A food perspective on the U.N.’s study on potential extinction of 1 million species

A young man prepares Ayurvedic medicine in a traditional way.
Nila Newsom/Shutterstock, Courtesy of ipbes

Another day, another devastating report about the impacts of humankind on the environment. After a three-year review of 15,000 research sources from 50 countries, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) announced on May 6 that the Earth is facing the extinction of about a million plant and animal species. And, surprise, we’re to blame.

In the past, the specter of total self-annihilation has been obscured somewhat by hypothetical, hazy forecasts and plans for action that ultimately don’t come to fruition — “If we don’t curb fossil-fuel use by 40 percent by 2050, critical institutions will begin to de-blah blah blah.”

But the IPBES study feels different. In a vast summary, the study’s 145 expert authors outline exactly what has led to this impending extinction, what will likely fuel it in the years to come, and, thankfully, what we might be able to do to prevent its worst-case scenario. 

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” writes IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, in the summary. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”


What’s different about this report, too, is its focus on the role of global food production in the largest extinction in human history. If you doubt it, here are a few stats from the study that ought to make you reconsider: 

— 55 percent of the world’s oceans are covered by industrial fishing.

— 75 percent of fresh water is devoted to crop and livestock production.

— 386,000 square miles (about three Colorados, plus New England) of agriculture expansion took place in the tropics from 1980-2000, mostly for cattle grazing and palm oil production.

— The equivalent of 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions are sequestered in land and marine ecosystems.

It’s that last point that’s most concerning: The more we cut down or otherwise degrade natural ecosystems, the more species we off, and the more we release CO2 into the atmosphere. About 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are already caused by land-clearing, crop production and fertilization, the report shows, with animal-based food contributing 75 percent to that figure.

Agriculture’s rampant growth will have long-lasting effects, too, the report’s authors found, as it will limit biodiversity, which could come in handy as the climate changes. Of the 6,190 breeds of animals humans had historically domesticated for food and agriculture, about 10 percent went extinct by 2016, with 1,000 more breeds currently threatened. 

Why does that matter? “Reductions in the diversity of cultivated crops, crop wild relatives and domesticated breeds mean that agroecosystems are less resilient against future climate change, pests and pathogens,” the report states.

Large-scale trade, increased agricultural operations, market preferences and loss of knowledge from local farmers have all contributed to the loss of these breeds. The report notes that there are communities that have worked with certain breeds, sometimes over millennia, and indigenous communities around the globe are one of the last places where people are raising (and know how to raise) certain breeds. The report indicates, however, that protections of these areas has deteriorated.

It’s not better in the oceans — one-third of fish stocks are over-fished, while another 60 percent are at their max. In response, industrial fisheries, comprised of mainly a few countries and corporations, have fished in deeper waters and farther out than they had previously. On top of that, one-third of the world’s global catch is illegal, the report states.

And this is all being done with the backdrop of global food insecurity: 11 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.

So what do we do? Fortunately, the report has a few answers.

Feeding the undernourished and making our food system more sustainable “are complementary and closely interdependent,” the report’s authors write. Both can be done through major policy changes that mandate and incentivize sustainable landscape planning and agricultural procedures, and empowering consumers and food producers to transform supply chains. That may sound like wonkish jargon, but here’s an example: Major commodity farm producers in the U.S. have access to insurance and subsidies while small, organic, sustainable farms don’t. In a bad year, commodity farmers have options to recoup some of their losses, sustainable farms often go out of business.

As for the ocean, the report’s authors suggest implementing stricter fishing quotas, increasing protected areas and using the legal system to punish violators.  

Is there global political will to implement these changes? Is there consensus the need is dire? Are these changes actionable? 

A better question is: Do we have a choice?

“This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity,” said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, in a press release. “Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on Earth differently.”