Tag Archives: sustainable development

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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Forget about designer handbags – designer weeds are the future

How resilient are we? The world is changing dramatically – not just politically but socially and environmentally too.

Resilience to change is becoming increasingly important, especially in environmental terms. We need to build the resilience of our environment, and our ecosystems, so that we can cope with ongoing changes in climate.

The thing is that until we find a solution, communities across the world, both human and natural, are going to continue to suffer the impact of extreme events as they happen, often with unpredictable consequences. We’re losing the ability of our environment to absorb shocks and insulate us from flood events, drought events, soil erosion and oceanic warming.

This isn’t an abstract fear: forest fires in France, cleaving of the Larsen C ice shelf, bleaching of the Great Barrier reef corals, declines in seabird populations in Scotland: they are all linked directly to climate change.

An obvious solution is to ensure we have diverse ecosystems. A diverse system is a robust system. Simplified systems and monocultures are all too susceptible to outbreaks of disease and severe climatic fluctuations. Yet species and habitat loss continues across the world to the extent that global biodiversity is no longer within safe limits and continued loss will threaten the planet’s ability to support humans and wildlife (Science, July 2016). Even in the UK, The National Ecosystem Assessments across the UK and the State of Nature reports, reflect the loss of species diversity and habitat simplification. Just as we should be protecting our species and habitat diversity, the opposite is happening.

A timely piece of work then for the new Diversify project, where the crop diversity work at the James Hutton Institute, provided a welcome space last Friday to discuss these issues and how agriculture might help.

Research shows that diverse crop mixtures increase resilience to disease and increase productivity at the same time. In addition there may be a benefit in reducing inputs, such as pesticides and fertiliser, the research on this is less clear to date. But that seems to be reflecting a lack of data rather than anything else.

What’s more, recent greenhouse trials have shown that increasing crop diversity reduces number of weeds and niche space available to weeds. So if increasing diversity in crop mixtures increases crop productivity and reduces the number of common weeds, could we develop crop and native plant mixtures to suppress common weeds, increase crop productivity and conserve native plants all at the same time?

If diversity can promote diversity – could diversity increase resilience by protecting key ecological relationships? And if it could, what role and value is there for native biodiversity?

What, for example, is the role of rare arable plants? Arable plants make up one of the fastest disappearing plant communities across the UK. Weeds that were once common in fields, corn flowers and corn marigolds for example, are now something that catch the eye because we see them so rarely. Could these plants, by taking up some of the habitat niche, limit the space for more common, and arguably less welcome, weeds? It seems unlikely, although the research would be useful. What they can do, however, is provide a nectar and pollen source for beneficial insects – both pollinators and predators, that increase crop productivity. We could, therefore, design, or encourage, native plant communities that provide the benefits to invertebrates and ecological resilience while, at the same time, increasing crop productivity? It seems counter intuitive but the evidence is not pointing away from that.

Research is showing that weed diversity benefits crop biomass. It is heartening is that this is being actively explored and the solution of increasing diversity to build resilience is becoming clearer. With the link to increased productivity as well as more resilient ecosystems, we are building a natural capital argument for agricultural subsidies that support nature not only to ensure nature remains in it full glory for future generations but also because farmers get healthier and more productive crops, while building a more resilient environment.

Is that not a win win? More useful than a designer handbag?

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

Seizing the future in Nepal’s rural villages

Arughat village volunteers outside their new visitor centre, due to open in 2015.
Arughat village volunteers outside their new visitor centre, due to open in 2015.

A short field trip in early November took me to Dhading District at the start of the Manaslu circuit. The Arughat valley is where many people start the Manaslu trek nowadays and this has not gone unnoticed by the people of Arughat. A new visitor centre is planned to open early in 2015 at Arughat bazaar, providing visitor information and facilities, including route information, locally made handicrafts and a rooftop café with wifi. The entrepreneurial spirit runs high here and is part of a wider community spirit. The centre will be run by local volunteers with the aim of generating employment and local business for hotels, restaurants and handicraft makers. The aim is that the entire village will benefit. Advice provided through ESON will, I hope, result in a well thought out centre that visitors use and which in turn, supports the village.

Budhathum village fields
Budhathum village fields

Across the valley, the village of Budhathum is not on the trekking route. Even getting to Budhathum involved the most exciting jeep ride I experienced in Nepal. However, the villagers in Budhathum are also looking to the future.

ESON are running two projects here: one is looking at the potential of native plants as sources of biofuel and the other is exploring medicinal plants and their uses. Both are being delivered through three MSc studentships. While only at the early stages, the villagers here are very supportive. We convened a village meeting: 50 people came along to hear about the project progress and to give us ideas on what they would like to see happen next. There is a huge amount of plant based knowledge in these villages and people not only want to share their knowledge but also to learn more from the researchers. They want knowledge exchange. For example, different villages here have different local names for the same plants. They asked for plant identification workshops so they know the scientific plant names and are in a better position to collect and grow species that are in demand. Invasive non-native species like jatropha, originally planted as a biofuel, are now causing issues. They want advice on how to control it. They want to find out which other plants they can grow here as cash crops. Diversifying the crops they grow including crops they can sell for cash is a key issue here, as it was in Rasuwa. See my last blog, Life in a rural village.

The entrepreneurial spirit runs strongly here too. With these projects, ESON is investigating the potential of sustainable locally sourced energy, cash crops and sustainable local medicine. The next steps will be crucial in developing the projects further to get useful results and practical advice and support back to the villagers. This will mean rolling out the projects beyond the current research stage so that Budhathum villagers really get some results they can use.

It will mean providing training on plant identification, on the cultivation of new crops, on nursery management, on control of invasive species and supporting apprenticeships with today’s traditional healers to ensure their knowledge isn’t lost but continues to benefit the village.

You can help ESON take these next steps by supporting their work. Click on the Just Giving link to the left.

Life in a rural village in Rasuwa District

Gatlang, in Nepalese terms, is nowhere particularly special. It’s not in a National Park, although it is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, adjacent to Langtang National Park. To me, it was a window into another intriguing world. It is also stunningly beautiful.

Gatlang village
Gatlang village

It all started when we met Pasang Tamang on the local bus to Thambuchet. An enterprising young woman, she runs a range of small scale businesses. She’s a famer, growing new medicinal plants, and she runs a ‘home stay’ where she invited us to stay. Homestays appear in villages where hotel accommodation is limited – there was a single guest house in Gatlang – and where enterprising villagers wish to raise some extra cash income. Pasang lives in a typical Tamang house in the village centre. She has three rooms – a communal living room/ kitchen and two sleeping rooms, one for paying guests. The toilet is downstairs in the yard – it was clean with its own tap and bar of soap.

The approach to Gatlang from Thambuchet is along the valley, beautiful in early November with the deep green of the pine forest, and the shafts of yellow from the mustard fields on the opposite valley side. The path takes you up along the valley side and onto a gently sloping wide terrace above which the houses cling. The terrace itself is farmed. In November it was golden with small fields of mustard, beans and maize and millet.

The houses pile on top of each other, with narrow stepped alleys between them. Traditionally built from stone with wooden shingled roofs and a fluttering prayer flag above, each house has a balcony, where the corn hangs to dry for winter. In the early morning, smoke from the house fires hangs in the low sun. Set before the snow capped Langtang peaks, the village has a timeless feeling about it reinforced by the frequent chortens lining the old road, flags muttering their prayers.

Livelihoods here are derived from the fields surrounding the village. Tiny terraces are planted, at this time of year, with corn and beans ready for harvest, with millet following on behind. Spinach and potatoes are other key crops. And along the field boundaries, the beginnings of a new industry in the form of chiraito, a medicinal plant used for a wide range of ailments including fever, jaundice and skin diseases. Also collected from the wild, the cultivation of this herb both protects its wild populations and provides a consistent cash income for villagers, without taking land away from food production. Fruit and nut trees are also appearing – apple and walnut were proudly pointed out.

Innovation runs high in Gatlang. A new cooperative has just started up: the Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative was set up by Gatlang villagers three years ago when they realised the potential value of medicinal plants in the Gatlang area. The members are interested in diversifying their crops to provide cash income and current efforts are largely concentrated on growing chiraito in crop margins and on land not used for food production. There are in addition some fields, not needed for food production, dedicated to chiraito alone. Some of these belong to Pasang.

Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC,  with Deborah Long
Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC, with Deborah Long

The Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative (HMHC) aims to coordinate chiraito sales to gain a better crop price for Gatlang farmers – the villagers back down the valley get Rs 100 per kg more for their crop; to cut out the middlemen in the chiraito trade market and deal directly with processers; to work together to find investment for a community owned processing plant and to coordinate the growing of additional medicinal plants, including Pichorrhiza, Paris polyphylla and yew.

Meanwhile another villager, not a cooperative member, has started her own yew nursery where she planted yew cuttings in four beds under shade netting. When we visited, she was at the point of giving up as she was finding it difficult to tend the nursery and couldn’t see a way to derive benefits from it. The crop suffered from neglect as a result. However, now new links between her and the HMPC have opened up the opportunity for her to sell cuttings to local members as they work to diversify their crops. Yew is used locally to treat coughs, bronchitis and asthma. It also contains taxol, used to treat cancer. There is a high demand for the leaves and bark and there should be a large local market for cuttings as demand for yew is high and local farmers look to diversify their crops and income streams.

In this tiny Himalayan village, young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to generate extra cash income. They are seizing the moment and with some support from organisations like ESON, they are taking on the 21st century.

Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal: unlocking the potential

Set up in 1998, the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal was conceived just as the links between natural resource use and community development in Nepal were coming into focus. With its highly diverse flora and the diversity of its people, many of whom retain a strong reliance on native plants, the need for an ethnobotanical home in Nepal was clear.

A small dedicated team of specialists, led by Professor KK Shrestha, has been the driving force of the Society ever since. Having delivered training programmes, published reports and books and coordinated local community development projects based on plant use, the society is now at a juncture. Its objectives

  • To enhance documentation and safeguard indigenous knowledge
  • To conserve plant resources
  • To enable sustainable utilisation of plant resources through coordination, promotion and research activities

are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago. But there are now new opportunities to be developed.

Nepal is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The 16 GSPC goals for 2020 are stretching for all signatories. Yet Nepal is making progress on arguably some of the toughest targets. Take, for example, Target 3: Development and effective sharing of advice and guidance for plant conservation and sustainable use, based on research and practical experience. With experience in medicinal plant conservation, sustainable use and cultivation and more recent involvement in small scale biofuel projects, ESON has built an effective model of working in strong partnerships with local communities, other NGOs, government and universities.

IMG_2593 no date

ESON could contribute more by building on its current work too. Target 13 is a case in point: The decline of plant resources, and associated indigenous and local knowledge innovations and practices, that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care, halted. If Nepal is serious about delivering on the CBD and the GSPC, ESON, even as a tiny organisation with very few resources beyond its dedicated volunteer staff, is leading the way. With its partners, it is delivering projects to ensure a future for rural healthcare by conserving traditional medicine and its plant resources in remote areas.

The Nagoya protocol is another important area of work in Nepal, as it enshrines the rights of indigenous people to intellectual property rights over local biodiversity. Ethnobotany holds the key for the future of biotechnology, with the ability to save time and resources by working with indigenous people to shortlist potentially useful chemicals. This key brings with it a heavy duty however to ensure that those indigenous communities benefit economically from biotechnological developments. It is all too easy for successes in the laboratory to trail an amnesia about the very communities that provided, usually free of charge, the shortcut to success. If ESON is to provide such a service, it will be beholden to ensure those communities benefit economically into the long term future.

ESON is at a turning point. It is looking to reinvigorate its members and to inspire them to get more involved and help the society make more of a difference in the conservation and sustainable use of Nepal’s amazing flora. In developing a new 5 year plan, it is hoping to reach out to new partners and funders, to inspire them to support it in its work to ensure a future not just for plants, but for people too.

You can support their work by donating to my Just giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/Deborah-Long/