To save humanity, save biodiversity: Q&A with Enric Sala

Last year, as part of its “Campaign for Nature” initiative, the National Geographic Society — in collaboration with a slew of more than 100 other conservation organizations — set a goal of protecting 30-percent of the planet by 2030. Dr. Enric Sala, founder of the ocean conservation initiative Pristine Seas, constructs an enlightened defense for this plan, and for biological diversity at large, in his first book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, published late last month. It appeared just before the United Nations reported that countries had failed to meet any of the 20 targets they set a decade ago for stemming the loss of biodiversity.

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Sala delayed printing of the book to write a final chapter on the novel coronavirus, “which has turned out to be the most powerful wake-up call to the world about the enormous risks to human health posed by our broken relationship with nature.” Sala discusses all of this and more in the following interview with FERN’s Ag Insider, conducted via email.

Help us connect the dots. How does the Covid-19 pandemic relate to the world’s biodiversity crisis?

The pandemic originated when the coronavirus spilled over from a wild animal to a person in China, creating a local outbreak which, thanks to our globalized lifestyle, spread like wildfire across the world. Today it’s Covid-19, but yesterday it was SARS, Ebola, HIV, and many other infectious diseases that have an animal origin. It is because of wildlife trade and our encroaching upon and destroying natural ecosystems that we got in touch with viruses that our immune system isn’t familiar with.

In The Nature of Nature, you write that ‘biodiversity provides a natural shield that absorbs the fallout from pathogens, and all this happens without our interference.’ How so?

The more intact natural ecosystems are, the more the chance that viruses will be diluted among the variety of species living in them. Many species just aren’t good reservoirs for viruses, so their ability to spread decreases. But when we cut forests and develop around them, we foster the increase in numbers of species – like bats and rats – that can transmit viruses to us.

Given this understanding, should we consider regions like the Midwest and Great Plains, where monocultures now dominate the landscape, to be especially prone to pathogens and emerging disease?

The tragedy of the American plains is not about infectious diseases, but about the destruction of a diverse ecosystem that supported large abundances of wildlife and also captures huge amounts of our carbon pollution. But livestock tends to overgraze the land, displace that wildlife, and make it easier for the soil to be wasted away, which in turn diminishes the ability of the land to capture carbon and help mitigate human-made climate change.

You devote several passages of The Nature of Nature to the importance of soil. In terms of climate change and sustainability, what’s going on beneath our feet that warrants greater consideration?

Industrial agriculture is based on chronically tilling the soil, adding artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical pollutants. When the crops have been harvested, the soil is bare and easy to be washed away by stormwater, carrying all those pollutants to the sea and creating dead zones off the mouths of rivers. According to a Cornell study, in the United States alone, soil is lost ten times faster than it is naturally replenished. What took tens of thousands of years to form is lost in just a few generations because we did not respect the soil and everything it does for us. Because we did not have to pay for it, we didn’t value it — we took it for granted. If we don’t shift to a new agriculture that is regenerative very soon, we’ll see another Dust Bowl in the next few decades, only that now we won’t be able to recover because the soil will be gone for good.

You argue in this book that greater biodiversity results in greater returns for humanity. How so?

Everything we need to survive is produced by the work of other species: the food we eat, the clean water we drink, the oxygen we breathe. We cannot produce those. The more biodiversity, the more species, the more different ecosystems, the more of these and many other benefits we can enjoy. Without a healthy biosphere, there would be no humans, and then nobody would worry about the economy. We need to be humbler and acknowledge and respect what other creatures do for us—for free.

The notion of re-wilding any particular landscape is often accompanied by a fair amount of controversy, both from economists and environmentalists. You advocate for re-wilding ‘with care.’ Why so? What are the benefits of re-wilding a spoiled ecosystem?

Re-wilding a place with native species that have been exterminated helps to accelerate the recovery of the ecosystem. Reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park, for example, helped to restore an ecosystem that was being eaten away by too many deer. But bringing the predator back reduced the overgrazing by deer and brought back many other species.

How can conservation and re-wilding programs be economically feasible when they mean taking certain territories out of production?

The world produces enough food for 10 billion people currently, only that we waste a third of it, from the farm and the boat to the table. If we became less wasteful about how we produce food, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Most large food companies act like we have five planets. In the ocean, no-take areas actually have shown to replenish areas around them, so more marine reserves would actually be better for food security. My book has more practical solutions and the economic benefits that come with them.

The National Geographic Society has set a goal of protecting 30-percent of the planet — both land and sea — by 2030. You call that a minimum and non-negotiable. How did you land on this percentage, and what steps are being taken to see this come to fruition?

Many studies agree that, if we are to prevent the extinction of a million species and the collapse of our life support system, we need half of the planet in a natural state. Thirty percent protected by 2030 is a necessary milestone.

Note: Corrects spelling of Enric Sala.