Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How to Conserve Half the Planet without Going Hungry

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How to Conserve Half the Planet without Going Hungry

Article excerpt

How to conserve half the planet without going hungry

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Authors: Zia Mehrabi, Research Associate, University of British Columbia; Erle C. Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Navin Ramankutty, Professor, University of British Columbia

Every day there are roughly 386,000 new mouths to feed, and in that same 24 hours, scientists estimate between one and 100 species will go extinct. That's it. Lost forever.

To deal with the biodiversity crisis we need to find a way to give nature more space -- habitat loss is a key factor driving these extinctions. But how would this affect our food supplies?

New research, published in Nature Sustainability, found it could mean we lose a lot of food -- but exactly how much really depends on how we choose to give nature that space. Doing it right could mean rethinking how we do agriculture and conservation altogether.

A fair deal

OK, but how much space are we talking about here?

There have been numbers flying around since the early 1990s. Some researchers say a quarter of all the space on earth, while others say three-quarters of all land and sea. Those in the middle ground, however, seem to suggest one half.

Leading scientists are increasingly endorsing the figure, including natural scientist E.O. Wilson, who wrote a book on it, and the former chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, Eric Dinerstein. These individuals are mobilizing funds, researchers, computing power and social capital to see what it takes to achieve this vision -- through their organizations, The Half-Earth Project and Nature Needs Half.

The idea might seem crazy, but then again, maybe we need crazy ideas to get us to think about the better world we might be able to create.

And there is something about handing over half of the planet to nature that has an air of fairness to it -- well, on the side of nature at least.

The global agricultural footprint

The reality is, most people would likely want to help save other species too (aside maybe from mosquitoes and some other pesky creatures). The upside seems massive and obvious -- not in the least that our children will be able to enjoy these beautiful beings for generations to come.

But is it possible to conserve so much land and still feed everyone?

Agriculture and settlements already cover 37 per cent of the Earth's ice-free land, so it's difficult to see how we could set aside half the planet in a way that honours the needs of other species, without losing some of our agricultural lands.

Dinerstein and his colleagues found that some locations, such as the Midwest United States produce so much food that it would be "delusional" to even suggest returning them to nature.

But previous research didn't quantify or map the scale of these trade-offs at a fine enough resolution to identify what's really at stake. …

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