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The land use of our fathers – prospering in a healthy environment

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BY SARAH WILD

Our ancestors dealt with large-scale environmental challenges thousands of years ago. Understanding their traditional practices may inform modern Europeans racing to adapt to climate change today.

Heathlands, with their scrubby, woody plants and sandy soil, cover large tracts of Europe. Although the soil is not very nourishing, heathlands are home to unique flora and fauna. Once believed to be natural scrubland, most heathlands were formed when forests were cleared for agriculture in prehistoric times.

The existence of heathlands is maintained with the grazing and burning techniques of land management over long timeframes. They must constantly be renewed, and in some respects, heathlands are deeply entangled in the human cultural landscape.

Many heathlands have survived for thousands of years through countless climate, population, economic and infrastructural transformations. Their resilience may suggest ways in which humans and nature can thrive together dynamically, if their ecological fabric can be understood.

Today, heathlands are under threat with more than 90% of them disappearing in the last 150 years, mainly due to the intensification of farming, a lack of sustained management, and because of pollution from industry.

The ANTHEA project, also known as Anthropogenic Heathlands: The Social Organization of Super-Resilient Past Human Ecosystems, researches the ways in which human interactions with heathlands have changed over time.

‘There is currently a trend towards nature conservation and restoration resting on the idea that we want to take people out of nature,’ said Prof Mette Løvschal, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who studies Neolithic heather landscapes from an archaeological perspective. Yet, she argues that ‘heathlands and their more than 5 000 year survival depend on the presence of humans.’

Grazing spaces

Thousands of years ago, people in Northern Europe cleared tracts of post-glacial forest to create space for their grazing animals. Naturally-occurring species of heather flourished in such landscapes, providing an evergreen source of winter grazing and other valuable resources such as fuel and bedding.

For thousands of years, humans have continued to maintain these special areas, in which nature and humans rely on each other. The question is, what features of the landscape – location, soil composition, habitation, land use and organisation factors, for example – are important to the survival of heathland.

Heathlands offer pastoralists an advantage over grass in that, while grass is more nutrient rich than heather, it tends to die out in winter. In fact, farmers’ livestock – sheep and goats in particular – can graze on heather in the cold months, without farmers having to collect and store fodder. These landscapes require continuous maintenance over generations, Løvschal explained.

‘Heathlands in themselves are an unstable landscape,’ said Løvschal. ‘Most places quite quickly, within 15 to 25 years, transform into forest if you don’t manage them with grazing, cutting, or by controlled fires.’

Plant records

For the ANTHEA project, researchers are combining the archaeological history of humans with ancient plant records in seven case-study areas from Norway to Ireland.

‘Several of us are working with archaeological material,’ said Løvschal. ‘When do the earliest kinds of settlements appear in the heathlands? Is there any evidence of people using heather or turf as a construction material or as fuel or as bedding?’

With that information, the researchers will see how people engaged with the heathland on a practical as well as a social and ideological level.  

Excavation of ancient pollen can reveal which plants once inhabited the landscape. Tree, shrub and grass pollen blow through the air before settling on the ground or sinking to the bottom of a body of water. Over time, soil and organic matter cover this pollen, trapping it in the ground.

By extracting long cylindrical samples of soil, known as cores, from the bottom of lakes or wetlands, researchers can identify and date the pollen and ultimately reconstruct the ancient landscape. Microscopic charcoal also points to whether the heathland had been burnt and when.

Beautiful balance

This is not the first time heathlands have been under threat, Løvschal said. During the Bronze Age, about 5 000 years ago, people tore up large tracts of heathland and grasslands to create human burial mounds, known as barrows. Unfortunately, this activity ‘led to an ecological catastrophe’ since removing turf causes an extreme depletion of soil fertility. On the other hand, there have also been times at which humans and heathlands were ‘in beautiful balance’.

One of the major questions the ANTHEA project addresses is the ways in which this ‘beautiful balance’ was achieved by different pastoral groups across Europe and ‘whether the long-term survival of these heathlands was the product of people doing very similar kinds of things or whether they gave rise to a myriad of ways of living and organising.’

The TerraNova project is also looking to ancient landscapes to identify ways in which humans can sustainably coexist with nature.

‘We want to understand how natural landscapes have been shaped over time in order to find the best practical guidelines and solutions for sustainable land use,’ said Prof Karl-Johan Lindholm, an archaeologist at Uppsala University and co-investigator on TerraNova.

Historical epochs

Archaeology divides historical epochs based on human technology and tool development, so we have The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and The Iron Age.

Anthropology, on the other hand, identifies human organisation by size and complexity, so you have community, tribe, and state, Lindholm explained. ‘None of these conventional explanatory frameworks is really helpful for land management.’ That’s why the researchers are applying an interdisciplinary approach, using information from archaeology, ecology, climatology, and landscape studies.

The project is investigating land use over time at different ‘field laboratories’, which run along river catchment areas in Sweden, in Germany and the Netherlands, and in Portugal, Romania and Spain, Lindholm said. Catchment areas represent a number of different environments through which water flows to a river. 

Ecosystem study

By mining existing data in the archaeological and paleo-ecological (the study of ecosystems in the distant past) records, the project will model the vegetation, animal distribution and human land use over time to develop different scenarios and land-cover models.

‘Our ambition is to have a digital European atlas,’ Lindholm said.

TerraNova researchers are also engaging with people who are currently managing land to provide insight and tools for policymakers.

‘Basically what TerraNova aims to do is better understand these kinds of landscape histories in order to provide recommendations, tools, and guidelines for helping today’s land managers to understand and manage their landscapes in a more sustainable way,’ he said.

The research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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UN spotlights transformational potential of family farming for world food supply

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María Fernanda Masís and her family are the owners of the hot sauces brand Xoloitzcuintle, named after their farm. Photo: UNEP

A Global Forum highlighting the UN’s Decade of Family Farming (UNDFF) got underway on Monday, aimed at identifying priority policies to boost support for family farmers and agricultural development worldwide.

The UNDFF runs through the end of 2028, and the Forum is being convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, pointed out in his video address to the Global Forum’s opening that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

Growing hunger

He said the number of people facing hunger increased in 2021, and it risks rising further especially among the most vulnerable, of which almost 80 percent live in rural areas and are small-scale, family farmers.

Family farmers around the world are also subject to the new challenges to food systems everywhere, created by the climate crisis, as well as conflict. The war in Ukraine has added further pressure, to already fragile agrifood systems, UN agencies said.

Mr. QU said the forum provides a way, firstly, to discuss “the unique role of family farmers in transforming our agrifood systems; two, take stock of achievements and challenges in the implementation of the UN Decade; and three, strengthen collaboration to ensure global food security, enhance livelihoods and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

80 percent

Family farmers need to be at the centre of efforts to transform agrifood systems if we are to make real progress towards ending hunger,” Mr. Qu said.

He added that “family farming is the main form of agriculture in both developed and developing countries and is responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s food,” in terms of value.

Family struggle

He noted that often, these family farmers struggle to feed their own families.

Since its launch three years ago, the UN Decade of Family Farming has been promoting integrated policies and investments to support family farmers, and FAO has been assisting national implementation of international tools and guidelines to strengthen family farming, Mr. Qu told the virtual forum.

He also noted that FAO hosts the Family Farming Knowledge Platform to facilitate the exchange of experience, innovation and specialised knowledge.

In addition, the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-31 includes a priority area of work aimed at better supporting small-scale food producers and delivering concrete results.

Push for the future

The main objectives of the Global Forum are to provide a general overview of policy trends and the relevance of family farming to the global push towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals; highlight the main outcomes of the first three years of implementation; and re-orient the UNDFF agenda through the practical lessons learned so far.

Participants include representatives from national governments, governmental agencies, UN agencies, family farmers and their organizations, civil society organizations, as well as NGOs; the private sector, the media and academia.

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Microalgae promise abundant healthy food and feed in any environment

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By Sofia Strodt

Feeding a growing world population that will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to United Nations forecasts, and the need to conserve natural resources for generations to come may seem conflicting at first.

But a solution, while not yet in sight, is certainly not out of reach. European scientists recently have developed an appetite for microalgae, also called phytoplankton, a sub-group of algae consisting of unicellular photosynthetic microorganisms.

Most people are familiar with the largest form of algae, kelp or seaweed. It can grow up to three metres long and, in some forms, is a well-known delicacy. The related species microalgae, which can be found in both seawater and freshwater, have gained attention in research due to their extraordinary properties.

These microscopic organisms can be used for animal feed, particularly in aquaculture, and various foods including pasta, vegan sausages, energy bars, bakery products and vegetable creams. 

Most commercial microalgae cultivation centres on the production of dried biomass such as chlorella or spirulina powder as a food providing considerable health benefits. Some microalgae strains not only accumulate up to 65–70% of protein but also are sustainable sources of omega-3 fatty acids – a substance that is conventionally derived mainly from fish and fish oil.

Additional bioactive compounds, such as vitamins B12, K or D, mean microalgae contain significant health properties, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular illness.

Desert algae

‘Microalgae can be cultivated in many different locations, under very different conditions,’ said Massimo Castellari, who is involved in the Horizon-funded ProFuture project aimed at scaling up microalgae production. ‘We can grow it in Iceland and in a desert climate.’  

The technologies for the intensive cultivation of microalgae have been in development since the 1950s.

Today, microalgae are cultivated in open- or closed-system photobioreactors, which are vessels designed to control biomass production. The closed-system version, while more expensive to build, offers more control over experimental parameters and less risk of contamination. 

The substance is by no means just a trendy food supplement. For example, in Chad, a landlocked, low-income country, the consumption of spirulina harvested from Lake Chad has significantly improved people’s nutritional status because spirulina is an excellent source of proteins and micronutrients.

On top of its nutritional value, microalgae offer climate benefits by sequestering carbon dioxide as well as economic advantages by using farming areas more efficiently and – through the use of non-arable land – expanding the possibility of biomass production. 

With a total of less than 57 000 tonnes cultivated in 2019, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), production of microalgae is still very much in its early stages. By comparison, primary-crop output was 9.4 billion tonnes in 2019. 

Food inflation

Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine has highlighted just how vulnerable global food supply can be. Halts to Ukrainian grain exports and increases in energy prices have helped push food inflation around the world to record highs, with developing countries being hit disproportionately hard. In May this year, costs for food had risen by 42% compared with 2014-2016, the UN reported.  

Last year, as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger – an increase of roughly 46 million compared with 2020 and a surge of 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO projects that some 670 million people will still face hunger by the end of the decade.   

While the benefits of cultivating organic microalgae for food and feed are substantial, market growth will require overcoming obstacles including a lack of automated production in the industry, according to Castellari, who works at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology in Barcelona, Spain.

‘The automatisation is still not completely implemented,’ he said. ‘There are small producers in Europe – many steps still involve manual labour. So they are still working on optimising the process.’ 

Processed biomass

The challenges go well beyond cultivation. With microalgae, biomass has to be processed, cleaned and dried before a usable powder can be obtained. The next step is to scale up production to drive down costs. 

In addition, there are regulatory challenges. Only a few species of microalgae are currently authorised in the European Union.

‘In Europe it’s still in a preliminary stage of development,’ said Castellari. ‘There are thousands of species of microalgae, but for food consumption or feed there are only seven species authorised.’ 

To gain knowledge about the possibilities to use other species, Castellari and his team are also investigating these other kinds of microalgae.

Due to these challenges, the portfolio of products containing microalgae remains limited today. But, if these hurdles can be overcome, the overall prospects for the microalgae industry are promising. Besides being a source of food and feed, the plant can be used for biofuels, cosmetics, fertiliser and health supplements.

Astaxanthin, a blood-red pigment extracted from algae, already has notable uses. A powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin can be found in seafood and is commonly used to colour shrimp. It is also sold in the form of pills as a food supplement.

Astaxanthin is thought to have potentially a positive impact on brain function, athletic performance and ageing skin, among other things.

Matteo Ballottari, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Verona in Italy, helped start the European Research Council’s Horizon-funded project AstaOmega simultaneously to produce astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae for aquaculture and human nutrition. 

Quality and quantity 

Most omega-3 supplements are derived from fish oils. This, however, raises sustainability concerns such as damage to marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing.  

‘There is more demand for eating high-quality foods, along with an awareness for incorporating omega-3 rich ingredients in our diets,’ Ballottari said. Responding to this trend while feeding a growing world population is ‘a big challenge,’ he said.

Meanwhile, on the astaxanthin front, the AstaOmega researchers have made progress. They have been able to obtain a new strain that can produce astaxanthin on its own, without needing to be “stressed”. This means the researchers don’t have to change production parameters such as light intensity, temperature or nitrates concentration. Also, extracting the substance has become easier, resulting in lower costs.  

Scientists agree that microalgae have the potential to change the ways in which we eat for the better.  

‘Microalgae can help us to increase the protein production within Europe to reduce our dependence on other countries,’ said Castellari of the ProFuture project.  

Research in this article was funded by the EU and it was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Integrating Climate Change into Nepal’s Development Strategy Key to Build Resilience

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TheWorld Bank Group’s Country Climate and Development Report for Nepal underscores the urgency of building resilience to climate change and recommends policies and investments for integrated climate and development solutions for green, resilient, and inclusive development.

Nepal’s supply chains, farmers, and urban dwellers are already facing devastating climate impacts such as landslides, droughts, and flooding. Without concerted steps to shore up resilience, future climate hazards will threaten the country’s long-term development.  Climate variability is already a major driver of food insecurity and poverty in Nepal, with increased flooding and heat stress seen in the southern regions, while the north experiences increased landslides, water stress, and glacial lake overflow.  The report states that Nepal’s GDP could be at least 7 percent smaller by 2050 due to unchecked climate impacts. 

As Nepal’s economy grows, it also needs to address its greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions. While the country is a negligible contributor to climate change – producing 0.1 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions – the country’s emission rate is growing rapidly. Nepal also has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world, with emissions from transport, biomass burning, and industrial activities significantly impacting health and productivity.

“With increased evidence of more severe climate change impacts, Nepal stands at a critical juncture to embark on a path for recovery and growth that is more sustainable, more inclusive, and more resilient to future shocks,” said World Bank Vice President for South Asia Martin Raiser“The good news is that the country’s notable successes in community forestry and hydropower investments are a strong foundation for future climate-smart growth.”

Nepal has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and to significantly scale up hydropower investment in the coming decade.  In 2021, Nepal adopted the Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID) approach as a national vision to guide long-term green growth and build resilience to climate and other shocks that are barriers to Nepal’s development ambitions. Under Nepal’s federal structure, the local governments are placed at the center of climate resilience and development efforts with extensive implementation responsibilities and play a crucial role in translating the GRID strategy into action.

To help Nepal achieve its development goals while implementing its climate commitments, the report proposes actions on two fronts: building resilience to climate impacts and pursuing public and private investments in low-carbon solutions, notably hydropower and its export. The report also highlights that women, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups are often excluded from mainstream development and suffer from cumulative and cascading impacts of climate change and disasters.

Based on the report’s modeling and analytical work, the World Bank Group recommends four priority transitions.

Taking an integrated approach to water, agriculture, and forests. Nepal’s agriculture and forestry sectors together comprise 24 percent of GDP and provide the main source of livelihoods for the poor. Agriculture will be hard hit by climate variability which strains forests, soil, water, and other natural assets in the rural landscape. To shore up resilience, the report recommends enhancing water resource management, including water storage investments; embracing climate-smart agriculture; and transitioning to sustainable forest management. 

Harnessing the hydropower opportunity. Nepal has among the world’s largest hydropower potential, which can enable the decarbonization of the country and its higher-emitting neighbors.  The report finds that an annual average of US$200 million of additional export revenues could be generated from 2022 to 2025. Hydropower development also offers the potential to grow climate-smart solutions such as electric mobility and green hydrogen. To prepare for this opportunity, more work is needed to assess climate impacts on future river flow, invest in supporting infrastructure to firm up exports, engage the private sector more systematically, and continue to work with regional partners. 

Managing sustainable urbanization.  Nepal is the fastest-urbanizing country in South Asia, and cities can benefit from the climate transition catalyzing new jobs, innovation, and improved service delivery to residents. To tap into these opportunities, the report recommends strategic urban planning to invest in municipal solid waste and water treatment infrastructure, green, resilient buildings, and low-carbon transport options such as e-mobility and mass transit. 

Strengthening low-carbon resilient connectivity. Road transport is critical to Nepal’s economic development; disaster-related closures and damage lead to reduced access to jobs, healthcare, and education, and lower profitability for businesses. The report estimates that the costs of climate damages to the transport sector could be as much as US$250 million annually. To increase resilient connectivity, Nepal can shore up the most critical transport corridors and develop a climate-smart maintenance plan.

To support these transitions, Nepal needs to prioritize three key enablers: scale-up all types of finance for resilience and low-carbon development; strengthen household and community resilience through social protection and well-managed built and natural capital; and strengthen governance for climate change and disaster risk management through deeper federalization of responsibilities.

“Nepal’s transition to a prosperous low-carbon economy that is resilient to climate adversity will also require significant mobilization of private expertise and capital,” said Ruth Horowitz, IFC’s Regional Vice President for Asia and the Pacific. “The private sector already plays a crucial role in harnessing clean energy—and with targeted reforms, more private finance, including foreign direct investments, can be crowded in to sustainably green the entire economy while reducing fiscal pressure on public finance.”

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