Scripta Varia

The Consequences of Biodiversity Loss for Human Well-being

Charles Perrings and Ann Kinzig (Arizona State University)

1. Biodiversity Change and Human Wellbeing

Biodiversity is frequently thought of as synonymous with species diversity in wild lands, and biodiversity loss is frequently thought of as synonymous with the extinction of wild species. But biodiversity is much more than species diversity in wild lands, and biodiversity loss is much more than species extinction. Biodiversity is the variety of species used in both the production and consumption of goods and services. Examples include the ornamental plants, birds and animals that people use to enrich their lives, the variety of foods they use to enrich their diet, the mix of biofuels or fibers used to support productive activities. It includes the genetic diversity of cultivated crops, of crop pests, of wild crop relatives, of weedy species. It includes the range of biotic disease agents that affect human, animal and plant health, and the species used to control disease such as traditional medicinal plants and the plants used as the source of modern pharmaceuticals. The biotechnology sector is as dependent on genetic and species diversity as agriculture, forestry or wild capture fisheries. Biodiversity change does encompass a dramatic increase in the rate at which species are going extinct (Convention on Biological Diversity 2010, Hoffmann et al. 2010). But it also encompasses an even more dramatic transformation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems fueled by land use and land cover change. It includes the simplification of agro-ecosystems, production forests, wild capture fisheries and aquaculture, resulting in the increased abundance of crops, livestock, and farmed fish stocks, and the suppression of crop and livestock competitors, predators, pests, and pathogens (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005a).

The last century has seen more change in all these facets of biodiversity than the preceding millennium. That change has impact human wellbeing in many ways. Sometimes the impact is captured in market prices. Diseases of commercial crops, for example, almost always result in an increase in their cost of production, and so the cost to the consumer. Sometimes they do not. The local extinction of a songbird is unlikely to trigger a change in prices. It turns out that if we are judging how much biodiversity change is warranted by the benefits conferred on humanity, this distinction matters. Changes that are directly reflected in market prices attract our attention. Changes that have no direct affect on market prices are ignored. In this paper we ask what can be said about the welfare implications of anthropogenic changes in the diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems. To do this, we discuss why people have altered their environment in such dramatic ways, and what they might have missed in the process.

Our starting point is the concept of ecosystem services, popularized by the Millennium Assessment (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005b). This concept gives us a way of characterizing the interests that people have in their environment. Ecosystem services are the flow of benefits (or costs) obtained from ecosystems. Many are managed through the control people exercise over ecosystem structures and processes. Production of most foods, fuels, and fibers, for example, involves the transformation of natural ecosystems, and their distribution involves market transactions between producers and consumers. The marketed products of agriculture, aquaculture, forestry and fisheries are private goods—said to be both ‘rival’ and ‘exclusive’ in consumption. They are rival in the sense that their consumption by one person precludes their consumption by others (two people can’t eat the same food). They are exclusive in the sense that their ownership by one person confers the right to exclude others (the person who purchases food is able to deny others access to that food). These properties give individual producers and consumers of foods, fuels, and fibers secure rights over the capturable benefits they offer, and hence a strong interest in their production and consumption. Many of the incidental effects of agriculture, aquaculture, forestry and fisheries are neither rival nor exclusive. The depletion and fragmentation of habitat, the offsite pollution of air, soil, and water, and the genetic effects of pesticide applications, all affect other people and other species. Moreover, their impacts on one person or one species do not diminish their impacts on other people or other species. They are public goods (or bads) generated through market transactions, but external to those transactions.

Many of the environmental consequences of productive activities have similar properties. The storm protection offered by coastal mangroves, for example, depends on the combined activities of many independent land users. Once provided, none can be excluded from the benefits it offers. Moreover, the protection of one person has no implications for the protection offered to others. While the benefits it offers may be capitalized into the value of protected assets, they are directly priced.

Agriculture is one example of an activity that has yielded substantial private benefits to humankind, but only at the public cost of reducing biodiversity. While the benefits are recorded faithfully in national income and product account, the biodiversity costs are not. There are many other activities that similarly yield benefits at some biodiversity cost. Aside from agriculture, industrial activity, infrastructural development, and urbanization all involve the conversion of habitat to alternative uses, and so lead to the loss of the species that occupied the converted habitat. Industrial development frequently has offsite effects involving the pollution of air, water and soils that reduce the abundance or richness of species in affected areas. The development of roads, railways, power transmission corridors, and canals also fragments the habitats through which they pass, with similar effects on species richness and abundance. Urban development typically transforms existing habitat, sometimes leaving fragments intact, but always introducing new communities of microorganisms, insects, plants and animals. In some cases, the biodiversity in urban systems is much greater than the biodiversity in the habitats displaced by urban development. This is almost always true of microorganisms, but is frequently true of plants as well (Crane and Kinzig 2005). In others, little is added beyond the human commensals and micro-and macro-parasites that accompany dense human populations.

By contrast, conservation is an activity that focuses first and foremost on the preservation of biodiversity for the public good. It involves not just the designation and implementation of protected areas in existing wilderness areas, but the restoration of degraded ecosystems, the design and implementation of conservation-compatible development projects, and the establishment of a regulatory framework designed to limit the impact of other activities on biodiversity outside protected areas. The earliest protected areas were hunting reserves, and many modern wildlife sanctuaries and national parks have their origin in such reserves. In the last century, the focus has switched to the protection of wilderness areas of outstanding natural beauty, and landscapes of special cultural significance. In the USA, much of the impetus came from the conservation-minded president Theodore Roosevelt. Across the world, however, the designation of protected areas has followed a similar pattern, focusing on landscapes of special significance, reserves dedicated to the protection of mega- vertebrates, or sites of special scientific interest. Just under 15% of the worlds land area is now protected. A much smaller proportion of the oceans under territorial jurisdiction, around 7%, is protected as of now, but the rate at which new sea areas within national jurisdiction are being brought under some form of protection is much greater than on land. In the period since the Caracas Action Plan, protected national waters have increased by more than 130%. It is nevertheless is a vanishingly small proportion of the world’s oceans as a whole, but is expected to continue to grow rapidly.

In Latin America, Eastern, South-Eastern and Western Asia the selection of new areas for protection increasingly targets densely populated areas having high ‘conservation value’. These ‘biodiversity hotspots’ (Myers 1988) are areas characterized by high levels of endemism, on the one hand, and high levels of anthropogenic stress, on the other. Just as the growth of agriculture in pursuit of privately capturable benefits has had a (public) external cost, so the growth of protected areas has a (private) external cost – to the people who lose access to the resources involved. And just as neglect of the public external costs of agriculture can result in too much biodiversity loss, so neglect of the private external costs of protection can result in too much conservation. The two cases are not, however, symmetric.

Since most of the gains from agriculture are private, while most of the external costs are public, the default outcome has been neglect of the public costs. Farmers have had little incentive to take account of their effect on biodiversity. Since most of the gains from conservation are public, however, while most of the external costs are private, the default outcome has been under-provision of the public good. Those displaced by protected areas have had an incentive to oppose them. Those asked to fund protected areas have had an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others.

The same asymmetry affects all activities that contribute to biodiversity loss. While the gains offered by those activities warrant some biodiversity loss, no one has an incentive to ask how much. Nor do they have an incentive to limit their activity. The protection of human, animal, and plant health warrants some reduction in the abundance of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The production of foods, fuels, and fibers warrants some reduction in the abundance of plant pests and predators. That is not the problem. It is the unwarranted, ill-considered loss of biodiversity as an external effect of production and consumption decisions that is the problem.

In this paper we consider the impact of unwarranted biodiversity loss on human wellbeing. To do this we first discuss the effect of biodiversity loss on ecosystem functioning, and the delivery of ecosystem services. We then consider which services are most likely to be neglected in the decisions people make, and why those services matter.

2. Unwarranted biodiversity loss as a consequence of poverty, parochialism and myopia

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified four broad types of ecosystem services. The first, the provisioning services, involve the production of foods, fuels, fibers, genetic material, water and so on. They all involve the consumptive use of ecosystems. The second, the cultural services, include the non-consumptive benefits that people get from their environment, such as recreation, aesthetic satisfaction, inspiration, information, spiritual meaning, and the importance of place. The third, the regulating services, comprise the buffering functions of the environment. They include the mitigation of a wide range of natural and anthropogenic environmental risks, including storms, flooding, drought, and disease. They also include the assimilation of pollutants of one kind or another. The fourth, the supporting services, comprise basic ecosystem processes such at photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, soil formation and so on. The first two are generally well served by markets. The last two are not. They are also the services that most depend on the diversity of species in an ecosystem, and that are most likely to be public in nature. The external effects of production and consumption decisions are accordingly most likely to impact these services.

Our central point is there are very good reasons why people should behave in ways that cause a loss of biodiversity. The need to produce food, to generate a safe living environment or to combat disease, can all be expected to lead to a loss of biodiversity. But at the same time, the concerns that lead people to simplify agro-ecosystems, to exclude predators, or to control disease vectors, have consequences for human wellbeing over greater areas and on longer time scales than most people are able to consider. Taking the long view, or empathizing with people on the other side of the world is, for many, a luxury they cannot afford. Parochialism and myopia are often products of poverty.

The Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) argued that there existed a causal connection between environmental change and poverty both within and between generations. A large literature has subsequently examined the empirical relation between per capita income (GDP or GNP) and environmental change. What it shows is that the relation between changes in income and changes in the environment are complex, involving feedback effects in both directions. The consensus view by the time the Millennium Assessment began its work was that although poverty alleviation did not necessarily enhance environmental quality, and could increase stress on the environment, environmental protection generally benefitted the poor (Markandya 2001).

The evidence since then is more mixed. The linkages between poverty and environmental change are often indirect – working through, for example, changes in fertility rates. Where people’s access to assets is uncertain, and their expectations of secure future income are low, their response is often to increase fertility rates. This can increase pressure on the environment, further compromising future income, resulting in a positive feedback between poverty, fertility, and environmental change (Dasgupta 2001). While growth in the demand for food in high-income countries has generally stimulated the intensification of agriculture, in low-income countries it has frequently led to extensive growth. More mouths to feed has meant more people farming more land. In cases where traditional land tenure and resource access regimes prevail, and where credit markets are poorly developed, increasing demand for food can only be met by land clearance (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development 2008).

Most people in the least developed countries still live in rural areas, and still make a living from agriculture. In the poorest countries, more than 75% of the population earn a living from agriculture.[1] In many of these countries rural population growth rates are still positive and, in some Sub-Saharan African countries (specifically in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Uganda) are still increasing (World Bank 2013).

Poverty alleviation in such cases implies agricultural growth – whether extensive or intensive. The case for poverty alleviation to benefit biodiversity assumes intensive growth. Where it reduces the rate of land conversion, for example, intensification reduces habitat loss (Foley 2005, Bruinsma 2009, Sachs et al. 2009, Godfray et al. 2010, Foley et al. 2011). Initiatives designed to promote crop improvements and integrated pest management are accordingly argued to offer positive conservation externalities (Pretty et al. 2011). The evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa does support the notion that intensification offers long-term but not short-term conservation benefits. It also shows that extensive growth is the primary threat to endangered endemic species. The extensive growth of agriculture over the last fifty years is strongly and positively correlated with the threat to endemic species. Intensification has the opposite effect. In the long run, intensification reduces the incentive for poorer farmers to convert forests, savannas, and grasslands to crop production (Perrings and Halkos 2015).

On shorter timescales, however, extensive growth and intensive growth are equally damaging. Aside from habitat loss, nutrient runoff and the application of insecticides and fungicides have negative impacts on wild plants (Firbank et al. 2008, Geiger et al. 2010), as well as indirect impacts via effects on pollinators (Kremen et al. 2002, Potts et al. 2010), and pest predators (Zhao et al. 2015). Expansion of the area committed to agriculture reduces habitat, and with it both species richness and abundance. The introduction of roads (and development along roads) leads to the fragmentation of habitat. While this may not immediately reduce species richness, the long run effects are quite similar.

The question is how much habitat (and hence biodiversity) loss is warranted. The answer depends on the balance between the costs of the biodiversity lost through habitat conversion and the benefits of income growth amongst the rural poor. The costs of biodiversity loss occur at many scales. The conservation of the genetic diversity on which all future evolution depends, for example, is a public good at the global scale, as is the control of emerging infectious diseases that have the potential to become pandemic. But the conservation of species that have totemic, cultural or spiritual significance to particular groups is a public good at the scale of those groups only. Similarly, the ecosystem services supported by biodiversity provide benefits at many different scales. Pollination services tend to be quite localized. Watershed protection, on the other hand, can extend from extremely small scales to regions involving several countries.

At both local and global levels, the public good nature of biodiversity conservation implies that, if left to the market, there will be too little conservation effort. People will take some account of the biodiversity costs of their activities, but not enough. They will acknowledge the costs that fall on them, but not on others. Biodiversity loss that affects ecosystem services benefiting future generations or people other than kith and kin will be neglected.

Myopia and parochialism have many causes. Just as the resurgent nationalism of the post recession years is marked by an unwillingness to acknowledge the international environmental consequences of local production and consumption, so the adoption of corporate approaches to accountability is marked by a reluctance to take a long view of the public good. Our concern is with the role of poverty as a driver of both myopia and parochialism. There are three elements to this.

The first element is the relation between poverty and information on the broader and longer-term consequences of biodiversity change. Poor resource users might well have a good understanding of the local ecological consequences of their actions gained through observation (Berkes et al. 2000), but could not be expected to have the kind of understanding of system-wide consequences that can only be gained from a scientific education. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, although primary school enrolment rates have been rising rapidly, nearly one quarter of all young people have never attended primary school, and nearly three quarters have never attended secondary school (Preece 2006).

The second element is the rate at which households discount the future. Building on a long-standing observation that discount rates depend on income (Fisher 1930), it has been found that increasing poverty causes people to discount the longer-term consequences of their decisions more heavily (Perrings 1989, Chavas 2002). This in turn discourages investment in conservation and environmental enhancement. Perversely, it can induce the poor to run down environmental assets in ways that undermine their own future security.

The third element, is the relation between poverty and the weight people attach to their impact on those outside their immediate community. Two manifestations of this are the weakness of the social capital to which the poor have access (Cleaver 2005), and its limited reach (Collier 2002). While household networks might well extend along labor migration routes, there is little to connect poor communities.

A common consequence of this is that changes caused by the independent decisions of rural households in many parts of the world have impacts that are largely unknown, and largely ignored. What are they?

3. The costs of unwarranted loss

We have argued that the value of biodiversity – the composition of species – derives from the complementarity and substitutability between species in the supply of ecosystem services over a range of environmental conditions. Biodiversity has a portfolio effect on the risks attaching the supply of ecosystem services. Species have functional traits that enable them to execute the ecological functions that underpin particular services. Individual species may be near-perfect functional substitutes for other species only if they share a full set of traits with those other species (Naeem 1998). Species are also related through ecological interactions – trophic relationships, competition, parasitism, facilitation and so on – that make them more or less complementary in executing ecological functions (Thébault and Loreau 2006). Their value depends on their substitutability and complementarity in the delivery of valuable services. Value is not an inherent property of either individual species or species richness, but reflects the fact that people are willing to pay (either monetarily or in other ways) for the services biodiversity yields.

What people are willing to pay depends partly on the characteristics of individual species, functional groups of species and so on, and partly on peoples’ preferences, institutions, culture and technology. But it also depends on the distribution of income and wealth. The rich are able to pay more for ecosystem services than the poor. This biases the relative value of the many ecosystem services supported by biodiversity in favour of those preferred by the rich. In fact, even if the relative weight given to some service by the poor was greater than that given to the same service by the rich, the preferences of the rich would still dominate.

Much effort has gone into estimating the aggregate willingness to pay of different communities for the benefits of ecosystem services (Heal et al. 2005). Ecosystem services are typically intermediate inputs – they are used to produce directly valued goods or services. It is clear that non-consumptive use values map into the Millennium Assessment’s cultural services, whereas direct and indirect consumptive use values map into the provisioning services. Non-use values may map into either category. They refer to use by other people or other species and that use may be either consumptive or non-consumptive. The timing of use is also important. This is partly because consumption in the future is less valuable to people than consumption today, and partly because the future is uncertain. Ecosystem services of species that are not important today might be important in the future. It follows that today's biodiversity has an option value (in the sense that it might contain a cure for future diseases, the biological control of future pests, or the basis for a new technology) (Simpson et al. 1996, Goeschl and Swanson 2003). So the option value of biodiversity conservation is equivalent to an insurance premium against future pests or diseases (Baumgärtner 2007, Quaas and Baumgartner 2007).

We note, in passing, that none of these values are consistent with the notion that species have intrinsic value. This is not to say that ethics and aesthetics are unimportant. They are major factors in the value of species for some people. So too are religious convictions, cultural traditions and social norms. The non-use values identified by economists include the value of assuring the continued existence of species, not only for the enjoyment of the valuer, but also for the benefit of future generations, of people elsewhere on the planet, and of other species. It is the willingness of people to commit resources towards some end that enables us to derive the value of the ecosystem components needed to meet that end. This is ultimately constrained by the availability of resources: i.e. willingness to pay is ultimately constrained by ability to pay. The environmental impacts of local land use decisions, but neglected by local land users, typically affect risks at different scales. We take just two examples. The first involves the risks posed by the emergence and dispersal of pests and pathogens through the extensive growth of agriculture. The conversion of wild habitat to pasture or crop production is not only a driver of local biodiversity loss, but also a source of species introductions across the wider system. While the potential costs this imposes on producers elsewhere are substantial, they are not part of the local land users’ calculus. The poor ignore the risk.

The opening of new markets or trade routes has resulted in the introduction of new species either as the object of trade or, more frequently, as the unintended consequence of trade. The growth in the volume of trade along existing routes has increased the frequency with which new introductions are repeated, and hence the probability that an introduced species will establish and spread (Cassey et al. 2004, Semmens et al. 2004). Indeed, the volume and direction of trade turn out to be good empirical predictors of species dispersal (Levine et al. 2003, Costello et al. 2007).

The costs of species dispersal include both direct and indirect effects. Direct effects include the impacts of pests and disease outbreaks in agricultural systems generally. One (dated) estimate of the damage caused by species dispersal put it at 53% of agricultural GDP in the U.S.A., but at 96% of agricultural GDP in South Africa, and 112% of agricultural GDP in Brazil (Pimentel et al. 2001). The indirect effects have not been evaluated but include, for example, the loss of native species over a wide range of ecosystems (Daszak et al. 2000). This in turn affects the capacity of ecosystems to deliver the services that underpin much economic activity, and to absorb anthropogenic and environmental stresses and shocks without losing resilience (Kinzig et al. 2002, Loreau et al. 2002, Naeem et al. 2009).

Potentially much larger, are the costs of infectious diseases of humans. Most such diseases are zoonotic, and have their origin at the interface between wildlands and farmlands. Although the burden of infectious diseases falls primarily on the people in the developing world, pandemics such as HIV-AIDS, SARS, or highly pathogenic avian flu, affect the wellbeing of people everywhere. For SARS, for example, the global cost of a single outbreak was estimated to be as much as USD 50 billion (Gupta et al. 2005, Beutels et al. 2009). The World Bank estimates that a severe influenza pandemic could cost $3 trillion – nearly 5% of GDP (World Bank 2012). Globally, total health expenditures accounted for just under 10% of GDP in 2014 (World Bank 2017). The range of expenditures is very wide – from 1.5% of GDP in East Timor to 17.1% in the USA. This reflects disparities in income and priorities rather than disparities in health. The first Global Burden of Disease survey showed that Sub-Saharan Africa and India experienced 21.4% and 20·9% of the burden of disease, respectively, but accounted for only 0.7% and 1.0% of health expenditures. The established market economies, on the other hand, accounted for 7.2% of the burden of disease but 87·3% of health expenditures (Murray and Lopez 1997). Nor has the position changed much since then. Emerging infectious diseases that have their origins in cross-species contact at the interface between farmlands and wildlands in poor countries may impose the highest cost in rich countries.

Our second example, involves the cumulative risks of biodiversity loss in agro- ecosystems. In these systems, the species with the greatest impact on human wellbeing are cultivated plants. The raw material for all modern varieties are landraces – traditionally cultivated plants that are morphologically distinct, have some genetic integrity but are also genetically variable and dynamic, and have distinctive properties in terms of yield, date of maturity, pest and disease resistance and so on. The traits of many landraces have been bred into modern cultivars offering a range of benefits in terms of productivity, pest and disease resistance, and drought tolerance. The modern cultivars are also genetically stable. The conservation problem in these developments lies in the widespread adoption of improved seeds. The more that farmers adopt the modern varieties, the less effort is made to maintain landraces and wild crop relatives. Indeed, genetic erosion of crops has been mostly associated with the introduction of modern cultivars (van de Wouw et al. 2010).

The conservation of land races and crop wild relatives lies in their dynamic nature. If in situ populations of land races and crop wild relatives are able to evolve under climatic or other selection pressure, they may develop traits that are helpful to future plant breeding efforts (Food and Agriculture Organization 2010). Ex situ collections can provide valuable insurance against extinction in place, but they cannot substitute for this property of land races and wild crop relatives. Wild crop relatives are particularly problematic, since they have fallen into the cracks between ex situ conservation of domesticated crops in collections and in situ conservation of endangered wild species in protected areas (Food and Agriculture Organization 2010).[2]

The genetic engineering of modern cultivars may be opening some new options for seed producers, but the disappearance of landraces and wild crop relatives at a time of rapid environmental change is closing down many more. A reduction in the genetic diversity of landraces and wild crop relatives is reducing the resilience of agro-ecosystems, and hence the capacity to adapt the production of foods, fuels and fibers to future environmental stresses – climate change amongst them. In the language of ecosystem services, the role of landraces and wild crop relatives in regulating production risks over time has been compromised. At the same time, the increasingly widespread adoption of a small number of modern varieties has potentially increased the spatial correlation of risk across agro-ecosystems. The more widespread is the adoption of common cultivars, the greater is the potential for simultaneous crop failures across the system (Smale et al. 2008).

4. What to do?

Many of the poorest people in the world have a natural interest in biodiversity – in the species needed to support production of foods, fuels and fibers, in the availability of medicines (old and new), in landscapes that have totemic or cultural significance, in the regulation of water flows, microclimate, pests and pathogens. They have a farmer’s interest in predators, weeds, and diseases, a hunter’s interest in wildlife, a gatherer’s interest in honey and fruits. In fact these are the interests that make land conversion destructive of habitat. Decades of evidence on the effectiveness of integrated conservation and development projects has shown how difficult it is to reconcile protected area-based conservation with the development aspirations of a growing rural population (Adams et al. 2004, Wells et al. 2004).

The most urgent and important objective in many countries is poverty alleviation, not biodiversity conservation. For the rural poor, the only reasonable road to poverty alleviation is agriculture. If the Global North believes that the cost of biodiversity loss caused by the extensive growth of agriculture in poor countries is unacceptably high, then it should invest in development options that conserve natural assets of global importance, and that involve less collateral damage to other species. There is little evidence that appeals based on conservation value have had much impact beyond the establishment of protected areas. Aside from the arguments most frequently invoked by conservation biologists, however, there are two utilitarian reasons to believe that global investment in the economic development of the poorest countries in the world would offer benefits both in terms of the conservation of endangered endemic species everywhere, and in terms of our global capacity to navigate the risks of environmental change.

First, as the One Health approach indicates, human, animal, and plant health are closely interconnected across space and over time. The experience of HIV-AIDS, SARS, MERS, Nipah Virus, Zika and many other zoonotic epidemics has shown that human health in the richest countries is tightly connected to contact between livestock and wildlife in the poorest countries. The 2014 West African Ebola outbreak prompted a review of the effectiveness of current efforts to manage global health, along with calls for the establishment of stronger global mechanisms for the governance of the health risks of trade and travel, and increased global investment in epidemic and pandemic response capability (Gates 2015). The World Bank estimates that if the international community invested $3.4 billion annually in improved global pandemic detection and response, it could generate annual benefits to the global community of $30 billion (depending upon how many pandemics were averted) (World Bank 2012). It is reasonable to see investment in measures that reduce the risks of cross-species contacts in the same way.

Second, we have argued that all of humanity has a strong interest in the in situ conservation of the genetic material in landraces and wild crop relatives that are currently being lost as poor farmers switch to modern varieties. The ever-widening range of pharmaceutical, industrial, and consumer products that incorporate genetic material from other species suggests that global interest in the in situ conservation of genetically dynamic material extends well beyond foods, fuels, and fibers. But even if we were only concerned with our capacity to feed ourselves as environmental conditions change, there is a strong case for strengthening farmers’ incentives to conserve plant genetic material.

At the international level, farmers’ rights are recognized through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), (United Nations 1993) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Plant Treaty)(International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 2009). Both instruments leave authority over genetic resources with national governments. The CBD focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of wild-living species and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their utilization, while the Plant Treaty focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use. Landraces clearly fall under the Plant Treaty. While wild crop relatives are in principle covered by the CBD, in practice they tend to fall between the two stools.

Both treaties aim to protect a global public good – the genetic resources needed to manage environmental change in an uncertain future. But both also force interventions through bilateral or multilateral agreements between national governments. There are, however, other options. Direct investment by the Gates Foundation, or by non- governmental organizations such at the Nature Conservancy or Conservation International, illustrate one option. Payments for Ecosystem Services are another. Such schemes offer a mechanism for civil society to invest in the common wealth of humankind. They may not be effective mechanisms for poverty alleviation (Kinzig et al. 2011), but they can potentially convert global willingness to pay for the conservation of plant genetic material into direct incentives to farmers (Perrings 2014).

What is needed to secure the global public interest in conservation is little short of a ‘Marshall Plan’ for environmentally sustainable development in the world’s poorest economies. Biodiversity conservation is only one among many potential global benefits of a development strategy that focuses on the poorest countries, and that specifically takes the environmental consequences of alternative investment options into account. While this is a frequently stated aim of development assistance programs, there is not much evidence that development programs have in fact been structured in this way. The pervasiveness of “win-win” narratives for simultaneous biodiversity protection and poverty alleviation (Sachs et al. 2009) – whether through creation of protected areas or introduction of payment for ecosystem services schemes – means that needed protections both for biodiversity and for people have often been overlooked, or added only later in an ad hoc and often inefficient manner, after harms have already been experienced.

There are also good examples of what not to do. Large-scale land acquisition (LaSLA) is the phenomenon of multinational companies and/or foreign governments, sometimes in collaboration with national-level wealthy investors, leasing or purchasing significant tracts of land in developing countries for the purposes of producing food or biofuels for export. Although LaSLA is argued to spur investment, to develop rural infrastructure, and to build capacity in local populations, the evidence suggests that more common outcomes are the disenfranchisement, and loss of livelihood of local people. Much of this investment is taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa. An analysis of the factors that “drive” investor interest in LaSLA in 20 countries in the region for which there was sufficient data revealed that the main factors contributing to LaSLA were government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and the “rule of law”. Interestingly, though, LaSLA activity increased with improvements in government effectiveness, but decreased with improvements in regulatory quality and rule of law (which includes effectiveness of property rights regimes). This suggests investors are looking for countries where “making a deal” is straightforward (government effectiveness) but enforcement of that deal may be weak. This reinforces the concern that local people may be deprived of the potential benefits of LaSLA, while bearing the costs (Nkansah-Dwamena and Kinzig In review).

There is little evidence that economic growth will, by and of itself, reduce the threat to valuable functional groups of species. There is, however, evidence, that development programs can be devised that both improve living standards and mitigate the biodiversity risks of extensive agricultural growth. Some components of such programs are quite familiar: intensification of agriculture, development of employment opportunities in non-agricultural sectors, extension of education and training opportunities, strengthening of credit markets, establishment of secure property rights and so on. Others are less so: land use/investment zones to complement protected areas, separation of agricultural production zones from wild habitat, extension of property rights to include genetic material, institutional reforms to regulate common pool resources, and the development of incentives to resource users to undertake activities that serve the global public good (public-private environmental partnerships) (Perrings 2014).

To conclude, we draw attention to the significant social justice issues associated both with unwarranted biodiversity loss and with efforts to protect biodiversity, or mitigate loss. For one thing, the poor (at household, community, and national scales) are more dependent on natural resources than are the rich, and thus more likely to suffer the negative consequences of unwarranted biodiversity loss. For another, the poor are less likely to have the rights – or the capacity to exercise those rights – to be represented in decisions about how local biodiversity is to be managed. That means decisions being taken are more likely to reflect the interests of the rich and powerful – either within the nation or those who are foreign nationals. Since we have already seen that the poor and rich can have very different interests in how biodiversity is to be managed, this can undermine the often already precarious livelihoods of the poor. Furthermore, when the national or global community is willing to compensate the local community for biodiversity management that favors the broader interests, the poor may be overlooked in that compensation if they lack property rights or representation.

In a provocative paper on climate change, Schelling argued that the best climate-change strategy for poor nations was to develop their economies. Although this would inevitably lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and so would be worse from a global perspective, each poor country would be better off because they would have reduced their reliance on the natural resource base (Schelling 1997). We have drawn attention to something quite similar in the case of biodiversity. In the “rich” nations of the world, agriculture’s share in GDP averages about 5%, while in the poor nations of the world it averages about 25%. And in these poor nations, nearly 70% of the population resides in rural areas, and is directly dependent on both marketed and non-marketed natural resources for survival (Dasgupta 2007). A survey of rural communities in 24 developing countries found that “environmental income” (income derived from uncultivated forest and non-forest products) delivered, on average, 28% of total household income (Angelsen et al. 2014). One implication of this is that any unwarranted degradation in biodiversity is going to disproportionately affect the poor – both at the household and national level. A second, is that if the economic development of poor countries reduces the number of people directly dependent on natural resources, it will also reduce stress on biodiversity.

Our central point is that some loss of biodiversity to advance human well being is undoubtedly warranted, though the decisions of the rich and poor as to how much and what types of biodiversity could productively be eliminated will differ. Since the poor often lack property rights or are otherwise disenfranchised from decision making, the world risks biodiversity outcomes that reflect the desires of the rich more than they do the poor. But this also creates a space for negotiation between the rich and the poor. This can (and does) include government-to-government or intergovernmental organization-to-government negotiated conservation and development projects, but it can also include private and/or non-governmental initiatives. At a time when many national governments are pulling back from established international commitments, and are becoming more isolationist and protectionist, this may be the space in which the global public interest is best protected.


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[1] This group of countries includes Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lao People's Dem Rep, Lesotho, Malawi, Micronesia, Fed States, Nepal, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda.

[2] In situ conservation priorities for wild relatives include: in Africa, finger millet (Eleusine spp.), pearl millet (Pennisetum spp.), garden pea (Pisum spp.) and cowpea (Vigna spp.); in the Americas, barley (Hordeum spp.), sweet potato (Ipomoea spp.), cassava (Manihot spp.), potato (Solanum spp.) and maize (Zea spp.); in Asia and the Pacific, wild rice (Oryza spp.) and the cultivated banana/plantain (Musa spp.); and in the Near East, the garden pea (Pisum spp.), wheat (Triticum spp. and Aegilops spp.), barley (Hordeum spontaneum and H. bulbosum), faba bean (Vicia spp.), chickpea (Cicer spp.), alfalfa (Medicago spp.), clover (Trifolium spp.), Pistachio (Pistacia spp.) and stone fruits (Prunus spp.) (Maxted and Kell 2009).


Biological Extinction

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