All plant and animal species are inter-connected and depend upon one another, forming a web of life. These connections create a more biologically diverse world able to protect itself from damage, such as viruses and wildfires. Disruptions to these connections, however, reduce biodiversity and threaten human health, livelihood and survival. Population growth, pesticide use, monoculture farming and gardening, and climate change are such disruptions. In the last 40 years alone, the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish worldwide has decreased in half. There are a number of ways, though, that you can help protect biodiversity – through reducing your use and the agricultural use of pesticides, changing your consumption habits, and advocating knowledgeably to the right people about the need for change.
Encouraging Local Biodiversity
1Reconsider your lawn. Many people do not realize that they are contributing to a monoculture in a major way; by having a grass lawn. Many people like having a large grassy area that is fairly easy to maintain and offers a nice place for children and pets to play. However, by maintaining a grassy lawn, you are choosing to exclude other types of plants.
- Consider converting a portion of your grassy lawn into a more diverse area by planting a flower or vegetable garden, trees, or a variety of bushes.
2Diversify your garden. The more diversity you have in your garden and your yard, the more resistant they are to pests and disease. Plant flowering trees, shrubs and other plants and flowers to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Choose flowering plants native to your region, or plant clover, alfalfa, and other flowering cover crops that will attract bees, replenish nutrients, and prevent erosion.
- You can selectively choose which pests and weeds you want to get rid of, keeping as many beneficial ones as possible to enhance soil health and to provide a habitat for needed insects and other animals.
3Embrace your “weeds.” Many plants that we think of as “weeds” are beneficial to the biodiversity of our yards. Some weeds are actually edible, and can be a great (free!) addition to your diet! Even if you choose not to eat your weeds, plenty of insects may choose to snack on your weeds instead of your garden!
- Some weeds can actually deter pests from entering an area as well.
- You can certainly “pick and choose” which weeds you allow to stay on your property; you can decide, for example, to get rid of poison ivy, but keep dandelions or thistle. Encouraging biodiversity does not insist on allowing every plant or animal species free range of your land.
4Consume conscientiously. In addition to promoting biodiversity in your own yard, you can encourage regional biodiversity by buying a variety of local fruits and vegetables. Most areas (even urban settings) have farmers’ markets, gatherings of local farmers selling their produce, baked goods, meat, eggs, and dairy products in one place.
- Buying as much of your food as possible from a local farmers’ market promotes your local economy, enables you to find out details about how your food was grown, and gives you the opportunity to learn about fruits and vegetables you may never have tried before.
- Developing a relationship with the person who cultivates your food also enables you to make requests for different practices, such as minimal or no pesticides, no hormones in meat animals, and a wider diversity of products.
5Increase biodiversity in urban landscapes. Diversifying the bioculture in farmland, lawns, and gardens is critical in protecting biodiversity, but there are also many places within urban areas that also need attention. Making efforts to plant flowers, flowering plants, alfalfa, and clover in urban areas can make a big difference in urban biodiversity. A variety of plants can be cultivated along roadsides, in power line corridors, in community gardens, between the street and sidewalk, etc. Encouraging a variety of flowering plants will attract pollinators and can reduce invasive and harmful species without using pesticides.
- Urban areas need ample trees as well. To attract birds, you need caterpillars. And to attract caterpillars, you need to plant the right trees. Oak trees are particularly helpful in doing this, as are trees native to an area.
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Method 1 Quiz
How can you promote local biodiversity?
Reducing Pesticide Use
1Educate yourself about pesticides. The word “pesticide” is an umbrella term for herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and more. They came into use in the 1960s and are used to kill weeds, insects, fungi, plant diseases, and rodents that damage crops, lawns, and gardens. Since their introduction, researchers have documented widespread pesticide contamination in soil, waterways, groundwater, the air, animals, plants and even humans. Research has also shown that pesticides can kill “keystone” species they aren’t meant to target, such as earthworms, spiders, termites, honey bees, and micro-organisms like bacteria that are critical links in the food chain.
- For instance, honeybees and wild bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that constitute 90% of the world’s food supply. Yet since 2007, between 20-30% of all honeybee colonies in the U.S., Canada and Europe have been wiped out each year.
- The most recent research shows that one class of widely used crop and lawn/garden pesticide (called neonicotinoids) is directly linked to the drop in honeybee colonies.
- In 2013, the EU issued a 2-year ban on three of the neonicotinoids used on flowering crops attractive to bees. Several member countries, however, lifted the ban for certain crops.
- While the U.S. has not instituted a similar ban, environmental organizations are pushing heavily for one. You can help by joining and/or donating funds to these organizations.
2Decrease your own use of pesticides. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey found that urban waterways were just as contaminated, and in some cases more contaminated, with pesticides than rural waterways. In fact, pesticides were found in 99% of water and fish samples taken from urban streams. The levels also often exceeded those used as guides for the protection of aquatic life. There are ways, however, that you can avoid making the situation worse by reducing or eliminating your use of pesticides in lawn care.
- Do not treat your lawn with pesticides. Many people use lawn care companies that spray their grass lawn with pesticides that limit or eliminate the growth of weeds and the presence of insects. Eliminating this type of treatment (as well as abandoning the monoculture of the grass lawn) can go a long way to improve your local biodiversity.
- Aerate your lawn when the soil is compacted so that water, nutrients and air can seep in and promote root growth. Water it well before using a mechanical core aerator, a hand aerifier, or a spading fork to create 1/4-1/2” diameter holes about 4” deep every 4-6” inches apart in your grass. Remove the soil cores and leave them on your lawn, then apply grass seed and/or fertilizer.
3Control weeds without pesticides. You can eliminate weeds by pulling them, smothering them with ground cover like clover and several layers of newspaper, or pouring vinegar on them. You can also create physical barriers like edgings and retaining walls, plant flowers and garden crops that will beat out weeds for sunlight, water and nutrients or maintain a thick lawn to crowd out weeds.
4Keep pests out of your garden without pesticides. Maintaining a diverse garden can control pests naturally. You can also include plants throughout and on the perimeter of your garden to repel insects. Good options include marigolds, aster, cosmos, garlic, chive, savory, rosemary, petunias, thyme, rue, nasturtium, tansy, dahlias and euphoria.
- Allow natural predators like ladybugs, ground beetles and the praying mantis help you take care of problems.
- Use physical deterrents to deter pests. Staple tarpaper into the shape of a cylinder and place it around the base of an affected plant. Wood ashes mixed with water to create a paste can be applied around the base of trees to ward off borers that attach to trees.
5Minimize unwanted bugs with household items. Many items you’d find in your kitchen can help get rid of bugs on plants. Mix 1 tablespoon of peppermint castile soap and a 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper with a 1/2 gallon of water and spray on infested plants. Use chili powder to get rid of ants or drench their mounds in boiling water.
- You can also remove bugs by hand; by spraying soapy water on plants; by setting traps or bait boxes with a nonvolatile chemical like boric acid; and by dusting boric acid in cracks and crevices to get to ants, cockroaches and silverfish.
6Ask your local farmers about their pesticide use. If you are encouraging local biodiversity by shopping at a farmer’s market, be sure to ask your local farmers about the nature and quantity of pesticides they use. Buy from farmers who limit pesticide use and make it known that you prefer to buy pesticide-free foods. Spending money on a product you support is like voting with your wallet; food producers will change their practices to meet the demands of conscientious consumers.
7Buy organic food products. If you are unable to shop at a farmer’s market, try to buy organic foods at the grocery store. While organic foods may not be 100% pesticide-free, they are held to standards of minimal pesticide use (including a long list of banned fertilizers and pesticides).
8Understand the compounding role of genetically modified crops. Genetically modified (GM) crops arose in part to accommodate increasing human demands on natural resources. In particular, Roundup Ready crops were designed in 1996 to resist poisonous glyphosate – the active ingredient in the weed-killing herbicide Roundup. By 2008, over 90% of all U.S. soybean crops were Roundup Ready, and over 60% of corn and cotton were as well. This type of monoculture farming has greatly benefited large agribusiness, but it has also devastated family farming and led to decreased biodiversity.
- The latter can also be attributed to the development of Roundup resistance among Roundup Ready crops and the resulting surge in use of the herbicide – from 25 million pounds per year for soybeans, corn and cotton in 1996 to more than 135 million pounds per year in 2007.
- Like neonicotinoids, studies have found that glyphosate has contaminated waterways, soil, air, groundwater and our food.
- Additionally, it’s led to declines in beneficial insects, disruptions in the human endocrine system, links to cancer and kidney disease, and may even cause human DNA damage.
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Method 2 Quiz
True or False: Pesticides can kill “keystone” species they aren’t meant to target.
Advocating for Biodiversity
1Reduce our reliance on GM crops. Due to these issues and their potentially catastrophic consequences, scientists, environmental activists, educators, etc. have called for eradication of GM crops altogether. However, agribusiness has fought this vehemently. It, along with other scientists and many policymakers, claim GM crops are necessary to support world population growth, which has doubled since 1970 to 7 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Thus, the Union of Concerned Scientists has made the following recommendations, all of which you can assist with – through your vote, the power of your purse, and changes in your lifestyle.
- Expand funding for research on public crop breeding so farmers are able to better diversify crops and to find less-harmful means of managing pests, weeds, drought and so forth.
- Increase funding for research and incentives enabling further development and adoption of agroecologically- based farming, which focuses on recycling nutrients and energy, diversifying species, crop rotation, and integrating crops and livestock
- Enact steps, such as making changes to patent laws, to support independent research on GM risks and benefits.
- Be more rigorous in independently reviewing GM product approvals so they don’t reach the market until the risks and benefits are better understood.
- Create and support food labeling laws so consumers know when they are eating foods containing GM crops.
2Craft a persuasive message. Most people will agree that they want a world with a varied natural environment for their grandchildren. Still, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder, “Why does it matter so much? Why should we make sacrifices to protect it?” Here are things to emphasize when spreading the word about biodiversity.
- Biodiversity has an effect on local and global economies. Humans make a lot of money off of biologically diverse ecosystems. Medicines, luxury goods, certain foods, and tourism dollars all depend in some way on the maintenance of biologically diverse ecosystems all over the world.
- Biodiversity in the wild protects our food supply. Most people in the world get most of their food from just a few sources (usually wheat, corn, or rice).Today, scientists use genes from wild plants to ensure that these crops can survive against diseases, droughts, and other problems (similar processes are used for the livestock that give us meat).
- The introduction of invasive species to natural habitats by humans can upset local ecosystems and cause biodiversity to plummet.
- Biodiversity can protect against costly disasters. For instance, one study found that replacing natural grasslands with agricultural pastures made areas more vulnerable to fire and drought. Another found that islands with high biodiversity were less vulnerable to tropical cyclones.
- Monoculture farming devastates natural ecosystems. Diversifying crops, crop rotation and reducing clear-cutting make ecosystems much more resistant to damage when something bad happens.
- The Irish potato famine is a perfect example of monocultural farming gone terribly wrong in that the country’s farmers’ relied on one type of potato. When disease swept through the country and the environment changed, these potatoes were almost entirely wiped out, leaving the people with little to no food.
- Areas with high biodiversity also tend to have high “genetic diversity.” That is, the individual species in the ecosystem have a greater variety of genes. Over time, this contributes to the creation of new species through the process of evolution.
3Find out what’s going on in your area to protect biodiversity. Before reinventing the wheel, determine what measures, if any, are being taken to protect and enhance biodiversity. Once you know this, you’ll be able a) to better gauge the most pressing concerns in your area, b) to focus your efforts, and c) to make a more persuasive, knowledge-based argument for change to local businesses and municipalities.
4Make important connections. Certain people in the local community can be especially helpful allies when trying to further the cause of preserving biodiversity. In general, these are people with specialized knowledge relating to environmental issues, people with experience organizing, and people with power. A few examples include:
- Political activists: Can help get the message to crucial voters, organize rallies, get access to local politicians, etc.
- Life science teachers and professors: Can offer their knowledge and expertise when it comes to the specifics of biodiversity-conserving efforts.
- Environmental lawyers: Will know about the legal challenges (and opportunities) as far as making your environmental mission a reality.
- Community leaders: Have the power and influence to get you local support.
5Lobby your government. Ultimately, many environmental issues are in the hands of people who wield power in society. Local, state, and national politicians are particularly important in the mission to sustain biodiversity. These people have the power to write, interpret and enforce the laws surrounding environmental issues. Thus, one effective way to get the environmental policies that you want is to lobby these politicians directly. In other words, you want to try to convince them that your environmental mission is a good idea.
- One great way to do this is to get as many people in the community as you can to sign a petition and file it with the local government. See: our petition-writing article.
- Another good way to get the political results you want is to raise money for the election campaign of a politician who agrees with you. This politician will now have an obligation to try to pass legislation favorable to you, if he or she wants to get elected again.
- Remember: Most politicians are motivated by votes. Your goal should ultimately be to convince the politician you’re lobbying that supporting your environmental mission would win him or her votes (and, of course, that working against it would cost votes).
- Can’t seem to find sympathetic politicians? Consider running yourself on an environmental platform!
6Share your message. The more people you reach out to, the better chance you have of seeing the biodiversity changes you want. Getting the word out about your mission is crucial to success. Luckily, there are many ways to do this. Here are a few ideas.
- Use social media: Today, people spend a good deal of time on websites like Facebook, Twitter, and so on. A social media campaign can help you capture the attention of thousands of Internet browsers, thereby raising awareness and support for biodiversity. See How to Use Social Media to Spur Political Change for more information.
- Speak at local events: Local community gatherings (like religious services, town hall meetings, public events, etc.) will often give reputable causes the chance to speak for free or cheaply. Make the most of these opportunities to reach out to community members directly about biodiversity.
- Use local canvassing: Door-to-door visits and flyer distribution are old-fashioned ways to raise awareness for biodiversity issues, but they can still be effective.
7Support environmental organizations. There are many organizations out there fighting for these issues already. Many are quite powerful. They can’t continue the battle or be as politically effective, though, without financial and volunteer support from the people. Here is the link to a website with the names and contact information for a number of these organizations: http://www.nrdc.org/reference/environgroups.asp.
8Start your own environmental organization. Once you have an understanding of local biodiversity issues, you may want to consider taking action on a larger scale. A good way to do this is to start an environmental organization dedicated to making the changes that are most important to you. By involving others in your mission, you gain both power and legitimacy. There is strength in numbers, and powerful people tend to listen to organizations with many members.
- There’s no “right” focus for an environmental organization. Your club can focus on a narrow issue (like saving the local wetlands from encroaching development) or a broad one (like increasing awareness for environmental issues in general).
- The important thing is to pick a goal that you have a reasonable chance of accomplishing. For instance, a local club with 100 members will have a hard time fighting for a global carbon tax.
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Method 3 Quiz
Who can you contact in your community to help you advocate for biodiversity?
Helping the Environment
1Be an informed consumer. One of the most fundamental tools you have to fight the loss of global biodiversity is your wallet. Make an effort to buy only products and services that were made with an eye for the environmental health of the planet. Avoid buying from companies with practices that threaten global biodiversity. Remember, companies will sell what people want to buy, so tell companies that you want products that do not harm biodiversity.
2Follow the “Three Rs.” There’s no way around it: Since early in our history, humans have always created a lot of garbage. Today, however, the massive amounts of waste being produced on a global scale pose a major threat to biodiversity. By following the “Three Rs,” you can minimize the impact of your waste. The “Three Rs” are:
- Reduce: Decrease your consumption. Don’t buy products you don’t need. When you do buy things, try to make choices that generate a minimal amount of garbage. For instance, buy things with limited packaging (or none at all) rather than things that come in many boxes or containers. The less garbage you generate, the less you’ll contribute to the loss of biodiversity when natural habitats are used for landfills.
- Reuse: Decrease the amount of goods you throw away by using things more than once. One easy example is bringing a backpack or a reusable bag to the grocery store so that you don’t use new bags. See our Home Organization articles for more great ideas. Again, less garbage means less loss of biodiversity from expanding landfills.
- Recycle: When you do have to throw something away, recycle it so it can be converted to something useful again rather than being added to a landfill. Click here for a good guide to recycling in the U.S.
3Practice eco-friendly food strategies at home. There are numerous other ways to encourage global biodiversity. Best of all, many of these are things you can do in and around the home! For instance, reducing your reliance on commercial crops decreases natural habitat destruction when cleared for farming. See below for a few easy suggestions.
- Start a family or community garden. Less demand for large-scale agriculture means less habitat loss and fewer native species displaced.
- Use composting at home. The compost can be added to the family garden or the community garden to boost your harvest. This further reduces your reliance on commercial agriculture. Even better, this is a great way to recycle organic waste and kitchen scraps!
4Reduce your carbon emissions. We’ve all heard it hundreds of times: Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. While human carbon emissions have been linked to global climate change beyond a shadow of a doubt, many don’t know that they also have a direct impact on the planet’s biodiversity. Climate change leads to habitat loss and more stressful environmental conditions that put at-risk species on the brink of extinction. Thus, slowing climate change by reducing emissions is one effective way to preserve biodiversity. Usually, this can be done by reducing the energy we use. For instance, you might try:
- Purchasing a zero- or reduced-emissions car for your next vehicle purchase.
- Carpooling during your daily commute to save money and reduce the fuel you consume.
- Walking or riding your bike instead of driving.
- Using energy-efficient electronics to reduce carbon emissions. In the U.S., electronics that are made to use a minimal amount of electricity are given an “ENERGY STAR” label by the EPA. Look for this label.
- Investing in efficient insulation and heating for your house to reduce energy usage.
- Considering alternative home energy sources like solar panels, which were once too expensive for many people but are getting cheaper each year.