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Scientists agree world faces mass extinction

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, pictured here, has never been grazed and remains in pristine condition.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, pictured here, has never been grazed and remains in pristine condition.  

By Gary Strieker

(CNN) -- The complex web of life on Earth, what scientists call "biodiversity," is in serious trouble.

"Biodiversity includes all living things that we depend on for our economies and our lives," explained Brooks Yeager, vice president of global programs at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

"It's the forests, the oceans, the coral reefs, the marine fish, the algae, the insects that make up the living world around us and which we couldn't do without," he said.

Nearly 2 million species of plants and animals are known to science and experts say 50 times as many may not yet be discovered.

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Yet most scientists agree that human activity is causing rapid deterioration in biodiversity. Expanding human settlements, logging, mining, agriculture and pollution are destroying ecosystems, upsetting nature's balance and driving many species to extinction.

There is virtual unanimity among scientists that we have entered a period of mass extinction not seen since the age of the dinosaurs, an emerging global crisis that could have disastrous effects on our future food supplies, our search for new medicines, and on the water we drink and the air we breathe. Estimates vary, but extinction is figured by experts to be taking place between 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural "background" extinction.

At the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago, world leaders signed a treaty to confront this crisis. But its results have been disappointing. According to Yeager, "It hasn't been a direct kind of impact that some of us had hoped for."

One hundred eighty-two nations are now parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The United States is the only industrial country that has failed to ratify it. But there is wide agreement that the treaty has had virtually no impact on continuing mass extinction.

The treaty is more like a political statement than a plan of action, setting very broad goals instead of real targets, and leaving it to national governments to decide how to reach them.

Many developing countries in tropical areas, where the most species of plant and animal can be found, wanted nothing in the treaty that could limit their freedom to exploit natural resources.

So the treaty was framed as a political compromise to balance three principles: conservation, sustainable development and fair sharing of the benefits of biodiversity.

In the process, critics say, the operation of the treaty has lost its focus. It's been distracted from science and conservation by other issues, such as "biopiracy" - determining who profits from genetic resources -- and "biosafety" -- controlling trade in genetically modified organisms, such as seeds, with built-in pesticides. Many pressure groups have forced governments to address the issues of "biopiracy" and "biosafety."

Debbie Barker, co-director of the California-based International Forum on Globalization, says, "You cannot really separate preservation and sustainability and conservation and biodiversity without addressing, for example, important new technologies like genetic engineering or genetic modification."

That may be true, but many scientists and conservationists say almost all the work at the treaty's conferences has been focused on these hot-button issues, including "biopiracy" and "biosafety", during the past decade. The result, they say, has been a lost opportunity to address the real crisis.

The member nations still stand by the treaty, but at a conference earlier this year at The Hague they issued a statement admitting humans are still destroying biodiversity at an unprecedented rate.




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