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Save the seeds – and the living plants we eat and use

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The ‘Doomsday Vault’, storing the seeds of vital crops in an underground vault near Svalbard, Norway, will celebrate its 10th anniversary soon, drawing deserved attention to the importance of conserving seeds that are vital for food and agriculture.

It was the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001 that gave the impetus to the Norwegian government to proceed with the establishment of the Seed Vault; the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture welcomed and supported the initiative in 2004.

The resources and attention given to Svalbard, now the iconic home to seeds of around one million unique plants, is welcome. While farmers have bred crops for millennia, the emphasis on conservation of crop diversity ex situ is historically linked to Nikolai Vavilov, who set up one of the first genebanks in Russia in 1921. In a quest to end all famines, the botanist travelled to more than 60 countries, listening to farmers and collecting seeds with an eye to their potential to contribute to hardier crops in a changing world.

Accessions from genebanks that were subsequently established have been used to breed crop varieties that are better suited for food production, such as those that proved resistant to the rust diseases that can decimate wheat and maize harvests, and to produce rice varieties able to withstand salty soils, inject new resilience in highly-domesticated crops and contribute to innovations that changing climate conditions may require, such as faster maturation or drought tolerance.

Into the wild

While focus on  conservation in genebanks is necessary, many of the genetic resources needed to underwrite sustainable food systems are found on-farm in the form of farmers’ varieties and landraces and also in nature as crop wild relatives.

Consider the sunflower, a native to North America, where samples of 53 species of sunflower wild relatives have been collected and stored. Varieties with elevated oil contents were developed in Russia, followed by significant improvements driven by a French scientist who tapped genetic quirks in a wild prairie sunflower, and today the crop is grown in more than 70 countries and accounts for an annual revenue of $20 billion.

Wild plants, notably those related to edible mainstays, are increasingly under threat and warrant increased efforts for their conservation and utilization. These plants are rarely part of intense crop improvement programmes. Yet experts know they often provide interesting traits that can work wonders on crops.

That’s why researchers scour central Asia in search of apple varieties, Papua New Guinea for sugar cane, and are excited to have found a wild banana in Southeast Asia that may help propagate resistance to a deadly fungus that is decimating the popular Cavendish variety.

Recently researchers have discovered previously unknown information on the genetic history of the wild relatives of cultivated chickpea, offering promising potential for a popular pulse food for which improvement has been hampered by an extreme lack of genetic diversity.

Many locally important food crops grow in parts of the world facing rapid change and high levels of food insecurity. To help countries in the daunting task of protecting the species relevant to their food supply in their natural habitats where they would continue to evolve important traits for adaptation to changes, FAO recently published Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Food Plants.

Crop wild relatives have saved our skins many times and may become stars in our climate change toolkit,” says Chikelu Mba, a plant geneticist and Leader of the Seeds and Genetic Resources team at FAO.

Setting up protected areas is a key step. “Many countries in fact have them, and there is a potential to combine CWR conservation with nature conservation” notes Mba. “But few know what is inside them.”

Overcome extinction threats

Conservation efforts need to be accelerated now as climate change, urbanization and shifting land-use patterns all pose increasingly imminent threats to the survival of many of these relatively unsung species.

“The diversity of both crop wild relatives and wild food plants are being continuously eroded and many could become extinct if the current level of neglect is not checked,” says Ren Wang, FAO Assistant Director-General, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department.

Wild crop relatives tend to be most diverse and prolific in a food crop’s ancestral center of origin – the potato in the Andes, sugarcane in Asia – and also in secondary diversity zones such as the Mediterranean for the tomato and sub-Saharan Africa for cassava. That, one of Vavilov’s pioneering insights, helps in choosing appropriate locations for conservation areas.

Bolstering public support for such initiatives is easier if they are shown to “benefit humans in a tangible manner,” says Hans Dreyer, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division. “Conservation and sustainable use go hand in hand.”

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Forests for Climate: Scaling up Forest Conservation to Reach Net Zero

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The role of forests in the global carbon cycle is fundamental. Unless tropical deforestation is halted, there can be no solution to the climate crisis.

While deforestation is responsible for nearly 15% of global CO₂ emissions, conserving existing forests offers as much as nine times more low-cost carbon abatement as planting new trees. If we do not halt deforestation by 2030 at the latest, it will not be possible to limit global warming to a 1.5°C pathway. In a new report, Forests for Climate: Scaling up Forest Conservation to Reach Net Zero, published today by the World Economic Forum, the case is made for private-sector investment in entire landscape approaches to protect forests.

“There is no tackling climate change without forests. Deforestation alone is responsible for nearly 15% of global CO₂ emissions. Conversely, nature-based solutions can provide one-third of the mitigation needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” says Nicole Schwab, Co-Director, Nature-based Solutions, World Economic Forum.

Reversing global deforestation is a complex challenge – but at its heart lie four simple conditions: scale, funding, integrity and inclusion. The report analyses an approach known as “jurisdictional REDD+” that channels results-based payments to forest governments and communities that avoid deforestation across entire landscapes. This approach builds on an existing UN initiative (“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation” or “REDD”) but scales it up from a project basis to programmes at national or sub-national scales.

Inclusion is a critical part of this new approach. For example, almost half of the intact forests in the Amazon are in Indigenous territories – and deforestation rates in these areas are three-to-four times lower than in equivalent lands not held by Indigenous people. The inclusion of both local communities and state governments or jurisdictions enhances the integrity of the programmes and helps avoid some of the risks associated with earlier attempts to reverse deforestation.

While “jurisdictional REDD+” addresses issues of scale, integrity and inclusion, the vital missing piece is funding. Current investments in nature-based solutions amount to $133 billion per year, of which the private sector contributes just $18 billion, according to estimates published in 2021 by the UN Environment Programme. Nature-based solutions, which include forest conservation and restoration, can deliver one-third of the mitigation needed to keep the planet on a 1.5°C trajectory, but funding for these solutions needs to triple to $400 billion by 2030.

The private sector has a key role to play in preserving the world’s forests while ridding their own supply chains of deforestation. Companies can access “jurisdictional REDD+” programmes through voluntary carbon market initiatives such as the LEAF Coalition that uses the rigorous new “ART TREES” standard for monitoring, reporting and verification. In 2021, the LEAF Coalition mobilized $1 billion in financing, kicking off the largest-ever public-private effort to protect tropical forests in countries such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Nepal and Viet Nam. To maintain the integrity of its carbon credits, the LEAF Coalition requires participating companies to use purchased credits in addition to, and not as a substitute for, deep cuts in their own emissions and those of their suppliers.

“The urgent priority is protecting tropical forests, even above planting new trees (which is also important), because the world loses tropical forests at the rate of 10 million hectares per year – equivalent to about one Central Park every 15 minutes. We need billions of dollars of investment in climate finance to protect the world’s forests. We are working on initiatives like the LEAF Coalition and Green Gigaton Challenge as we believe jurisdictional-scale action is the way to do this,” says Eron Bloomgarden, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Emergent, a non-profit intermediary acting between tropical forest countries and the private sector.

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Global Public Braces for ‘Severe’ Effects of Climate Change by 2032

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According to a new survey, on average across 34 countries, more than half of all adults surveyed (56%) say climate change has already had a severe effect in the areas where they live. More than seven in ten (71%), including a majority in every single country, expect climate change to have a severe effect in their regions over the next ten years. One-third (35%) expect to be displaced from their homes due to climate change by 2047.

These are some of the headline findings of a new survey conducted by the World Economic Forum and Ipsos among 23,507 adults in 34 countries between July 22 and August 5 2022.

“We are in a climate crisis. The survey results affirm that across the world, people already feel the effects today and fear for their futures tomorrow” said Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director, Head of the Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum. “The crisis affects everyone. We have to work together, to adapt to climate change, and concurrently, accelerate and scale action towards a healthier, greener, and more sustainable planet. We need a holistic and systems approach, involving all stakeholders – governments, businesses, and civil society – to co-create solutions and effectively respond to this crisis.”

Global public already impacted by climate change

Survey respondents were asked “How severe an effect would you say climate change has had so far in the area where you live?” The proportion of respondents describing the effect of climate change in their areas as “very” or “somewhat” severe ranged from global lows of 25% in Sweden and 38% in Ireland, to highs of 75% in Mexico and 74% in both Hungary and Turkey, averaging 56% globally.

While over half of respondents in 22 of these countries indicated that they have already been severely impacted by climate change, in nine of these countries – Mexico, Hungary, Turkey, Colombia, Spain, Italy, India, Chile, and France – over two thirds of respondents said they had already been affected.

This likely reflects recent events in these countries. As the survey also found notable regional differences within the countries where the survey took place – likely reflecting recent experiences with extreme heat, drought, forest fires, or floods. For example, the prevalence of people saying that they had already experienced severe effects of climate change was significantly higher for Greater London than the national average, for British Columbia (compared to the rest Canada), the western region of the United States, south-eastern France, southern Germany, north-eastern Italy, and east Hungary.

Impacts expected to go from bad to worse

The survey also asked respondents “How severe an effect do you expect climate change to have in your area over the next 10 years?” The global mood here seems clear, as a majority in every single country surveyed said that they expected to be severely impacted by 2030.

In 10 countries at least four in five of respondents expected “very severe” or “somewhat severe” impacts in the next decade. Portugal (88%), Mexico, Hungary (both 86%), Turkey, Chile (85%), South Korea, Spain (83%), Italy (81%), France and Romania (80%) led the list. The countries where expectations about severe climate effects in the next decade were lowest were Malaysia (52%), China (55%), Sweden, (56%) Thailand (57%), and Saudi Arabia (60%).

On average across all the countries surveyed, 71% said they expect climate change to have a very or somewhat severe impact in their area over the next 10 years (30% “very severe” and 41% “somewhat severe”). This reflects a 15-point increase on the percentage saying climate change has already had a severe impact where they live. The difference was highest in Sweden (31 points) and Portugal (30 points). However, one exception was Saudi Arabia, where more said climate change had already had a severe impact than believe it will have a severe impact over the next 10 years.

Expectations about climate change and displacement

Respondents were also asked “How likely would you say it is that you and your family will be displaced from your home as a result of climate change at some point in the next 25 years?”

On average across the 34 countries surveyed, just over one in three respondents (35%) said it was likely that they or their families will be displaced from their homes as a result of climate change in the next quarter of a century (of these 10% said “very likely”, and 25% “somewhat likely”).

The countries where climate change induced displacement was seen as most likely were India (65%) and Turkey (64%), by a large margin. However, almost half of people surveyed in Malaysia (49%), Brazil (49%), Spain (46%), and South Africa (45%) also shared these concerns. In contrast, fewer than one in four expected to be displaced from their homes in Sweden (17%), Argentina (21%), the Netherlands (21%), and Poland (23%).

While reported and expected experiences with severe effects of climate change varied little along demographic variables globally – although women both reported and expected slightly worse climate impacts than men on average globally – the perceived likelihood of being displaced because of climate change decreased significantly with age. Globally, 43% of those under 35 and 37% of those aged 35 to 49 said it is likely they will need to move in the next 25 years because of climate change. However only 25% among those aged 50 to 74 shared these concerns.

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Women lead marine restoration efforts in the UNESCO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve

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Blue Indigo women biologists pose with a coral table-type nursery in San Andres, Colombia./ Blue Indigo

Did you know that women represent just 38 per cent of all ocean scientists? A women-led community organisation in the Seaflower UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Caribbean, is working to restore some of the most important marine ecosystems in the world and paving the way for bigger women’s representation in ocean science.

Known as ‘the island in the Sea of the Seven Colors’, San Andres is the biggest island in the Seaflower, containing part of one of the richest coral reefs in the world

San Andres itself is a coral island, meaning it was geologically built by organic material derived from skeletons of corals and numerous other animals and plants associated with these colonial organisms. These types of islands are low land, being mostly only a few metres above sea level, surrounded by coconut palms and white coral sand beaches.

It is no coincidence that this Colombian island is a world-class scuba diving destination with crystal clear waters, and a tourist hub visited by over a million people each year.

But being so ‘in demand’ has a key downside: San Andres’ unique ecosystems and natural resources have been deeply impacted. This is something that biologist and professional diver Maria Fernanda Maya has witnessed first-hand.

A community protecting the ocean

“I have seen San Andres change in the past 20 years; the decrease of fish and coral cover has been quite high. Just like the rest of the world, we have experienced a very large demographic explosion, and the pressure on our resources is increasing,” she tells UN News.

Ms. Maya has been diving and working most of her life to protect the treasures of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. She is the director of Blue Indigo Foundation, a women-led community organization that works towards the sustainable development of the San Andres Archipelago, and the protection and restoration of its marine ecosystems.

She says she decided to create the foundation because she believes that the local community must lead the protection of its own resources.

“I have worked for many international and national-led environmental projects in the past, and what happens is that people come, do a timed project, and then leave. And then there is no way for the local community to continue it,” the biologist explains.

Ms. Maya works alongside scientific coordinator Mariana Gnecco, who is her partner in the foundation.

“I am an islander; I formed a relationship with the ocean before I was even born. I’ve always known I never want to be far from the sea,” she tells UN News.

Ms. Gnecco has been freediving since she was just 10 years old, and, like Ms. Maya, got her scuba certification before the age of 14 and later graduated from university as a biologist. She is now also pursuing her PhD.

Women in marine science

According to UNESCO, women engage in all aspects of ocean interaction, yet in many parts of the world, women’s contributions – both towards ocean-based livelihoods like fishing, and conservation efforts – are all but invisible as gender inequality persists in the marine industry as well as the field of ocean science.

In fact, women represent just 38 per cent of all ocean scientists and further, there is very little data or in-depth research on the issue of women’s representation in the field  

Both Ms. Maya and Ms. Gnecco can attest to this.

“Men are the ones usually leading marine science and when there are women in charge they are always doubted. Somehow, it’s good to have them as assistants, or in the laboratory, but when women lead the projects, I have always felt there is some kind of pushback.  When a woman speaks with passion ‘she is getting hysterical’; when a woman makes unconventional decisions, ‘she is crazy’, but when a man does it, it is because ‘he’s a leader’”, denounces Ms. Maya.

She says that because this has been an unwritten truth that women grapple with, she worked hard at the Foundation to create and nurture an atmosphere that is the opposite.

“We have been able to harmonize the work between women and men partners, recognizing, valuing and empowering the feminine forces, as well as what men have to offer,” Ms. Maya stresses.

“Our opinions, our expertise, and our knowledge have been overlooked for so many years that being able to lead a project like this now means a lot. It symbolizes a [a great deal] in terms of equality and inclusion.  Although we still have a long way to go because women in science are still undermined a lot of the time, I think we are on the right path to tackle that problem for good,” echoes Ms. Gnecco.

Saving the coral reefs

On the day the Blue Indigo biologists met with the UN News field reporting team, Ms. Maya and Ms. Gnecco braved a non-stop torrential downpour caused by a cold front in San Andres, a common occurrence during the Atlantic hurricane season.

That morning, we thought it might be impossible to report this story because the rain had turned the island’s streets into rivers, and some of the areas we needed to reach had been turned into mud pits.

“And they say women are scared to drive,” Ms. Maya said with a sly laugh when she picked us up on the way to one of the restoration sites they are working on as one of the local implementers of the nationwide project “One Million Corals for Colombia”, that aims to restore 200 hectares of reef across the country.

Earlier that morning, all diving on the island had been halted due to the weather, but conditions (at least on the water) did eventually improve, and authorities turned the red flag yellow.

That news sparked a mini celebration among a group of eager student divers who thought their day was ruined.

Meanwhile, the rest of us put on scuba gear and walked toward the shore in the (still) pouring rain.

“Once you’re underwater, you are going to forget about this grey day. You’ll see!” Ms. Maya said.

And she couldn’t have been more right. After taking the plunge from the rocky (and slippery) coral coast on the west side of the island, we experienced incredible calm beneath the waves.

The visibility was extremely good, and the biologists took us through some of the rope-type coral nurseries they were working on where Acropora coral fragments are growing. We also saw some of the already-transplanted coral within the stunning reef of San Andres.

Blue Indigo Foundation works closely with diving schools on the island, and they contribute to their restoration efforts. The NGO also teaches specialized courses in restoration for international divers several times a year.

“People come over to see our project and learn and they get engaged easier because then they ask us for the coral. ‘Oh, how’s my coral doing?  The one we planted on the reef, how’s it doing?’,” Mariana Gnecco explains, adding that when people see the organisms thriving, it helps to raise general awareness.

The corals within the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve have been declining since the 70s, fueled by the rise in the temperature and acidification of the water, caused by excessive carbon emissions and consequent climate change.

“Those are the global threats, but we also have some local threats that are harming the reef, for example, overfishing, bad tourism practices, boat collisions, pollution, and sewage disposal,” underscores Ms. Gnecco.

Raizal people’s efforts and sustainable tourism

By definition, UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are de facto centres for learning about sustainable development. They also provided an opportunity to examine up-close the changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including the management of biodiversity.

“When a biosphere reserve is declared, it means that it is a special place, not just because of its biodiversity, but also because there’s a community that has a special connection with that biodiversity, a connection that’s been going for decades with a cultural and historical value,” Ms. Gnecco explains.

The Seaflower is very special, she adds, telling us that it comprises 10 per cent of the Caribbean Sea, 75 per cent of Colombia’s coral reefs and that it’s a hotspot for shark conservation.

“The local community – the Raizal people, that have been living here for generations – have learned how to relate to these ecosystems in a healthy and sustainable way. This is our way of living for both Raizal and other residents. We depend completely on this ecosystem and on its biodiversity, that’s why it’s important and special”, the biologist adds.

The Raizal are an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group living in the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina off the Colombian Caribbean Coast. They are recognized by the Government as one of the Afro-Colombian ethnic groups.

They speak San Andrés-Providencia Creole, one of many English Creoles used in the Caribbean. 20 years ago, the Raizal represented over half of the island’s population. Today, the general population is nearly 80,000, but the Raizal make up about 40 per cent, due to a high migration influx from the mainland.

Raizal Marine Biologist and researcher Alfredo Abril-Howard also works at Blue Indigo foundation.

“Our culture is closely tied to the ocean. The fishermen are the first to notice changes in the coral – for example, they notice that healthy reefs attract more fish. They can describe a vivid picture of the way the reefs looked in the past…no one understands the importance of our reefs better than them,” he underscores.

The expert says that he believes there is a major socioeconomic issue in San Andres: other than tourism, there are very few ways for his people to make a living.

“Tourism keeps growing and most economic activities revolve around it. So, we need more fish because there are more tourists, so now we catch fish of any size affecting the ecosystem”, he says, emphasizing that better tourism management could generate better economic opportunities for locals while letting the reef flourish at the same time.

Mr. Abril-Howard explains that diving, if sustainably managed, can also have an impact on the ecosystem. It can also help to raise awareness about restoration efforts and at the same time give back to the reef.

“We need a change in the way we do our tourism. Restoring our reefs is important, but we also need to make visitors aware that it is there, and that it is not a rock, It is a living being and that they shouldn’t step on it. These are small things that can benefit the future coral cover. We also need to show people that there is more to this island than coming to party and get drunk, so they can learn something,” he says.

A job for ‘superheroes’

For Camilo Leche, also Raizal, coral restoration efforts are now a part of his life as a fisherman.

“I have been fishing for over 30 years. I remember seeing coral bleaching for the first time – you know when coral starts turning white – and thinking that it was because the coral was getting old, like we get white hairs. But now I understand it is because of climate change,” he told us just before going on his morning fishing expedition.

“Before I could see beautiful giant corals around here and it was so easy to find lobster and big fish, now we have to go further and further to find them”, he adds.

Mr. Leche says that he hopes that world leaders can put their ‘hands on their hearts and in their pockets’ to finance more restoration efforts such as the one undertaken by the Foundation, which he now helps.

“I have learned how to fragment corals, to put them in the ropes. We also go out to make the transplants. And those little pieces are now becoming so big and beautiful, when I see them, I feel so proud of it. I feel like a superhero”.

Swimming against the tide

San Andres is not only losing its coral reef cover and fish banks, but the island also faces coastal erosion and is vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

All these are destroying infrastructure and reducing the island’s beautiful beach cover. In some areas, locals say that before they could play a football game in places where only a meter of beach is now seen.

The ecosystems Blue Indigo works to restore are essential to protect the community during extreme weather events.

For example, Colombian scientists were able to prove how the mangrove protected San Andres during hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020, among other ways by reducing wind speeds by over 60 km/h.

At the same time, coral reefs can reduce by nearly 95 per cent the height of the waves coming from the east of the Caribbean Sea, as well as reduce their strength during storms.

“We know our restoration efforts can’t bring back the coral reef in its totality, because it is such a complex ecosystem. But by growing certain species we can have a positive impact, bring back the fish and ignite these organisms’ natural capacity to restore themselves,” says Blue Indigo chief Maria Fernanda Maya.

For Mariana Gnecco, it is about aiding the reef to survive during a transformation of its environment happening due to climate change.

“What we need is a functional ecosystem. We are trying to at least give it a helping hand so it can adapt to climate change. The ecosystem is going to change, that’s going to happen, but if we help it will happen at least in a way that is not going to die completely”, she says.

Both the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, both of which began in 2021 and will run until 2030, aim to find transformative ocean science solutions to guarantee a clean, productive and safe ocean, and to restore its marine ecosystems.

According to UNESCO, mainstreaming gender equality throughout the Ocean Science Decade will help ensure that, by 2030, women as much as men will be driving ocean science and management, helping to deliver the ocean we need for a prosperous, sustainable and environmentally secure future.

“The women that are involved in this are paving the path for all the women that are coming behind. Indeed, the future is problematic, and we are swimming against the current, but I think anything that we can do is better than doing nothing.”

That’s Mariana Gnecco’s message to us all.

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