Published: 04.01.10
Dossier on biodiversity

Diversity needs space

In 2010 biological diversity is emerging from the long shadow of climate change. In an interview with ETH Life, ETH professor Paul Schmid-Hempel explains why the UN International Year of Biodiversity is urgently needed.

Peter Rueegg
Paul Schmid Hempel, professor of experimental ecology, pleads with the ETH to give more attention to the subject of biodiversity. (Picture: P. Rüegg)
Paul Schmid Hempel, professor of experimental ecology, pleads with the ETH to give more attention to the subject of biodiversity. (Picture: P. Rüegg) (large view)

Every day we hear bad news about climate change. Now the Year of Biodiversity is upon us bringing with it similar bad tidings. Are we heading for a collapse as far as biological diversity is concerned too?
Expressions such as collapse or disaster must be used with caution. We do, however, have a substantial - man-made - reduction in biodiversity. However, we should neither simply bury our heads in the sand nor deny the loss of biodiversity. The world will change, and some of the change will not always be to our advantage. What constitutes a disaster depends on one's moral concepts.

What are the main causes of the loss of biological variety?
The main cause is land use. Man is using the land more intensively now than was the case 100 or 200 years ago. Man has been using land since the dawn of time. For example, the Romans cleared forests on a large scale in North Africa to build ships with - with devastating consequences at the time. As the population has grown and individual requirements have increased, the loss of biodiversity has accelerated. In broad terms: agriculture instead of rain forests. Under excessive use, oceans suffer beyond the capacity of their ecological systems to provide. Climate change will add a further factor.

Why is this?
Climate change has two consequences: Agricultural areas, which were once productive, are no longer so because of climate change. New, previously untouched surfaces come under the plough. A more direct consequence is that the environmental conditions change for the species. Thus there are movements. The problem is whether species also have the ability to change. Theoretically, it is possible, but in practice only happens if the populations are large enough.

However, we have always had certain species becoming extinct.
Today the speed and dimensions are completely different. New species are indeed being discovered all the time. These, however, only constitute a fraction of those already in existence and which are being lost. Becoming extinct "naturally" is not an argument.

Biodiversity only matters to interested laymen or specialists; the average man in the street can probably name 10 different types of bird at the very most. What needs to be done to make biodiversity become something of importance?
What personal and cultural values are obtained from biodiversity depends on the individual. It is obvious that the man in the street does not necessarily know all the different types of tree. The litmus test is what people do in their spare time. Obviously nobody goes where nature is dead. No one spends their holiday on a motorway junction, but goes somewhere he can bathe, somewhere of natural beauty. It is the same with biodiversity. Natural variety is considered to be more refreshing than a monotonous or barren landscape.

Of course, it doesn't only affect holidays and leisure time. What other impact does biodiversity have on us?
Functioning ecological systems provide us with things like healthy air, clean water and “technical solutions”, like the stabilisation of mountain slopes. A varied ecological system is more stable than one which is species-poor in all respects. To this must be added the natural pharmacy. There are active substances from plants which we still do not even know about.

Do you have any examples?
Natural substances constitute 80 to 90 per cent of our pharmacy. A certain Periwinkle from Madagascar, a threatened species, produces a strong cytostatic drug and is a potent agent against certain types of cancer. There are also technical applications and interesting materials. Thus researchers are trying to find out how barnacles cling so strongly and what their adhesive consists of, so that it can be made artificially. In nature, diversity has been supported by millions of years of trial and error. It would be absurd to discard these resources before we can profit from them. The ETH would do well to devote more attention to the resources of biodiversity.

But what use is it to the material specialist, if he knows neither the name of a plant nor what it demands of its environment?
One cannot just take the plants which one knows to produce an active substance. One should know where they live, what they need to thrive and how they can be obtained. In addition, bioecological research is required, as well as a taxonomic and systematic foundation. It is precisely in these latter fields that the ETH, not alone among the universities, has not excelled in recent years. Geobotanics is certainly still well represented but in the field of animal diversity there is almost nothing here other than the insect collection. Some praise should be given to Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, in relation to life under water.

Why did the ETH almost abolish systematics, for example? Is it not prestigious enough?
It is a question of priorities. It should be understood that the ETH is more than a university. On a long-term basis, however, the ETH must have an interest in investigating biodiversity because many areas are affected by its loss, for instance, biology and the environmental sciences, which should be the flagships of the ETH. Environmental research is not only about air pollution control and refuse disposal, but also the preservation of biological diversity. It would only be very short term if the ETH were to only pick fields such as system biology. It would be useful to society, but in the long run not very meaningful, if nature were to become impoverished as a result and we could no longer understand how nature functions beyond the cell.

But one knows all the proteins in cells and can possibly find active substances against diseases.
There is naturally some justification for this and this research has also been successful to an extent, but it is a matter of balancing long-term interests. The ETH should also become more concerned with questions of biodiversity. These are every bit as important as questions regarding climate change.

Do we have to glue a price tag to each tree, so that a value can be assigned to biodiversity?
As a scientist and a human being I certainly hope not, but in today's climate I must say as a realist that this reorganisation of our society - and also of the university - along business lines has become very important. In the long run this is the most plausible: An intact nature has an enormous monetary value. If it is not there, we ourselves must pay for what it provides.

What is the magnitude of what nature provides?
World-wide it probably amounts to trillions. The amount is tremendously high, because we do not have to pay for things like water storage or keeping water clean in forests. A mono- cultural forest cannot perform in the same way. In addition, even the pollination of our crops is an important topic. A lake or a sea cannot survive with only one species. It needs a food chain. Only in this way can one get fish. It is a law of nature: diversity is needed, just so that we can live well.

How can politicians be persuaded that the maintenance of biodiversity is a matter of importance?
I think that awareness is widespread but action is also required. It is actually an economic argument. In the long run it is better to let nature offer her services. It is more advantageous than having to accomplish everything technologically. This advantage is only possible if nature is diverse.

Are protected areas in the long run the only effective means of achieving diversity?
Protected areas are an important cornerstone. Nature needs to be screened from the influence of man. In addition, clarification and education are also needed, even if their effects are not as great as one might hope. People’s personal experience is also important and can be gained in facilities such as the Sihlwald Nature Centre. The authority and reliability of the universities within this field are important in discussion with the public and in politics. The ETH should also throw its weight more behind biodiversity.

But protected areas are not created through academic discussions.
Nature needs space. Therefore nature reserves are important. I am aware that one cannot do this against the will of the population but we are all in the same boat. One of the best things which nature protection organizations can do is to buy land. The founder of North Face, Douglas Tompkins, buys enormous acreages in Chile and Argentina which he leaves to nature. That is one of the most effective ways to preserve diversity. I therefore wish that more wealthy people would also invest money with us in such enterprises. It is important to me though that no antagonism to man will arise from it.

The world population grows, the fruitful lands shrink. What are the chances that sufficient land can be put aside for diversity?
Unfortunately, the chances are not overwhelming. Countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia are now buying up large agricultural areas in Africa in order to be able to feed their future populations. These countries have lots of foreign currency. In addition, it is unlikely to be possible to increase the unit yields significantly either with current or future technology - thus we are in the midst of a geopolitical conflict over land and square metres. That is not good for biodiversity - and you don’t need to be a scientist to be able to see this.