15 minutes

Meadows filled with flowers, a rich North Sea, a green residential area... The concept of biodiversity is receiving increasing attention. It often features in discussions about climate, farming and housing. But what does it really mean? Why is biodiversity important and how can we protect it? We study these and similar questions at Wageningen University & Research, often in collaboration with other parties. In this way we contribute to applications for agriculture and nature conservation, but also climate adaptation, sustainable economic growth and health. We do this from many different perspectives, ranging from botany, microbiology, and animal ecology to economics and the social sciences.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the diversity of life – from a pondwater droplet to an entire forest, an ocean or even the Earth as a whole. Biodiversity includes all types of plants, animals and micro-organisms, but also the enormous genetic variation within those species and the variety of ecosystems of which they are part, from pasture to wetland, from river to estuary and from forest to city. In short, biodiversity is not just about flowers, trees, corals and cuddly animals. It encompasses the total package of living organisms and systems – and the interactions between them. As such, this is more than enough to keep Wageningen scientists busy describing, understanding and protecting biodiversity.

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Lawrence Jones-Walters on his work on biodiversity at WUR (video: 2019)

Why does biodiversity matter?

One more or less species of butterfly, what difference does it make? How bad is it if a forest is cleared and replaced by a monoculture? ‘These are never simple questions,’ says Lawrence Jones-Walters, Programme Director for Nature-Inclusive Transitions at WUR. ‘Their answers depend on a huge variety of factors. Let’s start by identifying why humans need biodiversity.'

The FAO calculates that three-quarters of all agricultural crops worldwide depend on pollinators such as wild bees and hoverflies. Most of our building materials, medicines and industrial raw materials also come from biological resources. And many forms of tourism depend on nature. 'Biodiversity therefore represents enormous economic value,' Jones-Walters emphasises.

In addition, he continues, biodiversity has many intangible benefits. 'We assign great intrinsic value to the biodiversity around us,' he says. ‘Research from all across the spectrum continues to show that people feel better and more productive in a green environment. People get better faster when their hospital room looks out over something green, for example. Patients with dementia or psychological problems do noticeably better when they have plants and animals around them. And landscapes give us a tangible link to the past, they help us relax and feel grounded.'

Working with nature, instead of against it

It should be clear that biodiversity is important – but what happens when it is under threat? ‘There are many examples of deterioration of biodiversity as a result of human activity,’ Jones-Walters explains. ‘A great many of these boil down to the relentless pursuit of short-term interests. Ultimately, however, the impact comes back around to us.’

He gives a few examples. Deforestation causes erosion, which means that fertile soil leaches away and once-fertile agricultural ground soon becomes unusable. Overfishing means that each catch is smaller than the last, and some species disappear entirely. And monoculture in agriculture makes crops more vulnerable to pests, plant diseases and drought. Farmers increasingly have to use artificial means to keep their soils fertile and moist, because the natural balance of soil life has been disturbed - the soil life that, in a healthy system, takes care of nutrient recycling and keeps the soil aerated. The same applies to monocultures at sea. Salmon aquaculture, for example, can have a major impact on the local environment.

The pilot site in Lelystad, christened 'Farm of the Future', shows that monoculture does not have to be the norm. (Photo: Fogelina Cuperus)
The pilot site in Lelystad, christened 'Farm of the Future', shows that monoculture does not have to be the norm. (Photo: Fogelina Cuperus)

‘The data shows that when you work with nature, instead of against it,’ Jones-Walters concludes, ‘you spend less and get more stable yields. This is something that is often difficult to get across to people. It’s our job as scientists to collect convincing examples of what not to do, and especially to show alternative, better ways of doing things and what the advantages are. In that respect, Wageningen is a world leader.’

The more diverse, the more stable: agriculture as example

Biodiversity is a natural defence against external factors that can threaten an environment, such as pests, pollution and climate change. For example, a mixed forest will not get knocked down by a storm as easily as a pine plantation. A species-rich wetland can purify wastewater. Jellyfish plagues are less likely to occur in a biodiverse coastal sea. And a mixed grassland with a healthy soil retains rainwater as a buffer against prolonged drought. ‘However, in the past century, small-scale, varied land use has gradually given way to endless fields of monoculture,’ says Wijnand Sukkel, senior researcher in Agroecology at Wageningen University & Research. ‘Diseases and pests can tear straight through such one-crop fields. Soil life is also severely impoverished, with negative consequences for nutrient and water management.’

All in all, farmers have to use more and more artificial fertiliser and pesticides to maintain their yield in a monoculture. This vicious circle comes at the expense of biodiversity. Sukkel: 'That is precisely why we should revert to more diverse agricultural systems. These are also more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as drought and heavy rainfall.'

Researcher Wijnand Sukkel in a trial field (photo: OANEvents)
Researcher Wijnand Sukkel in a trial field (photo: OANEvents)

Read more: 'The more diverse, the more stable: agriculture as example'

This ties in with the current controversy around nitrogen depositions in the Netherlands, Sukkel stresses: 'That too is a problem that is much broader than biodiversity alone. For example, nitrogen also poses a threat to water quality and causes additional greenhouse gas emissions.'

A lot of Wageningen research focuses on the role of crop diversity. Another important theme is monitoring biodiversity in arable and livestock farming. "Only when you can measure farmers' biodiversity performance, you can start working with reward systems," Sukkel explains. 'That is why we are working on developing so-called critical performance indicators, or KPIs. These help in projects such as Farmers with Biodiversity, in which farmers themselves start monitoring biodiversity. A beneficial side effect is that it makes them aware of all that lives on their land. We study how well that monitoring works, and how it influences their actions.'

Public-private partnerships are central to many of these projects. They involve cooperation between provinces and farmers, for instance, but sometimes also with multinationals. ‘This is in line with the Wageningen Biodiversity Initiative, which is being adopted WUR-wide,' explains Sukkel, "and in which we also examine, for example, the role of investments.'

Another new initiative is the Farm of the Future. This pilot project focuses not only on biodiversity, but also on water management, climate adaptation, food production and sustainable energy. ‘If you take an integrated approach, you will see much greater effects,’ emphasises Sukkel. ‘Take strip cropping, for example, where monoculture is replaced by strips of different crops. Or agroforestry, where food crops are harvested from a diverse forest. This approach has significant benefits in various areas.’

However, new forms of agriculture require new technologies. Crops from mixed fields and food forests cannot be harvested with large, conventional machines. ‘This is why we are researching various new technologies, including robotics, in collaboration with other parties.’

The envisioned ‘broad transition’ in agriculture seems almost impossible to attain. Still, Sukkel is optimistic. ‘This transition is urgently needed and more and more stakeholders are aware of this,’ he says, ‘including the larger companies. They also realise that their economic futures are at stake. This is becoming more evident every day.’ Some elements of the transition have already been carried out, he notes. ‘Our research plays an important role in this process. It shows what is possible and what the impacts are when you make changes. This helps to get other parties on board as well.’

A large project will soon start, rooted in the Dutch National Science Agenda, aimed at the potential of crop diversity. And more and more consumers are aware of the need for an agricultural transition. Many are also willing to pay a little more for their groceries. ‘In our view, if we can achieve this transition, prices won’t necessarily be much higher compared to business-as-usual,’ Sukkel notes. ‘After all, if we do nothing, we will definitely face increasing costs.’

Preserving genetic resources – and using them for sustainability

‘Hearing the word biodiversity, many people think of the variation in plant and animal species in nature,’ says Sipke-Joost Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN) at WUR. ‘But for nature and certainly also for agriculture, the diversity within species is at least as important.’

Globally, about two-thirds of our food comes from just nine crop species. The variation within species is also very limited. The bananas in our shops worldwide are almost identical genetically. And dairy farming mainly uses the highly productive Holstein Friesian cow breed.

‘Loss of genetic diversity has major consequences for nature, but also for our agriculture, livestock, aquaculture and forest management,’ says Hiemstra. ‘By preserving sufficient variation in species and varieties in gene banks, and developing innovative breeding methods, we can continue to breed better and well-adapted varieties.’

Blaarkop cattle, a rare farm animal breed (photo: Shutterstock)
Blaarkop cattle, a rare farm animal breed (photo: Shutterstock)

Read more: 'Preserving genetic resources – and using them for sustainability'

The CGN manages collections with more than 23,000 seed samples from 30 different crops. There are 2,500 different samples of lettuce alone, from modern to wild varieties. The collection is still growing, partly through collection missions abroad. In addition, the CGN preserves more than 300,000 samples of animal origin in its freezers, mainly semen and also embryos and ova from farm animals – from common as well as rare animal breeds. ‘We are planning to expand our collection with seeds from Dutch tree species,’ Hiemstra adds, ‘as well as with fish and shellfish.’

The collections are an important genetic source for scientific research. Importantly, they also have a direct application, emphasises the CGN director. ‘Plant and animal breeders regularly approach us for assistance,’ he says. ‘They are constantly developing new varieties, or improving existing varieties, to improve crop quality and resilience.’ Cross-breeding with wild relatives, for instance, can make plant varieties more resistant to drought or diseases. This reduces the need for irrigation and pesticides in agricultural production. ‘There are many more examples of useful applications,’ notes Hiemstra. ‘Genetic diversity is crucial for a sustainable future of agriculture.’

Wageningen scientists conduct research into genetic diversity, but also into methods for mapping diversity and better conservation of samples. ‘We develop state-of-the-art technologies in collaboration with colleagues in our European network,’ he says. ‘This also includes a digital infrastructure, which stores genomics data as well, and which is easily searchable. It’s a kind of parallel digital gene bank, next to the physical one.’

Research into diversity will become increasingly important in the future, concludes Hiemstra. ‘Discussions increasingly focus on questions like: how can diversity contribute to more resilient, sustainable systems? This is what we excel at in Wageningen, thanks to the involvement of various different research groups. Very often, this interdisciplinary approach leads to exciting and important new developments.’

Restoring biodiversity

Biodiversity is under pressure in many places on earth. Knowledge of natural systems and of the various threats can help restore local diversity. Many WUR projects are aimed at restoration. One example is the REEFolution project, aimed at protecting and restoring coral reefs along the coast of Kenya. These coral reefs are of great importance for local fishing and tourism.

Coral reefs are threatened worldwide. The main threat is climate change. Oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, which many corals cannot tolerate. They are also threatened by coastal development and suffer from murky water due to coastal erosion – the result of deforestation, construction and more extreme weather conditions. In addition, organic pollution gives algae the chance to overgrow the reefs. Many fish species that normally keep the coral algae-free are being overfished, and sometimes the corals are severely damaged by destructive fishing methods, such as the use of trawl nets or dynamite.

Wageningen scientists are studying how to restore and protect the reefs. ‘This research has biological components, but the social, economic and cultural aspects are also very important,’ says Tinka Murk, professor of marine animal ecology at WUR. ‘Sustainable protection is only possible if local people are actively involved.’

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Researcher Ewout Knoester on REEFolution: a project aimed at restoring coral reefs in collaboration with the local community in Shimoni, Kenya (Video: WUR, 2021)

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REEFolution therefore combines various activities. Researchers and students from WUR are conducting research into optimal artificial reef construction and coral farming, together with Kenyan students. ‘In addition, local people are trained to become ‘reef rangers’,’ says Murk. ‘They are taught how to dive and learn about the ecology of the reef. These people, men and women, gain the knowledge and skills to protect underwater biodiversity. And invariably, they also gain a passion for the reef, which they share with their fellow villagers.’

Biodiversity is not just the number of species or animals, Murk emphasises. ‘Habitat diversity and functional biodiversity are also very important,’ she says, ‘which means that all ecological functions are represented. It is very important that we listen carefully to the local residents: which species are important to them? What do they consider to be a rich reef?’

Together with local experts and professionals, the Wageningen researchers are working on ways to introduce the population to the rich biodiversity under water. ‘Many people have no idea about this,’ she says. ‘Learning how to snorkel can have a huge effect in this regard. We also take photos and make virtual reality videos of natural reefs and ‘grey’, dead, reefs to show the difference. All of this makes a big impression.’ The researchers are working with local project partners on alternative sources of income for the population. Income generated from seaweed farming, ecotourism and snorkelling excursions will reduce the need for intensive fishing, which benefits reef recovery.

They also study which structures and materials are attractive to coral larvae. Young coral polyps will naturally populate artificial structures and thus form new reefs. ‘We also try to make corals more heat-resistant in a natural way,’ says Murk, ‘for example through selective breeding from relatively warm local pools. In addition, we’re working on protecting corals against voracious starfish, such as the infamous crown of thorns, for example by using smart structures for coral cultivation that are difficult for starfish to reach.’

In all cases, the Wageningen team strives for an integrated approach, combining input from various disciplines. Different projects feed into each other and have a strong focus on local capacity building. ‘In addition, we are developing a toolkit that helps people to apply this approach at other locations as well. This seems to be working well: people are enthusiastic, there is a lot of positive energy, and all kinds of good things are happening.’

Lending nature a helping hand

The North Sea is relatively shallow and has a seabed that largely consists of sand. This is ideal habitat for flatfish and benthic invertebrates such as starfish. Many other animals, however, need a firmer surface to attach themselves to, or structures to use as cover. ‘There used to be many natural oyster beds in the North Sea,’ says Joop Coolen of Wageningen Marine Research. ‘These developed over the course of centuries. They formed a basis for complex, rich ecosystems. But due to intensive bottom trawling, diseases and pollution, they have largely disappeared.’

Coolen and his colleagues are studying how man-made structures, such as drilling rigs and wind turbines, can help restore this biodiversity. ‘Around the bases of wind turbines, construction companies place boulders to prevent the sand from washing away,’ he says. ‘This represents a wonderful opportunity for nature restoration in the North Sea. We are conducting research into this together with other organisations, including Bureau Waardenburg and WaterProof BV. What biodiversity is attracted to those boulders? And can small adjustments help to attract more biodiversity, for example using different types of stone, or blocks of different sizes?’

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What's the influence of artificial installations on underwater life in the North Sea? (Video: Dutch Maritime Productions, 2020)

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Hard structures deposited on the North Sea floor will immediately attract life: all kinds of shellfish, anemones, bristle worms, starfish, crustaceans, fish and eventually also marine mammals. This is great from a nature perspective, but are the energy companies equally enthusiastic? ‘One component in tender procedures is the extent to which projects contribute to biodiversity,’ says Coolen. ‘This is a result of European regulations. Companies that present solid plans for biodiversity restoration will score more points in the tendering procedure.’

Branding also plays a role: companies that ‘go green’ have a market advantage. ‘Interestingly, these measures do not necessarily have to cost extra money or effort,’ Coolen emphasises, ‘because the rocks would be put down anyway. Our research shows how these actions can have maximum effect.’

Together with other parties, including the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Coolen and colleagues are investigating the effects of the new biotic communities on the surrounding North Sea. ‘All this extra life has an impact on factors such as the oxygen, nitrogen and carbon balance in the water,’ he explains. ‘An intervention around one wind turbine may not make much difference, but this will change with ten or a hundred wind turbines – and soon even many thousands in much larger parts of the North Sea. We design ecosystem models that allow us to predict the impacts, and possibly prevent unfavourable effects.’

Both projects are still in the start-up phase. It is still too early to report outcomes, except that the artificial structures can indeed be a hotspot for biodiversity. ‘For now, we are mainly developing and testing new techniques and methods,’ says Coolen. Colleagues are modelling other issues, such as the impacts of wind farms – in which fishing is not allowed – on the fishing industry. Perhaps these areas can function as a breeding ground for fish, allowing stocks to recover.

But even if the new biodiversity has no direct economic benefits, this work is definitely worth the effort, says Coolen: ‘The intrinsic value of this biodiversity is enormous. With artificial structures we can restore a small part of what we have lost in past centuries.’

The value of nature

Nature provides us with a wide range of indispensable products and services, from clean water, wood, food and medicines to oxygen production, carbon absorption, water purification and coastal protection – but also health, relaxation, inspiration and cultural identity. To protect those services effectively, and convince policymakers of their necessity, these matters need to be made explicit. In other words: it has to be clear what those services yield to us, as well as what the flip side is: what we would lose, or what we would have to spend, if we were to lose those services.

This, however, is no easy task. After all, what is clean air worth? What’s the price tag on a rainforest? Are measures to combat climate change truly cost-effective?

‘These questions are very difficult to answer,’ says Jeanne Nel, head of WUR’s Biodiverse Environment programme, ‘because nature does not only have value in monetary terms. People appreciate nature for all sorts of different reasons.’

Read more: 'The value of nature'

Those reasons roughly fall into three categories, she explains. ‘First of all, nature has an intrinsic value: nature for nature’s sake,’ says Nel. ‘In addition, nature has relational value. Humans have a relationship with nature – and with each other and their past through nature. We derive identity, inspiration and relaxation from nature, which is part of our culture. And finally, there is the value that nature has for society, for example in the form of food, building materials, medicines, and clean air and water.’

Those are not the only ways to appreciate nature, the researcher emphasises. There are reasons we may not even know about. ‘Many people tend to only look at the ‘nature for society’ value, and want to express it in terms of money,’ she says. ‘But such a narrow approach to the concept of ‘value’ contributes directly to the decline of biodiversity. That is also the position of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, say, the IPCC of biodiversity.’

Together with several partners, Wageningen is working on the so-called Nature Futures Framework, which further elaborates these three categories. ‘On the relational level, we investigate, for example, how local food initiatives connect people with their living environment,’ says Nel. ‘And in the field of value for society, we participate in so-called Ecosystem Accounting. This is a method that makes explicit how ecosystem services contribute to economic growth. This method immediately shows that too much economic growth may come at the expense of ecosystem services, and is therefore not sustainable.’

The question is not so much putting a price tag on nature, emphasises Nel. ‘It is more about showing the impact of certain economic activities on biodiversity – and thus the real price of those activities. The point is that we should always take into account all costs when we debate whether something is worthwhile from an economic point of view. This also includes environmental damage.’

Importantly, we should not just focus on measuring this damage in the field, Nel concludes. ‘We should also map out the underlying motives – namely the ways in which we value nature as a society,’ she clarifies. ‘If you make this explicit, also for a wider audience, then people can make better decisions: decisions based on all aspects of nature that are important to us.’

Knowledge and involvement among younger generations

‘In order to protect biodiversity, it is important that different stakeholders work together – including citizens,’ says Rebekah Tauritz, researcher in nature and sustainability education at WUR. ‘Three conditions are important here,’ she says. ‘People need to know what biodiversity is, they need to have the skills to take effective action, and they need to be really touched by the issues at hand. In other words, they need to be engaged at the level of their emotions and attitudes.’

Developing these three aspects should start in childhood, so that’s when environmental education should start, is Tauritz’s conviction. ‘And you have to approach it from a positive angle. People, especially children, should not just be told how bad things are. First of all, they have to be shown how special and beautiful biodiversity is. The next step is telling them that biodiversity is under threat and that all of us can do something about this.’

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Biodiversity lessons at the zoo (video: WUR, 2022)

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Tauritz and her colleagues investigated at what age children become susceptible for this information, and how best to get it across to them. ‘We found out that from the age of about nine to ten years, children can understand what the concept of biodiversity means,’ she says, ‘especially after a lot of repetition with varied working methods. At this age, children are open not only to new knowledge and skills, but also to an emotional involvement with the issue at hand. In secondary school, you may have lost them already.’

Tauritz developed the teaching programme Bio-diversi-WHAT?!, which explains the meaning of biodiversity through the stories of eight endangered animal species. ‘We found that this was a good way to get children involved,’ she says. ‘We compared what was more effective: a series of five lessons just at school, or four lessons at school and one lesson in a zoo, combined with specific assignments.’

Children learned a lot about biodiversity in both set-ups, the study found. However, the lesson programme in combination with the zoo visit turned out to be much more effective than a visit to the zoo without a lesson programme. The zoo also offered unique learning opportunities. For example, students used their senses to experience the differences between habitats, and they even managed to transfer their newly acquired knowledge to adult zoo visitors.

Using questionnaires and interviews, Tauritz also investigated how children’s emotions and values ​​had changed as a result of the lessons. ‘It’s difficult to measure this properly, and many teachers find this part of the curriculum challenging,’ says Tauritz. ‘But it’s still very important. For example, we saw that children felt more worried, sad and angry. That is why it is important to tell them what they can do themselves. To give them concrete options for action.’

Tauritz is still analysing her data, but is already looking forward to follow-up research. ‘For example, what happens to those emotions and attitudes in the longer term?’ she cites as an example. ‘How can we make even better use of embodied learning, i.e. using all your senses, in a location like a zoo? Which elements of the lesson series are the most important? How can we best support and motivate teachers? And how can these lessons be embedded in the primary school curriculum?’

There is still a lot to discover, but one thing is certain, according to Tauritz: ‘It is very important, and very possible, to plant seeds of awareness during those primary school days. Even if biodiversity is the last thing on students’ minds in secondary school, they will still have a basis that they can link new knowledge to. And then hopefully this will rekindle their motivation to take action, perhaps at a later stage.’ Tauritz is now setting up a database with the teaching materials for organisations, including primary schools, nature education centres and zoos. ‘This way, rather than reinventing the wheel, professionals can develop their own teaching programmes based on proven principles.’

Bee landscape: joint action is making a difference for pollinators

The Netherlands is home to hundreds of insect species that are important for the pollination of wild and agricultural crops. There are 358 species of bees, for instance, including the honey bee, over 300 species of hoverflies and 30 species of butterflies that pollinate plants. Many of these species have shown sharp decline in recent years. Not just the honey bee colonies that are cared for by beekeepers are declining, but also the wild bees, says Sabine van Rooij of Wageningen Environmental Research. ‘They depend on what the landscape offers them in terms of food, nesting sites and building materials,’ she explains. ‘The Dutch landscape has become increasingly poor in nectar-rich flowers and ‘messy places’ where they can find a nesting place.’ In addition, insects suffer from the use of pesticides.

The decline in insects also affects us, because insects provide us with valuable services, such as the pollination of plants and crops and the suppression of pests. Of the 115 major food crops, 87 depend on bee pollination. According to recent estimates, this pollination represents a value of 10 to 15 billion euros per year in the EU, worldwide no less than 153 billion euros.

‘If you really want to help wild pollinators, sowing a few flowers is not enough,’ emphasises Van Rooij. ‘Insects need suitable places in a landscape, with both nesting opportunities and sufficient food in the vicinity. Some species are also specifically bound to certain plant species and have a limited radius of action around their nest.’ That is why an approach is needed on a landscape scale, she says – and this requires cooperation between different stakeholders.

Contours map of the Bee landscape in Zoeterwoude (in Dutch)
Contours map of the Bee landscape in Zoeterwoude (in Dutch)

Read more: 'Bee landscape: joint action is making a difference for pollinators'

Against this background, Van Rooij is involved in a unique project. Wageningen Environmental Research is developing a Regional Bee Landscape in South Holland, together with citizens, the business community, farmers and governments, EIS Knowledge Center for Insects, Dutch Butterfly Conservation, and several companies. ‘Unique is the fact that companies, governments and knowledge institutions, on a voluntary basis, are working together on a shared dream in which they all need each other.’

The project started in 2015 and quickly grew. A lot of knowledge has been developed, says Van Rooij: ‘What do pollinators need in the landscape and on which scale? Which measures are effective, which plant species are most suitable? Based on our research outcomes, we have developed building blocks for a bee landscape.’

The most important building blocks are so-called ‘Bed & Breakfast’ areas. ‘These are the major hotspots for wild pollinators in a landscape,’ explains Van Rooij. ‘You can strengthen these with flow-rich corridors. And small flowery spots also help. We call these ‘refuelling stations’, for example pots with summer lilacs, or borders along gardens, which make the hostile landscape a little friendlier for insects.’

Wageningen is working with the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality on the so-called Pollinators Knowledge Impulse, a programme in which additional knowledge about pollinators and effective measures is developed and made available to others. The website hulpvoorbestuivers.nl offers reliable information about wild pollinators, as well as a tool that shows which measures are helpful to wild pollinators in areas by postal code, and a road map of how to set up or strengthen a bee landscape.

Regional initiatives have also started in other areas in Netherlands. ‘In a short time, many parties have found each other in their common goal of helping wild pollinators,’ says Van Rooij, ‘and they have already made a real difference in practice. We hope that this development will spread to the rest of the country, supported by the tools of the Knowledge Impulse.’

Urban biodiversity

Nature is under pressure in many places – including in the urban environment. Fortunately, there are opportunities for improvement, especially in cities. Simple interventions can make a significant difference, for example the greening of gardens and roofs. On a larger scale, opportunities lie in biodiversity-friendly planning of new housing construction or neighbourhood renovation.

Promoting urban biodiversity is a research focus in Wageningen. In one project, researchers developed the website ‘Nature and health in the city’. This online resource offers citizens, companies and governments concrete information about opportunities for urban greening, including practical tools to get started. Stimulating urban biodiversity is one of its goals, along with climate adaptation and health. ‘A green city offers added value in all these different areas,’ emphasises Robbert Snep of Wageningen Environmental Research, who has been working on this subject for almost a quarter of a century.

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More nature in construction ( KennisOnline, WUR 2022)

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During this period, Snep has witnessed some interesting developments. ‘Initially, the emphasis was mainly on those separate goals,’ he says, ‘starting with biodiversity. Human health and climate adaptation gradually gained attention. Now we see that, with the emergence of the concept of ‘nature-inclusive construction', this integrated approach is becoming more prominent.’

Nature-inclusive construction means that ‘green and blue’ opportunities are already incorporated in the planning phase, using an integrated approach, explains Snep. ‘Various stakeholders are working together on this: governments, from municipalities to the national government; companies, such as construction and housing corporations; civil society organisations, such as the Dutch Bird Protection Society and Dutch Butterfly Conservation, as well as citizens.’

The result is a much greener city, with parks, green corridors and freshwater features, but also homes with green roofs and lush gardens and with nesting facilities for swifts, bats and insects. Pioneer cities, such as Amsterdam and The Hague, are already experimenting with requirements for nature-inclusive construction in their regulations and tendering procedures. In the last decade, much progress has been made in industrial areas as well, as Snep notes. ‘These developments also extend to the national level’, he says. ‘For example, the Dutch Environmental Outlook Report 2022 does not just address nature and rural areas, but also the importance of nature for cities, and vice versa: the potential contribution of urban areas to achieving nature objectives.’

The research conducted by Snep and his colleagues is already making a difference, he notes. ‘A so-called Community of Practice has been set up to further support all these developments,’ he says. ‘All partners work together in this. Wageningen is involved in its role as knowledge institute.’

Of course, it takes time before concrete effects can be seen, says Snep. ‘However, many cities have already become a lot greener,’ he says. ‘This is reflected in the species that occur there. We see species such as sparrows, swifts and peregrine falcons in an increasing number of cities.’

But even more important is the increased awareness, says the researcher. ‘More and more parties ask themselves: which additional benefits are there? How do these measures benefit not only biodiversity, but also health and climate adaptation? What is the cost-benefit balance? Stakeholders are increasingly empowered to act, for example through online tools and information.’

This is very positive – but also urgently needed, as Snep highlights, because urbanisation is continuing. ‘We all have to step up our efforts to green the urban environment. In this respect, our research in Wageningen has a major role to play.’

From knowledge to solutions

‘Protecting biodiversity remains challenging and even controversial,’ concludes Lawrence Jones-Walters, Programme Director for Nature Inclusive Transitions. ‘However, we can already see some changes occurring. For example, the G7 leaders said in 2021: we should not strive for net zero biodiversity loss, no, we should work towards nature-positive progress. This is something they wouldn’t have said a mere five years ago.’

At the same time, Jones-Walters underlines that nature is still deteriorating worldwide. ‘The FAO suggest that large areas, up to 20 percent of the Earth’s vegetated surface, have become less productive, and what crops are growing there are close to failing. If something does not change soon, they will no longer be able to produce food, leading to famine.’

Wageningen occupies a special position in that regard, he notes. ‘Traditionally, Wageningen has mainly advocated intensification of agriculture. Now we see that things have to change, that innovative solutions are needed to feed the world sustainably. We have an important role to play in this. This is a huge task – but in fact also an opportunity. With all our agricultural experience and combination of disciplines, we are well equipped to take on this challenge.’

Working on resilience

The key word, as Jones-Walters believes, is resilience. We need to ensure that ecosystems are robust enough to withstand changes and remain productive, and that species can adapt to changing circumstances. This is only possible if the basic ecological conditions are met. This sometimes requires restoration of nature before continuing with certain economic and social developments. ‘One of our big challenges,’ says Jones-Walters, ‘is properly explaining to society why this recovery is necessary. In addition, effective recovery requires a solid knowledge base. After all, we need to know: what does resilience really mean? Which preconditions are there, how can these be met, and what are the bottlenecks?’

Wageningen can play a pioneering role in answering these questions, says the researcher. ‘Wageningen University & Research is very diverse and international,’ he says. ‘We can draw on the knowledge, experiences and cultural backgrounds of a wide variety of researchers from many different disciplines. Together we possess the best available knowledge of ecosystem functioning, biodiversity restoration and adaptation to climate change. With this knowledge we can build bridges from science to policy and implementation. Yes, in this regard I am absolutely optimistic.’