‘Bouncing back better’ from COVID-19 requires overcoming systemic lock-ins

By Professor Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading and Senior Fellow, Defra Systems Research Programme

What will the impacts of COVID-19 be on the environment?

As I write this blog, analyses of UK datasets since lockdown from March 2020 to the current day have shown major reductions in greenhouses gases and significant improvements in air quality in terms of nitrous oxides. (However, levels of fine particulate matter showed less change.)

There have also been many reports in popular media of wildlife benefitting from the lower human activity levels. These benefits were always going to be short-lived during the lockdown. They demonstrate what is possible, but unfortunately they are not worth celebrating as a sustainable achievement for environmental protection.

To do so, would be a bit like holding your breath and suggesting it proves you don’t need oxygen. As governments struggle to get national economic sustainability back on track, these environmental sustainability gains are quickly lost. We have seen this with the gradual creeping up of air pollution levels since lockdown has lifted.

What about in the longer term? What might happen to environmental quality as we recover from the pandemic? There is lots of talk about transformative responses to the coronavirus crisis, as this European Joint Research Centre report discusses.

Beyond optimistic rhetoric though, it is quite possible that our socioeconomic system could return to a broadly similar configuration. The graph below shows what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash.

Even though the system was perturbed and CO2 emissions temporarily reduced, certain factors ensured the return of the globalised socioeconomic system to its previous structural configuration.

Of course, let’s not be all doom and gloom; some aspects of our socioeconomic systems may well get better after COVID-19. The lockdown seems to have seen increased public engagement with nature.

Analysis shows strong links between access to greenspace and both physical and mental health during lockdown, further reinforcing our previous understanding of the important relationship between greenspace and well-being. And, if these higher levels of nature engagement stick that will be a great thing.

Graph showing what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash

Equally, however, some things could get worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic. One worrying issue for the environment sector is the economy. The environment can end up near the bottom of the priority list during economic recession when it gets seen as a ‘luxury’.

That seems to be happening again, at least in some countries where economic stimulus packages have not been very ‘green’ and have instead propped up environmentally harmful industries. For example, China has relaxed environmental rules and the USA has allowed companies to break pollution laws.

Therefore, it’s crucial to articulate the importance of a healthy environment. This is especially pertinent in the UK because the compounding urgency to strike trade deals after Brexit could mean food sustainability standards are lowered. Hence, the UK environmental footprint risks getting even bigger.

How can this be tackled? One important aspect is to better understand the factors that keep socioeconomic systems locked into unsustainable trajectories. A first step is developing common language to allow the essential crosstalk between different academic disciplines around system transformations.

A recent study from an international workshop I was involved in found that many different terms are used to describe when a system is stuck in a ‘bad’ trajectory with these including ‘inertia’, ‘socioecological trap’ and ‘perverse resilience’. The term ‘lock-in’ was most broadly understood across disciplines.

‘Lock in’ mechanisms, often comprising negative feedback loops, ensure the return of the socioeconomic system to its previous configuration even in the face of perturbations. They can be structural, regulatory or legislative factors, knowledge constraints, vested interests influencing power dynamics, sociocultural factors, or all the above and more. Understanding these diverse lock-in mechanisms is key to being able to transform systems, as we have found for overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system.

To enable a genuine green recovery from COVID-19, lock-ins that need to be overcome include structural factors, such as the perverse subsidies we pay for farming. In addition to this, significant lock-ins also occur at the level of individual mindsets and attitudes. These are fundamentally important, as ultimately it is people’s mindsets that support or disrupt the prevailing socioeconomic structure and set the ‘rules of the game’, as systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it.

In a global recession, the dominant policy and media discourse is often about economic growth, yet we need to convey how environmental sustainability is essential to underpin economic stability, as well as human health.

Such arguments lend weight to the narrative of why we need transformation to a new post-COVID-19 food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable whilst at the same time provides nutritious and affordable food. Focussing on mindsets and attitudes also allows us to understand and influence how dietary choice and consumption patterns are key factors that must change to enable positive system transformation.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 presents a window of opportunity for a more sustainable future. Reconfiguring our socioeconomic systems for lasting positive change, however, needs more than pretty words. It needs to be a substantial coordinated effort on lock-in mechanisms at both structural and deeper psychological levels.

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Herbicide resistance and tackling the challenge of sustainable food production

By Bárbara Pinho, MSc Science Communication Student, University of Sheffield

The sustainable production of food is a challenge yet to be accomplished. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and produces a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leads to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Producing food sustainably is a challenge we must tackle in order to feed the generations to come. According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach an astonishing 9.7 billion by 2050. Putting it simply, more people means more mouths to feed in the future.

However, with no new land to explore, increased urbanisation and a rising sea level (which reduces land availability), growing food to feed almost 10 billion people is far from an easy task. This is where science may be of help.

For decades, scientific research has been developing tools and strategies to grow increasing amounts of food in shorter periods of time. One particular discovery revolutionised how farmers grow food worldwide: herbicides.

Research and herbicides

When herbicides were created amid the Second World War, they provided farmers with cost-effective and quick methods to kill invasive species, commonly known as weeds. However, as years went by, these chemicals stopped being as effective due to a process called herbicide resistance.

Weeds that are exposed to the same type of herbicides, sooner or later, resist said herbicides. They can resist due to genetic alterations (such as mutations) or multiple molecular strategies to counteract a herbicide mode of action. This ultimately leads to weeds surviving and damaging entire crops while jeopardising yield production.

This is a global issue. At the time of writing, there were 262 species resistant to herbicides worldwide. In the UK, 20,000 farms have resistant black-grass, the most common weed in the UK. This is estimated to cause the loss of 0.82 million tonnes of wheat which in turn costs £0.38 billion in lost income to farmers.

These costs are not limited to just farmers though. If we don’t find solutions to guarantee a stable wheat production, we may eventually experience price spikes in certain products. In addition to this, the consequences of herbicide resistance threaten achieving the objective of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050. What was already difficult, just got considerably more complicated.

Solving herbicide resistance

To address this issue, current research is exploring multiple strategies. At the University of Sheffield, Professor Robert Freckleton, who teaches Population Biology, described herbicide resistance as a “very difficult” issue to solve:

“It may be that the evolution of resistance to herbicides – or any biocide including antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides or cancer drugs – is inevitable.”

Most research at the University of Sheffield has been focusing on gauging the impact of herbicide resistance on farmers.

The Black-Grass Resistance Initiative

Wheat in fieldBetween 2014 and 2017, researchers from Sheffield together with other academics from Rothamsted Research, the Zoological Society of London, Newcastle University and the University of York launched the Black-Grass Resistance Initiative.

Among other goals, this project aimed to “unravel herbicide resistance in black-grass from gene to field”.

Through this project, the researchers were aiming to understand how some resistance mechanisms develop in weeds.

They also monitored black-grass in fields and interviewed farmers to design new management strategies to tackle resistant weeds.

In addition, this research estimated how herbicide resistance impacts both the economy and the environment.

These impact assessments lead the multi-institutional team to develop new management strategies in conjunction with farmers. The suggestions were mainly designed to delay herbicide resistance, through non-chemical techniques, as Professor Freckleton later explained:

“The best tactic is to slow or delay [herbicide resistance] and that can be done by relying on a diversity of control tactics. ‘Cultural control’ includes using tillage, crop rotation and other forms of weed control. Vigilance with monitoring and testing is important though. In many cases, it is too late to do anything by the time the problem has emerged and got out of hand.”

Crop science and new herbicides

While the obvious solution to tackle herbicide resistance would be to use fewer herbicides, this may be an unrealistic scenario. Farmers have been using herbicides and pesticides for decades to grow more food, as fast as possible. While it would be ideal to stop using chemicals in farming practice, Professor Ari Sadanandom from Durham University doesn’t think it’s feasible to ask that of farmers:

“I don’t think [stopping the use of herbicides] is a good way of moving forward; otherwise, how could you control weeds? Unless you clear all the soil of all the weed seeds, it’s not plausible, I think.”

At Durham University, research to bring solutions that tackle herbicide resistance reaches many different areas.

“Some people are working on fundamental plant science involving crops and they could generate new solutions. Other researchers are working with barley whilst others are working on cold stress and heat stress. The knowledge they get from these tests could be used to control weeds. The Chemistry Department is also working with new herbicides and focusing on making new products,” described Professor Sadanandom.

His research is more focused on studying fungal diseases in crops via cell biology. Still, he believes this to be a transferable area into herbicide-resistant yields. “I may start working with black-grass in the future because we may be able to bring some techniques that we’ve learned in the fungicide resistance world.”

Whether it be through new management strategies or making new herbicides, research is playing a key role in tackling a major threat to food security.

If we’re to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and even more in the decades to come, new strategies and techniques to complement farming practice may soon become the norm for farmers worldwide.

This blog was written as part of ‘The Path of Leaf Resistance’ project, which aims to raise awareness of herbicide resistance. Both this blog and the website are part of an MSc in Science Communication project conducted by Bárbara Pinho and supervised by Professor Robert Freckleton at the University of Sheffield.

All data collected for the project will serve the purpose of research on public engagement with the topic of herbicide resistance. This YouTube video has been created as part of the project to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issue of herbicide resistance.

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