Knowledge for a sustainable world

During an afternoon tea break in Blantyre, Malawi, we were offered a range of delicious-looking biscuits. The coconut-flavoured ones were particularly tasty, and accessibly priced, as we learnt from Jean Pankuku, Food Technologist at Universal Industries. All the biscuits on offer that afternoon were made with a proportion of cassava flour – High-Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF).

We continue to produce plastic to feed the ever-growing consumer demands, and more plastic equals more waste. If current production and waste management trends continue, it’s estimated that roughly 12,000 Mt (metric tonnes) of plastic waste will be in landfill or in the natural environment by the year 2050, according to a recent study.

In India the plastic problem now affecting its coasts and oceans is “severe and alarming” with nearly 87% of waste not managed adequately. The problem is so bad that it’s officially classed as a serious issue in the country and plastic waste is presenting a high risk of polluting both rivers and ocean.

Huge swathes of tropical forests are burning in Africa and the Amazon. These forests are home to indigenous peoples, they are vital habitats for animals and plants, and they are important absorbers of carbon dioxide. Forests are increasingly under pressure as global demand grows for food, fuel and fibre. Markets generally do not attach a value to the social and environmental benefits that forests provide; short-term economic gains from degrading or converting forests are greater than those from leaving them standing.

Huge swathes of tropical forests are burning in Africa and the Amazon. These forests are home to indigenous peoples, they are vital habitats for animals and plants, and they are important absorbers of carbon dioxide. Forests are increasingly under pressure as global demand grows for food, fuel and fibre. Markets generally do not attach a value to the social and environmental benefits that forests provide; short-term economic gains from degrading or converting forests are greater than those from leaving them standing.

About a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation, unsustainable agriculture and other land uses, so forest protection and sustainable agriculture are key to tackling global heating and the climate crisis. How can we protect and restore forests and achieve more sustainability in agriculture, on the massive scale that is needed? Researchers and practitioners in international development are working on innovations and strategies that support forest protection and restoration, including efforts to tackle a key cause of deforestation – agribusiness expansion in soy, cocoa, palm oil, rubber and beef. But how effective are these strategies?

Valerie Nelson, Professor of Sustainable Development, and colleagues from NRI are conducting studies to help answer these questions. One example is their work as part of an independent evaluation team linked to the ‘Partnerships for Forests’ (P4F) programme, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). P4F’s focus is on catalysing investments in which the private sector, public sector and communities can achieve shared value from sustainable forests and land use. They do this by providing grant finance and technical assistance to generate ideas on, and to act as an incubator for new business or investment models as alternatives to ‘business as usual’ in land use, supporting partnerships in West and Central Africa, East Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The aim is for the partnerships to deliver on commitments for deforestation-free commodities, reduce the pressure on forests, and improve livelihoods by 2020.

PF4 supports many highly innovative ideas and partnerships and seeks to assist existing initiatives to scale up. However, more research is needed to know if the strategies they promote are effective, and for whom, and to explore the potential risks of such initiatives exacerbating forest losses, rather than preventing them. The evaluation team, led by development consulting firm LTS International and in collaboration with AidEnvironment, has been conducting studies to inform overall programme strategy, and for policymakers, researchers, DFID and other donors, and practitioners.

Three studies have been undertaken which look closely at the main intervention strategies of the programme. For example, one study has explored projects and partnerships which seek to add economic value to forests by supporting the development of new forest products that are high in value, with low production intensity, such as wild honey, brazil nuts and dragon’s blood fruit. Such initiatives seek to deliver benefits for both producers and buyers, which in turn incentivize their protection.

Other strategies include ‘Sustainable Landscapes Initiatives’, which work with all the diverse groups in a particular forest landscape, to build capacity, institutions and incentives. These Initiatives change the rules governing the use of and access to land and natural resources in the landscape. They also seek to change the business dynamics in the landscape with the aim of creating a shift away from damaging types of agri-commodity production toward forest protection and restoration and more sustainable and intensified agricultural production. Another strategy is developing business models in which large numbers of individual smallholders are engaged in commercial forestry or climate smart agriculture, for example through increased access to credit.

The study findings highlight the complexity of forest-landscape system drivers, values and interests. Tackling deforestation requires simultaneous sets of behaviour and institutional change within the landscape amongst smallholders, local and indigenous communities, local and national governments and private sector producers, processors, importers and buyers.

Across all three strategies there is an urgent need for enhanced capacity strengthening of smallholder organisations in their governance and business capacity, more focus on community land rights, on-going monitoring and evaluation in each specific landscape to ensure positive outcomes and to avoid risks of exacerbating deforestation. The results also find that ‘sustained political support’ is a key ingredient for any of the partnerships and strategies promoted by the P4F programme.

To read more, see the three detailed studies, a briefing, and a synthesis report. Further studies by the evaluation learning team are already underway, including rubber and ecosystem restoration concessions in Southeast Asia, cocoa in West Africa and palm oil in West Africa, with a Latin American study planned for 2020. Findings will begin to emerge from field studies in early 2020.

The Amazon rainforest is on fire. A tweet from President Macron of France stated, “our house is burning. Literally”. This sentiment echoes the speech ‘Our house is on fire’ given by environmental activist Greta Thunberg at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. So far this year, Brazil has had more than 72,000 fire outbreaks, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018. More than half of these fires were in the Amazon.

What does this mean for the planet, and how worried should we be?

Can you tell the difference between a grasshopper and a locust? The Boris I want to tell you about, (the one now cast in bronze rather than the currently ubiquitous blond one), certainly could. Sir Boris Petrovitch Uvarov KCMG, FRS, the eminent Russian-British acridologist (an expert on locusts and grasshoppers), died nearly half a century ago but the scientific legacy of his important discovery lives on. This is his story.

There are 34 known species of mosquitoes in the UK, with an array of appearances, behaviour, favourite meals and preferred habitats. A type of landscape known for its association to mosquitoes are the wetlands, which include marshes, swamps, bogs and fens, among other types. This World Mosquito Day, 20th August, together with the interdisciplinary team of the ‘WetlandLIFE’ project, we are taking a closer look at mosquitoes, considering both the benefits and the risks they can bring to wetland environments.

Do you have what it takes to make an impact on global food and nutrition security? We are looking for exceptional candidates to help drive forward our work to improve the lives of poor people.

The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of the University of Greenwich, UK, carries out specialised research, teaching, training and consultancy with a focus on food, agriculture, environment and sustainable livelihoods.

This is an opportunity to work in an international and vibrant institute, where our teams of natural and social scientists carry out award-winning interdisciplinary research for development. We are well-known across the developing world for practical application of our findings, devising sustainable solutions that make a difference.

How will food security be further endangered by climate change? How do current global systems of producing and distributing food contribute to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions? How is land degradation, including desertification, exacerbating and exacerbated by climate change?

These questions are addressed in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL), released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change. This landmark report assesses a huge range of literature on the interactions between climate change, land degradation, and food insecurity. Importantly, IPCC assessments such as this provide governments with scientific information that they can use to develop policies to tackle climate change.

Coffee is so much more than just another hot beverage. We depend on it to kick-start our mornings, and round off a nice dinner. It’s a useful social prop, and now its alleged health benefits (regular coffee drinkers report lower instances of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and depression to name a few) are well known. For some it’s a way of life, and no more so than for those who grow it, and to avoid the dreaded ‘boom and bust’ for the farmer, the race is on to discover more sustainable forms of production.

Bees are big news right now and humankind has realised two important things: how interlinked bees’ survival is with its own, and that bees are in trouble and urgently need help. Their distress call has reached the ears of government with Defra’s (UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs) Pollinator Advisory Steering Group (PASG) delivering a National Pollinator Strategy and helping develop changes to farming practice and land management. The good news is that by doing less to our parks, hedgerows and gardens, we can do more to help bees.

Hoverflies, which mimic wasps in their black and yellow markings but do not possess a sting, are incredibly useful as pollinators and pest controllers amid the decline of other insect species, as a new study into their migratory behaviour has found.

NRI’s Dr Don Reynolds is part of a group of international scientists that used entomological (insect-studying) radar, to study hoverflies flying up to 1km high, in the skies above southern England. Over a ten-year period, Dr Reynolds and his colleagues examined the biomass of, and seasonal flux in, numbers of migrant hoverflies.