The land is constantly being cleared to meet the world’s increasing food needs. With the current diet, almost 90 percent of land animals could lose some of their habitat by 2050. However, reducing food waste, changing our eating habits, and increasing yields could prevent almost all of the projected loss.
Habitat giving way to agriculture poses a major threat to species far and wide. Existing forecasts assume that we will need between 2 and 10 million square kilometers of new farmland in the next 30 years to meet our food needs – all at the expense of the natural areas.
David Williams of the University of Leeds, UK, and his colleagues developed a model based on current trajectories showing how the expansion of agriculture is affecting the natural habitats of nearly 20,000 land mammals, amphibians and birds.
They found that over 17,000 species will lose some of their habitat by 2050, with over 1250 species losing 25 percent and at least 350 species expected to lose more than half.
Sub-Saharan Africa and the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil were hardest hit, but losses affected all continents.
“We have to produce a lot of food in the decades to come,” says Williams. As the population grows and people get richer, they eat more polluting foods – especially meat and dairy products. “Basically you have to put a lot of calories in a cow to eat a calorie cow,” he says. This requires that a large amount of land be cleared for the cultivation of forage as well as food crops.
The researchers also tested a number of alternative futures and found that almost any habitat loss could be avoided if we change our eating habits.
Reducing food waste and switching to a more plant-based diet, especially in more economically developed countries, can prevent this habitat loss. We could also keep agriculture out of countries where biodiversity is likely to be severely compromised and protect the species that are less tolerant of food production, says co-author Michael Clark of Oxford University.
Eating changes and reducing food waste will not only promote biodiversity, but also combat climate change and improve people’s health, says Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University.