Global food system hurts people, crushes nature

It’s hard to keep being shocked or even surprised at the litany of reports on the dire condition of our biosphere, but the recent Chatham House study on biodiversity is still an eye-opener. Politicians often claim their job is to keep food cheap, irrespective of the toll it may inflict on human and planetary health. This is countered by Prof Tim Benton of Chatham House, who retorted: “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.” The article below ran in the latest edition of the Sunday Times‘ Climate supplement.

WITHOUT EVER intending it, humanity has gone to war on the natural world. Worse, we are winning this war, and in the process, in real danger of crippling the very biosphere which sustains all life on Earth.

In Ireland and across the world, biodiversity loss is accelerating. According to a recent report published by the Chatham House think tank, the global extinction rate is orders of magnitude higher than at any time in the last 10 million years.

The global food system is the main driver of this trend, the Chatham House report concluded. It pointed out that over the last 50 years or so, wildlife habitats and entire ecosystems have been destroyed at an ever increasing rate to clear land for agriculture.

Of the 28,000 or so species currently known to be at risk of extinction, some 86 per cent are primarily threatened by agriculture. Our efforts to feed a burgeoning human population approaching eight billion are taking an ever graver toll on nature. This is not, however, inevitable.

In total, around four fifths of the world’s farmland is used for animal agriculture, either to graze them directly, or to produce vast quantities of fodder for housed animals. Yet, the animals only provide around 18 per cent of the calories eaten by humans.

Eating food directly, such as bread, vegetables, nuts or fruit is vastly more efficient in terms of resources used than consuming animals and animal products.

Farmed animals now comprise around 60 per cent of the Earth’s mammals by weight, with humans accounting for another 36 per cent. That means that, by weight, just four per cent of the world’s mammals are wild. So-called cheap food comes with a high ecological price tag.

While the number of wild animals and insects is in freefall, it is estimated that there are now around 70 billion farmed animals in the world. These, along with billions of humans, all require food, fresh water and other resources. These are being consumed at a far faster rate than the natural world can provide.

By depleting biodiversity and crippling ecosystems, humanity is also putting its own survival at risk, the report added. However, while dire, the situation is far from hopeless. The first critical step is to shift human diets to be largely based on plants, rather than farmed animals.

A shift of this kind would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and, crucially, reduce the risk of future devastating pandemics. The new report follows a similar study by the influential Lancet EAT Commission in 2019. It recommended a drastic 90 per cent cut in meat and dairy consumption if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and protect biodiversity.

Intensive food production systems in Ireland and around the world involve the heavy use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and are often monocultures. Ireland’s famously green fields are not what they seem. Most are now largely biodiversity deserts, as they typically consist of a single species of ryegrass for livestock fodder and depend on chemicals.

Up until relatively recently, many Irish farmlands were havens of biodiversity, with meadows in particular supporting a wide range of wildlife, grasses and flowers. However, as agricultural practices intensified, this led to drainage of wetlands and clearing of ‘marginal’ lands. As a result, farmland birds such as the corncrake have virtually disappeared.

According to Birdwatch Ireland, many wild animals in Ireland are now facing extinction, with birds particularly hard hit. Shockingly, some 40 per cent of waterbirds have disappeared in just the last 20 years.

Organic farming, which involves food production without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, allows nature to exist in harmony with agriculture. Recognising the crucial importance of this, the EU recently published its ‘Farm To Fork’strategy, which aims to see one quarter of Europe’s farmland managed organically by 2030, with ambitious targets on cutting the use of chemical inputs.

Ireland, despite trading heavily on its ‘green’ reputation for food production, has barely two per cent of its land farmed organically. It would require a revolutionary shift for our systems and attitudes to both farming and nature to see Ireland come into line with the new EU targets.

Today, barely a quarter of the world’s agricultural land is used for growing crops for human consumption, yet this land produces the vast majority of the global calorie supply. Sharply reducing the number of farm animals would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also freeing up millions of hectares for crucial rewilding, to allow the natural world the space to begin to recover and regenerate.

It could also help arrest and reverse the ongoing clearance of rainforests, which is having a catastrophic impact on vital ecosystems which are being razed to clear land for meat production.

Agriculture made modern civilisation possible. Ironically, our runaway intensive agricultural systems, left unchecked, risk destroying the very natural world upon which we all ultimately depend.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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Could global warming trigger deadly new ozone crisis?

It’s an extraordinary privilege to inhabit the only known oasis of abundant complex life in the galaxy. We know from paleoclimatology that life on Earth has ebbed and flowed over the ages, including surviving five epic global mass extinction events. We also know that we have stumbled into the Sixth Extinction, this one primarily driven by the actions of a solitary species. The article below, which ran in late January on the Irish Times’ science page, looks back into deep time at new research which carries a warning for the 21st century.

NOTHING HAS so dramatically reconfigured the history of life on Earth as the epic mass extinction events that punctuate the fossil record stretching back at least half a billion years.

One such episode, known as the end-Devonian mass extinction (or Hangenberg Crisis), occurred 359 million years ago, and as many as 75 per cent of species disappeared during this tumultuous period.

While the exact trigger of this mass extinction event has been long debated, what is beyond dispute is that it involved a sudden and catastrophic depletion in the global ozone layer. One theory published last Septemberin the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposed that the effects of deadly cosmic rays from a Supernova explosion led to the destruction of the ozone layer. Its conclusions, however, remain speculative.

A paper published earlier last year in the journal Science Advances presents a more compelling and altogether more worrying scenario. According to this study, the end-Devonian extinction event was preceded by a period of major climatic warming, and it was this warming spike, not volcanic activity or cosmic rays, that led directly to massive ozone depletion and a subsequent spike in deadly UV-B radiation reaching the Earth’s surface and even penetrating into shallower ocean waters.

Lead author on the study, Dr John Marshall, Professor of Earth Science at the University of Southampton was excited and alarmed in equal measure by the implications of the research. “There was a lot of push-back on our study when it was first published; obviously, we’re saying something quite big here,” he told the Irish Times.

“I felt like we had suddenly tumbled into a big secret in knowing how the world works, so I was actually slightly more careful crossing the road, because we wanted to communicate it.” The bombshell finding in Dr Marshall’s research is that while ozone depletion was the end-Devonian “kill mechanism,” the trigger was primed by rapid global warming.

The implications are stark, given that the Earth today is heating rapidly. “We’re now in this rate of fast warming, so you should be alarmed now – it’s a decadal problem, not a thousand-year problem, because the speed of warming is like nothing else the planet has seen,” said Dr Marshall.

He noted that during Earth’s last mass extinction event some 55 million years ago, known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, rates of warming were 100 times slower than today’s human-induced climate shift.

Dr Marshall’s research team gathered rock samples from the mountainous polar regions in east Greenland, an area that was once an ancient lake bed in the Earth’s southern hemisphere. The team also collected samples in Bolivia, which would have been located close to today’s South Pole during the Devonian period.

On analysing the samples, they discovered microscopic plant spores right along the end-Devonian period showing clear evidence of ultraviolet radiation damage at the DNA level. Some of the spores were also found to have developed dark pigmented walls, as an apparent attempt to develop a protective ‘tan’ against extremely high levels of UV radiation.

The question remained as to how exactly a spike in global warming, in the absence of a massive volcanic event, could lead to the virtual obliteration of the global ozone layer? This puzzle may have been solved by earlier research published by Dr James Anderson and colleagues in a paper in Science which noted the ‘increased risk of ozone loss from convectively injected water vapour’. This research, mainly carried out over the continental US, identified water vapour that that been convectively injected deep into the stratosphere.

This, they noted, ‘can fundamentally change the catalytic chlorine/bromine free-radical chemistry of the lower stratosphere’ by transporting ozone-destroying substances such as chlorine high into the stratosphere. ‘This chemical shift markedly affects total ozone loss rates and makes the catalytic system extraordinarily sensitive to convective injection into the mid-latitude lower stratosphere in summer’, the paper observed.

The research concluded that if the intensity and frequency of convective injection were to increase as a result of climate forcing by the continued addition of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere, ‘increased risk of ozone loss and associated increases in ultraviolet dosage would follow.’

Such ozone depletion is already being recorded over the US as a result of the rapidly warming atmosphere, which is fuelling increased storminess and higher levels of atmospheric water vapour and provides the energy to sweep terrestrial elements all the way into the stratosphere.

Ironically, the history of how the Earth’s ozone layer was inadvertently damaged during the 20th century by the widespread use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and how the international scientific and political establishment rallied to avert the danger is one of the great success stories of the modern era. It is often cited as an example of the kind of decisive science-led political action now sorely absent when it comes to tackling the global greenhouse gas emissions crisis.

Although apparently safe and inert, CFCs were widely used in fridges, air conditioning units and as a propellant in aerosol cans. Scientists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in showing how the ozone layer was the Achilles heel of the biosphere, and just how vulnerable it was to anthropogenic emissions of key chemicals which would eventually drift into the stratosphere, with potentially grave consequences for the ozone shield.

Their theoretical work in the 1970s was vindicated in the most dramatic fashion when, in 1985, the British Antarctic Survey reported drastic depletion of the ozone layer, the so-called ozone hole. Public alarm led to intense political action, culminating just two years later with the United Nations developing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which was ratified by almost 200 nations. This led to the rapid phasing out of the most destructive ozone-destroying gases. Disaster had been narrowly averted.

Now, it seems the spectre of dangerous global ozone depletion may have returned. It is known that stratospheric ozone was also virtually obliterated during the end-Permian mass extinction event (or the Great Dying, as it is known) some 252 million years ago. In that instance, ozone was destroyed as a result of the emission of huge quantities of hydrothermal organohalogens following a prolonged period of massive volcanic activity.

What makes the ozone loss as a trigger for the end-Devonian mass extinction of pressing scientific concern is that it appears to have been precipitated by rapid global warming with clear analogues to the present day.

“Ozone loss during rapid warming is an inherent Earth system process, with the unavoidable conclusion that we should be alert for such an eventuality in the future warming world”, Dr Marshall’s research paper concluded.

Among the biggest evolutionary losers in the end-Devonian die-off, which involved two discrete extinction pulses separated by around 300,000 years, were armoured fish, while sharks survived. Other casualties were ancient tetrapods with seven or eight digits per limb. Once this extinction period ended, the dominant number of digits became five. “It completely changes the terrestrial trajectory of life”, according to Dr Marshall.

The hypothesis presented by this new research remains to be definitively proven or rejected. The fact that the period in question is more than a third of a billion years ago further complicates matters. While crucial to life on Earth, stratospheric ozone is surprisingly fickle, according to Dr Marshall.

He hopes that, in time, researchers will have pieced together a definitive ‘ozone history’ of Earth. His more urgent concern is his ozone hypothesis does not become a deadly reality in the coming decades.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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When scientific facts and corporate fiction collide

The article below ran in the Business Post in late January. Just days after the inauguration of a new US president, it seemed like an opportune time to explain to a wider audience how the blitz of malignant lies aimed at scientists whose findings potentially threatened corporate profits had presaged the rise of malignant Trumpism.

TO THE POLITICAL classes and wider public still reeling under the avalanche of Fake News and incredulous that the very foundations of democracy can be swept away in a blizzard of lies, climate scientists might well say: hold my beer.

Take Prof Phil Jones, a quietly-spoken climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In 2009, he was caught up in an illegal hacking attack on the university’s email servers, later dubbed ‘Climategate’. Continue reading

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Withdrawing the social licence of fossil fuels

The once all-powerful fossil fuel industry is, at last, on the ropes. Behemoths like Exxon Mobil are bracing for massive drop in demand for their products in the next decade and more, as the global transition to low-carbon energy, currently a trickle, becomes an economic tsunami threatening to sweep away businesses built on dirty fuels. Few tears will be shed for the eventual demise of an industry that has knowingly misled the public and politicians about the deadly impacts of fossil fuel burning – facts established decades ago by these industries’ own scientists, then quietly suppressed as Big Energy flooded huge resources into cynical campaigns aimed to undermine the findings of climate science and stymie effective action. The article below ran in mid-January in the Sunday Times, looking at the gradual withdrawal of the crucial ‘social licence’ of fossil fuels. This battle is far from won, but this time, Big Energy is the one under attack, its credibility in tatters as the long-denied reality of the climate emergency bites ever harder.

IT MAY SEEM hard to believe today, but up to a few decades ago, smoking was widespread and hugely popular. People smoked everywhere – in cinemas, on aircraft, in restaurants and even hospitals. Cigarettes were also widely advertised on TV and in newspapers and magazines, and brands were associated with glamour and sophistication. Continue reading

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Where greenwashing meet brainwashing

The piece below appeared in mid-December on the investigative website, DeSmog UK. I wanted to shine a light on the subtle agri-industrial marketing machinery which is cranking out ever increasing quantities of material aimed at the youngest and most impressionable target audience – primary school children – and meeting virtually zero resistance or even basic oversight from either civil servants, regulators or teachers’ unions, who you might think would be concerned at the dubious provenance of much of this cleverly packaged propaganda material. It is being developed and distributed almost exclusively by the intensive livestock (beef/dairy) sector in a bid to fend off growing public concern at the ecological and climate impacts of this type of  farming. Rather than addressing the actual problems and coming up with solutions to protect biodiversity and reduce emissions (ie. steps necessitating a fundamental re-think of the business model) the focus is instead to dial up the greenwashing, in the hope of creating sufficient public confusion that effective regulation is delayed or watered down. For lobbyists to make their case through the usual channels is fair enough. I am a lot less convinced of the ethics of direct marketing of industry talking points to young children.

BIG AG PROPONENTS are influencing classrooms in Ireland with learning materials that misrepresent the role of agriculture in contributing to climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, DeSmog can reveal. This undue influence is occurring due to a lack of government oversight of educational resources provided to primary schools. Continue reading

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Agri emissions plan a roadmap to nowhere

In the absence of action, the next best thing is to look busy, and Ireland’s agri-industrial sector and its many boosters in politics and the civil and public service have elevated this frenzy of inaction to something of a performance art. This reached new levels of theatre with the publication earlier this month of the latest report to engage in the pretence that it is possible to rein in agri emissions while expanding the ruminant herd, including the most emissions-intensive of ruminants – dairy cows. My report below was published in the Business Post.

IF THE ISSUES at stake were not so serious, it would be almost enjoyable watching politicians, department officials and agri industry lobbyists attempting to talk up the publication this week of the government’s woeful ‘Ag Climatise’ Roadmap.

The agri sector is in fact awash with roadmaps. Barely two weeks ago, Teagasc, the state agricultural research authority, published its ‘2027 sectoral roadmap’ for the dairy sector. Too many roadmaps can, it seem, leave you driving around in circles. Continue reading

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Epic Arctic meltdown portends radically altered future

I first wrote about the fate of the Arctic region in April 2008, in the wake of huge melt events in 2005 and September 2007. I returned to the topic in September 2012, a year in which an area of sea ice 41 times larger than the island of Ireland disappeared in late summer, setting off alarm bells globally. The ominous trend has continued, with 2019 tied with 2007 and 2016 as the worst years. And, right on cue, 2020 recorded the second lowest sea ice summer minimum ever. My report below appeared this month in the new climate supplement to the Sunday Times. We won’t truly realise just how much we depend on the Arctic ice cover until it’s gone.

EARLY LAST month, a small metal cylinder was found washed up on the shores of Bloody Foreland in Donegal. It was a time-capsule that had been embedded in the ice at the north pole in August 2018 by the crew of the ice-breaker ‘50 Years of Victory’, with a view to it being uncovered in the distant future by other Arctic explorers.

Instead, in a little over two years, the capsule had broken free from the rapidly melting polar sea ice and drifted over 3,700 kilometres before finally beaching near Gweedore.
This extraordinary incident is a stark reminder both of how dramatically the Arctic is now destabilising, as well as how intimately Ireland is connected by the ocean currents to this seemingly remote and distant region. Continue reading

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Biden throws floundering global climate action a lifeline

The article below appeared earlier this month in the Business Post. One crucial first step in tackling the climate crisis is for politicians to say ‘no’ to dirty money from the powerful fossil fuel lobby (who notoriously have spent freely in recent decades to spread denial and disinformation about climate science). In the lead-in to the election, Biden made all the right noises, though there has been dismay at his recent appointment of a senior adviser with a long track record of taking money from oil, gas and chemical industry interests. Still, given his monumental achievement in freeing the US (at least for now) from the grip of authoritarianism, there is good reason to cut the incoming president some slack in sorting out his new team.

FOR A LIFE-LONG centrist, Joe Biden’s climate agenda is surprisingly radical. And there was no clearer statement of intent than his campaign’s outright refusal to accept funding “from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.”

Tangling with the US fossil fuel industry is a high-risk strategy. In the 2018 US mid-term elections, the industry flooded $84 million in funding for Congressional races, with almost all the cash going to candidates opposed to environmental regulation. Far more money will have been spent this year. Continue reading

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Stirring up tensions between farmers and environmentalists

This piece appears  in the current edition of Village magazine. As a rule, I steer clear of articles focusing on individuals, preferring when possible to stick to the issues rather than personalities. Given the central role of RTÉ presenter Damien O’Reilly in this story, I’ve had to bend that rule somewhat, but the issues involved have nothing whatever to do with him as an individual; rather, they involve the commercial and editorial nexus between our national broadcaster and lobbying organisations.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT in October that RTÉ’s radio programme ‘Countrywide’ had entered into a 12-month sponsorship deal with the Irish Farmers Journal (IFJ) represents an unusual, arguably unprecedented departure.

The IFJ is bound at the hip with Ireland’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). The two organisations share the same premises in Bluebell, Dublin and are historically intertwined. Continue reading

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Close, but no cigar: Climate Bill comes up short

My report on expert reaction to the eagerly awaited Climate Bill was published for a British audience on DeSmog UK in mid-October.

A DRAFT climate change bill designed to put Ireland on a path to net zero emissions has been criticised by leading climate experts as “weak” and full of “get-out clauses”.

The new bill was promised by coalition partner, the Green Party, as part of its pledge to deliver ambitious climate action within its first 100 days in office, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing it as “truly ground-breaking”.

But the reaction from climate advocates has been lukewarm. Maynooth University emeritus climatologist, Prof John Sweeney described the legislation as being full of “weasel words, loopholes and get-out clauses”. Continue reading

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Green in name, but not in nature

Despite huge ongoing investment of both political capital and marketing euros in selling the message that Irish agriculture is green, climate-friendly and sustainable, it still keeps on running into the knotty problem that this simply isn’t the case. Recent comments from the EPA simply confirmed Ireland’s worst-kept secret: our food production system isn’t clean, nor is it especially green. I teased out these issues for the Business Post in mid-October.

ON PAPER, Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production. The statistics are impressive: according to Bord Bia, Ireland’s food board, some 53,000 farms and 320 major food and drink companies are part of ‘Origin Green’, which it describes as ‘the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme’. Continue reading

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A race between climatic and political tipping points

Some weeks back, in the course of researching an article on ecological grief, I reached out to US author, David Wallace-Wells for comment, and this led to a wide-ranging discussion that ran to over 90 minutes. I had filed a mixed review of his book for The Irish Times in February 2019, so welcomed the opportunity for a deeper dive into his thinking, and the resulting interview was published in early October, also in The Irish Times.

WHAT MOST disturbs best-selling science author David Wallace-Wells about climate change isn’t so much that the worst-case scenarios may come to pass. Rather, it’s how astonishingly dangerous even the so called best-case scenarios actually are.

When he began his deep dive into the science of climate change in 2016, his initial fear was that Earth was on the cusp of runaway climate change, also known as the Venus syndrome, where the planet transitioned from being capable of supporting life to a cauldon with a mean surface temperature of over 450ºC and an atmosphere mostly comprising the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide. Continue reading

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Eco-plenary indulgences won’t save our souls or environment

The below is a guest post from an occasion ToS contributor and concerned citizen who uses the pseudonym ‘Jeremy Hughes’. He takes a wry look at the new trend towards establishing tiny pockets of biodiversity while the bigger picture is one of relentless decline.

IN THE Catholic Church, an indulgence is a way for a person to reduce the punishment from God for their sins. The recipient of the indulgence has to perform a good act to receive it. They became notorious during the Middle Ages when indulgences could be bought from clergy to atone for sins and the sale of indulgences eventually led to the Reformation.

Biodiversity areas have sprung up in many towns, villages and parishes but I’m wondering if they are the eco plenary indulgences of modern times – a good environmental deed designed to make people feel better about their excesses and wipe out sins of their consumer lifestyles that are wreaking havoc on our natural environment. Continue reading

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Under Trump, Republican war on science escalates

The below comment piece ran in the Business Post in mid-September, tallying the all-out war the Trump regime has waged not just on client science but on decades of cross-party consensus on basic environmental protection. US elections almost always feel consequential, but this time the stakes have probably never been higher. 

THE EYES OF the world are fixed on Tuesday, November 3rd, with the future of the US as a democracy now on the ballot. However, a potentially even more ominous deadline looms the following day.

On November 4th, the US is scheduled to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the key intergovernmental accord negotiated in 2015 in a bid to prevent global temperatures from breaching dangerous and likely irreversible thresholds.

If president Trump hoped his withdrawal would lead to the complete collapse of the Agreement, he has been disappointed. Perhaps underlining the decline in US influence since he came to power, not a single country followed its lead. Continue reading

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‘Our relationship with nature is broken’

The below piece ran on in late September. It was inspired by a combination of the surreal imagery emanating from the western US and the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report, which chronicles ever sharpening declines in planetary vital signals.

ONE OF THE most iconic scenes from the science fiction film Blade Runner 2049 featured the eerie bright orange skies over a future Las Vegas.

This dystopian vision became all-too-real in recent days as smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging out of control in the western US blotted out the midday sun, casting entire states into a perpetual twilight.  A video clip featuring drone footage filmed over San Francisco overlaid with the score from Blade Runner 2049 quickly went viral.

Picking up the movie theme, Georgia Tech climate scientist Dr Kim Cobb said: “A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvellous science fiction film in 2000. Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect. It’s going to get a lot worse.”

A broken world

While scientists have been warning for decades that climate breakdown could have dire consequences for humanity, in reality, for the rest of nature, the apocalypse is already in full swing, as vividly detailed in recent days with the publication of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report. Its findings are clear: “Our relationship with nature is broken”.

Abandoning the normally ultra-cautious language used in scientific reports, WWF director general, Marco Lambertini set it out bluntly, pointing to: “unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs. Humanity’s destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives”.

The scale of the destruction almost beggars belief. Since 1970, global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have collapsed by an astonishing 68 per cent on average. Although not directly tracked by the Index, scientists believe the situation for insect populations is equally dire. The phrase ‘insectageddon’ has been coined to describe the collapse in arthropod numbers.

In addition, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land is being lost to soil degradation and desertification globally every year, that’s an area greater than the island of Ireland.

According to the WWF, the way we produce both food and energy as well as humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic models, has, it warns, “pushed the natural world to its limits”.

Incontrovertible evidence

Late last year, the United Nations published a major global assessment report, which found that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times more than the average over the last 10 million years.

As a result of the carnage, around one million species now face extinction, with almost unimaginable consequences for the web of life itself.  The report described the likely impacts on humanity as “ominous”. These include freshwater shortages and ever more extreme weather resulting from climate destabilisation.

Today, some 75 per cent of the land surface of the planet has been sequestered for human use and significantly altered from its natural state. Animal agricultureinvolves the feeding and slaughter of some 50 billion land animals a year and is among the major global drivers of deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and marine dead zones. In fact, 70 per cent of all the birds in the world today are farmed chickens.

The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture has allowed for dramatic increases in food production but at the price of ecological devastation, including depleting key microbes and invertebrates in the soil as well as wiping out insects and birds. Many of these novel chemicals also work their way into the human food chain, leading to a host of serious health issues.

The EU recently published strategies to promote biodiversity and to transform food production to make it work with, rather than against, nature. The WWF has strongly welcomed these moves, describing them as “potential game-changers”. It added that the EU’s global footprint, which it notes is “driving the destruction of forests, grasslands and other precious ecosystems outside of Europe”, needs to be reduced.

The EU’s so-called Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitious aims are to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.

One key target is to increase the amount of EU land farmed organically to 25 per cent by 2030. Organic farming is crucial to the survival and well-being of wildlife, yet Ireland has among the very lowest amount of land in the entire EU(barely 2 per cent) farmed organically. Despite our carefully managed ‘green’ image, over 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as being of “unfavourable conservation status”.

According to the National Biodiversity Centre, one-third of all Irish bee speciesmay be extinct by 2030, while 50 per cent of our freshwaters are polluted, leading to sharp declines in aquatic species.

Ireland’s biodiversity crisis

There is no mystery as to why Irish wildlife is now endangered like never before. It is due mainly to “the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever-higher levels of productivity characterised by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).

The level of political contempt in Ireland for biodiversity and wildlife protection can be evidenced in the fact that the total annual NWPS budget is just €11 million, compared with state funding for the greyhound industry of €16 million a year and €64 million to the horse racing industry.

Whether we realise it or not, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same blade that is now held to the throat of all life on Earth, including humans. What will it take to finally awaken us to take radical action?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Business Post, The Guardian and and is a regular commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at and also runs the website and is on Twitter.

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