A report published by the World Wildlife Fund this week estimates that planet Earth is set to lose two-thirds of its wildlife by 2020. This could be just another sensationalist headline prediction, but what if it were true? Coincidentally, an article appeared in this paper during the week outlining the fate of our own native curlew. Like the hen harrier, it occupies upland marshes and carries the same red-list conservation status, a result of land clearances, drainage and afforestation. With less than 250 breeding pairs between them, the magnificent hen harrier and the plaintive curlew could soon be gone forever. Our children might never see or hear these symbols of country life. As caretakers of the land, does this matter to us?
This is what happens when we view a landscape only in terms of its productivity.
If six out of every nine species are threatened with extinction, that leaves three remaining. We are creating the kind of world in which the only birds normally visible will be crows, pigeons and seagulls. The only wild plants, nettles, docks and thistles. The only trees Sitka spruce, willow and sycamore. We already see this trend in some places. It is hard to find areas with real diversity. Our grandchildren will see pictures of barn owls, yellowhammers, curlews, corn buntings, lesser horseshoe bats, even eels... and ask us where they have gone and why. The world around us is losing its colour, magic and beauty.
It's true we don't actually 'need' all these species to survive ourselves. One commenter on the TF fb page wrote under the 'curlews threatened with extinction' article, 'shoot the noisy c****'. Presumably he was trying to be funny, but his comment reflected an attitude that prevails. No matter how beautiful or useful a species, there's an engrained belief that nature is actually the enemy of farming. Maybe it comes from generations of toiling with hand-tools, reclaiming fields one square yard at a time, chipping away at the bedrock with hammers and picks, bending over for days pulling weeds in field crops, seeing insects swarm over vegetable plots and eating every bit of food... Perhaps these experiences have embittered us.
The thing we need to realise however is, we won. It was always a war of attrition, now it is one of annihilation and if it continues we will be in as much trouble as them.
Growing food crops is absolutely dependent on a healthy natural environment. If we remove important elements from the cycle of life, we unbalance the whole ecosystem upon which we ourselves rely. Take the decline of bees. Some insects cost us a percentage of our crop harvest so we treat with insecticides. Suddenly the bees are dying. Without bees we cannot grow most of our food crops. So which is more important, protecting our lost percentages, or protecting bees?
A thing that is often forgotten by both sides when farmers hear environmentalists going on, is that the problems they are experiencing and the problems ecologists and natural scientists are identifying, are related. The same economic model that is driving down prices and forcing farmers to continuously rationalise is the one that encourages maximisation of productivity by offering payments based on good acreage, but still refuses to pay proper prices for the actual produce.
The corn dealers in Ohio or the commodities bears on Wall Street don't mind about farmer suicides or wildlife extinctions, as long as they can make money. They live in a world that is absolutely and fundamentally amoral. They are indifferent to the suffering endured by people who produce those commodities, whether it is child workers in the mines of India or the debt-ridden farmers who cannot make ends meet. They deal in weapons of war and second-hand loans equities. They buy when confidence is high and at the slightest hint of trouble they sell sell sell. Hypocrisy enters only when brokers espouse the greatness of the stock market to lure middle-aged customers. It's all just a game to these people.
What farmers around the world need to do is show the agri-business vultures that we too are thinking, able-bodied beings. We need to organise a resistance to the system that is driving small farmers the world over out of business. It's a system that refuses point-blank to pay a penny over the minimum price necessary for farmers to survive, and one which will force the whole world's farming community, and the natural world, to the brink. If we go on like this the eco-systems that support agriculture, the soil, the bacteria, the insects that pollinate and the wildlife they support will all collapse. This is what these reports are telling us and we had better take heed.
Some people say population is the real issue of our day. Certainly it is being used as an excuse by international agri-companies to keep us ramping up production. But you would think with all these extra mouths clamouring to be fed that prices would rise too. Demand should be pulling them up but it doesn't. Somehow we produce more food than ever, getting paid less and less, while retail prices are kept so low that people feel free to waste more than ever year on year. In fact, the food we produce was never intended and never does go to feed the burgeoning millions of the so-called developing world, where populations are rising fastest. Those poor souls are generally abandoned by their own corrupt states, to starve or eke out existences however they can. Our food is intended for the middle-class consumers who are as likely to throw away a piece of sirloin as they are to cook it.
Many still have their doubts about climate change but this is only because cranks, vested interests and pseudo-scientists continue to muddy the waters. The evidence for it is overwhelming and deeply alarming. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting at a tremendous pace while global weather patterns are becoming more and more erratic with average temperatures continuing to break records. To many people there is no way of knowing that researchers are telling the truth. In fact, their work is all published in peer-reviewed journals but many of these are held by for-profit bodies and accessing them is expensive, so most non-scientists never read them. This is truly the age of disinformation, as the knowledge vacuum has been filled by bloggers with no particular expertise or skill-set beyond an ability to create disharmony and distrust.
So how do we know that 97% of climate scientists haven't come together to agree on a story? Put that way, doesn't it seem rather implausible? Would the whole scientific community of the world really be capable of coming together to trick the rest of us into adopting clean energy and reducing pollution, without leaving a single trace of their collusion? And if they are being paid to do it, how come they have been so unsuccessful?
There are tens of thousands of climate scientists all around the world, researching various aspects of climatology, from those paleao-climatologists constructing models of past climates to physical geographers, to those working in biogeochemistry, oceanography and meteorologists measuring atmospheric conditions and fluctuations etc. It is highly unlikely they all managed to find such a broad consensus. Indeed they do not agree on everything and fierce debates take place regarding aspects of climate science, but these occur around particulars rather than the broad reality towards which all evidence points.
The reality is, as every farmer knows, that the climate is changing. Seasons are less and less discernible. You can find grass growing in November and butterflies in December, apple blossoms in October and daffodils for Christmas. Temperatures on average have risen and hard frosts are less regular. Last winter there was hardly a frosty morning, but by citing these evidences I am falling into a trap against which scientists always warn. Climate is about weather patterns over the long-term. It cannot be linked with specific weather events because by its very nature, weather is variable and fickle, but it can be used to explain unusual occurrences because changing climate makes these more likely. Freak events are more likely to become the norm it seems. The cold winters of 2009 and 2010 are not proofs one way or the other. Climate change combined with ocean acidification could bring much colder winter weather for Ireland, especially if the Gulf Stream dissipates or changes direction. The specifics of its likely impacts are unpredictable. Expect the unexpected.
Climate change has been linked with a broader trend of extinctions that are affecting animals and plants around the world. For example, scientists have attributed the extinction of the golden toad of Central America to climate change, because the disappearance of its mountain-top cloud-forest habitat was due to drought and climatic changes in the area. Polar bears are a well-known example of an animal under threat from the melting of ice packs upon which they rely for hunting. In essence climate change will affect those species most who are least able to adapt to changing habitats or find new ones. As a result, certain areas will see more of its impact than others. New Zealand is expecting the worst because its isolated island status leaves vulnerable creatures without an escape route. Similarly, one 2013 study estimates that 82% of California's freshwater fish species are threatened by climate change.
We have much to be wary of and much to do. Better prices will help a lot. Farmers can take their own measures but we also need proper leadership or the implosion we are forcing upon the natural world will take us down too.