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«The Economic and Social Aspects of Biodiversity Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland REPORT PREPARED BY: CRAIG BULLOCK, OPTIMIZE CONSULTANTS ...»

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Biodiversity, through the provision of ecosystem goods and services, provides the basis for all life on earth. From a human perspective, this includes the support base for economic activity, for social welfare and for health. Changes in biological diversity or species assemblages - for example as a result of species loss, the introduction of alien/invasive species, habitat loss or fragmentation, pollution or nutrient depletion - can significantly affect key ecosystem processes and inter-species (or inter-community) relationships. As discussed elsewhere in this report, this can have a wide range of direct or indirect consequences for human society and economic systems. Not least of these, are the potential effects on plant, animal or human health (see, for example, Corvalan 2005, Hales and Corvalan 2006; McMichael 2001, 2005, 2006; Chivian 2002, 2002a).

Biodiversity in all its forms has direct relevance to human well-being and quality of life.The connections are often intricate and, in many cases, poorly understood. However, many specific cause-effect examples, affecting both modern and ancient civilizations, have been well documented in. A full analysis of the relevance of biological diversity to the health, well-being and security of Irish people is outside the scope of the current report. Indeed, at the time of writing, no specific research or assessment of the links between biodiversity and health (physical, mental, spiritual, social or even economic) in Ireland has been carried out. This chapter aims to provide a general overview of the key issues, drawing on examples of international studies that are of relevance to Ireland.

While many ecosystem services can be given an economic value, it is worth reiterating that, for many sectors of society, the value of biodiversity and ecosystems exists, not so much in terms of economic gains, but rather in terms of losses avoided or moderated by the existence of a healthy natural environment. While the benefits of ecosystem services to food production can be readily understood, their value as life-supporting services protecting population health is more difficult to comprehend. The following key points provide as a general framework for the discussion on the

following pages:

• In Ireland, as in the rest of the world, people’s health ultimately depends on the health of ecosystems. Since the functioning of these ecosystems and the sustainability of the goods and services they provide are dependent on biodiversity, then biodiversity represents the foundation for human health. Stated more simply: without a natural environment that is healthy and capable of supporting a diversity of life, no human population can exist.

• Today, in local environments where the integrity of ecosystems has been compromised, e.g. in urban areas or areas of intensive agriculture, healthy populations can only exist if they are supported by healthy or productive ecosystems elsewhere. Our society draws on services and resources produced by ecosystems in other areas where the natural resource base has not been significantly eroded. Fisheries are a prime example.

• As Ireland’s natural environment is transformed and the integrity of our native ecosystems is damaged, we become more dependent upon the biodiversity resource of other countries.

Developed countries are becoming increasingly dependent on the biodiversity of a global ecosystem. Unfortunately the health of the environment in the developing countries is increasingly threatened by numerous factors that governments may be ill-equipped to manage, for example market forces, population growth or unsustainable development practices. This gives concern for global ecological instability, with very real consequences for the global economy and the well-being of people everywhere.

• Our own ecological footprint (the physical and geographical impact of human activities on the natural world) expands beyond our national boundaries to those regions that supply us with the ecosystem goods and services which we require, but which we cannot provide for ourselves. As our economy grows and our population expands, so does our demand for material goods extending our ecological footprint with implications, not only for our own resource supply and livelihood security, but for that of other countries too.

• In particular, some of what are arguably the most important services provided by biodiversity

- provision of fresh water and clean air, the regulation of the climate, the production of healthy food, and the regulation of pests and diseases - are under threat on a global level, adding to the urgency of protection of biodiversity at home.

(See also Soskolne and Bertollini, 2002).

In August 2005, the First International Conference on Health and Biodiversity convened in Galway, Ireland.The conference was attended by 150 people from over 60 countries, was the first time that such a diverse group of people had come together to address the importance of biodiversity to human health and well-being. The report of the COHAB 2005 conference (see CBD 2006) has been widely endorsed by the EU, UN agencies and other international bodies, a symbol of the growing recognition across all disciplines that the conservation of biodiversity is essential to the protection of human interests, and that collaboration and partnership across normal institutional, cultural and conceptual barriers is required to tackle the issue. This awareness has been greatly increased following the publication of the reports from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).

As a result of this and other important initiatives which have been initiated worldwide in the past five years, there is an increasing understanding amongst policy makers that the continued and accelerating pace of global biodiversity loss threatens the stability, security and health of human populations.This was further highlighted and strengthened by the reports of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and recent discussions of the UN General Assembly, recent EU communications, and decisions of the G8 group of nations.

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Note: except where otherwise specifically stated, the term “health” is used in general terms in this chapter to represent physical and mental health, livelihood security, societal security and overall well-being. Plant and animal health are also dealt with under some headings, particularly where these factors have a direct bearing on human health or well-being.


Food production depends on both managed diversity (crops, livestock and certain other species) and unmanaged diversity (including pollinators, biological control agents and the inter-relationships between species of woodlands, field margins, hedgerows and soils, etc.). The importance of diversity in crop and animal breeding programmes has been recognised for centuries. Diversity provides the basis for modern breeding systems which are important for enhancing traits such as resistance to pests and disease. Maintenance of diversity also increases yield stability and improves the resilience of crop species to environmental perturbations such as drought or flooding (Frison 2005, Halwart 2006, Qualset 2005, Gari 2004, Burlingame and Toledo 2006).

Nevertheless, while global food production per capita has increased over the past 20 years, there are still over 850 million people on earth facing food shortage or famine. Agricultural biodiversity is of critical importance to producers in poor countries where stability of supply and the minimisation of risk is of far greater importance than maximising yields and productivity.

In Ireland, agriculture supports the livelihoods of almost one million people, including people involved directly and indirectly in farm management and production and related services. Despite this importance, Ireland’s agricultural biodiversity is a largely unexplored resource. The stability of the food supplies may not currently be at risk in Ireland, but food production systems are based almost entirely on monoculture or intensive techniques which have a range of negative impacts on the natural environment, affecting both managed and unmanaged biodiversity. The loss of plant diversity that accompanies larger fields and monocultures often results in more regular pest attacks.

Pesticides are used in response with further impacts on biodiversity and possible risks for human health. Alternatively, genetically modified crops are being developed with inherent resistance to diseases, but with, as yet, unproven implications for the environment and human health. In contrast, more diversified and less intensive agro-ecosystems retain natural pest control by supporting a greater number and diversity of predators and parasites that attack herbivorous pest species.

Research has shown that food production systems that conserve and encourage unmanaged diversity often support higher yields and crops that are naturally more resistant to climatic extremes and diseases. Enhancing this diversity, particularly in the development of indigenous breeds, can have significant benefits for local economies and rural livelihoods.The main stumbling blocks to the promotion of these systems have been inertia favouring easily replicable low-cost uniform systems and the greater management demands at farm level. The risks of relying on intensive systems, low in biodiversity, may yet be revealed as climate change impacts on weather stability, pest and weed populations and the flow of ecosystem services. Enhancing wild biodiversity and the managed diversity of food cropping systems can not only provide real economic and social benefits in the short term, but may also help us to adapt and protect crop and livestock health in the longer term.

Diversity in food production can have other positive impacts on society. International research has shown that diverse diets, based not merely on nutritional diversity, but supported by species diversity, are associated with lower risks of illness, greater longevity and reduced mortality. In other words, a diet that includes a high diversity of food types, supported by agricultural systems that increase managed diversity without excessive use of artificial inputs such as pesticides, is of significant direct benefit to human health.

The spectre of famine in Ireland may have receded into our history, but many people are still affected by a more widespread “hidden hunger” of vitamin, mineral and micronutrient deficiencies.

These deficiencies are associated with a range of health problems affecting over two billion people worldwide. Many low-income households in Ireland endure poor quality diets, high in saturated fats and low in nutritional value. However, an equally important factor is the promotion of a limited range of high sugar/water, poor quality products due to the structure of mass-production food industry. The impacts of low dietary nutrition in children include poor concentration in school, restricted intellectual development, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and lower resistance to infection (McWhirter 2002, Friel & Conlon 2004, Save the Children 2007). These illnesses are also becoming increasingly prevalent amongst people in higher income brackets, where long working and commuting hours and poor work-life balance, give rise to “diseases of affluence” such as obesity (Kiely 2001).

Although social factors are involved, including income or time poverty, there is still an obligation on us to ensure that fundamental food supplies and inputs are wholesome and unadulterated.

Research from elsewhere in Europe has shown that diverse diets, incorporating a diversity of food species, are associated with lower risks of illness, greater longevity and reduced mortality.

Recognising this, the EU and the Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have called on all governments to ensure that “the genetic and species diversity of agricultural produce is preserved and improved, and that the importance of dietary diversity based on various crop and livestock varieties is explained and promoted to consumers”. There is an increasing demand in Ireland for locally grown and organic produce, and this has seen a growing interest in country markets in many Irish towns. There are currently over 115 farmers’ markets in Ireland (www.irelandmarkets.com). Many would argue that the future of many small farms depends on their conversion to a biodiverse and locally-focussed agricultural industry, producing high-quality, affordable and widely available produce in a manner which benefits biodiversity and the health of the wider community.


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