We're here to report on the latest science without any bias, covering everything that is related to our survival on this planet. We hope you enjoy what we've written, and comments are always very welcome.

I used to be indecisive…

by Rebecca Nesbit

While I like to maintain that my long-term reputation for indecisiveness is unfair, I have had an especially bad bout of it recently. For  the last few weeks I have spent vast quantities of time thinking about whether we should save the panda, because of the debate we are having during Biology Week (‘Do we need pandas? Choosing which species to save’). Now the debate is tomorrow, the poll on the Society of Biology website is swinging about 3/4 in favour, and I still haven’t voted.

I swung towards yes for a while, because of what it would mean for the image of conservation if pandas went extinct. It is easy to believe that conservation is a lost cause, and would the negative feeling associated with the loss of the panda reduce people’s enthusiasm for changing their lifestyle to protect biodiversity (reducing the amount of meat we eat, the rate at which we get through cotton clothes, the amount we use our cars etc), and the level of donations people are willing to make? As a PR tool, pandas are pretty good. But then, part of me is still stubbonly believing that beauty is not what determines value.

So, you can vote on whether we should save the panda (you have until tomorrow afternoon), join the discussion I started, or listen to my podcast. I’ll be live tweeting with the hashtag #pandadebate from 6-7pm tomorrow, and you can tweet me questions any time up to then. Then maybe after the debate I will be able to tell you which way I voted.

Happy Biology Week 2012!

The ants fly again!

by Rebecca Nesbit

Many of those who know me have listened to a recent obsession with flying ants, have sent me messages and pictures, and have even hidden outside doorways so they can hear me doing radio interviews. Thank you everyone, and if you haven’t already filled in the flying ant survey then please do so now! We need you to report when and where you have seen flying ants.

The ants you are seeing are the males and virgin queens of the black garden ant. Once a year ant colonies produce ‘alates’, flying ants, and the new queens mate then start a new nest. She won’t mate again for the rest of her life but will maintain a colony of thousands of ants for the next 5/10 years. Read more about flying ants.

For most people in the UK flying ant day happened at the end of July, but suddenly today it happened again! The same nests I saw flying two weeks ago are flying again now. Amazing!

We already have well over 4,000 sightings and it’s going to be fascinating data.

Right, must go, I have a queen ant in the fridge waiting for her photo shoot….

Assessing the Costs of Sustainability

Guest post from Julianna Davies

As the focus on businesses both large and small has been to make products, services, and manufacturing processes more environmentally friendly, the costs of going green have begun to mount.  For some businesses and industries, this process of revamping their current line of products to comply with new regulations has become financially crippling. Further, the lack of employee knowledge made the transition look more like a scramble. While many business schools have developed new material and many professionals have done off-campus business coursework in the middle of their careers to get up to speed, there are still many problems. Even if the desire is there to become more sustainable, the investment capital may not be.

At a time when prices for clean energy such as solar and wind power remain significantly higher than fossil-fuel based sources, businesses are often not willing to switch to the more expensive alternative.  The installation and upkeep of renewable energy sources often comes at a high price that is not always justifiable in an uncertain economic climate. With an economy in recession, government subsidies and grant programs for assisting the switch to renewable energy are dropping fast, as well, which can further disincentivize a company on the fence.

Sometimes the switch to environmentally friendly business practices means a total redesign of the product line, or at least a change in the materials used in manufacturing.  Switching materials can often require new technology, or can mean greater distances for import — both of which add to the bottom line. While there are strong arguments for taking the greener route and adopting more sustainable business methods, more than just the health of the earth is usually at stake.  Following environmental regulations and consumer trends towards green business practices while attempting to keep making a profit is a delicate balance, and is harder than it looks.
While many conversions to environmentally friendly production are big cost savers in the end, the wait is sometimes longer than businesses have. When money is tight, recouping costs is a top concern. Cost savings are not always clear for all green adaptations, either. Hybrid vehicles are a common example. Although hybrids tend to be more fuel efficient, their cost upfront is often higher than comparable standard cars, and recouping gains at the pump can take years. The expense and difficulty of repairing a hybrid on top of rising insurance premiums makes companies wonder if replacing their fleet is really worth the extra expense.

Small and medium sized businesses generally face more financial difficulties in operating costs than large corporations due to the lack of economies of scale associated with a smaller output and customer base.  Larger companies have a greater ability to raise funds for green adaptations and to absorb the costs of major revamping.  They can wait for expenses to be recouped in the long run.  That time is often a luxury for smaller companies.

It is true that many businesses are not environmentally friendly simply because their profits trump environmental sustainability in their priorities, but this is not a universal truth.  Many businesses have a concern for the environment, but staying afloat in this economy requires cost-saving measures in the short term that mean putting off environment-saving measures until things become more certain.

Answer yes to feed the world

by Rebecca Nesbit

The question of whether genetic modification can improve food security and reduce environmental consequences of agriculture doesn’t yet have a clear answer, but if we are going to answer it as well as possible there are some questions which both sides of the debate need to answer yes to.

Firstly for the anti-GM folk: is there any evidence that would convince you GM crops are safe? The answer could be ‘yes, but it’s not worth the risks or resources’, but answering no shows an intrinsic desire for GM to fail, presumably because it is ‘unnatural’. To me, biodiversity and feeding people are far more important than upholding a love of natural. If evidence proved a technology works, why deny people its benefits?

Of course, the pro-GM guys must reciprocate with accepting when evidence highlights potential problems with GM. It goes without saying that evidence could be generated which would prove to scientists that a particular type of GM crop could cause environmental problems – that’s why they do experiments.

The next question to scientists is: are there potential problems with GM crops? Many valid issues have been raised, including how to ensure that lots of people benefit from the technology and businesses don’t exploit farmers. There are also potential environmental impacts which need to be scientifically investigated.

And to those who are against GM the question is: are there potential problems with organic farming/ conventional farming? Again, we need to acknowledge that things aren’t clear cut here either, particularly that lower yields mean more land has to be given over to farmland, and that just because a pesticide is ‘natural’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it is good for the environment. For conventional farming an obvious choice of problems is their pesticides.

The above questions can basically be summarised as ‘do you keep an open mind’. But here’s a slightly different one. I would answer yes to and I would like more people to accept it as true (and mostly it is those who oppose GM who reject it):

Do you believe the majority of people speaking out on both sides of the argument are trying to do the right thing for people and the environment, even if they are misguided?

I am lucky enough to have met many people speaking in favour of research into GM – scientists, communicators, and politicians – so I can say with confidence that they are motivated by food security and environmental protection. I don’t see myself as answerable for Monsanto’s sins, of which I believe there have been many, and I hope we have learnt from their mistakes. The key players in the current debate don’t have Monsanto’s money-making motivations.

In terms of the other side of the debate, I have no doubt that the few people I spoke to at Take the Flour Back firmly believe they are doing the right thing. Although organic farmers are set to benefit financially from whipping up the ‘anti-GM’ fuss and promoting organic alongside it, I still believe their motivations are genuine.

The people on either side of the debate are very dedicated to environmental protection; let’s put more effort into working out environmental solutions and less effort into exchanging insults.

Seeing as this is an issue which needs to be full of careful explanations, I should point out that the title was obviously flippant and there is no single answer to feeding the world, though all require open-mindedness. I would really like to hear everyone’s answers to these questions, whether they are yes or no, whether you even have any involvement in the debate so far. I will start with the 1st comment myself:

GM debate: scientists and protesters aren’t polar opposites

by Rebecca Nesbit 

My excitement of today was to attend the anti-GM protest organised by Take the Flour Back, joining the group of bystanders wearing ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ badges. Take the Flour Back (I don’t get the name – apparently it’s something to do with Rage Against the Machines) objects to a trial of GM wheat, and they organised a day to do some ‘decontamination’. That’s vandalism to you and me.

Take the Flour Back

The trial at Rothamsted Research is of genetically-modified wheat which contains an aphid-repelling gene normally found in peppermint plants. The aim is to reduce the use of pesticides.

Take the Flour Back say it is too risky to do the trial in the great outdoors. However, trials in the lab have been very promising and the necessary lab tests have been completed to ensure it is ready to test in the field.

Take the Flour Back claim that there is the danger insects will carry the pollen to other fields and contaminate them. However, wheat is not insect-pollinated. Wheat flowers fertilise themselves before they open. Excess pollen, which is heavy and lives for only a few hours, then falls to the ground around the plant. There are obviously strict regulations for anyone applying for a permit for a field trial, and birds and small mammals are kept out of the trial.

The protest today was very calm. Around 200 protestors turned up, many of them from a French organisation who seem to be generally into protests. A bus load of people came from Bristol.

I spent some time listening to their talks, which were of varying quality. There were some outrageous claims that Sense About Science (who I was with and who have been working with Rothamsted) was acting in the interests only of big businesses and had infiltrated the government. We wish.

A conventional farmer stood up and spoke, acknowledging he may be unpopular in a gathering of organic supporters. He claimed that we didn’t need GM because we have pesticides. To me, reducing the need for pesticides is one of the main potential benefits of GM. The widespread use of pesticides also shows that agriculture is already very linked to capitalism. I spoke to some lovely girls from Take the Flour Back and it emerged that they were really anti-capitalism and anti-corporations more than anti-GM. It seemed a shame that a scientific trial with the overall aim of improving food security, funded by publc money, is a target for these views. I agree it’s an issue, but let’s address these problems not trash trials.

The politics have been interesting to say the least. A few days ago Jenny Jones from The Green Party announced her support for Take the Flour Back, though whether she supported the ‘decontamination’ is a bit hazier. Within hours of the link announcing her support appearing on the Green website it was removed and has now reappeared in a modified form. I was extremely disappointed that a politician would support activism rather than rational debate, even if she does have concerns about GM. She sounds a little more rational in this piece the Telegraph. The Lib Dem’s Evan Harris was there today supporting the scientists, and was kind enough to give me an anti-histamine when the hay fever started, though I should also thank Take the Flour Back for their delicious pizza.

One of the things that struck me, and indeed all the protestors I spoke to, was how much we have in common. I was pleased to be interviewed by a journalist near a Take the Flour Back banner saying ‘Biodiversity not big corporations’ and was able to say ‘that’s what I think too’. The difference was that I’m not too keen on conspiracy theories, and that I want to keep an open mind about solutions to the extreme challenge of sustainably feeding billions of people in a changing climate.

Rebecca Nesit and Police horses

Scientists have given lots of answers to questions about the safety of the trial and the commercial practicalities – it’s worth a read. Or you can hear them on a podcast with The Pod Delusion. Sadly, last weekend an intruder damaged the trial, but he didn’t destroy it and he has since been arrested. Two arrests were also made at today’s protest but no damage was done.

Personally, I thank the protesters for bringing the debate back into public consciousness. However, I hope we can keep it closer to evidence and further away from ‘evil scientists versus hippy environmentalists’. Whatever you think about the future of GM crops, you can help keep the debate based on evidence and sign the Sense About Science petition asking Take the Flour Back not to destroy research.

I have a more detailed summary of coverage here, though judging by the cameras and notepads I saw today there’s a lot more coming. The question now is – will the trial last unscathed until September? Who knows, but I’ll keep you updated.

Conservation priorities: ethical questions

by Rebecca Nesbit

When choosing how to allocate resources for conservation, or even whether to allocate resources for conservation, it isn’t just science we need to base our choices on, but ethical values too. Should we be making more sacrifices in our daily lives so biodiversity is protected for future generations? Should we be putting resources into conservation which could be used to help the world’s poor? Do we prioritise species because they are charismatic, or because they are useful?

Thanks to everyone who answered my Why is biodiversity important questions and added comments underneath. I often find myself in situations where I consider conservation values and will think back to the answers you gave.

Interestingly, there was a relatively even divide between  people who thought biodiversity should be protected for its own sake and those who thought it should be protected for the sake of humans (though WordPress needs to retake its maths GCSE). However, there weren’t many yeses to the question: if you could release a single species that would wipe out many others so reduce biodiversity, but would increase human happiness, would you do it?

To me, this is a contradiction. If you are protecting biodiversity for the sake of humans then you should be willing to sacrifice species for the sake of people. But is this apparent discrepancy in answers because actually doing something to damage biodiversity is worse than failing to do something to save it? Or because some people had interpreted this as only the happiness of people alive today? I had given my answer of yes based on the assumption that future generations would benefit too. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

After a fascinating discussion with my book group last week, I have a new question to add:

If rats introduced to an island by humans were endangering a species would you eliminate the rats?

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In the conservation world the answer is very clear, and I have already blogged about eliminating rats as if it is foregone conclusion it’s a good idea. I look forward to your opinions.

I’m also reading The Value of Species, and failing to be convinced by his arguments of why every species is important. However, he made a very salient point that anything we sacrifice a species for is rather short-lived in comparison to the species. A housing development or some goats you don’t want to kill aren’t going to be around for millennia.

So many things to consider! Thanks for joining in the discussion.

Home from home for invasive species

by Rebecca Nesbit 

Invasive species can have a negative effect on our native species, competing with them for food, eating them, and bringing diseases. Some well known examples in the UK are the grey squirrel, rhododendrons, the harlequin ladybird and Japanese knotweed. Global transport and a changing climate mean the risk of invasive species is increasing, with potential devastating effects. The forestry industry, for example, is particularly vulnerable to the threat of insect pests eating trees.

Knowing this, scientists are keen to predict which areas are under threat of invasion by specific species. These predictions are based on the assumption that a species will colonise areas with the same conditions as its native range. A 2012 paper in Science investigated whether this is true for 50 species of invasive plant – do they occupy the same ‘niche’ in their new range as their native range?

North America and Europe inhabit similar latitudes and hence have similar climatic conditions, so it isn’t surprising that they are vulnerable to the invasion of species from each other. This paper focuses on species invasions on these two continents. Although the invasive species we are familiar with have colonised the UK, Europe is actually a ‘net exporter of invasive species’. Historically there are many examples of Europeans settling on other continents. The spread of people out of Europe has often caused the spread of invasive species.

The paper reports there was little evidence that species invading new areas changed the niche they inhabited. The authors suggested that where, occasionally, plants do invade a new niche the reasons can include hybridisation with a native species or relative freedom from predators that were limiting their distribution in their native ranges.

Having found that species stay in the same conditions in their new range, the authors conclude that it is reasonable to base computer models on the current conditions on which a species are found. This is true both for models predicting the spread of invasive species introduced into new geographical areas and those predicting how species will respond to climate change.

Petitpierre, B., Kueffer, C., Broennimann, O., Randin, C., Daehler, C., & Guisan, A. (2012). Climatic Niche Shifts Are Rare Among Terrestrial Plant Invaders Science, 335 (6074), 1344-1348 DOI: 10.1126/science.1215933

Climate thoughts from a Nobel Laureate

by Rebecca Nesbit 

Last night I went to a thought-provoking lecture by Nobel Laureate Professor Elinor Ostrom. She described climate change as a ‘global bad’ and expressed concerns about the chances of reaching a global solution in time. The solutions, she suggested, have to operate on lots of different scales, and she was persuasive in her arguments. In her discussions of how we can encourage people to alter their behaviour to tackle climate change she drew on examples ranging from Police services to fishermen.

The EU fisheries are in a pretty poor state, with widespread fish declines, and trying to make the same rules for the Mediterranean and the Baltic may not by possible. In Maine, however, management by the fishing community in each separate cove has been very successful. The government is supportive of this small-scale management as well as having its own rules.

The large scale is still important; there’s no point in tough regulations in one area if all that happens is that fishermen move elsewhere. It’s not just regulation that we’re talking about: large-scale organisations can share knowledge and resources, for example to help address climate change.

Something else she touched on is finding ways to regulate each other, so that people are deterred from acting selfishly not just by risk of punishment by the authorities but by shaming each other. My last blog post discussed American forests, and Professor Ostrom explained there’s no evidence that large government-protected forests are in better condition. Forests where users monitor each other, however, are doing very well.

She gave an example again from the fishermen in Maine. When they catch a pregnant lobster they throw it back (delicately so the eggs don’t fall off). But first they cut a notch off her tail. Anyone landing a lobster with a notch in their tail can be easily identified as having broken the rules where others have upheld them. This matches the results from social experiments she had performed in the lab: in cooperative games people were much more likely to act for the public good if they could communicate with each other.

She also shared a great tip: when you have a shower you turn the cold tap on because the hot water is too hot. So turn down the water temperature! Having no idea about anything domestic or practical I haven’t a clue how easy this is, but it sounds logical…

The lecture was organised by AAAS, publishers of Science, and took place in the Royal Society which has regular interesting events. Let me know if you fancy going to any and maybe we can catch up.

Your house helps combat climate change

by Rebecca Nesbit 

When a plant photosynthesises it takes carbon dioxide from the air and, combining it with water, produces sugar and oxygen. The sugars produced are used as energy and to make new materials as the plant grows. In this way carbon from the air is converted into carbon stored in plants. For this reason forests act as ‘carbon sinks’.

In this way, USA forests offset about 15% of the country’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

If a forest is left to its own devices, carbon dioxide is removed from the air as plants grow and released back into the atmosphere when dead wood decays. But in reality many forests are managed for wood production. The wood is removed from the forest and used for furniture, doors, building etc.

So the wood in our houses stores carbon which was removed from the atmosphere when the plant photosynthesised. Understanding this can help forest management.

In the mid 20th century wood production was high so the amount of carbon stored in harvested wood products was increasing. However, when this wood is disposed of it decays on the landfill site and releases carbon dioxide. In the Northern USA the stock of carbon contained in wood products is actually declining because more wood is being discarded than produced.

A recent paper in Carbon Balance and Management states that American forest managers don’t have the information they need to meet national goals for managing climate change. The authors found that when information about wood production from a particular forest is available this helps guide management practices, and they suggest how such information can guide management decisions across the US.

So the wood in your house is a carbon sink, but of course your house is probably built on land that was once forest – a greater carbon sink than your furniture – and is full of electrical appliances powered by fossil fuels. But we need houses, and management must be based on what we need from forests not just on the carbon balance. Another trade off between needs and climate change.

Stockmann, K., Anderson, N., Skog, K., Healey, S., Loeffler, D., Jones, G., & Morrison, J. (2012). Estimates of carbon stored in harvested wood products from the United States Forest Service Northern Region, 1906-2010. Carbon Balance and Management, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1750-0680-7-1

Are we hiding from ourselves?

by Rebecca Nesbit

As many of you know I have just returned from a fabulous trip to São Tomé and Príncipe (highly recommended) and following my adventures I always like to share a bit of what I’ve learnt.

Much of what people eat in São Tomé and Príncipe comes from the forest. When our driver joined us on walks he was always lagging behind and filling his bag with food: coconuts, bits of a climber which adds flavour to soup, land snails… Collecting meat, however, seemed to be a task mainly reserved for children. Boys were often seen with a collection of elastic bands round their wrists, ready for emergency repairs to their catapults. Birds are their main targets, and they’re pretty good at catching them.

This abundance of free food means most people are well fed, but seeing endemic birds floppy in someone’s hands ready for the cooking pot and knowing that the spectacular Dwarf Olive Ibis  is in danger of being hunted to extinction can be hard to deal with. To us this is putting valuable wildlife at risk; to them it is a tasty meal.

All we could do when we saw this going on was dream up education schemes or tourism projects that would mean the birds were more valuable alive. I also begrudge hunting less when I think of all the ways in which the food I eat damages wildlife in more subtle ways.

While I was away I read an article in New Scientist about how widespread corruption is and, while most of us see ourselves as honest, we are very easily corrupted.  It quoted experiments showing we are happier to do corrupt acts if we are more detached from them. One example was a gambling experiment where participants had the chance to cheat. Cheating was more common when people played with chips which could be exchanged for money than when they played directly with money. The same applies when you instruct someone else to do a corrupt act rather than doing it yourself.

I couldn’t help but see the parallel with wildlife. It was very clear for me to see the link with killing a wild bird to eat it and the species becoming endangered. But with my own food I don’t do the dirty work. When I eat bread I’m detached from the habitat that was destroyed to make way for farmland, or the carbon footprint involved in the growing, transporting and making etc etc. If, when I eat fish, it was me who threw back the bycatch or saw fish numbers dwindling, would I eat it so readily?

Maybe this is one of the reasons why environmentally conscious people such as me continue doing things that threaten biodiversity: we’re sufficiently detached from the problems we cause.

If anyone has any ideas how to tackle this problem I’d love to hear them.

I’ve written another blog post about our trip for the Society of Biology’s blog.