OECD Observer

Biodiversity has struggled for front page attention in environmental policy campaigns. Perhaps it is because the word "biodiversity" has a positive connotation and so lacks the rallying edge of headline terms like pollution, global warming, hazardous wastes or ozone depletion.

These are the fronts which the public seems most nervous about. Yet, the consequences of reducing our planet’s biodiversity cannot be underestimated.

The extermination of species is not easy to measure, but as many as 137 species are disappearing from the Earth each day, thanks to deforestation, desertification and unsustainable use of resources. In fact, tropical rainforests are disappearing at the rate of 12 million hectares per year, because of human intervention. According to the OECD Environmental Outlook, a forest area equal to the size of Switzerland is being lost each year in South-East Asia alone.

While few may miss the now extinct Xerces blue butterfly or the Fort Ross weevil, the habitat loss of the charismatic elephant in Africa and Asia is harder to ignore. The impact of just one elephant is immense. Elephants consume on average 150-300kg of vegetation per day, along with around 200 litres of water. The wild elephant uproots and scatters as much as it eats, thereby dispersing seeds and food to smaller herbivores. Its foraging opens paths and its droppings distribute nutrients. Take away the elephant, and every macro and microscopic species that depends on its lifestyle will go too, be it a more modest mammal or a miniscule leaf of as yet unknown medicinal potential.

The word may be biodiversity, but bio-destruction gets closer to capturing the real stakes. It is human activity that is putting the balance of our natural capital – the biosphere – at risk. And that means putting our own futures in jeopardy too. RJC


Parris, K. (2002), "Sustainable agriculture depends on biodiversity" in OECD Observer No 233, August 2002. Available here

Wilson E.O. (2000), "Why biodiversity matters" in OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001 (extract from original interview). Available here

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004

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