Originally published on Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
One person has curly hair; one person has straight hair. One person tans, another burns. One person can curl her lip, another can’t. This is all because of our genes and the differences in them. Diversity. It is the spice of life.
Just like our own differences, plants and animals have differences too, ones that we may or may not see. One variety of rice, for example, is more resistant to flooding than another. One breed of cattle can withstand drought where another can’t. This is all thanks to biodiversity.
Biodiversity signifies the variety of plant and animal life in the world. It includes genetic, species and ecosystem variety. When there is a rich diversity of species, habitats and genetics, ecosystems are healthier, more productive and can better adapt to challenges like climate change.
More than just variety, biodiversity is also the way that different species, plants and animals, are connected and interact. The world is made of an invisible web that we rarely recognize. Loss of species, whether animal or plant, can change an entire ecosystem. It means the loss of connections.
Here are 7 ecosystem connections and contributions that you may not be aware of:
1. Agriculture & healthier soils – Agriculture is usually blamed for soil degradation. Yet, managed carefully, agriculture can actually increase the health of soils. Pulses, for example, help restore the vitality of soils, which in turn helps other plants better grow. Did you know that there are more living individual organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on the earth? Healthy soils are needed to help our food grow, to take carbon out of the air and to provide microbes from which our medicines, like penicillin, are derived. The agricultural sectors are the biggest users of biodiversity. Together they manage the largest terrestrial, freshwater and marine areas on Earth, whether it is ‘wild’ biodiversity in forestry and fisheries or ‘domesticated’ biodiversity in production systems. If managed sustainably, agriculture can contribute to biodiversity conservation and important ecosystem functions.
2. Nutrition & climate change – Agricultural biodiversity, including wild relatives of crops, is fundamental for coping with a changing climate and securing our future of food. This diversity provides agriculture with crop varieties and livestock breeds that can better adapt to changes in temperature, precipitation and extreme weather events. It is also important in this age of change that we explore other types of crops. Of the approximately 400 000 plant species that have been identified, 30 000 are known to be edible. However, to date, only 6 000 have been used as food. However, worldwide, only 150 crops are cultivated on any significant scale! Astonishingly, only three crops (maize, wheat and rice) supply nearly 60 percent of our daily protein and calories. We need to expand our diets to explore some other varieties that could be more nutritious and could better cope with the changes in our climate.