Science Blog

Behind the Headlines

By LUIGI GUARINO | Director of Science and Programs

John Galsworthy quipped that headlines are generally twice the size of the events they refer to. So such examples of that artform as “Cost of Conserving Global Biodiversity Set at $76 Billion,” much in evidence in the past few days, can always do with careful unpacking. What a group of distinguished conservationists actually said in an article in the journal Science a few days ago, cleverly timed to coincide with the meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (still) taking place in Hyderabad, is that nudging the world’s 1,115 threatened bird species away from imminent danger would cost $875 to $1.23 billion a year, for the next ten years. And that if you want to save other animals too, the bill would be for $3.41 to $4.76 billion a year. Almost as an afterthought, they added that protecting 17% of the Earth’s land surface, also a CBD target, would cost about $76.1 billion a year.

Any way you slice them, those are big numbers, so it was no surprise that many of the headlines were variations on the theme of “Can we afford to save species from extinction?” Well, as the figures imply a ten-fold increase in spending over current levels, the question is justified, though people were quick to point out that they represent not so much a cost as an investment. The services provided by healthy ecosystems run in the trillions of dollars, after all. But since we’re talking headline figures, here’s another investment I’d like to draw to your attention. It’s an investment in the future of your food.

Safeguarding the diversity of the world’s staple food crops is just that. And it has recently been costed too, at about $21 million a year. That – more or less – is what the CGIAR Centres have been paying, year in and year out, to maintain the world’s most comprehensive collections of the hundreds of thousands of different varieties of crops such as wheat, maize, beans and cassava. Varieties that are needed to improve these crops. So that people can eat better and make a better living, while refraining from encroaching on that 17% of the world’s land that the CBD wants set aside.

More or less: that’s been the problem. Some years more, some years less. More years less than more. But no longer. Under a new arrangement between the CGIAR and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, that $21 million is locked in. Guaranteed. Every year. And that cost includes the ultimate safeguard for the collections, which are often called the crown jewels of the international agricultural research system: their duplication at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which may have been out of the headlines of late, but still manages to get people’s attention on occasion. Unlike some other crown jewels that have hit the headlines lately, these ones are now pretty safe. For millions, not billions, of dollars. Not for a ten-fold increase in funding. And forever. No headlines in that, though, for some reason, not even half the size of the event. Not even on World Food Day.

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