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.


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.



Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Jens Newig

From 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University will host the Leverage Points 2019 international conference on sustainability research and transformation.

Inspired by the work of Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system”, this conference will explore the deep leverage points that can lead to sustainability transformations, asking: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future?

One conference theme will be on Re-structuring institutions for sustainability transformation.

Institutional arrangements are deeply rooted structures that shape the rules of a system and, thus, have the power to advance systems change. Social structures, embedded in formal institutions (rules, regulations, and policies) enable, constrain, and guide human action, and thus shape sustainability transformations.

In this theme, we will explore the potentials of systemic, institutional change as a leverage point for sustainability transformation. Existing research often lacks a systems-oriented view…

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Leverage Points 2019: RECONNECT

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

From 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University will host Leverage Points 2019. The conference has several key themes inviting us to look at leverage points where interventions might lead to transformative change towards sustainability. Here, I introduce one of these themes: re-connecting people with the natural environment.

Why did we choose to focus on re-connecting people with the environment as a potential leverage point for sustainability? Of course, there are many areas in which changes are required, including many areas in which “deep” changes are needed. But for me, re-connecting people with the natural environment has always stood out as an intuitively obvious area that cannot be ignored.

So much about modern lifestyles is hyper-separated from our immediate natural environment — in biophysical terms, cognitive terms, emotional terms, spiritual terms … and probably in a range of other ways, too. As a result, calls have become more…

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(Not) just another conference? Or what excites me to be part of #leverage2019

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Daniel J. Lang

Looking at my mailbox crowded with invitations to conferences, workshops and symposia that pile up every day, it is hard to escape the notion that we drown in distractions. Hence, it is worth asking how we can focus our time and resources to bring us closer to our goal of urgently needed fundamental sustainability transformations? Is another conference the right way to do so?

We see seemingly little change to many unsustainable trajectories in human-environment systems, despite a multitude of research and policy activities addressing these challenges. For many sustainability focused researchers and practitioners this can be  deeply frustrating. To counter this frustration, about four years ago some colleagues and I re-discovered the metaphor of “Leverage Points to intervene in systems” by Donella Meadows (Meadows, 1999). Inspired by this work we have embarked on a research journey to investigate these “places in complex systems where a…

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Inspiring keynote speakers at Leverage Points 2019

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

by Lotte Lutz

The planning and organizing of the conference is gaining momentum while the deadline for the call for abstracts is coming closer. Meanwhile, we are very happy to present the keynote speakers of Leverage Points 2019 to you: inspiring personalities who are dedicated to study and facilitate transformational change.

Karen-300x235Karen O’Brien is a professor in the Department of sociology and human geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. Karen’s current research focuses on the relationships between climate change adaptation and transformations to sustainability. Her current research focuses on the relationships between climate change adaptation and transformations to sustainability. The AdaptationCONNECTS project explores the conditions, approaches and paradigms that support transformations, including the role of creativity, collaboration, empowerment, and narratives. She is co-founder of, an initiative that supports transformation in a changing climate.

Ray-300x240Ray Ison was appointed Professor of Systems at the Open University in 1994, his research and…

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Conference announcement: Leverage Points 2019 at Leuphana University

Join us at Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany), from 6-8 February 2019 for a conference specifically devoted to the idea of “leverage points” for sustainability! You might have read Donella Meadows’ original work on this, or Dave Abson’s recent paper which revived the concept. If you found these contributions inspiring, consider joining us for this conference!


International conference on sustainability research and  transformation

Humanity sits at a crossroad between tragedy and transformation, and now is a crucial time for sustainability research. Radical approaches are needed in sustainability research and practice if they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Inspired by the work of Donella Meadows “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system”, this conference will explore  deep leverage points that can lead to sustainability transformations, asking: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions, and our societies for a better future?

The conference is premised on three principles: (1) The importance of searching for places where interventions can lead to transformative change; (2) Open inquiry, exchange and co-learning across multiple theoretical, methodological and empirical research approaches; and (3) The need for reflection on modes of research and processes in sustainability research.

We hope that this conference will help us move from incremental to transformational change; extend our thinking about complex sustainability challenges; and deepen our collective and transdisciplinary research practices.

The Call for Abstracts is open until 30 June 2018.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

Feel free to distribute the conference flyer, available as a PDF here.

Love as a response to ecological insanity

By Joern Fischer, Maraja Riechers, Cristina Apetrei and Rebecca Freeth

Triggered by an interesting email exchange amongst ourselves, we thought we’d share some reflections on “hope” in a time of ecological disaster. Our discussion drew on an article in The Conversation by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo and on reflections by Donella Meadows written in 1992.

compassion-by-susan von struensee

Our conversation started with a sense of despair about the world falling apart left, right and centre. From distress about general patterns such as climate change or other detrimental global environmental changes, the threatening prospect of the health of coral reefs, rainforests or other biodiversity hotspots, to stories of the irreversible extinction of endemic species – discouraging news are flooding us from every side. As we pondered these rather sad “news,” we stumbled into this beautiful quote by Donella Meadows, in reference to the ozone crisis as it was understood at the time:

“We have to remember that there is absolutely no “external” or “objective” reason to be hopeful or hopeless – we make all that up inside ourselves, and different people make it up differently. No one person’s inner reaction to the facts of the world are any more “correct” than any other. We’d like to label denial “wrong,” but it’s a completely understandable psychological coping mechanism. In terms of utility, it’s no more paralyzing than hopelessness.

If we can make even the tiniest crack between the information and the way we feel about it, we begin to get a bit of power over how we feel about it. These days I CHOOSE how I’m going to feel about it. I don’t choose denial, and I don’t choose hopelessness, and I don’t choose to hate my fellow human beings – those are legitimate and understandable emotional responses, but they paralyze me. I try (some days it’s hard) to choose what gets me to work – a bit of fear, considerable grief, a lot of love for the planet and for all creatures on it (even us), and a tremendous faith that the universe did not evolve for four billion years to create the first form of life that could celebrate the wonders of the Earth, in order for that form of life to eliminate those wonders.

We have within us the ability to wonder, the intelligence to understand, and the love to care about that which we wonder at. I try to play to those abilities, within myself and within others, and in them I always find hope.”

This statement is touching because it spans the full range of how humanity manifests, and because it offers love as a response to ecological insanity. It also reminds us that hope is a state that we must relate not to “that which is”, but to “that which might be”, and for the latter the possibilities are infinite: we can always reorient our actions towards a better outcome in the future. In the face of news that shake us, in which feelings of helplessness and anger can be overwhelming, practicing compassion – for the planet as well as for maladaptive human behaviour – can strengthen and motivate us to go on. It is up to us to forgive the world for being as it is and at the same time gently steer it to a better place. Or, as Donella Meadows wrote in another article: “there are limits to growth, but no limits to love”.

How might we best draw on love to effect change? Perhaps at the most basic level, we can refer back to a very old post on this blog – there, Michael Soulé’s notion of “broadening one’s beam of compassion” was quoted, essentially as a guiding principle for looking after life on Earth.

And just because we haven’t had enough inspiring quotes yet, let’s throw in one more! Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

And so, it would seem, armed with inner strength and love, we might be well equipped to respond to our collective human insanity – gradually transforming and revitalizing our individual lives, communities, and our planet as a whole.

Creating meaningful transdisciplinary collaborations during the limited time of a PhD

Social-ecological systems Scholars

This is the second post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

Hi there, I am My Sellberg and I am doing a PhD in Sustainability Science at Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. The possibility of doing transdisciplinary research was one of the main reasons for why I decided to do a PhD. The exciting and uncomfortable space between science and practice is where I want to be. I want to contribute to the solutions, and not ‘only’ observe and describe the problems at hand.

Trained in social-ecological resilience thinking, I got interested in whether these quite theoretical ideas could be of any practical relevance. My research focuses on a method for resilience assessment, which is a co-production process of jointly defining and learning about an issue from a systems perspective, analyzing its dynamics and resilience, and coming up with suggested actions. In my work, I have been exploring…

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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.

Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

By Joern Fischer (apart from the bits I stole from Ioan Fazey)

Academic work, ultimately, is all about good ideas. But how do you know an idea is truly yours? In this post, I reflect on some of “my” best ideas, wondering where they came from – and posing a few different hypotheses. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea…

So let’s take a few examples first, as a little reflection that serves to show that some of “my own” ideas probably have not been mine at all. I’ll then get into a few hypotheses as to what might be happening.

But first some ideas. A nice hierarchical survey design of nested triangles was used by me and my co-authors in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Fig. 1). This idea came up in a meeting with my co-author and statistical advisor at the time. Later, I learned that a very similar design had been used by Josh Dorrough, who had previously worked with the same statistician. So perhaps it had been his idea? Interestingly, a broadly similar design is also used in the large “safe project” in Indonesia (see linked Fig. 1). So perhaps there is an altogether different source of this “idea”, which neither Josh nor I knew about?

Another example is the notion of slow, substantial but difficult-to-implement change, versus rapid but easier-to-implement change. This notion was captured in Fig. 1 in a 2012 paper I published with a bunch of co-authors. But a very similar notion had been communicated by Donella Meadows a decade earlier, in her paper on leverage points.

Or take our literature review on cultural ecosystem services, published in 2013. This paper came a very short time after a paper by Terry Daniel and others on the same topic; and a very short time before a paper led by Mónica Hernández-Morcillo. I could list many more examples from my own publications, or I can extend this notion to colleagues of mine – noting for example, that Ioan Fazey was working on evidence-based conservation in the early 2000s, quite separately from work by Andrew Pullin who later set up a whole centre around this notion. And so on.

Such examples are common, and if you write a lot, invariably, sooner or later someone will come to you and wonder – more or less politely – whether you stole her or his idea. Or you might see your own idea in somebody else’s work, and wonder whether they stole it from you. (If you’re fast, you’ll experience others accusing you, if you’re slow, you’ll experience feeling they stole your ideas…)

So what’s going on here, and what do we do with it? I want to lay out four different hypotheses for what is happening, and why this is happening.

Hypothesis 1: People like me consciously steal other people’s ideas. Perhaps I liked something that someone else is doing, and I think … hmmm …. perhaps I can get a paper out of something like this, too? And then I use that idea, and bingo, track record is improved and nobody noticed. Hooray.

Hypothesis 2: People like me sub-consciously steal people’s ideas! Perhaps I liked something that someone did. I then forget about it … and then later on, it comes back into my conscious mind, and I turn it into some kind of product. Possible? Yes, this is quite possible. We hear a lot of things, all the time, and I at least can’t remember all the different places in which I hear different things. These ideas all go into some giant sub-conscious storage space, and then later get drawn on, but re-combined in new ways and without explicit reference to where they had originally come from – because there is no conscious process of tracing their origin.

Hypothesis 3: Sometimes, things are simply “ripe” for a certain idea, and different people realize this at the same time. So for example, Carl Folke was writing on “environmental services” in the mid 1990s, just before Bob Costanza published his famous paper on ecosystem services, and before Gretchen Daily published her book on ecosystem services. Earlier examples of such parallel processes abound, for example Wallace’s work on evolution being at a similar time to Darwin’s.

Hypothesis 4: The universe is all just energy, everything is connected to everything else, and good ideas float about in the ether – we just need to open ourselves to them and let them flow through us. What?! Admittedly, this hypothesis is mildly less grounded in conventional physical evidence, but there are a number of spiritual thinkers who would probably support this idea. When you have a good idea – one that feels truly original – where does it come from? Where do brilliant ideas of artists, musicians or scientists come from? What, really, is a “moment of inspiration”, what is it we are accessing then? Perhaps knowledge is there, always, and when we are in a state of flow, we can access the right knowledge to make progress at the time?

I won’t be arguing for or against any of these four hypotheses. In the scientific circuit in general, I actually think it’s a combination of all four of these going on. What’s more interesting is the question, what do we do about this?

What becomes highly evident is that ideas rarely originate in one individual. Our system of giving credit to individuals (or sets of authors) is flawed. “Breakthroughs” of any kind happen on the shoulders of many who have been there (or very close) before – funnily enough, google scholar acknowledges this when it says “stand on the shoulder of giants”. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders, all the time, whether in physical space, or metaphysical space. No idea is truly yours, or mine, or anyone’s. And yet, we operate together in a world, and some of us have decided to operate together in ways that try to make the world a better place. It makes sense then that we should work together, rather than get hung up about who contributed what, precisely.

And yet, we live in a world of institutional incentives, and it’s probably only expert thieves (or highly inspired people? Hm…) who can afford to “not care” about who did what. The challenge thus appears to be to try to be explicit about which idea comes from where; but also to recognize that ultimately, we’re in this together – as all of humanity, that is!

So: credit where credit is due … but preferably in full recognition that we have no idea where that actually is.

(I wonder where the idea for this blog post came from. Parts for sure I stole from Ioan Fazey, and he even paid for my coffee. Pathetic, really.)