Helping Poor Nations Preserve Biodiversity

HERE'S an intriguing fact to contemplate while food shopping. Some 94 percent of all food intake is plant matter. Even the meat that humans and other carnivores eat comes from animals that eat plants.

As sociologist William Lacy of Pennsylvania State University at University Park notes in calling attention to this fact, plants are "responsible for sustaining life" on this planet.

This is more than a trivia item for check-out counter conversation. It points up the overriding importance of preserving the genetic basis for vigorous and diversified plant life.

"Overriding" is not too strong a term given the tendency to overlook the fundamental role played by earth's richly diversified flora. "The loss of an animal species garners much more attention and public outcry than loss of [plant] germ plasm," Dr. Lacy observes. Yet without the vast reserve of genetic information contained in that diversified flora, it would not be possible to improve the few plant species used as crops or to make many biotechnological advances.

This puts plant diversity squarely at the center of the concern for preserving biological diversity. That concern will be a major topic at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development being held in Brazil in June. The United States National Academy of Science and Britain's Royal Society have highlighted this topic in a statement issued in anticipation of the conference. They explain:

"Greater attention ... needs to be given to understanding the nature and dimension of the world's biodiversity. Although we depend directly on biodiversity for sustainable productivity, we cannot even estimate the numbers of species of organisms - plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms - to an order of magnitude. We do know, however, that the current rate of reduction in biodiversity is unparalleled over the past 65 million years. The loss of biodiversity is one of the fastest-moving aspects of globa l change, is irreversible, and has serious consequences for the human prospect in the future."

International discussion of how to meet this challenge bogs down in a rich nation versus poor nation debate. Most of the species loss occurs in economically struggling third-world countries. Most of the concern is expressed by richer, better developed nations. The poor nations ask the rich for substantial financial help with the research and conservation needed to preserve biodiversity. Rich nations balk at paying the lion's share of the bill. Stalemate on this issue threatens the prospects of reaching a

meaningful biodiversity agreement at the Brazil conference.

Yet the central importance of plants lends strength to the third-world financial demand. While third-world countries have most of the world's plant diversity, developed nations garner and exploit most of the germplasm from that plant population. The United States, for example, maintains one of the richest stores of plant genes in its seed and germplasm banks. Most of this is imported. Relatively little comes from native plants.

Moreover, Lacy points out that gene banks may not be the best way to preserve biodiversity. This may better be done by maintaining the plants themselves in their native environments, where they can continue to grow and evolve.

Developed nations should recognize these basic facts and break the funding stalemate. It is in the best interests of the United States and other industrialized countries to help poorer nations preserve biodiversity. The rich nations will be investing in their own future by so doing.

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