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Services Provided by Biodiversity

Services provided by biodiversity can be broadly categorised into three areas:

Nutrient cycling: The movement of elements such as nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorous between different forms as they pass through the food chain. The elements cycle between gas forms and compounds which are found in the soil and living organisms. For example the nitrogen cycle; this is heavily reliant on bacteria and involves the formation of nitrates (needed for making proteins which are the functional molecules in all organisms) from atmospheric nitrogen and then the break down of nitrogen compounds to nitrogen gas. The nitrogen cycle is an important part of soil formation and soil fertility.

Primary production: The capturing of energy from the sun by plants and using this to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. This provides food for all other species on the planet. This is part of the carbon cycle which is being unbalanced by the release of carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels.

Maintaining the dynamic balance of nature’s complex systems: Habitats and all their constituent parts play an important role in regulating local and global climate patterns, soil formation, water purification and nutrient cycling and many other regulatory functions which help maintain the planet in a state which is self sustaining. Removing forests can have a dramatic effect on rain fall patterns and temperatures over large areas. Plants also play a key role in the water cycle which helps filter water and remove impurities.

These overarching services provide us with a wide range of Products including:
• Provision of all food
• Pharmaceutical goods
• Building materials
• Fuel: wood, fuel crops, fossil fuels (created from breakdown biologically diverse matter over millions of years)
• Genetic resources for medicines, foods and other products

Some more specific services which we all rely on include:
• Purification of air and water
• Detoxification and decomposition of wastes
• Stabilisation and moderation of the Earth’s climate
• Moderation of floods, droughts and temperature extremes and creation of drainage systems
• Generation and renewal of soil fertility, prevention of soil erosion, nutrient cycling
• Pollination of plants that provide products and services
• Control of pests and diseases
• Capacity to regenerate and recover after damage (both from human and natural causes)

Cultural and Social Services provided by biodiversity include:
• A healthy living environment
• Resources for recreation
• Educational resources
• Aesthetical value
• Spiritual meaning
• Artistic inspiration

Much of the usage of the term ‘biodiversity’ is value laden. Consequently, it is important to recognise that there is rather more to the term than a formal definition in the Convention of Biological Diversity. This should always be borne in mind when interpreting what is being said about biodiversity, particularly now that the term has become a familiar feature of news programmes and papers, and importance is attached to it by environmental groups, political decision-makers, economists and ordinary citizens alike. Many users assume everyone shares the same intuitive definition, but this is not necessarily the case.

To view a presentation on How Biodiversity Benefits People visit the World Conservation Monitoring Centre web site.

Photo credit: J Castner, Spiny Catepillar

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