Intent Behind Post
I saw this post on cause prioritisation had a section for biodiversity loss. It linked to a post that wasn't thorough. I'm creating this as a better analysis of where to prioritise biodiversity loss relative to a handful of other causes.
- Fixing biodiversity loss also helps other causes including biosecurity, animal welfare, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, and food security.
- Damages done now are hard to 'undo' creating a natural incentive for now to be the best time to work on the cause.
- It gets 6x times less funding than climate change. In general, it's neglected compared to other environmental issues. (pg. 3, 2017 data)
- Promising areas of work: policies to improve pollinator health, farming techniques to increase crop diversity, more research on the cost-effectiveness of conservation strategies, efforts to reduce meat consumption, and scaling genomic technologies to monitor biodiversity.
- Still, preventing existential risks is a cause with more total impact, stopping biodiversity loss is currently untractable, and there's lots of uncertainty in interventions-focused research.
Benefits of Biodiversity
- Half of the world’s GDP ($44T USD) is highly or moderately dependent on nature’s services. (pg. 103)
- Hundreds of human innovations are inspired by studying nature. Examples:
- Biodiverse ecosystems improve human health.
- Some level of biodiversity is needed to keep the earth habitable. Because biodiversity is needed to provide 'ecosystem services' (informally - free gifts from the environment). Three examples:
- Regulating air quality and regulating climate. Ex: Micro-organisms called diatoms produce 20% of Earth’s oxygen every year. This is more oxygen than all forests produce! (Source)
- Regulating natural disasters. Ex: 200M people rely on coral reefs to protect them from storm surges (pg. 70) Multiple island nations are literally sinking into the ocean without species to protect them.
- Forming and protecting soil. Ex: In a single gram of soil, there are thousands of species of bacteria. (Source) Scientists don't know what 99.99% of the species in soil do. (pg. 34) Is it any wonder soil without organic life is worse for human use like farming?
Stats on the Problem
We’re currently losing species around 1000x faster than the natural rate (Source)
Habitat loss is the main challenge to 85% of species. (Source)
- In turn, most habitat loss is caused by agricultural practices. (Source)
- And 67% of agricultural land is used to raise livestock - mainly cows, sheep, and goats. (Source)
- Especially in high-risk areas like the Amazon, meat and dairy consumption is driving biodiversity loss. (pg. 42-3)
Other prominent causes include invasive species and overexploitation of resources. Notably, the costs of invasive species are growing by 3x times every decade. (Source) And some causes (like climate change or invasive species) are expected to grow in the next three decades. (pg. 55)
Biodiversity loss receives 6x times less funding than climate change. (pg. 3, 2017 data) Private funding is lacking severely; at least 75% of funding comes from governments. (Source)
- Though there are projects at limited-scale considering innovative funding models for conservation. (Source)
- Also, thousands of private companies are working to reduce meat consumption by developing alternatives. (Source) This, in turn, reduces biodiversity loss.
In terms of government funding, over 75% is domestic (for use within the same country). (pg. 3) Obviously, higher-income countries will have more domestic funding, which leaves at-risk areas (ex: tropical areas in the global south) underfunded.
In terms of research, there are a few issues:
- Cost-effectiveness studies lack standardisation. (pg. 7-8)
- Biodiversity loss is understudied in the global south. (pg. 9)
- Also, research is lacking on biodiversity loss in small organisms like insects or micro-organisms. (pg. 34, 45-8)
- Similarly, research in ecosystems like marine ecosystems is lacking. (pg. 6)
Philanthropic efforts focus mainly on 36 biodiversity hotspots, which contain 43% of Earth’s bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species. (Source)
Arguments for Prioritising this Cause
First, it's harder to 'undo' damage relative to other environmental areas.
- With climate change, we have functional (though not cost-effective) technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. (Source)
- With plastic pollution, we have robots that can block 80% of plastics that enter the ocean via 1000 rivers. Again, not the most effective, but functional. (Source)
- But once a species is extinct, we have never brought a healthy population back to life. (Source) Ie. It's not that our technology isn't scalable. There's not yet a technology ready to scale.
Next, biodiversity loss causes 'spillover problems'.
- Less than 2% of bee species pollinate are responsible for over 80% of all crop pollination. (pg. 21) And just 9 crops are responsible for 67% of food production. (pg. 92-3) This increases bioweapons risks, as crop supplies are more 'targetable' and at risk of outbreaks.
- Low biodiversity in livestock production is caused by intensive agriculture (often 'factory farming'). (pg. 16) Increasing biodiversity by moving away from factory farming also helps with climate change, animal welfare, antimicrobial resistance, and natural pandemic risk. (Source)
- Biodiversity loss increases the risk of natural pandemics. (pg. 77) Thus, protecting wild areas also helps with biodiversity. Ex: Reducing wildlife encroachment, reducing poaching, improving animal health to prevent zoonotic diseases.
- Scholars debate the ethics of harming other living organisms in the pursuit of human interests. I'm not very educated on animal welfare, but Peter Singer debates it here.
Arguments against Prioritising this Cause
First, losing too many species will eventually lead to the collapse of some 'ecosystem service' (like pollination or oxygen production). This can create existential risks, but it's currently impossible to know the 'tipping point' after which an ecosystem service would collapse. (pg. 365)
And in absence of that, losing any one species has a relatively low cost. So the question always is: "Do we really need to scale up our efforts now? Don't we have more urgent priorities elsewhere at this moment?"
Also, biodiversity loss affects certain species gradually. Whereas existential risks affect all organisms on earth (and their descendants) at once! (Source) Ex: nuclear war, supervolcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, extreme climate change, etc. So they have more 'total impact'.
- And humans have more control over some existential risks (like nuclear war). So fixes are less 'demanding' than to maintain biodiversity in complex ecosystems.
- Ideally, we'd compare the expected value of biodiversity loss with existential risks more precisely. But it's difficult to calculate this figure for biodiversity loss due to the 'tipping point' issue above.
Finally, it's somewhat tractable to slow down biodiversity loss by reducing meat consumption. Examples include convincing consumers to buy less meat (Source) and developing alternative meats. (Source)
But it's a lot harder to actually stop biodiversity loss or restore biodiversity. (personal interview with Dr. Kenneth Feeley)
- Even if we stopped clearing land for agriculture, natural ecosystems will face growing threats from other environmental issues like climate change. (pg. 55)
- Conservation options for existing wildlife lack evidence (described in the next section).
- And we currently cannot restore biodiversity to damaged areas at the level it used to exist in. (Source)
Promising Areas of Work
With those arguments in mind (and considering other factors like personal fit), here are some areas that need more people working on them:
First, reducing meat consumption. Yes, this slows future biodiversity loss instead of restoring biodiversity. However, it's relatively tractable right now and there are lots of untapped opportunities due to the industry being young.
In developed, Western countries, a promising solution is APPLYING behavioural interventions and increasing the acceptance of meat alternatives. (Source) See here for thoughts from a researcher in the field.
In China/India (the largest potentially rising markets), accepance of meat alternatives is already high. (Source) So the main challenges are developing cold chains and distribution to informal markets (like bazaars). Also, in India - there's an extreme cultural diversity in food preparation. So many different/repurposable product offerings are needed. (personal interview with COO of Blue Tribe Foods)
Next, we need to massively scaling regenerative agriculture practices to ensure the diversity of pollinators, the soil microbiome, and crops. I'm not an expert here, but this article has an intro and this report lists barriers.
On the legal side of things, we need to create new policies to protect biodiversity.
- Ex: banning pesticides/insecticides that are increasingly shown to harm bees. (Source)
- Ex: Better protections for indigenous land rights, especially in at-risk areas like Brazil and Indonesia. (Source)
- Ex: The obvious - expanding conserved areas and funding for conservation research. (Source)
Speaking of research, we need more standardised cost-effectiveness studies on conservation strategies, in neglected habitat types, in the global south. (Source)
Also, some solutions to catalogue/preserve the DNA of species might also help fill research gaps on biodiversity loss (ex: for insect species). (Source) But another purpose here is as a last (desperate) measure in case of 'extinction in the wild'.
- We can do this by creating more economically-feasible wild seed banks (Source), cryogenic storage (Source), and field gene banks for preserving genetic material.
- Also, we can massively scale environmental DNA monitoring to get genetic material from multiple species at once. Especially via air samples instead of soil or water. (Source)
Please feel free to send me a message if you have any questions about this content. I'd be happy to share guides on resources, raw notes I've taken, etc. :-)
If you'd like to contribute other arguments for / against prioritising biodiversity loss, please comment below. Please clearly list any sources if you do want me to include your argument. I'll keep editing this post for the next month to revise the content included
Hi! I agree very much with your post, and I am very interested in this problem. Agree with most of the things you've said in the context of EA principles, though not so much on the meat consumption front - I find it tenuous that a focus on the switch to alternatives to meat will significantly impact biodiversity loss, so long as factory farming and the institutions that perpetuate factory farming, continue to prosper. Aligned with this thinking if these two worked in tandem, it would be a more significant impact.
I don't have the research on this - it's just a hypothesis for now, so can't share anything, but I would love to work on the issue.
The other parts - I totally agree :)
Happy to hear you're interested in the issue :-) Regarding the skepticism on whether alternative meats can move the needle on biodiversity loss - I understand, I was there too :D
On the problem side of things, it's clear we need to reduce meat consumption to slow down biodiversity loss. I interviewed the author of this paper that talks about it. If you don't have access but would like to read it, DM me and I can share my notes :-)
On the solution side of things, there is uncertainty. Alternative meats aren't the only proposed solution. Another major one is behavioural 'nudges' that can reduce animal product consumption. Though they seem to have low effect size - when used individually, at least. (Source) Also, scientists have theoretically also proposed changed diets that don't try to mimic meat - just cut it out entirely. (Source)
I don't have any quantitative proof to say one approach is better. Though there are lots of opinions out there if you want to ask people ;-) If you're aware of any quantitative data or other proposed solutions, feel free to share them!
Thanks for your reply! I have been deep in trying to complete assignments. let me get back to you after this coming week or next!
The quantitative proof can come from us after proper thorough research. ;)