From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published June 11, 2010 12:24 PM

What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity is starting to be become another buzz word like green products and carbon footprints. Biodiversity is the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem or on the entire Earth. Biodiversity is often used as a measure of the health of biological systems. The biodiversity found on Earth today consists of many millions of distinct biological species. The year 2010 has been declared as the International Year of Biodiversity. One of the market instruments to offset environmental damage is sort of biodiversity offsetting, or bio-compensation. Quite simply, if a developer is going to build something that will damage or destroy a habitat of conservation value then they must buy a ‘bio-credit’ to compensate for that loss elsewhere.


Of all species that have ever existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct. Since life began on Earth, five major mass extinctions have led to large and sudden drops in the biodiversity of species. Over a period of 400 million years several periodic, massive losses of biodiversity occurred which are called as mass extinction events. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others because it killed the dinosaurs.

Today there is concern that the period since the emergence of humans is part of a mass reduction in biodiversity, the Holocene extinction, caused primarily by the impact humans are having on the environment, particularly the destruction of plant and animal habitats.

The relevance of biodiversity to human health is becoming a major international issue, as scientific evidence is gathered on the global health implications of biodiversity loss.

One of the key human health issues associated with biodiversity is that of new drug discovery and the availability of medicinal resources. A significant proportion of drugs are derived, directly or indirectly, from biological sources.

The reservoir of genetic traits present in wild varieties has been and will be important in improving crop performance. Important crops, such as the potato and coffee, are often derived from only a few genetic strains. When a crop needs improvement in yield or ti improve disease resistance, the wild versions have been found to be vital at times. Examples include:

The Irish potato blight of 1846, which was a major factor in the deaths of a million people and migration of another million, was the result of planting only a limited number of potato genetic varieties. When the blight (a fungus)struck it found no genetic resistance to its spread.

When rice grassy stunt virus struck rice fields from Indonesia to India in the 1970s, 6273 other varieties were tested for resistance. Only one was found to be resistant, an Indian variety, known to science only since 1966. This variety formed a hybrid with other varieties and is now widely grown.

Coffee rust attacked coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Central America in 1970. A resistant variety was found in Ethiopia.

Monoculture, the lack of biodiversity, was a contributing factor to several other agricultural disasters in history such as the European wine industry collapse in the late 1800s, and the US Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic of 1970.

One of the problems with biodiversity is measuring how much there is. What is enough? Is it based on number of species? On available land or water?

The idea is not new. In the US there has been for decades some variation of a wetland banking scheme where public or private developers restore, establish or enhance an aquatic resource to compensate for any unavoidable damage they cause during property development. Typically more wetlands must be created for any wetland acreage lost to development.

In Europe there is a growing movement to set up a biodiversity market credit system. As noted the problem is to set a value and to measure the result. The value of such a bio credit system is that it sets some economic value which is easier to measure and understand.

Targets to halt biodiversity loss are not working as well as desired. This failure is blamed in part on the lack of value that decision makers place on nature and the benefits it provides humans.

The growing tendency is to place a value on biodiversity resources which will lead to new, market based ideas about how to stop and even reverse biodiversity loss in Europe and the United Kingdom.

One of those market instruments is biodiversity offsetting, or bio-compensation. Quite simply, if a developer is going to build something that will damage or destroy a habitat of conservation value then they must buy a bio credit to compensate for that loss elsewhere. (This is identical in concept to the US based wetlands compensation system.)

None of this establishes what biodiversity is. What it does is attempt to give it a financial value so that it can be measured.

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