Arrant about (agricultural) biodiversity

by Jeremy Cherfas on August 21, 2008

There’s something happening out there; what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Over the past few days several people seem to have been talking in mystified terms about biodiversity; what it is, why it gets so little respect, what to do about that, whether it matters anyway. On Monday Luigi nibbled an IEED paper on biodiversity and the media. Mike Shanahan, a journalist for whom I have a lot of time, wondered why other journalists have “under-reported” the loss of biodiversity, and suggested that “researchers and policymakers have failed to communicate the issues”. A couple of days ago a blogger I hadn’t previously come across got into the issue repeatedly, most notably with What the Heck Is Biodiversity? And Why Should We Care?, which was prompted by Thomas Friedman’s new book — Hot, Flat and Crowded — and a new paper from Paul Ehrlich and Robert Pringle. Friedman’s book blurb doesn’t say so (which is ironic indeed) but the man himself thinks that the loss of biodiversity may be even more important than climate change. And Ehrlich and Pringle talk about “a grim future”. A little while ago Tyler Cowen, another person I respect enormously, asked to what extent is the ongoing loss of biodiversity a very serious problem?. Like Friedman, Cowen suspects that “in the long run this will prove a more important issue than global warming,” but he is “not sure”. Finally, and the reason to write this today, now, there’s a paper in tomorrow’s Science that calls for a Global Biodiversity Observing System, a snip at €200 million to €500 million.1

In each of these pieces, people who are convinced that the loss of biodiversity is A Bad Thing and (some of them) that Something Ought to Be Done, lament the fact that so few people agree and either that they don’t know what should be done, or that they do, but nobody worth squat is listening.

We kind of know why. It’s the hoary old boiled frog myth.2 The downside of biodiversity loss is so remote, in time and in space, and so diffuse, that most people really can’t rouse themselves even to think sensibly about it, let alone to act. We need a clear and present danger if we are to respond. Cary Fowler, the esteemed Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, took this as his lesson in one of his recent reflections.

“[W]e will probably never have a “crop diversity crisis”, because of the lag time between cause and effect. Today’s oversights in caring for this resource provoke tomorrow’s emergencies, but at most we are hard-wired only to deal with the latter.”

Fowler, not surprisingly, is one of the few people I’ve cited who actually makes use of an argument based on agriculture and food. Success, he says, will come when “politicians … realize that positioning agricultural systems to provide food security in a climate changed world is the supreme benefit to be generated from crop diversity”.

As we lament so often, many of the people expressing concern about the loss of biodiversity don’t even recognize the value of diversity for and within agriculture. Among all the airy-fairy remote, distant and diffuse benefits of biodiversity, why do they ignore food?

We bang on about the need to preserve agricultural biodiversity in crops and wild relatives as insurance against disasters, but alas the disasters don’t seem to be happening, just yet. In vain I scan the headlines each day for news of a devastating outbreak of Asian soybean rust, or wheat rust UG99, or even good old potato blight, but they just refuse to happen. We know about past disasters, and we know how agricultural biodiversity helped to overcome them, but that’s ancient history. We’re much safer now.

A few of us cry wolf, and we are ignored, and we all know what happens to people who cry wolf too often. I sometimes wish I could summon some real demons to do some real damage to the food supply. Yes, a genuine crisis: but isn’t it the case that in chinese, the word for “crisis” is compounded from the words for “danger” and “opportunity”?3

Alas, a food crisis isn’t likely to help. At the risk of promoting yet another hoary old chinese myth, “well-fed people have many problems, hungry people have only one”. By the time politicians and policymakers are hungry (like that’s ever going to happen) protecting any kind of biodiversity will be the last thing on their minds.

In all seriousness, how do we get people — including conservationists — to understand that if they don’t conserve and make use of more agricultural biodiversity, they’re probably not going to be around to enjoy the benefits of conserving lots of wild biodiversity?

Footnotes:
  1. Scholes, R.J., Mace, G.M., Turner, W., Geller, G.N., Jurgens, N., Larigauderie, A., Muchoney, D., Walther, B.A., Mooney, H.A. (2008). ECOLOGY: Toward a Global Biodiversity Observing System. Science, 321(5892), 1044-1045. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162055 []
  2. And yes, I know it’s a myth; the problem is nobody seems to care. []
  3. No, it isn’t. []

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

back40 August 22, 2008 at 1:14 am

“In vain I scan the headlines each day for news of a devastating outbreak of Asian soybean rust, or wheat rust UG99, or even good old potato blight, but they just refuse to happen.”

How about the Maize Streak Virus threat to Africans?

Reply

Jeremy August 22, 2008 at 8:30 am

Yeah, we nibbled that a day or two back. But you know, Africans, I mean, Africa’s a basket case anyway, and besides, super cassava is going to save the day there.

Reply

back40 August 22, 2008 at 6:04 pm

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