Our biodiversity loss is off the radar at the moment – how can businesses help getting things right?

Interview Steve Kennedy

“Our biodiversity loss is off the radar at the moment, it is over a thousand times greater than what would be a natural loss of biodiversity. And businesses play a very big and very critical role here: they own and manage a big part of our ecological landscapes,” says Associate Professor Steve Kennedy.

Dr. Steve Kennedy is Associate Professor corporate sustainability at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. He is the academic director of the Master’s program Global Business & Sustainability. He is also scientific director of the Centre for Eco-Transformation.

What are the biggest problems landscapes are facing nowadays?

“In 2018, the ENABLE project set-up an experiential learning visit to Murcia, in Spain, where I and others got to see the significant problems first-hand. The problems in Murcia are seen in many areas across Europe, and the world. Modern agricultural practices focused on high yield crops and optimising short-term returns have caused landscape degradation. Water is being used at unsustainable rates, monocropping has reduced biodiversity, whilst valuable topsoil and nutrients are constantly being lost to water systems. More and more artificial fertilizers are being added to the lands. This adds to climate emissions and mostly runs off into the water causing eutrophication that restricts the oxygen left for river and marine life. If you look at the Gulf of Mexico, there is a large dead-zone area because of all the artificial fertilizers coming from the fields around the Mississippi river.”

And what can be done about this?

“There are number of things we can do: try to retain the nutrients locally, restrict the use of artificial fertilizers, and retain the water. In Murcia there are real big problems with drought. Farms can include features such as water retention basins, swales and incorporate trees to retain water. They are also great for supporting the stability of soil and providing crops with windbreaks. Another important issue to talk about is the diversity of flora and fauna on farms and landscapes.”

Why are a diversity of flora and fauna important for farms and landscapes?

“My research focuses on the concept of resilience. We are trying to support socio-ecological systems of which, if there is a shock or disturbance of that system, the system itself is able to retain its basic functioning. You can think about acute shocks like an extreme weather event or outbreak of pests, but also something happening over a longer period of time like climate change. Diversity of flora and fauna provides ecosystems with safety nets. If one species is badly impacted, another is there to continue vital ecological processes.
And then we look at how organisations can, and have to, care about their own resilience. How can they be resilient, to the shocks that will come? These things are inseparable: if you take care of the resilience of the socio-ecological systems, this should support business resilience as well.”

“These things are inseparable: if you take care of the resilience of the socio-ecological systems, this should support business resilience as well”

Can you give an example of resilience?

“Resilience can be built in many different ways.  For instance, we can consider how farmers use regenerative practices to build the diversity and the redundancy of species within ecosystems. Farmers may choose to grow multiple types of crops using techniques of intercropping and multicropping. This will promote biodiversity and also mean the farmer is more resilient to shocks (such as disease) than farmers that monocrop.
I’m currently working on a paper to build a resilience framework for measuring biodiversity impact. How do organizations improve or reduce biodiversity of ecosystems? It is not about simply tallying the number of animals and plants within an area. It is about a basic understanding of what kind of flora and fauna does an ecosystem need to function well? What species are key to ecosystem change? Where are the critical limits? Can we understand the feedback within a system so that we do not trespass these limits and move the ecosystem to acting very differently? On a global scale transgressing our planetary boundaries such as on climate change will significantly impact how our ecosystems work. Many ecosystems may face much worsened conditions and critical species may not live well in warmer conditions. Resilience asks us to build the adaptive capacity to stay within these boundaries, whilst simultaneously considering our abilities to transform." 

What is the role for businesses in this story?

“Businesses play a very big and very critical role here, because they own and manage a big part of ecosystems and landscapes. And the landscapes are so important to businesses: they provide us with food, fibres, medicines, they stabilise our climate, circulate our water, and the recreation and tourism industry depends on them as well. It really works both ways. Businesses really need flourishing landscapes. For that to happen, we need to work on business models that help create and maintain flourishing landscapes.
We are currently waiting to start a new European wide project called ‘Arcadia’ (if it gets funded, fingers crossed!) that will encompass 20 PhD-students researching across different European countries, from the Netherlands to Bulgaria, to Sweden, to Italy. We will develop business cases for all these different kinds of landscapes across Europe: how can we restore these landscapes? How can we make low-carbon landscapes? How can they help the local communities as well?”

“Businesses really need flourishing landscapes. For that to happen, we need to work on business models that help create and maintain flourishing landscapes”

How important is it to take action?

“There are two main ways in which the Earth system is now getting pushed into a new regime. That is climate change, and biosphere integrity. Our biodiversity loss is off the radar at the moment, it is about thousand times greater than what would be a natural loss of biodiversity, all because of the effect of humans and organisations. We are losing our genetic gene pool at a rapid pace. Who knows what kind of medicines we will need in the future, what plants we will need: will they still exist? New viruses will come. Think about losing water circulation, losing climate stabilization, et cetera: all these wonderful things that animals and plants manage for us. If you look at the statistics, you could find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. The situation is very grim. Last year about 15.000 scientist wrote a piece, saying: ‘we have a massive biosphere integrity-emergency at the moment’.
I enjoy working together with students on these challenges, because they have hope, and they have new and innovative ideas. Climate change and biodiversity loss are the big challenges of our time. We are fortunate enough to understand that these are the challenges of our time, and critically we are in a position to do something about it.”

“We are fortunate enough to know that climate change and biodiversity loss are the big challenges of our time: and we are in a position to do something about it”

Associate professor
More information

One part of the Centre for Eco-Transformationis the European Network for the Advancement of Business and Landscape Education (ENABLE): a multidisciplinary European funded network that focusses on climate change and biosphere integrity in Europe. Its function is to create awareness about the functioning of ecosystems and the benefits of sustainable landscape management worldwide. With ENABLE, Steve Kennedy has helped creat two MOOC’s to introduce what we call a business approach to sustainable landscape restoration.