“ We can only stop the loss of biodiversity if we all work together now ”
Endangered insects, earth without earthworms, dying coral reefs: biodiversity is clearly in decline. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released an alarming report with a clear message: we must turn the tide before ecosystems collapse. The future of humanity hangs by a thread. Biodiversity forms the basis of our existence, providing us with food, clean water, climate adaptation and a buffer against disease. This awareness is the driving force behind the mission that Liesje Mommer, professor of plant ecology and nature conservation, has formulated for Wageningen University and Research (WUR): to reverse the curve of decreasing biodiversity. She wants to connect all WUR initiatives, research studies and researchers working on biodiversity. His motto: we are better together.
It’s a whole mission: to stop the loss of biodiversity.
“It’s true. Biodiversity loss is at least as urgent an issue as climate change, but with climate change at least, we know what measures could help. Implementation can be deplorable so far, but there is a general idea of the solution (limit global warming to
Where does your enthusiasm come from?
“I am a plant ecologist and I study the interactions between plants, especially underground: between roots and fungi. I study these interactions primarily in biodiversity experiments in Wageningen and Jena, Germany. I have developed a molecular method that allows me to determine the roots of plants and to test their interactions. This has led me over and over to the same conclusion: Species-rich plant communities function best on just about all ecosystem functions: biomass production, carbon sequestration, water-holding capacity, and resistance to diseases. Together the plants are stronger; together, they form winning teams. I was working on it when the IPBES report came out with its alarming message. That’s when I decided: I have to get up right away. As researchers from Wageningen, we are also stronger together. As scientists, we have a moral obligation to think about solutions, for example on how to increase biodiversity in our food system or how to help farmers to do so. The price of a liter of milk or a kilogram of potatoes is so low that farmers are forced to grow in order to earn a living. Strip tillage with six different crops is much better for biodiversity, but it’s also more complicated for the farmer, who suddenly has to deal with six different crops, six different markets and six times the bureaucracy. We can only solve these problems by working together. ”
What do we have to do?
“The strength of WUR is that we have all the required disciplines in one place: environmentalists, soil experts, plant and animal researchers, technologists, economists, behavioral scientists and transition scientists. Many people who work at WUR are driven by their passion to create a greener and better world. In addition, WUR is already involved in many practical collaboration projects with stakeholders such as farmers, conservation organizations, government departments, provincial governments and the food industry. If we deploy all our knowledge in the field of biodiversity, together with our partners, we can make a huge difference. One of our jobs is to provide politicians with guidelines to shape the necessary transitions. I find it essential that the new Prime Minister gives priority to “biodiversity”. There’s no time to lose.
The Wageningen Biodiversity Initiative has three main focus areas. The first is biodiversity in the food system. How to increase biodiversity in this area? How can we grow more diverse crops and varieties? What challenges and dilemmas does this pose? How to move to income models where biodiversity plays an essential role? Biodiversity is the basis of our food chain, and it is high time to invest in expanding that base.
The second theme is human-wildlife interactions (HWI), which includes among others zoonoses. Pathogens move more easily from animals to humans because we destroy the natural habitats of these animals and live closer and closer. However, HWI also discusses how to effectively protect species like the rhino. Once again, multidisciplinarity is crucial in this context. For example, conservationists focus on structuring better habitats. Sociologists show that conflicts between humans and animals are the consequence of conflicts between humans. Watch the re-introduction of the wolf in the Netherlands. This is not a wolf-man conflict, but the result of the conflicting visions of conservationists and sheep herders. The challenge is to color the picture together, instead of erasing each other.
The third theme concerns the value of nature. You can interpret this as the economic value that nature offers us – clean drinking water, fertile soil, income from tourism – but also as the intrinsic value of nature. Who determines this? And how much space does nature need? Biodiversity is therefore not only about the diversity of species, but also about justice. Is it fair that humans decide everything for all other living things on this planet? “
Why is biodiversity loss a problem for humans?
“There are many animal species whose role in the ecosystem we only fully understand when they disappear. Biodiversity is therefore also a kind of “insurance” against unknown changes in the future. The ecosystem works best when it is diverse; this makes it more resistant. The loss of a single species can be compensated, but if several species go extinct, the system can collapse. Biodiversity is seen as a buffer against disturbances such as climate change: drought and floods. For example, when one of our German research meadows was flooded, we found that plots with different types of plants recovered faster than those with a single plant species.
Biodiversity is also seen as a buffer against disease. The American scientific journal PNAS recently reported that “restoring biodiversity” is key to preventing zoonoses.
Biodiversity is therefore useful for humans, but it also has intrinsic value. Who are we to decide that a hoverfly is worthless? Humans have transformed 80% of all landscapes on Earth. There is no longer any true wilderness – not even at the North Pole or in the deep ocean hollows. The world currently contains more human-produced material than natural biomass. It really shocks me.
Can we still reverse the trend?
“Yes, but we have to start now. We only have ten to fifteen years left to turn the tide and we will not be successful at the current rate. What we need is large-scale action to protect biodiversity and a global transition to sustainable production and consumption patterns. For example, it is essential that we reduce our consumption of meat and develop farming methods that allow farmers to work with nature rather than against it. We must make it easier for consumers to make “biodiverse” choices. Researchers can help governments provide the right incentives, and behavior specialists can help people push people in the right direction. Leading by example also works very well: a farmer who is already strip-tilling with good results is more likely to arouse the curiosity of his neighbor.
Is there a specific animal or plant that makes your heart beat faster?
“Everyone has favorite animals – personally, I love squirrels and long-tailed tits, but what’s really important to me is the interconnectedness and diversity of nature. No green deserts full of perennial ryegrass, but flowery meadows and ditches, buzzing with insects. People who live in harmony with nature rather than trying to fight it. We are part of nature, even though we sometimes seem to forget it. In my opinion, one of the most important things we need to do is restore people’s relationship with nature.
Is this relationship disturbed by ignorance? Almost two-thirds of the Dutch do not know what biodiversity represents.
“I think everyday knowledge of nature has largely disappeared because more and more people are living in cities, but the COVID-19 pandemic has helped us appreciate the greenery of our surroundings again. My own love for nature comes from my childhood. My favorite book was Ronia, the thief’s daughter, a story that takes place largely in the Swedish woods. I loved the fact that Ronia lived outdoors, in harmony with nature. How she appreciated the green of the woods, the power of the river. Come to think of it, Ronia was also a connector: she tried to reconcile two rival gangs of thieves. I really like this role of connector, ha ha! “
Have you ever become discouraged?
“Yes, sure, but if I don’t have hope I can’t do anything. There are at least seven hundred research studies related to biodiversity within WUR, which really gives me hope. And it’s not too late yet. It’s a huge amount of work, but we have so many incredibly smart and creative people. To quote Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” When I am feeling down I remember these words and it gives me courage. Or I go outside – into nature. After all, that’s what I’m doing it for.
This article was originally published with Wageningen University & Research.