North America has misplaced 2.6 million acres of intact grassland in a single yr – an space bigger than Yellowstone Nationwide Park. Land has been cleared primarily to make manner for wheat, corn and soy manufacturing, a brand new report from WWF reveals.

Globally the issue is extra vital nonetheless. Worldwide grasslands are below extreme risk from ongoing degradation as land is transformed to develop crops. In keeping with the World Fee on Protected Areas (IUCN), grasslands are thought of ‘essentially the most altered terrestrial ecosystem on the planet’ and are recognised as ‘essentially the most endangered ecosystem on most continents’.

In distinction to commodities pushed deforestation, so far, grasslands have largely been ignored in sustainable improvement agendas regardless of the size and pace at which they’re being misplaced. With no charismatic orangutan talisman for customers to rally round, the implications of this land-use change have been largely neglected.

This might be about to vary. On the latest UN Meals System Summit, the WWF issued a name to kickstart grassland conservation.

“The notice of grassland loss and the impacts it has haven’t been on the radar in a significant manner, however that is altering and we’re seeing extra curiosity to grasp the difficulty and account for it,”​ mentioned Patrick Lendrum, Science Lead for WWF’s Northern Nice Plains program.

Lendrum believes that grasslands will ‘completely’ turn out to be a touchpaper problem for customers sooner or later, in a lot the way in which that deforestation is immediately.

“Almost 50% of grasslands have skilled some type of degradation​ be it conversion, invasive species, overgrazing, local weather change or altered fireplace regimes,”​ the conservationist advised us. “Grassland conservation is of worldwide concern and everybody must be working collectively to resolve this drawback to the advantage of local weather change, biodiversity, different ecosystem providers, and the livelihoods that rely on grasslands.”

Grasslands are disappearing at an ‘alarming’ price, WWF warns / Pic: GettyImages-Chris2766

Biodiversity loss and local weather impression

Overlaying round 8% of the planet’s landmass, grasslands had been ‘as soon as residence to a number of the largest assemblages of wildlife the Earth has ever identified’, IUCN revealed. However with solely 4.5% of grasslands inside protected areas, that is below risk.

Conversion of grasslands is happening on ‘high-quality habitat’ for varied species, recent research focused on the US concluded​. The study suggested conversion is producing ‘marginal yields’ – because almost 70% of converted lands deliver yields below the national average – and this is coming with ‘high costs to wildlife’. 

“Grassland birds have experienced the largest decline of any guild. Seventy-four percent of species are declining​. This is largely attributed to habitat loss and pesticide use. The list goes on and on be it pollinators, birds, mammals, or aquatic life, the effects of which are felt all the way down to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico,”​ Lendrum stressed. 

Other ecosystem services, notably carbon sequestration and soil erosion control, are also being hit by grassland degradation.

One study places the soil carbon loss resulting from grasslands conversion at 107 kg CO2e per year​. To put it in context, that’s equivalent to the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by 23m vehicles being driven for a year.

“While estimates of soil carbon are difficult to calculate at such a large scale and there is some variation among researchers, there is no doubt that conversion of grasslands contributes to climate change in a significant way,”​ Lendrum told FoodNavigator.

Getty-manfredxy biodiversity nature bee

Ecosystem services like biodiversity promotion and carbon sequestration are at stake / Pic: Getty-manfredxy

Industry and stakeholders must step up: ‘Action needs to take place sooner than later’

WWF is already working with partners in the food and beverage sector to look at how they can take a more pro-active role in the protection of grasslands. Lendrum would like to see targets around zero conversion of grasslands put in place, similar to those that have been established to stamp out deforestation in the supply chain.

While businesses should accelerate action on grasslands, Lendrum insisted ‘it’s not just up to the food industry’.

“Businesses need the tools to make the changes necessary and that responsibility lies with government agencies, academics, NGOs, and others in addition to the food industry,”​ he suggested.

“The effects of climate change are upon us and being experienced by everyone across the globe. Action needs to take place sooner than later and avoiding grassland conversion is one of the most cost-effective ways to slow carbon emissions.”

As with work being undertaken on deforestation, one ‘big challenge’ impeding progress is a lack of traceability through the supply chain, meaning currently even where businesses want to act, they are likely to find implementing commitments difficult. Lendrun believes collaboration will be an important unlock here: “We need companies and commodity groups with us on this journey to make that possible.”

The complex link to animal agriculture

Animal agriculture is often flagged as one of the food system’s biggest climate impacts, with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization putting emissions from the sector at 14.5% of all GHG emissions.

Grasslands degradation is being driven by the conversion of land to grow cash crops, such as wheat, corn and soy. Looking at the US context, most of these crops are destined to feed animals, many of which are being reared in intensive systems.

Over 70% of the US soybean crop was used for animal feed, with 15% going to human food and 5% used for biodiesel, in 2015. In 2020, more than three times the amount of corn used in the US went to animal feed than human food. Most crops grown on degraded grasslands are therefore likely to make their way into the feed chain rather than the food chain.

However, livestock agriculture can play an important role in grasslands conservation. “Extensive livestock grazing is the primary grass-based economy that keeps grasslands intact and maintains them in a healthy condition when properly managed,”​ the WWF’s Lendrum noted.

“Sustainable livestock grazing provides livelihoods, food and fibre, ecosystem services like carbon storage, reduced downstream flooding, clean water and wildlife habitat.”

This complex picture and the duality of the link between animal agriculture and grasslands degradation make it ‘very difficult’ to talk about a ‘one-size fits all approach’, Lendrum explained.

“Sustainable intensification of production, such as regenerative agriculture and zero new conversion, in addition to crop diversification and more food being grown for direct human consumption are all needed to feed the growing population while stopping land use change and nature loss.”

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