America Matters

By Kylla Benes

We often hear that biodiversity is a good thing, that it allows for healthier and more productive ecosystems. This is true and leads to a variety of benefits for Americans. These benefits, or as they are technically called ‘ecosystem services,’ are free of charge and often go unnoticed even though they are critical for our society’s well-being and way of life.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is often described in terms of species — ecological communities or ecosystems that are very diverse have lots of unique types of plants, animals, and even fungi and bacteria. But biodiversity represents much more than just species, it also includes genes (DNA, or the genetic code of organisms) and functional groups. ‘Genetic diversity’ represents all the unique individuals (i.e., unique combinations of genes) or unique variations of a type of gene in a population or community. ‘Functional diversity’ represents the number of groups of species, which are defined by what they do in an ecological community. For example, mushrooms and bacteria may be grouped together as decomposers since they help breakdown dead plants and animals; whereas, hawks and mountain lions are considered predators since the hunt for prey.

Biodiversity America Matters

Why does biodiversity matter to ecosystem health and function?

Biodiversity is important for several reasons. First, having many kinds of species, genes, and functional groups usually means that there is great variety in the jobs done within the ecosystem. Imagine for a moment the town you live in, what would it be like if there were no police officers, postal workers, or teachers? It probably would not function very efficiently and lots of tasks may go undone or take a long time to accomplish. A lot of research has shown the importance of biodiversity in nature — ecosystems with greater diversity often support more life, process more nutrients, are more stable, and may be better able to resist or recover from natural disasters such as fires. Second, organisms do not live in isolation and many species rely directly or indirectly on others to survive. Third, biodiversity serves as sort of an insurance policy for ecosystems. When there is high diversity there are likely many organisms that perform the same or similar tasks within an ecosystem. Going back to the example of services in your own community. If you live in a large city there are likely many different hospitals owned by different companies. If one company went bankrupt and closed its hospitals since other companies were still in business, and despite some impacts such as overcrowding, there would still be medical care available in your city. So, in a diverse ecosystem, if a particular population of a species suffers from a disease, for example, it is more likely that there other species in the ecosystem that still serve the same role in some way.

Biodiversity America Matters

So why does biodiversity matter to Americans?

When ecosystems have high biodiversity, and are healthy and fully functioning, they yield great benefits to humans. These benefits are services that are free, happen without much effort on our part, and have positive impacts on our livelihoods and economy.

Examples of these free services include:

  • Bees pollinating crops helping to produce food
  • Wetlands stabilizing coastlines, protecting homes and businesses
  • Plants absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen needed for breathing
  • Soil filtering and storing water for drinking
  • Fungi and bacteria breaking down dead organisms and waste, which keep habitats clean and creates fertile soil
  • Plants and animals producing biochemicals used in medical treatments to improve health

Biodiversity America Matters

This list is just the beginning and doesn’t even include biodiversity’s aesthetic value or more direct economic gains from activities such as fishing and logging. As of 2011, all the services combined were valued at $41.6 trillion per year — more than half the global domestic product of that year ($73.17 trillion GDP). If we lost Earth’s biodiversity tomorrow, how much money, infrastructure, and manpower would Americans need to invest to replace these services? And are there services that are irreplaceable? These are important questions to consider when we think about land use and development.

When government, businesses, conservationists, and citizens come to together to discuss use and development of land, the needs of each group should be considered along with the value of the ecosystem services. The value of nature beyond aesthetics is often not considered, and this has led to great loss of Earth’s biodiversity and a reduction in the value of ecosystem services. Few countries match America’s wealth of wide-open spaces and diversity of habitats, plants, and animals. Given how much this natural wealth provides, it is necessary to conserve and manage biodiversity so that American’s way-of-life, now and in the future, is protected.