An exposé of the future of ecosystems and the ecosystems of the future
The unnatural separation between humans and the world’s ecosystems is a key cause of the steadily worsening biodiversity crisis and the degradation of so many natural habitats on our planet. 2021 is the first year of the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration announced by the United Nations, in which decisive action is to be taken to reverse this trend. For wildlife habitats, the most important goal may be preservation or restoration, but for our cultural landscape – i.e. where we live and operate – the issue will be people’s new attitude towards “nature.” The big challenge for us will be to understand ourselves as living organisms directly connected to and dependent on these ecosystems. Steinbeis expert Professor Dr. Michael Weiß presents his vision of how.
As ecosystems in their own right, soils play a central role in modern-day ecological research. Rapid developments, particularly in the high-throughput sequencing of minute amounts of DNA, are providing us with increasingly detailed insights into the full spectrum of organisms in soils. A key characteristic of healthy soils is an abundance of biodiversity, dominated by fungi and bacteria, with animals and plants performing a less significant role. The methods available to us at the moment still have a long way to go to provide us with a proper understanding of the complexity of interactions between different organisms, however. What we do know with certainty is that methods developed in the industrialized nations in the last century with respect to nutrition and the protection of agricultural crops largely neglected this complexity.
Fungi and food waste support sustainable crop production
Industrially produced salts requiring large amounts of energy (artificial fertilizers) and increasingly effective organic pesticides are still the central pillars of modern industrial farming. This is fueling continual decline in humus, the organic component of soil. In turn, a large number of soil organisms (the edaphon) have vanished, leaving soil compacted and eroded, with decreasing capacity to absorb recently applied fertilizers, which then end up in the streams, rivers, and groundwater.
For some time, the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Organismal Mycology and Microbiology has been working on transferring the findings of fundamental biological research into methods of sustainable plant cultivation. Its current focus lies in fungal strains that colonize plant roots, resulting on the one hand in interactions that have a systemic impact on growth promotion. On the other hand, the strains make plants more resilient to various types of biological stress (e.g., drought, pathogenic fungi or bacteria, or animal pests). The second area of focus for the Steinbeis expert lies in the development of plant-based fertilizers from the material flows of food production, which were previously underexploited and offer an opportunity to raise long-term humus content and improve the ability of soil to store water. By not sidestepping into composting, which results in half of the energy offered by raw materials being lost, innovative fertilizers support the food chains of soil life directly in the areas around roots, which is beneficial to plant crops. But this is just one step of many in making ecosystems sustainable.
Human life in 2050
Michael Weiß is responsible for the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Organismal Mycology and Microbiology. To illustrate how to improve developments in the ecosystems of our cultural landscape in the coming decades, he fast-forwards to the year 2050 and takes a look back at changes over the last 30 years.
It’s 2050. Our cities are interwoven with a rich and diverse cultural landscape. We have succeeded in halting further eradication of natural countryside and the colossal levels of land consumption for industrial farming prevalent until the 2020s. Just as importantly, this was made possible by no longer keeping animals for meat production. In 2020, 60% of agricultural land was still being used to grow feeds for animals, which only provided two percent of calories required by humans. To do this, more and more forests were being cleared. Today, in 2050, we only use the most fertile arable land to grow our food. This has enabled us to turn our cultural landscape back into highly diverse habitats. To this end, we systematically restricted field sizes. Every field is now surrounded by hedges or coppices. This change alone has helped reduce soil erosion, which in the early 20th century resulted in over 10 million hectares of fertile land being lost worldwide every year. Many fields are surrounded by coppiced land which is used to produce timber materials for industrial requirements. Such hedges and coppices alternate with herbaceous strips of land rich in biodiversity. This diversity around the fields ensures pollinating insects are able to find suitable habitats.
The widespread reduction in meat production has led to stronger demand for plant proteins in our diets.Cereals are now mostly grown in mixed crops with legumes. A major advantage of this is that legumes help supply cereal crops with nutrients through their root symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
In keeping with regional and local conditions, a variety of agroforestry systems have developed worldwide, with both crops and woody plants grown side by side. Trees and shrubs act as windbreaks for fields. Planted in the right density, they also provide shade and help reduce heat stress for field crops. The foliage of trees contributes to the natural humus fertilization of the land. This also significantly reduces surface erosion. The overall productivity of such systems is consistently higher than wood-free farming, which was still dominant worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century.
Energy production in 2050
The energy required to power our fully electric agricultural machinery in 2050 is produced by different forms of field-based agro-photovoltaic systems. The modules these contain are entirely transparent to allow crops more sensitive to heat stress to thrive underneath them. The large number of ecological niches that characterize today’s cultural landscape have resulted in a halt in insect decline and a continual rise in the biodiversity of our cultural landscapes. Following the ban on biomass burning for energy production in the 2020s and a steady rise in the share of timber production associated with coppices around fields and agroforestry systems, there has been a decisive reduction in the pressure to exploit our forests. Today, basically only the edges of forests are used, resulting in minimal soil damage following the abandonment of combine harvesters and large farming vehicles. Inside forested areas, while the roads and path networks are safeguarded by regular tree maintenance such that forests are still among the most popular areas for recreation, only few interventions are made in areas away from trails, so that forests are well on the way to developing into modern virgin forests. As a rule, deadwood is no longer removed but remains in the forest. This has allowed the forests of Central Europe to once again become effective regulators of the regional climate and develop into highly biodiverse ecosystems that capture increasing volumes of carbon dioxide in the soil through continual rises in the proportion of humus.
Following the complete renunciation of fossil carbon and biomass combustion, carbon fixation in the soil became the most effective tool in enabling Europe to succeed in becoming climate-neutral and thus meet the goal laid down by the EU Green Deal in the early 2020s. This success gives us hope that we will eventually succeed in limiting global warming to under 1.5˚C this century. A decisive contribution to this was made by the widespread rewetting of bogs and peatland, which was drained in the 20th century for peat extraction and to make way for agricultural land. The return of peatlands, which are once again storing growing amounts of carbon, became possible when vast swathes of land used by the meat industry for feed production were no longer needed. Slurry spreading on open land has also been discontinued, resulting in a reduction in nitrate contamination in the groundwater. Grasslands now primarily consist of biodiverse meadows, which rather than being harvested to supply livestock feed are only cut once or twice a year to produce plant fibers. In combination with wood from managed land and coppice areas next to fields, plant fibers play a pivotal role in providing raw materials required for both the production of packaging materials and biorefineries. Foams – that only several decades ago were still manufactured from synthetic plastics – are now mostly produced by using fungal mycelia based on plant fibers.
Our cities in the year 2050
The appearance of our cities has changed radically over the past 30 years. After systematically limiting the number of cars used by individuals, tarmac and concrete could be removed from many spaces previously used as parking lots or roads and the land could be returned to nature. Green facades and roofs have become standard practice. The number of trees in urban areas has risen sharply. Most of these trees are being cultivated along the lines of the Stockholm biochar technique developed at the beginning of the century. Biochar is produced by pyrolysis of biomass in the absence of oxygen. This involves heating the biomass to temperatures of 600 to 800°C, which completely converts it into carbon chars. Synthesis gases produced by this process are extracted and burned in a low-emission combustion chamber, generating the heat and electricity required for the process. Surplus heat is fed into local heating networks. Biochar is highly effective at retaining water and nutrients due to its immense inner pore surface. This allows it to act as a valuable substrate for plant life. Its long half-life also offers long-term benefits to the atmosphere by acting as a carbon sink. More and more inner-city soil is being replaced by this substrate, which is ideal for sequestering rainwater.
One outstandingly successful model, which almost every city has now joined, was the Edible Cities network launched at the beginning of the century. Fruit trees are now highly prevalent in urban areas, and a large number of city parks have been planted with berry bushes and vegetables that are free for all residents to use. Community-based urban gardening and urban farming projects make a significant contribution to meeting the food requirements of the urban population – another factor that has improved the quality of life in cities and formed a link between people and the fundamental source of their livelihoods.
Three factors that will shape the journey ahead
Michael Weiß’s conclusion for his vision of the year 2050: “Looking back, we can see that there were three critical factors that made an effective turnaround for the better possible, two of which were the products of globalization. First, in the early 2020s a highly motivated generation of young people saw the acute threat to their own future and succeeded in organizing themselves into a dynamic movement on a global scale, rallying increasingly large swathes of the older population behind them and thus asserting the required political pressure to take action. Second, indigenous people increasingly had a say in this global movement, offering their valuable experience with alternative ways for us to use our natural resources. And finally, a new feature of democracy at that time that came with the emergence of citizen councils at various levels within politics played an increasingly successful role in resolving and healing polarization and divisions in society.” What was the key outcome of these processes? A broad realization that human life is only possible in the long term within functioning ecosystems. The term “nature conservation,” which is still in wide use today, will give way to different approaches to preserving and actively creating biodiverse ecosystems. In 2050, we will preserve the planet’s surviving ancient wildernesses in many protected areas and make shaping and caring for the ecosystems in which we live our number one priority.
Prof. Dr. Michael Weiß (author)
Steinbeis Innovation Center Organismal Mycology and Microbiology (Tübingen)