Declining biodiversity doesn’t usually make the global-issue short list. It’s often thought of as a purely ethical dilemma with little bearing on the success of human populations. As a result, the issue of biodiversity is often overshadowed by hefty topics like hunger, war and health—things with a visible and direct impact. These problems are important, don’t get me wrong, but so is biodiversity. It’s just harder to see because species loss has a more indirect effect on humanity.
Take, for example, the importance of biodiversity in agriculture. Diversity among crops helps to reduce weakness and disease. In fact, most of history’s worst agricultural disasters were caused by a lack of biodiversity—a potentially disastrous dependency on only one strain of crop. One of the best examples of this is the Irish potato famine, which occurred when about two-fifths of the Irish population was reliant on a specific strain of potatoes. A crop disease known as potato blight ravaged crops during the 1840s, causing the death of over one million people, and the emigration of a million more from Ireland’s borders. By the time the famine died down, a fourth of the island’s population was gone.
Biodiversity is also essential for the health of pollinators, like bees, that are a key aspect of global agriculture. For example, a 2010 study at the French National Institute for Agricultural research traced a link between the diversity of bee diets and the strength of their immune systems. Bees make a compound called glucose oxidase that preserves honey and food for larvae against infestation by microbes and thus protects the hive from disease. Scientists found that bees fed with a mix of five different pollens had higher levels of glucose oxidase compared to bees fed with pollen from a single type of flower. So biodiversity creates hardier bee populations, and a lack of biodiversity would therefore make the insects more susceptible to disease.
In fact, bee populations have been drastically declining worldwide along with decreased plant species diversity and increased pesticide usage. According to a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Europe’s wild bee population is in dramatic decline, with nearly one in 10 species facing the threat of extinction. Another 5.2 percent of bee species are likely to be threatened in the near future. The study suggests that bees are dying because of human activity and decreased biodiversity. Sources of food for pollinators have been depleted by intensive production of silage, or food for livestock, as well as widespread use of herbicides that has created grassland with few flowering plants. Also, the use of certain pesticides can interfere with bees’ ability to navigate and find their way back to their hives, resulting in a phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder.” This has contributed significantly to bee population and biodiversity decline.
This decline is especially troubling because 30 to 40 percent of food production requires an insect population. The destruction of bee populations has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the U.S., many farmers must use rented hives transported across the country by truck to pollinate crops. According to a 2008 study, the process of pollination—a service that bees traditionally provide for free—is worth an estimated $217 billion.
Pollination is an example of an essential ecological system that relies on biodiversity. Other systems, such as soil nutrient recycling, also rely on species diversity and are just as important for agriculture. But farming aside, biodiversity has also contributed to the development of drugs derived from plants and microbes; in fact, around half of all drugs on the market in the United States are derived from plants, animals and microbial organisms. The more of these species that exist, the better the chances of finding treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions are.
So it seems that biodiversity is closely tied to hunger and human health. It increases the reliability of crops and decreases dependency on a single food type. It’s also essential for important biological systems like pollination and nutrient cycling that humans need to survive—systems that are very difficult to replicate with man-made alternatives. It has also contributed to medicine production and has created raw materials for industry and innovation. All global life depends on a diverse natural environment, and humans are no exception.
Caeleigh MacNeil is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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