By Roberta Fabbrocino
You may have heard the word “biodiversity” in school, but this is far from an abstract concept that has no impact on us. In fact, our species’ health and survival are dependent on it: it’s what ensures the availability of the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Sadly, human activities are threatening it, putting us all in dire danger. If you want to know more, let me catch you up to speed, answer whatever questions you may have regarding this buzzword, and even give you a few ideas on what you can do to improve the situation.
What is biodiversity?
In 1988, the American entomologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term biodiversity. We can define this word as the wealth of life on our Earth, a planet inhabited by millions of plants, animals, and microorganisms that constitute an immense profusion of genetic variety, giving life to the complex ecosystems they occupy in our biosphere.
These beings aren’t solely different in terms of shape and structure. They also interact differently with the various parts of the system: they live, coexist, and interact within the ecosystems, with both their physical and inorganic components influencing each other.
All ecosystems can adapt to the pressures associated with reducing biodiversity to a certain extent, but they aren’t immune from them. Our linear development model, whose ultimate aim is infinite economic growth, doesn’t suit a plant that offers finite resources.
Most of our production processes are wasteful and dependent on fossil fuel, worsening air and ocean pollution. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, over 200,000 tonnes of plastic leak every year, and air-pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide yearly. Due to human activities, 75% of the terrestrial environment and approximately 66% of the marine environment have undergone significant changes. We have witnessed a 300% increase in food crop production since 1970. Now the production of crops and livestock takes up more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources.
Even the most minuscule organism has a vital role to play in an ecosystem. When it disappears, the ecosystem finds itself more fragile, as it loses its ability to recover from diseases and environmental disasters. Even a species that is not endangered on a global level can still play an essential role on a local scale.
What is causing its loss?
Humanity and human activities are causing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity that inflicts a long-term, often permanent impact on ecosystems. Humans have been putting an increasing amount of pressure on the environment, effectively reshaping landscapes and ecosystems.
A history of over-exploitation
Our species emerged around 300,000 years ago, and through most of our existence, we lived as hunter-gatherers in band societies. Said human societies later transitioned to sedentary agriculture about 10,000 years ago. As we started domesticating animals and growing plants, our environmental impact began to grow to reach fever peach after the Industrial Revolution.
The impact on forests
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 12% (1.6 billion ha) of the global land area is currently being used to cultivate agricultural crops. Forests paid the price for this agrarian boom, as well as for urbanization: 80% of the original forest that covered the Earth 8,000 years ago has been cleared, damaged, or fragmented.
The impact on other animals
Humans’ over-exploitation of natural resources and the environmental degradation it caused are affecting other beings. In the European continent, 15% of birds are threatened, 30% of amphibians, 42% of mammals, 45% of butterflies, 45% of reptiles, and 52% of freshwater fish. The FAO estimates that the Earth lost 75% of its crop biodiversity between 1900 and 2000. As more and more species cease to exist, we find ourselves witnessing the so-called “Holocene extinction,” also known as the sixth mass extinction or Anthropocene extinction, the first one to be the direct result of human activity.
The tip of the iceberg
The picture becomes even gloomier if we consider that the numbers we know are only the tip of the iceberg. The total number of recorded living species on our planet is around 1.75 million. Of these, according to IUCN, the World Conservation Body, more than 35500 species are threatened with extinction. But, we don’t know precisely many species inhabit our Earth, and scientists estimate that the actual number of species on our Earth is 14 million. So we can assume that the real number of threatened species is most likely much higher.
The effects of biodiversity loss on ecosystems health
Biodiversity sustains the productivity of any ecosystem. It contributes to food and energy security, increases the level of health within our society, decreases vulnerability to natural disasters like floods or tropical storms, and improves water resources availability and quality. On the other hand, a smaller variety of species directly leads to a smaller variety of crops, which are fundamental for our survival. It also makes ecosystems more fragile, as they have a lower tolerance to diseases or bad weather and cannot adapt to climate change.
How is it affecting us?
Ecosystems offer us food, energy, fibers for fabrics, fuel, raw materials for medicines, and so much more. But their ability to perform these services, which all human, animal, and plant communities benefit from, is deeply linked to their health. Over a third of human food, from fruits to seeds and vegetables, would disappear if there were no more pollinators, as they are responsible for transporting the pollen, allowing fertilization. Of course, this process is crucial for the survival of plant species.
We need to act
Just by looking at the interdependence between pollinators and plants, we can see how deeply linked and dependent all beings are on each other and how the loss of a species can affect countless others. As humans, we are faced with the moral imperative of doing better and the need to act if we, as a species, want to continue to prosper.
3 ways to support biodiversity
The situation may feel daunting, but there are ways in which individuals can make a difference and help to solve this issue, even just a little. Let’s see how you can help!
Support local and traditional crops
Regional varieties are slowly disappearing from our kitchens as similar industrial varieties are taking over the market. By simply choosing to purchase traditional local crops instead, you will not only support your local farmers and contribute to the survival of your area’s traditions, but you’ll also help sustain local biodiversity.
Save the bees (at home)
Food security and pollinators are deeply linked; that’s why protecting them is fundamental. A simple way of doing that is making your garden bee-friendly. To do that, make room for herbs and flowers such as basil, chives, poppies, foxgloves, and nasturtiums.
We achieve lasting change through a combination of individual and collective action. As a citizen, you can use your voice to push your government and local leaders to protect habitats and decrease biodiversity threats. Sign petitions, support environmental organizations and vote for politicians and parties that care about the environment.
We hope you found this piece informative and that it encouraged you to take action. What are you going to do to protect and conserve biodiversity? Let us know in the comments below!