by Theresa Peluso
“The current massive degradation of habitat and extinction of species is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale, and their effects will fundamentally reset the future evolution of the planet’s biota.” — National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” — Chief Seattle
The word “biodiversity” keeps popping up these days. In the local media, for example, during the current campaign by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) to protect the Burnt Lands alvar, it has been pointed out that this alvar supports over 200 unusual species of plants and animals, and is therefore of extreme importance in preserving biodiversity. So what is biodiversity, and why does it matter so much? According to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (http://www.biodiv.org/:
Biological diversity refers to the number and variety of living organisms on the planet. It is defined in terms of genes, species, and ecosystems which are the outcome of over 3,000 million years of evolution. To date, an estimated 1.7 million species have been identified. The exact number of the Earth’s existing species, however, is still unknown. Estimates vary from a low of 5 million to a high of 100 million.
Species extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process. However, species and ecosystems are more threatened by human activities than ever before in recorded history. The losses are taking place all over the world, primarily in tropical forests — where 50 – 90 per cent of identified species live — as well as in rivers and lakes, deserts and temperate forests, and on mountains and islands. The most recent estimates predict that some two to eight per cent of the Earth’s species will disappear over the next 25 years.
Species extinction therefore has important implications for economic and social development. At least 40 per cent of the world’s economy and 80 per cent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change.
The main causes of species extinction include deforestation – whether accidental or due to the conversion of forests to other uses, such as mono-crop agriculture, land degradation due to pollution, and overharvesting of marine species (corals, fish, etc.). The degradation or conversion of wetlands is an important cause of biodiversity loss. The deliberate or accidental introduction of foreign species is another cause of species extinction.
(The Convention on Biological Diversity is a multilateral treaty originated through the United Nations, and signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.)
Canada is one of the many countries experiencing loss of biodiversity. According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation (http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/resources/online-articles/canadas-lost-species.html), since the arrival of the European settlers in the 1800s, Canada has lost 36 species, but an additional 562 more have now been identified as being at some risk of extinction, and many more are still waiting to be assessed.
Patrick Love, in his article Why biodiversity matters, explains how the European famine in 1845 was in large part due to the fact that a third of the population of Europe depended entirely on the potato for food. A blight, caused by a Mexican fungus in a load of seed potatoes exported to Belgium, ruined the potato harvest in several countries. High mobility of people and goods at that time caused the potato blight to spread quickly. In Ireland, because most people lacked alternatives to the potato, 1 million died of starvation, and another million emigrated to other countries.
Patrick Love also bemoans the world’s loss of food varieties in human diets worldwide.
Plants used for food have been hard hit. Although humans ate around 10,000 plant species in the past, today’s diet is based on just over 100 plant species, a dozen of which represent 80% of human consumption, and four of which (rice, wheat, maize and potatoes) provide more than half of our energy requirements. China has lost 90% of the wheat varieties it had 60 years ago. The US has lost over 90% of the fruit tree and vegetable varieties it had at the start of the 20th century. Mexico has lost 80% of its corn varieties, India 90% of its rice varieties. In Spain, the number of melon varieties has gone down from nearly 400 in the early 1970s to a dozen.
Biodiversity in itself is not the key to the production, recycling and other services ecosystems provide. What matters is the abundance of the species that are critical in maintaining habitat stability and providing those services. At a local scale, the loss of a species may have an adverse impact on ecosystem services, even if that species is not threatened globally. (May 22, 2013)
Because biodiversity is not identified as part of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), (defined as the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, usually one year), governments and companies don’t value the benefits it holds. For example, clearing mangroves to make room for shrimp farms increases a country’s GDP in the short term, but removing the mangroves, which are important natural coastal defences, exacerbates the damage and costs caused by hurricanes and floods. In short, greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all forms of life; it also enables ecosystems to better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters.
Could a tragedy similar to the potato famine in Ireland happen again? Think about a simple comparison of the crop varieties judged at the Lanark Agricultural Fair back in 1895 compared with the present time. Here is an excerpt from Marilyn Snedden’s Millstone article,1895 Almonte Fair, posted on January 2, 2015 in Pick of the Past:
The vegetables were something else. There were 20 classes of potatoes – varieties such as Telephone, Early Mayflower, Snowflake or White Elephant and you had to exhibit ½ bushel of each! There were 20 classes of apples, but stranger still – over a dozen classes of grapes!
There was an immense display of roots and vegetables and grain and seeds. Additional space had to be procured for these exhibits. …The animal classes were similar to today except there were many classes for swine as well as sheep, horses and cattle. The most noticeable difference was in the fowl where there were 116 classes including Wild Turkeys and Piebald Canaries.
Compare that with the far fewer specimen classes displayed in recent years at the Almonte Fair in the fruit, vegetable and animal sections.
Despite our vast technological advancements since the European famine of 1845, we are even more susceptible to food shortages in the twenty-first century: we now have more extreme weather events, increasing desertification and urban sprawl, monoculture of crops and livestock, industrial agriculture, and the ever-present risk of new viruses and other pathogens developing.
Now let’s look at how well biodiversity is protected by the different levels of Canadian government. (Spoiler alert: the news is not good!)
According to an Ontario Nature press release dated September 10, 2013
TORONTO—Environmental groups are suing the Ontario government for its decision to exempt major threats to species at risk from the province’s Endangered Species Act (ESA). Ecojustice lawyers, acting on behalf of Ontario Nature and Wildlands League, have filed a lawsuit in Divisional Court alleging that the Ontario government acted unlawfully by making a regulation that undermines the ESA.
Ontario Regulation 176/13, which came into force under the ESA on July 1, 2013, is a tremendous blow to species protection. The new regulatory changes harm species by allowing major industries — including forestry, energy transmission, housing, oil and gas pipelines, mineral exploration and mine development, transit, wastewater management companies — to avoid strict standards intended to protect at-risk species and their habitats….The lawsuit is based on two main grounds:
1. The regulatory exemptions undermine the ESA’s very purposes, which are “to protect species that are at risk and their habitats, and to promote the recovery of species at risk.”
2. The Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti, failed to consider the impacts of the regulations on each of the 155 species listed under the Act as either endangered or threatened before recommending that the regulations be made by Cabinet….Sections 9 and 10 of the ESA prohibit harm to species at risk and their habitat without Ministry approval or specific exemption. This new regulation circumvents the approval process and allows large industrial sectors to act without Ministry oversight and to focus on mitigating harm instead of protecting at-risk species.
What about at the federal level? Here’s a media release from Nature Canada, dated October 11, 2006
International Commission asked to review Canada’s failure to enforce endangered species law
VANCOUVER (Oct. 11, 2006) – A coalition of Canadian and American environmental groups has filed a formal complaint to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America (CEC), alleging that Canada is failing to enforce its Species at Risk Act.
The CEC is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Canada’s failure to protect species at risk has international significance, as many species migrate to the U.S., Mexico and other countries….The groups allege that failure by the federal government to enforce the Species at Risk Act has led to delays in listing critically endangered species, denial of listing for some species scientifically proven to be at risk, failure to identify and protect habitat needed for survival and recovery and a complete lack of protection for species at risk in some provinces. These failures significantly jeopardize the potential of the Act to bring about species recovery, instead leading to an increased risk of extinction for Canadian species at risk….Environmental groups in the U.S. also participated in the complaint. (end of quote)
We are indeed fortunate to have environmental groups, like those mentioned above, ready to provide a voice for the protection of our natural world.
The news is better at the municipal level. The Mississippi Mills Community Official Plan is now being updated, and initiatives are underway to protect natural areas to ensure that human activities do not impact negatively on the diversity of the flora and fauna in Mississippi Mills.
The protection of endangered species requires all people and organizations in society to do their part. We need public education, research into conservation strategies, and protective legislation. As individuals, we can join environmental organizations and patronize farms that specialize in heritage breeds of animals and crops (see lanarklocalflavour.ca/farmgate-sales). In our gardens, we can plant heirloom seeds and grow plants that are native to our area. Some sources of heirloom seeds and information on them are the Heirloom Seed Growers of Eastern Ontario (https://www.facebook.com/heirloomsgeo) and the Eastern Ontario Permaculture Community (http://community.eonpermaculture.ca/resources/list-100-heirloom-seed-suppliers).
At election time, we can support parties that promote environmental protection. We can also let our municipal councillors know that we value biodiversity, and want our Community Official Plan to reflect this. When we shop, we need to check that the products we buy are sustainably sourced. (In Canada, labels to look for are MSC, FSC, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance Certified – you can find many more on the Ecolabel Index at http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ecolabels/?st=country,ca. In our daily activities, whether at home or on vacation, we must try to live lightly on the earth. Biodiversity really does matter.