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Pan-European research finds that biodiversity yields dividends

Decreasing biodiversity in European grasslands will make them less productive, reducing the amount of energy available to the rest of the food chain and threatening the overall health of the ecosystem, a research project funded by the EU's Environment and Climate programme (19...
Decreasing biodiversity in European grasslands will make them less productive, reducing the amount of energy available to the rest of the food chain and threatening the overall health of the ecosystem, a research project funded by the EU's Environment and Climate programme (1994-98) has shown.

The research team, from eight European countries and led by Professor John Lawton from the NERC Centre for Population Biology at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, in London, recently announced their results in a paper published in the journal 'Science'. These should send a clear message to EU policy makers, they say, that preserving and restoring biodiversity is beneficial to maintaining grassland productivity - particularly if reductions in fertiliser and pesticide usage are to be achieved.

About half - 60 million hectares - of Europe's farmland is grassland, which is used as grazing pastures, hay meadows and as set-aside land.

'Loss of species is playing a key role in the gradual erosion of the quality of our environment. In addition to moral and aesthetic reasons to conserve biodiversity, our results now provide strong scientific reasons too', says Dr Andy Hector of Imperial College, a member of the research team. 'These results provide the type of general ecological principles needed for European conservation and agricultural policies', he said.

The results of the project - named BIODEPTH - show that plant communities grow better in species rich teams, and that their productivity decreases when diversity declines. Harvest yields were found to increase when there was a range of plants with different characteristics growing together and a similar pattern was also seen across a broad range of European grasslands. This makes the findings applicable on a continental scale.

This represents the latest development in the scientific debate about how loss of biodiversity affects the way in which ecosystems function. The BIODEPTH evidence provides a vital contribution to the debate by demonstrating that both numbers of species and the 'types' of plant play important roles in ecosystems.

Source: European Commission, Research Directorate-General

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