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Protect and survive: The importance of biodiversity

  • Story Highlights
  • Industrial farming blamed for sharp decline in diversity among livestock breeds
  • Doomsday vault in Norway set up to preserve endangered seed varieties
  • Diversity in farming and natural world essential to preserving balance of life
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By Rachel Oliver for CNN
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CNN -- When someone says they can "put an end to extinction," you tend to listen to them.

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High-output livestock breeds can be more susceptible to diseases and less adaptable to local climate conditions.

That's exactly what a group of Norwegians claimed earlier this year, when they placed 100 million food crop seeds in a "Doomsday vault," built into the side of an Arctic mountain.

They said it was their "Plan B" should the world's falling biodiversity levels escalate to catastrophic proportions. In short, they said they were offering future generations of the human race the chance to survive.

To some, this may sound like crazed talk only coming from the extremely paranoid. But to many, the threats to the world's animal and plant biodiversity levels are all too real.

The World Conservation Union is now warning the world of a "global extinction crisis," claiming nearly 40 percent of all of Earth's species are now at the highest risk of extinction. More than one third of all fish are threatened; as are just under a third of all reptiles and amphibians and 20 percent of all mammals.

One fifth of the world's cattle, goats, poultry, pigs and horses are also now at risk of being permanently wiped out, with one breed of livestock having been eradicated every month for the past seven years.

The blame for dwindling livestock breed has mainly been put at the door of the mass-scale industrial livestock farming sector's tendency to "simplify" or narrow the types of animals bred for consumption.

The main reason for doing so has been to increase productivity levels -- "high-output" animals can better meet the ever increasing demand for dairy and meat products around the world.

So we get more food but the trade-off is we lose genetic diversity along the way.

Because of the worldwide introduction of a small number of "high-performance" breeds, populations of many less productive breeds of certain indigenous creatures have been declining.

In Vietnam, between 1994 and 2002, the number of indigenous sows fell from 72 percent of the total population to just 26 percent. In Kenya, the indigenous Red Maasai sheep have all but disappeared following the introduction of the Dorper sheep.

Some of these creatures that are dying off may not be able to satisfy the demands of the livestock industry, but they are often better equipped at dealing with diseases and local climatic extremes, two abilities that will become more important as time goes on.

And new research from the Oxford University Press has revealed how specific threatened species are vital to conserve, if not for their own sake, then at least for the sake of human health.

One breed of bear, the Denning bear, for example produces a number of acids and other substances that can potentially counteract an astonishing list of human ailments. These include extending the life of liver disease patients; treating obesity and Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; treating end-stage renal disease and potentially osteoporosis too.

Other potential health remedies we could miss out on if we don't take greater care of threatened species are treatments for Alzheimer's, depression and epilepsy (all thanks to the Gymnosperm plant); medicines that can cure or ease Parkinson's disease, incontinence, and pain relief (cone snails); and blood samples that could prevent the spread of leukemia, prostate cancer, breast cancer -- and HIV (horseshoe crab).

It is just survival of the cutest?

Few will have ever heard of the horseshoe crab, never mind its amazing abilities. To garner support from the general public for their conservation therefore, has been an uphill battle.

To date outpourings of sympathy and support for threatened species by the general public has often been confined to "media-friendly" creatures like dolphins and whales. You don't see many people waving "Save our Plankton" banners, for example, despite population levels falling by as much as 30 percent in recent years.

But in many ways we should be more worried about the survival of plankton than dolphins. And anyone familiar with the term, "The Butterfly Effect" would understand why. Any tiny change in the world's ecosystem can cause knock-on events of an unprecedented scale.

Planktons not only are one of the best carbon sequesters on earth, but the entire marine food chain depends on their very existence. And that includes the largest mammal on earth -- the blue whale.

The nematode worm is another creature, less known, but just as vital to protecting biodiversity. Few probably know that nematodes are the most numerous animals in the world, representing a staggering 90 percent of life at the bottom of the sea.

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It is creatures like these that an entire ecosystem relies on to function effectively. It is not so surprising then that scientists have found that in areas of the sea where nematodes are high in number, that the productivity levels of deep sea ecosystems are proportionately high too.

This is the most obvious knock-on impact to reducing biological diversity. Each creature -- ourselves included -- relies on another creature or plant in order to survive.

Remove that source of food and that creature may be able to eat something else. This is relatively easy for humans, who are omnivores and therefore have a far greater choice of food types to choose from. But for predator-prey relationships which are symbiotic, that luxury isn't always there.

More choice, less diversity

But while humans can technically draw on thousands of different types of foods, the reality is our diet has become oversimplified with industrial food production practices, which is in turn pushing some 'unnecessary' creatures to the point of extinction.

While there may seem like there is a lot of food on the shelves in the supermarket, in reality, increasing numbers of these products are coming from a very small number of sources.

Food scientists are warning that as a direct result of the kind of simplification the food system is going through, that people's diets are suffering.

Today the average person gets anywhere from half to two thirds of their entire calorie intake from four main types of grains -- rice, corn, wheat and soybeans.

Modern-day health threats like obesity and diabetes have been put down to an over reliance on the carbohydrates, proteins and fats we get from grains, consumed directly, and via meat products.

So it seems that for everyone's interest -- the predator and the prey alike -- it would be best to keep as many of us here on the planet for as long as we can. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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