Invasive species – so what is the cost?

PCA members deal with invasive species every day and we all take for granted the value and importance of the work we do. But sometimes it is worth looking up to remind ourselves how what we do fits in to the bigger picture – a very big picture indeed!

Invasive Species: Big numbers – Big problem!

We live in a time when big numbers are an everyday thing. The pandemic has resulted in an extra few hundred billion pounds of lending by the Government to see us through. The budgets for large scientific projects like the Hadron collider or the Mars Perseverance mission are also measured in billions but are chicken-feed compared to HS2, currently forecast at £85 billion but expected to exceed £100 billion.

But what would you think if I told you that invasive species impacts around the world have cost $1.3 trillion since 1970, as reported in Nature this week – that’s $1,300 billion, which is a very, very big number indeed! I don’t know how to equate that to Blue whales or London buses but that’s enough loot to pay a EuroMillions jackpot of $100m every day for the next 36 years!

The impact of invasive species is getting worse

But hold the front page. One benefit of the pandemic is that we have all become armchair statisticians and we know that numbers need to be ‘unpacked’ in order to understand what they actually mean.

Firstly, the figure comes from a well-respected group of scientists and is based on sound data mostly in the public domain. It is based on invasive species ranging from fungal pathogens, to insects and other animals and, of particular interest to us, plants. Without getting in to too much detail the costs are typically associated with direct impacts on human populations; death rates and general health impacts from diseases and famines, loss of productivity (mainly agricultural) and the cost of treatment or changing land use practices.

But they also put a value on wider environmental impacts such as reduced biodiversity and consequential Natural Resource Crises (e.g. flooding) – one way or another the impact of invasive species is never good, usually very bad indeed and it’s getting worse.

Unpacking the headline number more, we see that the trend in costs is increasing. The average cost per annum over 47 years is calculated at about $28 billion but looking at the most recent decades it seems the running rate is closer to $100 billion every single year. So, three times higher now than the 47-year average. We are losing the fight and this is when the data starts to tell a story which should make all politicians sit up and listen…

Invasive species: A threat to the natural environment

This report has not appeared out of a vacuum but is just the latest in a string of reports highlighting past and potential future ecological (and subsequent economic) crises. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 16th edition, even in the face of the current pandemic, acknowledged the importance and impact of invasive species in the longer term:

“In the 5-10 year horizon, environmental risks such as biodiversity loss, natural resource crises and climate action failure dominate….”

Closer to home we also saw plenty of big numbers in the recent Commons Environmental Audit Committee Report Invasive Species

“Invasive non-native species are one of the top five threats to the natural environment. They cost the economy £1.8 billion per year…..”

The Committee recommended that Government, whilst responding already, needs to do more to deal with the continuing threats posed.

Managing non-native invasive species is vital

So, does this help? We are not focused here on Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam (although both got a special mention in the above Commons report) but these ‘big numbers’ should act as a reminder that what we do, managing non-native invasive species, is important and valuable not just to individual homeowners but to the wider environment. One more stand of Japanese knotweed that we stop spreading, or remove altogether, is a small but significant battle ‘win’ in the war against all invasive plants, animals and microbes and it does no harm at all to remind ourselves of this fact.

Indeed, we responded to Defra recently regarding their proposals on future research on the impact particularly of Japanese knotweed and emphasised the fact that whilst the economic driver for knotweed control is often preventing property damage, every single successful knotweed management plan leads to small incremental gains to the environment too. Then you add in the jobs dealing with Himalayan balsam and Giant Hogweed etc., the activities of the PCA and its members represents a significant UK fight-back against invasive species and we hope in some small way, a ‘push-back’ on a global scale too.

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