The Complicated Relationship Between Agriculture and Wildlife
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How many wild animals are killed by farming practices? While scientists know there’s a problem, they’re unable to pinpoint a precise figure. The interplay between agriculture and wildlife is complex.
Some of the biggest drivers of biodiversity decline include overexploitation — harvesting animals from the wild at rates that can’t replenish — and agriculture, which consists of the production of food, livestock farming, aquaculture, tree cultivation and more. According to experts, agriculture and the overexploitation of resources is a more significant risk to biodiversity than climate change. In fact, nearly 75% of the world’s threatened species face overuse, compared to only 19% affected by climate change. The Sumatran rhinoceros, for example — which people illegally hunt for its meat and horn — is one of 4,049 species threatened by this problem. Other animals that poachers target include the Western gorilla and Chinese pangolin.
A Growing Problem
Agriculture alone threatens more than half of the animal species on earth. Animals most affected by crop and livestock farming include the cheetah, African wild dog and hairy-nosed otter. Unsustainable logging alone has lead to the decline of more than 4,000 forest-dependent species, including the Bornean wren-babbler and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.
Beyond the misuse of land and destruction of natural ecosystems, animal populations are affected by the consumption of meat. In the U.S., people eat an estimated 30 million cattle, 120 million pigs and 9 billion chickens each year. These figures don’t include fish, which tend to be counted by weight rather than individual numbers. However, experts believe fish counts are likely several times higher than that of chickens. Land modifications associated with the production of food, fodder and fuel crops harm more than 4,600 species, such as Fresno kangaroo rat and the African wild dog. Since the 1970s, America has lost more than 3 million birds due to habitat loss. The environmental toll of feeding and caring for these animals has pushed many consumers to plant-based diets. Yet producing these plants still leads to the death of wild animals.
A New Way Forward
Scientists have come up against several difficulties when it comes to interpreting agriculture’s relationship with wildlife populations. The first issue is that patterns reported do not necessarily extend to taxonomic groups that experts haven’t monitored. For example, scientists have assessed all known birds. Yet they’ve only gathered information on around 0.1% of the 50,000 species of fungi. Findings from one group do not necessarily translate to insights for another.
Another setback is that scientists must look at agricultural threats in isolation. However, this sector is a major driver of other issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions. When looking at how species populations differ over time, more than 80% are affected by more than one significant threat. Lastly, the threats driving the extinction of animals will change drastically over the next few decades. Some predicted issues include further climate change, increased human population size and higher demand for food.
The Future of Agriculture and Wildlife
Experts say addressing over-harvesting and agricultural problems is key to turning around the biodiversity extinction crisis. Governments and individuals alike must take action, such as creating well-managed protected areas, enforcing hunting regulations and managing agricultural systems in ways that allow threatened species to persist. Conversation scientists have been examining the issues of agriculture and wildlife populations for years. They claim small spots of habitat within farmlands can provide an essential place for animals to breed, move around and find shelter from predators.
These patches also offer benefits to farmers, including improved water quality, reduced erosion, pollination from native bees and natural pest control. Restoring landscapes to promote animal populations can be a boon for farmers, resulting in higher crop yield and improved oil quality. Experts have yet to understand the trade-offs, however. Start-up costs, for example, may be a barrier to adoption. In the future, companies may rely on regenerative farming to produce yields and protect the land. With this technique, you only produce a small amount to feed your family or community.
As a result, chemicals that harm habitats are not necessary. Of all plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species to go extinct since 1500 AD, 75% were harmed by overexploitation, agriculture activity or both. In some cases, the introduction of an invasive alien species compounds these issues. The cane toad, for example, is a famous invasive species from Central and South America that made its way to Florida, the Philippines, Japan, the Caribbean and Hawaii.
While farmers hoped the amphibians would eat crop-gnawing insects, they instead wiped out many native species. The biodiversity issue will have a significant impact on the production and availability of crops. Plus, this problem will only worsen as global warming ramps up.
By examining overexploitation and agricultural activities today, experts can work on challenges presented by climate change. Healthier ecosystems absorb more carbon, plus they provide the physical connectivity and genetic diversity needed to allow species to adapt.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.