Can agriculture not harm wildlife?

    11 Jul 2021

    Let’s continue the conversation about why wildlife is important. Oleksiy Vasyliuk, a zoologist from Ukraine and chairman of the UNCG NGO, helped us with consultations.

    You may read the beginning of the conversation about the reasons for desertification here.

    The reasons for the loss of biodiversity described in the previous article are interrelated. Loss of habitat is linked to climate change. The spread of alien species leads to the loss of habitats. When habitats are lost so much that desertification begins, it accelerates climate change.

    Loss of habitat is the biggest obvious reason why species are dying out. Endemic species, which are distributed only in small areas, disappear forever, if they lose these places.

    Forest fires in 2020 in Australia, Africa, Russia and the Amazon area, for example, have demolished dozens of entire species.

    And this can lead to consequences that are not obvious to non-biologists. For example, flowering plants exist on the planet due to flower pollinators. And it’s not just and not as many domestic bees as you might think when reading online petitions.

    More than 60% of fruits on the European continent are pollinated by wild butterflies.  Due to this fact, domestic bees play a rather small role – they create perfect honey for people.

    Meanwhile, everything we eat, except cereals, is grown because there are wild insects that have pollinated these plants. Almost all plants on the planet exist only because they are pollinated by these insects. It will be bad news if climate change results in the decline of pollinators. (You may see this hypothetical situation in the second part of the HBO dystopian series Years and Years, which tells the story of an “alternative version” of events after 2019).

    Life on Earth is disappearing due to agriculture. At the same time, the production of 1 kilogram of the food of animal origin requires ten times more space than to produce plant food. That is, if we switch to plant foods, we need ten times less space to grow food for us.

    We recommend a good film about the steppes of Ukraine “Torsky steppes: life, death … resurrection” directed by Alexei Burkovsky (in Ukrainian), a third of which is devoted to the topic of desertification. The authors emphasize that agriculture leads to accelerated decomposition of humus. At the same time there is a shortage of organic matter for its formation. After all, they are taken out of the field together with the harvest.

    In a century and a half, the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, then the USSR, and now Ukraine have destroyed half of the humus that nature has accumulated for thousands of years. As a result, not only fertility is lost, but also the ability of the soil to retain moisture in a state accessible to plants. The soil loses its granular structure and becomes a substance similar to plasticine. During rains, the surface of such soil quickly swells and poorly transmits moisture to the lower horizons. Therefore, most of the water simply flows into ravines and rivers.

    For the steppe zone with its arid climate, the loss of the soil’s ability to regulate the water regime is the first step to disaster. I mean, to the gradual desertification.

    The larger the area of ​​plowed land in the steppe zone, the faster the process of its transformation into a desert.

    That is, the south of Ukraine, once covered with steppes, will soon become like the Sahara Desert – mainly due to agriculture. (And there are also mines and industrial production, and large cities, and since 2014 – also the Russian-Ukrainian war, the consequences of which we wrote here).

    The main problem is that the cultivated soil does not have a continuous vegetation cover.

    Or let’s move to Africa and take the example of Madagascar. We know this island thanks to its beautiful inhabitants – lemurs. But Madagascar is no more! Environmentalists do not understand that nature can still be protected there.

    Most of the island today is a desert, or a desert occupied by quarries. Various minerals are openly mined there. And everything that remains of wildlife burns so intensely that in fact nature in Madagascar is no more. Most species of lemurs are on the verge of extinction. And some species are in fact either technically extinct or are only in captivity in zoos and rehabilitation centers. They are no longer in nature, in the jungle.

    Older BBC and National Geograpic movies will show you how beautiful Madagascar was. But it is no longer a green island, as it is depicted on ordinary maps of the world or the globe. It should be painted in the same color as the Sahara, if you look at space images.

    Another reason for the destruction of biodiversity is fragmentation, which we started writing about here. E.g., no wild bird, will not tolerate it. Birds need a piece of forest to build a nest, where there are no people, where there is no disturbing factor, on a comfortable tree, with good ventilation. It is necessary to cut down the forest around, and the nest is visible from afar. And wild birds will no longer settle and nest there.

    Another reason for the destruction of biodiversity is the use of pesticides. These are all chemicals that lead to the suppression or direct death of species – the “owners” of the territory. But there are exceptions – if it is an introductory species, it is stronger than native species and is not afraid of pesticides. An example for Ukraine or Belarus, steppe or forest-steppe zone – Canadian goldenrod. Under him does not grow local plants and he is not afraid of pesticides. He is not afraid of fire. If you pull it out, it will not hurt him because of the deep roots. Plowing the steppe with goldenrod will also not give anything, because the roots are still deeper. Therefore, it is catastrophically spread.

    But it will always be greatest in the lanes between the road and the forest belt. This is because the forest strip shields the exhaust in this area. They settle, and other species simply cannot stand there. Therefore, goldfinch is easily distributed there. Because near roads or in fields where pesticides are used, local species simply die. Somewhere in the wild natural areas it will not be, where there are all the elements of the ecosystem. Where nature is not disturbed and is able to “defend”, there will be fewer or no alien species.

    But where we kill aboriginal flora, alien species easily fill the space.

    Monocultures in agriculture are also the enemy of biodiversity and lead to desertification. If trees of the same species are planted in one year, they will all die soon and simultaneously. This is an incomplete ecosystem, it is unnatural when all the trees are the same species and the same age.

    Of course, there will be a species that is very convenient to breed on these trees of the same age. And we will call it, ironically, a “pest”. An example for Europe is the chestnut moth, which destroys chestnuts in cities. This species is native to Macedonia and has spread to other countries. In nature, chestnuts do not form forests. But if they are concentrated in the city. Of course, without natural enemies (and transport easily carries it), the chestnut moth destroys chestnuts.

    Another detrimental side of monoculture – it quickly depletes the soil (like sunflower). At the same time, it is advantageous for farmers to plant only rapeseed without other plants in the field. And supporters of permaculture will not plant rapeseed.

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