In the first post of this series, I have introduced the idea that Goals 14 and 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals might arguably be considered the cornerstone of the whole post-2015 agenda. Indeed, even when taking future technological innovations and improved efficiency into account, failing to conserve the flow of ecosystem services that biodiversity (both marine and terrestrial) provides would inevitably result in a compromised biosphere, one which no longer supports human societies and threatens the livelihoods of all people, rich and poor. This is where the MDGs have failed the most (with most of the environmental targets set under Goal 7 still largely unmet), and also where we shall start to make sure the SDGs succeed.
Let me be clear. It is very common to reduce the question of conservation to the simplistic one of compassion towards living beings. In recent decades, great importance has indeed been given to the ethical treatment of wildlife, out of increased understanding of the rich inner and social lives that many wild animals lead, as well as to the recognition of the aesthetic and cultural significance of biological diversity. This must not be dismissed as useless chatter, given that any political or legal development in the field (and, arguably, in any field) needs to be underpinned by an ethical perspective of some sort, and that this perspective is now often wider than the utilitarian approach which has traditionally inspired conservation efforts.
Beyond our legitimate concern for nature, though, lies a deeper problem: nature does not need people, it is us who need the services that nature provides. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since mankind first appeared. As once put by E.O. Wilson, who was describing the contribution of invertebrates to ecosystems, “if human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. Gaia, the totality of life on Earth, would set about healing itself and return to the rich environmental states of a few thousand years ago. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months.”
The concept of ecosystem services therefore represents a tangible means of assessing the importance of biological diversity, just like measuring their flow and accounting for the benefits they provide might equip local and national governments with a powerful tool to evaluate the pros and cons of any policy or activity that is potentially harmful to them. In this sense, it is important to note that a specific target within Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals (Target 15.9) has been devoted to the need to “integrate, by 2020, ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts”, and that appropriate indicators are being developed to evaluate progress on the way to its eventual achievement.
The most obvious form of benefits supplied to humans by the living environment is the provision of food, genetic resources, and other raw materials such as timber, resin, natural rubber, and fodder. Through consumption of or trade in these goods, biological diversity directly influences human well-being: subsistence hunting and fishing, agriculture, the collection of firewood, the utilization of animal and plant species in traditional medicine and of other naturally occurring substances as building materials all demonstrate how both low-income and high-income countries are intrinsically dependent on biological diversity for their survival.
The animal protein intake of many rural populations, for example, heavily depends on small-scale traditional fisheries and bushmeat. More than 2.9 billion people in the world currently receive about 20% of such an intake from fish, and this figure reaches or exceeds 50% in some small island developing States, as well as in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. On a global scale, fish consumption per capita is growing steadily (from an average of 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 19.2 kg in 2012), with a global capture fishery production which stood at 91.3 million tonnes in 2012 and an increasing supply (66.6 million tonnes) from aquaculture, making fish one of the most traded food commodities worldwide (global fishery exports were worth US$ 129.2 billion in 2012, with preliminary estimates pointing to a 2013 increase).
Likewise, bushmeat (that is, meat from non-domesticated animals) constitutes a significant portion of the protein intake throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America (up to 75% of the total in countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Moreover, it enables rural households to participate in a market economy and provides them with a valuable source of income.
Agricultural biodiversity is also strictly connected to human welfare. Today, the primary sector (including hunting, fishing, livestock and forestry) contributes to 3.1% of the global GDP and 27.5% of the GDP of low income countries. FAO predicts that feeding the world's growing population will require a boost in food production of about 70% by 2050. agriculture began about 12,000 years ago, and since then, about 7,000 plant species (and countless varieties and strains) have been cultivated or collected for food. In the 21st century 95% of human food energy needs is provided by just 30 crops, four of which (rice, wheat, maize and potato) account for more than 60% of the total.
The risks posed by monocultures and the parallel importance of species diversity are becoming more and more evident. Native biodiversity and unused food crops might in particular help to achieve food security in the face of an increasing demand while easing the pressure put by intensive farming on ecosystems and combating the emergence of diseases, making pesticides less necessary. At the same time, such crops have an indirect value as crop wild relatives, since their close genetic relationships enable food crops to evolve through crossing, boosting yields and finding solutions to disasters such as blight and infestations. As outlined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, cultivated systems and biodiversity in fact have a multifaceted relationship: not only genetic resources for food and agriculture are cultivated in such systems, but associated biodiversity also supports the functioning of cultivated systems, and the latter in turn harbor biodiversity beyond that which is strictly functional to agriculture.
Finally, a vital role for human societies on Earth is played by the utilisation of genetic biodiversity in traditional medicine and drug development. On the one hand, it has been estimated that about 80% of the world's population, especially in some Asian and African countries, relies on natural traditional medicines for their primary health care needs, with possibly as many as 70,000 plant species and several animal species currently being used for this purpose, ranging from leech to amphibians and including large animals such as bears, primates and sharks; in China, for example, revenues from traditional medicine total over US $14 billion per year. On the other, high-income countries have also been drawing from chemical compounds found in living organisms for centuries in order to develop new drugs. Approximately half of synthetic drugs have in fact a natural origin, and more than 25% of all prescriptions in the United States contains active principles derived from plants or animals, with a turnover which was thought to be between US $75 million and US $150 billion in 1997; even in the future, biodiversity will continue to supplement advanced scientific methods, with research and development based on genetic resources expected to reap significant benefits from the discovery of new species and the screening of more plants for their medical potential.
to be continued...
Dario Piselli is the Project Lead for Solutions at SDSN Youth. All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinion of the author and not that of SDSN Youth.