Dung beetles perform critical functions that keep pastures healthy. © Jason Priest (Jaye Patrick)

Stories in Latin America

Like to Eat? Then You Need to Care About Biodiversity...and the Dung Beetle

While it may seem far-fetched, climate change is actually the second most urgent environmental problem facing humanity. That’s because, provided we take the right measures, the climate can be repaired. It may take generations to achieve this, but it is possible – and it remains vitally important that we do what it takes to make it happen.
A more pressing issue is the decline of biodiversity. Why? Because once a species goes extinct, then it’s game over. There is no going back. And while most people understand that we are losing the world’s tigers, rhinos and elephants, there is something just as disturbing going on among the millions of different types of plants, animals and microorganisms that together make Earth a livable place for us humans. Species loss has become an almost daily occurrence.
Scientists are now warning that we are experiencing a biological annihilation on par with the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs. And this quickening loss of biodiversity is diminishing the “ecosystem services” that nature provides, many of which enable us to grow food and, by the way, also help mitigate emissions to slow down climate change.
Let’s look at just one family of species you probably never knew you needed – that of the dung beetle. When it comes to growing food, dung beetles are among the most important insects in the Neotropics, areas that share a large number of plant and animal groups that are scattered from southern Florida and Texas and through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and throughout most of South America.
These little insects are the sanitation workers of the animal kingdom, always up to their elbows in poo. Yet what they do for the planet is enormously important. In cattle pastures, they’ve been known to bury more than 80 percent of the dung pats. At the same time, they loosen and nourish the soil, improve its ability to hold water, prevent the plants under the cow pies from dying, and keep the fly population down, all of which keep pastures and cattle healthy and growing. They keep air pollution down, as well – researchers have found that some dung beetles reduce the methane emitted by cow pies by 40 percent.
Scientists are finding that many species of dung beetle are endangered. In Colombian cattle pastures they are slowing their soil-enriching activities because, as tree cover has disappeared, they must avoid dehydration in the relentless sun.
As their population diminishes, the manure stays above ground and hardens, and the pasture becomes a barren, smelly, GHG-emitting and fly-infested mess. The health of the soil drops, and so does the productive value of the farmland, leaving ranchers looking to convert more forest to rangeland, thereby further diminishing the biodiversity that keeps their land productive and their agricultural GHG emissions from increasing. See a pattern here?
Cattle graze in the shade of rancher Jose Palomo's "silvopastoral" pasture at his ranch Los Potrillos in Becanchen, Yucatan.
Healthy agricultural systems are demonstrating that biodiversity can increase ecosystem’s productivity. © Erich Schlegel

Our little friend the dung beetle could be the poster child for the vital link between biodiversity and agriculture, and particularly the accelerating collapse of a finely-honed system — with millions of parts — that has taken eons to become what it is today.

But there’s another angle to the immense and critical challenge of turning the tide against biodiversity loss. Agriculture can, and must, be the leading edge of a solution.

Latin America, home to six of the planet’s 10 most biodiverse countries, is at the crux of this issue given its position both as a biodiversity hot spot and as home to more than a quarter of the world’s medium to high potential farmland. Accordingly, the region bears a heavy responsibility to lead the way in demonstrating that agricultural productivity actually prospers when managed hand-in-hand with preserving the delicate ecological balance critical to our planet’s future.

The good news is that experience shows this can be accomplished and that there is potential for doing it on a wide scale. Using a Healthy Agricultural Systems (HAS) approach that focuses on increasing productivity while preserving the assets – the water and soil and rich biodiversity that make productivity possible – The Nature Conservancy and our partners are scaling up and replicating projects that clearly demonstrate how changes in farming practices have a major impact on biodiversity. We’re not just arresting its decline but restoring species populations, even in and around productive agricultural areas.

In Colombia, for example, the results over only a six-year period have been astonishing. Bird species numbers increased from 140 to 193 and the number of terrestrial mollusks, ants, butterflies, and other animals went up, as well. Herbicide use was nearly cut in half, while milk production increased by a fifth and meat output rose 80 per cent. Colombian authorities are now talking about decreasing the amount of area used for cattle ranching by more than 20 percent while simultaneously increasing farm productivity.

What we’ve seen is a farm-led assault on biodiversity loss, restoring and invigorating species from the soil on up to flora and fauna and even reestablishing habitat corridors right through the middle of agricultural areas. And we’ve noted similar results in other parts of Latin America, particularly Chiapas state in Mexico, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

One of the reasons the potential for achieving mass scale with these techniques is so compelling is that the farmers who deploy them are achieving relatively quick returns on their investments, demonstrating a solid business case that starts with the producer’s well-being and ricochets up the value chain.

With a Healthy Agricultural Systems approach, farming and ranching can be converted from a global environmental problem into the leading edge of an effort to avert looming biological disaster – and farmers themselves can become more productive and profitable. In other words, we don’t have to stop growing food. We simply need to grow it better and in a way that turns the tide away from species loss and toward the restoration and preservation of Earth’s delicate ecological balance. Producing and conserving is a win-win solution – indeed, it’s the only solution we have.

Originally Posted on Chicago Council on Global Affairs on May 23, 2018.