August 28, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
The world is losing wild species only half as rapidly as a hundred years ago, and the rate of extinctions is now the lowest in five hundred years. Moreover, mankind now has enough knowledge of high-yield farming, and forest and wildlife management that we shouldn't have to suffer massive wild species losses in the future. This is the good news according to Dr. Mark Collins, a top expert at the UN Environmental Program.
The number of extinctions (twenty) among birds, mammals and fish in the last third of the twentieth century was only half as great as in the extinctions (forty) in the last third of the nineteenth and no greater than the rate of extinctions in the sixteenth century, according to the UNEP's recently published World Atlas of Biodiversity. The Atlas totals 675 known wild species lost in the last 400 years, though the count of 83 mammals and 128 fish and birds gone forever is more accurate than the estimate of extinct plants and insects.
The bad news is that the rate of known species extinctions is still one- to two-hundred times as high as would be expected with no humans on the planet. Dr. Collins, Director of UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Center in England, says, "We know enough about the world's species and eco-systems to ensure that the world's biodiversity is managed effectively. Give nature half a chance and it will take care of itself." The Atlas says there is evidence that populations of some species targeted for recovery are indeed recovering "significantly."
Dr. Collins' optimism is supported by the fact that most of the big mammal species (and some flightless birds) that have gone extinct were killed off by prehistoric man hunting with arrows and spears. Many more extinct species lost their habitat to the expansion of primitive farming over the last several thousand years.
The biggest reason for the lower extinction rate in the twentieth century is undoubtedly the Green Revolution of the 1960s. High-yield seeds and fertilizers roughly tripled crop yields on much of the world's best land. As a result, humans are farming only a little more land today than they did a hundred years ago, even though human numbers have increased from 1.6 billion to 6.3 billion. More of the logged forests are being replanted with trees instead of being planted to low-yield crops.
The most important factor for the future is that human societies now assign a high priority to species preservation and wild habitat conservation.
UNEP warns that today's biggest danger for wildlife extinctions is in Southeast Asia, the Congo basin, and parts of the Amazon, areas where farming, plantations and cities are likely to take more than twice as much land by 2032 (48 percent) as they do today (22 percent). Millions of acres of wildlife habitat could be lost unless we can offer the slash-and-burn farmers higher-yielding crops.
Jeff McNeeley, chief scientist of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), shares much of Dr. Collins' optimism-and his concern. McNeeley warns that nearly one billion people are still trying to subsist on wild game and low-yield farming in the Third World's biodiversity hotspots. Two-thirds of these farm marginal land. McNeeley advocates what he calls "eco-agriculture," which strives for higher, more sustainable crop yields. With government encouragement, this would allow poorer land to be left as uncultivated strips, living fences, windbreaks, buffer zones, and wildlife corridors to link with uncultivated lands-and still provide the people with better diets than they have today.
The IUCN doesn't recommend any particular farming systems or technologies, but development economists agree that the Third World will need to get at least twice as much food per acre in the years ahead if its wildlands and species are to be saved.
Meanwhile, field tests from the Philippines show genetically engineered Bt corn has produced an average 40 percent more grain per acre than conventional corn. Bt corn's yield advantage is bigger in the tropics than in the United States, because the pest pressures are much heavier in the tropics. That's key, because the emerging food/wildlife challenge is focused in the tropics.
To ensure that the global rate of species extinction continues to decline in a more-populous and affluent twenty-first century, we'll need more investment in agricultural research to get still-higher, more sustainable yields from the farms, even under difficult conditions.
Greenpeace's support would be welcome.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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