Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Corner: Why Biodiversity Matters | News, Sports, Jobs
While I was researching for my 1998 masters thesis on organic farming in Ohio, I came across a disturbing event in Jack Dole’s book, “Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics and the Way Out of the Global Food Supply”.
In 1970-71, the United States lost more than 15 percent of its corn crop. “In the late summer and early fall of 1969, a few cornfields in southern Iowa began to behave erratically. The ears were rotting inside the husks and the stems were falling to the ground. Soon the blight, which turned out to be a fungus (Helminthosporium maydis) or southern corn leaf blight, began to cross cornfields from Florida to the Midwest. Unusually high humidity favored the spread of the fungus spores.
The fungus was able to reproduce a few days after landing on the corn, and within ten days a new generation was formed. It was tough and could survive temperatures twenty degrees below zero. He quickly moved to the northern states and eventually to Canada. Some farmers have lost 50 percent of their maize.
The underlying cause of this agricultural disaster was blamed on the type of corn grown. Over 80 percent of corn in the United States contained T cytoplasm and this particular hybrid was extremely susceptible to late blight.
The National Academy of Sciences said: “Due to a technological quirk, America’s redesigned corn plants had become as similar as identical twins. Everything that made a plant sensitive made them all sensitive. Old varieties of corn survived the fungus, but the majority of American corn was hybrids of “six inbred lines.”
Monocultures, or the rearing of a single variety of crops over large areas, whether corn or pine, make the species vulnerable. It also reduces biodiversity. A healthy forest rich in biodiversity can be a habitat for many different birds, plants, insects and animals. A monoculture is not a healthy ecosystem. This allows some insect species to grow out of control or a single predator or disease to wreak havoc in a short time. This was the case for corn crops.
Biodiversity matters more than most people realize. Our world is becoming less and less rich in biodiversity; populations of species are declining at an alarming rate and entire species are disappearing. The journal Science reported that over the past five decades, bird populations have fallen by 29% – a loss of three billion people.
In 2020, thousands of dead birds were found in the southwestern United States. The event remains a mystery to scientists, but the American Birding Association cites some factors that may have caused the massive deaths. In Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 8, 2020, temperatures dropped from a sunny high of 96 to a record low of 40 and experienced a windstorm with speeds of 70 mph. During the same week, Colorado, Montana and parts of New Mexico experienced record snowfall and temperatures.
The massive fires that continue to burn in the western states add to the plight of migrating birds. The birds were forced to leave the area before they had a chance to “Replenish their fat reserves”. Many areas adjacent to the fires have seen a large influx of migratory birds over the past two weeks.
Starvation is another factor. All of the above weather events killed the insects these birds depend on to fatten up for the long journey south. Birds whose diet consists primarily of insects, such as swallows and warblers, have had the highest mortality rates. These incidents are all linked to climate change.
Biodiversity is also affected by habitat loss, overexploitation and invasive species. Habitat loss is pervasive all over the planet. We see this as the world’s forests are being exploited and land is converted from natural landscapes to urban uses. In addition, habitats are degraded and fragmented. We see it in our own region with oil and gas development, forestry and agriculture.
Fracking requires a huge amount of infrastructure with roads, well platforms and pipelines eating away at the area. There are huge withdrawals of water, which affect wetland ecosystems. Large hydraulic fracturing operations use evaporation pits containing toxins to reduce waste volumes. These pits are often confused by birds looking for bodies of water. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 500,000 to 1 million birds are killed each year in oil wells and evaporative ponds. In addition, birds are often burned alive by flares when they fly over oil and gas infrastructure.
A prime example of overexploitation is occurring in our oceans. The high-tech, now multi-million dollar fishing industry allows fish to be caught at deeper depths and from any location in the ocean. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said: “More than 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished and significantly depleted due to overfishing. “
Invasive species have taken their toll on native species. The loss of elms to the invasive fungus Ceratocystis ulmi and chestnuts to the fungus Cryphonectria has caused a radical change in the structure of eastern forests and a loss of biodiversity. More recently, the United States has been invaded by “spotted lantern fly.” These insects came to us from Asia and can cause severe damage to trees, eventually leading to death. The bug affects many species, including grapes, apples and hops, as well as hardwoods.
However, the biggest contributor to a massive loss of biodiversity are the changes on our planet caused by climate change. Inside Climate News reported that “Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history, and a million species are on the brink. “ In order to avoid the collapse of entire ecosystems, we must quickly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The flora and fauna of our planet simply cannot adapt to the current rate of climate change.
What do humans lose by losing biodiversity? We will lose ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, crop pollination, disease remedies, soil formation, nutrient recycling, pests and pollution control, and climate regulation. Most of these services are not valued on the New York Stock Exchange but make no mistake, the economic effects will be felt worldwide, especially in the food sector.
How can we help? As we near the end of the growing season, leave the garden and flower cleaning until spring to provide shelter for insects and other organisms. Take those seed catalogs and plan a pollinator garden next year, a garden that uses native rather than non-native species. Support nature reserves and government decisions that protect natural habitats, such as the Endangered Species Act. Watch out for invasive species like the spotted lantern. Reduce your carbon footprint.
Teach others that we share our planet with millions of other species and that our existence depends on their existence.
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., from Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She holds a doctorate in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulation.