So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…
Each month ( though we had some issues last month, so this month you’ll get double the dose of sci-facts! ) our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
In the news there has been a lot of talk about biodiversity. It is a word overused in the current rhetoric taking place in the world arena. And yet understanding the full implications of what biodiversity really means will become more important as biodiversity is rapidly lost in our world-wide environment.
A perfect example of the opposite of biodiversity is seen in the vegetable aisles of your local supermarket. There is only one kind of celery, one – or if you are lucky, two – kinds of corn on the cob, two or three kinds of tomatoes, three kinds of lettuce. Evert single one of the celery stalks will smell and taste the same and have the same texture. Unless you go to a farmers’ market or grow heritage vegetables, you might think all celery or corn look like those supermarket specimens; however, this is not true. What you see in the supermarket are vegetables that have been developed to be uniform genetically, and to have a long shelf life. (Flavour and texture are secondary considerations.)
Originally, wild celery and wild corn were much more diverse in shape and flavour. This meant that they could inhabit a much wider range of environmental conditions compared to their pampered descendants; it wasn’t so much that each individual plant was tougher but that there were enough differences in the population that celery or corn plants could and would grow anywhere with soil, sun and water. Just like weeds!
Weeds are a perfect example of biodiversity, because no two weed plants are exactly the same. When you mow the lawn, there are always some clover and dandelions that escape the blades by being very short or holding their leaves flat to the ground, while the taller plants are cut down. (Personally, I like clover and dandelions better than boring old grass.) This means in real terms is that the weeds – and the wild celery and corn – are better adapted when conditions change due to flood, drought, or a sudden increase in herbivores or pests. Some of the population will have the right combination of characteristics to survive and reproduce.
On the other hand, domesticated crops are very susceptible to diseases or disasters because they are all so very alike. If one plant gets a rust, it will spread quickly to its surrounding plants. If environmental conditions change too much, the crop will fail and die. They are not hardy. They are not diverse genetically and any genetic defects will be common to all the crop.
Biodiversity also plays a part in complex ecosystems with many different flora and fauna competing and complementing each other to form, for example, rainforests or coral reefs. The complexity created can be quite robust, and survive the loss of some species due to environmental degradation cause by pollution or logging or global warming. Ecosystems can survive and bounce back so long as biodiversity is maintained. That is part of the process of evolution: new species arise as the old ones change because of environmental pressures.
Any loss of biodiversity means that an ecosystem has lost some of its ability to change and adapt. And eventually a degraded ecosystem reaches a tipping point and there is a complete collapse of the system, with many species dying out too rapidly to be replaced by evolutionary forces. At that point, the environment may be so altered that a similar ecosystem would not arise if given the time and opportunity to recover; grassland might replace a forest, a desert might replace a savannah.
Mankind tends to forget that it is part of the ecosystem, just like every other species on Earth. As our planet loses biodiversity, we are increasing the chances of a worldwide extinction event. There is very little chance that such an event won’t impact on humanity, as the loss of arable land and fresh water, and the effects of environmental degradation, reduce available food sources and general living conditions.
So. What can you do as an individual? Might I suggest that you grow heritage vegetables (and fruits) or try to source them from your local organic grocer. And, as always, try to reduce, recycle, reuse. It can be something as simple as growing heritage tomatoes in a pot on your balcony. That is the beauty of encouraging biodiversity, it accepts that not every tomato is red and perfectly round like an ball.