“Conservation nearly always means climate protection”

As Director of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt am Main, Professor Katrin Böhning-Gaese explores the coexistence of people and nature. In our interview she explains why the loss of biodiversity is a threat to humans and how we can rescue nature.

RNE: Katrin Böhning-Gaese, the more bird species there are around us, the happier we humans are. That’s one of the findings of your research. But the birds are vanishing. What’s going on in nature right now?

Katrin Böhning-Gaese: The number of partridges has fallen by 91 percent within 25 years, with lapwings it’s as much as around 93 percent, and the skylark population has halved. This is because the productivity of agriculture has been going up and up since the Second World War. That was necessary to begin with – I mean, we needed food to eat. But the extent of what today is almost industrial land use is causing massive damage.

What exactly is affecting the birds?

Everything is geared towards getting as much as possible out of the land. So hedges have disappeared, and the resulting larger fields are being harvested to depletion with big heavy machinery. Lots of pesticides and fertilisers are used. And – this is perhaps the worst thing – we have lost so many meadows and pastures to make way for monotonous fields of corn or other energy crops for biogas plants. We don’t allow our fellow creatures a single scrap of farmland.

Are the problems in the forests even bigger than in the fields?

Our long-term data shows that the sharp decline in birds is a problem of the agricultural landscape. The birds in the forests, on the other hand, are on the increase again. Also in wetlands and cities, the populations are at least stable.

So the trend is positive?

Species like the black woodpecker that breed in huge old trees have a problem. The German state of Hesse has, irresponsibly, just scrapped protection for old beech trees in protected areas. Now they can be cut down again. But yes, there are also birds that benefit from trees dying, because they love woodland habitats with light and warmth. And in less dense forests, the sun can penetrate right through to the ground. That’s why the woodlark, for example, is returning in some places. Aside from that, there are projects where cows and other large grazing animals help protect the diversity of the forest.

Cows in the forest?

In the Swabian Alps, for instance, cows graze in a forest. They eat away at the undergrowth so there is space for all kinds of shrubs, grasses, insects and birds.

How dramatic is the loss of biodiversity overall?

Our trees are not critically endangered; currently it’s primarily spruce trees in monocultures that are dying, which were not native anyway. Here and there, beech trees are also suffering, but much less severely. However, almost half of all bird species in Germany are at risk of extinction because they can no longer find insects or seeds to eat or there are no hiding places or nesting sites anymore. The birds are a sign that entire ecosystems are becoming more unstable.

The Joint Action for Sustainable Development has declared biodiversity a focus topic for 2024. At the time, you said the climate crisis would determine how we live in the future, the biodiversity crisis whether or not we survive. What is the threat to humans?

If biodiversity disappeared from the Earth altogether, we would have no air left to breathe, no clean water, no food, no medication, no clothes. And a depleted landscape can also make us sick and sad. Singing birds, on the other hand, boost our psyche.

According to a study by the MaLisa Foundation, only 0.2 percent of broadcast minutes on television deal directly with species extinction. Why are the dangers not a bigger issue?

The loss of biodiversity is subtle; we don’t really notice it. Even though we perhaps learned to love nature during the pandemic, there’s still a big distance. Who is familiar with the skylark? We’re used to the supermarkets being stocked full of fruits, vegetables and nuts and, at best, we sit up and take notice when the price of coffee goes up…

…because the few high-output varieties can no longer cope with climate change. Do you envy climate activists because they can argue their case with CO2 limits?

Not at all. The simplification has led to the climate debate always revolving around technical solutions alone, like wind turbines and solar plants. But to protect the climate we also need to look after our forests and our seas with their seagrass meadows, which absorb a lot of carbon. It’s been factored in far too late that conservation always means climate protection as well.

Does nature need to be left in peace?

When it comes to producing food or wood, we need to work in harmony with nature, operate with more consideration for the environment, water and the climate. But of course we also have to leave nature alone sometimes. Germany has committed with Europe to protecting 30 percent of land and sea areas, with 30 percent of that then being placed under strict protection, which means monitoring how the territory is reclaimed by nature.

Do we need more protected areas or better ones?

In Germany we are presumed to be close to the 30 percent already. What we need is more quality. Even in the Wadden Sea National Park, which is protected under all categories and is even a World Heritage Site, crab fishers in the core zone can drop their bottom trawl nets, which destroy the sea floor. It’s embarrassing that we expect Tanzania or Brazil to set up large protected areas that are unused by humans, but back home we allow anything to happen.

How wild can we go when we seemingly can’t even cope with wolves?

We think that Germany is a densely populated country and we can’t even make room for nature. And yet there are good examples of this. On the Darß peninsula on the coast of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, they’re letting the coast just be coast. Sea eagles have started circling around there again. In autumn, red deer bellow and thousands of cranes migrate. That fascinates not just biodiversity researchers like me, but also lots of tourists – who bring money.

So nature tourism alone will do the job?

No, meat consumption needs to go down. That’s the key, plain and simple. Meat has a particularly large biodiversity footprint.

Why does meat have such a large biodiversity footprint?

Growing crops for animal feed, like soya, requires huge swathes of land, often in species-rich regions such as Brazil. If everyone ate just 300 grammes of meat per week – so if we went back to just the Sunday roast – that would have an enormous impact.

So telling people what to eat?

That’s a very personal topic, of course – and it’s also just a recommendation. And meat consumption is already falling. The food industry has long since responded, and is altering its range and offering plant-based alternatives to meat and milk. The behaviour of each and every one of us puts pressure on the economy. It reacts to trends, and market research also tries to anticipate these. Many businesses are now also trying to become nature-positive. They ascertain the impact of their activities on nature and then set themselves appropriate goals.

What do you expect from policymakers?

Those who lead the way always run the risk of being pushed out of the market if the conditions are not right. So the government should, for example, increase VAT on meat and reduce it to zero for plant-based products.

And if this doesn’t fit the zeitgeist?

At the moment there are many people who maybe see it as a loss if meat is no longer “in”, or if they can no longer drive to their old car park because it’s been replaced by a park. That’s why, for example, there needs to be a much wider debate at a local level around how we really want to live. It’s been proven, for instance, that people feel better when there is plenty of green space nearby. But a government definitely shouldn’t give as much audience to individuals on big tractors as it is currently doing. We need nature for a good life.



Professor Katrin Böhning-Gaese, a biologist specialising in ornithology, is Director of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, winner of the German Environmental Award 2021 and a member of Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences. Her latest book, co-written with Friederike Bauer, is called Vom Verschwinden der Arten – Der Kampf um die Zukunft der Menschheit [On the Disappearance of Species – The Fight for the Future of Humanity]. In January 2023 she was appointed a member of the German Council for Sustainable Development.


Biodiversity and the Joint Action for Sustainable Development

This interview kicked off a series by the Joint Action for Sustainable Development, who have declared Biodiversity one of their focus topics for 2024. Because, along with the climate crisis, the dramatic decline in biodiversity is the existential threat of our time. Biodiversity is the very basis for our life on this planet. Whether in urban planning, construction, corporate supply chains, our consumer behaviour, agriculture and land use or fighting the climate crisis – biodiversity plays a pivotal role everywhere. Find more information, offers and materials on the topic here.