23 October 2017, Firth Court, The University of Sheffield
Being a Grantham scholar, I have the privileged opportunity to attend this year’s symposium showcasing multidisciplinary sustainability research across many faculties The theme of the symposium this year is FEWER – Food, Energy, Water and Environmental Research and keynote speakers included Joanna Haigh, Co-Director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, and my supervisor Prof. Jill Atkins.
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change was established at Imperial College in 2007 with the generous support of the Grantham Foundation for the Environment and a mission to drive climate-related research and harness it to have real-world impact. In 2014, recognising the successes and further potential for the institute, the College invested to expand its remit to incorporate environmental issues more broadly. Today it harnesses research strengths across several main areas of the College – engineering, natural sciences, medicine, social sciences and business – to promote world-class research, training and innovation. Joanna will outline some of the achievements of, and challenges faced by, the institute over the first decade of its existence and will look towards what universities might be able to contribute towards effective UK and international action on climate change and the environment.
The first talk from Jill Edmondson discussed food security and growing local food. More and more people become detached from their food sources. In addition, loss of agricultural land means we don’t have space to grow food. We need to think about how we can change our agricultural practices in order to feed our growing population.
With an increasing loss of soil health and soil carbon, an indicator of soil quality, as a result of soil degradation, the soil is increasingly unable to soak up rainwater resulting in erosion and further undermining the growing of crops.
Horticulture is a solution to the above problem, particularly in the context of urban own-grown food. In the UK, food is grown in a total area of 21,500km², where 17 percent of fruit and 54 percent of vegetables are produced. About 50 percent of the total area is land resource used as green space. Because of soil erosion in the Fens, we need to start thinking about moving our food production to urban agriculture, in the form of 135km² dedicated to allotments.
However, how effective are allotments in growing food? There is no current data on this question. The research Edmonsdson is undertaking takes Leicester as a case study, as it is in the top 3 of allotment provisions. Looking at soil quality through indicators such as total nitrogen concentration, carbon and nitrate concentration. Carbon increase is associated with soil health and fertility. Allotments soil has been found to contain higher nitrogen and carbon content than arable soil.
How much food did allotments yield? It was found that in Leicester, 13% of allotment plots were uncultivated despite a long waiting list. Provisional yield data, however, has found that own-growers produced more than 1,500 tonnes of food.
How many people were being fed? 8,500 people were fed on their 5-a-day diet at current cultivation level. Own-grown food production makes a significant contribution to local food security and improving urban resilience. There is great potential to increase food production in urban areas through the use of allotments and own-growing. However, it remains to be determined how safe it is to use allotments for food growth in regard to heavy metals present in the soil, which is currently being researched by a Grantham scholar.
Moving on to the next speaker, Christian Reynolds’ research published in The Conversation, titled ‘Is it possible to cook a sustainable Sunday Roast?’ attempts to investigate how things are consumed and wasted, in the home or in restaurants. The Sunday Roast is a traditional yet environmentally harmful meal. The price and quality of the food produced had been changing in the global markets, although more recently showing a relative stability. Instead of buying from independent retailers, we now purchase food from the Big 4. More and more people eating out and eating food of different origin, starting a new relationship with food and food security.
The UK diet is changing too, where potatoes are being abandoned in favour of rice and pasta. About 1 person out of 8 is obese in the UK, translating into high NHS spending on chronic diseases. This can change if we change what we eat. Due to climate change, we have to shift to a healthy diet to include a higher intake of fruit and vegetables, starchy foods, and decreased consumption of processed meat and dairy.
Animal products equal a high environmental impact. We should be looking for alternatives to the traditional roast beef and Yorkshire puddings by looking at different recipes, ingredients and different cooking methods. One particular method was found to be the most sustainable with a 53% reduction in energy, from 77MJ to 36MJ, which involved reducing the portion size.
Although my aim in this post is merely to report and relay the interesting information from today’s symposium, I think several interesting questions can be raised. Firstly, putting the onus for change on the public is an important one, especially concerning lifestyle and diet choices. People can control what they eat. However, the methods of cooking and access to particular cooking facilities is often beyond the control of many who do not own their home. It could be asked why there is no existing legislation that would ensure energy-efficient kitchens in newly-built complexes, appropriately-sized ovens, and good insulation.
Another point that could be made is that Reynolds does not disclose his point of departure, his underlying ‘agenda’ or bias. For example, if I were to write this paper, I would have to acknowledge that my ultimate goal is to promote a vegan diet. (Yes, my paper would read somewhat differently to Reynold’s). Speaking of a vegan diet, although Reynolds’ aim was to try to stick to a ‘traditional’ dish in his paper, it would be more useful to argue against tradition. Especially one that threatens our very existence on Earth.
The final talk I’ll be reporting on (there were 11 talks throughout the day, but I’m only giving you some highlights) is what I consider to be fundamental to all beings’ survival, even beyond veganism and all the good it holds. My supervisor professor Jill Atkins, from the University of Sheffield Management School discussed her research titled: ‘Integrated extinction accounting and engagement: Building an Ark’.
But what does accounting have to do with extinction?
We are currently living the 6th mass extinction crisis with The Guardian reporting,75% of all insects disappearing predicting a true agricultural Armageddon. Science magazine does not paint a more optimistic picture with their report on Germany’s insects decline. What do we mean by Mass Extinction? The IUCN red list show that human activity forced over 900 species to extinction since the record began.
How can accounting and finance can help prevent extinction?
The Living Planet Report produced by WWF states that wildlife populations have already declined by 58 percent. For example Bornean orangutans are critically endangered. So why is extinction an accounting and financial issue? Constanza (1997) estimated that ecosystem services worldwide are annually worth approximately $33 trillion. Because of interconnectedness of species, we don’t know which are keystone species and which aren’t. For example, bees in the US 50 percent of bees are in decline. A pertinent quote from E. O. Wilson describes the imminent crisis:
So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world` (Wilson, 1992, p. 125).
This may raise a controversial question: how is it possible to put a price on species? Well, the answer according to Prof. Atkins is that from a deep ecology perspective, while it is not possible to put a price on a species, it is possible to account for their absence. For example in the case of bees, it is estimated that it would cost the US $217 billion in 2008 to mechanically pollinate crops. How can businesses account for extinction in a way which will prevent species extinctions? If we can find a format or framework for reporting on corporate extinction, integrate it into the existing accountability frameworks, and through emancipatory accounting.
The global reporting initiative (GRI) calls for companies to disclose information on the total number of endangered species they impact on in their business operations. This level of reporting is not emancipatory, it will not change things. The overall aim, therefore, is not to financialize species but financialize their extinction with a view to incentivise companies.
Extinction accounting is an attempt by companies to report of the actions and absence of species, report on habitat loss, how they are trying to improve their business activity, future plans and development.
My own research hopes to support the development of the extinction accounting framework and analyse, through integrated reports and interviews, the way companies position themselves in relation to extinction and biodiversity in their accounting.
Stay tuned for more updates on my research. Coming soon: Academia and Activism conference in Manchester!