Sunday, May 22, 2011

Celebrate Diversity!

Forest edge in southern Mexico

While we confront biological diversity (consciously or not) every day, today is the office International Day for Biological Diversity, and this year the theme is forests! Unfortunately, the United States is not a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and thus you may not have heard too much on the topic.

First, what is biological diversity? According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), biodiversity is "the variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems." I like to think of biodiversity as out planetary insurance policy. Our understanding of the complex biophysical and chemical processes that underlie the natural support system (ie. food, clean water, breathable air, etc.) is so limited that it is essential to preserve as many options as possible for Mother Nature.

This can sound very fluffy, so let me provide an example from agriculture. We recently explored the wonderful world of bananas. Well, I failed to mention that up until the 1950's a single variety, the Gros Michel, comprised the majority of the commercial banana market. When Panama disease spread through plantations, the banana was essentially driven to extinction. The industry was only saved by replacing the susceptible banana with the less desirable Cavendish, a resistant variety. Now, the essentially genetically identical bananas are facing a new strain of the virus, with little research into diversifying the banana options. New York Times ran an article on the dilemma a few years back.

As food and nourishment is such an component to life, agrobiodiversity attracts particularly strong interest from the science and development communities (FAO). This subset of biodiversity is actively managed by farmers, constitutes products for human consumption as well as the systems on which these rely, and is entangled in culture and tradition. Diversity within our agroecological systems is critical for adaptation and long-term viability of agriculture. It provides a base for research into new varieties - drought-tolerant, pest and disease-resistant, higher yielding, etc. - and allows farmers not to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak (IUCN).

Finally, let's talk forest agrobiodiversity. The Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR) emphasize how critical forest products, including food, to our day-to-day survival. Even beyond smallholder farmers who combine small scale cultivation with utilizing the diversity within a forest - from food (tree fruit, nuts, etc.), to fuel (wood), to medicines - forest ecosystem functioning (largely as a product of maintaining biodiversity...) provides services essential to food cultivation such as water filtration, pollination (see bees), and micro-climate regulation. So if you want something concrete to think about for forest diversity, dwell on your coffee, chocolate, mangos, cashews, bananas, etc. But you can also view the role of forest diversity on a deeper level as being integral to sustaining life on this planet.

Next post I propose to talk more about food and less about agriculture! Stay tuned for PB Cake Pops and Ruby Rhubarb Cake!

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