#Climate destabilisation and #biodiversity loss threaten our future – but too little attention is being paid to the latter

It seems to be a year of anniversaries for me. It’s 50 years since I went to university intending to study chemistry but then changing to study soil science. Soils are really complex physical, chemical, biological systems. Their health is affected by the social, cultural and economic activities of us humans who depend on them for our existence. Soils also host a huge amount of the biodiversity on the planet, yet you cannot see most of it.

I was prompted to think about this by a paper I was sent the other day. Its rather long title is “Our house is burning: discrepancy in climate change versus biodiversity coverage in the media as compared to scientific literature“. Basically, the multiple authors found that comparing the amount of research reported in the scientific literature on climate change and biodiversity versus the amount of coverage in the selected range of newspapers over a 25 year period showed a considerable imbalance. Given the level of research reports, there was far more coverage – up to 8 times as much – of climate change issues in the 12 English language newspapers they surveyed than that on biodiversity.

Climate change and biodiversity loss both impact on human well-being. This imbalance in coverage is impeding understanding and undermining efforts to address biodiversity loss. The authors called for more action by scientists to raise public awareness on biodiversity issues.

There have been a lot of longer-term scenarios and what is often called ‘horizon scanning’ on the impact of climate change. Much less so for biodiversity loss, most of which is hidden. The focus tends to be on the impact on iconic larger mammals like elephants, polar bears or tigers. Yet with soil, you need to dig down into it to see the different horizons in a soil profile. The amount of biodiversity in it is far from obvious – but is beautifully illustrated in the global soil biodiversity atlas (free to download).

While the biodiversity in soils may be largely invisible to the naked eye, healthy soils depend upon it (see also http://www.soilanimals.com/look/overview). However, as the report on The Status of the World’s Soils Resources noted “…the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. Today, 33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils”.

The Global Land Outlook said “A minority has grown rich from the unsustainable use and large scale exploitation of land resources with related conflicts intensifying in many countries.”(see ch 9 on biodiversity and soil). To address concerns about this we also need to look at the rules, regulations and power relations that frame what people do with the soils and biodiversity on the planet. Here, one important set of rules are also little known and invisible to most people – those called ‘intellectual property rights’.

It is 20 years since I worked on a paper looking at the implications of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for food security and biodiversity (Trade, intellectual property, food and biodiversity: key issues and options for the 1999 review of article 27.3(b) of the TRIPS agreement). This agreement is one of the three key pillars of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Ten years later a book I edited with a Canadian colleague, Tasmin Rajotte, was published called “The future control of food: a guide to international negotiations and rules on intellectual property, biodiversity and food security“(free to download in English, Spanish and Chinese). Rules on IP are also a key bone of contention in bilateral trade negotiations.

What is clear over these last couple of decades is there has been much greater coverage and concern about climate change but less about the huge loss of biodiversity and especially agricultural biodiversity and the rules that shape what happens to them. It is time that changed.

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There’s more to #cookery books than recipes – an interview with Dr Eileen White

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Pictures of some of the cook books discussed. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library

You can learn about a lot more than recipes from studying cookery books through the ages as I heard from Dr Eileen White recently. She has been studying the books in the special collection of Cookery Books at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library for over 40 years. Their collection includes books from the late 15th century to the present. Some are reprints of old manuscripts such as “A noble Boke Off Cookery FFor a Prynce Houssolde or Any Other Estately Houssolde” to original editions such as that from 1664 “The Court & Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly called Joan Cromwel, The Wife of the Great Usurper, Truly Described and Represented, And now Made Publick for general Satisfaction”. Many books include recipes for medicines and foods and give an insight into the mores of the times as Dr White explains in this interview recorded in a rather noisy room.

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Don’t copy failed US #foodbanks model in UK warns Andy Fisher, author of Big #Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-hunger Groups”

Do not create a hunger industrial complex in the UK as has happened in the USA. That’s a key message from Andy Fisher, author of “Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-hunger Groups”, who is touring the UK this month. The unholy alliance of his book title has failed to solve hunger in the US for over 30 years.


In this interview, he explains how the US system ignores the causes of hunger, benefits the givers and demeans the recipients. He talks about lessons the UK might learn and warns the country not to follow the US path of institutionalising food banks. “We have pretended that the problem is hunger and not poverty. We’ve pretended that the solution to hunger is charity, not ensuring the right to food or increasing the political power of the poor,” he says.

He sees real hope in Scotland where he was last week and where they are seeking to end the need for foodbanks and ensure people’s right to food is met.

I heard him speak last Friday at Huddersfield University – along with Chris Moller from Huddersfield University and Maddie Power from the University of York (see my Twitter feed @GeoffTansey  for reports from the meeting with various slides from the presentations). You can still hear him this week in London on 14th and 16th and Cardiff on 17th November.

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‘#bittersweetbrexit: The future of #food, #farming, #land and #labour’- Time for a big debate, says Dr Charlie Clutterbuck

I’ve known soil zoologist Dr Charlie Clutterbuck for years. He’s passionate about the need to understand the vast array of living organisms in the soil. He’s also always been deeply concerned about the people who work on the land and throughout the system that brings us our food. So when he decided to write a reflective book on his experiences it was clear that relating these to the biggest change coming for the UK’s food and farming made sense. This book – Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour – is the result. In it he discusses great number of tariffs – some 17,000 – involved in food and farming products and what to do with the subsidies that currently go into farming. I interviewed him about it at the launch in Manchester on World Food Day, October 16th. There’s also a website where you can join the debate here.


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Cutting #livestock consumption to prevent further wildlife extinction

There was a major conference on Extinction and Livestock in London last week, 5-6 October 2017.  The contributions will be put up on line in due course but I took the chance to interview some of those present. Here’s a brief sense of what was discussed. You can follow what was said on Twitter at #Extinction17

Livestock consumption and the extinction of other species are interconnected. That is why Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, was determined to have a conference that brought animal welfare groups together with those concerned with the conservation of wildlife. In this interview, recorded at the conference in London 5-6 October 2017, he explains how working on his book Dead Zone: Where the Wild things Were shocked him into action on this.

Duncan Williamson, Food Policy Manger for WWF UK, a cosponsor of the conference, explains the need to link the food on our plates to biodiversity loss and the demand for animal feed. He discusses the need in the rich world to eat less meat and dairy. WWF’s Livewell project demonstrates that a healthy diet can be sustainable, Eating for 2 degrees – new and updated Livewell Plates.

Ecologist Carl Safina discusses how animals think and feel, that they too are sentient beings. He also explains the gradation between empathy, sympathy and compassion – some animals have all three and most vertebrates exhibit empathy.

Katherine Richardson, professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre is one of the core authors on the planetary boundaries initiative. She explains just what these are and how livestock consumption affects our capacity to live within them.

Jimmy Smith, the director of the International Livestock Research Institute, called for a nuanced discussion that took into account the different needs and circumstances of the rich and poor nations. In the latter, the bulk of production was by small farmers, many of whom are women, and livestock are important for their livelihoods. He says ILRI’s research shows that some of the data on emissions in developing countries from livestock is extrapolated from rich countries and overestimates them.

Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of religions and conservation, urged the conference to recognise we humans are working with a false story that we are the most important species. We need to extend compassion to all species and recognise humans have no right to extinguish others. He also discussed how the religions could use their money to influence more sustainable practices.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Home Deus, in a video message to the conference urged scientists to accept greater political and ethical responsibility to speak out about the way animals feel and behave to correct misunderstandings. Two key questions where science can show the answers is whether animals are conscious sentient beings – they are – and can they experience emotions – they do.



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Transforming #agriculture to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (#SDGs)

Hans Herren, CEO of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC and founder of Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development in Zurich, argues that the Sustainable Development Goals offer the way to reshape agriculture in a way that will help meet these goals, in an interview I did with him at the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London last week, on October 5-6, 2017 (brief report on the conference with interviews to be published tomorrow). Goal 2 on Zero Hunger and sustainable agriculture connects to all the other goals. He argues that a report from the International Panel of Experts in Food Systems (IPES) From Uniformity to Diversity shows the way.


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Tim Lang warns of dire disruption to UK’s #food and #farming with #Brexit

In an interview I did last week with Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University at the Extinction and Livestock conference in London (more of that in a later blog), he explains why he feels Brexit will cause a major disruption to the UK food system. He discusses some of these effects on a food system that relies on just-in-time deliveries to keep food on the shelves and why they will hit the poorest hardest.

The report he refers to in the interview is ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real’ by Professor Tim Lang (City, University of London), Professor Erik Millstone (University of Sussex),  and Professor Terry Marsden (Cardiff University) and is available here.


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