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Biodiversity Strategy

FOR the biodiversity treaty, it's not just a new year. It's a new epoch.

The treaty went into force Dec. 29, 90 days after Mongolia supplied the critical 30th ratification. Six other nations have since ratified it. Now the treaty is international law for the ratifiers. As more of the 167 signers - including the United States - follow suit, the imperatives of that law will permeate the world.

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That's the easy part. The challenge lies in translating treaty provisions into effective national and local laws, regulations, and general practices. In the US, for example, this will add a new element to such politically charged issues as clean air and water legislation, wetlands preservation, endangered-species law, or forestry regulation.

Yet there is more to preserving biological diversity than saving rain forests or spotted owls. It gradually is becoming clear that Earth's rich mix of organisms is essential to the planet's livability. The roughly 1.5 million species that scientists have described probably constitute only 20 percent or less of the vast range of species on Earth. Many of these are microbes and insects whose unknown activities contribute to the welfare of all earthly life.

The Imperial College's Ecotron facility near London provides a small example. It can simulate several small ecosystems simultaneously. A recent experiment showed that the richer the species diversity in the sample environments, the healthier were the soil chemistry, water retention, and decomposition in recycling organic matter. Also the richer the biodiversity, the more carbon dioxide the environment took up from the air - a hint for global warming researchers. Species were represented by soil organisms, plants, herbivores, and insects. The results suggest that the interplay between the species depends on having a rich variety for its effectiveness.

Biodiversity advocates often cite the contributions to agriculture or medicine made by newly discovered plant or animal species. They have a point. But the larger reason for preserving biodiversity is the simple fact that Earth's biosphere - of which humans are a part - needs that diversity. We have scarcely begun to understand what this involves.

As they take measures to fulfill their treaty obligations, the ratifiers of the biodiversity pact should have the humility to recognize that what they do today may turn out to be inadequate, even unwise, tomorrow. The wisest action of all would be to couple regulation with support for a vigorous world research program to better understand what biodiversity is all about.