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Feeding the world without breaking the planet

The Little Shepherd Boy by Carlo Dalgas (1840). Held at the National Museum of Denmark. Image through Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry. George Monbiot, in Regenesis (2022).

Our pastoral stereotypes conjure up a picture of a shepherd boy patiently tending to his flocks, probably sat cross-legged on a rock, playing a rough-hewn flute, while flower-dappled meadows stretch into the distance. This trope can be tracked back to the Classical era, bolstered by later Christian iconography, but is a long way from the prosaic reality of livestock farming. Western culture has fixed upon pastoralism as the epitome of harmonious living with nature when it is anything but. As George Monbiot points out early in his latest book, Regenesis, the real population challenge faced by the world today is of livestock numbers, not humans.

The goal of this book is to find a path towards an agricultural system which is simultaneously more robust and sustainable, while providing humanity with sufficient food that is nutritious and affordable, but not trashing the planet in the process. That he has named the problem and engaged with it so constructively is impressive, and I recommend that everyone reads this book. Personally I’m not wholly convinced by his solution, although it would be a lot to ask to split this Gordian knot all at once. Despite my misgivings there is a lot to support and recommend.

His solution for the livestock crisis can be distilled into three parts. The first is that our diets need to dramatically reduce their association with animal products. Not everyone needs to follow Monbiot’s own path and adopt veganism (I certainly haven’t), though there’s little doubt that it would be beneficial for the health of the planet and likely ourselves too. Excluding meat, eggs and dairy products is not essential but we certainly require far less of them than we currently consume, and First World levels of demand cannot be extended to the whole human population without running out of land area in which to produce them.

In one of his most strikingly counter-intuitive arguments, Monbiot provides convincing evidence that extensive, low-intensity or organic approaches to livestock production can only have a limited role in future food production. He is surely right here insofar as they inevitably require greater land areas, eroding natural habitats still further. If the outputs are only premier foods for elite consumers then they will do little to resolve the coming food crisis.

Rather than becoming an evangelical vegan, a position likely to be either mocked or ignored, Monbiot recognises the important cultural role played by protein-based foods and seeks out alternatives. He finds great hope in fungal fermentation. Meat substitutes are now becoming commercially available and increasingly accepted by a public who are at least curious and, if price becomes a factor, will likely embrace them willingly.

This is the first area where I have some scepticism. While it is certainly true that meat substitutes can effectively replace (and even be superior to) low-grade, mass-produced meat products such as burgers, mince or chicken nuggets, this is a low bar to reach. These foods are valued for their lack of inherent flavour and ability to absorb other ingredients; that they are derived from meat is almost incidental. The attachment to a real roast chicken, sirloin steak or mackerel is going to be harder to break. Still, replacing the large and growing fraction of the global food market made up effectively of interchangeable protein lumps would be a valuable service.

Then, however, comes the question of who produces it. Monbiot conjures an idealistic vision of small-scale, distributed technologies that place protein manufacture into the hands of communities throughout the world. Perhaps your protein lumps could be picked up on your local high street next door to the baker or costermonger. More likely, however, is that economies of scale will mean that such enterprises will be undercut by larger industrial manufacturers. This runs the risk of reducing the resilience of global food systems, reproducing one of the crises that Monbiot identifies in our current situation. Factories under the control of small numbers of corporations, investors or governments become sources of inequity and vulnerable infrastructure at times of conflict. I fear that we could simply end up transferring systemic risk from one limited set of power-brokers to another.

The book then turns to arable production. A staggering fraction of the world’s crops are used to feed livestock, and one of the immediate benefits of a reduction in animal consumption would be the freeing up of large amounts of land which could then be used to feed people, or turned over to nature. This is an easy win for conservation and humanity alike, and therefore hard to argue with.

Nevertheless, arable crops remain the major source of calories for most of humanity, resting upon high-intensity production of a few staple grains. We will need to continue to grow crops even in the absence of livestock. Once again Monbiot directs some unexpected friendly fire in the direction of those who advocate for various forms of low-intensity agriculture such as high-nature-value farming, organic production or no-till systems. These are all more beneficial to nature and more sustainable than conventional agriculture, but share the common weakness that they not currently profitable (nor likely to be under any plausible model), and increasing their scale would only reproduce the problem of extensive agriculture. Less bad farming is still farming. I agree with him here. There is a niche market for the expensive products of agro-ecological farms but they won’t feed the world.

Monbiot places his hope in another innovation: perennial crops. What if, instead of the wasteful and polluting cycle of planting, harvesting and ploughing, we could grow crops that would last for multiple years? Intensive arable cultivation will always be necessary but through natural weed suppression and reduced soil erosion it could be closer to sustainable.

For me this is the part of the story that is least plausible. The most likely problem with perennial crops is perennial weeds. For sure they will suppress the annual weeds that require the destructive application of herbicides and regular ploughing. But long-lived crops will offer opportunities for longer-lived weeds to invade, particularly woody plants, and those are much harder for agricultural machinery to cope with. It only takes a small opening in a field of perennial crops: a wet hollow, or some blow-down from a strong wind, and it will quickly be filled with a birch sapling. I hope that the trials and expanded production that Monbiot envisages will still take place but I can foresee many hurdles in the way of perennial crops as a panacea.

Alongside these practical considerations there is one notable omertà that challenges Monbiot’s remedy. He implicitly assumes, by necessity, that the human population is a fixed term in the equation. It is of course possible to feed all the people currently on the planet on less land than we currently use, and we could do so more fairly and effectively using the approaches he advocates for. But can we assume that falling birth rates and the demographic transition will keep the problem within manageable parameters?

Moving into this area is fraught with moral peril and I don’t blame Monbiot for evading the issue. Personally I refuse to be drawn on the question of what a correct or sustainable human population might be. The answer depends on assumptions or ethical principles that are not widely agreed upon and all of which, once allowed to play out, lead to problematic outcomes. It’s not a question that science alone can answer. Nevertheless there is a simple truth which is that a growing population will, on average, lead to greater impacts, even if temporarily dampened by reduced inequality of consumption. A shrinking population raises further questions as to whose numbers are declining and why. The process is unlikely to be consensual and more plausibly involves mass suffering. Such are the grim repercussions of getting the equation wrong.

The danger of treating human population as a static term is well-illustrated by the example of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, when new crop strains and production techniques boosted yields worldwide. If the global population had remained at 1960 levels (around 3 billion people) then we would already be living in Monbiot’s world, one in which intensive agriculture could amply meet the needs of the majority while leaving land aside for nature. Understanding why this did not happen is the key to making sure the next agricultural revolution doesn’t amplify the results of the last. Would we merely defer the problem for another two generations?

Despite my concerns, I am happy to promote Monbiot’s solutions because they are undoubtedly better than the status quo and would buy us time to collectively agree upon what a sustainable future for the planet looks like. We can only begin to solve a problem once we dare to name it, and Monbiot has made every effort to consult not only the scientific evidence but the practical experience of the farmers who know what it takes to turn dirt into food. There is no silver bullet, only hard choices, and it is our responsibility to make them in the fairest, most equitable way we can.


The environmental impacts of music

Was there ever a book that you put off reading because you knew that it would change your worldview but you weren’t quite ready for it? Several years ago I bought Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (Kyle Devine), then guiltily abandoned it in my heap of unread books. This spring I finally overcame my apprehension and began.

Is this the sign of a misspent youth, or of misspent income? Either way I’ve been hauling these records around for decades now. This is only a fraction of the collection. I have to distribute them to spread the weight after causing floors to sag in our old house.

Why was I so concerned? I am professionally an ecologist, and outside work a music obsessive. As a former small-time DJ (both club and radio) I’ve accumulated a substantial and likely valuable record collection which started in earnest in the early 90s and has grown ever since. Many of my 90s dance 12″s were given away when I had no further use for them(1) but for sentimental reasons the LPs have been retained through multiple house moves. I didn’t stop buying vinyl records in the CD age (I own both) and continued to do so until now. The so-called vinyl revival, of which there have actually been several, had no impact on my buying habits. I estimate that I spent roughly £1000 on music every year for about 25 years. I still daydream of one day opening a record shop or starting a label.

In the back of my mind I knew, as most surely do, that vinyl is a petrochemical product. By way of self-reassurance I had assumed that it was a minority side-product, of limited environmental impact by itself. In the past I’ve been happy to cut ethically problematic products out of my life, including tiger prawns and vanilla, or drive an electric car, but vinyl records were too bound up in my identity. Buying records is what I do, it’s who I am(2).

The first thing this book made me do was to critically reflect on how record-buying as a hobby is merely an extension of the central capitalist drive to sell us things we don’t need, particularly petroleum products. Audiophile claims about the superior sound quality are tenuous(3) and, outside a few minority subcultures, almost all new music can now be bought in alternative formats (including digital). This leaves my preference attached solely to the ritual of the needle drop, a habit which connects me to my analogue childhood, a youth spent in sweaty clubs, and a lifetime of crate-digging in basement shops with fellow vinyl junkies. We love the feel of vinyl because we’ve been conditioned by our culture to do so. Is that reason enough?

The next discovery, perhaps unsurprising, is the degree to which my hobby is anything other than harmless. One point that Devine makes forcefully is that the music industry constitutes much more than the commonly recognised axis of artists, agents, producers, distributors and retailers. As a fundamentally material product, music relies on industries with far-reaching impacts. This all adds up to a hefty carbon and environmental footprint, both directly and through the activities it supports.

Even if you overlook the environmental impacts of oil extraction and transport, the industrial production of petrochemicals is inevitably polluting with harmful consequences for both human health and the natural world. A large proportion of vinyl for the US market was formerly produced at Keysor-Century‘s factory just outside LA, a plant which became notorious for breaches of environmental standards, and has left a legacy of contamination. Now the vinyl used in records is more likely to be made elsewhere, particularly in Thailand, where oversight remains less stringent.

The advantage of vinyl is its durability and resistance to decay. The very features that make it a wonderful medium for the long-term storage of music are simultaneously its downsides once its useful life has come to an end. Some records go back into second-hand circulation or are recycled. Most end up as landfill. There they are likely to remain for millennia, leaching the products of their slow breakdown into soil and water.

Alas, there is no simple solution. Although digital music carries the promise of separation from petrocapitalism, Devine points out that it provides a classic example of Jevons’ paradox that increased efficiency tends instead to increase total consumption. We now buy an array of material electronic products to listen to our immaterial music files, while the physical infrastructure of data storage, processing and transmission is largely hidden from view. The music itself may be increasingly digital but the impacts have simply moved elsewhere and capitalism has found a way of selling us new stuff.

In a particularly telling set of figures towards the end of the book, Devine pieces together the fragmentary and uncertain quantitative evidence to examine the environmental impact of the global music industry at the peaks of shellac, vinyl and CD sales, then compares them to data from 2016 including digital music. There is half of a good news story: the mass of plastics involved in the production of music is falling. On the other hand, thanks to the popularity of streaming services, the energy costs, and therefore the carbon emissions, are rapidly rising.

The book builds a case for what it calls ‘the slow violence of music’. While its consequences are less immediately obvious than industries such as mining, or have lower aggregate impact than activities like transport, it is linked to both of these and causes its own separate pathologies. It is tragically ironic that an activity so closely connected to many protest and counter-cultural movements is itself so inextricably entwined with the same forces they seek to oppose. Pick up a physical copy of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and consider whether pressing it on a 7″ plastic disk manufactured from petrochemicals detracts from its intended message.

What then is the most ethical and environmentally responsible way to buy music? The obvious answer, as with all commodities, is of course to buy less. Beyond that, and assuming that you still want to support musicians and hear new music, my own best guess is that downloading and hosting music locally is the least harmful. This has the advantage, if you shop directly through record labels or hosting sites such as Bandcamp, that the producer receives a decent fraction of the purchase price, whereas streaming services only generate paltry revenue for musicians(4). You get to own the files and use them as you see fit without creating hidden energy costs.

So here’s my pledge. I’m going to give up buying new vinyl records and switch entirely to digital downloads. I have no qualms about picking up second hand records(5) but I won’t add to the existing problem. This habit will be harder for me to break than giving up smoking, but my conscience can’t maintain this blind spot any longer. Yes, it’s only a small thing, and very much a First World Problem, but we all need to start cutting back and I can’t pretend that my lifelong petrochemical addiction is necessary.

(1) Some might be shocked that I casually gave away large piles of records. Rest assured, the majority of 90s dance music was absolutely dreadful, and no-one wants to hear it any more, even ironically. The records were worthless. Some things are best forgotten.

(2) I hesitate to call myself a collector because my purchases are not linked to any concern about the value (present or future) of the records, nor to any completist accumulation of a particular genre or artist. I only buy what I want to listen to.

(3) You genuinely can hear the difference. I’ll happily prove it to anyone who has doubts. But to achieve this requires spending a lot of money on equipment and a well-pressed record made with high-quality vinyl. For the overwhelming majority of casual listeners there’s only downsides if sound quality is what you actually care about, and for the audiophiles among us we’re just spending lots of money on yet more unnecessary kit.

(4) I’ve heard it said that total royalties from physical record sales exceed those from streaming services, even at a time when vinyl is supposedly a legacy format. No wonder artists still want to release them.

(5) You can take many things but please leave me the pleasure of discovering a forgotten Crispy Ambulance 7″ in a dusty box at the back of a second-hand record shop.

Why it’s good to fall flat on your face as a teacher

I was fortunate enough to be taught to play rugby by Tosh Askew, one of the great youth coaches of the English game. At the time he was reaching the end of his playing career with Liverpool St Helens, and later went on to coach a highly successful England U19 side, laying the foundations for a generation of internationals who became a leading force on the world stage. Long before that he was standing in the rain shouting at groups of disorganised and reluctant schoolchildren, one of whom was me.

A reconstruction of good tackle form from BBC Sport. In my mind this is how it happened, but I’m sure that reality was very different.

Tosh was a teacher who didn’t need to rely on discipline or coercion to get his charges in line, even while out in the mud on a cold winter afternoon*. His physical presence alone was terrifying enough. Throughout my later years playing amateur club rugby I could still hear his voice in the back of my mind booming “Run straight Eichhorn!” It’s there to this day, over 30 years later. That wasn’t why he was such a great teacher though.

One session sticks in my mind during which we were being drilled in attacking and defensive line play. I can only have been 12 or 13 years old and at that moment I was on the defending side. Tosh, in his attempts to impose some order on the attacking group, had picked up the ball and was directing their movements. So it was that I found myself, a scrawny and bookish young lad, facing the prospect of a large, muscular man heading in my general direction. I did what any self-respecting rugby player would do in such circumstances. I went for his knees.

Moments later, to my great surprise, I found myself on the ground clutching a pair of legs, with Tosh also in the dirt, having off-loaded the ball on the way down. Play immediately stopped as all the other boys paused to take in the scene. He turned and looked at me.

“What are you doing Eichhorn?”

“Tackling the ball carrier Sir”, I responded meekly.

“Very good. Play on!”

No more was said about it and the session resumed. To this day I have no idea whether he went down deliberately to salvage my pride, or tripped over me, or was just trying to make sure that I didn’t get hurt in the process. I had no business bringing down a man of his size and strength.

This incident provided me with an immediate, if poorly-deserved, confidence boost. In the eyes of my peers it gave me a certain cachet: I had taken down Tosh! It even featured on my school report later that term. Why am I still dwelling on this minor incident, three decades on? Only because I’ve learnt a different lesson from it, which is the value as a teacher of allowing yourself to take a very public fall in front of your students.

Sometimes as teachers a student will step up and tell us that we’re wrong. In such circumstances the instinct is often to push back. You might be adamant that you’re correct, or else feel that your authority in class depends on maintaining your superior status. I recommend trying something different: let them take you down. Clearly, deliberately, so that everyone can see it.

It doesn’t happen to me often, or indeed as often as I would like, but sometimes a student will correct me on the identification of a species, or provide a counter-example that conflicts with one of my points. In the early days of teaching I probably would have reacted defensively, reflecting my own insecurity. Later on I’d have thought about teachable moments, maybe inviting the rest of the class to respond and seeing if I could turn it into a discussion. The latter approach is great if it works, but can also end up being a means of pitting students against one other, and places your initially brave student in the firing line. They will all think twice about speaking up again.

What I’ve learnt from that tackle, or rather from its aftermath, is that sometimes as a teacher you should allow yourself to be taken down. Any loss to your authority will be more than offset by the gains for your student. They can walk away buoyed with the knowledge that they got one over you, if only this once, and that however terrifying it might seem in the moment, they can actually do whatever it is that you’re trying to teach them, whether it’s a physical tackle or demonstrating some critical thinking. Their confidence is worth far more than your pride.

* I should probably make it clear at this point that although he was known as Tosh to the students, we would never have dared call him that to his face. It was ‘Sir’ or Mr Askew. If I ran into him again today then I’d still feel wary about using his first name.

Is ecology really more important than ever?

Mock poster based on a real review of Baxter State Park in Maine, created by @ambershares_ for her @subparparks series. If you like it then buy the book or a range of merchandise. Lest it need pointing out this is a humorous take, not the actual views of the artist.

I’ve grown weary of the repeated assertion, expressed in journal editorials, society newsletters and conference promotions, that ‘ecology has never been more important’. Is this really true? And even if it is, does it provide a strong case that everyone else should care about it? I think we should retire the phrase and instead seek to make more direct, positive statements about the value of ecology*.

My scepticism arises from the observation that the rhetorical trope is by no means restricted to ecology. The same justification appears repeatedly in other fields, both inside and outside academia, diluting its impact considerably. I suspect that their communities of interest could make a case that everything from radiology to real ale to Renaissance poetry is now more important than ever. If you’ve seen the phrase used in another context and thought “So what?” then it’s very likely that non-ecologists are thinking the same thing when we use it, and fellow ecologists hardly need persuading.

If everything really is becoming more important then this might be caused by two broader trends. One is an ever-expanding, educated and increasingly connected global population, so for any topic there is almost bound to be more people taking an interest than before. At the same time, political, social and technological change continues to intensify, threatening to eclipse or eradicate many of the things we care about, whether it’s butterflies or Brutalist architecture. Neither of these patterns makes a strong case for ecology in particular.

If everything is increasing in importance than the absolute increase in the value of ecology (perhaps greater than before) is less relevant than the relative value of ecology. Can we say that ecology is more important than public health, or economic inequality, or agricultural production? Phrasing it in this way makes the original statement appear even more nonsensical because we are ranking the incomparable**.

A useful rhetorical approach is to argue from the opposite position. Could it actually be the case that ecology is less important? Are our claims merely attempts to draw attention to something we wish people would care about as much as we do?

The truth is that for a large proportion of people, their direct dependence on natural systems is decreasing. On an individual level, ecology is surely most important of all for hunter-gatherers, whose entire survival depends on the vagaries and vicissitudes of natural forces. I have worked with shifting agriculturalists, and I know of no other people whose understanding of their environment, formed through careful and systematic observation, is as great as theirs. Even farmers in the developed world retain a close connection with nature. I view all of them as ecologists in one form or another.

Contrast our increasingly urbanised, detached species, and for the most part it is possible to live our lives without recognising our dependence on nature. When we do encounter the living world it is often through the managed conditions of parks and gardens, and we are as likely to be repelled by the intrusions of uncontrolled nature (wasps and weeds) as to be delighted by them. Even if ecological processes underpin many of the services we require, our direct needs are often met from systems that are heavily managed, sanitised and shifted a long way from any natural baseline.

Viewed from this perspective, the problem isn’t that ecology isn’t becoming more important, it’s that to a large proportion of the people on the planet (increasing in both absolute and relative terms) it is becoming less obviously relevant. We recognise this phenomenon in issues such as plant blindness. A natural world that is not encountered or interacted with is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for. It’s not as important to people, even if it’s important for people.

This lack of connection can remain true even while nature documentaries are among the most-watched broadcasts on television. This is because they often editorially eradicate humans through the use of careful camera angles and choice of filming locations. Nature is presented as something pure and detached from humans; when a human does appear it is often in order to foreground the emotional response of the presenter. This is nature as spectacle, not as lived reality. We are not truly immersed and connected with it.

But what about the bigger picture? It is surely the case that ecology is central to solving many of the grand challenges that face humanity: climate change, collapsing biodiversity, feeding a growing population. It is in facing these problems that we can make the strongest argument for why ecology truly matters. This also makes me uncomfortable though because it frames ecology as a crisis discipline, only worthy of attention because things are going so badly wrong. Surely we can all believe in a more positive vision.

This then is the crux of the problem: ecology is important to our species collectively, even while it is becoming less directly important to us individually. Many believe that there is a connection between the two, and that by providing individuals with opportunities to experience and relate to nature they will be more likely to act in the greater interest (I’ve often heard this said but am unaware of any compelling evidence from a direct study***). How should we as ecologists address this? Blanket statements of its importance are not going to cut through.

There’s a sense in which the ‘ecology has never been more important’ claim is an admission of insecurity; a cry for attention in the face of abundant evidence that economic and social systems are ignoring our scientific expertise. It’s also one that only needs making in an affluent, Global North context. There’s no point trying to tell a subsistence fisherman to care about ecology because they already do, even if they might not phrase it in quite the same terms.

A more productive approach then is to direct our energies into finding a form of words that will demonstrate the relevance of ecology to the audiences we are trying to reach. To some extent we are already attempting this with concepts like ‘nature-based solutions’, which can help policy-makers relate to our science****. We might resent the consequent dilution of our passion into someone else’s priorities but ultimately this is likely to be the most effective way to achieve the responses we are looking for. Rather than trying to turn everyone into ecologists (although more will always be welcome) we should show others how ecology impacts on the things they already care about. Make ecology important to them instead of asserting that ecology is important in its own right.

* I’m not going to get into an argument here about what ecology means, given that the word itself carries different implications for academic researchers, environmental campaigners or outside observers. For the purposes of this post assume it means something like the study of the natural world.

** I’m sympathetic to the argument that all three of those fields can be linked to ecology. On the other hand, someone outside our own subject area might argue that studying ecology is only important insofar as it advances public health or agriculture. I’m put in mind of the absurd claim by pathologist Rudolf Virchow that ‘Medicine is a social science and politics is only medicine on a large scale’. That everything links to your field doesn’t make it the centre.

*** In opposition to this view are observations such that conservation biologists have a relatively high carbon footprint. I’d be delighted to learn of any systematic study that has tested the assumption rigorously.

**** This is a generous reading because I’m aware that there are plenty of people who dislike the term, and indeed all buzzwords and phrases that create bandwagons around poorly-defined concepts. If they achieve the intended outcome then I’m inclined to be less critical.

Will herbal medicine provide a cure for COVID-19?


COVID Organics, the miracle ‘cure’ for COVID19. Original source of photo unknown.

As the pandemic spread around the world, the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, made a startling announcement. He launched a new drink, COVID-Organics,  developed by Malagasy scientists, which was purported to cure the new disease. The evidence of its efficacy was slight, but the basis behind it was linked to a history of local herbal lore and an existing treatment for malaria*, combined with an association with a modern-style research institute.

Already several African states, including Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and Congo-Brazzaville, have invested scarce resources on importing the new treatment, and it’s being rolled out across Madagascar, some of which is at national expense. It’s easy to understand why. Western medicines are often unaffordable at the best of times, and in the international scramble for resources they are now simply out of reach. COVID Organics is available on the doorstep. Moreover, there is a strong desire to support native expertise, despite most international scientists advising caution in the absence of any reliable evidence. Every society looks to its own authority figures for hope and guidance. We shouldn’t criticise desperate people for trying whatever remedy is actually available.

The claim of a wonder treatment was however met with scepticism from medical experts. President Rajoelina has hit out at critics from the Global North, accusing them of a condescending attitude towards African expertise. At the same time there is a reluctance by many to openly dismiss a treatment that has been promoted as an indigenous African solution drawn from a respected tradition. Even the WHO did so only obliquely.

I am on record as being strongly in favour of recognising and valuing alternative approaches to the development of knowledge beyond the frequently colonial attitudes we are responsible for perpetuating. In this case, however, I’m not inclined to mince my words. COVID-Organics on its own will probably do no harm, but there’s very little chance that it will do any good. By all means test it like any other potential drug, but its provenance doesn’t make it any more plausible as a candidate treatment. And if it takes the place of known, genuinely effective interventions (social distancing, hand washing etc.), or wastes money that could be spent on proven medical care, then it will become positively dangerous to health.

Why am I so sceptical? Those who advocate herbal medicine as an alternative to conventional treatment usually follow one of two lines of argument in support. The first is that it is an ancient practice, based on thousands of years of development, and that this long duration has ensured the transmission of only the most effective cures.

It’s easy to pick this apart. Firstly, the foundations of herbal medicine were derived from theoretical grounds which we now know to have been fundamentally flawed. In its Western form these include the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that God indicated the medical uses of plants through their physical characteristics, or treating symptoms as manifestations of the four humours. Such methods of identifying possible plants and matching them to conditions is little better than random. We shouldn’t expect paradigms that predate germ theory to stumble on insights into a novel threat.

Second, herbalists will often advocate their art by picking out those remedies which have gone on to be important medical drugs. It’s a classic case of the prosecutor’s dilemma; a number of effective treatments have come from plants, but not all medical plants are effective. One which is usually rolled out is the Madagascar periwinkle, which gave rise to a lucrative pharmaceutical used to treat a common form of childhood leukemia. This is however completely unrelated to its traditional usage as a largely ineffective treatment for diabetes. That it yielded such a valuable modern drug owes as much to serendipity as herbal medicine.

Finally, the legend that tropical forests contain a fabled pharmacopeia whose secrets are held by traditional healers has been comprehensively demolished by prolonged enquiry. The story remains persistent because of its connection to a number of beloved folk images rather than any basis in evidence. We have probably taken all the low-hanging medical fruit from the plant kingdom already. A forest-dwelling shaman won’t solve our new problem, not least because remote tribal people live at such low densities that they tend not to suffer from contagious viruses.

Should we instead be scouring the plant kingdom for potential COVID cures? To do so would almost certainly be a waste of time and resources. Not that I’m sure some unscrupulous or naive researchers are putting in grant applications to do exactly that right now. Note that most major pharmaceutical companies gave up on this approach to drug research many years ago after wasting spectacular sums in the process. If it worked then Big Pharma would be doing it already for the diseases we already have.

OK, you might ask, but what if one of these herbal cures turned out to actually work? Medical plants contain a vast number of chemicals. Identifying, purifying and testing the active ingredients is a long process. Sometimes physiological effects rely on complex interactions with other constituents which mean that the individual chemicals don’t act quite the same in isolation. Controlled dosages of herbal medicines are almost impossible to achieve. And there is a high risk that one or other component will be allergenic or otherwise harmful. Demonstrating efficacy and comprehensive safety of a botanical treatment is therefore much harder than for any single component drug.

To summarise, it is possible that herbal medicine might eventually lead to a cure for COVID-19, but it is much less likely to do so than conventional scientific approaches. Even if a cure does eventually arrive through the herbal route, it will take much longer, likely many years, and the lack of any precedents in the modern era is not encouraging. We haven’t found a herbal cure for any other virus yet, and not for want of trying. Maybe Madagascar really has stumbled on the solution to the world’s greatest current problem. Until we have some solid evidence, however, I wouldn’t bet on it. We are all desperate for a cure to appear but wasting time and scarce resources on dead ends will ultimately cost lives.



* Is it coincidence that both the presidents of Madagascar and the United States have promoted the use of treatments for malaria, a fever caused by parasitic infection, as supposed cures for an entirely unrelated virus?


The importance of luck in academic careers


As usual, there’s an XKCD comic for everything.

Not long after I received my first permanent academic contract I attended a conference and went out drinking after the sessions. By the end of the evening I found myself amongst a large group of people around my own age, mainly post-docs and PhD students. Conversation turned to careers and it so happened that I was the only one with a secure position, which prompted an immediate question. What was the secret? Everyone was feverishly after the same thing, and here was someone in the room who knew the trick.

My answer, ‘luck’, went down like a glass of cold sick. It was honest but unpopular. I now regret saying it, and realise that I should have added ‘privilege’. At the time I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which privilege played a part in the relatively smooth passage of my career*. It didn’t seem that way to me, but in retrospect I certainly had it easier than most. The truth, however, is that ‘luck’ is often the secret, insofar as it’s the element no-one wants to talk about. All the other things, the ones we can either control or are imposed upon us, are obvious. I had none of the magic bullets: no Nature paper or prestigious research fellowship**. Objectively there was nothing on my CV that set me apart from most other post-docs on the job circuit. It certainly felt a lot like luck to me.

Why don’t people like to hear this? Accepting the importance of luck downplays the extent to which anyone has agency in their professional lives. We like to hear that working hard and chasing our dreams brings success in the end. I think for the most part that it’s true, and almost everyone who manages to get into the ivory tower will tell you that backstory. But it’s akin to hearing an Olympic gold medalist tell you that their secret is dedication and never giving up. As if all the people that didn’t come first just weren’t dreaming hard enough.

Telling people to keep plugging away until they get their break also assumes that there are no costs to them doing so. It’s the mindset that leads to the eternal post-doc, a restless soul traveling from university to university, country to country, for the chance of another year or two of funding, then having to pack up their things and move on once again. While still young and relatively carefree, that can be fun for some. When you’re 40 and want to get married, buy a house, have children or care for your parents, it becomes impossible. I never had to go through that and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Declaring the importance of luck and privilege also somehow diminishes the achievement of those who have made it, and therefore provokes hostility from those who are already through the door. It’s not the story we like to tell ourselves, and it’s certainly not one we like other people to tell about us.

So let me lay my own cards on the table. I believe that I deserve to have a permanent academic job***. I worked hard to get here, and I’m pretty good at it. But I can also say without any equivocation that I’ve known people who worked much harder than me and were demonstrably smarter than me but who didn’t manage to capture one. I’m comfortable admitting that although I surpassed the minimum expectation, if it were a true meritocracy then the outcome would have been different.

My first job came about because I was in the right place at the right time. I had hung around long enough in a university department to pick up the necessary ticks on my CV, despite substantial periods of that being spent on unemployment benefit. Small bits of consultancy through personal connections and a peppercorn rent from a friend made a big difference. I had the privilege of being in a position to loiter long enough for a job to come up, and the good fortune to find one that fit. Lots of others wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing so, and had it taken another six months, I wonder whether I would have been hunting for another career as well.

Does any of this change the advice given to an eager young academic? No. You still need to publish papers, get some teaching experience, win some competitive grant income, take on some service roles, promote yourself and your work as widely as possible. The formula remains exactly the same. It’s not easy, and it’s got even harder over the last 15 years. Good luck. And if you don’t have luck, make sure that you have a Plan B in your back pocket.

Any change needs to come from the academy itself. Its us who have the problem and it’s our responsibility to fix it****. There’s no way to entirely remove luck from the hiring equation (think of it as a stochastic model term) but we can influence the other parameters. I was wrong to think that privilege wasn’t part of the equation that got me here, but I can try to minimise its distorting effects in future.



* I have the ‘full house’ of privileges, being a white, male, heterosexual, tall, healthy, able-bodied, native English-speaking, middle class… did I miss anything out? Don’t bother talking to me about my struggle because I didn’t have one.

** The one thing jobs, Nature papers and grants all have in common is that your probability of getting one increases with the number of times you try. It’s not entirely a lottery but there is a cost to every attempt and some can afford more of them. And I still don’t have a Nature paper.

*** There are almost certainly people who will disagree with this, but let them.

**** As pointed out in this post, however, our survivorship bias can prevent us from recognising that those following us are facing very different challenges to the ones we went through.



Postscript: I already had this post lined up to publish when an excellent and complementary thread appeared on Twitter.

The bitter tree

Like many ecologists I have a fascination with the scientific names that attach themselves to species. Sometimes these celebrate the person who discovered or described the species*, or a benefactor, or are made as a tribute to a notable person. One that I recently stumbled across is the South American tree Quassia amara, a common understorey species of disturbed lowland forests. Until I encountered the backstory to its name while reading The Ethnobotany of Eden (which I strongly recommend) I had no idea where its name came from. The story is complex and revealing.

The tree is one of a relatively small proportion of tropical species which owes their name to Linnaeus, indicating that its significance was recognised early in the development of modern taxonomy. That a Swedish botanist came to hold a sample is due to its potential as a remedy for fevers, a serious concern of the European powers whose hold over tropical lands was still tenuous while their colonists struggled with malaria and other unfamiliar afflictions.

The tree’s Latin name celebrates the man who introduced the plant to Europeans as a medicine, the freed slave Graman Quassi (c.1690–1787), originally of the Akan people of West Africa from modern-day Ghana, hence his Kwa name Kwasimukámba which I will use in preference here. He arrived in Suriname as a child slave of the Dutch empire. So successful was Kwasimukámba that he not only lived an unusually long and ultimately comfortable life but was also celebrated internationally. He even travelled to The Hague and received an audience with Willem V, the Prince of Orange, who bestowed a number of extravagant gifts on him in recognition of his service to the empire.

If we ended the story here then it would be almost heart-warming. But let’s delve deeper. How did Kwasimukámba come to be a freed slave?

Many other slaves escaped from servitude in South America and formed independent communities, known as the maroons, often deep into colonised territories. Some of these became well-established enough to effectively become trade partners of the European powers and were tolerated. Others, such as the Saramaka, fought lengthy insurgencies before eventually winning this recognition. It was in this struggle that Kwasimukámba first demonstrated his worth to the Dutch, acting as a negotiator and tracker on behalf of the white colonists. Later he led a corps of African conscripts known as the Black Rangers, even losing one of his ears in the fighting against the rebels. For his efforts he was gifted a gold breastplate on which was inscribed ‘Quassie, faithful to the whites’. The Saramaka remember him as a traitor.

What then of the tree that bears his name? It was Kwasimukámba who introduced it to Europeans as a local remedy for fever in his other noted capacity as a herbalist and sorceror**. It was soon overtaken as a cure for malaria by Cinchona, another South American tree and the source of quinine. Nevertheless, Quassia amara is still used as an effective treatment for intestinal parasites, an insecticide, and a bittering agent in foods and drinks. The second part of the species name, amara, comes from the Spanish word meaning ‘bitter’. Even here Kwasimukámba is memorialised because the most bitter of the tree’s chemical constituents is now known as quassin, one of a family of chemicals called the quassinoids. These are amongst the most bitter-tasting chemicals in nature and form ingredients of Angostura bitters***.


Flowers of Quassia amara. All parts of the plant can be used for their extracts.

Without wishing to be unfair to Kwasimukámba, whose reputation as a healer cannot be entirely unfounded, it is highly unlikely that he personally discovered the medicinal benefits of Quassia. More likely is that he learnt of its efficacy through his interactions with the Saramaka or other maroons. They, in turn, are likely to have acquired the knowledge from the indigenous peoples they encountered in the forests. My scepticism about who deserves the credit is simply based on a matter of probability. Native healers had been using the tree for many generations before the African slaves and their European masters arrived, and continue to do so.

We will never know who first named the bitter tree and divined its useful medicinal properties. In a fair accounting of history they would receive the credit for Quassia, although Kwasimukámba deserves his recognition too. He can hardly be blamed for the accolade of being immortalised in science as the tree was named for, not by, him. Then again, in his later years he styled himself ‘Professor of Herbology’, so he was not averse to personal aggrandisement.

So who was Kwasimukámba: a manumitted slave who achieved fame in his lifetime? An imperial collaborator? A talented herbalist? Or a charlatan who took credit for the insights of others? The truth must be all of those things, and no single story is complete without the rest. We should beware making moral judgements on our forebears, as I’ve argued before, because these were complex people making personal decisions in very different times. The name Quassia links a bitter-flavoured tree to a bitter history, one that invokes slavery, oppression, forgotten indigenous peoples and the legacies of colonialism. The struggles of the Saramaka for recognition of their rights continue to the present day. Perhaps we shouldn’t resent Kwasimukámba his place in the annals of science though. At least this once an oppressed slave managed to make a decent life for himself. I can raise a glass to that.



* Which usually means the first person from the Global North to place the species in the context of a largely imperial system of classification. That a species was long known to local people in its place of origin is usually overlooked, although taxonomists are getting better at this.

** Not all of his concoctions were as widely approved of.

*** Amusingly Angostura bitters do not contain the bitter-tasting bark of Angostura trifoliata, but are instead named after the town in Venezuela from where the recipe originated. I should write another blog post about that.

Oops there goes another rubber tree


Rubber trees bend, and they also break. This is one of the CATAS plantations in China being battered by strong winds.

Frank Sinatra credited an ambitious ant with shifting a rubber tree, which was a rather implausible achievement. The presumptuous ant might have been taking undeserved credit for a much more normal occurrence, which is rubber trees blowing over in strong winds. That happens all the time with no help from ants.

Rubber tree plantations are found in the tropics, these days predominantly in Asia (despite the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis being originally a South American species, as its name suggests). Many of the main regions of production are also subject to periodic hurricanes which can cause serious damage to the trees and therefore economic losses to the producers. We can’t prevent hurricanes, but could we manage plantations to make them more wind resistant?

This is a question which we approach in a new paper (led by my collaborator Yun Ting at Nanjing Forestry University*) using terrestrial laser scanning and some novel computational methods. The study site was a research station in southern China where a number of different clones have been planted, each of which has a distinctive branching architecture. We already know which of these is most vulnerable to blow-down from the evidence of past hurricanes. What management options are likely to help prevent damage to the trees?

At present simulations are the only way to approach this problem. It’s not just that it’s far too risky to carry out detailed environmental measurements in the middle of a hurricane (not least because the trees often fall over), but the equipment is likely to blow away too. It’s hard enough to find equipment that’s capable of withstanding hurricane conditions anyway. And then there’s the issue of not knowing when or where a hurricane will strike. Our approach can potentially circumvent all these limitations.

The study involved a large team all of whom had incredibly specialised skills and I don’t pretend to fully understand all of them. The first step was using a terrestrial laser scanner to record the full three-dimensional structure of several rubber trees. This creates a high-resolution point cloud which could be used to reconstruct virtual trees which aim to capture every leaf and branch on the original tree. These were then used to create plantations which were subjected to hurricane-force winds in a simulation environment developed for testing the aerodynamics properties of aircraft and other vehicles. This allowed us to evaluate what the implications of crown structure were for the wind forces experienced by trees during a hurricane. No-one had to put themselves at any risk.**


Computer visualisations of two rubber trees reconstructed from terrestrial laser scanning data. Notice how the one on the left has broader, spreading branches, while the one on the right has a more upright form.

There are many caveats to this study; don’t bother pulling it apart because we already know a good few of them. Most of the assumptions and simplifications were enforced by the computational demands of such high-resolution simulations. For example, plots were relatively small in size (nine trees at a time).*** More problematic is that adding natural flexibility to the trees wasn’t an option. What we are measuring is therefore the wind resistance generated by something approximating a tree made of platinum. Of course we know that this isn’t realistic, but I’d suggest that you look at the qualitative outcomes rather than expecting the quantitative predictions to be precisely accurate. This is a first demonstration of the approach, not a complete realisation of every possible feature. It’s good enough to reveal some interesting differences.

What did we find? Well, clones with larger, denser crowns put up greater wind resistance and generate higher degrees of turbulence, making them more likely to be damaged when exposed to hurricane-force winds. Reassuringly, these are the same ones that blow over more commonly in the real world. So we did all this sophisticated work… and found out something that everyone already knew.

That’s not really the point though. Having shown that the simulations generate reasonable outcomes that match with experience, we can now start to tweak the models and explore the impact of management strategies. Manipulating tree spacing or thinning of tree crowns can all be done virtually, more quickly and with less effort than establishing another plantation and waiting for the next hurricane to discover whether it was effective. What we have is a framework for trying out almost any combination of tree sizes, shapes and arrangements.

Rubber plantations are one of the simplest types of forest, which was a deliberate choice. We can imagine further applications of our method in more complex habitats, where a mixture of tree species could be put together to see how real-world forests cope in the face of one of nature’s greatest destructive forces. That’s our eventual aim, anyway. High hopes, as Sinatra would have put it.



* This was a massive collaborative study in which my own role was very minor. I haven’t even visited the field site.

** No trees were harmed in the preparation of this paper. It’s not even in a print journal.

*** When I suggested some minor amendments to a late draft I thought Yun Ting was about to cry. It’s hard to convey quite how much computational effort goes into generating just one of these figures. Simulations are not easy research!


Tree diseases harm people too


An olive grove in Surano, Italy, following infection by Xylella fastidiosa. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Sjor

In the midst of a global pandemic, expressing concern about trees can feel like an indulgence. That’s not to say that COVID-19 is foremost on everyone’s minds. For farmers in East Africa about to face another devastating plague of locusts, or those in Vanuatu whose homes were destroyed by Cyclone Harold, there are more pressing concerns. On our own doorstep there are many people going without food in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries. Even climate change is having to take a back seat for the time being.

And so you might find it hard to spare any thought for a disease which is quickly sweeping through Mediterranean olive trees. For those of us living in northern Europe the direct impact is likely to be felt as increased prices for olives and olive oil, and perhaps even some scarcity in the next few years. I’m sure your heart bleeds for the middle classes.

Many people don’t have the luxury of shrugging this calamity off though. And it truly is a calamity for producers in some of the poorest regions of Europe, particularly in rural parts of Italy, Greece and Spain where olives and other orchard crops have been the mainstay of livelihoods for generations. They are about to face not only a pandemic, but the prolonged recession that will be its aftermath, in which their whole way of life will simultaneously be disappearing. A new paper estimates that the total economic impact of this disease could exceed €5B*. It isn’t just about the trees.

This was a disaster that could so easily have been avoided. The pathogen Xylella fastidiosa was first recorded in olive trees in southern Italy back in 2013. It likely arrived from Central America where similar pests are endemic, probably via the horticultural trade. National and international agencies rapidly responded, and a containment plan was put in place, agreed with both the Italian government and European Commission. This was beset with protests and legal challenges which delayed any action. Amazingly, several scientists and public officials were accused of deliberately spreading the disease and subjected to a police investigation**. All this wasted valuable time.

By 2016 the disease had already reached Spain and southern France. Now it’s also been detected in Portugal and Israel. Unfortunately it appears that trees can be asymptomatic for some time, which has made tracking and modelling its spread more problematic. It can also infect a range of other trees, including common orchard species like cherries, almonds and plums. These are often asymptomatic hosts though, which means that the disease can spread across landscapes undetected, carried by common xylem-sucking insects. Now that the disease is at large across Europe, local containment might be possible in some regions, but a full outbreak is almost inevitable.

The new paper by Schneider et al. suggests that constant vigilance, which means routine testing and reporting of cases, should be combined with measures to reduce the rate of spread, such as felling of trees in buffer zones and vector control. This may buy enough time for resistant trees to be developed and planted, or for a transition to substitute crops. To do so requires trust and co-operation between government agencies and individual landowners, something that has thus far been in short supply. It also inevitably means that some farmers will have to sacrifice healthy orchards for the good of others.

Whatever the outcome, the landscape of large parts of the Mediterranean looks set to change dramatically in the coming years. And all because we failed to act even when the evidence was in place. Will we learn the lessons for next time?



* Roughly equivalent to $5.5B or £4.5B at time of writing, but have you seen how crazy FOREX markets are at the moment? Oddly some of the media coverage has talked about a figure of €20B, which wasn’t the headline figure of the original paper, but appears to be based on adding up all the largest estimates and assuming a worst-imaginable scenario.

** Italy has previous form when it comes to prosecuting scientists and officials whose advice is not approved of.

What trees would we plant to maximise carbon uptake?


Fangorn Forest as represented in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This is fantasy fiction, not the type of habitat that we should expect to find or create in the real world.

One of the reasons often put forward for growing more trees is that it’s a method to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up in wood. Afforestation is far more efficient and straightforward than any currently imagined ‘carbon capture technology’. Photosynthesis is the original carbon uptake mechanism, evolved and perfected over more than a billion years, and human ingenuity isn’t going to design anything better, at least not on the scales required by rapid climate change. Trees have done it all before.

Before going much further, and for the avoidance of doubt, planting trees (even a trillion of them) isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. It’s one potential tool but no substitute for massive reductions in emissions. At its very best, tree-planting would only remove the carbon which has been released from land-use change, not that from the burning of fossil fuels, which represent stores of carbon generated hundreds of millions of years ago. That’s even before we get to the contentious question of where we might plant the trees, which usually turns out to be someone else’s country.

The other problem with tree-planting is that it assumes the trees either stay in place or are continuously replenished. Forest fires, logging, land clearance, droughts, pest outbreaks… all the potential causes of tree mortality will eventually lead to this carbon returning to the atmosphere. A tree is at best a temporary carbon store, albeit one that can last a few centuries. We’re not laying down any new coal deposits, they just don’t make it any more. I’m therefore sceptical of any off-setting program which justifies current emissions on the basis of anticipated long-term carbon storage through tree planting. It’s not something we can rely on.

All these caveats accepted, we can begin to ask the question: if we really were planting forests with the primary objective of taking up carbon, and we planned to do it in the temperate countries which are overwhelmingly responsible for global change, what should we plant?

A recent newspaper article asked this question with the UK in mind*. By coincidence I had a Twitter exchange on the same subject shortly before the article came out. As a thought experiment it’s a reasonable discussion to have, and by doing so publicly it forces people to contemplate the implications of the arguments that are so often made for planting trees.

The right tree species should be (a) fast-growing under local conditions, (b) tall, preferably forming dense forests with as little space between the trees as possible, and (c) of high wood density, maximising the amount of carbon for a given volume of trunk. Ideally they should also be long-lived and relatively resistant to the many forms of disturbance that kill trees, including extreme weather and diseases. There’s no single species of tree that satisfies all these conditions, not least because high wood density leads to slower growth rates. Some compromise is necessary.

The conclusion of the article, taking into account the assumption that carbon uptake was the sine qua non, was that plantations of fast-growing non-native conifers were the best way forward.** The backlash to this suggestion was immediate, predictable and justified. Such tree species are not only hopeless for conservation (and therefore would lead to a net loss of biodiversity) but also aesthetically undesirable as they would transform familiar landscapes. Yes, say the public, we want more forests, but surely not like this.

I don’t disagree with any of the objections to such a scheme, but it does highlight the inherent problem with making so many claims for the benefits of tree planting that are logically incompatible. It is impossible to design a forest which maximises all the potential functions we want from them: promoting native species, boosting biodiversity, storing carbon, amenity value, aligning with our aesthetic preferences, and maybe also providing some economic benefit to the landowners who are being asked to turn over their productive estates to trees. If we pick just one of these factors to emphasise — in this case carbon — then inevitably we will have to lose out on the others.

Every response to climate change presents us with difficult choices. The trite maxim that we should plant more trees puts people in mind of a sylvan idyll of sun-dappled glades beneath the bowers of mighty broad-leaved giants. Such forests exist in Europe only in the imagination. If real trees are to be used to solve our problems then real forests will be necessary, and they might not be the ones that everyone expected. Be careful what you wish for.



* Full disclosure: the academic whose views the article reports, Prof. John Healey of Bangor University, is also a collaborator of mine (we co-supervise a PhD student). We haven’t shared our opinions on this topic though.

** My pick, if we’re playing tree Top Trumps, is the Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana, which is so much more than just a great Christmas tree. It’s also the tallest-growing native tree in Europe and as a montane species tolerates a wide range of challenging environments.