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Uncovering the benefits of biodiversity

The recently completed `Biodepth' project studied the impact of the loss of biodiversity in grasslands across Europe. This pioneering ecological study showed that as plant diversity shrinks, the land becomes less productive. Biodiversity must be restored and preserved to maint...
The recently completed `Biodepth' project studied the impact of the loss of biodiversity in grasslands across Europe. This pioneering ecological study showed that as plant diversity shrinks, the land becomes less productive. Biodiversity must be restored and preserved to maintain farmland productivity and reduce the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Background

Many animal and plant species are facing increasing threats to their survival. The number and variety of these living resources, Earth's biodiversity, is being drastically reduced by the effects of environmental pollution and habitat destruction. One way to support conservation and help protect plant diversity is to examine what would be lost if various species became extinct.

Research funded by the European Union has recently reported the effects of reducing the number of species and the types of plants in grasslands, which represent about 50% of farmland in the EU. The project has shown that the loss of biodiversity makes grasslands less productive, reducing the amount of dry matter produced. Plant communities with diversity loss may be more susceptible to reduced groundwater quality, weed invasion, and to damage by herbivores and plant pathogens. The three-year project, called Biodepth (Bio-Diversity and Ecological Processes in Terrestrial Herbaceous Ecosystems), was part of the EU's FP4 Environment and Climate Programme.

Description, impact and results

Biodepth simulated the world- and European-wide loss of plant diversity. Small plots (around 500) were created as models of grassland ecosystems. All the existing vegetation was removed, then the plot was reseeded using grasses, legumes and herbs. The number (and type) of plant species was reduced at different sites to represent the gradual loss of biodiversity from grasslands. The plots were monitored and plant productivity, respiration, decomposition and retention of nutrients and water in the soil were measured. By performing the same standardised experiment across Europe Biodepth became the most extensive biodiversity and ecosystem function study in the world.

The project found that the effects of losing biodiversity in European grasslands include decreasing plant productivity, and lower nutrient recycling and retention (with the implication of a reduction in groundwater quality). Declining biodiversity also results in more weeds and pests, and in soil invertebrate population changes, which are crucial for soil chemistry and energy recycling. Such findings have practical implications for the management of all grasslands globally, and provides scientific evidence for the worth of conserving plant biodiversity. Increased biodiversity appears to be linked to possible reduction in the use of fertilisers and pesticides - fertiliser is less necessary in more diverse biosystems which are intrinsically more productive, and pesticides are not so necessary because biodiverse systems seem to have fewer insects.

Working partnerships

Biodepth involved the collaboration of around 50 ecological scientists, from 11 universities in eight European countries. Field experiments were conducted at sites in Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, while the modelling studies were carried out in France.


Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge

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