Category Archives: The future

What do GROWers bring to a Good Food Nation?

This blog was published in The Geographer, the newsletter of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Summer 2018

The Scottish government’s Good Food Nation bill came up briefly in the parliamentary debate on 25 January, with an update on its progress towards the government’s ambitions on Good Food. These are to build a statutory framework to join up the government’s approach to food and to consider steps to improve the effectiveness of the food and drink supply in Scotland. Progress turns out to be another consultation later this year in 2018. What should we all expect?

What does a Good Food Nation mean?
According to Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, it means: We want to enhance the national food policy with the vision of Scotland becoming a good food nation, where people from every walk of life take pride, pleasure and benefit from the food that they buy, serve and eat day by day. 29 June 2016.

It should mean more than this however. A Good Food Nation should be able to provide easy access to all its people to healthy and sustaining food. That food should be produced sustainably. A Good Food Nation is also a nation where people grow their own food as individuals and communities and where people can access locally grown food easily and regularly.

The sustainable production of food and access to healthy and sustaining food is key to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals . Scotland was one of the first countries to sign up to in 2015. Scotland is justifiably proud of its natural environment and its burgeoning Food and Drink sector. Yet at the same time, it is still widely seen, and labelled, as the unhealthy nation of Europe. Developing a coherent approach to food will be key for the Scottish Government.

The GROW Observatory is at the forefront of two approaches that will be invaluable to progress here:
1. Enabling more people right across Scotland and Europe to grow and access local food, grown sustainably
2. Building healthier soils so that sustainable food production and a heathy environment is a given for future generations
GROW is an 18 partner strong consortium, led by Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art at the University of Dundee and working with research institutions, NGOs, design and technology companies. On the ground, we work with local communities in growing networks from across Europe. Together, we learn about food growing and soil management through online courses and large scale growing and soil experiments. Together, we gather data on sustainable growing techniques, on soil management approaches, on growing the best crops for local conditions and on soil parameters used to validate and strengthen climate change models. GROW is distributing 15,000 soil sensing kits across 9 GROW Places in Europe, to build the biggest citizen generated database on soil properties. These GROW Places occur from Scotland to Greece, Ireland to Sweden. With the data and knowledge we build from these, people are able to grow more food sustainably, identify and plant crops suited to their locality and soil types, build healthier soils and learn how to adapt growing, soil and land management activities to changing climate.

With citizens and data, GROW is playing its part in improving the coherence of food and development policy in Europe, in supporting and enabling local communities to grow their own food and reduce food miles, providing physical activity and building social cohesion through growing. By making the links between local communities, supporting locally adapted sustainable food production methods and by gathering data to strengthen scientific models on climate change and soil health, there is a lot that the citizens involved can offer a Good Food Nation. All of this, taken together, helps governments across Europe meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Find out how to join in at www.growobservatory.org

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Launching the State of Nature: building diversity & having fun

On Wednesday 14 September, the State of Nature partnership launched the second State of Nature report. At its launch in Edinburgh, I gave this speech. I was aiming to help people remember what fun nature can be and  inspire them to act with us to save nature. Let me know of your memories of nature and the memories you would like to foster for future generations. Here or on twitter @DeborahlLong #nature memory

(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie
(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie

Let me start with a massive and heartfelt thank you! THANK YOU to all the volunteers who have contributed the data on which this report is built. It would not exist without the estimated 60,000 hours of volunteer time (and that is just part of the data collecting volunteer team – there are another 66,000 getting out mending paths and fences, and leading walks) dedicated to Scotland’s nature.
They have witnessed and verified first hand the decline in species. What are they seeing? More to the point, what are they not seeing?

Have you seen a moth snowstorm this summer? A murmuration of starlings? A shiver of basking sharks? A coterie of orchids?

(c) Jim Jermyn
(c) Jim Jermyn

We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland to such a point that 9% of our species are now at risk of extinction.
Does it matter that we, and our children are much less likely nowadays to see a curlew, a mountain pansy or a common blue butterfly? Our children are much less likely to be finding newts in their pond, collecting ladybirds from the field or making whistles from elder trees. Does that matter?
Well yes I would say. That sort of experience is what enriches a childhood and fires the imagination. But even beyond that it also matters because our ecosystems across Scotland are becoming more simplified. They have fewer species, which results in less diversity, which in turns leads to less resilience to change. A simplified ecosystem is one much more likely to fall over in times of change – times of climate change even. We have measured this through the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which in Scotland falls below the 90% levels recognised as the level beyond which our ecosystems can reliably met society’s needs. And while that sounds dry and boring, these ecosystem services include those we know about like flood prevention and fertile soils, as well as those we don’t know about but still take from granted: future medicines and alternatives to plastic for instance.
Scotland trades on our image: Scotland is renowned across the world for its majestic landscapes and species diversity.  Where else can you see alpine gentians growing next to arctic cloudberry? Nowheere else of course. But we are not doing enough to conserve it and with it our own future.
So what can we do other than drown our sorrows with the help of a Botanist gin? What can we all resolve to do so that the next State of Nature report shows us a reverse in this decline?
We need to work together. This report show how, when we work together, we can achieve good things. Look at the examples in the report. Then, if you already volunteer – thank you and please carry on. If you don’t, how about it? There is a very exciting range of opportunities out there and again the organisations in this partnership can help you get involved or inspire you to get involved.

And finally use this report, and its sister report, Response to the State of Nature, launched last year, to implement change in your own area of work. Use the report, reflect on its messages and join us in doing something about it. Biodiversity loss is the biggest threat to the world but has been largely forgotten. This report shows why that is a dangerous oversight.
We need nature – much more than it needs us. In Scotland, we’re making good progress towards climate change and the government’s targets. But we’re only tackling half the story. There are only two ways to combat climate change: one through reducing emissions and one through maintaining species diversity so our ecosystems are able to sequester carbon. Scotland has positioned itself as a world leader in setting and attaining targets on emissions reductions and it could equally become a world leader in enhancing biodiversity and its attendant sequestration capability. Until we reverse the decline in biodiversity across Scotland, our future, and our children’s future is getting less diverse, and dare I say it, less fun , every day.
So help us make a difference, bake blaeberry tarts, make nettle string, watch an eagle soar. And with it, your resolve to help halt the loss of Scotland’s amazing nature.

What is a national ecological network anyway?

There is  a lot of talk about natural capital and ecosystem services at the moment. One of the ways of protecting our capital and services is establishing a national ecological network. So what is that?

A National Ecological Network (NEN) consists of robust and healthy ecosystems, capable of sustaining the full range of ecosystem services upon which Scotland depends and which are vital for Scotland’s sustainable development.
A well planned NEN built on sound ecological principles protects ecosystems and their services through the plants and fungi that are the basis of all ecosystems. This is the mechanism that can ensure that local development management takes place within a sustainable national context.

IPA Sunart eg
While a NEN can only be effective if delivered at a national scale, aiming to re-connect Scotland’s fragmented ecosystems across mainland Scotland and its islands, its delivery must be planned at a relevant scale locally. This provides a national green infrastructure, complementing the built infrastructure projects of national planning frameworks.
Designing an effective NEN, however,  requires robust understanding and modelling of the elements that support ecosystem services. These services include resistance to disease, pollination, water regulation and soil fertility for example. For these services to continue to be available to people, they require robust and diverse ecosystems, founded upon self sustaining and genetically diverse species populations. These populations and the habitats they comprise are an essential consideration in proposals for development throughout the country if we are to retain the ecosystem services we all rely on.
This approach is encapsulated by the Important Plant Areas (IPA) initiative, which meets targets 4 and 5 in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), to which the UK and Scottish governments are committed through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and provides an ecological coherent basis for a green infrastructure.
Delivery of IPAs in Scotland has to date focussed on their identification and management advice, which is now being effectively rolled out, across the West Coast IPA and North Coast IPA. A funding bid is in place to secure parallel advances in the Cairngorms IPAs. However, Scotland, as a whole, is at a stage where the detail of how built development can adversely affect ecosystem functionality needs to be addressed within a national context. This could be part of the recently updated Scottish Land Use Strategy and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework, both of which look to an integrated approach for development and management in a changing and uncertain climate.
This national ecological network approach achieves 3 objectives:
1. Improving the quality and resilience of Scotland’s natural environment,
2. enabling species and habitats to adapt to climate change by linking fragmented ecosystems together and providing means for species to move from site to site
3. maintaining and protecting ecosystem services in the future.
It also provides the context for the development of effective green infrastructure in the long term.

Scotland’s international reputation for a high quality environment, itself providing a market for skills development and job creation across Scotland, will only be maintained through creating this network. We need to start to implement it across the country using the established models already in place if we are to gain from it.

Read more here:

Scotland’s Important Plant Areas (2015) Plantlife. www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/scotlands_important_plant_areas

Nature needs us to get MAD

For the last 40 years. European legislation has set a benchmark for environmental legislation. This has provided a strategic framework for national legislation that is set for the long term, and makes ecological sense. Transposed into Scots law, as a result we have some of the best environmental legislation in the world.

This is now at risk. Without this EU framework, governments across the UK could start to draw back on the legislation we have. In Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster, domestic environmental legislation, alongside legislation on social issues, could be redrawn, not to improve the UK’s natural environment and ensure it is resilient enough for future generations to enjoy, but to meet the short term interests of those who wish to make economic gain from de-valuing our environment.

Nature needs us to get MAD about this now. Why MAD?

worth more than a penny...
worth more than a penny…

Money: let’s face it, this is all about money. Nature costs us money – think of the expense incurred through the flooding over recent years. Nature earns us money – in Scotland, the economic outputs from activities that depend on the natural environment have been estimated at about £17.2 billion a year, 11% of Scotland’s total outputs. Now, we need to invest in nature: until 2 weeks ago, the biggest, arguably only, source of funding for management to conserve nature was through the EU funded Scottish Rural Development Programme. Direct funding for biodiversity conservation has been drying up of late with all eyes now pointing at SRDP. We need to invest to increase that national output beyond 11% and we need to invest so that the costs of nature loss from flooding, ill health and lack of opportunity are reduced.
Ambition: it isn’t enough to sit back and hope someone else deals with this. We need clear sighted, ecologically literate policy makers to devise and deliver policy instruments that conserve nature for future generations of people, plants, porpoises and peregrines (for example). That’s why, Plantlife, with other eNGO partners have written to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, asking her to commit publicly to maintaining the current suite of EU legislation as enshrined in Scottish law, and committing to the a continuing trajectory to conserve nature. Arguably that is not enough – we need to be doing more but let’s not go backwards.
Determination: if we cannot defend nature and conserve it for future generations, we are compounding the negative trends we’ve created. Nature cannot not speak for itself – it relies on those who care to speak up and protect it. However, although it can’t speak, it does act. Once a tipping point is reached, natural processes have the potential to set in motion a chain of events that we are unlikely to be able to control. Climate change is one of those tipping points as is biodiversity loss. The combination of two, already in action, is going to be devastating for the planet – unless we get MAD.

Yes, no mebbe…does the nation care about native plants?

In Autumn every year, Scottish Natural Heritage commissions a public attitude survey about nature [1] . Scotland loves its native plants, doesn’t it?

Scotland’s informal national anthem is ’Flower of Scotland’, Scotland’s national poet had a penchant for wild flowers, his wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r being one of many to feature in his poems, Scotland has a national tree, the Scots pine and, as Hugh MacDiarmid had it, hills that are so much more than nothing but heather. Despite all this, it seems flowers are still not part of Scotland’s natural psyche.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

When asked what wildlife do you associate most with Scotland, not a single plant, or even tree, was named. I find this hard to believe. Plants define Scotland’s landscapes. Where would machair be without flowers, where would Celtic rainforests be without lichens and bryophytes? Where would the uplands be without heather?

Maybe plants aren’t seen as wildlife? This survey strongly indicates this might be the case: we still not winning the battle of hearts and minds. Plants provide the backdrop but haven’t yet found their way onto centre stage. They remain the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball.

Does this matter? Yes it does.

It is resulting in wild plants being invisible. Plants are not seen as part of wildlife. In 2015, fewer people were concerned about the loss of biodiversity than in 2014. The public is becoming less engaged in biodiversity at home in the garden, fewer people see themselves as green consumers and fewer people are volunteering.

Wild plants are invisible to politicians and policy makers too. Native plant diversity is continuing to decline: in 2007, the Countryside Survey showed significant declines in plant diversity in the best places for plants, as well as in the wider countryside. Even this survey, the only one that monitored long term changes in plant diversity, is no longer funded. This is resulting in an ongoing decline that we can’t see and no longer measure.

And there is the rub. With plants and fungi being invisible to policy makers, there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to them. Funding to the Countryside Survey is being cut and governments across the UK are relying on a new citizen science project [2], run by Plantlife with CEH and BSBI, to assess changes in wild plants. It will take at least 6 years before we have enough data to detect trends, and funding for the survey is only guaranteed until next year. Funding for actual conservation projects is drying up with cuts to SNH grants and no other funders prioritise plant conservation.

The net result will be a continued decline in plant diversity and the concomitant decline in ecosystem diversity, leading to simplified ecosystems. Plantlife’s Vanishing flora report [3], showed the ongoing loss of diversity in plants. Since the 17th century when botanical records began, Scotland has lost 97 native species. And of those left, one in 4 are classified as in danger of extinction.

At Plantlife we want to celebrate our fantastic, life-supporting flora and celebrate our long term love affair with our native plants. But to do that, we need more people to notice them and to value them. That’s the only way we’ll persuade our politicians and policy makers to put resources into plants and fungi conservation. Because if they don’t we’ll continue to be witness to the ongoing loss of native plants across Scotland. That is not a legacy we should be passing on.

Want to help?

With Scottish Environment LINK, Plantlife will be asking all our new MSPs to become Species Champions. Keep an eye on progress here: www.scotlink.org/work-areas/species-champions

Take part in the NPMS to help measure plant diversity across Scotland: http://www.npms.org.uk/

[1]http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/customercare/Scottish%20Nature%20Omnibus%20-%20Autumn%202015.pdf

[2] http://www.npms.org.uk/

[3] http://www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/our_vanishing_flora

After the quake?

Last November, I stayed in a tiny village, not far from what looks to have been the epicentre of the earthquake in Nepal last Saturday. The village of Gatlang, in the Langtang, is perched high above the valley floor, the houses crowded one above the other to take the tiniest amount of space on the steep hillsides. Around them, narrow strips of terraced fields fall away, bounded by dry stone walls and full, when we were there, of climbing beans. The maize had been harvested and was drying on the tops of the sheds and shelters that punctuated the fields. I wrote of my visit in a blog: Life in a rural village in Rasuwa district.

Gatlang village
Gatlang village

We stayed in a ‘home stay’ (like a dinner B&B), right in the centre of the village. This home stay, run by a remarkable young woman, was a small room in her house for tourists with a delicious evening meal – the usual dhal baht, followed with amazingly creamy home made curd yoghurt. An entrepreneur, Pasang is also a leading energy in a new village cooperative, the Himalayan Medicinal Plant Cooperative. She is one of the first farmers in Gatlang to grow medicinal plants, and she has started with chiraita (Swertia chirayita), a valuable high yielding seed with a multitude of medicinal uses. With the first harvest coming up at the end of November, she had got together with other young farmers, as they realised the need to market their produce together to gain better prices and a  stronger voice for the village farmers.

We had met Pasang the day before on the local bus between Shyaphrubesi and Chilime. An overcrowded bus journey, that was honestly one the worst of my life, but lightened up by meeting Pasang, and managing not to stand on a chicken. On hearing our interest in medicinal plants, she had invited us to stay with her and to meet the chair of the newly formed village cooperative, another young farmer named Gomba Chilling. Both are forward looking and innovative, looking to support their families and build a  future for the village. They knew that in order to gain a similar price for their herbs, as the next village down the valley, they needed to work together. They knew they needed to diversify their crops to include not just food for the year, but medicinal plants they could sell for an income. By choosing chiraita they could grow a valuable cash crop, on the field edges or in spare corners but they were still looking for more. Gomba had planted apple and nut trees and while we were there, invested in some yew seedlings, another cash crop for the medicinal plant trade and the production of taxol, used in the battle against cancer.

They were both inspirational. Working with what they had, expanding their horizons and looking forward to a diverse agriculture and an income source from tourists.

I don’t know how they are faring now. I hope those houses crowded together on the slopes have stood the test of earthquakes before and that their stone walls and shingle roofs are stable and solid. I don’t know how old the buildings are: built of ancient materials it’s difficult to judge how old they really are. The location of the village though, perched high above the valley bottom is old. The stupas lining the path into the villages are neglected, old and crumbling.

I hope they are OK. While I was there, Action Aid Nepal were just coming to the end of a child sponsorship project in Langtang and had local staff on the ground. Donate to them now if you can. These communities, perched high above the villages are resourceful because they have to be. Pasang showed just how resourceful they are. I admired her then but the help we could give now would go a long way with her foresight and vision.