Happy International Day for Biological Diversity

by Jeremy Cherfas on May 22, 2012

Once again, May 22 rolls around as an opportunity “to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues,” as the Convention on Biological Diversity puts it. This year the focus is on marine biodiversity. So we’re going to look at rainforests. And agriculture.

The Copenhagen Consensus is an interesting attempt to have a bunch of economists (usually) work out where to find the best return on investments in development. The deal is that people write a paper examining interventions designed to tackle a development problem (nutrition, AIDS, clean water …) and a bunch of other experts decide which interventions make most economic sense, given a limited pot of money. The big list of “16 investments worthy of investment” came out a week ago, with better nutrition at No. 1. At No. 6 is “creating an increase in agricultural productivity through research and development,” one of three policy options offered in response to the challenge to reduce the loss of biodiversity.

Here is Copenhagen Consensus Capo Bjorn Lomborg’s summary of the value of that:

The authors estimate that with a $14.5 billion annual infusion into research we can achieve 20 percent higher annual growth rates for crops and 40 percent higher growth rates for livestock, which over the next 40 years will significantly reduce pressures on nature and hence help biodiversity.

The other favoured option to reduce biodiversity loss is to “prevent all dense forests from being converted to agriculture”. Preventing deforestation has a benefit:cost ratio of between 3 and 30, while the benefit:cost ratio for increased agricultural R&D is between 3 and 20. (A third option — “increasing the amount of protected areas globally to around 20 percent” — is barely worth trying because it seldom reaches break-even, with benefit:cost ratios of between 0.2 and 1.4)

There’s a lot one could (but won’t) say about the Conpenhagen Consensus approach and assumptions; it is odd that investing in agriculture is part of the solution to biodiversity loss, although it is not a big part of solutions to undernutrition. And the value of agricultural biodiversity specifically is nowhere to be seen.

Which will do as our contribution to increasing understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues.

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