The sweet smell of agricultural biodiversity

Readers of this blog probably share my belief that agricultural biodiversity (ABD) is critical to our future. Economists have come up with elaborate concepts and numbers to value it. Scare scenarios abound, about the potential failure of genetically narrow crops jeopardizing the world’s food supply. (Luckily they haven’t materialized, for the most part). Yet most people seem to be thoroughly indifferent to ABD, to judge from the general unawareness and the uniformity of our consumption, through which every single day we decide against ABD. I have therefore always believed that unless we can connect people emotionally and positively to the cause of agricultural biodiversity, its conservation and use will be a difficult sell.

Chanel 5 bottle One of the pillars of my belief has long been Chanel 5 perfume.

Isn’t it derived from the Chanel 5 tree, also called ylang ylang? Botanically known as Cananga odorata, ylang ylang is a widely cultivated tree with heavily fragrant flowers, originally from Asia. Those flowers have ensured its spread around the tropics. Here in Cali, Colombia, where I live, the tree is common, and releases its sweet scent to perfume the balmy tropical nights. What better example could there be that agricultural biodiversity not only ensures our survival, but adds glamour and excitement to our lives?

That pillar received a devastating blow when a well-meaning colleague recently pointed out to me that Chanel 5 is a blend of entirely synthetic aldehydes, and has been since its launch in 1921. It actually epitomizes the industry’s break from a natural to a synthetic perfume model. I should have investigated more thoroughly. Indeed, I have since learned that perfumes nowadays are overwhelmingly made from synthetic sources and not at all as natural as you might conclude from the vocabulary experts use to describe fragrances.

However, I must come to the defense of the industry. Internet marketers of Chanel 5 do not hide the importance of aldehydes in the Chanel 5 fragrance. The nomenclatural equation of perfume and tree, as far as I can see, is mostly to blame on websites such as this, which seem unfaithfully to copy one another. (There is an excellent monograph on Cananga odorata — and loads of other species — at, but it too erroneously states that the flowers are the basis for Chanel 5 perfume.)

Cananga odorata flowers Which leaves me puzzling: how did the tree get its name? Was it simply because its smell happens to resemble the perfume? Or was Coco Chanel inspired by the tree’s fragrance, and then realized that it was cheaper and more reliable to base its production on synthetic chemistry? I am also worried: Are consumers sophisticated enough to appreciate the greater complexity of natural fragrances? If so, they might start once again to demand perfumes made of natural ingredients (as they had to in the past, before synthetics changed the industry), thus providing income opportunities to poor tropical producers?

Anyone out there to educate me on this?

The value of organic farming

Organic farming again today. I’ve come across two papers from opposite ends of the world on this subject which it may be worth discussing together.

The first, from New Zealand, describes an experimental attempt to put a value on the ecosystem services provided by different pieces of arable land near Canterbury. That’s interesting – and difficult – enough, but the authors did this for both conventional farms and neighbouring organic farms. Values for the following services were calculated: biological control of pests, soil formation, mineralization of plant nutrients, pollination, services provided by shelterbelts and hedges, hydrological flow, aesthetics, food, raw materials (fibre, fuelwood, pharmaceuticals etc.), carbon accumulation, nitrogen fixation and soil fertility.

The results were that organic fields provided ecosystem services to the tune of US$ 4,600 per hectare per year, compared to US$ 3,680 for conventional fields: “there were significant differences between organic and conventional fields for the economic value of some ecosystem services.” Now, that must be associated with increased (agro)-biodiversity in the organic fields – more natural enemies, more pollinators, more earthworms, more medicinal plants etc. – but this was not measured in the study.

The other paper did compare diversity in organic and conventional farms, but only for plant at the species level, and no attempt was made to calculate values. Working in the south of England, the authors found significantly more plant diversity in organic arable fields as compared to conventional fields – though no differences in the plant diversity of other types of habitats within farms, such as woodland fragments and hedgerows.

I suppose what we need is a combination of these approaches, bringing together diversity assessment with valuation. Because in the end we’re only going to be able to conserve biodiversity if we can adequately value it.