It's become axiomatic to state that the future of life on earth is directly linked to maintaining a healthy diversity of plants, animals, and other species. But what about the future of business? How directly, and how severely, does it suffer when our planet's biodiversity erodes?
For companies in the forestry, mining, energy, fishing, or other sectors linked directly with natural resources -- or tourism, which relies in part on nature's bounty to attract customers -- the links between biodiversity and business success are pretty clear. But what about others: manufacturers, retailers, and other purveyors of products and services? Where, and how, does biodiversity impact their bottom lines?
Not long ago, such questions were largely academic. But no longer. Biodiversity is entering the corporate mainstream through a variety of organizations and initiatives. And companies are finding that, at minimum, they must understand the topic, if not take direct action.
The evidence of mounting loss of species continues unabated. Just last week, researchers reported that unless the destruction of tropical rainforest on private land is curtailed, about 40 percent of the Amazonian forest will be lost by 2050. The study was published in the journal Nature.
A new guidebook on the topic could help companies do their part to reduce this devastation. "Biodiversity is a fundamental component of long-term business survival," says A Guide to Biodiversity for the Private Sector, released last week by the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. It continues:
Businesses rely on genes, species, and ecosystem services as critical inputs into their production processes and depend on healthy ecosystems to treat and dissipate waste, maintain soil and water quality and help control the air composition. For example, agribusiness relies on the diversity of wild relatives of major food crops, as a resource to ensure crop resistance to disease and pests.
At the same time, business and industry can have major negative impacts on biodiversity resources. Yet, while the private sector is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution. The resources and influence of the private sector offer important opportunities for innovative and effective contributions to conservation.
The business case for biodiversity begins with the understanding that all companies ultimately depend on the availability of natural resources -- whether they use raw materials directly or rely on the availability of products manufactured from those materials. Biodiversity also ensures the annual delivery of an estimated $33 trillion worth of nature's "free" services upon which many businesses depend: microbes that decompose solid wastes and maintain soil fertility and health; insects that pollinate plants used for food, fiber, and fuel; organisms that control pests and diseases that reduce resource availability; ecosystems that moderate the effects of floods and drought; and on and on. Biodiversity also plays an important role in stabilizing the earth's climate and reducing the impacts of climate change -- which can affect the operation of companies of all sizes and sectors.
In some cases, normal business operations can harm biodiversity, such as by inadvertently polluting their habitat, or during droughts, when business water usage draws down water tables, taxing local habitats and species.
In other cases, biodiversity loss results from more overt actions. For example, the quest to commercialize plant genes by transnational companies and national governments is destroying a wealth of genetic resources and livelihoods across the Asia-Pacific region, threatening those in the region who rely on plants -- such as turmeric and basmati rice, and trees, such as the neem of India and the mamala of Samoa -- for food and medicine.
The IFC guide offers a wealth of practical knowledge for companies on addressing such issues, including understanding biodiversity, developing an effective biodiversity strategy, and managing the risks from biodiversity issues. The guide also offers sector-specific biodiversity management information for ten industry sectors, from mining to tourism.
This isn't the only resource on the topic -- others include Business and Biodiversity; Case Studies in Business and Biodiversity; Commercial Use of Biodiversity: Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing; and Putting a Bit Back: A Guide to Nature Conservation for Small to Medium-sized Enterprises -- but it's one of the better ones.
The field of hands-on knowledge on business biodiversity practices is just beginning to unfold, but is destined to grow in lockstep with concern about the future of biodiversity "hotspots" -- areas in which there is a disproportionate number of endemic species and which are losing habitat at a high rate -- whether halfway around the world or in companies' own backyards.