Nature Blog Network Future Earth: July 2009

Monday, 27 July 2009

Entangled bank - wildflowers rule, UK.

An "entangled bank" in Kent stimulted Darwin's thoughts on survival of the fittest. This Sussex bank, snapped at Glyndebourne during the UK's 2 days of summer this year, has been set aside for wildflowers within a formal cultivated garden, and what a feast of diversity is there.

With the UK's 'set aside' programme biting the dust in 2007, and farmers no longer compensated for keeping land out of production, Defra has been consulting this year on how to retain the environmental benefits gained. They are favouring a voluntary rather than legislated approach through "A Campaign for the Farmed Environment’", encouraging the farming industry to promote environmental stewardship within its own parameters for good practice.

Good practice for wildflowers is not restricted to agricultual land, however. "Landlife" focuses on urban & urban fringe areas as well - providing seeds of hope perhaps for the cities of the future. Those cities will be exerting their own pressures on diminishing agricultural land though, and as the demand for global food security forces greater production pressures on our reserves of agricultural land, what will keep farmers on the side of biodiversity?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Condoms for footballers - yes, they can!

Football has become a common language as well as a tradeable currency. In Banda Aceh recently I was astonished to see a huge billboard with Stephen Gerrard's face writ large - a role model for high standard Premiership football, now sadly tarnished as brawling Gerrard's face sprawls across the tabloids instead. Then amidst acres of Miombo woodland in remote northern Mozambique we came across a villager peddling an ancient bicycle and a team shirt that provided common ground for a long conversation.

It also provided inspiration for a project* that resulted in 100 "Alive & Kicking" locally-made leather footballs being delivered to the enthusiastic Peles-in-the-making in villages around Niassa Reserve. These young guys were bundling up plastic bags and tying them with local twine into ball shapes. If they had had access to condoms, they could have improved on this model themselves. African ingenuity is using blown-up condoms as the basis for bounceable balls - covering them in plastic and old clothing for strength. I suppose by preventing their use for the purpose intended (and setting aside serious considerations of poverty, aids, climate etc for a moment), they are also ensuring a continuing supply of African football talent in years to come!

* A collaboration between Martin Aveling, Alive & Kicking, Sociedade de Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa (SRN), Keith and Colleen Begg, Fauna & Flora International & Fauna & Flora International Inc.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Biodiversity - what's in a name?

It seems so obvious to me. Diversity is good - healthier, stronger, allowing for rapid adaptation to new environments in an endlessly changing world. And the word 'diversity' is well understood, right? Certainly understood in relation to diversity amongst people - different cultures, genders, orientations and nationalities. It even has its own school of "diversity management" aimed at encouraging business and educational structures to retain a healthy diversity of skills and talents. Google the word and you will find it is the name of the dance troupe winning "Britain's Got Talent" this year, so the word has even percolated into the clubs and pubs of every corner of this small island. Britain gets Diversity.

So what happens when you add a descriptor - genetic diversity, cultural diversity - still understood. So what is the problem with biological diversity, or its shortened form of biodiversity? Nothing, according to the local team working to protect Aceh's forest biodiversity - even though it is a little bit difficult to translate (Keanekaragaman hayati or biodiversitas?). Nothing, according to groups like Local Action for Biodiversity, or the children celebrating International Biodiversity Day this year. It even has its own Convention. But apparently the word has a low recognition factor in the UK and we are being encouraged to use "Nature" instead. Naturally, if this will help reverse the dramatic decline in global biodiversity - which, according to a recent letter to the journal Nature *, we are not doing too well - this blog will change its nature and lexicon.

*(Published online 8 July 2009 | Nature 460, 163 (2009) | doi:10.1038/460163c)Governments fail to reduce global biodiversity decline)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Bacon chocolate (yes, read on)

What the world has been waiting for - delicious bacon and delicious chocolate in one easy bite. Well, half the world, anyway. And guess what - made in America. Vosges stress their green credentials but make no mention of palm oil, so I await their clarification before making a recommendation.

Meanwhile, how do they fare on the good taste test? On the taste buds themselves, not quite "nul points" as the chocolate is good. But even our beagle, who refutes that chocolate is poisonous to dogs (and as customs officials know, any beagle can sniff out a micron of food in a 747 at several paces) turned her nose up at this one. Fails the metaphorical "good taste" test too - does the world need to add fatty, calorific, methane-producing pork to ethically-produced chocolate? Food insecurity at its most dire?

But then, how deep is my green? Perhaps more research is needed and I suspect it will entail my tasting all the Vosges products to develop a more informed opinion.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Charles Darwin's (very own) Rose

Last year I bought three "Charles Darwin" roses & planted them hopefully in pots ready for this year's celebrations. Over the damp winter months they developed a virus; one died, but the fittest responded to TLC. Slender and delicate against the robust disease-resistant hybrids beside them, as summer took hold one presented a hopeful bud. Then, on the first day of the Cambridge Darwin Festival, this beautiful bloom emerged. Guess what? It has a broad, substantive head with overlapping layers of petals reminiscent of the crumpled, yellowing tissue in collecting boxes.

I will dedicate each bloom in this Darwin party year, and this one is of course for the man himself. You can follow his posts from The Beagle on twitter @cdarwin (and from his party people at the Festival on #DarwinFest). Anyone you would like to nominate for the next bloom?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A glove of novelists?

You might expect your scientific mind to be stretched at Cambridge's Darwin Festival, but conversations at the Corn Exchange the other night stimulated the soul. (O.K., O.K, "soul" not proven concept - please accept as a metaphor). A veritable soul-fest, in fact. A.S. Byatt & Ian McEwan, introduced by writers and interviewed by writers, all united in admiration for the intellectual curiousity of Charles Darwin.

Collective noun for novelists? A stimulation of novelists? An interpretation of novelists? No - I'm settling on "glove". Abiding memory of the evening was A.S. Byatt wiggling her fingers in an imaginary glove inhabiting an imaginary character.... and smiling as she toyed with where it might take them. She insisted it was not puppetry, as did McEwan who described inhabiting his characters and looking around at what they might see, how they might affect others in the vicinity. Seeking insights into the influence of Darwin on their writing, the interviewers came up short - A.S. Byatt was persuaded back into a childhood fascination for the natural world and Norse myths. McEwan pondered on life, not as fate, but as a rolling series of coincidences and crossroads (including voyeristic window into the McE extended family re. different consequences for his wife and sister of the 11 plus exam) .

Apart from commenting that neither novelist would be enjoyed by Darwin (whose taste was restricted to the light relief of pretty heroines and happy endings) both were more easily persuaded to talk about current projects. A.S. Byatt is playing with surrealism and psycho-analysis as fertile ground for contrasting characters (and also still thinking of writing her own "Norse" myth). McEwan has a physically unattractive 1980s Oxbridge scientist using intellectual brilliance to increase his relationship "fitness" and allowing him to play with the struggle that artists and moralists have with fate v. chance and "grandeur in this view of life".

Hey, we know what they are writing this summer!

AS Byatt (DBE, novelist; author of Angels and Insects and Possession) in conversation with Professor Gillian Beer (DBE, University of Cambridge, UK author of Darwin’s Plots).

Ian McEwan (novelist; author of Saturday, Enduring Love and Atonement) in conversation with Professor David Amigoni (Keele University, UK, and author of Colonies, Cults and Evolution).

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Global Allotments

Between the White Nile on the left of this image and the smaller Blue Nile on the right, irrigated agriculture spreads across the Sudanese Sahara.
Today it may be for cotton fibre, tomorrow it will likely be biofuels, the day after tomorrow it will be for food.

But not necessarily for Sudan, or even for Africa, despite the impoverishment of people and patchiness of food supply across the continent. Huge areas of agricultural land are being "secured" in advance for wealthier nations or those betting on future value as food insecurity starts to bite. Hard to swallow?

Various reports are documenting this land grab and the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates between US$20 billion and US$30 billion are being spent yearly by rich countries on agricultural land in developing countries. John Vidal in yesterday's Guardian quotes Devinder Sharma, analyst with the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in India, predicting civil unrest:

"Outsourcing food production will ensure food security for investing countries but would leave behind a trail of hunger, starvation and food scarcities for local populations," he said. "The environmental tab of highly intensive farming – devastated soils, dry aquifer, and ruined ecology from chemical infestation – will be left for the host country to pick up."