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In the economics of biodiversity, money does grow on trees

The Edmonton Journal by Jana Vamosi 4 February 2014

How many species are enough to support human life? Regrettably, we don’t yet know. But we need to find out.

The groceries you pick up at the supermarket depend on thousands of species that fertilize soil and provide the pollination necessary to produce fruit and seeds.

As food prices soar, Canada needs to value these unsung heroes that provide us with essential “ecosystem services” such as decomposition, water purification and pollination. Without them, our access to adequate food supplies, clean air and water isn’t guaranteed.

An estimated 140,000 species live in Canada, but only about half have been identified. From these species, Canadians obtain much of the food and building supplies that contribute to our quality of life. We understand how we exploit some species.

Wheat, for instance, gives us more calories than we ought to consume. Those recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables are another source of species diversity in our diet.

In today’s throwaway culture we tend to ignore things that don’t seem to directly benefit us. However, many apparently useless species do, indeed, have a purpose and an impact on the economy. Mounting evidence indicates that the more species in a given area, the better the livelihood of the surrounding human population.

For example, the ecosystem services from insects alone (mostly through pollination, decomposition and pest control) are estimated to amount to $57 billion in the United States.

Hundreds of studies show that crop yields improve when diversity rises.

And as crop yields increase, food prices decrease.

Why is this economic benefit, so central to our food security, dismissed so readily? Why is preserving species diversity seen in Canada as a luxury we can’t afford?

The rest of the world is not taking natural resources for granted.

Twenty years ago, Costa Rica embarked upon a plan to provide “payments for ecosystem services” to landowners who protect their forests. This enlightened approach recognizes the important role that the environment plays in contributing to both our well-being and our economic prosperity.

Debates over biodiversity and sustainability have become polarized and political. As a result, we’ve had little dialogue on how the two can complement one another.

But we need to stop viewing economic development as a trade-off against environmental concerns: a growing body of research makes clear that healthy environments actually yield economic benefits.

Canada’s evaluation of the economic value of ecosystem services has been profoundly disappointing. We participated in the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment with a single ecosystem assessment in British Columbia.

The study found that up to 56 per cent of the economy of coastal B.C. came from exploiting species in the area. Unfortunately, the economic welfare of the residents was predicted to decline as ecosystem integrity had degraded to the category of “medium poor.”

It’s cliché to say that money doesn’t grow on trees; but given how much of our prosperity comes from extracting the wealth generated by diverse species in our environment, maybe we should reconsider the claim.

Once our biodiversity is gone, so too are our profits.

All things considered, biodiversity is a bargain.

Jana Vamosi is an associate professor at the University of Calgary and a recognized expert in plant biodiversity.