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[GALWAY] The continued loss of biological diversity threatens human health as well as the survival of wild species, delegates at an international conference heard yesterday (23 August).

If species continue to decline in number at the present rate, pharmaceutical companies will find it harder to develop new drugs and agriculture will lose an irreplaceable source of potential new crops.

This warning came from Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, United States.

He was speaking at the COHAB 2005 conference of scientists and government officials, who were meeting in Galway, Ireland, to discuss how the loss of biodiversity could affect people's health.

"We are incredibly lucky to be alive right now … because we have been tampering with the Earth's life support systems in ways we do not understand," said Chivian. "Do not underestimate me when I say that we are in deep, deep trouble."

Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) secretariat, echoed this message. He said that with species becoming extinct at up to 1,000-times the natural rate, humankind is cutting off a lifeline to its future.

About 80 per cent of people in developing countries rely on traditional plant-based medicines for basic healthcare, and three-quarters of the world's top-selling prescription drugs include ingredients derived from plant extracts, he noted.

Zedan announced that the CBD secretariat has teamed up with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in Italy to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity among agricultural researchers and nutritionists.

IPGRI's director-general Emile Frison told SciDev.Net that the partnership will include a major research initiative exploring links between biodiversity and nutrition.

"We don't have much hard data on developing countries. There are big gaps in our knowledge," he said. "For example, we need to know the precise benefits to people in the developing world of what is called dietary diversity."

Studies in Europe and the United States, he said, show that people who eat a wide range of foods live longer and have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

The conference was sponsored by corporations, conservation groups and the biodiversity divisions of UN agencies. They include the World Conservation Union, Glaxo SmithKline, the UN Global Environment Facility, the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organization.

One of their collective aims is to influence a meeting of world leaders that will take place next month in New York City, United States. The meeting will track progress and commit new funds towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight targets intended to halve world poverty by 2015.

One goal is to ensure environmental sustainability, but slowing down the rate of biodiversity loss is not mentioned explicitly — which has upset many conservationists.

Many of the conference delegates reiterated concerns that some of the measures being suggested to meet MDG poverty targets (such as building more roads and expanding agriculture) could accelerate biodiversity loss (see Protecting biodiversity 'may clash with pursuit of MDGs').

"Environmental sustainability cannot happen in isolation to other sectors of society," Zedan said. "We need a much more holistic approach."