Farmers on the Frontlines of Looming Biodiversity Crisis

One million species at risk of extinction.

If you’ve followed the news this week, you’ve probably read that harrowing headline. A recent report from an international group of experts called IPBES describes how our choices—what we eat, how we live, and what we value—are reshaping the planet we call home. Unfortunately, our choices are making our planet inhospitable for life.

For example, as a country, we’ve chosen to invest heavily in a safety net for farmers called the Federal Crop Insurance Program. The U.S. spends about $9 billion annually to subsidize farmer premiums, reimburse private insurers for their operating costs, and share the cost of any insured losses. This program has helped countless farmers weather bad years, but it’s not yet fine tuned to help farmers deal with the realities of the looming biodiversity crisis. 

From losses in economic revenue, to collapsing pollinator populations, to reductions in microbial diversity, the IPBES report makes it clear that farmers are on the front lines of this biodiversity crisis. The report estimates “between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss.” Yet Federal Crop Insurance misses an opportunity to reward farmers who use practices that support pollinators, microbial diversity, and economic resiliency, such as cover crops or diverse crop rotations. 

But amidst the dire warnings is a glimmer of hope: We can make better choices and change course. Nature is amazingly resilient. By transforming what we value and invest in as a society, we can restore balance and walk back from the brink. Global action, such as protecting 30 percent of Earth’s lands and oceans as protected areas by 2030, is necessary, and there are also actions we can take right here in the U.S. to support our farmers and protect biodiversity.

For example, Illinois is considering offering farmers who plant cover crops a $5 per acre reward on their crop insurance bills. Cover crops feed microbial diversity in the soil and provide additional habitat for pollinators, mammals, birds, and other species during times of the year when fields would otherwise be bare. You can read more from our partners American Farmland Trust, and sign a petition supporting such a program here.

Nationally, programs like the new Soil Health Demonstration Trial have the potential to support the regenerative agricultural systems that can help restore biodiversity. And changes to existing agricultural policies, like the Federal Crop Insurance Program, can further scale agricultural transformation.

These policy initiatives are important steps toward rethinking what we invest in as a society and supporting farmers as important partners in protecting the planet we call home.

To support the effort to increase cover crops in Illinois, please sign the petition here.

About the Authors

Claire O'Connor

Director, Water & Agriculture, Water Division, Nature Program

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