Threats to biodiversity

Meadow with different blossoming flowersClick to enlarge
Wildflowers
Source: E. Schittenhelm/ Fotolia.com

Farmland provides a habitat for myriad plants and animals, in that fields and pastures are sources of food and provide a safe haven for rest and breeding. But unfortunately, the growing trend toward using large tracts of farmland for monocultures greatly reduces the availability of such habitats, with the result that farm area biodiversity has been on the wane for many years.

Introduction

More than half of Germany’s surface area is used as farmland, which should be configured and used in an environmentally sound and biodiversity friendly manner; for these areas serve as a habitat for myriad animals, plants and microorganisms.

At one time, farming and farmland were a guarantor of species and biotope diversity in rural areas. But with the growth of intensive crop cultivation and industrial livestock production, the agricultural sector is today one of the main causes of biodiversity loss. As farming becomes more industrial, myriad natural features of farmland such as hedges are simply removed and are nowadays a rarity in farming regions. But unfortunately, such features are also vital components of flora and fauna habitats.

This situation is exacerbated by the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers, whose ecosystem deposits drive out natural vegetation that is adapted to farmland habitats. Biodiversity loss is also caused by increasing cultivation of renewable raw materials (canola and corn), which often involves plowing up set-aside land or grassland. The minimal crop rotation entailed by canola and corn cultivation deprives insects and birds of variety and requires extensive pesticide use. Habitats and safe havens for many native bird and insect species are being destroyed. Grassland contains 52 per cent of Germany’s plant and animal species, making these sites among the most biodiverse in Central Europe. Converting grassland to cropland greatly reduces the availability of such resources, resulting in biotope destruction and increasing fragmentation of remaining greenland areas.

The biodiversity of organisms in and on soils also plays a pivotal functional role when it comes to conserving farmland fertility and yield capacity, in that organism functions such as pollination and pest control frequently come into play. But what is often ignored is the fact that the breakdown of plant and root residues in the soil depends on the presence of soil fauna such as earthworms, springtails, mites and soil bacteria and fungi; while at the same time we rely on these functions for household-compost breakdown processes.

Intensive crop cultivation reduces biodiversity and soil organism populations. Greater soil fertility efforts are needed in settings where these natural ecological services are foregone. And while the tightening of legal restrictions concerning pesticide and fertilizer use is a step in the right direction, it cannot possibly reverse the biodiversity loss that we are currently experiencing.

Measures and strategies

In view of the fact that biodiversity conservation is one of the most burning environmental policy issues facing Germany and the international community today, many programs of measures, as well as strategies and treaties, have been adopted over the years. These instruments will now be briefly described.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNECD) in Rio de Janeiro.

EU strategy

The 2006 EU Biodiversity Action Plan was enacted with the goal of stopping biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010. The assessment of some 150 measures that were submitted in 2010 and the successful outcomes of such measures show that despite considerable progress in some areas, the overall objective has yet to be reached.

Nationale Strategie zur biologischen Vielfalt (NBS) (National biodiversity strategy)

In 2007 the federal government adopted a national biodiversity strategy, which transposed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity into German law. The goal of this measure is to stop and reverse biodiversity loss by 2020 via some 430 measures entailing nearly 330 objectives that take economic, ecological and social factors into account.

Agricultural policy

A key instrument when it comes to making decisive progress in the aforementioned areas is reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the UBA’s view, it is urgently necessary for farming to become more ecofriendly during the 2014-2020 funding period. The greening measures recommended by the European Commission entailing permanent-pasture conservation, crop rotation rules, and designating seven per cent of farmland as ecological priority areas should not be loosened any further. Moreover, direct payments should only be effected if these greening measures are implemented and should be mandatory for all growers. Ecological priority areas should be designated in such a way that the actual impact of such areas on biodiversity is taken into account and managed. Such priority areas also play a key role in other environmental compartments such as climate, water and soil conservation.