What about the whole security aspects of this? Why do the military authorities not understand that the major threats are from environmental and ecological sources? Is it not time for the global military institutions to really start looking at spending their money on addressing these underlying causes that lead to war and social unrest?
It is of course not just the military. The military has perhaps a rather restrained view of the world, since their job is just to do war or protect from war. I think that restrained vision should be changed, at the levels of Governments and Heads of State. We know that environmental security is intrinsically linked with effects that could lead to war. We have been talking about water wars for a long time, but today we are seeing the conflict – even in the negotiations here, where people don't want to agree on a trans-boundary river approach. That's a clear signal that something is wrong. But there are other aspects. We have seen also positive things. I remember less than two years ago we had a summit in Bucharest where nine Heads of State came together and talked about common management of their river basin. All of them said that their interest was regional stability, that was the reason they were doing it. What a nice proof of the fact that natural resource management could lead to more stability and less military intervention!
How serious have the effects of agribusiness and intensive agriculture been on biodiversity in the world, and in Europe, in your view?
Well, intensification of agriculture of course has had a whole variety of disastrous environmental effects, particulary on water use. 70% of the accessible freshwater is used in agriculture for irrigation. That alone tells you the story. And often, freshwater use is actually linked also to the chemical input into agriculture; it's a sign of intensification which often goes along with the use of pesticides and fertilisers. So while we are not saying the world will not need more food production, it is a good question where the future will lie. There are terrible side-effects of pesticide use. For example, there are stockpiles in Africa which are a real danger; there are thousands of tons of redundant chemicals lying around on open ground in Africa, which need to be cleared under the Stockpile Agreement. Other effects of course are the POPs, the persistent organic pollutants that you find anywhere in the Arctic, and Arctic populations are particularly badly affected. So these are some of the trade-offs of agriculture intensification.
How do you feel about the use and testing of genetically modified living organisms?
Well, the truth of the matter is that genetically modified food crops are increasingly being used. There is a very rapid growth of application of some genetically modified food crops already. It has obviously been a concern of conservation organisations like ours that the release of genetically modified organisms could have a negative impact on biodiversity. We have seen certain signs of cross-pollination which can effect biodiversity. And we believe that world-wide, the safeguards have not been put in place, quite contrary to what most people believe. [Note: WWF has since recently been slammed for being a member of RTSS - the Round Table on Sustainable Soy, which enables giant agri-biotech and commodity trade companies to greenwash genetically modified soya as "sustainable" - see The Ecologist: WWF and Monsanto - is GM soy now okay?]
What are the issues that you think are most important for the general public to consider, now that we are going into the 21st century?
OK. If we want to eradicate poverty, through sustainable development, this is interlinked: you cannot do poverty eradication if you're not serious in terms of sustainable development. You need to analyse carefully what limits sustainable development, and in every analysis you will see that macro-economic issues are the source of it! Trade issues, questions of subsidies, market access; all of these factors have a chilling effect on sustainable development. This is the reason why this summit here in Johannesburg was actually called, that we would look to addressing these problems, the limitations for sustainable development. And it is so sad to see that the world government community is unable to do anything about it! And therefore, the prospects for sustainable development, and for poverty alleviation, are very limited.
How do you imagine the world fifty years from now?
Well this is a hard prediction, but we know that fifty years from now, as the WWF Living Planet Report shows, what we call the ecological footprint will be twice as high as what can be regenerated. It will increase tremendously, at current trends of course, in the next 50 years. I think the pressure for the world community to address questions of sustainable development will rise, there is no way around it! Otherwise the suffering will not just be in developing countries, it will also increasingly affect industrialised countries. You cannot just withdraw into national boundaries! Quite ironically, we were accused some years ago of wanting to put humanity back into caves, while in fact we have made contributions to sustainable development. Now you see governments withdrawing into their national caves, as if they could live on islands...
What about changes in the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)? Will they realistically make it easier for a revival of organic farming?
The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is of course a very important one – we have always been on it – and the subsidy structure. Not to say that agriculture in Europe and elsewhere could do without the subsidies, but the redirection of subsidies in the direction of less harmful agricultural practices and furthering organic agriculture could be an important aim. I know, for example, Swiss mountain agriculture very well. There is no way a Swiss mountain peasant could, just from his own products, live from it. They will have to rely on some sort of subsidies, be they called direct payments or whatever. So it's more a question that the objective of these subsidy structures is quite clear. And the potential for organic agriculture is great! I'm seeing it in my own home country, where organic agriculture has become a real market factor.
Finally, just a few words on biodiversity. What is the rate of species loss, and at what point does it become a serious problem for ecological stability?
Species loss is a very difficult measure, simply because we do not know how many species there are on the planet, and because we have very rudimentary data on the actual loss off species currently, despite all the red data books of IUCN. What we know better is the decrease of the natural wealth, as we measure it with the Living Planet Index, which has diminished by about 35% over the last 30 years, and that is a measure of the abundance of all those animal and plant populations for which we have such long-term data. And that's a pretty shocking decrease. It's worst in freshwater ecosystems and in the marine environment.