Europe Threatened by Exotic Plants and Squirrels

An article in last Friday’s edition of the French daily Le Monde provides an illustration of the disturbing extremes to which environmentalist discourse can go in Europe nowadays. Entitled “More than 10,000 Exotic Species Imperil European Biodiversity,” the article begins: “The invaders are among us. It is a story that seems like a science fiction film, but it is happening in Europe, under the worried eye of scientists who have long observed the wave of invasions, but had not imagined that it could take on such dimensions.” The “invaders” in question? Some 10,670 “alien” plant and animal species. The article cites the findings of an EU-sponsored research program titled “Delivering Alien Invasive Species Inventories for Europe” — or “DAISIE” for short — as well as the dire warning of Ladislav Miko of the European Commission’s environmental directorate, who repeats the title’s contention that the non-indigenous species represent a threat to “biodiversity.”

Now, it is already somewhat odd to suppose that the introduction of new plant and animal species into Europe should constitute a threat to biodiversity rather than precisely an enrichment thereof. One could imagine that at worst the overall effect would be neutral: with better adapted species prospering and less adapted ones prospering less, as usual. But what is odder still is that when one inspects the examples given, they turn out to have virtually nothing to do with biodiversity in any case. The one exception is the “zebra mussel,” which is said — in notably vague terms — to be eliminating “all or part” of the fauna in Spain’s Ebro delta that “comes in its path.” All the other examples concern non-native species that are alleged to be noxious for other reasons: apparently unlike the indigenous flora and fauna, which it would seem are without exception entirely benign both to one another and to humans.

Thus, the giant hogwood plant is cited for the skin irritations it causes; the jellyfish rhopilema nomadica — which “probably came from Asia in the ballast water of ships” — for disturbing beachgoers; and even “charming gray squirrels from North America” are identified as the “enemy number one of forestry enterprises” in Great Britain and Italy. While the gray squirrel and its accomplices are the immediate targets of European concern, the ultimate culprit, Le Monde says, is economic “globalization”: the “principal vector of the proliferation of the invasive species.”

In related news, last Friday French Minister of Research Valérie Pécresse visited a French agronomy lab in Orléans that is raising genetically-modified poplars. The visit was meant to demonstrate her support for research into genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). It came just one week after the French government took steps to prohibit the cultivation in France of the genetically-modified corn strain MON 810, which is produced by the American biotech firm Monsanto. (See the related WPR report here.) Pécresse emphasized the potential ecological benefits of the poplars, which, according to a report in Le Monde, are being developed in order to enable the production of “less polluting” pulp for paper manufacture. “It makes no sense to speak of GMOs in general,” she said, “These poplars . . . have nothing in common with other genetically modified plants.” MON 810, which contains an insect-resistant gene, is designed to reduce farmers’ dependence upon chemical pesticides.