Biodiversity is the key to evolution

Biodiversity is the key to evolution

July 28, 2016

Biodiversity is the key to evolution

From a scientific point of view, the term biodiversity means a variability of species, genes and ecosystems. The term is often used inappropriately, but a reduction in biodiversity could represent a real risk to humanity.

Recently, two academics suggested sanctioning “crimes against biodiversity” on an international level, in order to protect nature better than the agreements and conventions which have already been signed. The provocative idea, presented in the journal “The Conversation” by Anthony Burke, from the University of New South Wales in Australia, and Stefanie Fishel from the University of Alabama, highlights the urgency of implementing truly effective measures to safeguard a precious element of the planet which is coming under increasing threat from irresponsible behaviour.
The concept of biodiversity is relatively complex, hence the confusion which frequently arises in the food sector. In a strictly scientific sense, for instance, there is no “biodiversity of foods” linked to the variety of products available on the market.
Indeed, the term biodiversity was coined in the 1960s, merging together the expression “biological diversity”, and started to be used in the scientific community from the 1980s, until it became widely used more recently.
From a scientific point of view, “biodiversity” (generally attributed to a given part of the planet) means the variety and variability of all living organisms. More precisely, according to the definition adopted in 1992 by the United Nations during the Earth Summit, it is “the variability among living organisms from all sources, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes the diversity within species, between species and between ecosystems”. It is therefore a question of assessing the variety of both animal and plant species but also the “environments” in which these species live.

On a genetic level
Variety can even be evaluated on a genetic level – in terms of the number of alleles, genes or entire organisms: this type of research is particularly useful for understanding how processes like mutation and gene transfer effect evolution. This means that if we consider a group of organisms, the measurement of biodiversity – and of its reduction over time – at different levels can provide differing results. For instance, the number of complete organisms may remain constant over time, but the genetic variation may subside. If we think about plant species, the loss of biodiversity could lead to the disappearance of a number of different varieties.

The role of agriculture
In the latest volume of Eating Planet , the BCFN provides data to demonstrate the loss of biodiversity. So why is it a problem? Because genetic variability is the reservoir which evolution uses to adapt a species to the changes in its environment. When biodiversity drops, “reserves” are lost which could help to combat a climatic catastrophe – a period of drought or excessive rains. What is now undisputable is that many human activities are contributing to reducing the planet’s biodiversity. It is crucial that we stop this process in its tracks and, if possible, reverse the trend. This is why, in the Milan Protocol, a specific appeal is made to promote “traditional and appropriate crop choice, traditional agricultural knowledge and the importance of genetic biodiversity and associated biodiversity which support agricultural production through nutrient cycling, pest control and pollination”.
As the FAO highlights, sustainable diets support the protection and safeguarding of biodiversity and ecosystems, are culturally sensitive, economically fair and affordable, appropriate, safe and healthy in terms of the nutrients they provide, while at the same time optimising natural and human resources. For these reasons, these diets should be incentivised, including with small daily actions. In this regard, in the latest volume of Eating Planet, the BCFN lists a long series of good deeds which can help improve the health of the planet, from the reduction of waste in all aspects of daily life (including water, heating and air-conditioning) to recycling, in order to minimise one’s own carbon footprint (the level at which each of us contributes to the climate change in progress).

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