Biodiversity and climate

As scientists more thoroughly understand the climate cycle, ensuring resilience within ecosystems becomes vitally important. Adapting to climate change would pressure even healthy ecosystems (United Nations Foundation and Sigma XI, 2007). The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA, 2005) catalogues ecosystems under pressure across the world - and very few are deemed healthy. Watersheds and the forests that protect them are already showing some of the adverse effects of climate change. In the US Rocky Mountains, some 12,000 square kilometres of pine forests have been destroyed by a combination of fire and beetle infestation. The fires normally occur when drought has created large areas of dead timber; but the beetle infestation - directly attributed to warming - has intensified the impact (Breshears et al, 2005). The die-off in the pine forests is consistent with a US government assessment that forecasts the complete loss of 'alpine and subalpine habitats by 2100' in the contiguous US and the 'consequent extirpation of local species' (National Assessment Synthesis Team, 2000). Similar vulnerabilities to extinction are projected in unique ecosystems in South Africa and Australia (Pimm and Raven, 2000; United Nations Foundation and Sigma XI, 2007).

The large mammals in the rapidly changing Arctic also show signs of stress. Recently, the US Department of Interior confirmed scientific findings that polar bears are highly endangered (New York Times, 2006). Bears have proven over the last 20,000 years to be one of the most adaptable mammals. Polar bears - in developing colouration and other adaptations to a frozen world - were a remarkable example of the species' flexibility. Scientists are concerned that the speed of the current warming, however, may compromise the bears' ability to adapt.

Biodiversity in agriculture is also critical to food production, economic stability and future growth. A decline in biodiversity could be more threatening to societal survival than general species loss. The moderate and relatively predictable climate of the past 250 years has paralleled the expansion of 'industrial agriculture production', especially in the developed world and the large emerging economies. This practice has created vast 'monocultures' of grain crops, which underpin the global food system and rely on a few varieties of several grains (wheat, rice and maize) and key oilseeds (rape, olive, soy and palm). The dominance of these crops makes modern society more vulnerable to climate change. These crops comprise much of the world trade in agriculture products and the food supply of the global industrial economy. A major disease in one grain could cause widespread food insecurity and the poorest nations would be most vulnerable - much as potato blight led to the Irish famine in the 1870s.

The international community has taken some precautionary steps to protect agriculture biodiversity, most notably the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This agreement, which is linked to the larger Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), reflects a practical approach to protecting seeds, cultivars and other genetic material that is now held worldwide in national seed banks and in the regional research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and European donors have contributed to an endowment to protect plant germplasm and established the Global Crop Diversity Trust to organize and support this effort. Recent support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation has put the endowment on track to meet its initial goal of US$260 million. The trust is assembling a duplicate collection of 1 million varieties of agricultural crops and working with governments and international institutions to restore and maintain existing national and international collections. The realization of this novel idea is an example of how the international community can take creative steps to respond to the threat of climate change and support environmental sustainability. But this is only a small step.

Protecting seeds and cultivars is insufficient to address the threat that climate change poses. We will need to pursue wide-ranging, innovative research into agricultural crops - and deploy new varietals in many countries. Variety will be essential to resilience. Plant breeding - especially in vulnerable regions - is of critical importance. Out of every ten plant breeders today, only one works with 'heirloom' varieties; most focus on fewer than ten major crops and much of the research is supported by corporations that focus on supplying single varieties to large numbers of farmers.

In a future shaped by less predictable weather patterns, more pests and diseases, and scarce water supplies, crops will have to be tailored to the regional environment. New drought- and pest-resistant qualities will be increasingly important. The research investment must be made in neglected food crops that have the potential to supply better nutrition to the most marginalized people in the developing world. This transformation must also include support to farmers in growing the new crops and encouragement for mixed cropping patterns instead of the monocultures that dominate production agriculture. Without an investment in changing agricultural systems globally, the food production will be more vulnerable to climate change and populations will be more insecure. The Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations are leading efforts to strengthen agronomic research in Africa. Clearly, this is an important step that must be reinforced by the public and private sector.

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