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Is Medical Science Hindered by Loss of Biodiversity?

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 11/16/2008

Biodiversity is a crucial part of life on Earth, but non-sustainable use of resources is killing off species at an alarming rate. Are we hindering medical science at the same time?

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    About Biodiversity

    Biodiversity is an important part of life and culture for enormous numbers of people all over the world, most particularly people living subsistence lifestyles (of which there are an estimated one billion).

    Biodiversity is the basis of successful, healthful agriculture, for both wild and cultivated plants. Genetic diversity helps build stronger crops and animals without compromising on nutrition.

    We rely on biodiversity in many ways without ever realizing. Insects pollinate plants, including food crops and flowers. Bacteria and yeasts transform waste into usable water, or water into wine and beer. Functioning diverse ecosystems make the world a more aesthetically pleasing and healthy place to be.

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    Health Consequences of Decreasing Biodiversity

    Decreasing biodiversity is a problem for people no matter where or how they live. For people living rural subsistence lifestyles, the extinction of culturally important species means the loss of livelihood and traditions that have supported them for centuries. Loss of biodiversity can lead to loss of health due to malnutrition, and an increased incidence of poor childhood development and nutrition-related diseases (in developed countries the flip side is the vastly increased incidence of diabetes and obesity-related disease).

    Over the course of history, humans have consumed around 80,000 edible species of plant and animal, and around 3,000 of those have been used widely. We need somewhere between 50 and 100 different vitamins, minerals, and other identified and unidentified substances to stay healthy. The majority of people don’t get all of those nutrients from their current diets, and reduction in biodiversity and oversimplification of food plays a big role.

    Species destruction can destroy or change ecosystems, with far-reaching effects that can’t be predicted. And our health may be affected in more ways than via the food we eat. As habitats are destroyed, new diseases begin to emerge and affect people in those areas.

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    What about Medical Science?

    Ultimately we rely on the diversity of nature for more than we can even begin to imagine. The loss of countless numbers of animal and plant species is enormous in itself, but we’re losing so much more than that. Biodiversity is the basis for the health of humanity and the planet, and decreased diversity of nature impacts every aspect of our lives.

    The Earth has undergone five major extinction periods in its existence, the last of which occurred 65 million years ago when an asteroid collided with the Earth. Estimates of the proportion of species destroyed at that time are as high as 95%.

    Unfortunately, asteroids have nothing on humanity: it’s been estimated that the current extinction rate is around 100 times faster than that which occurred 65 million years ago.

    The problem now is that biodiversity is being threatened on a scale that has never been seen before – and it’s not just that we’re losing species that are already known. It’s also probable that species which have not yet been discovered are becoming extinct too.

    And destruction of species that have never been seen or described could mean we’re destroying species that could potentially treat or even cure serious diseases. A compound obtained from a species of frog in Australia had once showed some promise in the treatment of certain types of cancer. That species recently became extinct.

    We depend on substances found in nature for treating many conditions and diseases. Between 1960 and 1980, 25% of prescriptions in America included drugs with active ingredients obtained from plants. But as a species we're trampling all over rainforests and stampeding through deserts at the speed of light in our efforts to obtain natural resources from non-sustainable sources.

    Habitat destruction in distant locations is also destroying ancient cultural traditions belonging to the people who live in those places. The loss of traditional medicine that is occurring in such regions is irreplaceable.

    We are losing so much, and the real tragedy is, we don’t even know what we’re losing.