Biodiversity refers to the variation across all different organisms from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. It is this variety that has allowed life to thrive in all types of different habitats for millions of years on this planet.
But thanks to us, this diversity is decreasing. With latest estimates suggesting the extinction rate is 1000 times higher than it was before humans took the place as the dominant species.
This is due mainly to habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation of resources, introduction of invasive species and of course climate change.
So to halt and even reverse this worrying trend in biodiversity loss, these are the things we need to tackle. That is mainly going to come through significant change at policy and at a collective individual level. But on this blog we like to look to innovation for a helping hand too. So here are 9 innovative solutions to biodiversity loss that will hopefully help us with this challenge.
1) Reforestation drones
Habitat loss and fragmentation caused by deforestation is a leading cause of biodiversity loss. Often due to uncontrolled logging, urban expansion and agricultural land use change. Current estimates predict all tropical forests could be lost in under 250 years.
The simplest solution is to stop cutting so many trees down in the first place. But to help regenerate areas of forest quickly and to fill in gaps that are segregating habitats, tree planting will give a helping hand with the process of natural regeneration.
But tree planting by hand is slow and labour intensive. So a company from the UK called Biocarbon Engineering has come up with a potential solution.
Their solution was the brain child of a NASA engineer, a drone that shoots trees into the ground!
Firstly, the area of regeneration is mapped by the drone. Then the done will fly around 2 to 3 meters above the surface shooting biodegradable seed pods into the soil which contain all the nutrients the tree needs to start growing.
Biocarbon Engineering estimate this speeds up planting of trees 10x and at 15% of the cost. This has lead them to predict by 2022 they will be planting 1 billion trees each year!
The aim is to give these drones to reforestation organizations to allow them to scale up much more quickly and kick start forest recovery.
2) Deep learning AI
Hunting and poaching of wildlife has become an increasing problem in many areas over time. With the financial rewards for the targeted species increasing as they become rarer and rarer. This has meant poachers have become more sophisticated, embracing new technology such as night vision and military style weapons.
So conservationists have got to adapt too, in order to stay one step ahead of them. One recent solution they have turned to is deep learning artificial intelligence (AI).
AI has the ability to perform tasks much quicker than humans. For a human to look through hundreds of images of sharks to spot how many different individuals there are would take hours. But AI can perform this same task in seconds. And when working in high pressure situations against poachers, any time savings are critical.
Microsoft AI for Earth and a company called Gramener put this to the test with salmon. The AI processed hundreds of hours of video, identifying species with high accuracy and over 80% faster than a human could perform the same task.
Organizations such as Save the Elephants are now putting the technology to the test by using the it from anti-poaching aircraft. The plane can fly over vast landscapes, capturing footage of the ground below. The AI can then identify specific herds and even individuals that may be very tricky to spot with the human eye and quickly distinguish from other animals such as cattle.
3) Cultured beef
Our appetite for meat is huge, 2 billion people in the world live on a diet based primarily on meat.
This is predicted to keep rising as more countries develop and are able to afford the luxury of eating beef. If current trends continue, we could see land use for livestock production increase by 30 to 50%
Currently, the only way to produce meat is by rearing animals until they get big enough to kill and consume. This practice requires huge amounts of land, especially for beef production, and that isn’t just land for the cows themselves but is often land dedicated to producing food for the cows. The crazy statistic is that it takes on average 25 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of beef!
The easiest solution is getting people to eat less beef and meat in general, and this is happening in developed nations, but slowly. But as a species we have a strong cultural connection to eating meant and so a disruptive solution is required to slow down rapid deforestation before it is too late.
One solution is to accept people will carry on wanting to eat beef and so we must find a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to do so. This solution may be cultured meat.
Originally known as ‘lab-grown meat’ the product is going through a re-brand to make it more appealing to consumers. The meat is not a meat-substitute such as Quorn, but is the real thing, just produced in a different way. The difference is that instead of rearing and slaughtering large animals it is done using intro-vitro cultivation.
Methods were taken from medical research, where scientists had figured out how to regenerate organic tissues. This lead to Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University showcasing the first ‘cultured burger patty’ in 2013.
Many companies around the world are working on this technology and trying to get it to market, with the main barriers being cost and ensuring the taste matches the real thing.
But if they succeed the outlook is promising for biodiversity as scientists predict for every hectare used to produce cultured meat, 10 to 20 hectares can be returned to it’s natural state and biodiversity will hopefully return to those areas.
I spoke to cultured meat startup SuperMeat from Israel in the podcast, click below to listen and find out more:
4) Vertical ocean farming
Biodiversity loss isn’t just limited to the land, with human actions impacting the oceans too.
Sea life has been impacted through pollution and climate change but the ecosystem has also been heavily impacted by overfishing.
Overfishing occurs when fish are caught from the ocean at a faster rate than the populations can replenish.
The change from the traditional methods of catching fish on a line to the larger and larger fishing trawlers towing industrial size nets has led to some shocking declines. Cod off the coast of Canada down 90% since 1950, global populations of Pacific bluefish tuna are at just 3.3% of its unfished level.
Many other sea creatures such as oysters have been severely overfished and the practices to catch them now involve scrapping the bottom of the ocean, catching all sorts of unintended fish and also destroying the habitat at the same time.
These shocking declines made fisherman Bren Smith realise he had to come up with a solution, in order to stop the oceans from completely being emptied of life. So he co-founded GreenWave, a charity which promotes the use of restorative vertical ocean farming.
Vertical ocean farming is described by Bren as an ‘underwater garden’ where they grow kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters mimicking the habitats that would have previously existed.
Having these gardens removes the need to trawl the ocean floor with large nets and they can even provide food for other wildlife such as fish and seals. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the seaweeds and shellfish is that they require no fresh water, feed or fertilizer, dramatically reducing the overall environmental impact and keeping costs down.
5) Microalgae as a palm oil alternative
It wasn’t until the last few years that people have begun to appreciate the true impact of palm oil on biodiversity. When pictures of rainforest being felled to make room for palm oil plantations went viral, many people then realised the oil was in virtually every household product from shampoo to chocolate.
Palm oil is now the biggest cause of deforestation in Indonesia, these are rainforests which are home to high levels of biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) predicts 54% of the worlds threatened mammals and 65% of our threatened birds are affected by the industry.
But the problem is we are now so reliant on the oil and its properties for so many products we use daily. And simply switching to other oils could actually be much worse as they often require more land due to lower yields.
A big part of the solution is using less of the substance and where we do use it to source it sustainably. But scientists are also trying to come up with alternatives that could have similar properties, but without the need for such large areas of land.
TerraVia are a California based biotechnology company that are pioneering the use of microalgae for use in biodiesel but are beginning to expand the technology into manufacturing of soaps and cosmetics, replacing the need for palm oil.
This microalgae can be grown in a brewery-style factory and rapidly. Rather than slowly over vast areas of previously forested land.
The jury is still out on viability and the full life cycle environmental benefits of this technology though so we will have to wait and see on this one.
6) Sniffer dogs in conservation
Not all disruptive solutions have to be tech-based, sometimes it is about using existing ideas and tools in a new way.
Sniffer dogs have been used by security companies and police for many years to track down explosives and drugs in airports and other areas. But the utilisation of man’s best friend in conservation has only started to gain traction more recently.
We have had camera traps for a while, but these are stationary and some companies have even attempted to make machines that can be used to ‘sniff out’ these endangered species. But nobody has been able to replicate the trusty dog.
Certain animals which are secretive and which have declined to very low numbers are hard to track in the wild using the human senses. We have bad eyesight, terrible sense of smell and our hearing isn’t too great either. If we can’t easily track down these rare animals we have no idea if conservation efforts are working.
Companies such as Conservation K9 consulting are using tracking dogs in the UK to find endangered elusive pine marten in remote forest areas. They are also using dogs at wind farms to find the carcases of bats which have been struck and killed by the blade. This provides vital feedback on the impact of the turbine on that group of species. Bat carcases are tiny and finding them as a human in long grass would be almost impossible.
7) Super coral
Coral reefs are present in oceans all over the world and are formed when tiny organisms known as polyps form limestone skeletons which is the ‘coral’ we all know.
The ecosystem of a reef is made up of many different kinds of coral and when healthy are full of life with sea turtles, seahorses, fish, shrimp, lobsters and much more. In fact, according to the IUCN, coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally, with a quarter of the worlds fish spending time in this habitat. So it isn’t hard to see how any impact on coral reefs leads to a loss in biodiversity as the habitat is lost.
50% of all coral reefs have already been lost and 75% of coral reefs are now endangered.
Many human pressures have caused these impacts on coral reefs. Pollution and sediment discharge from development have caused reefs such as the Rio Bueno Wall in Jamaica to completely die in under two weeks. A habitat that had been there for thousands of years.
But one of the biggest problems for coral is climate change. Even just a small rise in sea temperature over such a short period of time is causing coral to ‘bleach’. This is when they expel algae which lives in their tissue which gives them colour, leaving them white, hence the term ‘bleaching’. If this continues for a while the corals eventually die.
This lead Professor Ruth Gates to look for a solution. Realising that corals could not adapt fast enough to cope with rapidly rising global temperatures and so created a lab in Hawaii to give them a helping hand.
Professor Gates and the team sought out the corals that seem to be able to survive the warmest temperatures, then selectively bred with them with one another to produce the very best. These corals were then exposed to stressful conditions in the lab which will allow them to be more prepared for the same conditions in the wild. And finally they provided the coral with algae and bacteria which will help it deal with harsher conditions. After this they were left with a series of ‘super corals’ which would be much better adapted to life in warmer oceans.
Unfortunately, Professor Ruth Gates passed away in 2018 but her legacy live on and the Ruth Gates Coral Lab continues with this vital work now.
8) Inflatable bladders for boat
Invasive or alien species are those that are introduced by humans into a new habitat where they don’t naturally occur.
They spread by all sorts of human processes. Certain plants were introduced as ornamental garden species and escaped into the wild, whilst other species such as the cane toad were introduced for pest control. But many invasive species are spread around simply by accident.
The impact of invasive species on biodiversity can be huge, with a new competitor introduced into an ecosystem that hasn’t evolved to cope with it. The native species can’t adapt and they are often out competed or wiped out by the new invasive species.
One of the ways this happens is through sea creatures getting into the ballast tanks in ships. Ballast tanks take in water to improve stability when the ship departs and discharged when it arrives at it’s destination (which could be thousands of miles away.
A team of designers have come up with a potential solution to this problem that could help prevent the spread of invasive species. For this they looked to the process of ‘biomimicry’.
Biomimicry is the idea of copying processes from nature in human design. The designers looked at how fish maintain balance underwater and realised the inflatable swim bladder could be copied in ships too. The invention is a series of inflatable bladders that can be inflated with air when the ship departs and deflated when it arrives, therefore ridding the need to take in water and transport invasive species.
To find out more about the process of biomimicry, listen to the below episode of the podcast where I spoke to someone from the Biomimicry Institute.
9) Wildflower tapestry lawns
We seem to be obsessed with keeping things neat and tidy. That is fine in the home, too much mess there can be bad for our health. However, when we extend this tidiness to the outside it can have negative impacts on biodiversity. And one place where this tidiness obsession occurs across many countries is grass lawns.
Naturally grasslands are tall and full of wild flowers, yes they can be grazed naturally in the wild, but not to the extent we trim them with our lawnmowers. This doesn’t just happen in our homes but on public roadsides and parks too.
But not everyone wants to have a wildflower meadow growing tall in their garden and so tapestry lawns or ‘grass-free lawns’ provide an alternative that look neat and tidy but still have many benefits for biodiversity.
The increased number of plants in the lawn dramatically increases the number of insects and in turn that has benefits for other wildlife up the food chain such as birds.
So there you have it, 9 innovative solutions to biodiversity loss that could help us reverse some of the worrying trends we are seeing.
Like with everything on this website, I’m not suggesting these types of innovation will be enough on their own and must accompany the dramatic change in policy and behavior. The best thing we can do is return the habitats to the way they once were, stop overexploiting resources and also……stop releasing your pets into the wild!