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How important is biodiversity?

Kee Hyun Kim's picture

How important is biodiversity? Although I have seen many commercials by organizations such as Greenpeace, I could not fully understand why it was important to spend large sums of money and resources to save a plant or some animal at remote areas of the earth.  I would ask myself “Could there be any practical reasons? Are we spending such time and effort only for moral and spiritual reasons?”  Since we seem to have all the necessary animals, such as cows and pigs in abundant number, I could not see any practical reason for spending such effort into saving obscure organisms whose existence seemed to have little connection to our well being. After initial research, however, I was able to find out that biodiversity is extremely important to us and those organisms that might seem unrelated to us are actually extremely important to our well being.  


Because human beings are heterotrophic, we must get our energy by consuming other living organisms. (1) Even in today’s modern world where individuals execute very physical activities, it is estimated that adults need at least 2,700 – 2000 calories daily depending on their sex. (2) As a result, mass cultivation of few organisms became popular because it was the easiest way to provide the needed calories. Such mass cultivation of few organisms had a detrimental effect on biodiversity. Rainforests, home to hundreds of different organisms, would be cleared to make room for staple crops such as potatoes and domestic animals such as cows. Such reduction on biological diversity should be stopped not only for moral and spiritual value but also for practical reasons.  



In order to understand the reduction of biodiversity and its impact, it is essential to first understand precisely what biodiversity means. Biological diversity is generally considered to be composed of three different categories; genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity. (3) Genetic diversity is the diversity of different genetic information in and between the different plant, animal and microorganisms. Species diversity is the diversity of the different species that live in the ecosystem. Ecosystem diversity refers to the diversity in the different ecosystem that the species live in such wetland to deserts. Each of these diversities is significantly important to human civilization.  


Gene diversity is important because it is core to guaranteeing our survival. Although humans are omnivores, our largest source of energy comes from plants. Even though over five thousand species of plants have been used as sources of food, less than twenty are widely consumed and less than five crops are essential staple food for the majority of the population. (3) As we have observed from the Irish potato famine, humans depend heavily on these few staple crops for their survival and when these plants fail, the consequences are extremely grim. A diverse gene pool allows scientist to strengthen the narrow gene pool of these few staple crops, making them more productive and resistant to disease. The reason we don’t see massive crop failures like the one cause by potato blight in Ireland in 1740 is not only a result of advance in chemical agents such as pesticide but also due to the strengthening of the crops resistance to disease that the scientist did by adding genes from wild plants. (6) 


A diverse gene pool is also necessary in making the lives of mankind healthier. Both traditional and modern medicines rely heavily on the dynamic gene pool.  According to WHO, over 80 percent of people living in developing worlds rely on traditional medicine made from plants to cure their disease. (5) Although it may not seem obvious, modern medicine also relies heavily on the diverse gene pool.  Anesthesia, an extremely important drug that is used everyday all over the world, was actually developed from a gene found in a certain tree frog specie. (5) Another classical example would be penicillin, which was developed from a certain type of fungus.  (5) The gene pool is essentially the raw material for the medical research; therefore, the development of new medicine will come to a halt without a sufficient gene pool. 



Although species diversity is significant in that it essentially provides genetic diversity, it also has importance of its own to the human species by playing a significant role in agriculture.  Many plants rely on other species, such as birds and insects, to pollinate them.  More than one third of the human civilizations crops are dependent on such methods of pollination to reproduce. (5) The involvement of different species in the crop reproduction cycle becomes even greater when other assistance, such as dispersal of seed by birds through their excrement, in accounted for. The diverse species also play an important role in protecting plants from pests. It is estimated that close to 99 percent of pests are controlled by other organisms such as insects and birds. (5) These natural pesticide are far effective than their counterpart in that they do not harm the soil and pest do not develop resistance to them like they do to chemical agents. Without species diversity, the human race will suffer not only a lack of genetic diversity but also a significantly detrimental effect to agriculture, its main source of energy.  


Last but not the least; ecosystem diversity is also extremely imperative to Humanity. Ecosystem provides the area for species to exist and create a diverse gene pool.  The diverse ecosystem allows species to exist by performing two functions, acting as filters and as protective barriers against natural disasters. Wetlands such as swamps and marshes perform as a natural filter, cleaning both man and natural made waste.  How diverse ecosystem provide protection can be seen when natural disasters such as tsunamis or hurricanes strike. When I was working in Batticaloa, Sri-Lanka after the tsunami, I was able to witness a unique case of ecosystem acting as a protective barrier. The northern side of the village suffered much less damage from the tsunami because the lagoon and the tall coconut trees surrounding the village absorbed most of the initial shock of the tsunami.   


Bio diversity, despite its significant importance to us, is under a serious threat today. So far there has been five periods of mass distinction, caused by natural disasters such as ice age or meteorites.  (4) However, none has been extensive nor quick as the sixth and current one which is being done by mankind.  50-200 species become extinct everyday and over 20,000 to 70,000 become extinct every year. (4) The decrease in biodiversity caused by mankind is already having its effect on us. Had the wetlands in New Orleans been preserved, Hurricane Katrina would not have been able to cause as much damage as it did.  



 If the current trend of decrease in biodiversity continues, mankind will face a grim future. Development of medicine will slow down significantly and we would have to live under the constant threat of starvation due to the high vulnerability of our staple crops. To make matters worse, natural disasters will strike far harder than before because there will be little barrier to absorb their shock. Biodiversity is extremely important for our survival and is a problem that requires serious and immediate attention.  


Work citied 

1) Anonymous.” Tiscali.reference " 

2) Anonymous.” Calories needed a day "

3) Australian government, Department of Environment and Water Resources. “Biodiversity and its value" 

4) Anonymous.” Importance of biodiversity” 

5) UNDP.” The importance of biodiversity” 

6) Wikipedia.” Great Irish famine” 


Syd's picture

What will be the future of man

With so many ecological changes happening all of a sudden, has anyone ever wondered what will be the future of this world and man? How long will this world last?

Is the end of the world and human species very near? Maybe we may not survive another century and a half. What say???

Serendip Visitor's picture

see other threats like global

see other threats like global warming, and persistent organic pollution. but crying for biodiversity is overkill. i am student of science and spent many years studying ecology, i didnt find any rational reason for spending millions of $ for biodiversity instead of clean energy..

Paul Grobstein's picture

biodiversity - beyond humans?

You might be interested in an ongoing discussion in another class. Among the questions there (and here) is can one make a non-anthropocentric case for the importance of biodiversity? Is there a reason to sustain biodiversity other than in human interests? That might seem irrelevant but if one stays solely within the realm of human interests, one runs into serious problems of conflicts between what different humans or groups of humans think they want/need.