Why is biodiversity important?


Why care about biodiversity? What does it really matter if one species of butterfly goes extinct? Does it really matter? Here are some reasons why it matters more than most people realize. Even among nature conservationists, we seldom ask ourselves why biodiversity should matter (or not). Perhaps we should turn the question around. Why do the majority of people on earth not value biodiversity (at least judging by our actions and effect on biodiversity) or at best consider biodiversity as less important than other issues? I think that one of the main reasons, is that any value biodiversity might have, is considered as a potential long-term future asset, but with little current or short-term value. So, why is biodiversity important?

1 Biodiversity is the raw material for all agriculture.

Agriculture is the most important and cost-efficient source of food (and other "natural products" like wool, cotton and linen) for the human race. Many city dwellers do not realize how dependent all human life is on agriculture. Without agriculture, the large human populations alive today, even the mere existence of cities, would simply not be possible. However, even less people, farmers included, realize that every domesticated species we use in agriculture once had a "wild" ancestor that often still survive in nature. The current domesticated crop plants and farm animals were bred and selected for specific high-yield attributes, but at the same time lost most of the genetic variety and robustness (hardiness) of their "wild" varieties. In some agricultural fields the usefulness of the wild varieties are still appreciated, e.g. most vines are grafted on disease-resistant "wild" rootstock, many new varieties of fruit are the result of crosses between wild and domestic varieties, etc. But in general, the genetic contribution of "wild" varieties of our domestic plants and animals are often undervalued outside specific fields. This is not just a potential, future contribution, but is a present contribution of biodiversity to our everyday needs. In addition, there is always the future potential hiding in current wild species, e.g. plant resistance to future diseases or insect pests, higher yields in soils or areas that are currently considered as uneconomic to farm etc.

2 Biodiversity provides the raw material for all genetic engineering.

The wonders of genetic engineering and manipulation (e.g. "GM" crops) are only just beginning to be appreciated and used. Because evolution is unable (or very slow) to produce new genetic material by itself, and genetic engineering for the forseeable future will mostly consist of altering current genes or splicing in existing genes from other existing organisms, biodiversity will remain the raw material for any future genetic engineering. And the more biodiversity available, the greater the chances are of finding that one gene that might cure or prevent cancer, or improve crop production to the point where no more natural land needs to be transformed or plowed under to provide the growing human population with food. Both for natural breeding and selection as well as artificial genetic modifications, biodiversity as such provides the raw material necessary for new breeds and varieties.

3 Biodiversity is an important part of functioning and sustainable ecosystems.

It has recently been shown that higher biodiversity leads to more stable and robust ecosystems. It is known that the removal of a single species (keystone species) can sometimes lead to the collapse of a whole ecosystem (trophic cascades). And it is seldom possible to predict beforehand which species are the keystone species in an ecosystem. The removal of a single species can change an ecosystem from being top-down controlled to being bottom-up controlled, once again with wider effects that can seldom be predicted. This begs the question of why functioning ecosystems are important...

4 Biodiverse ecosystems deliver services important for all life, humans included.

The release of oxygen in the air we breath and the removal of CO2 from the air, are done by plants. Biological filtering of fresh water happens in functioning ecosystems. Natural grass, herbs and shrubs provide grazing for extensive farming. Natural wetlands act like sponges; absorbing water in times of rain and releasing it slowly afterwards to keep streams and rivers flowing. Natural environments supply polinators, not just for wild plants, but also for many crop plants... for free! These are just a few examples of "ecosytem services". Although for many of these services the biodiversity as such might not seem that important (e.g. a monoculture plantation of trees might have similar effects on CO2 levels than a rain forest), the persistance or sustainability of the ecosystem is linked to biodiversity. The aesthetic value of nature as a place for humans to relax and enjoy beauty, is of course also linked to biodiversity. And as wilderness areas and natural areas of high biodiversity becomes scarcer, the value of these kind of experiences are bound to become more valuable as well.

5 Biodiversity provides the raw material for most current and future medicine.

Almost all medicine comes from some plant, micro-organism or animal originally. Although many medicines are currently synthetically produced, the material from which the active chemical were first identified, is almost always a living organism. Unfortunately, once the active ingredient has been identified, biodiversity becomes relatively unimportant (similar to how wild varieties of crop plants become unimportant to agriculture). Where the wild varieties might still have an all-important role to play, is in the increasing problems with drug resistant diseases and of course the potential for future cures, especially for future diseases.

6 Functioning, biodiverse ecosystems provide answers to various engineering and design problems.

The relatively new interdisciplinary field of bio-mimetics focus on finding answers to engineering and other problems from nature. Many engineering problems facing humans have already been solved by one or more wild organism. By studying these solutions in the wild, the answers to similar problems facing us can be found. But only if the actual organisms survive. And once again, since habitat destruction is the major threat to the survival of most threatened species, the conservation of biodiverse ecosystems will also conserve the interactions and adaptations used by the individual species in the ecosystem. And these can be studied to see how many modern problems have already been solved for ages in the natural world.

7 We have an ethical obligation to conserve biodiversity.

For most active conservationists this is the most important reason for their own involvement in conserving biodiversity. But your ethics is very much a result of your world-view. I.e. it is possible to argue that since the human species have been the "winners" in the Darwinian struggle for survival, we have no ethical obligation towards any other species and have the right to exterminate any species that stand in the way of human progress. Our ethical obligation to conserve nature is therefore not easy to "sell" to people who may not share the same ethical values. The idea of "stewardship" - that we have been placed in charge of earth as stewards only, while it actually belongs to the Creator to whom we are responsible for our actions and for what we do with our charge - can be a strong argument to use with those who do believe in a Creator, but will have little value when talking to atheists. We could consider our responsibility to the next generation? If we want our children and grand-children to see some of our currently threatened wildlife species for themselves, we need to do something about it. Unfortunately, this is also a long-term, rather than a short-term benefit and people tend to focus on their immediate needs rather than the long-term benefits to posterity.

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