Protecting biodiversity – why the agricultural sector is part of the solution
The United Nations defines biodiversity as the diversity of all living organisms, habitats and ecosystems on land, in freshwater, in the oceans and in the air. It is declining almost everywhere on the planet. The losses affect the diversity of species. Of the nearly 97,000 animal and plant species on the Red List drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 27,000 were threatened with extinction in 2018. Scientists have calculated that each year, one hundred times more vertebrates die out than under normal conditions without the impact of humans. That is why the Max Planck Society speaks of a sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet.
Biodiversity is decreasing dramatically, and the reasons for this are varied and complex. The agricultural sector is often cited as the main source of blame. In reality, it is part of the solution to a problem that affects us all.
While the world’s attention has switched to the coronavirus, the protests have simply moved from the street to social networks. Across the globe, large numbers of people – first and foremost, the younger generation – are campaigning to protect the environment. The awareness and concern about the consequences of climate change and the loss of biodiversity are considerable – and rightly so. Scientists all over the world are sounding the alarm in studies, as biodiversity, and thus the diversity of species, is the foundation of our lives – it forms the basis for our supplies of food, clean water and clean air. Different species produce healthy soil by breaking down animal and plant waste. They combat pests and in many areas ensure the necessary pollination of plants and spread their seeds. .
Various causes of decline
Is the agricultural sector to blame for all of this? “The causes of the decline in biodiversity are extremely wide-ranging – from climate change and the spread of non-native species that endanger habitats and ecosystems through to increasingly intensive land use and deforestation. In countries like Germany, for example, there are almost no areas left that aren’t in agricultural, forestry or urban use,” explains Klaus Kunz, head of Sustainability and Business Stewardship at Bayer’s Crop Science division. However, although intensive agricultural use is undoubtedly part of the problem, it is also part of the solution, as farmers are managers of the countryside and have an influence on approximately 50% of the land in Germany. And, as a leading manufacturer of crop protection products and seeds, Bayer holds a lot of responsibility in this regard.
“Creating more space for biodiversity”
“It’s about achieving higher yields for a growing world population while at the same time reducing the use of resources and thus creating more space for biodiversity. This very clearly also means fewer chemicals in the fields – such as fewer crop protection agents and less nitrogen,” Kunz explains. “We at Bayer have therefore undertaken to significantly reduce the environmental impact of our future products. Specifically, we want to lower the use of crop protection products and the emission of climate gases by 30 % in each case.”
Progress with the application rates for crop protection products can already be measured. For instance, the volume per hectare of farmland has fallen by approximately 90 % over the past 60 years. According to Kunz, the next quantum leap is imminent – digital farming, which will lead to even more precise deployment of crop protection products.
We at Bayer have therefore undertaken to significantly reduce the environmental impact of our future products. Specifically, we want to lower the use of crop protection products and the emission of climate gases by 30 % in each case.
Head of Sustainability and Business Stewardship, Crop Science
Supporting farmers in conservation
For Julia Köbele, protecting biodiversity isn’t just a key issue for the future but is already being put into practice today. It’s even her full-time job. She works in sustainability at Bayer, helping farmers promote biodiversity and create more space for nature on their fields. “If we can successfully support farmers in drawing up measures to protect the natural environment on less productive land or on land that is poorly designed, too wet or is too difficult to drive on, we will have a huge impact on maintaining biodiversity. After all, we are talking about a lot of space here.”
Key to protecting plant and animal species is preserving their habitats. This ensures that a network of refuges for a wide variety of animals and plants is maintained within a landscape. Many farmers are now increasingly creating flower and fallow strips around their fields.
Bayer supports farmers in this process, as Köbele explains: “For example, we help select the areas where flower strips and nesting aids have the biggest impact on birds and insects. And we provide appropriate crop protection products and show which doses achieve the optimum results for cultivation and nature. Farmers work with and in nature – they always want both so that the economic and ecological aspects are in harmony.”
“To ensure farms can be passed on, we need to act sustainably today.”
Like Köbele, Sophia Meyer is also committed to protecting biodiversity. Not on the streets or in social networks – she barely has any time for that. However, as an agricultural science student who helps out on her parents’ farm in her free time, she makes a direct contribution on a daily basis, as do many farmers. That isn’t for her own benefit – after all, agriculture depends on biodiversity.
Her family, which manages a farm in the German town of Kaarst, uses various measures to protect and promote biodiversity. These include rotating the cultivation of wheat, potatoes and other crops to avoid depleting the soil of its nutrients. Grassland around the fields is maintained to offer room for insects and beekeepers who keep their honeybees there. For Meyer, protecting biodiversity is also about making targeted and metered use of crop protection products: “We take great care to only use crop protection products according to the season and, above all, in line with the weather. There must be no wind and it has to be dry to apply the products exactly where they should be.” Digital tools also help in this process.
Farmers such as Meyer are crucial to making the protection of biodiversity in agriculture the “new normal”. “The long-overdue transition needs to happen,” she says. Yet the young farmer is well aware of what this requires: “For farms to be passed on to the next and subsequent generations, we need to act sustainably today. A sustainable mindset is therefore part and parcel of farmers’ DNA, in a certain way.”
And by working together with them, companies such as Bayer can help overcome one of the major challenges of our time, says Kunz: “Beyond the traditional patterns, we need a broader discussion within society about agriculture and its contribution to the world’s food supply and biodiversity.”