Antlers, advocacy and agriculture (at annual #ESA2012, America)

By Joern Fischer

Enough with the letter A.

Today I’m going to report on a few random highlights that I witnessed today, and that I feel are worth drawing your attention to. In this morning’s session on ‘sustainability’, I saw a really nice talk by Inger Maren Rivrud, on trophy hunting of red deer in Hungary. The nice thing about this data was that Inger presented really long term data on hunting, and on antler sizes in red deer — over 100 years in fact! She contrasted different hypotheses. If trophy hunting for the largest antlers, for example, was in fact an enduring problem, then through time, we should witness a decline in antler size. Similarly, she reasoned, if hunting pressure was effectively regulated, then the gene pool should not be affected — then declines in antler size might simply show that smaller (younger) animals may be hunted, but when hunting pressure eventually does go down, we would expect that antler sizes will again grow up (as older animals are again available in the population). Inger showed that during the world wars, hunting pressure indeed led to a decline in antler sizes — but then more recently, antler sizes have increased back to their original sizes. So, the gene pool did not seem to be permanently affected; smaller antler sizes by the middle of last century thus probably just indicated that younger animals were hunted; few really old ones with big antlers were around. Nice to see data from Eastern Europe, and have such clear hypotheses, tested via long-term data.

One of my favourite talks came right after this. Kai Chan, from the University of British Columbia, talked on scientists engaging with policy. Following a survey hundreds of scientists, Kai found that many believed ecologists should engage with policy; but relatively fewer actually did so. Looking at the reasons for this discrepancy, Kai showed that perceived own competence and confidence were major factors — communication programs or courses therefore are important, and can and should be designed, to further foster the engagement of scientists with policy makers.

Later this afternoon, I went to talks on the interface of justice, agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. Gretchen Daily impressively demonstrated how the ecosystem service planning software INVEST had been used in South America, Hawaii and China to work towards outcomes that catered to various objectives simultaneously. I have often wondered if this kind of approach is not a little too top-down — in the sense that spatial planning and then implementation of those plans is probably the exception in the world rather than the norm. Despite that, the approach is definitely doing a lot of good — nobody can convey this better than Gretchen!

Indirectly, however, my concerns were then mirrored in the very next presentation, by Sieglinde Snapp. She argued against a narrow focus on increasing agricultural yields, and instead advocated using a more agroecological approach – with new, holistic practices deemed as the way forward. She considered education and participation to support empowerment as critically important to advance agricultural development, and demonstrated this via a successful case study in Malawi. Here, participatory engaged research was used; options for agricultural development considered issues of diversification, longevity legumes, recycling of inputs, and considering farmers’ priorities. Overall, Sieglinde conceptualised the challenge as an experience of co-learning with people; her approach was deeply participatory, and data proved that it led to improved yields across a variety of crops. What does top-down planning have to do with this? Not much, arguably. I suggest that probably both Gretchen’s kind of approach and Sieglinde’s are valuable; but in different contexts. In both contexts, governance will be critically important. Careful planning demands strong top-down governance to enable the implementation; similarly, Sieglinde showed that poor governance had impeded the uptake of agroecological practices in Rwanda (where yields have increased massively, but outcomes are not distributed equitably).

Ivette Perfecto then talked more about how environmental and social justice concerns met with agroecological principles in the new paradigm of food sovereignty. Her basic argument was that the current paradigm is failing the world: in a world with both obesity and hunger co-existing, something about our food systems is fundamentally problematic.

I’ll close with a nice quote that Gretchen put up, though my wording here is slightly different.

Confucius said: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

I suggest we contemplate this more often in science.

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