Category Archives: biodiversity

Rio + 20: Power of Informal Networks and Brazil’s place in the world

ImageRecently returned from Rio + 20,  I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event.  In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.

Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.

ImageSide events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance.  The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”

Informal networks are where the action is

“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.

Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”

This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “

Commitments were plentiful and generous

One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
These included:

*   Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
*   The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
*   Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
*   A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
*   The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
*   The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.

Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.

“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.

Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.

On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.

“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”

He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.

My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.

Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.

I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.



What’s behind the Sustainable Palm Oil label

Understanding what is behind certification for concepts like fair trade, organic agriculture, organic cosmetics and more broadly anything which claims to be “responsible” or “sustainable” is at the heart of the ongoing dialogue among consumers, retailers and manufacturers. Yet what goes on in the supply chain is only dimly understood by even the most well-informed consumers. Unless some brave soul starts developing “supply chain tourism”, it is unlikely that we will ever get a firm grasp on exactly what we are paying for beyond the feel good concepts of saving an orangutan or two somewhere in Borneo.

So palm oil has experienced a big shift in consumer perception this year due to successful lobbying efforts of Greenpeace and a fall-out in the European Union over the health risk contained in high levels of saturated fat contained in Nutella, which has been abruptly de-throned from its place as a symbol and repository of happy childhood memories throughout Europe.

Industries which rely heavily on palm oil as a cheap input for their products – mostly food and consumer items – are responding to consumer pressure to “clean up” their palm oil supply chains, and a number of solutions are available today.

Here’s a short primer on currently available certification which should help to de-mystify what you are getting when you buy a product which says “sustainable palm oil”.

Sustainable palm oil producers are grouped together in a body called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)  which was set up in 2003 and brings together growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGOs. The members represent around 40% of palm oil producers., so they can’t be said to represent critical mass in the industry.

The RSPO defined the principles and criteria of sustainable palm oil in 2005:
•    No more replacement of ‘High Conservation Value Areas’ for new plantations
•    Respect for the righs of local people
•    Respect labour laws

RSPO has approved 3 supply chain models for RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil:

1.    Segregated  – Most stringent option: sustainable palm oil is kept segregated through the chain. Mixing is possible only with other RSPO Certified Palm Oil. This is the only certification that allows retailers to claim that the product “contains” sustainable palm oil.
2.    Mass Balance – Sustainable palm oil is followed through the chain. Mixing with conventional palm oil is possible provided this is administratively possible. Retailers can claim that the product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.
3.    Book and Claim – Chain is not followed. End-users buy certificiates directly from the producer via web-based trading platform (premium for sustainable palm oil is currently valued at $13 per tonne). Allows buyers to claim that their product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.

So basically when you buy a product that carries either of those claims: ie “contains” or “supports the production of sustainable palm oil”, you will be getting one of the above three options.

Green holiday ideas for the summer

Summer has finally arrived in Paris, and it is truly glorious. One of the highlights of the past few weeks was the “greening” of the Champs Elysees on a holiday weekend Sunday: organized by France’s Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers), it was a heady display of farm production and biodiversity. Overnight, 8,000 plots of earth were transported to central Paris, and around 150,000 plants were installed – including 650 fully grown trees – at a cost of 4.2 million euros. Here’s a slideshow which features snaps of the visiting First Lady and President: Carla and “Sarko”.

Come June 1, and the only question on everyone’s lips is: “Vous partez quand?” (When are you leaving?)

So for those who haven’t already decided, here are some suggestions:

The lovely Atlantic coast island of Noirmoutier, home to fabled sea salt and tiny potatoes, now boasts a tempting high-end camping site called La Guérinière. Think luxury tents safari-style transported to a saltwater, pine-forested environment shot through by a fresh Atlantic breeze. Set in five hectares of sand dunes and pines by the sea, you can rent a tipi for 4 people for 129 euros/weekend or up to 650 euros/week.

2010 is UN Year of Biodiversity, and the CNRS scientific research centre in French Guyana is opening its doors for the first time this summer to allow visitors to share in France’s biggest natural reserve in the heart of the tropical rainforest.

For more information, check out the scientific travel section of the website.

New lab in France to study biodiversity and climate change

Does biodiversity stimulate the flows of gases and enhance the efficiency of our ecosystems? This is one of the big questions that a new research platform near Montpellier seeks to address in the coming years.

The Ecotron platform is the first of its type in France and claims to be one of the most advanced in the world. It’s mission is to combine the study of ecosystems with biochemical (gas) exchanges so that scientists can simulate a wide range of climate change scenarios in conditions which mimic the complexity of living ecosystems.

The first set of soil samples – collected from high-altitude regions in the Massif Central – will be stocked under the plastic domes atop the building, each dome having been calibrated to receive exactly the same amount of light. Researchers from INRA (France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research), who are leading the experiment, want to expose the samples to possible climate conditions for 2050 and study their reactions to a variety of stressors. The scientists know that drought will cause the stomata – tiny orifices in the epidermis of plants which enable gas exchanges – to tighten to protect the plant from too much evaporation. But what happens if the drought is prolonged? What unleashes genetic adaptations for the plant’s long-term survival?

“We have a unique opportunity to trace the trajectory of carbon in the ecosystem and to understand how plants reallocate their resources in the face of climatic stress,” head of Ecotron, Jacques Roy, told Les Echos.

If carbon dioxide increases, plants reduce their photosynthesis, and require less enzymes, which contain nitrogen. Where will this excess be stored? Will it be used for root growth, which would help carbon sequestration, or for leaves, which would accelerate the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Ecotron is open to all European scientists who wish to submit proposals for experiments.

via Les Echos

Bees thrive in Paris – more biodiversity, fewer pesticides

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Beekeeping in the city? Surprisingly, bees in Paris, and other big cities, produce two to three times more honey than their country brethren. Higher average temperatures in the city lead to an earlier flowering, which entices the worker bees to emerge earlier. City bees also produce honey with better flavour because they have access to a much greater variety of trees and flowers

In 1983 Jean Paucton installed the first hives on the rooftop of the Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier honey, known as “Miel de Béton“, or Concrete honey, has notes of lemon and mint and can be bought at luxury stores such as Fauchon in Paris, or online. A total of some 300 hives are thought to exist in Paris.

Jean Pauctons Miel de Béton from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

Jean Paucton's "Miel de Béton" from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

The latest piece of prime Parisian real estate to offer space to beekeepers is the Grand Palais museum, which has installed its first two hives since May and plans to add three more early in 2010.

A bumper harvest of 50 kilos of honey took place on September 2, and the honey will be available for sale in autumn 2010. Nicholas Géant, beekepper of the two hives at the Grand Palais, was quoted in Le Monde recently as saying that “in the countryside, the mortality rate (for bees) is 30 to 50 percent” due to the high levels of pesticides present.

I haven’t tasted the Palais Garnier honey, but I do confess to finding it difficult to find a honey in France that tastes just right. Childhood memories of  taste-testing honey all over New Zealand seem to have left their mark and all other honeys don’t seem to measure up. Many of those honeys came from New Zealand’s unique wild flora, and have names like Tawari, Manuka, Towai and Kamahi.

Organic is more than a label

Living in Paris most of the year, the only guarantee I have that a product has not been treated with pesticides is the AB (Agriculture Biologique) label, which itself is due to be watered down in 2010. But here in the rural southwest, many producers have chosen not to apply for the AB label and those who have are thinking about abandoning it because of the cost, what they refer to as the “intrusiveness” of the organic label inspectors, and, above all, the fact that they have the type of relationship with their customers which ensures trust in their devotion to adhering to organic norms of production and quality.

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Last weekend I purchased a bag of flour from a vendor at a local market after asking why she chose not to label her flour organic even though she claimed that it was not treated with any pesticides. The proof was in the baking. The flour was a lovely speckled grey-brown colour. The resulting loaf was by far the most delicious I have ever attempted, with greater depth of flavour and texture than the organic flours I have so far tested from supermarkets and even organic stores. The flour is milled from wheat produced from a small five-hectare plot, and stone-ground on site. I spoke with the farmer, Bruno Clerq, who told me that he just started the business this year and is motivated by the satisfaction of seeing a product through from A-Z. Along with the wheat, he also keeps bees. The satisfaction of eating the bread and sharing it with family was immense. I returned this morning to purchase a five-kilo sack for the rest of the summer.

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugiers farm

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugier's farm

Next to the flour vendor was a breeder of a rare indigenous variety of pork, the “porc noir gascon“. These rustic black pigs are classified as “endangered-maintained” according to the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for domestic animal diversity compiled by the FAO. An indigenous breed found in the southwest of France, the adult male weighs on average 200 kg, and females 180 kg. It’s worth remembering that the report documents that each week the world loses two breeds of domestic animal diversity, so efforts such as these by local farmers are worth supporting. I tested the dry sausage and it was succulent and surprisingly low in fat, as the pigs gain weight very slowly, thereby producing a rich, dense, almost gamey meat. They currently have an AB label but plan to give it up at the end of 2009.

If you would like to see these pigs close up, the Ferme de Guillaumet is open for visits and also has rural “gites” for rental by the week.

Tuna, eco-tent living and 13 moons – summertime links

France backs international ban on bluefin tuna, from Sam Fromartz at Chews Wise. Sarkozy’s decision was announced at the Grenelle de La Mer last week. Bluefin tuna fishing in France is esssentially concentrated around the Ile d’Yeu, off the Brittany coast. WWF welcomed the decision and the U.K. followed suit with a similar commitment.

Nice eco-tourism idea from “Un lit au pré”: five sites in France currently in working farms, you are housed in luxury tents furnished with plenty of understated, crunchy eco-chic flair and wood burning stoves. Spend your days collecting freshly laid eggs and mucking in around the farm.

This year I’ve noticed that our vegetable garden is suffering from some unidentifiable ailment – the soil is more than normally heavy, clayey and generally unfriendly even though there are no new variables this year. I started asking around and a farmer we visited last week at La Rabasse D’Astarac who specializes in preserving ancient varieties of heirloom tomatoes mentioned the fact that it is a year of thirteeen moons.

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse DAstarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse D'Astarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

Thirteen moons is a reference to the natural cycle of time. For every trip the Earth makes around the sun, the moon makes thirteen trips around the Earth. Thus “13 Moons” represents the wholeness of the natural world and its seasonal rhythms.

I then asked my favourite vegetable guy at our local market in Mirande this morning whether he subscribed to the 13 moons theory. His lettuce was looking bedraggled and I figured he would have an opinion. He replied that the 13 moons was an excuse for people who’ve had a bad year, and that the real culprit was some kind of thermic shock which has been operative since the beginning of the year in the region with strong winds coming from both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts which have disturbed the climatic conditions for growing. If anyone has strong opinions or background info on 13 moons, please give me a shout!

High stakes for food security at Tunis meeting

I just returned from Tunis where the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is holding its 3rd Governing Body session. Getting funding for the Treaty and stimulating the free and unimpeded (by seed companies) flow worldwide of crop genetic resources among plant breeders and scientists is an uphill battle, which all those present at the meeting will freely acknowledge.

France and Germany have been particularly obstructionist – partly because of recession at home, partly because they prefer to act bilaterally than multilaterally. Some 120 countries ratified this treaty in 2004, but it still lacks funding for its core functions and the operational costs of the Rome-based secretariat at FAO headquarters. A key sticking point is how to budget contributions – many rich countries have earmarked funds for the Treaty under development assistance, but Jose Esquinas Alcazar points out that it’s an issue of national security.

José "Pepe" Esquinas Alcazar, father of the treaty

Food shortages equal political instability; if a crop virus wipes out the wheat harvest in Europe, plant breeders need to work quickly to come up with a new, hardier variant and be able to access plant genetic resources from all over the world to do this.

“This is money for national development, for national security. The countries need to understand this. There is some mental laziness on this subject,” he said.

Plant genetics is an obscure subject which has little public visibility but it is absolutely vital to the future of our food systems and the way we farm and eat in the future. As Pat Mooney of Canada’s ETC Group told me in the corridors, “You’re not going to have agriculture 50 years from now because of climate change unless we have exchanges of germplasm.”

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

The highlight of the conference for me was seeing Dr Melaku Worede of Ethiopia take the floor. Founder of Ethiopia’s Gene Bank – the first of its kind in Africa, he is a tireless advocate for the importance of on-farm diversity as a strategy to increase and conserve biodiversity. Dr Worede is today a frail, deeply spiritual presence with a tremendous capacity to inspire.

Here is the text of his intervention yesterday – which provoked spontaneous applause from the assembled Plenary of biocrats, plant breeders, NGO activists and crop scientists.

“I’m the international scientific advisor to the Seeds of Survival progamme of USC Canada and the founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, the first of its kind in Africa. At one point in my career I also chaired an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

“Farming communities have always implemented conservation methods. Many species little known to science or industrial technology are already managed by local farmers and indigenous communities. Seed is planted in situ and is frequently exchanged. This accounts for the broad range of adaptability and plasticity in gene materials. Maintenance of diversity by small farm comunities in this way provides wide options for self reliance for food crop production and security, thereby lowering the risk of food shortage. All high-tech conservation methods depend on this.

“More than 1,400 gene banks around the world maintain ex-situ some six million samples of germplasm They distribute hundreds and thousands of germplasm collections to scientists and plant breeders. Most of these crop collections and these gene banks are however in a precarious state. One response to this has been the creation of the (Global Crop Diversity) Trust to provide sustainable funding through an endowment, which is today worth some 150 million dollars to ensure the perpetual conservation of crop germplasm around the world. I wish to congratulate the progress made by the Trust today.

“It is most crucial to place a precondition that funding to support genebanks requires linking in-situ funding conservation of cultivated crop lands and semi-wild species by small farmers and pastoralists and indignenous peoples. Otherwise Africa will suffer unparallelled food shortages and rural poverty already touching one billion people. This is especially urgent in view of the rapidly dwindling but still abundant plant genetic resources, and in view of climate change.”

Here’s a recent interview with Dr Worede from GRAIN.

France launches Grenelle on Oceans

France’s Environment Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, announced last month the launch of a “Grenelle de la Mer”, modelled on the Grenelle on the Environment and focused exclusively on problems related to fishing and the oceans. The idea is to bring together experts, stakeholders and representatives of the government and business to hammer out a long-term strategic vision for policy over the next five to 10 years. The Grenelle on the Environment did work on oceans and marine resources, but the government seeks to go further and bring together all knowledge and intelligence to generate a fresh set of policy proposals. Four working groups will be formed in the coming month and each of them will work on a theme:

  • Sustainable fishing
  • Employment in the marine sector
  • Coastal development
  • Governance at the local and global level

The working groups will produce a road map before the summer which will then be submitted to an inter-ministerial committee.

One big unanswered question is how to reconcile the need for sustainable fishing policies with the fishing subsidies, which cost France 27 billion euros per year, according to calculations by Daniel Pauly, head of the Fisheries Center of the University of British Colombia. Pauly, quoted recently in Le Monde, maintains that the subsidies allow the over-fishing to continue.

The Common Fisheries Policy was set up by the European Union in 1983 to set annual fishing quotas for key fish species. Over the years, fishing industry pressure has forced politicians to barter for bigger and bigger quotas, despite scientific warnings that stocks were being over-fished.
According to the latest report on fisheries published by the FAO in March, around 28 percent of world fish stocks are over-fished.

French food safety agency rules that GM corn is safe

The French food safety agency, AFSSA, has ruled that MON 810 corn – transgenic corn manfactured by Monsanto – does not constitute a health risk. The ruling, dated Jan 23 but kept secret until an exclusive in today’s Le Figaro, is a political time bomb for the government, already snowed under with strike action from teachers, recession and unemployment woes. Not only does the ruling run counter to the government’s decision to ban MON 810 last year, it also flied in the face of the overwhelming opposition to transgenic crops among the general population

The decision basically throws out all the questions raised against MON 810, whether they pertain to animal health or human health. These included the toxicity of the insecticidal protein (Cry1Ab) which protects the GM corn from pests such as the borer, a possible link with mad cow disease, or the possible carcinogenic potential.

Environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo will have the thankless task of defending the government’s position before the European Commission later this month, for the ban is only defensible if there is clear scientific evidence to back it up.

Furthermore, the AFSSA’s ruling is in line with the findings published on 31 October by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Austria has been inconflict for the past 10 years with the European executive to prevent the import and sale of GMOs on its territory.