My sons love dinosaurs and think it's a real shame—as many other kids surely do—that they are extinct. I find the comments from experts regarding the extinction of species quite unnerving: The WWF claims that “We are witnessing the largest number of species going extinct since the demise of the dinosaurs, and it is man’s doing”. How do I tell that to my children?
It is clear that this is a monumental development. But what actually makes it a catastrophe? Or to put it another way: Why do we need diversity in nature so urgently?
The reasons are myriad, but here are ten that really astonished me.
Biodiversity is kind of like a service provider. The services it provides are free, but invaluable. Clean water, raw materials, air to breathe—we have biodiversity to thank for all of it. Can you put a price on that? In 1997, researchers in the US calculated biodiversity to be worth at least $33 trillion (1.8 times greater than the gross world product at that time). Priceless.
No one really knows the exact number of species in the world. Although experts estimate the figure to be about 15 million, it might also be as many as 100 million. However, we can be relatively certain of one thing. Around two thirds of species are insects—the most diverse group of animals. Some insect species are needed to pollinate plants. This is because many of our crops rely on animal pollination, from apple trees to coffee and zucchini plants. As such, more than 30 percent of global agricultural yields are dependent on pollination by animals. Can anyone imagine a world without strawberries, peppers, chocolate or coffee? Perhaps. But nobody wants it.
Each species is specialized. Only if the balance between species is right can stability prevail in nature. Take ants for example. They are massively important for soil preparation, even more effective than earthworms in some places. Several ant species are already under threat. “An ecosystem without ants would more or less collapse” according to Professor Jürgen Heinze, a biologist at the University of Regensburg. So the extinction of one species would inevitably lead to the death of several others. And when you know that, the 71,900 species of flora and fauna that we have in Germany suddenly don’t seem so many. And every single one of them is worth protecting.
Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein from the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg has worked out that several hundred million people would suffer from vitamin A and folic acid deficiency every year if pollinators no longer existed. And if half of the pollinators disappeared, there would be an additional 700,000 fatalities—every year. This is because the crops with the highest levels of micro-nutrients, such as fats and vitamins A, C, and E, depend most heavily on animal pollination.
Soil is alive. It is home to billions of bacteria, fungi, algae and single-cell organisms plus millions of threadworms, earthworms, mites, woodlice, springtails and insect larvae. A single hectare of land with roots will support 15 metric tons of organisms. That is the equivalent of 20 cows. This means that far more organisms live in the soil than on it. The Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape has discovered that the higher the level of subterranean diversity, the better it is for the plants above ground because they absorb more nutrients. Extensive root and mycorrhizal networks also fortify the soil and protect it from erosion.
The President of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Professor Beate Jessel, believes that healthy floodplains act as “a modern Noah’s Ark”. No other ecosystem in Central Europe can boast such diverse species and habitats (we recently saw a kingfisher on the Urdenbacher Altrhein near Dusseldorf!). And floodplains are our most effective form of protection against floods when, particularly during times of climate change, rivers repeatedly burst their banks. They are also a cost-effective solution. Take Vietnam, for example. Although it costs $1.1 billion a year to preserve 12,000 hectares of mangroves over there, it would cost $7.3 billion just to maintain dikes that artificially protect against floods.
On the Old Rhine near Urdenbach
We are all noticing that the summers are getting hotter, which is a sign of climate change. What is more important is that we are aware of the significance of forests, seas and other ecosystems. This is because they absorb 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuels each year. Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist of the National Geographic Society, Jonathan Baillie, says: “We must protect the biosphere in order to also protect the climate and prevent extreme weather events.” Protecting biodiversity therefore goes hand in hand with protecting the climate. Protecting just one will not work.
The costs incurred to protect biodiversity are cited frequently enough. However, experts have come to a totally different conclusion. Take Tim Kasten, the Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), for example. In the face of countless damaged ecosystems, he says: “It is ten times more expensive to restore ecosystems than it is to protect them.”
Our entire industry learns from nature because it provides the finest examples in terms of energy and material efficiency. An entire discipline, bionics, is the result. Bionics contribute massively to sustainable developments in industry, business and society. However, compelling concepts need living examples. According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, they need biodiversity. Whether it’s termite mounds serving as inspiration for energy-efficient buildings, shark skin forming the basis for the surface materials used on boats or a Namibian desert beetle teaching us how to extract water in arid climes—nature’s ingenuity far surpasses our own. We just have to watch closely and learn.
Lots of our medicines are based on natural raw materials. Years ago, the Swiss Biodiversity Forum wrote that “40 percent of all pharmaceuticals sold worldwide (...) are either derived or extracted from plants”. 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are therefore required to manufacture our drugs—now and in the future too. I hardly want to consider what it would mean if just one were to disappear.
So—biodiversity is highly relevant, imperative to our survival and, ultimately, life insurance for us all. That’s why we need to protect and maintain it.
Julia Köbele works in the field of sustainability for Bayer Crop Science Germany where she is mainly responsible for biodiversity projects and initiatives. Her work includes collaborating with farmers and conservation organizations to implement specific biodiversity and sustainability measures on farmland and the surrounding areas.