The limits of protected areas

There’s an interesting paper just out in Nature entitled “Protected areas have a mixed impact on waterbirds, but management helps.” It’s unfortunately behind a paywall, but one of the authors, Dr Julia Jones, has done a helpful Twitter thread about it, which I’ve unspooled here if you dislike social media. There’s also mainstream media coverage, of course.

The authors analysed data on waterbird populations before and after protection of sites, mainly in North America and Europe, as collected by thousands of volunteers. They found a mixed and confusing picture, with designation of a protected area having a wide range of impacts from negative to positive on the population sizes of the birds found therein.

Disappointing, I know, but there was a ray of light. As the title of the paper says, management made a difference. If the protected area was specifically managed with waterbirds in mind, then the impact of protection was more likely to be positive.

Which is why some of us who are interested in the conservation of things other than birds think there should be a global network of protected sites for crop wild relatives (CWR). In the same way that we just can’t rely on the generalised protection afforded by legal designation of a national park, or whatever, to do anything for waterbirds, we can’t expect it a priori to do anything for CWR either.

But does that mean that we’ll need millions of protected areas around the world, each specialising only in this or that species or group of species? I don’t think so. What we do need is for the CWR conservation community to work closely with the managers of existing protected areas to make sure that the correct interventions are applied to make sure that the CWR populations which happen to occur within their borders are able to thrive. That would probably not be enough, and it may well be necessary to set up some additional protected areas specifically devoted to CWR. But it would be a good start. And we do have a good a good evidence base.1

Incidentally, some of authors of the waterbirds paper have another paper out, “Language barriers in global bird conservation,” which is also well worth reading. About 15% of the more than 10,000 birds they looked at have geographic distributions within which more than 10 languages are spoken. And even when you control for area, threatened birds have significantly more languages spoken within their distributions. Which clearly is a challenge for conservation. I wonder if there’s something similar happening with CWR.

  1. There’s also this interactive portal covering Europe. []

Brainfood: Digitizing collections, Bean core, Livestock diversity, Maya & maize, Fish stocks & CC, Save the weed, Flax CWR, Italian agrobiodiversity

A new genebank for the ages is set for ages

Great news from the opening ceremony of the new Future Seeds genebank in Palmira, Colombia on 15 March:

The Bezos Earth Fund pledged US$17 million for Future Seeds, a new CGIAR genebank inaugurated today. The new genebank will bolster global efforts to safeguard the world’s future food supply.

This genebank is truly next-level:

Future Seeds is the most advanced facility in Latin America and is expected to become the first ever platinum-level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified genebank building in the world. Its Data Discovery and Biotechnology Lab will use big-data technologies to mine the genebank using the latest in genetics to document the range of possibly useful traits in the current collection. Other breakthrough technologies across genebanks include drones and robotic rovers, which are helping analyze crop characteristics in the field more rapidly, and the use of artificial intelligence to enable collectors to identify potential biodiversity hotspots in nature.

Here, check it out for yourselves:

And here’s an overview of the collections from Genesys (beans in red, cassava blue, forages green).

Full disclosure: we also support the place at work.

Cropland *could* be almost halved

I’m recycling this from Jeremy’s latest newsletter, with permission. So I don’t have to write something on the paper in question myself, as I originally planned.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this recent paper: Global cropland could be almost halved: Assessment of land saving potentials under different strategies and implications for agricultural markets. The gist of it seems to be that if we were able to grow crops more productively (closing the yield gap, as it is known) we would need less land, reduce crop prices, and cure the common cold.

Not quite, obviously, but this kind of model-based approach to transforming global agriculture seems to me to be long on possibilities and short on practicalities. Of course, the modellers could point out that they are merely showing the way and that others will have to make the decision to take us down the road. Points, too, for figuring out how all this might affect prices and global trade flows. However, I remain befuddled and bemused, as I was when I first encountered this sort of study in 2009 and then again in 2017.

Brainfood: Spatial data, Extinction risk, Improved lentils, Lentil collection, Ohia germination, Shea genomics, Wild olive, Cacao climate refugia, Cacao sacred groves, Italian winter squash, Nigerian yams, Bambara groundnut diversity