The world has lost 68 percent of wildlife species since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund, a global nonprofit. This represents a staggering loss of what scientists call biodiversity, a crucial metric of environmental health.
"If you begin to reduce or remove animals and plants from any ecosystem, the way it functions begins to unravel, and that's what's happening now," Rebecca Shaw, global chief scientist for World Wildlife Fund, told Cheddar. "Biodiversity then is under threat primarily from habitat destruction and over-harvest."
This steep reduction in biodiversity has serious implications not just for the animal kingdom but for humans as well.
"All of the species in an ecosystem play a role in delivering benefits to humans," she said. "We call them ecosystem services, because they're services that come from the ecosystem like clean air or clean water. So when we reduce populations of animal or plant species, we reduce the capacity of an ecosystem to deliver those services."
She pointed to one study showing that three billion birds are missing from North American skies, which has implications for crucial environmental processes such as pollination and seed dispersal for plants. Similar depopulations are taking place in marine ecosystems as well.
"Globally, hundreds of millions of people depend on their local fisheries for income and nutrition — I know my community does — and the decline of fish species leads to less productive fishery systems and undermines the health and welfare of those people that are dependent on those oceans," Shaw said.
There have been global efforts to counter this decline, but they've met with limited success in reversing the downward trends.
In 2010, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity gathered in Japan to establish the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, setting specific goals to halt or reduce the destruction of wildlife.
Shaw said the UN agency started evaluating the success of those targets this year.
"It doesn't look at all," she said. "While we came close to protecting 17 percent of the world's forests, which was a target, we failed miserably to protect the world's oceans and fisheries in the world's oceans."
The UN is set to meet again to establish goals for the next 10 years, but the date of this meeting has been delayed until the first quarter of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, Shaw said it is crucial that governments work with the food industry in particular to fight the loss of biodiversity.
"Production and consumption of food is the major driver of habitat destruction and over-harvesting on the planet," she said. "So the policy actions include working with companies that produce and sell food to make sure that the production of their products is biodiversity friendly."
As for the average consumer, a change in diet could help as well, including eating less red meat. "We need to eat smarter and reduce food waste," she added.