The most watched television show in the UK in 2017 was the final episode of “Blue Planet II” narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The documentary highlighted the effects that plastic pollution is having on marine ecosystems, suggesting that micro-plastics in the food chain may cause whale calves to be stillborn. The response in the UK and across the world was palpable, with the UK government pledging to eliminate all non-essential plastic materials from the supply chain by 2030. But aside from this thought provoking episode, the documentary series largely represented a celebration of the majesty and wonder of what we call “biodiversity”, the diversity of life on our planet. Viewers marveled at problem solving Parrot Fish, learned how algal blooms fuel some of the greatest gatherings of dolphins, whales and sea lions in the world, and were amazed to see crabs and shrimps thriving in boiling thermal vents in the dark depths of the oceanic trenches. But apart from providing great material for Sir David and other film-makers to showcase for us on our televisions, what has biodiversity ever done for us?
On May 22nd we saw celebrations to mark the “International Day for Biological Diversity”, which followed closely on the heels of “Earth Day” in April, and before we can draw breath we will be marking “World Environment Day 2018” on 5th June. These international “Days” are all essentially highlighting the importance of nature, or biodiversity, to the planet, and more critically, to human life on earth. A few years ago I read a book by Tony Juniper titled “What has Nature Ever Done for Us?” and I make no apologies for the fact that I have adapted its theme for this blog. The book lays out in clear but scientifically based language how the enormous variety of organisms on earth are interconnected and form a system that is mutually enriching and self-supporting and which ultimately allows the human race to thrive to the extent it has in its short geological history. The corollary of this understanding is that by significantly undermining or diminishing biodiversity, human life will also suffer. But as always the challenge is to communicate the critical role of biodiversity in our lives in a way that resonates with the average reader?
I recently listened to a podcast that went a long way to making the case for biodiversity in a European landscape. John Lewis-Stempel talked about his book “The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood” and his core message was that the variety of both plants and animals (including domestic stock) in this small patch of ancient woodland was the key to its productivity and beauty. He made the point that planting trees can be useful, but nothing can replace a mature Oak tree standing in the woodland, a self-contained ecosystem in its own right. He also made the point that you would need to plant 500 new trees to even come close to matching its contribution to biodiversity and ecosystem health.
Global plant biodiversity was further highlighted recently with the re-opening of the largest glasshouse in the world, the Temperate House at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London. Housing over 10,000 specimens of vascular plants, the facility showcases but a fraction of the diversity of temperate trees, shrubs and bushes, but nonetheless is a tangible manifestation of biodiversity that is accessible to thousands of visitors every year. Kew’s work is guided by and lies at the heart of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the cataloguing and preservation of wild plant species is used by them to better understand how plant biodiversity support human health and populations around the world – it is not simply a repository of interesting trees or pretty flowers. To this end Kew has programmes that seek out and conserve the wild relatives of pants that provide most of our food, part of the commitment to the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity.
We often think of biodiversity when we see it on a large scale – the canopy of a huge Brazilian rainforest, thousands of animals sweeping across the African Savannah, flocks of migratory seabirds feeding at the coast. However biodiversity at the microscopic level is as important, arguably more so. Last year the BBC Food Programme broadcast a two-part documentary about the way that the Hadza people of the Yaeda Valley feed themselves. The programme focused on the sheer variety and exoticness of foods that the hunter-gatherer tribe eat throughout their life in their natural savannah home, which is also the focus for Carbon Tanzania’s Yaeda Valley forest conservation project. The impressive biodiversity of plants and animals in the ecosystem that support this unique tribe’s lifestyle is reflected in their gut microbiome. The programme referred to the scientific work of Dr Tim Spector who with his book “The Diet Myth” has brought attention to the importance of a diverse gut microbiome to our health. More and more research is pointing to the fact that a healthy balance of gut microbes has a profound influence on health. Ailments such as dementia, childhood cancer, depression and allergies recorded in modern human populations, but often absent in traditional tribal societies, are increasingly being found to be influenced by the health and diversity of the gut microbiome. The work that has been conducted with the Hadza shows is that the biodiversity of the gut strongly reflects the biodiversity of the environment in which the owner of the gut lives. Dr Spector says “I encourage you to come with me on a journey into the world of the microbiome and diets, full of surprising facts that will change the way you look at your diet and teach you to love your microbes.” Furthermore the documentary maker, Dan Saladino, has been shortlisted for a Guild Food Writers’ Award for the programme.
Biodiversity is all around us – it is critical for all human life. It is the basis for our food production systems, supplies natural remedies, protects water resources, provides building materials, regulates climate systems and influences weather patterns, and now we are starting to realise that it can even affect our health, from inside us!