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5 reasons why biodiversity matters to health and the economy


  • Biodiversity is critically important to human health, economies and livelihoods.
  • Humans have caused the loss of 83% of all wild animals and half of all plants.
  • To mark the International Day for Biodiversity, here are five reasons why biodiversity matters to humans – and why we need to protect it.

Biodiversity is critically important – to your health, to your safety and, probably, to your business or livelihood.

But biodiversity – the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems – is declining globally, faster than at any other time in human history. The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things by weight, but humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants. (Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is one of the top five risks in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, too.)

In celebration of the International Day for Biological Diversity, we break down the five ways in which biodiversity supports our economies and enhances our wellbeing – and has the potential to do even more.

1. Biodiversity ensures health and food security

Biodiversity underpins global nutrition and food security. Millions of species work together to provide us with a large array of fruits, vegetables and animal products essential to a healthy, balanced diet – but they are increasingly under threat.

Every country has indigenous produce – such as wild greens and grains – which have adapted to local conditions, making them more resilient to pests and extreme weather. In the past, this produce provided much-needed micronutrients for local populations. Unfortunately, however, the simplification of diets, processed foods and poor access to food have led to poor-quality diets. As a result, one-third of the world suffers from micronutrient deficiencies.

A woman harvests Quinoa plants on a field in Tarmaya, some 120 km south of La Paz April 29, 2013. Still a nutritional staple for the indigenous people living in the Altiplano of Bolivia, Quinoa is also producing much profits for the region. The global boom for the golden grain, cultivated at high altitudes, has boosted prices five times in just nine years. Government officials hope $10 million in credits for producers will help boost production further still to meet the increasing demands at home and abroad. REUTERS/David Mercado (BOLIVIA - Tags: FOOD BUSINESS AGRICULTURE) - GM1E94U0U1P01

A woman harvests quinoa in Bolivia.

Image: REUTERS/David Mercado

Three crops – wheat, corn and rice – provide almost 60% of total plant-based calories consumed by humans. This leads to reduced resiliency in our supply chains and on our plates. For example, the number of rice varieties cultivated in Asia has dropped from tens of thousands to just a few dozen; in Thailand, 50% of land used for growing rice only produces two varieties.

A farmer holds rice in his hand in Khon Kaen province in northeastern Thailand March 12, 2019. Picture taken March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Patpicha Tanakasempipat - RC1A25F20210

Rice is a staple crop and food source in Thailand, but now, 50% of land growing rice only cultivates two varieties.

Image: REUTERS/Patpicha Tanakasempipat

People once understood that the conservation of species was crucial for healthy societies and ecosystems. We must ensure this knowledge remains part of our modern agricultural and food systems to prevent diet-related diseases and reduce the environmental impact of feeding ourselves.

2. Biodiversity helps fight disease

Higher rates of biodiversity have been linked to an increase in human health.

First, plants are essential for medicines. For example, 25% of drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants while 70% of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature. This means that every time a species goes extinct, we miss out on a potential new medicine.

Second, biodiversity due to protected natural areas has been linked to lower instances of disease such as Lyme disease and malaria. While the exact origin of the virus causing COVID-19 is still unknown, 60% of infectious diseases originate from animals and 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife. As human activities encroach upon the natural world, through deforestation and urbanisation, we reduce the size and number of ecosystems. As a result, animals live in closer quarters with one another and with humans, creating ideal conditions for the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Simply put: more species means less disease.

Human activity is eroding the world's ecological foundations

Human activity is eroding biodiversity.

Image: World Economic Forum Nature Risk Rising

3. Biodiversity benefits business

According to the World Economic Forum’s recent Nature Risk Rising Report, more than half of the world’s GDP ($44 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Many businesses are, therefore, at risk due to increasing nature loss. Global sales of pharmaceuticals based on materials of natural origin are worth an estimated $75 billion a year, while natural wonders such as coral reefs are essential to food and tourism.

Peter Gash, owner and manager of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, snorkels during an inspection of the reef's condition in an area called the 'Coral Gardens' located at Lady Elliot Island and north-east from the town of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray/File photo - D1BETGZOWZAB

Coral reefs are essential to tourism in some parts of the world – but they’re disappearing.

Image: REUTERS/David Gray/File photo

There is great potential for the economy to grow and become more resilient by ensuring biodiversity. Every dollar spent on nature restoration leads to at least $9 of economic benefits. In addition, changing agricultural and food production methods could unlock $4.5 trillion per year in new business opportunities by 2030, while also preventing trillions of dollars’ worth of social and environmental harms.

4. Biodiversity provides livelihoods

Humans derive approximately $125 trillion of value from natural ecosystems each year. Globally, three out of four jobs are dependent on water while the agricultural sector employs over 60% of the world’s working poor. In the Global South, forests are the source of livelihoods for over 1.6 billion people. In India, forest ecosystems contribute only 7% to India’s GDP yet 57% of rural Indian communities’ livelihoods.

Forest officials ride an elephant as they count one-horned rhinoceros during a rhino census at the Kaziranga National Park, in Golaghat district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika - RC1A411D1C60

Forest officials count one-horned rhinoceros during a rhino census in Assam, India.

Image: REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

Ecosystems, therefore, must be protected and restored – not only for the good of nature but also for the communities that depend on them.

Although some fear environmental regulation and the safeguarding of nature could threaten businesses, the “restoration economy” – the restoration of natural landscapes –provides more jobs in the United States than most of the extractives sector, with the potential to create even more. According to some estimates, the restoration economy is worth $25 billion per year and directly employs more than the coal, mining, logging and steel industries altogether. Nature-positive businesses can provide cost-effective, robot-proof, business-friendly jobs that stimulate the rural economy without harming the environment.

5. Biodiversity protects us

The clearance of over 35% of the world’s mangroves for human activities has increasingly put people and their homes at risk from floods and sea-level rise. If today’s mangroves were lost, 18 million more people would be flooded every year (an increase of 39%) and annual damages to property would increase by 16% ($82 billion).

Scarlet ibis are pictured on the banks of a mangrove swamp located on the mouth of the Calcoene River where it joins the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Amapa state, northern Brazil, April 6, 2017. Picture taken on April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes - RC1233FE5800

Scarlet ibis on the banks of a mangrove swamp in Amapa in northern Brazil

Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems is vital to fighting climate change. Nature-based solutions could provide 37% of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed by 2030 to maintain global warming within 2°C.

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Natural ecosystems provide the foundations for economic growth, human health and prosperity. Our fate as a species is deeply connected to the fate of our natural environment.

As ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity, acknowledging the benefits of biodiversity is the first step in ensuring that we look after it. We know biodiversity matters. Now, as a society, we should protect it – and in doing so, protect our own long-term interests.

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