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Will Pandemic Push Humans Into Healthier Relationship With Nature?

This story was originally published May 21, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 

Daniel Wanjama had everything ready for this year's first seed fair in the Kenyan town of Gilgil, an important event where poor farmers exchange seeds of nutritious, hardy local crops they cannot easily buy in shops or markets.

But a week before the fair Wanjama had organized for late March, the government banned gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"Farmers who were ready to deliver seeds are stranded with them, and those who were to obtain seeds have not planted (their crops)," he said by email.

"This is a serious situation because not planting means not having food," added the founder of Seed Savers Network-Kenya, a social enterprise based in Gilgil, about 120 km (75 miles) north of Nairobi.

Farmers watch a demonstration on growing local crops by Seed Savers Network-Kenya in Gilgil, Kenya, December 2019. | HANDOUT/Seed Savers Network-Kenya.
Farmers watch a demonstration on growing local crops by Seed Savers Network-Kenya in Gilgil, Kenya, December 2019. | HANDOUT/Seed Savers Network-Kenya.

Wanjama also worries that the cancellation of seed fairs could hasten the demise of resilient crops that may help farmers adapt to worsening wild weather as the planet warms.

A 2019 survey by his organisation showed 34 varieties had disappeared over 20 years in Nakuru County alone, as traders spurned local varieties of yam, arrowroot, sorghum and millet in favour of more profitable crops.

Now, lockdowns and other measures worldwide to contain the virus are hampering efforts to conserve traditional food crops like those Wanjama wants to save, as well as forests, wetlands and their native species, scientists and environmentalists say.

Green groups and international organizations had billed 2020 as a "super year" for the biodiversity of the planet's plants and animals, as new global agreements were due to be sealed.

But key U.N. negotiations have been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic which many environmentalists blame, at least partly, on a failure to protect nature that has facilitated the transition of viruses from animals to humans.

Meanwhile, a relaxation of surveillance and monitoring in many countries has led to more poaching and illegal, unregulated fishing, said ecologist Sandra Diaz.

Popular videos of animals taking over empty beaches, parks and public squares may give the impression "we are witnessing some sort of 'resurgence' of nature", but that is not the case, she said.

"It is an extremely short truce," said Diaz, a professor at Argentina's National University of Cordoba and co-chair of a landmark science report last year that found human activities risk the extinction of a million animal and plant species.

Last month, Diaz and other top scientists behind that report warned of worsening future pandemics due to activities such as deforestation, farming, mining and infrastructure development.

Pupils and their teacher in Espoo, Finland have lessons outside in a nearby forest, as schoolchildren return to classes after eight weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread. | Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via REUTERS
Pupils and their teacher in Espoo, Finland have lessons outside in a nearby forest, as schoolchildren return to classes after eight weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread. | Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via REUTERS

'SUPER YEAR' ON ICE

The coronavirus pandemic has now dashed hopes 2020 would see new international accords to halt shocking declines in animal and plant species, including a global framework to safeguard ecosystems under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and a treaty to protect oceans.

Key summits to seal those pacts, originally scheduled for the autumn, have been postponed, with new dates yet to be fixed.

But Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the CBD's acting executive secretary, said the pandemic was an "opportunity to reset... our relationship with nature."

"COVID-19 has... reaffirmed what we already knew — namely, that biodiversity is fundamental for human health," she said in a phone interview.

Governments are now recognizing this, she added, pointing to a joint call by mayors of powerful cities for economic recovery to be low-carbon and sustainable, and formal requests from Chile and Germany for scientific help to help avert future pandemics.

On Wednesday, the European Commission pledged to protect 30% of the EU's land and sea, cut the use of pesticides by 50% and put a quarter of its farmland under organic production by 2030.

A two-day Biodiversity Summit to be held at the start of September's U.N. General Assembly will also give the issue a boost, Mrema said.

On a personal level, shop closures and restrictions on travel have led many people to reconnect with nature through walks in the park and local countryside, she said.

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Lauren Baker, programs director for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, said consumers had also become more aware of the links between the environment and their food as lockdowns led them to cook more at home.

The pandemic was a chance to reform how the world produces food — a major driver of biodiversity loss — as the health crisis has highlighted the interdependence between supply chains and nature, she added.

Good examples to follow include a state-backed farming system in southeast India that reduces water usage and boosts soil fertility, and a non-profit in Zambia that helps hungry villagers quit poaching, she said.

Such initiatives show that food production and diets could be aligned "with our goals around preserving nature and natural environments," she noted.

AHA! MOMENT

Ercilia Sahores, Latin America director of Regeneration International, which supports low-carbon agriculture that revives ecosystems, said people were reaching out to her group from around the Americas to find out more about local food.

"People are starting to finally connect the dots between the climate crisis, food crisis and health crisis," she said. "This has been a big 'aha!' moment for plenty of people."

In Kenya, policy makers are telling citizens to grow their own vegetables and debating the sustainability of relying on foreign seeds and fertilizers, said Seed Savers' Wanjama.

Ahead of the International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, environmentalists expressed hope that such changes would be long-lasting and that biodiversity does not take a backseat once again when countries reopen after the pandemic.

"I've heard politicians saying that we must only focus now on jobs — but look at how many jobs have been lost because we didn't focus on nature and wildlife," said Brian O'Donnell, director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Nature.

The CBD's Mrema said the environment could suffer if governments focused too narrowly on rebooting their economies.

Before COVID-19, financing for conservation was already inadequate, even though nature provides the world with essential services including food, fuel and water, she said.

"If we are protecting nature today, it means we are avoiding the pandemics of tomorrow," she added.

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