Interview with Yvon Le Maho

21 September 2018

On 3 October in Strasbourg, as part of ‘European hamster week’, ecophysiologist, Emeritus Research Director at the Hubert Curien Multi-disciplinary Institute/French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS)/University of Strasbourg and member of the French Academy of Sciences, Yvon Le Maho will be leading a conference on the major implications of biodiversity. He explains why we should all be concerned.

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Yvon Le Maho, Ecophysiologiste Directeur de recherche émérite à l’Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien/ CNRS/ Université de Strasbourg, Membre de l’Académie des Sciences

Yvon Le Maho, ecophysiologist, Emeritus Research Director at the Hubert Curien Multi-disciplinary Institute/CNRS/University of Strasbourg and member of the French Academy of Sciences

What is biodiversity and why is it so important to conserve it?

Biodiversity is not just about a collection of different species, but rather the whole of their interactions. When in equilibrium, the benefits that this provides are not always so obvious. It is when biodiversity comes into trouble that we are able to understand the role played by a particular component of the ecosystem. For example, unfortunately it took repeated flooding for us to realise that wetlands are not the insalubrious areas we thought they were, but rather act as a buffer zone during heavy rainfall, and that their disappearance will have serious consequences.

Biodiversity serves us in so many ways. Agricultural produce relies heavily on the microbial diversity of soil, on the resistance of crop varieties to pests and weather hazards, and on healthy populations of pollinating insects. Fisheries rely on the stability of aquatic ecosystems. A supply of clean, safe water largely depends on biodiversity, on the capacity of the cultivated soil and the surrounding areas to contain pollution and on the functioning of the microbial ecosystems that constitute our wastewater treatment systems, not to mention the slew of regulations in place too. In the same way that wetlands provide a shield from flooding, forest cover protects against erosion, and vegetation helps to cool overheated urban areas. Last but not least, diversified ecosystems can alleviate the effects of climate change, as they are more resilient to rising temperatures and extreme events. Biodiversity can therefore offer protection against the unforeseen (and often underestimated) effects of climate change. Biodiversity is also a major source for biomedical innovation: 70% of pharmaceutical drugs are based on a plant molecule.

As we wrote in a recent opinion column in the newspaper ‘Le Monde’, a decrease in biodiversity will affect everyone, because biodiversity is not just a stamp collection, it is the very fabric of life that we are all a part of!

Should we be protecting endangered species, and if so, what is the most effective way?

Ever since they first formed, human societies have been exploiting and modifying their physical and biological environment in a variety of different ways. Recent damage to biodiversity comes largely as the result of direct impact from human activities, like farming, which leads to the destruction, modification and fragmentation of habitats, as well as deforestation and urbanisation, the over-exploitation of species on land and sea, and the proliferation of invasive species. For decades now we have seen numerous species succumb to extinction. In the Alsace region in France, for example, the fact that the European hamster is on the brink of extinction is an indication of the quality of the environment. Releasing individual hamsters into the wild will be of no use if the habitat is not suitable. Most importantly, their habitat needs to be restored, as dwindling numbers of this type of species, known as sentinel or umbrella species, alerts us to the fact that an entire ecosystem is in danger of disappearing.

These imbalances also impact on human activity. A decrease in biodiversity in fields is an indication of poor soil quality; perhaps the price to pay for this should be put in figures to help increase awareness of this issue in the farming industry. As regards silviculture, forest revenues have dropped by approximately 20% in the Alsace region. One explanation for this is the deer population, which is too high, preventing the natural regeneration of the forest. All the top predators have been wiped out!

Biodiversity is a complex, fragile system; we need to continue to carry out research to improve our understanding of how it works and how to conserve it more effectively. I may sound like a scaremonger, but it has to be said, conserving biodiversity means conserving humanity. We should all be concerned.

Conference: ‘Conserving biodiversity: a major concern for Alsace’
3 October at 6:30 pm
National and University Library Auditorium, Strasbourg
The conference is free but places are limited

Further reading:

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