Sunday, 5 March 2017

Week 22: (27th February to 5th March 2017) or 'Food (Security) for Thought'

If there's one point I omitted from my report on Brazil, it's the fact that there was not a tea-bag to be found. To infuse a tea-bag in England is purely a matter of a well-rehearsed procedure. But when one's abroad, to infuse a tea-bag is to infuse a memory. Each sip can take you back to England, to the green and pleasant land, to country lanes and village churches, to a field of luscious grass and munching cows, to a comforting feeling of home...

And so, by co-incidence, a week to compensate for this lack of tea awaited. One of the untold truths about academic conferences is the frequency of opportunities one has to 'refill the cup' and therefore it is no surprise, especially to those in the business, that one of the first activities in this week's envEXPO conference was to have a cup of tea.

The envEXPO conference, based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, was advertised as a "three day showcase of environmental innovation, enterprise and research; informing the environmental science research agenda by highlighting the environmental challenges facing businesses, industries and policy makers. A number of contemporary big societal questions will be considered in interactive discussion sessions, informed by industry and policy challenges. There will be a range of high-profile keynote speakers, opportunities for lively debate and discussions, workshops, exhibitions as well as ample opportunities for networking." I found all this to be true, and as I stated above, there were also ample opportunities for drinking tea.

Whilst the hot water canisters were being refilled, and wicker baskets of biscuits were being replenished, we enjoyed the wisdom of several key-note speakers, or as one lady put it, talks from "big cheeses". One such speech was delivered by Terri Freemantle, a Senior Earth Observations Specialist for Satellite Applications Catapult. This, I'm led to believe, is a new type of independent innovation and technology company, created to foster growth across the economy through the exploitation of space. But Terri is far from an astronaut. The idea is to (virtually) jump on existing satellites which ride through space, eyeballing the Earth, and download the data they collect to explore how the planet is physically changing. The key areas that Terri's company expresses primary interest include the sustainable use of global water resources and sustainable global development. At the conclusion of her talk, Terri clicked a button and demonstrated through a short video why 'clicking buttons' will soon be sown into the fabric of history.

I was no less than alarmed at this prophetic video - a future built on automation and robotics - that I enjoyed (perhaps more than usual) the very manual, slow and sloppy process of making another cup of tea. No doubt one day, I will be attending these academic conferences with my own customized robot who will march off and bring me back a drink. Indeed, one day I will probably attend these events from the comfort of my own home and the wizardry of virtual technology.

David Askew brought us back to reality. David is the director of Natural England's evidence service and a leader in Defra's Earth Observation Centre of Excellence. His talk provided us with a brief overview of the current approaches taken to improve conservation in England, such as the 'Conservation 21' programme that seeks to create resilient landscapes by putting people in the heart of the environment. This point is particularly apt, given that people feel less connected with nature now than ever before. The big question that David helped to tease out is 'what does a healthy ecosystem look like?' and given the melange of functions provided by our natural environment, it was a difficult question to answer.

Major environmental challenges were left to be tackled after lunch, when brains were refuelled with the assets of a buffet. The corpus of scholars, including myself, divided and filed into seminar rooms where topics were sown and discussions were germinated. In my room sat a myriad of ecologists, agro-scientists and soil scientists, each equipped with disciplinary perspectives on the issue of Food Security. Whiteboards were marked with ideas and solutions; A3 paper carpeted the floor. Innovative aims began to emerge. Perhaps food needs should be separated from food wants? Perhaps we should focus on genetically diversifying our crops? Perhaps we should use these crops to improve the soil? Perhaps we should grow more of our own food rather than exporting it? Perhaps we should make more use of our food waste? Perhaps we should have another cup of tea and think about it?


He had forgotten the date.
"March 1st", I uttered as a reminder. "New month!"
"New problems", the taxi driver sighed releasing the lock on the doors.
I paused to briefly contemplate the cynicism and alighted. Somewhere in between his jacket and seatbelt was a heavy weight pressing down upon his shoulders.
"New solutions," I whispered, raising my hat and bidding him good day, although somehow I doubted he often enjoys them.  "New solutions..."

Unearthing the solutions behind problems, particularly with innovative thinking, was a theme and a strategy that journeyed with me to Sweden. There I was to unite once again with the TruLife network to continue discussing the issues of Food Security, within the urban environment. As I quote from the network's website:

"Facing the challenge of increasing urbanisation, strategies for future city development are not considering the long urban past. Archaeologists of ancient cities recognise that long-term urban processes can teach us about diverse human-environment interactions. Thus, TruLife’s core research question is: Can studying the diversity of long-term urban traditions, exemplified by pre-Columbian Maya tropical cities, effectively inform designing for sustainable urban futures?"

I attended the first TruLife workshop last summer, in Canterbury. There I formed, for the first time, a component of a network of researchers, incorporating both environmental and social sciences. That first meeting was devoted to the topic of urban waste management, of which has become a rising debate within the wings of Soil Science. But the issue of Food Security overshadows, and in some cases, overwhelms the scholarly mind. It is often when discussing such matters with non-pedologists that interesting solutions greet potential solutions.

In the basement of Gothenburg University's Arts and Humanities department- the Humanisten, as it is effectively named - the TruLife membership took their seats. Along one side of the room, a table was crowded in refreshments. As I explained in this week's opening, very few workshops exist in the absence of caffeine. I took charge of one canister, decanted what I thought was tea (but in the event turned out to be coffee) and occupied a vacant spot. The first Keynote Talk would be from Cary Cruz, from the Local Sustainable Programme in Havana.

The speech began, in Spanish. And it continued for an hour in that language. In my naivety, I often glanced across the room to see how many members were similarly perplexed. Blank expressions were painted on faces. Why was there no translator? When the talk concluded with a 'Gracias', I half expected a member to beckon a translation, but instead a thorough and interconnected question and answer session followed. One by one, each TruLife member rattled out an impressive paragraph of Spanish and there I sat in sustained bewilderment. I soon realized I had made a grave mistake with the choice of refreshment. The sachets positioned next to the coffee were not sugar after all, but a miniature and readily dissolvable Spanish dictionary. All but one member had treated themselves to one of these sachets. All but I.

The rest of the afternoon was, at least for me, much more accessible. Nicholas Dunning gave a fascinating presentation into Pre-Columbian Maya Farming practices, which are if anything an inspiration for the future. Nicholas stems from the field of archaeology and teaches in the University of Cincinnati. The Maya planned their cities with sustainability at the heart of the designs from the outset; the soil was particularly central to their way of life and they contributed towards it greatly. 

A busy first day that had started with a taxi ride in Norwich, concluded with a taxi ride in Gothenburg. Broken English was exchanged on the way.

"New month", I stated again, this time to a driver who seemed much more energized with positivity.
"Here in Sweden, we look forward to March", he replied. "More sunshine and light, and people feel happy".

I decided that the month had started well.


A new day arrives in Gothenburg. Cyclists don helmets and cruise in their respective lanes, whilst pedestrians linger on traffic islands waiting for the tram. Streets stretch wide like gaping mouths. Bricked apartments rise out of the hubbub, with the ground level devoted to the shops. Candy stores, now somewhat antiquated in much of England, sweeten many districts in Gothenburg. Wander into them and one becomes instantly engaged in a perusal down the multi-coloured rows. Only the most disciplined can depart without 'picking and mixing'.

If there is a curiosity that beguiles the mind more than anything in this country, it is the Swedish language. Never have I seen letters neighbour each other so peculiarly. Needless to say, translating Swedish into English by considering word origin is an unsurmountable task. For example:

"Smakas kottbullar med potatismos, rarorda lingon och inlagd gurka" is translated as: "Smakas meatballs, with mashed potatoes and lingonberries"

"Skinnstekt Skreitorsk med smorstekt svartrot, kroppkaka med rokt torsk samt brynt citronsmor" actually turns out to be tasty. In England, the dish would be called: "Pan seared Skrei cod with butter fried salsify, potato dumpling with smoked cod and browned lemon butter".

The workshop continued for a couple more days. Discussions about the 'afterlife' of the TruLife network finalized the three day event. One idea is to encapsulate some of the dialogue into a series of published articles, of which one (about Mayan-developed soils) I am ring-leading. Another idea is to hold an urban design competition, where architects and city planners are invited to share their sustainable city solutions, which will be potentially displayed in an exhibition next year. I, for one, am proud of the work we have achieved together thus far. Although the network has a primary focus on the urban lifestyles of the Ancient Maya, the bridges between archaeology, urban design and soil science have become truly established. The moats of each discipline still split these three fields of study, but at least I now feel more acquainted and welcomed into these 'foreign' districts.


At the airport in Sweden, I passed through border control and seemingly joined a queue with non-European passports.

"Excuse me, Sir", a voice murmured behind me. "You have a European Union passport; please join the queue over there". The official waved his hand in the general direction of a line of British tourists.

"You're still part of the EU", he reminded me again, as I slowly maneuvered myself to the correct line. I turned round and uttered the obvious.

"For now", I said.

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