Learning the ABC of resilient and convivial land use: The nexus of Agriculture, Biosafety, and Conservation

by | May 31, 2023 | All posts, Climate education, Consumption, Sustainable transitions | 0 comments

Agriculture is interlocked with issues of biosafety and nature conservation (together: ABC). Learning one’s ABC requires a variety of disciplines which, however, rarely link up in a more systemic perspective. What requires further unpacking is the socio-ecology of “unhealthy” human-animal relations linked to the appropriation of land, biomass, and energy as part of our food systems.

Our literature review conducted as part of the SCI Internal Fund sketches how a range of sustainability problems at the nexus of agriculture, biosafety, and conservation are inter-connected, linking monoculture and animal-source foods to habitat destruction, and the latter two to risks of disease outbreaks. Against the background of the various crises linked to that nexus, pathways are needed to create a more sustainable and resilient agri-food system and more convivial human and nonhuman habitats for planetary and human health. Linking to other recent projects conducted at the SCI, we also consider the elusive of concept of “regenerative” production systems and the ways in which they may represent possibilities going forward.

A – Animal agriculture

There are several ways in which animal agriculture is linked to biodiversity and habitat loss as well as risks and insecurities for food supply. First of all, animals inevitably use energy for their own metabolism when feed crops are turned into meat or dairy which, therefore, necessitates a disproportionately high area of land compared to food crops for direct human consumption. The nutritional energy used for an animal’s metabolism is lost to the environment – i.e. is emitted by the food system – as dissipative energy (Dilworth 2009, Kolasi 2018). Land used for growing feed crops thus neither realises its full productive potential to secure nutrition for a growing human population nor sufficiently fulfils biodiversity conservation purposes:

‘In a world where more and more people adopt a Western diet – one that’s high in meat, dairy and processed food – producing crops to feed our livestock is putting an enormous strain on our natural resources and is a driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss. The UK food supply alone is directly linked to the extinction of an estimated 33 species at home and abroad’ (World Wildlife Fund 2017, p. 2).

This becomes even more problematic in light of a whole range of other land use demands (such as urban spaces, industry etc.) that, to some degree, are required to satisfy human needs.

Secondly, land rich in biodiversity has been (and still is) converted to agricultural fields. Globally, the demand for animal products in form of meat and dairy is still rising and, in that manner, increasing the pressure to convert more land for feed crop production (e.g. Emel and Neo 2011, Garnett and Godde 2017, IPCC 2019, Nijdam et al. 2012, Smil 2013). In turn, land use change has been identified as a strong driver of biodiversity loss by causing habitat destruction (Noss et al. 2012), and its interactions with the impact of climate change might even magnify its effect on biodiversity loss (IPCC 2019).

B – Biosafety

That the Lancet COVID-19 Commission urge UN member states to scale up financing “to meet the urgent challenges of pandemic preparedness, the Paris Agreement, and the Sustainable Development Goals” (Sachs et al. 2022: 4) illustrates the entanglement of COVID-19 with other interacting socio-environmental crises and the complex socio-ecology behind disease outbreaks. To be clear, the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19 remains unknown (Sachs et al. 2022). Whether it was a zoonotic spillover from wildlife or a farm animal, or a research-related spillover from a laboratory, is unclear but ultimately secondary. As virologists and epidemiologists have pointed out long before COVID-19, spillover and pandemic risk is generally increased through a globalised economy facilitating transmission and agricultural intensification causing habitat destruction (Aguirre & Tabor 2008; Fornace et al. 2013; Jones et al. 2013).

Zoonotic diseases can be caused by direct spillover from wildlife to humans. This implies that, in principle, biodiversity is a source of pathogens. However, the problem is not caused by biodiversity per se, but by a loss and lack of biodiversity (Bernstein et al. 2022; Jones et al. 2013). Habitat destruction affects the immunisation of ecosystems and wildlife and increases spatial proximity between habitat for wildlife, livestock, and humans. For example, the number of threatened mammal and bird species, is associated with an increase in zoonotic disease outbreaks (Morand et al. 2014). Due to the connection between habitat destruction and spillover risks of zoonotic diseases, being prepared for pandemics includes preventive measures, one of which is to reduce, or better reverse, deforestation (Bernstein et al. 2022).

Next to the habitat destruction that is disproportionately caused by animal agriculture, spillover risks are increased by intensive farming practices and poor animal welfare, which negatively affect the immune system of domesticated animals (i.e. spillover from wild animals via farm animals to humans). Thus, another preventive measure would be to reduce or stop intensive animal agriculture. In sum, it is clear that the rate of future zoonotic disease emergence will be closely linked to the evolution of the agriculture–environment nexus (Jones et al. 2013).

C – Conservation

Biodiversity conservation is key to both disease prevention and maintaining ecosystem services for a functional food system.

The spillover risks from wildlife to humans, or via an intermediate domestic carrier, provoked post-COVID-19 reactions to ban wildlife trade (and e.g. wet markets). However, these reactions fall short of recognising that millions of vulnerable people’s food security depends on wildlife trade, and that the key driver of the emergence of infectious diseases is habitat destruction, largely driven by industrial livestock production (Roe et al. 2020). Reducing livestock production and consumption is thus an effective means not only to protect but to restore biodiversity, and not only to restore biodiversity, but also restore carbon stocks. Shifting from animal-source to primarily plant foods in the Global North would involve a “double dividend” by reducing emissions from direct agricultural production and increasing carbon sequestration, if vegetation on resulting spared land was restored (Sun et al. 2021).

However, what deserves scrutiny are different approaches to how vegetation is restored. Conservation areas can either follow fortress-style conservation – a strict separation between human spaces and natural habitat; or, they can follow more “convivial” approaches where conservation areas also provide for human livelihoods (Büscher & Fletcher 2020). Similarly, Roe et al. (2020) argue that the COVID-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity for a paradigm shift, both in our global food system and also in our approach to conservation, and emphasise that local people must be at the heart of such policy shifts. On the one hand, closer proximity between humans and wildlife can respawn concerns over spillover. On the other, a truly holistic or systemic approach, one that recognises the need for transformation of the whole ABC nexus, would be based on regenerating planetary and human health, making human-animal relations more sustainable and their proximity more trustworthy. This is promoted, for example, by the OneHealth framework, “which has become extremely relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, [and] offers an overarching framework linking biodiversity, animal and human health” (Bawa et al. 2021: 8). Thus, despite proximity, convivial conservation may grant relative biosafety through the regeneration of overall socio-ecological health.

A dream of “regenerative” futures

In search of possibilities going forward the term “regenerative” production has emerged, yet remaining an elusive concept with the usual pitfalls of unclear definition, abuse as fashionable buzzword (similar to “sustainability” or “circular economy”; e.g. Mahanty et al. 2021), or instrumentalization in discourses with vested interests (such as naturalising livestock; Cusworth et al. 2022). We cannot offer an elaborate discussion of “regenerative” approaches here, but a proxy and related concept is that regeneration enhances the ecosystem services that provide a functional habitat, and thus health, for humans and nonhumans alike. Again, that functionality would be the basis for relative biosafety despite proximity.

One possible pathway has been introduced in another recent SCI blog post, asking whether we should “abandon agriculture altogether”. That provocation is based on the consideration that woodland-based food production systems (e.g. agroforestry or forest gardening) have advantages over typically treeless agriculture, and the dominant spatial separation between food production and forestry (for either timber or conservation). The regenerative aspect of integrating woody polyculture into the agri-food system lies in multifactorial benefits such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity restoration, food production, and social benefits. Thus, these systems may foster planetary and human immunisation against the various crises – climate change, mass extinction, zoonotic diseases – at the ABC nexus. Harmonising agriculture, biosafety, and conservation thus depends on regenerating ecological and cultural ecosystem services provided by treescapes and foodscapes on a more convivial planet.

Simply put, reducing animal agriculture frees up land, that can be used for afforestation, which should at least partly involve edible tree crops, providing habitat for other edible plants, fungi, and animals to enhance biodiversity, provide food, and restore relative bio-physical safety, including both planetary and human health.

About the authors

Photo of author Steffen HirthSteffen Hirth completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester in 2019 and is Honorary Researcher at the SCI. He is also employed as Research Associate in the H2020 project EU 1.5 Degree Lifestyles, University of Münster, Germany. In 2023, he will begin a post as Research Fellow at the University of Leeds in the H3 consortium, funded by the Transforming UK Food Systems Programme.

Photo of Dr Dan WelchDan Welch completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester in 2012 and is a sociologist at the SCI. Dan also teaches in Sociology and is Course Convenor for SOCY20232 ‘Sustainability Consumption and Global Responsibilities’. His work falls into two broad categories: firstly, a concern with the unsustainability of our consumer societies, and secondly, an interest in how to theorise social change.