Biodiversity loss is a threat to humanity

Loss of biodiversity puts the economy, food security, and our health and quality of life at risk. Decreasing bird numbers indicate a rapid loss of biodiversity.

Swe-oo, swe-oo, swe-oo. Today, it is unusual to hear this melancholy call in the Finnish forests. The willow tit – a small bird species with grey plumage – has become increasingly rare. It used to be one of the most common bird species in Finland.

In the 1950s, some 1.8 million pairs of willow tits lived in Finland. In 2019, their numbers had dwindled to half a million, and the downward trend is steep. The species is classified as endangered.

Willow tits suffer from the disappearance of mature forests. These forests provide wintering territory for the birds where they can keep insect stashes in the holes of old trees, as well as suitable dead trees for nesting in the spring. The commercial forests of today do not contain these types of habitats.

Things are not looking good for Finnish birds at the moment. 35 percent of species are under threat. Bird species have their unique problems, but they also share one common denominator: the loss of natural habitats.

Birds that have adapted to specific conditions cannot endure rapid changes in their environment. This applies to birds globally.

But why should people be concerned about birds?

“Birds are at the top of the food chain, and there is a multitude of data and research on them. They indicate the condition of the environment overall. When birds are struggling, we can assume that other, less-studied species are as well,” says senior curator Aleksi Lehikoinen from the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

Before, coal miners used to carry a canary with them to warn them of deteriorating air quality. If the bird died, it served as an alarm. The current global bird crisis could be a similar warning sign.

Evolution cannot keep up

When nature loses its balance, the repercussions will affect humans as well. According to Aino Juslén, director of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, if we do not find a solution to biodiversity loss, it will destroy the foundations of the economy, food security, and our health and quality of life.

“People outside academia have begun to grasp the urgency of the issue only in recent years.”

Biodiversity loss equals a decline in the variety of life. The decrease in the number of individuals within species, amounting to extinction in the worst cases. The degradation of genetic diversity and ecosystems.

Diverse nature is adaptable and flexible and can recover from shocks. The loss of biodiversity leads to reduced adaptability. At the moment, conditions are changing so fast that evolution cannot keep up.

Many cultivated plants are also vulnerable because their genetic diversity has been curtailed to the point that individual plants are clones of each other. These plants are susceptible to diseases, which can result in the disappearance of an entire variety, as happened to the most popular banana variety of the past. The fate of the current favourite banana variety is headed in the same direction.

Lehikoinen likens biodiversity loss to an aircraft where nuts and bolts are coming off. Losing one or two may not make a difference, but at some point, a line will be crossed, after which the entire plane will come down.

A health crisis

The interaction of different organisms is complex and subtle – if it is disrupted, we cannot rebuild the connection. If microbes did not generate fertile soil and insects did not pollinate crops, growing food would become complicated.

The decline in insects has been measured with the so-called windshield phenomenon. In Denmark, the number of insects accumulating on the windshields of vehicles has been monitored for 20 years, and a reduction of 80 percent has been observed.

Biodiversity loss endangers human health. While diversity enhances immunity, the loss of it results in problems such as increased allergies. The risk for new emerging zoonotic diseases grows as human societies expand and the world’s wilderness is reduced, which hinders the immunity of animals as well.

Our psychological wellbeing also largely depends on nature. Environmental degradation lowers the quality of life.

“I am concerned for the future generations, my own children included,” Juslén says.

Conservation is not enough

What should be done? At the very least, more conservation areas are needed. Researchers and environmental activists have piled up snow for Saimaa ringed seals and built artificial nests for birds of prey. Degraded natural environments have been restored. In extreme cases, species are relocated to new areas.

According to Justlén, these measures are great, but they do not solve the larger problem. It is vital to implement changes throughout society and in all sectors of the economy. Biodiversity is affected by construction, agriculture, and forestry, which should at the very least be compensated for elsewhere.

Individuals can promote biodiversity for example by favouring plant-based and local food and reducing their carbon footprint.

Climate change exacerbates biodiversity loss since species cannot adapt to a warming environment fast enough. Mitigating climate change generally supports biodiversity. However, some measures that alleviate climate change can also act against biodiversity, as the destruction of habitats can damage biodiversity even more than the warming climate.

Biodiversity loss can speed up if fossil fuels are replaced by wood and the demand for lithium needed for electric car batteries leads to the establishment of new mines.

For now, people are not as familiar with the biodiversity crisis as they are with climate change. According to a report by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, two out of three Finnish municipalities have set a goal for mitigating climate change. Only one in five have a similar goal regarding biodiversity loss.

A price tag on nature?

Aino Juslén supports the Finnish Nature Panel’s call for abolishing subsidies that are detrimental to the environment. She also thinks that supporting biodiversity and employment at the same time is a great idea.

“We need a rapid and comprehensive transformation. At the same time, we have to consider social sustainability and fairness.”

In early 2021, Partha Dasgupta, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Cambridge, released an extensive report on biodiversity loss. According to Dasgupta, the fact that the significance of nature to humanity is not reflected in market prices is an underlying factor in the biodiversity crisis. We also finance the destruction of nature more than conservation.

Dasgupta calls for a price tag on nature. Nature is not an inexhaustible resource, and we need to stop treating it as such.

Juslén agrees that emphasising the economic value of nature can reinforce the message of researchers. However, it is nearly impossible to put a price tag on nature.

The loss of biodiversity is intertwined with the economy, as the human population keeps growing and consuming more. The problem is simultaneously global and extremely local.

While the biodiversity of Finnish nature can only be protected in Finland, population growth, overfishing, pollution, and the destruction of rainforests can be influenced only through international collaboration.

Save the environment

The history of bird conservation in Finland includes many success stories. The white-tailed eagle and the whooper swan have been saved from the brink of extinction. However, Aleksi Lehikoinen points out that these species were able to recover through the elimination of systematic persecution and hunting. It is more difficult to refrain from destroying habitats.

Biodiversity loss is caused by the idea that land should yield maximal profits. With the intensification of industrial agriculture and forestry, there is little space for the wilderness. Intensive land use results in uniformity.

“We should compromise on land use goals and provide nature an opportunity to preserve itself and even recover,” Lehikoinen says.

If we want to save the willow tit, forest policy must be changed.

“The fundamental reason for the crisis of woodland birds is that logging volumes are high, and there is considerable pressure to continue this trend. Increased felling reduces the number of woodland birds. In the winter, clear-cut areas have roughly eight times fewer birds than the forest.”

The willow tit does not inhabit old forests. Instead, it is happy with a forest where trees are mature. Transitioning to continuous-coverage forestry would be a big help.

Commercial forests too could have considerably more rotten trees suitable for willow tits. Many other endangered species would be grateful for them as well.

The article has been published in Finnish in the 8/2021 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.

Urban butterfly meadows

Professor of Sustainability Science Chris Raymond has investigated how biodiversity can be taken into consideration in urban planning. Taking environmental considerations into account often requires a balancing act. In Helsinki too, infill construction is planned for green areas to avoid increasing traffic to the city.

“It’s not only about whether or not to build something, but how to build it and how nature will be interwoven with the buildings. Higher buildings, for instance, may preserve land for nature.”

In Copenhagen, Raymond led a project in which researchers, residents and urban planners together planted pollinator-friendly plants while the researchers talked about pollinators and their significance. Also involved was a company that brought beehives to the area and employed local residents.

In Helsinki, Raymond would like to explore how sustainability, equality and fairness are being taken into account in the planning of the Malmi Airport area.

Raymond has organised workshops in conservation areas to bring together forest owners, researchers and citizens. He believes that providing all parties with the opportunity to voice their opinions is important for democracy.

“You have to understand different viewpoints and look for a compromise.”

It is also important to talk about the consequences of biodiversity loss to humans if nothing is done. While not all politicians are ready to discuss the issue, cities are leading the way. Adding green areas and butterfly meadows between buildings enhances biodiversity and the wellbeing of urban residents.

“Economic growth cannot be considered a sacred cow. You also have to talk about the intrinsic value of nature.”

What can time series tell us?

The collections of the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus consist of both physical specimens and time series that span several decades. The oldest specimens date back as far as 300 years. They describe species distribution and accompanying species.

Recently, specimens have been digitised and made available online on the portal of the Finnish Biodiversity Information Facility. Most recently, with EU funding, data on the species, collection site and collection time were digitised for more than 100,000 bee specimens.

In contrast, observation series describe, for example, the distribution of birdlife, flying squirrels and plants. Threatened species are assessed in Finland at 10-year intervals on the basis of long-term monitoring.

Bird ringing has been carried out at the University of Helsinki for more than a century, and its time series relating to avian research are world-class. Unfortunately, the continuity of the series is now at risk due to funding problems.