natural world," said Patricia Balvanera, a co-author of one of the two reports. 

From sushi hype to tuna population recovery

Bluefin tuna had been on the verge of extinction since the 1980s due to the rising popularity of sushi, noted Donaldson.

But the shortening of the fishing season, an increase in the minimum size of the fish, new tools to monitor and control fishing activity, and a sharp reduction in fishing capacity — as well as annual quotas — have seen stocks recover.

"Where you get the management done properly," said Donaldson, it not only enhances sustainability, but "allows for the recovery of stocks where they've been overutilized."

The authors recommend similar levels of innovation in the timber industry, including the establishment of a functioning certification system, an end to illegal logging, strong state regulations, forestry that respects the land rights of Indigenous peoples and nurtures wild species instead of monocultures.

China Baima Lake National Wetland Park
Biodiversity protection and habitat protection are underway in China's Baima Lake National Wetland Park Image: He Jinghua/Costfoto/picture alliance

Indigenous communities 'undervalued'

When proposing how ecosystems could be better protected and used, the report highlights the role of Indigenous communities.

Sustainability aspects of Indigenous peoples include crop rotation and resting livestock grazing, and stopping certain species from being harvested or hunted during given seasons, all with the goal of maintaining or even increasing biodiversity.

There tends to be less deforestation in areas where Indigenous communities live, the report noted.

Representatives of Indigenous communities directly contributed to the report, which highlighted their shared culture of not taking more from nature than is needed; of avoiding waste; and of distributing harvests equitably.  

This recognition of Indigenous knowledge "is progress," says Viviana Figueroa of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity. "Indigenous people are doing the real work in species conservation without being paid for it," she added.

Yet despite this extensive contribution, many communities continue to face human rights violations, from displacement to violence and illegal extraction on their lands.

"[Governments need to] support us in the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife species," said Figueroa. "We want that this report also supports real action at a local level."

This article was originally published in German. It was first published in English on July 8 and updated on July 11 after the second IPBES report was released.