How agriculture is accelerating species extinction

This week on 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley reports of what scientists call the sixth mass extinction. There have been five major mortalities in the history of our planet, when at least 75% of known species disappeared. The last mass extinction was 66 million years ago, when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Now scientists think humans are accelerating another mass annihilation of plants and animals. Among the causes this time are pollution, habitat destruction, overexploitation of resources and climate change.

Mexican ecologist Gerardo Ceballos is one of the world’s leading extinction scientists. He explained to us how serious the situation has become over the last century.

Gerardo Ceballos: Only 2% of big fish were in the oceans 50 years ago. Only 2% live. We lost about 70% of all the animals that were on the planet. All the big animals, all the mammals, the birds, 70% gone since 1918. In Southeast Asia, you know, we’ve lost 90% of the Southeast Asian rainforest since 2000. So, our impact is so massive that we have become this meteorite that impacts the planet. The difference with the previous mass extinction is that it took tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of years to occur. In this particular case, it’s happening so fast, now in just two or three decades – even species that aren’t directly affected by the extinction crisis won’t have enough time to evolve and survive this impact that we do.

Every two years, the World Wildlife Fund produces a document called the “living planet report”. This is a biannual bulletin that details the health of planet Earth’s wildlife, showing the average decline in species populations since they were first monitored in 1970.

Rebecca Shaw: We saw a very big change between the 2018 report and the 2020 report that surprised us. It went from 64% to 68%. We would not expect to see such a drop in two years.

Rebecca Shaw is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President of World Wildlife Fund.

Rebecca Shaw: The thing that undermines populations of species globally, the first thing is habitat destruction. And this habitat destruction usually comes from the expansion of agricultural land. So mow the rainforest to plant soybeans, or to plant corn, or to graze cows. We no longer have the services that these rainforests provide to us, like stabilizing the planet’s climate, like stabilizing weather patterns, like producing food and fresh water. We use 70% of all the fresh water on the planet to irrigate our crops.

Scott Pelley: Did you just say that 70% of the fresh water on the planet is used for irrigation?

Rebecca Shaw: Yes, is modified for food production and irrigation purposes.

Scott Pelley: Is there anything that can be done to reverse this process? And if so, what is it?

Rebecca Shaw: One of the most important things we can do moving forward is to really improve what we produce, where we produce it, how we produce it. Make sure we eat planet and species friendly food and don’t waste food. Currently, 40% of all food produced is wasted. And if so, that means you have to take 40% more from nature to produce that food. And so, stop wasting food.

60 Minutes scientists said that without changing our behaviors, this extinction crisis would become irreversible.

Rebecca Shaw: None of the dinosaurs survived the last mass extinction. Humans will not survive this mass extinction.

Scott Pelley: Why not?

Rebecca Shaw: Because we need nature, natural resources, stability of nature and stability of climate so badly to thrive. And if we don’t thrive, if we don’t have food to eat, fresh water, clean air, we can’t thrive and we can’t survive. I really feel that we have the chance and the opportunity to work together to stop climate change, to stop the decline of biodiversity. And we do it for our own good. And I think we’ll be fine. We just need to figure it out faster than we probably will.

Scott Pelley: It has to happen in this generation?

Rebecca Shaw: Yes. It does.

The video above was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.

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