Biodiversity: what can we afford to destroy?

That was the question posed by an evening lecture at the Zoological Society of London on Tuesday, held as part of the ‘Communicating Science’ series. A panel of four speakers, including Prof. Charles Godfray, current President of the BES, considered whether, and how, ecologists and conservation scientists should assist industry in identifying areas of land ‘best’ to develop.

Prof. Godfray began by outlining the major challenge which ensuring food security will pose to global conservation. As chair of last year’s Foresight report on the Future of Food and Farming, Prof. Godfray was well-placed to reflect on the volatility likely to hit food prices as water scarcity and climate change become increasing concerns, and the impact that this might have on biodiversity. Prof. Godfray argued for ‘sustainable intensification’, using existing and investing in new, knowledge in areas such as soil science and agronomy. Society must support a vigorous, efficient, globalised food supply, with greater access to markets for the poorest. In many senses, food security isn’t about a huge increase in food supply, but about minimising waste and ensuring the adequate distribution of produce. On the relationship between food and biodiversity, Prof. Godfray was clear that ‘if we fail on food, we fail on everything’; if global food prices rise to a great extent due to shortages, any gains in biodiversity will be wiped out by rampant land-grabbing to provide areas for food production.

Dr Christopher Stewart, Associate Director of Proforest, examined the benefits offered by certification schemes, allowing consumer choice and driving Corporate Socal Responsibility. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was highlighted in particular. He argued that palm oil actually represents an efficient, highly productive crop, with a large yield from a single plant; arguing for the replacement of palm oil with other, lower yielding plants requiring greater areas for production may not therefore make sense. Instead, conservationists and consumers, and Governments, should be working with RSPO to encourage producers to adopt sustainability standards and avoid deforesting the most biodiverse areas of Indonesia, Malaysia and, latterly, Africa and Amazonia, where palm oil cultivation is beginning.

Prof. Kathy Willis from Oxford University demonstrated how a very interesting tool, the Local Ecological Footprint Tool (LEFT) can be used to help developers and producers do just that; targetting where their developments can be placed to minimise ecological damage. At a resolution of 300m2 for vegetation cover, the tool draws on various readily available global datasets to create a composite picture of a particular site under consideration. For example, the FRAGSTATS programme allows the extent of habitat fragmentation in the target area to be examined, whilst GBIF has 2 million species records globally which can be interrogated. Comparison with ground-truth data in Honduras and Madagascar reveals that LEFT has a tendency to overestimate the number of threatened species in an area, never underestimate. Prof. Willis expressed real concern that the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) run at the sites examined by LEFT hadn’t picked up the diversity of species and ecological damage which would have been caused were damage to go ahead, indicating that traditional EIA methods are insufficient at present to inform developers about precisely where will do least ecological harm.

And what to do if impacts are unavoidable? Kerry ten Kate, the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) discussed the merits of ‘biodiversity offsetting’; measureable conservation outcomes resulting from measures to compensate for the loss of biodiversity once damage to biodiversity has been ameliorated as far as possible. The BBOP consortium, which includes ZSL and Defra, along with banks, is aiming to create an international standard for biodiversity offsets, which will be shortly be available for consultation. Kerry ten Kate argued that there is a clear business case for corporates to engage with offsetting, as to not compensate for their negative impacts on biodiversity will damage their reputation, their bottom line and ultimately their license to operate. Interestingly, Kerry ten Kate said that the loan conditions for project finance have recently changed, obliging ‘no net loss’ and a postive gain for biodiversity.These have been endorsed by banks which provide 90% of major project finance. However, the conservation and ecological science communities will be required to assist the banks in assessing whether these obligations have been met, as banks do not have the specialist expertise to do so.

All speakers agreed that conservationists and ecologists had a duty to engage with businesses at an early stage of project planning, acknowledging that this could sometimes be uncomfortable but that pragmatism was necessary. The ‘elephant in the room’, suggested Kerry ten Kate, was however whether governments would have the political will to reconcile the competing agendas of biodiversity conservation, development and food security. Without this, a degree of market regulation, and without strategic approaches to land-use planning, the choice over what we can ‘afford’ to destroy will no longer be open to us.