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Climate change, happiness and economic growth

Humanity has gone beyond the ‘safe operating space’ of the planet, and the problems we face – climate change, biodiversity loss, water shortages – are all related to the use of materials, fossil fuels and biomass by the world’s economies. Armed with the knowledge that current economic growth, which is so reliant on natural resources, can’t be sustained, the economist Peter Victor explained the three alternatives.

Firstly, developing countries can build their economies in a way that doesn’t deplete natural resources on the scale we do now. Very appealing, and an approach favoured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But a potential stumbling block is that increased efficiency can mean we consume more. This was first noticed when improvements in steam engines led to an increase in coal consumption. If we make more efficient planes they will be cheaper to fly so we can afford more of them.

Secondly, economies can grow based on the service sector, and other areas that consume fewer resources. In many ways that’s what we see in the west, but our society has simply shifted some of the resource-heavy industries to other countries.

Alternatively, we can stop our striving for economic growth, and there’s increasing evidence that growth has little effect on happiness. In fact more egalitarian societies tend to be happier ones, yet economic growth generally widens the gap between rich and poor. If economies in the west continue to grow and increase their ecological burden, developing countries have little chance of real improvement.

Victor goes on to suggest how we can improve our society without growth. A shorter working year, for example, would spread the employment load. So more people would have jobs, and everyone in work would have more leisure time. A steady population, stricter policies on the environment and resource use are other key ingredients.

But is zero growth enough? Some researchers are looking at ‘degrowth’ – shrinking developed economies to bring them into balance with resource and environmental limits, while improving quality of life.

Victor concludes that “With the prospect of environmental calamity facing humanity, developed economies must chart a course towards living within a fair share, and no more, of the planet’s safe operating space.” This needn’t be done at the expense of happiness, as long as policy makers end their obsession with economic growth and instead look for economic progress.

Victor P. (2010) Questioning Economic Growth. Nature 468, 370-371.

Posted in Advances in technology, climate change, Politics, Social issues, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Army Ant Camp Followers

Every army has its followers - civilians who follow in the wake of armies or service their needs whilst encamped. But army ants also have their followers. These species don’t sell the ants goods or entertain them when camped, but instead benefit from the ants’ hunting tactics.

Army ants in both Africa and South and Central America are well known for their lack of permanent nest and their aggressive raiding parties. In fact they’re pretty well known for killing other species. (Just search ‘army ant’ on youtube for some amazing vids!)

But now the combined research of many notable scientists, not least Carl Rettenmeyer and his wife Marian who dedicated their lives to the study of army ants, has shown that far from a destructive force, army ants are beneficial to a huge number of species: these camp followers, or associates.

Associated species include everything from other insects like the parasitoid wasps that watch for spiders spooked by the ants in which they lay their eggs, to birds and snakes that eat the small animals scattered in the wake of the ants. Then there are other invertebrates who feed on the droppings left by the birds.

In fact 577 separate species have been recorded in associated with one of the American army ant species (Eciton burchellii). This is the largest number of associated species that has ever been recorded!

Find out more:
C. W. Rettenmeyer, M. E. Rettenmeyer, J. Joseph and S. M. Berghoff. (2010) The largest animal association centered on one species: the army ant Eciton burchellii and its more than 300 associates. Insectes Sociaux.
BBC article.

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The Korean Pine tree – an answer to hunger?

Here we are, talking about agricultural intensification, technologies that can feed the world, and even how to use land to grow our energy instead. But millions of people in the west eat too much – disturbingly there are currently 400 million overweight adults in Europe alone. The strain on healthcare services is underestimated, because often there are very subtle ways that obesity contributes to ill health, though the WHO reports a cost of up to 6% of healthcare budgets in some countries.

We could do with a solution that makes people thinner and healthier, which could also reduce the volume of food we need to grow. Diets and exercise programs don’t seem to be working for everyone – everyone knows they’d be thinner if they ate less, but still they don’t. Maybe, like smoking patches, we need a way to get people to eat less without finding it difficult.

The Korean Pine tree produces nuts from which an oil can be extracted and used as appetite suppressants. It works by stimulating the release of two hormones, CCK and GLP1. These two hormones are one way that the brain receives signals saying ‘I’m full’. CCK is released by the small intestine when you eat fat or protein and has control over the gall bladder and the pancreas. GLP1 is released when you eat fat and carbohydrate, and it slows down gut mobility.

So the Korean Pine could end hunger in 2 ways – appetite suppression in those who have plenty, and freeing up food for those who don’t have enough?

I read this in ‘Nutraceutical Business and Technology’, which I’m writing an article for this week. A very interesting publication, although it’s not peer reviewed, but the point of this post is really just – should we always be talking about ‘more, more, more’, or is there room for ‘less, less, less’?

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Feeding The Gambia – the social side

The Gambia is one of the poorer African nations, and about 75% of the population depends on crops and livestock for its livelihood. But feeding the people depends on more than agricultural methods, so here are my observations on some of the other issues.

One problem is about economic attitude. Food is exported because the pull of cash is too high. The attitude of having fun now and not saving for food tomorrow  was very clear when I was there. It was Tobaski (their Christmas equivalent) and it is traditional to sacrifice a ram, so over-priced rams were bought by families who couldn’t afford it (another similarity to Christmas…). Would the situation be improved by responsible attitudes and an understanding that eating their food is better than selling it to pay for mobile phones? If we increased agricultural productivity would we just feed this problem.

Transport is a problem, particularly in terms of food distribution. One of the main crops is groundnuts, and many villages grow a surplus. My friend reported that her village chief organises the selling of groundnuts. He ripped the villagers off, but at least they get some money for nuts that would otherwise go to waste. We saw a barge full of groundnuts come down the river one night (well OK I was fast asleep but I am reliably informed it passed our tent), and at one village there is a large conveyer belt that supposedly transports groundnuts to the river bank - that’s what you can see in the image at the top of the page.

But there are very few boats transporting nuts, and the road system is very poor. The Dutch are currently working crazily hard to build a road along the south bank of the river. But much of it is still dirt, and anyway I’ve never seen a lorry. So maybe increasing yields is no use until a transport network is built, and if we’re thinking of using GM seeds for example, we have to think about the practicalities and social impacts of distributing them. But road systems come with problems as well as benefits. Are they what we really want?

One last point – population growth. Large families are common – our guide has 7 sisters and a half brother. There are many cultural reasons for this, for example one of the tribes is particularly known for marrying young (14/15 is quite normal) and it’s common to have multiple wives. Why do we keep coming back to this point? A scapegoat seeing as we haven’t managed to fix the others, or an understanding that feeding the world is going to get even harder?

Me and some millet

Posted in Advances in technology, Food security, Personal observation | 6 Comments

An insider’s view of subsistence agriculture

A slight break from the norm – I wanted to share what I’d leant about agriculture in The Gambia. I travelled up river to Janjanbureh with a girl who was spending 2 years living in a village close to the Senegalese border in the east. It was fascinating to hear her point of view based on her experience of village life, and it made me realise how different attitudes and education are over there. I had plenty of time to think about how to lift people out of poverty, and whether science is the way to go.

One of her roles is to educate the villagers about ways of improving productivity. This includes crop rotation, planting nitrogen-fixing plants, using manure as fertiliser, and not removing all the plant matter (stubble etc) from the field at the end of the season. So it’s simple stuff to us, but it’s not common practice there and people are reluctant to accept it. She worried that if she didn’t show instant results then people went back to their old ways.

So we already have knowledge that could improve productivity, but education holds that back. So we could merrily develop the best agricultural system imaginable, but we shouldn’t assume that just because we know it’s good it will be instantly accepted and adopted.

As for technologies that could improve productivity, there are no mechanical tools. I helped a lady harvest rice with a blunt knife, one stem at a time. But maybe that’s no bad thing – people need livelihoods and I didn’t see evidence that lack of man power meant crops couldn’t be harvested. I’ve no idea how ploughs, harrows, mechanical harvesters etc increase yields.

There are, however, pesticides. Disturbingly, our local guide said pesticides are applied for red-billed hornbills. If that’s true, I find spraying for birds very worrying. So will better pesticides help? The ones they have are badly used and they can’t afford newer ones. Is making different types going to change that? The government does spray from planes when there are outbreaks of locusts and that seems like a pesticide worth using.

This post seems long enough already and there are lots of questions, so I’ll stop here and continue soon. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Posted in Advances in technology, Food security, Personal observation | 1 Comment

Save threatened birds by returning native trees

A revolutionary new conservation project aims to maintain island biodiversity by replanting native trees!

Cebu is a beautiful island in the Philippines filled with strange and endemic species like the Cebu Flowerpecker. This bird was thought to have been extinct when rapid urbanisation of the island lead to heavy deforestation in the early twentieth century. The tiny bird has since been found, hidden in small patches of forest, but it is still under threat of extinction.

Luckily the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) are doing something about this and the other species threatened by loss of habitat on the island. They have set up a project aiming to return lost native trees to the region by planting a staggering 1670 trees per hectare!

Those involved in this project will not only plant the seedlings but also plan to nurture them by watering, fertilizing and, ensuring that the denuded forests will be returned to an area of amazing biodiversity.

In other areas conservation efforts have been made using whatever plants are easily obtained or grown or using plants which may have economic benefits. But for Cebu it was decided that returning the original species to the area would better maintain the existing biodiversity. As Nilo Arribas, a bird watcher and photographer, said ‘we need not just a thick forest, but also a living forest.’

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Are GM crops are better for bees?

Throughout our decades of pesticide use we have tried to create pesticides that are lethal to pests but don’t affect non-target organisms such as ladybirds and bees. One of the avenues scientists are going down for this reason is GM crops. This 2010 study published in Ecotoxicology looks at the effects of Chinese GM cotton on the honeybee.

Bee declines and colony collapse disorder have complex causes, and one of the reasons we struggle to detect some of them is that they’re more subtle than killing the bees; instead they alter their behaviour. Bees feed pollen to their young during an important stage of their development so it is possible that being fed pollen from GM crops affects their ability to learn. Learning is fundamental to a bee’s lifestyle and determines how efficiently they can forage, so a reduced learning ability can influence the colony’s survival.

Laboratory studies on the effects of the GM cotton show it doesn’t kill bees, but does eating the pollen affect bees’ ability to learn?

The answer was no – bees fed GM pollen were are good as bees fed non-GM pollen. Interestingly, they also tested bees fed on plants sprayed with the insecticide imidacloprid. These bees did show a reduced learning ability. So, in this context, the GM crop didn’t have the same negative impact on bees as conventional insecticide.

Working out whether bees are learning is surprisingly easy. The proboscis extension reflex (PER) is a widely used way to measure learning. Bees are taught to associate an odour with a food reward. They very quickly (sometimes after only one go) learn to extend their proboscis when they detect the odour. This study compared what proportion of the bees learnt in this way when fed on the GM crop, non-GM and also the crop treated with insecticide.

Both Emma and I have trained bees like this. If you’d like to read more about how PER works and about other uses for it (in this case explosive detection) then take a look at Anna Khot’s article.

Han P. Et al. (2010) Use of an innovative T-tube maze assay and the proboscis extension response assay to assess sublethal effects of GM products and pesticides on learning capacity of the honey bee Apis mellifera L. Ecotoxicology DOI 10.1007/s10646-010-0546-4

This work ties in very neatly with Emma’s. She is working out whether bees’ learning is affected by disease, and this study is the equivalent for GM pollen.

Honeybees account for at least 80% of the pollinating insects of major crops, so it’s great to see our understanding of how agriculture affects them becoming ever more detailed.

Posted in Bees, GM crops | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Trish and Becky think more about why Science is Vital

This is the video of our day at the Science is Vital march – our thoughts, the organisers and speakers’ thoughts, and thoughts of others who attended. We broadened our horizons!

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Have your say – Natural Environment White Paper

Thanks to Natural England we can express our views on government policy by completing this online survey. It’s pretty easy – four open-ended questions on the benefits of the natural environment and how it can be improved.

It wasn’t quite clear whether I should be talking of direct benefits (I saw a kingfisher on my lunchtime walk this Thursday!) or indirect, in terms of ecosystem services. I answered about both. Although I couldn’t possibly do ecosystem services justice without being there all day I did say they should be an integral part of the policy, and I also gave evidence-based policy a plug.

If you read this before the end of October please fill in the form!

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments