UN Misses the Forest for the Trees
May 22, 2002
by Alex A. Avery
Habitat destruction from human encroachment has been the primary factor in the endangerment of 80 to 90 percent of threatened species on the planet, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). In all, over 11,000 species of plants and animals are known to face a high risk of extinction, including 24 percent of all known mammals.
The huge impact from habitat destruction at the hands of man is exactly the reason why in less than three weeks from it’s unveiling, more than 450 scientists, environmentalists, and conservationists from over 50 countries have signed onto the High-Yield Conservation Declaration hosted by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues (www.HighYieldConservation.org).
The report, titled the “Global Environment Outlook-3” (Geo-3), covers nearly every aspect of environmental degradation, including deforestation, overexploitation of resources, habitat destruction, and pollution. It is meant as an assessment of the past 30 years, since the 1972 Stockholm conference on the human environment, and is being released in preparation for the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development scheduled for this summer in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Specifically, the scientists who advised UNEP believe that habitat loss by human encroachment is largely responsible for the endangerment of 89 percent of threatened birds, 83 percent of threatened mammals, and 91 percent of endangered plants. The next biggest factor in biodiversity declines—competition from introduced invasive species—has had a much smaller impact compared to habitat loss, with invasive species contributing to the endangerment of only 30 percent of threatened bird species and 15 percent of threatened plants.
Notably, while dozens of mainstream wildlife conservation groups have set their sights on stopping pollution from industrial activities and lobbied against modern farming technologies, pollution and farm inputs were not mentioned as a major factor in the endangerment of any species.
That is because the expansion of farmland, especially low-yield “forced organic” farming, is the main driver of wildlife habitat destruction. Farming takes far more land from nature than any other human activity. Already, farms occupy 37 percent of the planet’s entire land area, whereas cities, roads, and urban areas take roughly 5 percent of the total land area. Without the significant increases in farm productivity achieved over the last century, far more habitat would have been lost and far more species would be extinct or endangered as a result.
UN researchers identified another factor that is hampering conservation efforts: human poverty. According to Mark Collins, director of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Center, poverty is aggravating huge losses in biodiversity and this “has to be addressed.” Perhaps Mr. Collins has seen the latest reports from analysis of satellite data that shows Mexico is losing 3 million acres of tropical forest per year at the hands of peasant farmers.
We suggest that the United Nations work to accelerate market reforms, property rights protections, and the rule of law so that people in developing nations can increase their standards of living. Moreover, the UN should work much harder than it has in the past to increase the productivity of farmers in developing countries. The UN should support high-yield farming research and endorse technologies such as agricultural biotechnology for their habitat conservation potential. This will help to meet the needs of the world’s still growing population as well as alleviating the growing pressures to encroach on still more wildlife habitat.
It is just too bad that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund, and the other groups that are supposedly concerned about biodiversity continue to be distracted by fights over fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnology as the forest burns around them.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.