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Helen Buckland is UK Director, Sumatran Orangutan Society

 

Palm fruit.jpgThe world’s voracious appetite for palm oil - an ingredient found in up to half of all packaged supermarket products in the UK - is fuelling the destruction of some of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, home to countless species, including the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (see www.orangutans-sos.org). Whilst every individual has the right to make choices about the food they eat and the cosmetics they use, I feel that a boycott of products containing palm oil is not the answer to saving Indonesia’s forests, for a number of reasons.

 

In order to boycott products containing palm oil, you need to know which ones to avoid – which is not easy. Palm oil is usually a hidden ingredient in food and cosmetic products, listed simply as “vegetable oil” on packaging, so it is currently almost impossible to make informed choices about what you buy at the supermarket.

 

Even armed with a palm-oil-free shopping list, protesting with your wallet may have some unintended consequences. Oil palms are the most productive oil seed in the world – more than 10 times as much oil is produced from a hectare of oil palms as other crops. If companies are forced to switch to alternative oils, even more land could be put at risk by increasing demand for oils which need larger plantations. Soybeans, for example, tend to be grown under a similar model to oil palms: huge monocultures, often at the expense of tropical forests in South America. We do not want to export the problem - saving the Southeast Asian rainforests from conversion at the expense of the Brazilian Amazon, swallowing up even more forest in the process. We simply want forest conversion to stop.

 

Palm oil is a “wonder crop” when it comes to meeting the huge global demand for vegetable oils, accounting for more than a third of the world’s supply. Countries such as India and China rely on huge palm oil imports to meet their populations’ nutritional needs, bringing billions of dollars to top producer countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. As long as the world needs vegetable oil, there is no question that the palm oil industry will continue to grow; what we need to be concerned with how this expansion happens.

 

The development of new oil palm plantations does not need to entail forest destruction. While precious ecosystems are being devastated, millions of hectares of abandoned land lie idle, available for cultivation.  It is estimated that the amount of land growing oil palms in Indonesia could quadruple without impacting forests (http://www.projectpotico.org/), enabling the industry to grow whilst drastically reducing its environmental footprint.

 

wild male.jpgThe Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established to create a clear set of standards for reducing the environmental impacts of the industry. Change has been slow, and it’s not a perfect system, but oil certified as sustainable according to these standards has started to trickle into the world market.

 

Many millions of hectares of forests have already been lost to the palm oil industry. It is absolutely critical that the conversion of forests is stopped. We need more research into how to increase output on existing plantations, as current yields are in many cases well below their potential, and this would reduce the need for cultivating more land.  Environmentally-sensitive land use planning, improved productivity, responsible investment by banks and purchasing by manufacturers and retailers are all crucial to halt the conversion of Indonesia’s forests for agricultural development.
So what can you do to help? If you know a certain product contains palm oil, and would rather not to buy it on that basis, make sure that you write to the company that makes it and tell them. You can also demand that companies use only certified sustainable palm oil, and to clearly label this on their packaging. Making your voice heard really can make a difference – several big companies have already made commitments to cleaning up their palm oil supply after hearing from their customers about this issue - see the WWF website for a list.  We can all also pressure our elected officials to make decisions that help conserve our planet's limited resources and threatened biodiversity, and save precious species, including the orangutan, from extinction.

 

For further information on the environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry see: http://www.orangutans-sos.org/campaigns/palm_oil_and_biofuels/

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

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The London Metro reported yesterday how scientists have just given the green light for a Polynesian pepper shrub/vine – Piper methysticum - and that it does have properties that can be used medicinally to help deal with anxiety problems.

 

Well good for science to confirm this, but the back story includes that Sydney Parkinson the artist on Captain Cook’s first voyage in the Endeavour (1769) was one of the first people to ever record the ethnographic use of the past. Polynesians chewed the leaves into a pulp and ate the brew to get intoxicated (Parkinson a tee-total Quaker disapproved, but also noted that at that time the Polynesians really disliked the alcohol the crew offered them). Much of the society drank the Kava Kava (‘Ava ‘Ava) brew to chill – its anxiety alleviation being pretty obvious!

 

Roll on 50 years and the Presbyterian missionaries had got their hold on the islanders – converting them to Christianity and banning the Kava Kava brew. Charles Darwin in the Beagle Narratives of 1831-6 records with satisfaction how their good work has led to the eradication of the plant over most of Tahiti, but it could still be found on remote volcanic heights (I recorded it there in 2003).

 

clip_image001.jpgOf course other plants in this pepper genus have similar properties. For example, the Savunese people in Indonesia pulp the fruit of a related species with Betel nut to make the red chewing-paste which many of the old people use as a mild smooth (they do not report any euphoric effects but an sense of calm and wellbeing – so science confirms what a whole people have known since time immemorial, Interestingly today the Savunese culture - a mixture of ancient animism and modern Lutheran Christianity - is being suppressed today – by the majority Muslim Indonesian State which do not allow their language to be taught in schools etc.

 

What has this to do with the International Year of Biodiversity, well two obvious points; we should be carefully preserving indigenous knowledge rather than destroying it.

 

We should also be respecting this knowledge alongside science - and that means thinking how these peoples get a share of the benefits of biodiversity when it is exploited by modern drugs companies. These people have been custodians of that knowledge for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

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I’m Australian. Australia can probably claim the fastest rate of species extinction of any country on earth. Humans no sooner entered the treasurehouse of biodiversity that is the continent of Australia than they brought cats, foxes, dogs, deer, goats, pigs, water buffalo, camels, rats, mice, and allowed them to maraud at liberty. Whole populations of fascinating small mammals have been wiped out. Even in England cats have hunted all kinds of small mammals and birds to the edge of extinction. People who care about biodiversity don’t keep cats.

An earthling’s true heritage is not collections of works of art or crown jewels or great palaces built by potentates of the past. Our heritage is the exuberance of our small planet, with its astonishing variety of indwelling species, from the most delicate and intricate of mosses to the most specialised of bugs, hundreds of thousands of species each adapted to its special niche, living in fragile equilibrium with its neighbours and competitors. Every time a single species goes out of existence we are poorer. As it is, whole chains of mutually dependent species are crashing. We are destroying our inheritance before we had even come into it.

My position is that only ordinary people can make a difference. Rebuilding habitat is enormous fun; if you get it right it is also easy. What should be growing in your garden, as distinct from what is? Let your garden grow wild. Leave litter to rot down. Be glad to see bugs, yes, even aphids. More slugs means the return of the thrushes, and the happiness of toads. Let the wasps get drunk on your apples. Let the worms condition your soil. You may make a million mistakes along the way, but you will also see a reward beyond price.
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Paul Smith is leader of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) which aims to save the world’s most endangered plant species from extinction.

 

PaulSmith5.jpgTo halt, and even reverse, biodiversity loss what we need is a combination of appropriate policy and good management practice. These two approaches should always go hand in hand. Even if appropriate policy is set, if natural resource managers don’t have the tools to implement that policy, nothing improves. Conversely, technological or management interventions to stem biodiversity loss will not work unless they are supported by policy that creates funding and incentives.

 

In my opinion, the most important challenges that biodiversity and natural resource  managers face are related to both international and national development policy. The emphasis on poverty alleviation or wealth generation, for example, as measured by GDP or US dollar income, does not adequately address the problem of unsustainable management (and resulting loss) of biodiversity, which in itself leads to real, material poverty. This is dealt with comprehensively in the recent TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) studies, and has been highlighted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

A second, related problem is faddism in international development policy. The shift away from supporting and encouraging technological collaboration and exchange in natural resources management has undone a lot of good work – for example the decision by donors to cease supporting African tree seed centres at a time when the Food and Agriculture Organisation tells us that 28 trees are cut down for every tree planted in Africa. Good natural resource management takes decades to achieve in any given place, and needs to be maintained.

In the case of national development policy, education and health are rightly priorities, but environment comes too far down the list. Natural capital (land, soils, the diversity of plants, animals and life) is hugely undervalued, and key development areas such as agricultural research and forestry are massively under-resourced. As a result, where natural resource or land use policy is in place, it is often poorly implemented. Government scientists are poorly paid, the best brains move out, the remaining scientists don’t have the training, tools or resources they need, they are consequently not involved in development decision making, and central government increasingly regards its own researchers as irrelevant. This is a vicious circle.

The technological knowledge and tools needed to manage natural resources in a sustainable way are usually available somewhere. However, scientists in developing countries don’t have access to those technologies. This goes way beyond just information. Like the rest of us, they need mentoring, training and long term collaboration. They also need access to wide global networks not simply one on one partnerships in order to reap the benefits.

It is a mystery to me why it is that technical collaborations in Africa have to follow short term funding cycles. In Europe we have pan-European technical collaborations that span decades or even careers and yet a long term European-African collaboration is taken to be an indicator of a programme that is unsustainable – why do we need to have an exit strategy after 3 or 5 years? No wonder it is hard to make an impact!

Finally, biodiversity science in the public sector needs to find its way. Over the past two decades, government agricultural and forestry research institutions all over the world have had their funding cut drastically, and many have had to close. Universities can’t fill this void because they have different research drivers (e.g. publications and short term funding cycles). NGOs can’t do long term research because they don’t have the funding or expertise. And the private sector doesn’t always work for the public good – it also works for profit and shareholders.

Things that would make a difference

1.    Recognition by governments and the development sector that human wellbeing or wealth cannot simply be measured in US dollar.
2.    Recognition by governments that good management of natural capital, including biodiversity, underpins human health, wealth and wellbeing.
3.    Support from donors and national governments for policies that promote ecosystem health, and mitigate the risk of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
4.    Support from donors and national governments for capacity building, information exchange and scientific collaboration in the public sector (for appropriate timescales).
5.    A new vision that sets out the role of government scientists in delivering services for the public good.


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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History  Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest  of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is  the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's  Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme  Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different  countries both for research and while working with people on  biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

In an earlier blog I mentioned I’d come back to benefits from genetic resources and the CBD, so I’ll now try to grasp the nettle.

 

One of the three objectives of the Convention is Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity. This is the part that receives least attention of all, and which many of the Parties to the Convention want action on. As Bob has mentioned in one of his postings, one of the three outcomes that many countries want from Nagoya is an International Regime on Access and Benefit-Sharing.  So what does this mean? One thing it means is a lot of terminology, but as so much of the discussions are terminology-heavy, I’d better go for it.

 

Under Article 3 of the Convention "States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources …".  Broadly speaking, this means that the biodiversity of a country belongs to that country, and cannot be exploited without the permission of that country. Article 15 makes it clearer: “Recognizing the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments and is subject to national legislation.”.  So if anyone wants to get hold of a ‘genetic resource’ (“genetic material of actual or potential value”) they have to ask the government of the country in which it is found and obey its laws. In practice this may mean getting permission from a variety of bodies and people, including at very local level, to access these ‘resources’.  The general mechanism for this is to make it clear what use is going to be made of the resource and get agreement with the provider country (‘Prior Informed Consent’ - PIC) and then agree a form of contract, a ‘Material Transfer Agreement’ (MAT). This will probably have a section on how any benefits are shared. The benefits might be money, if something gets commercialised, or information, or support for conservation, or a host of other things. So far so good. However, different countries have developed legislation in different ways, and there is real lack of clarity on how legislation in one country might be applied to someone from another country who has exploited genetic material without PIC and MAT. That is part of the background for the desire for an International Regime, so that access can be regulated and compliance can be more easily monitored and enforced.

 

In principle that sounds OK. Stuff growing in my garden belongs to me; you can’t take genes from it without my permission, and if you make money out of those genes I want a cut. In practice, it is a touch more difficult. How does a country know what is being collected and used out, how does it manage the permits it issues, how does it monitor what happens when genetic material is being examined outside the country, and passed between different researchers? Any process put in place is likely to be expensive in time and money; should it apply only to people who are planning to utilise a genetic resource commercially, or to everybody, including those who are carrying out purely academic research with no financial implications? How do you tell which is which? Should the regime apply only to the genetic material or to derivatives (“a naturally occurring biochemical compound resulting from the genetic expression or metabolism of biological or genetic resources, even if they do not contain functional units of heredity”). Should this apply to human genetic material? Should it apply to disease organisms, where it might be important to transfer and use genetic material very rapidly? Of course, one doesn’t just take genetic material from the environment, one takes organisms and extracts the genetic material afterwards. Because of this any legislation tends to be applied to specimens that might be collected, because of the potential benefits from the genetic material within them. So should it apply to commodities, such as potatoes? How does it apply to the exotic pot plants so many of us grow at home?

 

The basis of the discussion is very important; countries have seen and are still seeing money being made by big companies from exploiting genetic information gleaned from organisms they have collected, but no return coming back to the country of origin. The problems in developing a regime that can protect such countries whilst not paralysing other activities in support of the Convention, and can be practically implemented, are considerable.  The proposed text of the regime to be agreed at Nagoya is still being negotiated, and as of this morning still contains much text that is bracketed, which indicates that the negotiators have not yet agreed on the appropriate wording. It is important that we have something out of Nagoya that we can take forward, so we can move forward on this area of the Convention.

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John Jackson is Science Policy Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum.

 

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3) published in May 2010 says that, ’The target agreed by the world’s Governments in 2002, “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth”, has not been met.’

 

Biodiversity loss is not slowing - Jonathan Ballie’s post refers to the Buchart et al. paper in Science that reaches that conclusion with scientific data. The CBD secretary’s note for Nagoya states that not a single country has reported that it has met the 2010 target “to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010”. For the UK, the 2010 JNCC Biodiversity Indicators in Your Pocket shows that things look good if you are a bat, but less good news for birds and plants.

 

GBO3 is a key document in looking forward from Nagoya and is well worth reading - straightforward and not too technical. It points to some progress on controlling pollution and managing protected areas, but otherwise the global picture looks grim: species diversity; genetic diversity; sustainable use and consumption; habitat loss; invasive species; climate change; access and benefit sharing; policy development; and other areas - for all of these the record is not good.

 

So a question for debate: 2020 will be the next set of targets. What is going to make this approach more of a success than 2010? What needs to change?

 

Twenty 2020 targets have been drafted for Nagoya, part of a 195-page document, and propose for agreement that by 2020 (a somewhat arbitrary selection):

  • Target 1: all people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.
  • Target 5: the rate of loss and degradation, and fragmentation, of natural habitats is [at least halved][brought close to zero].
  • Target 10: to have minimized the multiple pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification, so as to maintain their integrity and functioning.
  • Target 12: the extinction and decline of known threatened species has been prevented and improvement in the conservation status [for at least 10% of them] has been achieved.
  • Target 14: ecosystems that provide essential services and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are safeguarded and/or restored and equitable access to ecosystem services is ensured for all, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities and the poor and vulnerable.
  • Target 19: knowledge, the science base and technologies relating to biodiversity, its values, functioning, status and trends, and the consequences of its loss, are improved, widely shared and transferred, and applied.

 

Ambitious? Extremely. Necessary? Absolutely. Practical? That is up to us.  What are we going to do now that will enable us all to congratulate ourselves on how well we have done since 2010?

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

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An interesting development week is the online publication of a report following from the Global Business of Biodiversity conference in the summer. The report, GBOB - A contribution to CBD COP10, has been designed for the CBD to share with the business segment meeting (a side event at the CBD COP10 later this month in Nagoya).

 

As an e-publication the site also links to an easy download and print version of the report. The introduction includes a video keynote from HRH Prince Charles, and a number of extracts and features drawn from other keynote speeches including Secretary of State for Environment, Caroline Spelman. Section 2 highlights comments from the other key speakers from science, policy and industry.

 

However at the heart of the book is Section 1 – a summary of the feedback from delegates. It is their feedback to the CBD, to Nagoya and to international governments which is most important and interesting. This is summarised under seven themes which highlight the main issues and barriers. A strong response from governments at the COP could help address and remove these obstacles and thereby enable businesses to engage more systematically, and not be penalised, in the global market place:

 

 

    • Lack of understanding
    • Communication
    • Markets
    • Regulatory frameworks
    • Reporting and accountability
    • Capacity development
    • Wider integration – the overarching narrative

 


What is most interesting about the report is that while industry is rightly in the frame for being one of the primary causes of biodiversity loss, this shows a growing interest and awareness, and a willingness to address the issues if Governments internationally can set the policy frameworks for them to operate and be regulated within.