New WRI Report Shows Striking Declines in World's Grasslands

Dec 11, 2000, 00:00 ET from World Resources Institute

    WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- A report released today by the World
 Resources Institute (WRI) warns that the world's grasslands have declined in
 their extent and condition, as well as their ability to support human, plant,
 and animal life.
     Grasslands cover 40 percent of the world's land surface. These ecosystems
 provide livelihoods for nearly 800 million people, along with forage for
 livestock, wildlife habitat, carbon and water storage, renewable energy,
 recreation, and tourism.
    "Grasslands and other ecosystems are the productive engines of the planet,"
 said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute (WRI),
 commenting on the report, Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE):
 Grassland Ecosystems. "Grassland ecosystems remain the primary source of
 genetic material for improving our food crops and an increasing number of
 pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, measures scientists used to assess the health
 of grasslands tell us that we are drawing on them more than ever and degrading
 them at a rapid pace."
     The decline of the world's grasslands is due mainly to human-induced
 modifications. These include agriculture, urbanization, excessive fire,
 livestock grazing, fragmentation, and invasive plants and animals.
     Changes in grasslands have been brought about primarily by conversion of
 these ecosystems to agriculture, and more recently, the growth of towns and
 cities. This is especially true in central United States, Canada, and Europe.
     North American prairies have declined by an average of 79 percent over the
 past century. The greatest declines are in the tall grass prairies, including
 those in the Canadian province of Manitoba, and the U.S. states of Illinois,
 Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
     "Grasslands have been a gold mine of grains for food," said Robin White,
 one of the report's three authors. "They are the original source of the
 world's major cereal crops like rice, wheat, barley, rye, and millet."
    Grasslands include the savannas of Africa, the steppes of Central Asia, the
 prairies of North America, and the llanos and cerrados of South America. The
 largest stretches of grasslands are found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The
 five countries with the largest areas of grasslands are Australia, Russia,
 China, the United States and Canada -- each supporting over 3 million square
 kilometers of grasslands.
     "We need to value grasslands not only for the goods they produce, like
 cereals and grains, but also for the services they provide, like wildlife
 habitat," said White. She also cited tourism in many African countries, which
 are highly dependent on grasslands. A study concluded that 90 percent of the
 tourists who visit Kenya go on safari in its savannas. In South Africa,
 tourism generated as much as $1.9 billion in the mid-1990s.
     The PAGE report on grassland ecosystems ( is
 the second in a series of five technical reports. Future reports will cover
 agroecosystems, coastal areas, and forests. A report on freshwater systems was
 released last month. Taken together, these reports are the first such
 comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's ecosystems.
     The PAGE reports set the stage for the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment
 (MEA) that will be launched next year by WRI, the United Nations, the World
 Bank, governments, and non-governmental organizations. The MEA is expected to
 fill in the data gaps identified by the PAGE reports through the participation
 of hundreds of the world's leading scientists who will be mobilized for this
 $20 million, four-year effort.
     "If concluded successfully, the MEA will generate new information, develop
 methodological tools, change public policies, and increase public
 understanding of the world we live in," said Jonathan Lash.

SOURCE World Resources Institute