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Since the 1920s, government agriculture departments have maintained seed banks of crop varieties as a way to maintain crop diversity. This system has flaws because, over time, seed banks are lost through accidents, and there is no way to replace them. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault ( [link] ) began storing seeds from around the world as a backup system to the regional seed banks. If a regional seed bank stores varieties in Svalbard, losses can be replaced from Svalbard. The seed vault is located deep into the rock of an arctic island. Conditions within the vault are maintained at ideal temperature and humidity for seed survival, but the deep underground location of the vault in the arctic means that failure of the vault’s systems will not compromise the climatic conditions inside the vault.

Art connection

 The photo shows a tall structure with a bunker-like door that disappears into a snowbank.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a storage facility for seeds of Earth’s diverse crops. (credit: Mari Tefre, Svalbard Global Seed Vault)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on Spitsbergen island in Norway, which has an arctic climate. Why might an arctic climate be good for seed storage?

Crop success s is largely dependent on the quality of the soil. Although some agricultural soils are rendered sterile using controversial cultivation and chemical treatments, most contain a huge diversity of organisms that maintain nutrient cycles—breaking down organic matter into nutrient compounds that crops need for growth. These organisms also maintain soil texture that affects water and oxygen dynamics in the soil that are necessary for plant growth. If farmers had to maintain arable soil using alternate means, the cost of food would be much higher than it is now. These kinds of processes are called ecosystem services. They occur within ecosystems, such as soil ecosystems, as a result of the diverse metabolic activities of the organisms living there, but they provide benefits to human food production, drinking water availability, and breathable air.

Other key ecosystem services related to food production are plant pollination and crop pest control. Over 150 crops in the United States require pollination to produce. One estimate of the benefit of honeybee pollination within the United States is $1.6 billion per year; other pollinators contribute up to $6.7 billion more.

Many honeybee populations are managed by apiarists who rent out their hives’ services to farmers. Honeybee populations in North America have been suffering large losses caused by a syndrome known as colony collapse disorder, whose cause is unclear. Other pollinators include a diverse array of other bee species and various insects and birds. Loss of these species would make growing crops requiring pollination impossible, increasing dependence on other crops.

Finally, humans compete for their food with crop pests, most of which are insects. Pesticides control these competitors; however, pesticides are costly and lose their effectiveness over time as pest populations adapt. They also lead to collateral damage by killing non-pest species and risking the health of consumers and agricultural workers. Ecologists believe that the bulk of the work in removing pests is actually done by predators and parasites of those pests, but the impact has not been well studied. A review found that in 74 percent of studies that looked for an effect of landscape complexity on natural enemies of pests, the greater the complexity, the greater the effect of pest-suppressing organisms. An experimental study found that introducing multiple enemies of pea aphids (an important alfalfa pest) increased the yield of alfalfa significantly. This study shows the importance of landscape diversity via the question of whether a diversity of pests is more effective at control than one single pest; the results showed this to be the case. Loss of diversity in pest enemies will inevitably make it more difficult and costly to grow food.

Wild food sources

In addition to growing crops and raising animals for food, humans obtain food resources from wild populations, primarily fish populations. For approximately 1 billion people, aquatic resources provide the main source of animal protein. But since 1990, global fish production has declined. Despite considerable effort, few fisheries on the planet are managed for sustainability.

Fishery extinctions rarely lead to complete extinction of the harvested species, but rather to a radical restructuring of the marine ecosystem in which a dominant species is so over-harvested that it becomes a minor player, ecologically. In addition to humans losing the food source, these alterations affect many other species in ways that are difficult or impossible to predict. The collapse of fisheries has dramatic and long-lasting effects on local populations that work in the fishery. In addition, the loss of an inexpensive protein source to populations that cannot afford to replace it will increase the cost of living and limit societies in other ways. In general, the fish taken from fisheries have shifted to smaller species as larger species are fished to extinction. The ultimate outcome could clearly be the loss of aquatic systems as food sources.

View a brief video discussing declining fish stocks.

Psychological and moral value

Finally, it has been argued that humans benefit psychologically from living in a biodiverse world. A chief proponent of this idea is entomologist E. O. Wilson. He argues that human evolutionary history has adapted us to live in a natural environment and that built environments generate stressors that affect human health and well-being. There is considerable research into the psychological regenerative benefits of natural landscapes that suggests the hypothesis may hold some truth. In addition, there is a moral argument that humans have a responsibility to inflict as little harm as possible on other species.

Section summary

Humans use many compounds that were first discovered or derived from living organisms as medicines: secondary plant compounds, animal toxins, and antibiotics produced by bacteria and fungi. More medicines are expected to be discovered in nature. Loss of biodiversity will impact the number of pharmaceuticals available to humans.

Crop diversity is a requirement for food security, and it is being lost. The loss of wild relatives to crops also threatens breeders’ abilities to create new varieties. Ecosystems provide ecosystem services that support human agriculture: pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control, and soil development and maintenance. Loss of biodiversity threatens these ecosystem services and risks making food production more expensive or impossible. Wild food sources are mainly aquatic, but few are being managed for sustainability. Fisheries’ ability to provide protein to human populations is threatened when extinction occurs.

Biodiversity may provide important psychological benefits to humans. Additionally, there are moral arguments for the maintenance of biodiversity.

Art connections

[link] The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on Spitsbergen island in Norway, which has an arctic climate. Why might an arctic climate be good for seed storage?

[link] The ground is permanently frozen so the seeds will keep even if the electricity fails.

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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