Monday, 5 January 2015

Positive Visions for Biodiversity: the Role of Research

Further to my article and involvement in Positive Visions for Biodiversity in 2010, I publish this further article I wrote after having received the preliminary report of the second part of the meeting where scientists and policy makers discussed how research could address the goals of the visions developed in the first part of the meeting (that I attended in Belgium).  Although I cannot share a copy of this report, more information is available on the EPBRS website.  I’m doing a review of my articles and decided this was worthy of publication on this blog.
My main interest at the meeting was food and this came under Vision Theme 6: to find sustainable food production using minimum energy and resources.  The participants decided that the two top priorities for this were:
·        Find new ways to assign prices to food production, internalizing the diverse and many costs of food production related to biodiversity, and
·        Develop an ecosystem approach to food production based on co-cultivation of multiple species for multiple services, without waste production
The next question came from the second part above, specifically to develop co-cultivation systems that produce food and other services with an environmentally acceptable level of waste.  Research priorities were then set out on three different food systems with the involvement of certain disciplines. 
My first comment is that as a trained lawyer (albeit non-practicing) having done research in environmental law, I would foresee difficulties in the meaning of ‘waste’. For example, human waste could actually be used as effective fertiliser and compost loos would do much to improve our water supply.  Nature may seem to be wasteful in that abundance of matter is produced which humans do not see a need for.  But nature has a system of its own, which is not particularly efficient in business terms because nature’s goal is not to make a profit.  Manmade waste may also be up for debate.  For example, are plastic bottles waste when a recycling plant is using them in a business enterprise?
Even the term ‘environmentally acceptable’ may be controversial.  As the environment cannot speak for itself, it is left for us to make an interpretation of this.  Rather than involving only academic researchers, people that live simple, natural lives with hands on experience of maintaining a balance between human activity and the natural environment should be consulted.
My second comment is that farmers are not included in the disciplines to be consulted.  Farmers employing natural farming practices of one sort or another would seem to be vital participants for this research.  At the very least, the Organic Research Centre (the ORC) in the UK seems worthy of consultation by those with a European outlook.  The ORC works through a participatory network of established organic farms.
My third comment is that an eco-system approach to food production, in and of itself, is not enough because it does not incorporate the purpose of food production.  For example, some would claim that we should adopt a vegetarian diet because it is perceived to be better for the environment.  Even the reference to cultivation of species implies a focus on plants.  However, there are medical doctors who claim that animal products, especially in colder climates, are important for optimal health.  Is the purpose of our food to be optimal health or merely to sustain us in a basic fashion?  Is the ecosystem approach more important than the diet that it will support?
In addition, food production has developed into a highly processed industry and I would seek clarification of the word ‘production’ and whether it includes processing.  Value is added to food through processing and the large corporate interests will be influential in this sphere. 
It was stated in the report that “[t]here is a need for precise and easily understandable terminology to move debate towards the general public.” This is a similar objective that was voiced at an open meeting of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) that I attended at the Food Standards Agency in London.  Scientists are projecting the image of living in a separate world from the rest of us.  When it comes to food, my personal perspective is that if it is too complicated to explain to the average consumer, it is probably not worth doing.  ‘Back to Nature’ would be a good slogan for our food.  We cannot explain nature either, but at least we trust that a potato produced by nature is good for us, whereas no amount of understandable terminology would convince me that a genetically modified potato that has been sprayed with chemicals is just as good, and certainly not better (or worth all the money spent on research to develop it) than a naturally grown potato.  Of course, some people would argue about the meaning of naturally grown, but the basics would suffice: a potato that has not been genetically modified such as defined by EU legislation, grown in soil without chemical fertilisers, with fresh air, rain and sunlight.
I would briefly like to mention the ninth vision theme: Transforming the economic paradigm because I think the second goal was excellent and it is needed to reform the food industry:
Research on the communication challenge posed by the common sense of the concept of economic growth (use the economic crisis as an opportunity for changing the paradigm and changing common sense). Include understanding of the precautionary principle and uncertainty.
As for the top priority for food mentioned above, my first reaction is who is supposed to internalise these costs?  Many consumers are already struggling by buying cheap food that is not only poor for biodiversity but poor for health.  Transnational corporations (TNCs) will fight tooth and nail to keep these costs externalised.  And governments are constantly in the process of making all kinds of cut-backs to pay for huge debts.  As negative as this may sound, changing the economic paradigm could be done, if, for example, we could get money that is spent on developing genetically modified organisms to produce monoculture crops which is bad for biodiversity (and probably us too) transferred to natural farming.  We would not need to stress and strain to put price tags on individual species or ecosystems because we would all be working in harmony with nature.  This reminds me that TNCs have marketing people and psychologists on the payroll.  A lot of the work for these Visions is going to entail selling them.  Five years down the line in 2015 and my view is that natural farming is losing popularity even on organic farms – not enough marketing and psychologists on nature’s side.
I previously mentioned the book Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy in relation to putting a value on biodiversity.  However, the author Sahotra Sarkar moved into discussions using algebraic equations, especially for determining the best sites for biological conservation, which is not an area that I am familiar with.  This would possibly be of more interest to scientists seeking to determine where to designate protected areas and how to manage them in the face of global change as set out in Vision Theme Two.
My final comment is about Vision Theme 10, Values and Behaviours where it was suggested to get Buddhist institutions, among others, to finance the research for the above.  However, I would suggest focusing on the foundations and get billionaires and TNCs to finance the research because otherwise there is likely to continue to be strong opposition and they’ve got more money.  Possibly, Buddhists and other spiritualists should be invited to participate in the research process on food production, but whether a more holistic outcome is likely, is debatable unless the spiritual aspect can influence the minds of the researchers.
I realise that one goal is to have the research work published and that even having scientists from different specialties working together creates a problem with this.  And I realise that the purpose of this is to use it to convince others of the merits of the proposals.  However, I would point out that TNCs do not use scientific research to sell their products.  They also do not use it as an educational tool.
However, education in this area is important.  It is well known that advertising is often geared towards children in order to “get them hooked” young.  TNCs such as Coca Cola and McDonalds have even placed their products in schools and hospitals.  The positive visions for biodiversity will struggle to develop without similar actions or at least education to counter the TNC advertising.
But also, diversity in our working relationships, rather than compartmentalising people into hierarchal specialties, would not only expedite finding solutions, it would also bridge the gaps between everyone.  Furthermore, there are known shortcomings to scientific journals, and a book has been written about the shortcomings of medical journals.  Perhaps, a special reporting status could be created which addresses the shortcomings of the professional journals currently in vogue and allows for a broad interpretation of inter-disciplinary research.
The bottom line though is that we need a new economic paradigm to support going back to nature which would promote biodiversity naturally.  If we are not prepared as a species to bring this about, we cannot complain when we evolve into cyborgs.  In my view, we do not need research; we need a change of mind.