Biodiversity – What’s The Big Deal?
Biodiversity is the spice of life, and we depend on it for healthy ecosystems that keep everything on earth running smoothly. In this episode, we talk about the three pieces of biodiversity, why it matters to you and the planet, monoculture versus polyculture, and actions you can take to start protecting the earth’s biodiversity today!
Trip to lago bay, Panama
At the beginning of this year, I took about a month-long trip to the country of Panama. My cousin generously let us stay on his property, Lago Bay, which is a lake and beach neighborhood on the Pacific coast of Panama. So we had free range to roam about and explore.
Lago Bay is home to acres of gardens, and thousands of coconut trees. Unique plants like the moringa plant which is an incredibly nutrient-dense plant that is said to contain properties that can prevent and treat cancer. Fruits like the Guanabana or Soursop are used regionally to treat infections, arthritis, depression, and colon cancer – and it tastes amazing! There are lime trees, avocado trees, mango trees, and countless different varieties of greens and flowers everywhere you look!
Sitting out on the top of the duplex I tried to count the varieties of birds I saw within a 30-minute span – parrots going two by two reaching the hundreds, finches, blackbirds with blue-tipped tails, birds of prey. As you can guess, I lost count. There is a bird there called the Magnificent Frigatebird that is nothing short of magnificent. Its wingspan is up to 7 feet long, and it can float along the sky and stay there for weeks without touching the ground. It doesn’t even have to land to eat, it steals food from other birds’ mid-air! Isn’t that crazy?
There is a small lake that is home to turtles, cayman, white egrets, spiders, and bugs, and a short walk from the lake you’ll find yourself at the beach and see clams every morning, along with more birds and animals that are living in the area. The entire place is like a sanctuary.
But the point is that it is so beautiful, and every time I am there I appreciate it so much. But this time I saw things a little differently.
Before when I went, I just thought “Wow this is something like I’ve never seen before.” And went about my day. This time when I went I thought, “Wow this is something like I’ve never seen before, and might never see like this again” I was almost was filled with a bit of sadness and guilt because with all of my newfound knowledge of how humans are affecting the planet and how we are all connected I was worried about the future of all of the places on Earth that are like this.
But then I started talking to my cousin about this property and why it, and others like it in the area, just work. And it is because they are extremely biodiverse.
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Biodiversity is kind of a big deal, and by “kind of” I mean really big. Biodiversity is the spice of life. By definition, it is variability among all organisms in a particular ecological structure such as a habitat, community, landscape, or ecosystem. Biodiversity is what it sounds like the basis for life on earth. And it took a lonnnng time to create it – like we’re talking millions of years.
Three Pieces of Biodiversity
There are three pieces to biodiversity – Variety of Genes, Variety of Species, and Variety of and within our Ecosystems.
Variety of genes as you probably know is what makes us, our dogs, the plants in our house – all different and unique. I have two dogs, but their gene variety means that I have a black cocker spaniel and a speckled pit mix. And the variety of species is the difference between me, a human, and my dog.
The Variety of Ecosystems is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit. Most commonly thought of are coral reefs or the tropical rainforest, but there are many levels to ecosystems.
Imagine you are standing in front of a pond. If you started to look around you would see different flowers, shoots of green coming from the edges of the pond, maybe some purple wildflowers. Then you would notice the fish swimming, frogs humming, birds buzzing, or crickets chirping. If you turned over a few big rocks near the pond I’m sure you would find bugs and worms hiding in the cool mud. And if you had brought your handy dandy microscope, which of course we all carry around with us, you would find thousands of bacteria living in the water. Everything that makes up that pond is its ecosystem.
Now imagine you’re looking at that same pond from a google map, and just keep pinching in the screen for a wider view. First, you see the bubble of your city, then your state, then your region and so on that make up the earth. All of the plants, animals, land, water, and atmosphere make up each ecosystem – including humans! Every factor in an ecosystem depends on every other factor, either directly or indirectly.
what’s the big deal about biodiversity
Well as I mentioned, we are all part of the ecosystem of Earth. And biodiversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. We depend on our ecosystem for freshwater, food, and fuel sources, for medicine, climate regulation, air filtration, flood protection, a stable economy, and more.
The earth is giving us these things for free – and we are exploiting them, degrading them, and putting ourselves at risk. Because we know that the health of the earth and our health are intrinsically linked.
Let’s talk about a few of those: Medicine, Money, Food Security and Nutrition.
Starting with medicine – A journal in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health says that, “The preservation of biodiversity is perhaps the single most important building block for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (as it helps to solve the rest) …(and) Drug discovery from wild species has always been, and will continue to be one of the most critical for most, if not all, aspects of health care, disease prevention, and wellness”
We have been cultivating medicine from wild species for thousands of years. And we know that most medical discoveries were made because of research into plant and animal biology and genetics.
So less biodiversity equals fewer species we have to discover and benefit from. Let’s put this into perspective – the number of Earth’s current species ranges from 2 million to 1 trillion (yes that’s a 1 with 12 zeros at the end), but we have only cataloged up to 1.74 million of those including bacteria and protists. Think of how many new vaccines, medicines, and cures could be found in the genetic makeup of our still undiscovered world.
An organization TEEB or The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity put together a report that showed 25-50% of the pharmaceutical sector’s turnover (about $650 billion USD per year) is derived from genetic resources. That was in 2009, so you can only imagine how much that has grown now.
We don’t just make money from pharmaceuticals either.
We profit from biotechnology to produce antibiotics and hormones. We profit from the land in agriculture. We also gain profit for personal care items and for earth’s beauty. A 2020 report found that “more than half the world’s GDP – $44 trillion US dollars – is highly or moderately dependent on nature and its services.” That means our economy, our jobs, and our health are all depending on the earth.
Food Security and Nutrition
Biodiversity also means you are able to enjoy a wider variety of crops so that when you go to the store, you’re able to leisurely pick from a wide selection of produce to eat. There are two issues with lack of biodiversity here – food security, and nutrition.
Less biodiversity means that more plants and animals will be susceptible to pests and disease. To aggravate that issue, we’re relying on monocultures that are unsustainable. Another study found that out of the 6,000 plant species that have been cultivated for food – only 9 account for 66 percent of total global crop production.
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Monocultures vs polycultures
A monoculture is a practice of farming a single crop, plant, or livestock species at a time. Monocultures make for easy, large-scale production (getting the farmer more bang for their buck) – but they come at a cost. To give one example of the harms of monocultures – let’s look at them as breeding grounds for pests.
At Lago Bay, I saw firsthand the issue of too many coconut trees being planted. You may think – the more the merrier! But that is exactly what the infestation of rhinoceros beetles said. And trust me it was NOT pretty to see the aftermath of their quick destruction. When you have too many of one plant, pests see it as a big buffet that they can keep feeding off of versus a polyculture that is extremely sustainable and biodiverse.
Polycultures allow for better nutrient utilization, better soil utilization, more stable yields – since they would be less threatened by adverse weather and environmental conditions, less land and water use, higher crop resistance to plant pests as we just mentioned, better soil properties, and soil erosion control – as well as providing a variety of foods to meet our needs and keep us healthy.
Take bees as another example. Just like we eat a variety of fruits and veggies to be healthy, so do bees. I’m sure you’ve heard the buzz about the importance of bees and other pollinating insects. Did you know that 75% of global crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend, at least in some part, on these pollinators? By relying on monocultures and reducing biodiversity we are diminishing the bee population and putting our food supply at risk.
The state of our biodiversity
Well, the most common measure of biodiversity is to look to the species list to give us a sign of how our ecosystems are doing. Since 1970, the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have seen an alarming average drop of 68%. Meaning we are seeing a catastrophic biodiversity loss.
When we are eliminating species due to human action we are hurting ourselves. The European Commission says, “ Even if certain species are affected by pollution, climate change or human activities, the ecosystem as a whole may adapt and survive. But the extinction of a species may have unforeseen impacts, sometimes snowballing into the destruction of entire ecosystems.”
Biodiversity loss is caused by poor and unsustainable land and resource management including urbanization, global deforestation, agricultural expansion, pollution, and climate change.
What can we do to protect it?
More Biodiversity Research
At a top level, we need more research on biodiversity loss, its impacts, and how it can be remedied in different parts of the world. All while giving back to stakeholders, not large corporations who seek quick remedies that fit their liking just so they can continue to reap the economic gains that the earth gives to them for free and causing further disenfranchisement of the poor.
Poverty and Biodiversity
We need to include the economic and social components of sustainability in our conversations and research about environmental sustainability and biodiversity specifically.
The persistence of extreme poverty and continued rapid loss of biodiversity appear to be intimately related and focused in rural areas where the PNAS says that “Lack of resources, institutions, and governance structures often leaves local people ill-equipped to institute mechanisms.” for sustainable management of resources.
Include Women and Indigenous People
We also need to bring women and Indigenous People back to the forefront of these conversations. Indigenous communities have a deep understanding of the land and the need for biodiversity. And women in many parts of the world act as stewards of the land and natural resources – so biodiversity loss directly affects them.
This intimate knowledge of the land could help us in the protection of our water sources, preservation of seeds, and teach us about the effective use and benefits of plants, including for food and medicine, without land degradation.
Their voices need to be in the room when decisions are being made about how to move forward sustainably.
Unfortunately, large corporations have stolen Indigenous knowledge to profit without proper compensation.
Even conservation efforts like our national parks neglected indigenous communities and their relationship with those lands – forcibly pushing them out and leaving them no room for them to coexist.
We need to encourage solutions to properly bring these groups to the table with reparations and protection from further damage.
We also need to support the research and implementation of regenerative and sustainable agriculture techniques.
“The preservation of biodiversity is not just a job for governments.
International and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and each and every individual have a role to play in changing entrenched outlooks and ending destructive patterns of behavior.”
Kofi Annan – Ghanaian Diplomat
Something to grow on
I wanted to give you a number of things you can do at home or in your community to help protect biodiversity! I challenge you to choose one of these and implement it this week – as biodiversity needs to be protected NOW.
- Get involved with your local habitat protecting groups or learn what invasive species are near you and how to eliminate them.
- Support small local farmers when possible
- Protect local biodiversity and habitats when going on walks outdoors by sticking to trails and sidewalks.
- Reduce your use of pesticides and fertilizers in lawn care. These often run off of lawns into adjacent lakes and streams with adverse effects for the plants and animals living there.
- Reduce your consumption so there is less pressure on using our natural resources
- Grow pollinator-friendly plants in your yard, or even hang up bee-friendly pots outside of your apartment.
- Check the products you buy and the companies you support to ensure that your buying habits are not contributing to the destruction of habitat elsewhere. Look for labels such as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or Rainforest Alliance Certified that protect the land and the native people living there.
For a more complete list – visit the link here.
I want to thank you, for doing your part to protect biodiversity – because whether in Panama or in your own city – the beauty and wildlife surrounding you need your help. So let’s get started right here, at Hometown: Earth.