Time to Change Crop Protection?

Last year, I was asked if I would be prepared to join the Independent Advisory Board of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA).  ECPA represents the pesticide industry in Europe.  After consultation with some of my colleagues I said “yes”.  The reason for agreeing to be part of this advisory board is that ECPA has launched the “Time for Change” initiative, and they say that they are serious about changing their engagement with stakeholders.  This is an opportunity to start talking with a group of industry partners that have a major impact on water quality and biodiversity.

We had one meeting of the advisory board in February this year, which was the first get-together, and the second meeting was earlier this week.  It started with a review of where we ended last time, and a discussion about the next steps.  We were asked to think about the way in which the industry could improve its act, and had a very frank and constructive discussion about the key issues.  In the end, we all agreed that we need to focus on four points:

  • Help ECPA to develop a joint vision of all its Members with some clear objectives, deliverables and indicators for monitoring
  • Identify a number of key issues (hotspots), and jointly with stakeholders tackle these priority issues
  • Obtain a statement from the CEOs of the relevant companies to commit to “Time for Change”
  • Ensure transparency and credibility in research and studies

Apart from these agreed priorities, we talked about many other aspects, and a lot has to do with communication.  In fact, the results of our discussions in February were analysed and a computer-generated model concluded that most of the issues we identified as barriers in making progress could be traced back to the need to communicate better.  The Advisory Board discussed this, and made the point that improving communication is an internal issue, and not something we could add much to.  However, we all agreed that it is important to get the message across that there is a change in the way in which the industry wants to engage with stakeholders and the wider public.

The Advisory Board stressed again that we should jointly identify the real problem cases, and that ECPA and its members should address these issues, in a transparent and constructive manner.  We warned the industry representatives that this could result in our recommending the cessation of production of certain products or compounds, and we were told that they will take our recommendations serious and act upon our advice.  Time will tell how far we can agree on the way that our recommendations will be dealt with.

I made the point that the impact on pesticides on biodiversity is most likely a long-term effect, and that the cumulative effect of pesticide use over time may be key challenge for nature.  Colleagues pointed out that for water quality, the more immediate impact of the cocktail of different agro-chemicals, pharmaceutical waste and organic pollution may be critical.  I am concerned that no-one is currently investigating the impacts of this combination of introduced substances.

The members of the advisory board pointed out that it is important to get a discussion going between these different sectors of industry, and I believe that we must help to make this happen.  It will not be easy, and it will require goodwill from all sides.

In the afternoon, we also reviewed the projects that ECPA is initiating under the “Time to Change” initiative to illustrate what they are trying to do.  Some of these projects are very interesting, and could help to implement the EC Biodiversity Strategy and the EC Water Framework Directive.  I will discuss within IUCN how to inform some of our Members about potential collaborative action.

My next engagement with European Crop Protection Association will be at a meeting in Malta in November, where I am asked to talk about the expectations of stakeholders, especially within the context of “Time for Change”.  It is another opportunity to engage with this important group of industry partners.

The biodiversity of limestone landscapes

In a few days time, I am speaking at the Quarry Life Award ceremony in Brussels, an event organised by Heidelberg Cement.  The Quarry Life Awards offer a unique opportunity to add true ecological and educational value to a mining environment.  It is a great way to raise awareness about biodiversity in the mining industry, and the projects submitted for the award are wonderful case studies about real success on the ground.

I was asked to give an outside perspective, and I will be talking about limestone landscapes, karst biodiversity and what the industry can do to deal with the issues even more effectively.  Karst is the process of limestone solution by rainwater, and this is what makes limestone landscapes so special.  Limestone solution can be rather small scale, as is shown in the following photo of a limestone pavement in the Swiss Jura, but it can also lead to immense caves systems, such as the Clearwater system in Sarawak, Malaysia.  The term karst is from South-eastern Europe, and this is where the typical landforms were first described.  Dolines, which are solution funnels that feed underground crevasses, and poljes, large flat-bottomed depressions that sometimes carry water but most of the time are dry, are typical karst features in the European landscape.


Karst biodiversity is also rather special, and most of the typical, endemic karst species are found at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Blind cave animals include salamanders, fish, shrimps, spiders, beetles, and typical karst flora on the surface includes mosses, ferns and lichens.  Studies in Asia have shown that many snails are restricted to one or two limestone hills, and that certain species are not found anywhere else.  (See for example Schilthuizen etal (2005) in Conservation Biology vol 19, No3).

We know quite a lot about the karst flora and fauna in Europe – maybe more than from other parts of the world – but this knowledge is very specialised, and often restricted to individual sites.  There is a lot of good work being carried out by the cement industry with regards to quarry rehabilitation and restoration.  The essence of my talk is that we often overlook the lower creatures when we carry out the biodiversity surveys in preparation for industrial development, and the restoration of completed quarries and mines generally does not include these biodiversity aspects.  A restored quarry will most likely include nice ponds, and healthy lush vegetation, but the original karst flora and fauna may have been lost.

Far from advocating that we stop quarrying and mining, my argument is that we should be more careful and comprehensive in the baseline survey, and this means employing real experts who know what to look for.   A recent publication by Fauna and Flora International (Protecting Biodiversity by Tony Whitten in International Cement Review, June 2012) makes the same point.

When we assess what there is to start with, we can determine what we are losing, and we can then decide what to do about it.



Hope for Biodiversity and Development!

It does not happen every day that I meet three European Commissioners, but last week I managed to do so.  IUCN Director-General Julia Marton-Lefèvre and her Deputy Poul Engberg-Pedersen visited Brussels, and we had arranged meetings with Commissioners Potocnik, Piebalgs and Damanaki.  Good discussions all around, but the following really struck me.

European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs and European Commissioner for Development Janez Potocnik have co-signed the foreword to a new publication about the European Commission’s work on biodiversity and development: “Life, lives and livelihoods”.  I did not yet see it on the web, but the cover looks like this.

Cover page of recent EC publication

This joint action is a very welcome development, and it fits completely with the thinking in IUCN about nature-based solutions for development challenges.  In the statement, the two Commissioners reflect on the need to support partner countries to find synergies between preserving limited natural resources, including biodiversity, and overcoming poverty through investment in natural capital.  They conclude their joint statement by stressing that: “biodiversity preservation is everybody’s business and our children and our grandchildren expect us to get it right.”

It sounds very encouraging, and I hope that the good intentions can be translated into joint action on the ground!