Money talks: the business of biodiversity

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Vilhelmiina Haavisto, Freelance Writer

Published January 31st, 2022

Protecting Earth’s natural habitats should be among our top priorities for the future, but we are failing to meet key targets. What, then, is needed to juice up our conservation efforts?

With the twice-postponed UN Convention on Biological Diversity set to take place later this year, all eyes are on biodiversity—and specifically, its conservation. Although the term itself has been around since the mid-80s, the concept of biodiversity is now steadily making its way into the eco-conscious mainstream. Usually, it is used to invoke the richness and variety of life, both among and within Earth’s ecosystems—think of a bustling rainforest, a wildflower meadow buzzing with pollinators, or a busy coral reef.

Bioprospecting can source economic incentives from various ecosystem services, ranging from pharmaceuticals and natural disaster prevention to tourism. | Emre Ayaroglu | Flickr

Leading up to the Convention, the pressure is on for governments to set new targets for preserving the species and habitats that are so crucial to life on Earth as we know it. 2020, the year for which the Convention was originally scheduled, was also the deadline for achieving the 20 Aichi Targets set a decade ago. These targets outlined strategies for preserving the diversity and function of our ecosystems that are threatened by human activities.

Human activities and their associated fallout—pollution, habitat loss, and climate change, to name but a few—pose a significant challenge to maintaining global biodiversity, and are predicted to have devastating consequences if they continue to go unchecked.

Accordingly, the Aichi Targets spanned goals ranging from halving rates of habitat loss to increasing inclusion of indigenous communities in conservation work and implementing sustainable agricultural management practises. Unfortunately, these Targets went largely unmet across the globe.

Conservation, including but not limited to setting and achieving international targets, is essential for addressing the challenges facing our ecosystems. However, considering the ongoing biodiversity loss globally, it seems that the incentives for this important endeavour are currently not high enough.

This is not helped by the fact that conservation efforts often find themselves seemingly in opposition to the expansion of human activities and economic prosperity. How, then, can we push to protect biodiversity worldwide—and does the dichotomy pitting economic development against conservation always hold true?

‘Does the dichotomy pitting economic development against conservation always hold true?’

When making a funding pitch, whether it be for a new start-up or to protect important natural areas, it pays to come prepared with strong arguments to back up your case. And, in conservation as in business, money talks. While some may see it as antithetical to the inherent value of biodiversity—‘nature for nature’s sake’—its economic valuation may be one of the most viable strategies for obtaining hard-won conservation funding and convincing governments to do their part.

One way to build an evidence-based case for conservation is to calculate an economic value for the services that ecosystems provide to us. Biodiversity has been shown to improve the service provision of ecosystems, from tropical forests to grasslands, and even man-made agricultural landscapes. However, as fundamental as these services are to our life on Earth, they can seem rather intangible and thus difficult to value economically.

That is not to say that researchers are not trying. One example of such an ecosystem service is crop pollination; essential for agricultural production and food security worldwide and whose efficiency improves with increased pollinator biodiversity. A 2020 meta-analysis of studies calculating the value of crop pollination by animals estimated the annual value of this service to lie between US $195 and US $387 billion.

This recent and comprehensive economic valuation echoes the old wisdom that pollination is extremely crucial for the integrity of our entire food system, and life on Earth as we know it. However, insect pollinators are still in decline worldwide, and whether economic valuation of their services will help push for more concrete, large-scale strategies to mitigate their loss remains to be seen.

Mangrove forest in the Mida Creek, Kenya. | Timothy K. / Unsplash

The consequences of biodiversity loss can also be valued, and used to balance conservation efforts with economic development that could benefit local populations. For example, mangrove forests host many species of birds, fish and invertebrates, sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, and protect coastlines from erosion and flooding. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are under pressure from human activities, including deforestation for raw materials and the growing aquaculture industry.

However, there may be more to gain from keeping mangrove forests intact than tearing them down. One study calculated the economic value of mangrove ecosystems to local communities in southern Thailand in terms of the natural resources and services they provide, and contrasted this with the value of proposed shrimp aquaculture.

They found that although the planned aquaculture would be lucrative, its value diminished considerably when the negative impacts of mangrove destruction were taken into account. The annual global value of mangroves to coastal communities has been estimated at around US$1.6 billion; however, there is not yet sufficient data from the last decades to show whether the growing appreciation of mangroves is translating into strengthened conservation efforts.

Besides the tangible benefits of ecological services, there are also potential future benefits of biodiversity to consider. An endeavour known as bioprospecting seeks to mine the wealth of still-undiscovered biodiversity on Earth, in search of new materials that can be applied in a range of fields, from medicine to nanotechnology and biological engineering. These can be literal raw materials, but more often include chemicals, genes, or even ideas for bio-inspired design.

The natural world is a treasure trove of discovery, and less-studied habitats and organisms are particularly attractive avenues for exciting findings. Many species that produce interesting materials are very small and not yet well understood. For example, organisms such as bacteria, fungi and even marine worms are known to produce a vast array of chemicals broadly known as ‘natural products’, whose functions and potential applications are only just beginning to be uncovered.

‘All we have yet discovered is but a trifle in comparison with what still lies hidden in the Great Treasury of Nature.’—Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Bioprospecting is by no means a new concept, and novel materials have already been found in the most surprising places. For example, a species of bacteria living inside Bugula neritina, a marine invertebrate, produces several types of chemical compounds called bryostatins. Some of these have anti-cancer properties and are currently being tested in clinical trials for treating cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV/AIDS.

In nature, bacteria produce bryostatins in very small quantities. Luckily, it is now possible to produce bryostatins completely synthetically in the laboratory, and scientists can even riff off original structure the by performing chemical transformations to make even more potent versions of the same molecule.

Although pharmaceuticals are highly sought-after bioprospecting outcomes, biologically derived materials can have many other useful applications. For example, some fungi produce small proteins known as laccases. While the fungi use them to break down plant-based fibres and produce pigments, scientists have adopted them to detoxify different kinds of environmental pollutants.

Because they can act on a very broad range of pollutants, laccases can be used to break down dangerous chemicals found in wastewater from many kinds of industry, including petrochemical plants, textile factories, and breweries.

As exciting and occasionally fruitful as bioprospecting is, it is ultimately difficult to assign value to ‘natural capital’ that we might one day discover and find a way to exploit commercially. Indeed, it is near-impossible to predict which species, and the habitats they live in, will be important to humans in the future. More than anything, the broad focus of bioprospecting and its potential benefits should inspire us to conserve as much of Earth’s biodiversity as possible, to preserve this ‘great treasury of nature’ for future discovery.

Coriolopsis gallica, a mushroom that produces pollutant-detoxifying proteins. | Fotoculus / Flickr

Although we can argue for conservation in the name of ecological services and natural capital, values other than monetary are no less important. For example, psychological benefits the associated with spending time in green spaces have been shown to scale with biodiversity. More than that, nature has intrinsic value too; some would argue that it is our moral imperative to be responsible stewards and take care of our planet for future generations.

It is, admittedly, a great shame that the argument of nature’s intrinsic value, beyond any personal or economic benefits it can provide humans with, carries such little weight. That being said, there are several other ways to provide evidence for the importance of biodiversity and construct the kind of compelling argument that is required for its protection.

However, it remains to be seen whether economic valuation or the prospect of future commercial applications stemming from biodiversity are able to sway governments and funding bodies to place increased priority on conservation. In the meantime, ask not what biodiversity can do for you—ask what you can do for biodiversity.

Featured Image: Nate Johnston | Unsplash

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