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One potential drug is lost to the world every two years at the current rate of plant extinctions, according to a new analysis of the state of the Earth.

The World Atlas of Biodiversity, launched yesterday (1 August) by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), provides a wealth of such facts and figures on the importance of forests, wetlands, marine and coastal environments and other key ecosystems to human well-being.

The atlas illustrates that fact that over the past 150 years, humans have altered close to half of the global land area. Furthermore, in the next 30 years, biodiversity could be threatened in almost three quarters of the world's land.

"Humankind now diverts about 40 per cent of the Earth's productivity to its own ends, [and] much of this is being carried out in a destructive and unsustainable way," says UNEP's executive director, Klaus Toepfer.

"It is vital that we reverse these unsustainable practices while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the plant's natural capital, its natural wealth."

Biodiversity in South East Asia, the Congo Basin and parts of the Amazon will be particularly badly affected, the Atlas shows. By 2032, almost half of these areas could be converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas, compared to 22 per cent today, suggesting large depletion of biodiversity

Worldwide, it says, 'wilderness areas' are retreating, as roads and cities spread into places like the Amazon basin, the Arctic and deserts.

The value of world's resources to the pharmaceutical industry alone highlights the pressing need for new ways of exploiting plants and animals so that the benefits are shared by all, according to Toepfer.

"We must address the issue of genetic resource sharing by giving developing countries, where the majority of biodiversity remains, an economic incentive to protect wildlife by paying them properly for the plants and animals whose genes get used in new drugs or crop," he says.

The need to conserve biodiversity should be one of the key issues underpinning all decisions taken at this month's World Summit on Sustainable Development, says Toepfer. "You cannot tackle water, energy, health, agriculture, and ultimately poverty without the conservation, wise use and proper distribution of the many benefits arising from the living world."

Click here to view the interactive World Atlas of Biodiversity

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Photo credit: UNEP/Topham

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