youthxchange

address: http://www.youthxchange.net/main/ec12_living-systems.asp
title: LIVING SYSTEMS


courtesy, MÉTA (Ilaria Allegrozzi, Gabon)

goal: understanding the interrelation among all living systems are and its meaning for each of us; appreciating and preserving biodiversity; learning about bio-safety and developing a critical thinking on biotechnologies (for instance, considering both benefits and risks of transgenic crops); raising awareness about high-quality safety information.

risk: slogans such as “Nature is great, humankind is awful” or “We – the humans - cannot stop living (and developing) just to let other species survive!” are widespread. Remind your students that not all human activities harm biodiversity. Some of them can even be positive. Responsible agriculture, for instance, may increase the variety of species, as it happens in the Mediterranean area (nowadays considered a ‘hotspot’, partially because of its agricultural biodiversity).

YXC level: 3rd level (community at large)

YXC materials: respecting our bodies | Thai knowledge | packaging yourself | Salmon Nation | Anti-fur TV spot | 100% endangered species | carrying the torch | Educar forestando | Environment Caretackers | Tribal people rights | clean up your fun | Eden project | pay the right price | Respect the amazon | Certified forests | facts & figures/GENERAL DATA | Eco-footprint | Urbanisation | Tourism | facts & figures/ENVIRONMENT | Hotspots | Sharing the planet | Furs | Natural reserves | Wetlands | Global warming | Extreme weather | facts & figures/BASIC NEEDS | Meat production | Pesticides | facts & figures/OTHER NEEDS | tourism/Environmental impact | dep’t store | Adopt a tree | Responsible tourism | Ecovolunteers | Ab-original tours | Future forests CDs | State of the world 2004 | job opportunities | Bioplaneta | Pesquinas Ecologicas | WWF | Amigos de la naturaleza | Anti-pesticides network | test & play | Preserving wildlife | links | natural resources | Endangered species | Biodiversity

subject areas: Science & tech. | Economics & biz | Health & well-being | Social studies

work planning: Phase 1, testing students knowledge of the issue; Phase 2, intro to the issue; Phase 3, teams work; Phase 4, homework; Phase 5, reporting and sharing information

testing student knowledge (with key questions):

GENERAL QUESTIONS:

bullet What does biodiversity mean? And why do we need to preserve it? bullet What is an ecosystem? Does it remain stable? bullet Do you think all species are necessary? bullet How humans, plants and animals depend on each other? Make some examples. bullet Among all human economic activities, which one in your opinion threatens biodiversity the most? Please, order by importance: a) agriculture, b) industry, c) trade, d) tourism. bullet Among individual behaviours, which one could put biodiversity in danger the most: a) irresponsible shopping (e.g. clothes, cosmetics, medicines, personal care products, etc. made out from endangered species/ecosystems); b) getting around/away (e.g. because of the transport systems’ environmental impact – roads, emissions…; because of involuntary spread of invasive, alien species…); c) over-consumption (e.g. producing millions of hamburgers is land-consuming, requests intensive farming, increase deforestation and emissions…); d) other (specify).

LOCAL IMPACT QUESTIONS:

bullet Observing the environment around you (and/or according to your parents/grandparents’ memories), how much did the nature change in the last 10-20 years? How did it change? Please, choose an answer and complete it with more details: a) it changed a lot: more buildings, cars, people, and fewer trees, green areas, animals…; b) it’s OK: we have even more green areas than in the past, and almost all my neighbourhood have pets…; c) what do you mean with ‘nature’? There is nothing we can call so in my neighbourhood...; d) many people living in my neighbourhood have nice, full of pesticides, gardens. Local retailers don’t sell local produce (they even don’t know if they still exist), and offer only exotic fruits & vegetables coming from far away… e) other (specify). bullet Industry and agriculture: can you list some examples of visible, strong impact on biodiversity in your region? bullet Do you know what ‘alien species’ mean? bullet Did such ‘invaders’ ever constitute a problem in your region? Why?

BIO-SAFETY QUESTIONS:

bullet Do you know what does bio-safety mean? bullet What are the main effects of chemical pollution on ecosystems? For example, how can pesticides modify the area they’re used on? „bullet Have you ever heard about ‘genetic make-up’ or cross fertilisation’? Are these practices recent or have they been use for long time? bullet What do you know about recent developments of biotechnologies? bullet Please, give a definition of transgenic crop. bullet Do you know which kind of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are available on the marketplace? bullet Do they scare you? Please, choose the answer closer to your feelings and explain the reasons: a) yes, b) moderately, c) not at all. bullet Have you already bought any GMO product?

intro to the topic (background): biological diversity - or biodiversity - is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from 3 to 100 million. Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species - for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA-the building blocks of life-determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.

Yet another aspect of biodiversity is the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them. It is the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other and with the rest of the environment that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. Biodiversity provides a large number of goods and services that sustain our lives.

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders agreed on a comprehensive strategy for ‘sustainable development’: meeting our needs while ensuring that we leave a healthy and viable world for future generations. One of the key agreements adopted at Rio was the Convention on Biological Diversity. This pact among the vast majority of the world's governments sets out commitments for maintaining the world's ecological underpinnings as we go about the business of economic development. Over 150 governments signed the document at the Rio conference, and since then more than 175 countries have ratified the agreement.

BIODIVERSITY LOSS

The rich tapestry of life on our planet has been shaped by forces such as changes in the planet's crust, ice ages, fire, and interaction among species. Now, it is increasingly being altered by humans. From the dawn of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago, through the Industrial Revolution of the past three centuries, we have reshaped our landscapes on an ever-larger and lasting scale. We have moved from hacking down trees with stone tools to literally moving mountains to mine the Earth's resources. Old ways of harvesting are being replaced by more intensive technologies, often without controls to prevent over-harvesting. For example, fisheries that have fed communities for centuries have been depleted in a few years by huge, sonar-guided ships using nets big enough to swallow a dozen jumbo jets at a time.

By consuming ever more of nature's resources, we have gained more abundant food and better shelter, sanitation, and health care, but these gains are often accompanied by increasing environmental degradation that may be followed by declines in local economies and the societies they supported. Species have been disappearing at 50-100 times the natural rate, and this is predicted to rise dramatically. For thousands of years we have been developing a vast array of domesticated plants and animals important for food. But this treasure house is shrinking as modern commercial agriculture focuses on relatively few crop varieties. And, about 30% of breeds of the main farm animal species are currently at high risk of extinction.

Forests are home to much of the known terrestrial biodiversity, but about 45% of the Earth's original forests are gone, cleared mostly during the past century. Despite some re-growth, the world's total forests are still shrinking rapidly, particularly in the tropics. Up to 10% of coral reefs - among the richest ecosystems - have been destroyed, and one third of the remainder face collapse over the next 10 to 20 years. Coastal mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for countless species, are also vulnerable, with half already gone.

Global atmospheric changes, such as ozone depletion and climate change, only add to the stress. A thinner ozone layer lets more ultraviolet-B radiation reach the Earth's surface where it damages living tissue. Global warming is already changing habitats and the distribution of species. Scientists warn that even a one-degree increase in the average global temperature, if it comes rapidly, will push many species over the brink. Our food production systems could also be seriously disrupted.

The loss of biodiversity often reduces the productivity of ecosystems, thereby shrinking nature's basket of goods and services, from which we constantly draw. It destabilises ecosystems, and weakens their ability to deal with natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes, and with human-caused stresses, such as pollution and climate change. Already, we are spending huge sums in response to flood and storm damage exacerbated by deforestation; such damage is expected to increase due to global warming.

did you know?

In 2002 UNEP the, United Nations Environment Programme, released a disturbing report, Global Environmental Outlook-3, the third of a series on the state of the global environment (previous reports published are GEO-1 in 1997 and GEO-2000 in 1999). Among the report’s main findings:

  • 12% of birds and fully 1/4 of mammals would disappear from Earth within 30 years if this alarming trend was not reversed;
  • in just 30 years over 1/3 of the natural world has been destroyed, and if current consumption patterns continue in less than 5 decades we will need the equivalent of two earths to support humanity.
THE BIOSAFETY PROTOCOL

Since the domestication of the first crops and farm animals, we have altered their genetic makeup through selective breeding and cross-fertilisation. The results have been greater agricultural productivity and improved human nutrition. In recent years, advances in biotechnology techniques have enabled us to cross the species barrier by transferring genes from one species to another. We now have transgenic plants, such as tomatoes and strawberries that have been modified using a gene from a cold water fish to protect the plants from frost. Some varieties of potato and corn have received genes from a bacterium that enables them to produce their own insecticide, thus reducing the need to spray chemical insecticides. Other plants have been modified to tolerate herbicides sprayed to kill weeds. Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) - often known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - are becoming part of an increasing number of products, including foods and food additives, beverages, drugs, adhesives, and fuels. Agricultural and pharmaceutical LMOs have rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

Biotechnology is being promoted as a better way to grow crops and produce medicines, but it has raised concerns about potential side effects on human health and the environment, including risks to biological diversity. In some countries, genetically altered agricultural products have been sold without much debate, while in others there have been vocal protests against their use, particularly when they are sold without being identified as genetically modified.

In response to these concerns, governments negotiated a subsidiary agreement to the Convention to address the potential risks posed by cross-border trade and accidental releases of LMOs. Adopted in January 2000, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety allows governments to signal whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include LMOs by communicating their decision to the world community via a Biosafety Clearing House, a mechanism set up to facilitate the exchange of information on and experience with LMOs. In addition, commodities that may contain LMOs are to be clearly labelled as such when being exported.

Stricter advanced informed agreement procedures will apply to seeds, live fish, and other LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment. In these cases, the exporter must provide detailed information to each importing country in advance of the first shipment, and the importer must then authorize the shipment. The aim is to ensure that recipient countries have both the opportunity and the capacity to assess risks involving the products of modern biotechnology. The Protocol will enter into force after it has been ratified by 50 governments.

SHARING BENEFITS

An important part of the biodiversity debate involves access to and sharing of the benefits arising out of the commercial and other utilisation of genetic material, such as pharmaceutical products. Most of the world's biodiversity is found in developing countries, which consider it a resource for fuelling their economic and social development. Historically, plant genetic resources were collected for commercial use outside their region of origin or as inputs in plant breeding. Foreign bio-prospectors have searched for natural substances to develop new commercial products, such drugs. Often, the products would be sold and protected by patents or other intellectual property rights, without fair benefits to the source countries.

The treaty recognises national sovereignty over all genetic resources, and provides that access to valuable biological resources be carried out on ‘mutually agreed terms’ and subject to the ‘prior informed consent’ of the country of origin. When a micro-organism, plant, or animal is used for a commercial application, the country from which it came has the right to benefit. Such benefits can include cash, samples of what is collected, the participation or training of national researchers, the transfer of biotechnology equipment and know-how, and shares of any profits from the use of the resources. Work has begun to translate this concept into reality and there are already examples of benefit-sharing arrangements. At least a dozen countries have established controls over access to their genetic resources, and an equal number of nations are developing such controls.

The Convention also recognises the close and traditional dependence of indigenous and local communities on biological resources and the need to ensure that these communities share in the benefits - arising from the use of their traditional knowledge and practices relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Member governments have undertaken ‘to respect, preserve and maintain’ such knowledge and practices, to promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the communities concerned, and to encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from their utilisation.

PROTECTING BIODIVERSITY

Protecting biodiversity is in our self-interest. Biological resources are the pillars upon which we build civilisations. Nature's products support such diverse industries as agriculture, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pulp and paper, horticulture, construction and waste treatment. The loss of biodiversity threatens our food supplies, opportunities for recreation and tourism, and sources of wood, medicines and energy. It also interferes with essential ecological functions.

Our personal health, and the health of our economy and human society, depends on the continuous supply of various ecological services that would be extremely costly or impossible to replace. These natural services are so varied as to be almost infinite. For example, it would be impractical to replace, to any large extent, services such as pest control performed by various creatures feeding on one another, or pollination performed by insects and birds going about their everyday business.

The reduction in biodiversity also hurts us in other ways. Our cultural identity is deeply rooted in our biological environment. Plants and animals are symbols of our world, preserved in flags, sculptures, and other images that define us and our societies. We draw inspiration just from looking at nature's beauty and power. While loss of species has always occurred as a natural phenomenon, the pace of extinction has accelerated dramatically as a result of human activity.

Ecosystems are being fragmented or eliminated, and innumerable species are in decline or already extinct. We are creating the greatest extinction crisis since the natural disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. These extinctions are irreversible and, given our dependence on food crops, medicines and other biological resources, pose a threat to our own well-being. It is reckless if not downright dangerous to keep chipping away at our life support system. It is unethical to drive other forms of life to extinction, and thereby deprive present and future generations of options for their survival and development.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

While governments should play a leadership role, other sectors of society need to be actively involved. After all, it is the choices and actions of billions of individuals that will determine whether or not biodiversity is conserved and used sustainably.

In an era when economics is a dominant force in world affairs, it is more important than ever to have business willingly involved in environmental protection and the sustainable use of nature. Some companies have revenues far greater than those of entire countries, and their influence is immense. Fortunately, a growing number of companies have decided to apply the principles of sustainable development to their operations. For example, a number of forestry companies-often under intense pressure from environmental boycotts-have moved from clear-cutting to less destructive forms of timber harvesting. More and more companies have also found ways to make a profit while reducing their environmental impacts. They view sustainable development as ensuring long-term profitability and increased goodwill from their business partners, employees, and consumers.

Local communities play a key role since they are the true ‘managers’ of the ecosystems in which they live and, thus, have a major impact on them. Many projects have been successfully developed in recent years involving the participation of local communities in the sustainable management of biodiversity, often with the valuable assistance of NGOs and intergovernmental organisations.

Finally, the ultimate decision-maker for biodiversity is the individual citizen. The small choices that individuals make add up to a large impact because it is personal consumption that drives development, which in turn uses and pollutes nature. By carefully choosing the products they buy and the government policies that they support, the general public can begin to steer the world towards sustainable development. Governments, companies, and others have a responsibility to lead and inform the public, but finally it is individual choices, made billions of times a day, that count the most.

providing evidence: you could bring to class local cooking books, novels, old pictures and movies describing meals’ preparation and recipes commonly in use fifty (or more) years ago. Prepare a list of all foods and ingredients named or showed there. Then highlight those which have totally disappeared or become quite rare.

methodological suggestions:
  • gathering information:the class will be divided into 3 teams. THE PAST: the first group will work on your list of ‘lost food ingredients’. Students will interview their grandparents or other older people trying to get additional examples of living things already gone (the research could focus on food - on local basis - or be carried out without restrictions: flowers, trees, wild animals, insects, etc.). TODAY: the second group will be asked to draft a 2-columns document: - on the first column, a list of food & drinks they consume daily (and/or in special occasions); - on the second column, all forms of life needed to produce each food & drink item. THE FUTURE: the third group will work on pieces of news (newspapers, scientific magazines, Internet, etc.) trying to imagine how their diet will change in 10 years time if all threatened species - today still commonly in use in food preparation - will become extinct.
  • reporting: each group prepare a brief document, presenting main findings and conclusions (data analysis and proposals) to the class. Each group could also prepare a few questions to be addressed to the other two teams (the idea is to help data exchange and discussion).
  • comparing and discussing: starting from the questions prepared by the students, you can drive the discussion asking the additional following questions: a) research findings: did the results astonished the students or not at all? In both cases, why? b) Did students raise awareness on the importance to preserve biodiversity? c) Would the extinction of a living organism (among those analysed) change - directly or indirectly - students’ life? d) What would they be ready to do in order to reduce biodiversity loss?
results assessment: the success of this pedagogical module on biodiversity can be measured by the following results:
  • informative goal: students know the importance of preserving biodiversity; they understand how everyday actions can both save and destroy our planet; they got some basic information on GMOs and the related debate on both benefits and risks of biotechnologies;
  • action goal: students identify a local green space or wildlife area. Then they conduct an investigation on biodiversity (richness and losses). Having chosen an ecosystem, they try to design its map, enlisting all forms of life, their interrelations and potential threat. Students then present the map to other schools or to the local authorities.