Goodbye to Oceanic Diversity
"The evidence is everywhere. Populations of fish and shellfish, of corals and mollusks, of lowly ocean worms, are plummeting. Toxic tides, coastal development and pollutant runoff are increasing in frequency and dimension as the human population expands. The oceans - near shore and in the abyssal deep - may be reaching a state of ecological crisis, but, for the public, what is out of sight is out of mind. 'The oceans are in a lot more trouble than is commonly appreciated,' rues Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University. 'There is great urgency.' ... Identifying threats to the oceans was straightforward. Although the usual suspects were in the lineup - including oil spills, the destruction of estuaries, toxic dumping and the introduction of nonindigenous species that outcompete the locals - conference attendees deemed fishing the greatest danger to marine biodiversity" (Scientific American Aug 94 10).
"The fundamental folly underlying the current decline has been a widespread failure to recognize that fish are wildlife - the only wildlife still hunted on a large scale. Because wild fish regenerate at rates determined by nature, attempts to increase their supply to the marketplace must eventually run into limits. That threshold seems to have been passed in all parts of the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific: these regions each show dwindling catches. Worldwide, the extraction of wild fish peaked at 82 million metric tons in 1989. Since then, the long-term growth trend has been replaced by stagnation or decline. In some areas where the catches peaked as long ago as the early 1970s, current landings have decreased by more than 50 percent. Even more disturbingly, some of the world's greatest fishing grounds, including the Grand Banks and Georges Bank of eastern North America, are now essentially closed following their collapse - the formerly dominant fauna have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their previous abundance and are considered commercially extinct. Recognizing that a basic shift has occurred, the members of the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization (a body that encouraged the expansion of large-scale industrial fishing only a decade ago) recently concluded that the operation of the world's fisheries cannot be sustained. They now acknowledge that substantial damage has already been done to the marine environment and to the many economies that depend on this natural resource. Such sobering assessments are echoed in the U.S. by the National Academy of Sciences. It reported this past April that human actions have caused drastic reductions in many of the preferred species of edible fish and that changes induced in composition and abundance of marine animals and plants are extensive enough to endanger the functioning of marine ecosystems" (Scientific American Nov 95).
The Frogs are Croaking: There is a world-wide decline in frog populations to the point of international crisis concern. Frogs are susceptible to environmental toxins and pollution because of their permeable skins.
Preserving Diversity in the Wild
Conservation in the wild is difficult or impossible for domesticated species. Genetic resources often have to be stored in seed banks, germ plasm collections, or by tissue culture. The loss of genetic variety of the wild relatives of crop plants - genetic erosion - may be caused by:
Left: Global demand for the the pitcher plant Cephalotus follicularis has decimated populations in its native Australian swamps. It is now listed in CITES appendix II (Ayensu 124).
The horticultural industry sometimes acts as a valuable force in conservation by the propagation and distribution of rare species, but this trade, as in the case of agriculture and forestry, has to replenish its stocks from the wild and this sometimes strips rare species from the wild, particularly through smuggling, especially of bulbs, rock plants, cacti and succulents, wild birds, lizards and even great apes. They often focus their attention on the rarest species - for these fetch the highest prices. This can lead to exploitation of many wild populations by rogue smugglers and traders. Often the plants or captive animals are badly packed and do not survive shipment. Collectors of rare species often drive the market through their insatiable passion for the rare and unusual. Even botanists can be serious offenders when collecting specimens of rare species for preservation in their private collections of dried plants.
Specialist horticulturalists, both professional and amateur, who concentrate on particular groups such as orchids, ferns, succulents, and alpines can have a very important role to play. They may successfully cultivate a very rare species and make it common; thus helping to remove pressure from the wild population, while fulfilling the needs of the trade and helping with introduction of rare species back into the wild. Techniques are being worked out to propagate and cultivate plants and satisfy the needs of collectors.
Cycads - exemplified by the sago palm have persisted with no real evolutionary change for more than 50 million years - are now collected too heavily. They are thus becoming collectively rare as an entire group. In the Transvaal the cycad loss from the wild was so rapid that protective laws were enacted in 1971. To control the trade, all owners were required to have their plants licensed. Eight thousand permits were issued to owners of sixty-four thousand plants during the first eighteen months of the program (Cycads of South Africa, Cynthia Giddy).
Harvesting of wild flowers can also be a threat to native species in areas rich in endemic species. Since many of them set few seed, commercial collecting can lead to serious dangers of extinction. Conservation plans should also allow for setting up a local horticultural trade because this can complement preservation in the wild as long as it is designed to give a steady production and income at the local level, rather than a quick selling off of the wild stocks.
Many other deliberate changes have an impact. Selective removal of plants poisonous to cattle can drive species to extinction but the same toxins may in other contexts supply irreplaceable biochemicals. This has been notable in a variety of cases from curare in arrow poisons to the painkillers in cone snail venom. As biodiversity becomes diminished our future options are slipping through our fingers diminishing by degrees, like tumbling sand.
Recent advances in cancer chemotherapy, based on alkaloids, have revived interest in mass screening of plant tissues for medical activity. Several plant-sourced drugs from Madagascar Periwinkle (vincristine) to Pacific Yew (taxol) play pivotal roles in cancer prevention. Most such superdrugs probably are to be found in the equatorial regions because this is both where biodiversity is richest and where adaptive responses are most extreme.
In the tropics, new technologies, often imposed on a massive scale, without due regard for the impacts caused, can damage the entire genetic base of the ecosystem. .There is a tendency to divide wilderness regions into ever smaller islands destroying ecosystemic connectivity and all long range habitats, selectively wiping out certain types of organism. Plantations are most frequently in exotic species and agribusiness methods low in diversity and destructive of ecosystems are also imported. Through such ingress, many native animals, insects, and other plants are lost - with damage to the whole web of vital ecological relationships. Drainage of wetlands for farms often means the loss of native species.
Genetic erosion threatens the genetic diversity of a wide spectrum of species, even relatively common ones, because the original pool of genetic variability that existed in the species has been reduced through the destruction or loss of large parts of their distribution area and or population. . "As forests are felled, marshes are drained, sea coasts are turned into holiday resorts, mountain pastures are trampled and grazed, heathlands are changed into grassland, old rich meadows are ploughed up and planted to crops or re-seeded with standard grass mixtures, cattle and sheep grazing is intensified, cities expand, industry spreads and roads are widened, so the genetic diversity of all plants in every part of the world is diminished" (Hawkes in Ayensu, et. al. 208).
The widespread damage that the biosphere is sustaining, through physical and chemical damage to the biota, land and waters, particularly in terms of genetic erosion, is far more serious than most people realize, although the cumulative effects leading to an environmental tragedy may take five decades to unfold (Ayensu, et. al. 208).
The disappearing corn cockle In developed and developing nations, technological change can bring unexpected genetic erosion. An example from Britain shows dramatically one small effect. Britain is broken up into one hundred and twelve botanical sub-divisions or vice-counties. The Corn Cockle (Agrostemma githago) was once widespread in grain fields occurring in a hundred and four of the vice-counties, many local floras recording it as "common." The plant began its disappearance with the improved seed-cleaning techniques introduced in the 1920s. With the advent of herbicides in the 1960s, its decline became even more rapid. Extremely rare today, it is found in only two counties in England and one in Scotland. Its only hope is the gardener, and the garden - the court of last resort for saving this beautiful flower, one of considerable horticultural merit. If the Corn Cockle and its many companion cornfield weeds can be maintained by horticulture or appropriate "subsidized farming methods," so much the better. (Ayensu, Heywood, Lucas, & Defilipps 208)
Conserving Resources for a Changing Future
New foods and future medicines are still to be found in the wilderness. "Some 3,000 plant species have been used as food at some time, and another 75,000 - more than a quarter of all known species - are edible. A grass called Job's Tears is an extremely nutritious, but undeveloped cereal. A Paraguayan plant produces calorie-free substances 300 times sweeter than sugar, and a coffee entirely free from caffeine has been discovered on the Comoros Islands near Madagascar. Some species could provide much needed food in arid areas. One Australian grass can yield good crops even if it is only watered once. The Marama Bean of the Kalahari desert produces both beans and nutritious roots, while the Somalian Yeheb nut was rescued from extinction to be commercially grown in East Africa" (Lean et. al. 132).
Such diversity of genetic resources will be needed more and more as human numbers grow and marginal land is increasingly utilized - and global warming alters the world's climate and rainfall patterns. New crops, and new strains of existing crops, will be essential if the new circumstances are to be addressed. But everywhere, wild plants animals and fungi which could provide them are being allowed to die out. Industry, likewise, relies on wild species. "Wood and rubber play an enormous part in daily life; rubber was originally used by South American Indians to make toys for their children. Gums, like gum arabic or gum tragacanth are used in inks and cosmetics, sweets and pharmaceuticals, liqueurs and dyes. Frankincense and myrrh are still used in incense and perfumes, as are the flowers of the ylang-ylang tree. Natural oils are already replacing mineral oils as feedstock for the chemical industry, and are beginning to take over from petrol in cars. Palm oil is used in a hundred products from lipstick to tinplate, ice cream to jet engines; but hardly any of the world's 28,000 species of palm have been investigated by scientists" (Lean et. al. 132).
"Only a fraction of 1 per cent of the world's species has been properly studied for its potential value to humanity in medicines, food or industry. So far scientists have managed to name about 1.4 million of them, but most remain anonymous and unknown. There may be a total of 5 million species on the planet or even, according to the latest estimates, more than 30 million" (Lean et. al. 132). A whole spectrum of undiscovered bioactive molecules spanning cures for intractable disease, through new industrial materials to foods are being squandered through lack of insight for their future value in the rush for a quick buck.
"A few reserves have been set aside to protect wild relatives of crop species, and national gene banks have been set up in some 60 countries, usually keeping seeds to save space. Sixty thousand strains of rice, half the world's total, are stored at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, 12,000 types of wheat and maize from 47 countries are kept at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico" (Lean et. al. 132). But stores are costly and can never replicate the wild. Seeds cannot be stored forever without deteriorating, and are vulnerable to disease. There is considerable danger of creeping attrition through loss of viability through faults in storage. Moreover massive genetic resources remain completely vulnerable to accidental destruction if their survival depends substantially on high technology. A mere refrigerator failure could destroy an evolutionary heritage. We cannot depend on such processes to conserve the genetic heritage over evolutionary time.
Patenting, Intellectual Property Rights and Corporate Greed
Now that the enormous value of genetic resources is being realized, countries and companies are fighting over who owns them. The U.S. still remains to ratify the Rio Biodiversity convention because of calculating expediency about intellectual property rights over both modified organisms and natural ones taken from their home habitat and culture.
Some developed and developing countries regard their genetic resources as their property and try to stop them being exported. Some, including the US, claim proprietorial rights over all the genetic material they keep from anywhere in the world. Private companies are buying up seed firms; 10 of them control a third of all the cereal crop species listed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. They may jettison the less profitable species, even though these may have huge genetic potential and are particularly useful on specialized terrain. As seed and chemical companies combine, fears that they will design crops that require their pesticides - and only theirs - to fight off disease have been realized. A particular example is Monsanto which has out grown and taken over seed companies and now manufactures a variety of agricultural genetically-engineered strains which must be grown using Monsanto herbicides. The invention of terminator gene now threatens to make all such genetically-engineered strains non-viable in terms of the continuity of life. The patenting of species and the control of the seed markets by agrochemical companies could become the death knell for the genetic heritage, especially of domesticated species as it marks off the vast productive areas of the planet to genetic oblivion, and a possibly terminal fate for humankind.
Policy and Planning Documents:
These documents set out a world biodiversity strategy and assessment coordinated by IUCN conservation union and UNEP. They are intended to guide world policy planners in preserving biodiversity globally, so form a good basis for considering more effective policies and where existing plans have failed to be activated.
Extinction and Survival:
Values and Ethics of Biodiversity:
Ecofeminism, Deep Ecology, Biophilia, Green Eschatology
Eve, the Fall from Eden and Biodiversity
News and Comment:
Patenting and Intellectual Property
A Case: Genetic engineering and Biodiversity
Genetic engineering depends on being able to splice genes from one living organism or species into another. To be able to utilize the potential horizons of gene technology, we need to preserve as much of the biodiversity as possible now, because it is from other existing organisms that we extract the genes for existing biosynthetic pathways to splice into new arrangements. Reduce the biodiversity and the future of genetic engineering is as much reduced as that of evolution itself. However the use of genetically engineered species in the place of natural diversity threatens the very biodiversity it depends upon.
Environmental Organizations Online
Sample Plant-derived Drugs and their Uses
Meanwhile the wildlife massacre continues, interrupting 4 billion years of evolution.
On to part 1a The Value of Biodiversity - Threatened Habitats
Part 2: The Holocaust of the Green Cathedral