ALARM: assessing risks to Biodiversity



Rosa Binimelis, Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos, Iliana Monterroso, Walter Pengue, Mariana Walter, Nancy Arizpe, Joan Martinez-Alier (ICTA-UAB)


ALARM is a European integrated research project (2004-2009) in which ICTA-UAB has participated together with about 70 research groups elsewhere in Europe (GOCE-CT-2003-506675,


1.- Introduction


An explicit EU political objective is halting the loss of biodiversity by the year 2010 but we do not know precisely what these words mean, compared for instance to halting the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases. Biodiversity is a complex research domain. Biodiversity is the product of a very long evolutionary process of enormous richness made possible by the incoming energy of the sun. We are now in the sixth great episode of extinction of biodiversity. It is the first one caused by humans. In common with climate change, many humans are now becoming aware of our negative role.


Main driving forces of biodiversity loss are economic growth and (in some regions outside Europe) population growth. Biodiversity is threatened because the human appropriation of the production of biomass is increasing. For instance, there is new pressure on land use from agro-fuels. Some ecosystems are being dramatically reduced in the world, like coral reefs and mangroves, and also the tropical rainforest. There are threats to biodiversity from biological invasions, from chemicals, and certainly from climate change. Economic estimates of the decline of the environmental service of pollination have been produced inside the ALARM project but biodiversity matters beyond economic valuation. Ethics and collective identity are central to biodiversity conservation.


Agricultural biodiversity also disappears, and attempts are made to ensure some ex-situ conservation by freezing seeds in the CGIAR institutions and other cold repositories. The diversity of human cultures also disappears in the process. Think now of the immense gene “bank” in the soil and vegetation, and how utterly futile it would be to attempt to collect it for ex-situ conservation. Scientific research confirms the early warnings given from the 1960s on the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is disappearing before we know what exists in terms of number of species, let alone their genetic wealth. Different ALARM scenarios show that the future might be different depending on economic and policy decisions. ALARM has collected information on the state of biodiversity at the level of species and on the main threats to biodiversity in Europe and to some extent outside Europe. The situation in different parts of Europe is very different. ALARM is a scientific project, and it has provided new facts and interpretations in about 500 scientific papers over the last four years.


The evaluation of biodiversity losses (and knowledge about such losses) should rely not only on scientists but also on other stakeholders that use different languages of valuation. Informal networks outside universities and research institute have a role in monitoring biodiversity loss. Participatory, deliberative tools as aid to decision-making can be applied at different scales. ALARM has applied such tools and has developed some new ones.


ALARM is now collecting policy recommendations for the European Commission and also for the CBD, taking also into account the benefits and costs to biodiversity from the present economic downturn. Moreover, policy recommendations should be addressed to specific actors in public administration, civil society, business, and the media. The policy responses apply not only to the narrow field of conservation biology but also to agriculture, international trade, land planning. Integration of European policies on climate change and chemicals with biodiversity conservation is sorely needed.



2.- Policy relevant findings from ICTA-UAB research in the ALARM project


Research has been done on the socio-economics of bioinvasions and GM agriculture in Spain, Guatemala, Argentina and France between 2004 and 2008






2.1.- The Zebra mussel and Wels catfish invasions in the Ebro river. This case study addressed the divergent public perceptions about aquatic invaders. Under the Water Framework Directive, presence of invasive species in freshwater ecosystems is a pressure to good ecological status. But public consideration about the species is mainly related to their economic effects. Dreissena polymorpha (zebra mussel) causes economic and ecological damages, while Silurus glanis (Wels catfish) is damaging for the ecosystem but its presence is economically profitable. Together with other alien species Silurus glanis has been introduced in the reservoirs of the lower Ebro for angling purposes. The initial discovery of zebra mussel in Catalonia (and Spain) was made in 2001 by a local environmental group. The ALARM team has followed this case since 2004. The research showed that both invasions were interlinked. Thus, the drivers are connected and preventive measures have to address them at once. Key drivers of the case (institutional coordination and water use management) were identified and analyzed through participatory methodologies involving local and regional stakeholders (electrical companies, anglers’ associations, craft owners, irrigation societies, public officers and watershed authorities). This included the development and evaluation of scenarios. One conclusion is that preventive measures should urgently be extended to other river basins in the Iberian Peninsula.


The research by ALARM on the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) invasion in Spain profited very much from the expertise of other members of the consortium outside Spain. This research has been policy relevant. The Agencia Catalana de l'Aigua (Water Catalan Agency) has a strategy on the zebra mussel invasion directly influenced by Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos’ research work at ICTA-UAB for ALARM. The results have also influenced the Spanish Strategy for Zebra Mussel Control, coordinated by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment. The team is collaborating in the creation of the Catalan Program for Invasive Species Control by the Catalan Ministry of the Environment. Articles have been published in Environmental Management (2007) and other journals. A short account of the course of the invasion in Spain for the “Atlas of Biodiversity Risk” is available.





2.2.- The impossible coexistence between GM agriculture and “organic” agriculture.


The ALARM project did not in principle engage research on GMO. However,
we were able to contribute some findings which are extremely relevant for GM agriculture regulation. In an article in the Journal of Environmental and Agricultural Ethics (May 2008), Rosa Binimelis (ICTA-UAB) showed the impossibility of coexistence in practice between "organic" and GM Bt maize production in a large field "experiment": tens of thousands of hectares of GM maize have been sown in Catalonia and Aragon, driving out "organic" farmers. European, national and regional regulations on GM agriculture should take into account such findings. One important issue (common to other cases) is liability (are multinationals like Monsanto liable?). As with the previous case study (zebra mussel), our findings have been reported in the press.




2.3.- Weed resistance to glyphosate in GM soybean cultivation in Argentina

An article accepted in Geoforum (2008) by Rosa Binimelis et al shows that the invasive weed Sorghum halepense has acquired resistance to glyphosate in GM soybeans fields in northern Argentina. The article describes the techniques of non-tillage soybean production, its geographical advance beyond the Pampas, it explains the discovery of the invasion of Sorghum halepense (that now reaches over one hundred thousand hectares). No preventive strategies are deployed against the invasion. The reactive measures are based on “gene-stacking” that allows the use of still more glyphosate or new combinations of herbicides. A new phenomenon called the “transgenic treadmill” is identified.  This study has policy relevance also for the European Union. The EU is a large importer of soybeans from Argentina. European awareness of the local impacts of imported soybeans (as feedstuffs and/or agro-fuels) should not focus only on deforestation. It should take the findings of this study into account.




2.4.- A study of the invasion of Cameraria ohridella in horse chestnuts in Paris was carried out by the ICTA-UAB team, with support from the ALARM team at C3ED (Versailles- St. Quentin). This insect of unknown origin has spread throughout Europe, mining Aesculus hippocastanum leaves, a widely spread ornamental tree in European capital cities.  There are here issues of governance related to the links between national, regional and municipal instances. Despite the existence of specialized regional and international species monitoring organizations, the key alert networks were of informal nature. Management has been top-down: Parisians do not consider themselves and are not considered by the administration as relevant stakeholders. Fortunately, new policies implemented to counter climate change and protect biodiversity that promote the minimization of the use of resources (water, energy, chemicals) may also promote the diversification of urban tree species. This will also benefit the management of bioinvasions such as C. ohridella.




2.5.- Invasion of Hydrilla verticillata in Lake Izabal, Guatemala

Lake Izabal is a body of water connected to the Caribbean Sea, measuring 700 km2. In 2000, local fishermen reported the presence in the lake of an alien species, the macrophyte Hydrilla verticillata. This alien species was established around the entire lakeshore, damaging the ecosystem, and endangering native species and the subsistence of local inhabitants through impacts on transportation, fishing practices, and tourism. An article accepted in the Journal of Environmental Management (2008) describes the analysis carried out by Iliana Monterroso et al (ICTA-UAB and FLACSO) incorporating stakeholders’ views on the invasion process through interviews, workshops, and focus groups. Management scenarios were designed (as in the case of the zebra mussel invasion in Spain) according to available technical data and stakeholders’ perceptions. These scenarios were subjected to Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation (SMCE) employing the NAIADE method that allows use of different quantitative and qualitative criteria (not only money). Social acceptance of different management scenarios, distribution of costs and benefits, and attribution of liability were discussed. The use of Multi-Criteria Evaluation (beyond monetary cost-benefit analysis) is in itself policy-relevant.

Contrary to what might naively be expected, bioinvasions are processes in which there is no common enemy and no common strategy for elimination or mitigation. In fact, multiple perspectives exist, making it necessary to employ different types of information (using quantitative and qualitative indicators). The results demonstrate that different suitable indicators of the effects of the invasion are tied to spatial scales and to different stakeholders’ interests and values. The multi-criteria method used was also able to deal with the uncertainties inherent in the different types of quantitative and qualitative data. In ALARM, the socio-economic module insisted that evaluation could be carried out by participatory deliberative methods. SMCE is one such method. The KerALARM tool (introduced into ALARM by C3ED, Versailles-St Quentin) is another one.



2.6.- Biofuels

A negative view on EU biofuels policy developed in ALARM in the years after the project started (cf. J. Spangenberg, I. Reginster, I. Rousevell, The promises and limits of bioenergy. Biofuels for biofools?, 2008). However, according to SEIT (Estonia) there could be a plausible change of land use towards biofuels in some new member states. In the scientific literature, calculations of the EROI (energy return on energy input) of biofuels (or agrofuels) date from the 1970s and 1980s (Pimentel, Giampietro, Ulgiati). In 1971 H.T. Odum had written that modern agriculture was “farming with petroleum”. Martinez-Alier (1987) calculated the (low) energy efficiency and (large) land requirement of ethanol production as fuel for cars in Brazil. There were then early warnings against agro-fuels. A recent contribution by a member of ICTA- UAB, Daniela Russi, was published in Energy Policy (March 2008). An integrated assessment approach was employed to discuss what a program of large-scale biodiesel production in Italy would mean in social, environmental and economic terms. The advantages in terms of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, energy dependency and urban pollution would be modest. The small benefits would not be enough to offset the huge costs in terms of land requirement: if the target of the European Directive 2003/30/EC were reached (5.75% of the energy used for transport by 2010) the equivalent of about one-third of the Italian agricultural land would be needed. The consequences would be a considerable increase in food imports. Also, since biodiesel must be de-taxed in order to make it competitive with oil-derived diesel, the public deficit would increase. In the end, rural development remains the only sound reason to promote biodiesel, but even for this objective other strategies look more advisable, like supporting organic agriculture. Based on such work, Martinez-Alier (ICTA-UAB) emphasized that agro-fuels have a low EROI, increase the HANPP (human appropriation of net primary production to the detriment of other species), have a large land requirement, and imply trade in "virtual water". He contributed to the opinion in the Scientific Council of the European Environment Agency against the EU misguided policy objective of 5.75% agrofuels in transport energy.


  2.7.- Finally, research by Nancy Arizpe et al on Socio-Ecological Networks of Biodiversity Change was based on a questionnaire applied at the site level in ten countries in the ALARM Field Site Network, identifying impacts on biodiversity driven by economic and policy changes (Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change: Governing Social-Ecological Change).





3.- Conclusions. Our case studies and the ALARM scenarios make clear that certain policies have biodiversity implications. To mention some: water policy, regional and urban development, energy policy, trade, agriculture and the general commitment to economic growth. These policies should define their objectives taking into account that they will eventually become a driving force for biodiversity change and biodiversity loss. Then we need a clear expression of political will on biodiversity protection in each of these policies, though integrated decisions, norms, access to information and resources availability.

A recommendation to policy makers is institutional, sectoral, and regional coordination, an open
dialogue about the implications of management activities at the territorial level and the strengthening of local agency (access to information and the reinforcement of social networks).

Biodiversity protection policies have sometimes technically predefined objectives that do not take into account the various social perspectives. The idea of what an invasion is, or the assessment of the risk from GMO to biosafety, should be object of a
two-way communication. Thus, the public must be informed about the consequences of the introduction of alien species. People are interested in the issue but they also have interests closely related to their immediate livelihoods and to their social values. From the case studies we have evidence that people are willing to be actively involved in different aspects of biodiversity protection (decision making, monitoring, surveillance) but there are not always links between them and the formal schemes.

The ICTA-UAB case studies in ALARM have showed that biodiversity protection will benefit from
public participation, networking, consistent legislations, and resources for the enforcement of such legislations at different scales particularly at those scales close to territorial / landscape management.