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Biting the hand that feeds us

24 April, 2020

Biodiversity  is at risk. The  UN-sponsored Global Assessment Report  last year  showed that a whopping one million species are threatened with extinction. That our actions are having such an impact on the very existence of so many species should give us a good enough reason to start doing something about it.

But the current pandemic has shone a light beyond the moral imperative to treat other species with respect, and onto the fact that biodiversity really is an important part of human health and wellbeing. The destruction of habitats has brought us into contact with animals and ecosystems that we aren’t equipped to deal with. As David Quammen, author of Spillover, puts it, “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” COVID-19 is not the first disease to make the leap from animal to human (Ebola, Zika virus and HIV are all examples of diseases that have come from other animals, or ‘zoonotic’ diseases). Meanwhile, we rely on natural ecosystems for food, medicines, and clean water that are only able to support us because of the delicate and fragile balance between the species that comprise these complex systems.  

It’s not just the destruction of habitats that drives biodiversity loss, but our intense focus on selective breeding in agriculture at the expense of resilience through biodiversity that puts us and other species in a very vulnerable position. The often-overlooked aspect of diversity within  species has caused problems in the past, including the Irish potato famine and the fall of the Gros Michel banana, and continues to do so now, with emerging evidence that intensive farming methods may lead to further pandemics in the future.  

This year is the final year of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity. It’s unlikely that 2020 will be remembered for this reason, but we hope that recent events will reinforce just how important biodiversity is – and inspire progress for the upcoming Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

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