Eight TED talks about the environment

In 2013 we brought you our six favourite TEDx talks about food security, which we followed with 9 more in 2014. This time, to celebrate World Environment Day on June 5th we bring you some of our favourite TED talks about climate change, biodiversity and the environment. We’d love for you to share your favourites and to hear your thoughts about our list on twitter using #TEDenvironment and our handle, @Ag4Impact

 

  1. Jonathan Drori: Why we’re storing billions of seeds highlights the importance of biodiversity for supporting life, and looks into the Millennium Seed bank where billions of seeds, including non-food plants, are being stored for posterity.

 

 

2. Cary Fowler: One seed at a time, protecting the future of food takes this idea further, by looking at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that stores millions of specifically food-crop seeds. Cary describes biodiversity is the ‘raw material’ of agriculture and highlights the importance of storing these seeds for “whatever tomorrow may bring”

 

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Three reasons to protect agricultural biodiversity

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

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Durum wheat variety, Ethiopia. Credit: Bioversity International

Even though new species are being discovered every day, one in five plants are threatened with extinction, according to the first annual State of the world’s plants, 2016 published by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in May 2016. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the largest threats facing these endangered plant species are the conversion of land for agriculture and biological resource use – the deliberate or unintentional consumption of a ‘wild’ species. Indeed, agriculture has been identified as the main threat to 85% of all threatened species, plant and animal, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. For example, the growth of palm oil plantations has led to significant losses of natural forests and peatlands, with accompanying impacts on biodiversity.

Agricultural biodiversity, defined by Bioversity International as “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture,” is facing serious decline. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) some 75% of genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s. There are several causes of this loss of diversity, but the main reasons are ease of production and changes in consumer expectations and preferences, leading to an ever greater uniformity in the end product. If the produce is what people want to buy and it’s easy to produce why should it matter if there is less biodiversity? Here are three, of many, reasons why it is of paramount importance:

  1. Genetic diversity is important for an uncertain future
varieties of quinoa credit FAOALC

Several different varieties of quinoa grown in Peru. Credit, FAO

Genetic diversity in agricultural systems may be lost if species go extinct or different varieties of a species fall out of favour. If this happens, genes that are important for resistance to pests or diseases, confer tolerance to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, or make the crop nutritious, may be lost. Even if these traits are not evident or useful now, the advantage they confer may be valuable for future generations, and may be difficult or impossible to recreate once they are gone. Indeed, work by Bioversity International highlights how the wild relatives of cultivated crops are already becoming increasingly important in the search for traits that farmers can use to improve domesticated varieties through crossbreeding. [Read more…]

Ecological Intensification: More food and a healthier environment.

By Alice Marks

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

It is no secret that natural resources such as water, nutrients, land and also biodiversity, are increasingly threatened by the changing climate and inefficient farming practices. Farmers often rely on these resources in order to produce food, so it is worrying to see them routinely diminished. Agriculture requires that natural ecosystems are modified and manipulated to better produce food, creating agroecosystems. However, the development of agroecosystems does not need to come at the cost of the environment. All people rely on natural resources, but these risk being damaged and depleted if current agricultural methods continue to be used. In order to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, food systems must be re-imagined to incorporate more sustainable practices

Methods of producing food need to be more efficient and less environmentally costly. Ecological intensification aims to help agriculture become more sustainable by both using and protecting natural resources intensively but efficiently, in order that environmental impacts are minimised. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can greater transparency help people hold big corporations to account? Some new tools that may help, From Poverty to Power

S&T Committee Urges Change to EU Rules for GM Crops, ISAAA

New Project Announced – Global Food Security by the Numbers, Global Food for Thought

Public procurement in Africa benefitting family farmers and schools, FAO

Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture, Union of Concerned Scientists

Biodiversity or GMOs: Will The Future of Nutrition Be in Women’s Hands or Under Corporate Control?, Institute of Science in Society

Will Food Sovereignty Starve the Poor and Punish the Planet?, Independent Science News

Limits Sought on GMO Corn as Pest Resistance Grows, The Wall Street Journal

Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil, The New York Times [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can alternative economic indicators ever be any good if they are devised solely by experts?, From Poverty to Power

Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil, The New York Times

Seeds of Doubt, The New Yorker

Off the shelf: are people finally turning away from supermarkets?, The Guardian

Cultivating a Neglected Field, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Plants may use language to communicate with each other, Virginia Tech researcher finds, Virginia Tech News

Scraping the Seafloor for Fish Harms Biodiversity, Scientific American

Infographic: 9 plant diseases that threaten your favorite foods–and how GM can help, Genetic Literacy Project

Promoting Developmental Research: A Challenge for African Universities, Journal of Learning for Development

Uncovered, the mystery of exchanging genes with wild relatives, John Innes Centre [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Progress Reported in Global Food and Nutrition Security, but DuPont Committee Notes Significant Challenges Lie Ahead, PR Web

Commentary – Sustainable intensification: a single solution for a double challenge, Global Food for Thought

The First GMO Field Tests, Modern Farmer

An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food, The New York Times

Report highlights growing role of fish in feeding the world, FAO

Report Urges U.S. Commitment to Addressing Impact of Climate Change on Global Food Security, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Gmo myths and truths report, Earth Open Source

The food system we choose affects biodiversity: do we want monocultures?, The Guardian

Who Wants to Farm? Hardly any young people, it seems. Should/Could that change?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

14 pointers toward a better food system: Connecting the (local, sustainable) dots, Grist [Read more…]

True cost accounting in food and farming: stories, smallholders and virtuous circles

True-Cost_Option2-1389x500_(1)1On the 6th December the Sustainable Food Trust held a conference entitled True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming at the Royal Geographical Society following a two day workshop on the same topic. Central to the conference was the understanding that if food systems are to become truly sustainable, the actual (environmental and social) cost of producing food must be reflected in retail prices. Food producers, suppliers and retailers need to be financially accountable for the impacts of production on environmental and public health.

The challenges we face

The event began with a story, starting 60 years ago when the need for cheap food drove agricultural development, disconnecting people from the origin of our food and creating an industry where small family farms could not compete. Despite the good intentions to end world hunger and make food accessible to all, the environmental and public health costs were considered too late (if at all). A small group of people (environmentalists and animal welfare lobbyists among them) advocated the need to consider the wider impacts of our food systems, a plea that is ongoing but largely ignored even today. As Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust and storyteller, explained, the conference, the largest international gathering on the subject of true cost accounting, aimed to be the beginning of a process of moving true cost accounting beyond rhetoric, objection and protest to one of real action.

Kicking off the event was a video message from HRH Prince Charles who began by stating that the biggest challenge the world faces today is producing enough food without doing irreparable damage to the environment and human health, a challenge made much harder by the likely impacts of climate change. He emphasised the need for the polluter to pay despite the financial odds being stacked against this objective. A burning question is whether the polluter pays principle will affect businesses and their ability to turn a profit or instead drive innovation, as in the case of the Land Fill Tax, which created new jobs and instigated greater recycling efforts. We need to understand better how food producers can make a profit whilst also moving to a more agroecological approach. He ended by expressing his hope that the outcome of the conference and workshops would be the commission of a study to find out if it is more profitable to farm by putting nature at the centre of food producing operations. The heart of the problem we face is the “economic invisibility of nature” and in realising that the ultimate source of economic capital is natural capital and not the other way around. We will only inflict conflict and misery if we continue farming based on increasingly weakened ecosystems.

Professor Jules Pretty, University of Essex, explained how our understanding of the negative externalities that the modern agricultural and green revolutions have caused began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which documented bird losses occurring due to seed treatments. In 1992 Prof. Pretty and Gordon Conway wrote Unwelcome Harvest, which documented the wider impacts of food production but was still only part of the picture. In 1998, a team at the University of Essex published a paper that showed the total cost of agriculture in the UK to the environment to be £2.4 billion per year, in part from the contamination of water by pesticides, soil erosion, organic carbon losses and greenhouse gas emissions. This figure showed that the environmental costs alone of our agricultural systems were higher than net farm income. While similar studies were published in other countries, the outputs were criticised for ignoring the positive externalities of agriculture i.e. its contribution to the environment and human health. In 2005, Prof. Pretty and another of the day’s speakers, Prof. Tim Lang, City University London, recalculated the externalities of agriculture, expanding the boundaries from farm to fork, resulting in a lower figure. The most surprising result was that the environmental burden arising from food miles was greater than the environmental cost on farm, and most significant of all was the minimal impact of importing food and transporting it around the country compared to household shopping trips.

Prof. Pretty then went on to discuss our current farming systems, divided into three and represented by a glass of water. The first, almost filled to the brim with water, represented an industrial system, very productive but with lots of spillover effects. The second, half full, showed moderately productive systems trading some of the productivity of intensive systems for a lower impact on the environment. The third glass, with only a small amount of water, represented the 2.4 billion producers in the world who have yields of ½ to 1 tonne per hectare (compared to the UK average yields of 8t/ha). The latter could, theoretically, more than double yields with little environmental impact with the right agroecological techniques and farmer engagement. While some argue that feeding the world is more a matter of better distribution and reducing food waste, Prof. Pretty believes we need to focus on increasing the food production of these 2.4 billion farmers, many of whom are poor, on their own farms. But we need to increase production in the right way.

In 1997, Prof. Pretty coined the term sustainable intensification to highlight the fact that we need to do more and better on existing agricultural land. The term doesn’t imply that one system or technology is better than another, instead it is about getting the best outcomes for a range of objectives. There are a pantheon of options, for example, no till farming, push-pull pest control, precision farming to name a few and the right choice will depend on the agroecological circumstances. In 2009, Reaping the Benefits, a report by the Royal Society concluded that the need to increase food production by 70% to 2050 would have to come from existing land and that we need to do intensification better, accentuating the positive and diminishing the negative. In a sense we need to:

JP graphic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course the environmental impacts are only one of agriculture’s hidden costs, as Prof. Tim Lang explained. Of the 19 leading risk factors of disease, which account for 58.8 million deaths each year, food is a contributory factor in 10 of these, for example cardiovascular disease (CVD). In 2011 to 2030 CVD will cause economic losses of $15 trillion. From 2010 to 2030 non-communicable diseases such as diabetes are estimated to cost 48% of global GDP and yet the cost to prevent many of these diseases is very small in comparison. Prof. Lang expands that if food systems are to be designed with public health in mind they would look very different: more horticulture, less meat and dairy production for example. Dr. Pete Myers, Environmental Health Services, talked about the impacts of agrochemicals on human health, of which only the tiniest fraction of chemicals have been studied and linked to health and economic costs. Much of our knowledge on the impact of agrochemicals is based on outdated methodologies, ignoring the huge advances in epigenetics and endocrine disruptors of more recent years as well as cocktail and timing effects. For example, many chemicals whose properties we thought we knew may have a different impact when combined with other chemicals and exposure to even low doses of chemicals can have a profound effect, sometimes much later in life. Dr. Myers gave as an example the effect of 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine (farmers usually apply at higher concentrations) to frogs from hatching to adult, the result was the conversion of a genetic male to a fully functioning female (i.e. able to reproduce). In another experiment, the same strain of mice, eating the same amount of calories and undertaking the same physical activities, would become obese when exposed to 1ppb of obesogens (commonly used as fungicides) from birth, stem cells that would have become bone cells becoming fat cells.

So our food production systems produce negative impacts on the environment and for human health but our understanding of these hidden costs is still relatively small and even smaller when it comes to how this information should be used. While some at the conference argued for the inclusion of these costs into retail prices of food, others acknowledged the impact this could have on the poor and hungry, and instead urged the use of such figures in guiding policy making, whose language is predominantly one of economics. [Read more…]