Transgenic golden rice: friend or foe?

By Annika Kettenburg

How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.

rice

At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.

Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.

What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.

But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)

A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.

The full paper is available here.

New paper: legacy effects of land use change on tree diversity

By Girma Shumi Dugo

I am Girma, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. My background is in forestry and plant ecology – with a focus on sustainable use and conservation of woody plants. I’ve worked on participatory forest management (PFM) in coffee forests of SW Ethiopia; ecological indicators for Chilimo PFM of Ethiopia; and contributed to various research projects in forestry, agroforestry and ecosystem services in rural landscapes of Ethiopia.

ethiopia.pngIn the current project, I am working on the empirical case study conducted in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of historical and current land use, site level forest management (e.g., disturbances, management for coffee production) and forest landscape history (e.g., primary vs secondary forest – time lag effects, edge effects) on biodiversity, more specifically on woody vegetation in both agricultural and forest landscapes. Furthermore, to better understand the link between conservation and human well-being, I am investigating local people’s woody plant use, conservation and their perception of their property rights, particularly, with respect to tenure security and the rights to withdraw or wood, which may hinder both the use and conservation of woody plants in the landscapes.

The main purpose of this post is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve just published where we’ve looked into land use legacy effects on woody vegetation in agricultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia.

In our study landscape, some plant species respond to land use changes immediately while others show a time delayed response. In this regard, past land use legacy effects – extinction debts and immigration credits – might be particularly pronounced in regions characterized by complex and gradual landscape change. In order to examine the existence of such land use legacy effects, we surveyed woody plants in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in farmland, and grouped them into forest specialist, generalist and pioneer species. We examined their composition and distribution using non-metric multidimensional scaling; modelled their richness in response to historical and current distance from the forest edge; and examined tree diameter class distributions in recently converted versus permanent farmland sites.

Overall, we found 110 species of trees, shrubs and subshrubs, representing 48 families. Historical distance to the forest edge was a primary driver of woody plant composition and distribution. However, somewhat surprisingly, we found no extinction debt for forest specialist species, suggesting that this debt was rapidly paid off in the farming landscape (i.e. forest specialists disappeared quite quickly). In contrast, and again surprisingly, we found immigration credits in farmland for generalist and pioneer species. This might suggest that long established cultural landscapes in Africa might have unrecognized conservation value – not for forest specialist species, but for a rich array of other species. In conclusion, our results indicate that conservation measures in southwestern Ethiopia should recognize not only forests, but also the complementary value of the agricultural mosaic – similarly to the case of European cultural landscapes. A possible future priority could be to also better maintain forest specialist species in the farmland mosaic.

Scenario planning in Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

Looking at our publication list, one would think not much is coming from our work in Ethiopia. But there will be! It’s a sad fact of scientific life that others only get to find out about your work three years after you’ve done it. In this post, I would like to summarise experiences from six days of workshops on scenario planning in southwestern Ethiopia.

Preamble: This work involved many people! It was led primarily by Ine Dorresteijn, with important contributions by Jan Hanspach, Tolera Senbeto, Feyera Senbeta, Jannik Schultner, Birhanu Bekele and Dadi Feyisa.

About two years ago, we individually met with 30 different groups of stakeholders, from the local to the zonal government level. With each group, we uncovered possible social-ecological changes and their uncertainties, and with each group, we developed causal loop diagrams of the local dynamics – particularly around food security and biodiversity conservation. Participants ranged from local farmers (many of whom never had the chance to attend school) to policy experts at the zonal level.

We took the information and synthesized it into four plausible draft scenarios. This is a step that is a bit different from what many people do in scenario planning: many draw up the scenarios directly with stakeholders. We preferred to get a greater range of input (30 individual workshops), then tidy up systems dynamics into a coherent causal loop diagram ourselves; and work with changes and uncertainties we had heard about repeatedly in the initial workshops.

Our draft scenarios were now presented back to the initial stakeholders in six separate workshops, which combined different stakeholders at three governance levels. We asked participants whether the scenarios were plausible, or if not, how could we make them plausible? We also asked them about opportunities and challenges in the scenarios, and how they might be overcome.

Not least due to fantastic organization of the logistics by our Ethiopian colleagues, we had six very constructive workshops. We included a feedback round in the workshops at the end, and aside from minor misgivings by a small number of participants, we received very nice feedback. What I was most excited about is that people really “got it” – from policy level to local community, we could see how discussions between stakeholders in breakout groups revolved around what is good, and what is bad, and why. We had “extracted” local understandings, and given them back in a format that encouraged (and hopefully empowered) people to think about their future; and take steps to work towards desired outcomes.

Our next steps will be to write up this scenario work, both as a scientific paper, and as a small booklet in local languages. We’ll also prepare some materials that are meaningful to local farmers. And then … in some months, we’ll be back in Ethiopia to distribute the final scenarios and discuss these with a wide range of stakeholders. We hope this work can stimulate fresh thinking about a sustainable future for southwestern Ethiopia. This trip certainly gives me hope that our scientific work isn’t just an ivory-tower, self-indulgent waste of everyone’s time!

What do we value?

By Joern Fischer

In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.

I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.

In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.

Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.

Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.

First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.

A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.

And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.

 

A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

New paper: Coffee management and the conservation of forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia

By Patricia Rodrigues

Olá!

I am Patrícia, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Very briefly, my background is in ecology and conservation biology and I’ve worked on topics such as the biogeography of Angolan mammals, the effects of cashew expansion on biodiversity in Guinea-Bissau, or on land use changes in a landscape undergoing farmland abandonment in Portugal.

On the way to Guido Bere forest at sunrise

Within this ERC-project I am working on the empirical case study that takes place in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of coffee production and forest fragmentation on biodiversity, more specifically on birds and mammals. Also, and taking advantage of our awesome inter and transdisciplinary research group, I am looking at a global driver of change in our planet – population growth. I am doing this using a lens from the social sciences, and trying to understand which factors influence women’s fertility decisions and what promotes or hinders the use of family planning methods in the region.

But let’s move on to the main purpose of this post, which is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published where we’ve looked into the effects of coffee management and landscape context on forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia.

In the landscapes of our study area, coffee is mostly grown under the shade of native trees, and management varies in intensity but it is mostly done using traditional practices (such as the clearing of the understory and thinning and pruning of the canopy). In order to understand if the variation in coffee management had an effect on the bird community we sampled birds (between Nov 2015 and Feb 2016) in a total of 66 forest points that differed in their degree of coffee management and accessibility. Some of the points were located on the forest interior, in nearly undisturbed and very hard to access forest, while other points were located in relatively intensively managed coffee forest.

Overall, we found a diverse community of forest birds (76 species, 6 endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea) and we found no effect of coffee management and landscape context on total species richness and total abundance of birds. However, the richness of forest and dietary specialists increased with higher forest naturalness (a local effect), and with increasing distance from the edge and amount of forest cover (a landscape effect). Wrapping up, our results indicate that conservation measures need to consider both local and landscape scales, and that, on the one hand traditional shade coffee management practices can maintain a diverse suite of forest birds, on the other, the conservation of forest specialists hinges on the maintenance and protection of large undisturbed areas of natural forest.

NEW PAPER: From synergies to trade-offs in food security and biodiversity conservation

BY JAN HANSPACH

Some time ago, we had invited to participate in a survey on food security and biodiversity conservation on this blog. After some months of data analysis, write-up, rejections and revisions, we now we can announce that the main findings from this survey have been finally published. The paper went online just a few days ago on the journal website and will be published the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

And here are the key findings shortly summarized:

(1) When comparing between landscapes we did not find a clear trade-off between food security and biodiversity.

(2) Synergies in food security and biodiversity were related to situations with equitable land access and high social and human capital. Food security was also high when market access was good and financial capital high, but that was linked to poor biodiversity outcomes.

(3) For the future, most experts expected improvements in food security, but losses of biodiversity in their landscapes.

We received responses for landscapes from a wide range of countries. The map shows the origin of the 110 cases that we used for analysis.

 

You also can directly download a pdf of the full paper and a pdf of the merged appendices here. Enjoy reading!

Finally, a big thanks to all experts that contributed to the survey!

Livestream, Wed 9 AM Stockholm time: Food security & biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

Tomorrow morning at 9 AM, we’ll be live streaming a session from Resilience 2017. The live stream will be on youtube, namely here. After the event, the session should still be there as a video. We hope we’ll get the technology to cooperate with us!

Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes

C1/C2 (250), 09:00 – 10:30, Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer

Providing food security and safeguarding biodiversity are two of the most prominent challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and it unclear how they possibly could be reconciled in the future. As the topic is complex and the discussion around it is often biased by disciplinary backgrounds, we propose a session where we bring together researchers from different disciplines and with different perspectives in order to transcend conceptual barriers. The presenters will be asked to address specifically how to transcend these barriers in order to reconcile food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes.

Speakers and Abstracts

Rewiring food systems to enhance human health and biosphere stewardship
Line Gordon, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden

Integrating biodiversity in agriculture
Teja Tscharntke, Agroecology, Göttingen University, Göttingen, Germany, Göttingen, Germany

Perspectives on biodiversity in Ethiopian heterogeneous agricultural landscapes
Kristoffer Hylander, Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Science, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Indirect contributions of forests to dietary diversity in Southern Ethiopia
Roseline Remans 1, 4, Frédéric Baudron 2, Jean-Yves Duriaux 2, Terry Sunderland 3, 1 Bioversity International; Ghent University; Wageningen University & Research, Koekelberg, Belgium, 2 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Harare, Zimbabwe, 3 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia, 4 Bioversity International, Heverlee, Belgium

M. Jahi Chappell, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, Coventry, United Kingdom, Washington State University, Pullman, United States

 

Our research at Resilience 2017

By Joern Fischer

Next week much of our research group will be attending “Resilience 2017” in Stockholm, a major international conference on social-ecological systems. We’ll be live-streaming a session on food security and biodiversity conservation (stay tuned here for details, and check our twitter account!), and several researchers from our group will be presenting interim findings.

If you’re interested in attending any of the talks by our group, here is an overview, including links to the Abstracts.

Monday 21 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit; Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 26 (50); 14:00 – 14:40
This will include: Harmonizing food security and biodiversity governance: A multi-level governance analysis with the case study in Ethiopia, Tolera Senbeto Jiren, Ine Dorresteijn, Arvid Bergsten, Neil Collier, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Transformative agency Part I, Social-ecological transformations for sustainability, C1/C2 (250); 14:00 – 15:30
This will include: Inside-out sustainability: The role of inner transformation for system change. Rebecca Freeth, Christopher Ives, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem Services Mapping, Tradeoffs and Synergies: Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 35/36 (72); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: From trade-offs to synergies in food security and biodiversity conservation. Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Neil Collier, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem services and stewardship: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; C3 (180); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: Local peoples’ woody plant species use, access and conservation in rural landscapes: a case study from southwest Ethiopia. Girma Shumi Dugo, Jannik Schultner, Jan Hanspach, Kristoffer Hylander, Feyera Senbeta, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 24/25 (70); 11:00 – 11:40
This will include: A multilevel network model of institutional fit between an actor network and multiple cross-sector issues. Arvid Bergsten, Tolera Senbeto, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Pathways and leverage points for transformative change: Social-ecological transformations for sustainability; C4 (125); 11:50 – 12:30
This will include: Leverage points for sustainability transformation in human–nature connections. Maraja Riechers, Agnes Balazsi, Tibor Hartel, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Resilience and Wellbeing: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 33 (30); 15:30 – 16:10
This will include: Environmental degradation erodes household capital assets and undermines resilience and food security. Aisa Manlosa, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Wednesday 23 August

Contributed session on Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes; C1/C2 (250); 09:00 – 10:30; Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer.
Speakers will include Teja Tscharntke, Roseline Remans, Jahi Chappell, Kristoffer Hylander and Line Gordon. This session will be live streamed. Stay tuned on this blog and on our twitter account for details! Session summary and Abstracts can be found here.

Additional talks by colleagues from Leuphana University

MONDAY: In the session Drivers and outcomes of altered landscapes; Connectivity and cross-scale dynamics in the Anthropocene; Room 27 (60); 14:00 – 14:40, you will hear:
Exploring sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Christian Dorninger, Henrik von Wehrden, David J. Abson.

MONDAY: In the session Food, Agriculture and Resilience: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 24/25 (70); 14:50 – 15:30, you will hear:
Is food security and sovereignty influenced by informal labor sharing among smallholders? Arvid Bergsten.

MONDAY: In the session Communities and resilience practices: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; C1/C2 (250); 16:00 – 17:30, you will hear:
Effects of the “back to the land” movement for rural sustainability a case study from Spain. Elisa Oteros-Rozas, Álvaro Fuentes, Berta Martín-López, Claudia Bieling, Daniel López, Federica Ravera, Francisco Martin-Azcárate, Irene Iniesta-Arandia.

WEDNESDAY: In the session Integrating gender and feminist research into global environmental change: Theory, Methods, and Practice; Contributed session – Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 21 (30); 11:00 – 12:30, you will hear:
The diversity of gendered adaptation strategies to climate change of Indian farmers: a bottom-up feminist intersectional approach. Federica Ravera, Berta Martín-López, Unai Pascual, Adam Drucker