NEARLY 200 national governments will say next week that they are unlikely to meet a target of slowing the rate of extinctions of living species by 2010, a failure which could threaten future food supplies.
Up to 5,000 delegates and some heads of state, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, will try to agree at the Convention of Biological Diversity in the German city of Bonn on ways to save plant and animal species.
UN experts say that the planet is facing the worst spate of extinction since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago and some say three species vanish every hour as a result, largely, of human activity causing pollution and loss of habitat.
"We hope to give a wake-up call to humanity. We need an unprecedented effort to meet the challenge of biodiversity loss," convention executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf said in an interview.
He said consumption had reached unsustainable levels and humans were destroying the foundation of life. Without a change in behaviour, feeding up to nine billion people would be difficult.
A surge in food prices, driven by booming demand in fast-growing economies such as China, has highlighted the problem and experts say the loss of plant species could be catastrophic for long-term food supplies.
Top of the agenda at the two-week meeting, which opens on on Monday, is an assessment of a UN goal set in 2002 to slow the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Most experts say that this target is nowhere near to being met.
Djoghlaf says the latest data, which show more species are being lost more than in the past, is "frightening".
About two million species are recorded but some experts believe that there could be tens of millions, an unknown statistic that complicates attempts to measure the rate of decline.
"It is a bit like the goal of world peace," said Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim. "Even if we don't achieve it fully, it's important to have a target to strive for."
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel will open the meeting and the political haggling will peak in the last three days of discussion when senior government officials from 191 countries, including Germany, represented by Merkel, will join the conference.
Delegates will try to make progress in talks on the establishment of rules by 2010 on access to genetic resources and sharing their benefits, important for developing countries and pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms keen to tap natural resources.
They will talk about ways to boost and co-ordinate designated "protected areas" to conserve natural habitats.
The convention has a goal to safeguard at least 10 per cent of the world's ecological regions in such areas.
The conservation of oceans, which has lagged behind terrestrial protection efforts, will be an important focus, as will protection for forests.
About 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity is found in tropical forests, yet every minute, 20 hectares (50 acres) of forest disappear, according toexperts.
Participants in the conference will address different ways of tackling "invasive alien species", creatures often inadvertently moved from their own natural habitat by global trade. Such invaders cause environmental damage and cost global economies hundreds of billions of dollars.
"For us, the most important element is to make sure we have the ingredients to give us, as a global community, confidence we are moving in the right direction," said Djoghlaf.