Creating opportunity from food waste

As you sit down to your next meal, concerns about food waste are probably furthest from your mind.

But instead of just making you feel guilty about it – and heaven knows there are enough issues flying around at the moment to cover off on that emotion – lets look at what can be done about food waste.

For many environmental issues (climate change, habitat clearance) there is a sense of actionable paralysis – the feeling that it doesn’t really matter what an individual does, the problem is still going to get worse. But for food waste, the issues can be directly addressed by individuals across the entire food supply chain, and can help save you money too.

…the issues can be directly addressed by individuals across the entire food supply chain, and can help save you money too.

But before we get to the solutions lets just reflect on the scale of the food waste issue. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that a third of all food produced globally is wasted, equivalent to 1.3B tonnes of food. That’s a lot of wasted food and is the reason that one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to halve food waste by 2030. Australia alone wastes $20B of food a year, and the country performs worse than the global average, with up to 40% of the food produced lost at the point of production, manufacture, processing, wholesale or consumption.

So back to what we can do about it, and come with me on a journey back through your typical food supply chain – from home, or the restaurant, back through your supermarket or food supplier, back through the food processing plant, and finally to the farmers field – and see the range of practical and new and innovative ways that we can all help reduce food waste.


At home or in the restaurant

‘On average each Australian household wastes about $3,800 of food a year’, says Associate Professor David Pearson from Central Queensland University, and previous Head of Research at food rescue charity OzHarvest. ‘But there is a lot we can do to reduce food waste at home and which can also save on our grocery bills. There are simple things like meal planning and targeted shopping, to fridge layout that can help reduce food waste.’

‘The amount of food we currently waste is unforgivable especially when we consider that in Australia 65,000 people will go hungry for at least one meal despite the best efforts of food relief charities such as Ozharvest and Food Bank’.

Here are some simple ways to reduce food waste at home (there are more suggestions on the Ozharvest website):

  • Before sitting down for dinner, the effort starts by planning meals and only buying the food that is on the list and then organising the fridge and staggering meals through the festive season so that more perishable products are eaten first;
  • Using leftovers for future meals or sharing with friends and neighbours;
  • Put food scraps into your green bin or better still home-compost them. In the US there are now several composting services who vie for your food waste and planet ark give some useful tips on the topic of home-compositing;
  • If you eat out of at a restaurant and can’t finish your meal, insist on a doggy bag to take home unfinished food;
  • Ask the restaurant or café you eat at what their food waste strategy is. There are many food waste pick up services available for such establishments, from meal provision for food rescue charities through to composting services. Encourage your local eatery to use these services.


‘Toast’ has been very successful and boasts reusing nearly 1 million slices of surplus bread to brew more than 300,000 litres of beer

At the supermarket, grocers or food wholesaler

‘Supermarkets handle large quantities of food and waste is a big problem’ says Valeria Torok of the South Australian Research and Development Institute. ‘Food waste is also the third most important issue that supermarket customers are concerned about – after provision of fresh food and supporting local farmers. Clearly food safety is a critical issue, but sell-by dates can be too conservative leading to good food being thrown out. In addition the exacting standards of supermarkets and their belief that customers require perfect fruit or veg can mean that perfectly good produce is rejected. Supermarkets can also help support food relief charities with products that are close to or beyond the sell by dates, but still fit for human consumption.‘

Novel products can also be produced directly from food waste. In the UK, surplus bread from supermarkets and bakeries is used to make beer and sold under the brand name ‘Toast’. The product has been very successful and boasts reusing nearly 1 million slices of surplus bread to brew more than 300,000 litres of beer, and will be available in Australia soon.

Buy food from grocers that support ‘imperfect’ fruit and vegetables. Image from the Inside FMCG article on Ugly Veg

So here are some top tips to reduce food waste at the supermarket

  • Support supermarkets or grocers who relax their standards of perfect fruit and vegetables (a major cause of food waste higher up the food supply chain), since we are all alot more tolerant of the way these products look as long as they’re fresh and taste good. Take for example the success of Woolies Odd Bunch that sells misshapen fruit and veg.
  • Buy products which are on special offer because they are close to their sell-by date
  • Ask the supermarkets what their food waste strategy is, and whether they contribute to food rescue charities or use composting services.
  • Buy products made from recycled food products.
three clear glass jars with cereals
What’s old is new again – using jars and bags made of natural fibres. Photo by Anete Lusina on


At the food processing or packaging centre

At the moment, the environmental impact of packaging is coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly around plastics and the bans on exporting materials for recycling overseas. ‘What is getting lost in the debates is the role that packaging plays in containing and protecting food from farm to fork, and ultimately reducing food waste’ says Associate Professor Karli Verghese, of RMIT University. ‘There are many ways in which we can ensure that the appropriate packaging materials are selected and that product quality and shelf life is maintained. These functions need to be designed and balanced in conjunction with the manufacture and waste management of packaging at end of life.’

We can shop fresh at farmers markets and use jars and other “old-fashioned” methods to keep food fresh (e.g. see this Conversation piece ‘How to have yourself a plastic free Christmas’), but in our convenience-orientated world the key priority will be to replace plastics in packaging with more biodegradable products. There are tremendous innovations occurring in this space with bioplastics and other biodegradable products being produced to replace plastic packaging, some of them made from food waste themselves, such as starch and cellulose. And we are seeing new companies popping up to take advantage of this new market opportunity and customer preferences, such as Tipa.

companies like Tipa are rising to the challenge and taking advantage of customer preferences for compostable and degradable packaging

‘Other exciting new products can be produced directly from fruit and vegetables offcuts or those that don’t make it onto the supermarket shelf’, says Associate Professor Bronwyn Laycock, from the University of Queensland. ‘Instead of sending potato peelings, tomato skins, grape pips and almost any other by-product of food processing to landfill, we are able to refine these products to produce a range of vitamins, minerals and nutraceutical additives and cosmetics. We are trialling these biotransformation and chemical engineering processes at pilot scale to start with, but then working with major companies such as Swisse to go into large-scale manufacturing of such products. Even the water extracted from vegetables and fruit can go into soups, stocks, juices and even high-end healthy water products such as Aquabotanical.’

Here are some products to look out for that have incorporated what would otherwise would have been wasted food:

  • Select products with biodegradable packaging that still keep products fresh. (This supermarket in the Netherlands is making plastic-free a priority)
  • Look out for and support novel products produced from parts or whole fruit or vegetables that would have otherwise been wasted.
  • Shop fresh at farmers markets and use jars and other “old-fashioned” methods to keep food fresh

At the farm

I expect many Australians have seen the ABC’s War on Waste program – do you remember the mountains of rotting bananas in the fields in Queensland rejected because they were the wrong size and shape? We hear a lot about the need to improve agricultural methods to increase the amount of food we produce and to breed new varieties of crops to cope with changing environmental conditions. But if we just reduced the amount of food lost and wasted, this would increase global food security in a much faster and more direct way, not to mention being cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

‘Most of our current food waste goes into land fill or is ploughed back into the ground where it emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases, mostly methane’ says Professor Vincent Bulone of University of Adelaide. ‘If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind only the US and China. A lot of water is also wasted in growing the food that ends up as waste. In fact over 1,460 GL of water is wasted each year in this way in Australia – almost the required savings under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.’

If agricultural food waste collection can be coordinated, even regionally or at a landscape scale, it makes it cost effect to turn agricultural waste into new products,…

There is a lot we can do to reduce waste from agricultural production. If agricultural food waste collection can be coordinated, even regionally or at a landscape scale, it makes it cost effect to turn agricultural waste into new products, for example:

  • Fruit or vegetables that wouldn’t normally make the quality cut for supermarkets can be sold directly for processed food products, soup, stews, stocks etc
  • A range of vegetables can be used directly as animal feed
  • Offcuts of meat or fish can be broken down by soldier flies and other larvae to produce insect protein products
  • Otherwise unused vegetable and fruit pieces can be used to produce fertiliser and compost
  • And once every other useful product has been extracted from food waste the organic matter can be transformed into energy products such as biocoal and biodiesel through a range of chemical engineering procedures such as torrefaction, which can even be set up as generators run on individual farms

‘Solving these food waste issues would generate a new circular economy, making food waste into a valuable commodity in its own right, the by-product of which would be reduced food waste’ says Dr Steve Lapidge, Chief Executive of the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre.

‘Globally our collective conscience has been woken up to food waste, and we are now seeing major campaigns running in a number of countries to combat food waste, such as the Love Food Hate Waste campaign in the UK by the Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP). We are also increasingly seeing research being used to develop new and valuable by-products from food waste which can be the basis of new industries.’

‘The Australian Government recently approved our new Cooperative Research Centre to Fight Food Waste. The program matches $34M of industry and partner cash contributions with another $30M of federal funding and $57M of in-kind contributions from the partners. This program will be the biggest research & development program to combat food waste in the world, and has close to 60 partners including Swisse Wellness, Foodbank Australia, KPMG and Woolworths, and a range of nationally leading research partners, including  the South Australian Research and Development Institute, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Adelaide, Queensland, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Central Queensland.’

Together these partners are seeking to

  • Reduce food waste by working with food relief charities to more efferently redistribute edible food to families in need of support. Other projects will look at how packaging can be made more sustainable and move away from plastic to more biodegradable materials.
  • Transform food wasteby examining the conversion of food waste into other high value products, such as – animal feed, preserved or processed foods, refined additives and nutraceuticals, cosmetics, energy – biocoal and biodiesel, and fertiliser and compost
  • Engage ina campaign to highlight the problem of and solutions to food waste with consumers and train the next generation of professionals to take the food waste economy forward.


So the future of food waste looks promising – or perhaps not that promising for the actual food waste – and through such initiatives we should see the United Nations sustainability goal, which aims to cut food waste in half by 2030, achieved and possibly even surpassed.

Science communication – the Renaissance touch

In a post-truth world how do we bring scientific discussions to a public audience?

It’s an important question, particularly with the worrying trends of dismissing inconvenient science fact as ‘fake news’ or to being fed self-reinforcing extreme views through current social media news feed algorithms. Science communication itself also requires a recognition of the issues it faces and needs to revamp its methods to be appropriate to the times.

Today more than ever we are relying on technological developments to help us understand and address the challenges facing our planet and environment. It is critical to fuelling smart new ideas that ensure our society’s vibrancy. And it is critical that we can actively communicate the wonder and potential benefits of these developments and the benefits of the earth’s rich resources to its people. We need to be able to offer opportunities that are inspired by and that inspire the understanding of science. We need to make science personally relevant on every level.

So how can science messages be more effectively communicated in a world where competition for the attention of the public is at an all-time high, and where in any head to head competition to grab attention science issues are likely to lose out compared to political instabilities, economic downturn and celebrity prurience?

As I’ve previously written art can be an important tool in science communication. The combination of left and right-side brain stimulation was clearly at the basis of the Renaissance and can lead to a powerful non-verbal and deeply resonating mode of messaging.

As a scientist myself, I know that collaboration between art and science can generate debate, understanding, new knowledge and ideas that synergise both fields. It can open up new ways of interpreting the world around us through inspiration, exploration, creativity and collaboration.

But I’m now going to move onto music, or more specifically music festivals, as an instrument of science communication.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on environmental and health issues associated with meat consumption at the WOMADelaide festival as part of the Planet Talks series.

The musical line-up for WOMADelaide this year was as impressive as always, featuring over 75 acts and music aficionados such as Sona Jobarteh, Dona Onete, Fat Freddy’s Drop, BCUC (AKA Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), Angélique Kidjo, John Butler Trio, Christine & The Queens, to name a few.

So what is the opportunity here for science messaging at this type of event – well as it turns out – quite a bit, especially when there’s an audience of over 95,000 over a four-day long weekend.

on a panel discussion at WOMADelaide 2019, ‘Less Meat Less Heat: is the elephant in the room a cow?’

A number of key topics were presented and debated as part of the Planet Talks series including: The Magic of Mushrooms, A Mycelial path to saving the planet; The Fight for the Bight Against Big Oil; Adani, Cold Wars and the National Interest.

For almost all the talks it was standing room only with hundreds choosing to engage and participate in panel discussions.

So why is this forum successful?

Well first people have time on their hands. WOMADelaide participants tend to go for the whole weekend and so attending an interesting discussion during the middle of the day before the big evening acts come on is time well spent.

People are also relaxed having already got into the groove of the weekend and are therefore more likely to be open to new concepts and discussion points.

The topics were also well pitched to the audience with many focussing on environmental issues but there were several of a purely ‘did you know’ science type discussions.

For our panel discussion ‘Less Meat, Less Heat: is the elephant in the room a cow?’ the audience was well informed and responsive and respectful of the different views expressed from going vegan to consuming meat from animals raised in a sustainable way. The tautology of issues between feeding the world to consuming less meat as part of a healthy western diet were well versed.

A forum like Planet Talks gives an opportunity for face-to-face discussion of important topics facing society with experts and industry during and after the talks. They also provide an opportunity to  ask questions and engage with fellow audiences members on a topics that effects everyone.

So bring on science/art/music comms methods – science effects every part of our lives, including our culture, so why shouldn’t it be talked about in all forums.

Read the Adelaidenow review of the Planet Talks 2019 

Does Israel deserve the title ‘Startup Nation’?

Simple answer – Yes

But what makes Israel so successful as a startup hub, and can that be emulated or surpassed elsewhere in the world?

I recently arrived back from a trip to Israel, and to say it is an interesting place is an understatement. I had heard a lot in the news about Israel, most of it negative, but I’d been invited to join an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce trip there with Minister Pisoni and thought it would be a good opportunity to see for myself what it was like.

Israel has a technologically advanced free market economy and a developed innovation ecosystem.

But its not the best starting point

On the face of it, Israel is not blessed with much in the way of natural resources. There’s hardly any fresh water, some minerals and gas, and most of its exports could be produced anywhere, diamonds cut from Africa, and the rest are pharmaceutical and technology equipment.

Rainfall map of Israel

But in spite of a lack of freshwater, Israel has a burgeoning ag sector – Jaffa oranges, mini tomatoes, bell peppers and pomegranates, which are all exported to the world. In Israel, the desert, through irrigation, blooms. But where does that water come from? 50-60% of fresh water is from desalination, and of the wastewater, 85% is recycled as grey water for agriculture. Other signs of deep-rooted innovation abound – almost all homes have solar hot water for example.

Innovation ecosystem

Israel’s innovation ecosystem is widely recognised to have started 20 years ago in the telecoms, then software sectors. Now the top areas are cybersecurity, AI, automotive and agtech.

Today 450 multinationals have set up in Israel, including Apple which has established a 1000+ person R&D centre.

Israel is a powerhouse of technology. >50% of the top chips in the world are developed in Israel, and the country is well known as the home of app development, the flash drive and medical tech.

Visiting startup crowdsourcing company – OurCrowd

Startup nation

But perhaps the biggest innovation is in the startup sector. There are currently 6-7000 startups registered in Israel, that’s almost 1 per thousand head of population, in a country of 8 million.

The joke is that in Hollywood, taxi drivers are budding actors, in Israel, they own a startup.

The Ag sector is also well supported in this innovation ecosystem, with a strong tradition in developing irrigation technology, which is now rapidly adopting sensor and prediction technologies, AI and machine learning, and looking at off-grid solutions.


Startups are strongly supported with approximately $5B of funding available per year for the right idea/startup. That’s approx $0.5B from government funds, $1.5B from Israeli private equity and $3B from international equity.

If you establish a startup and are taken on by one of the countries 12 sector incubators – only about 1% do though – you can expect to get access to $1-2M in your first couple of years and all the business, marketing and legal mentoring and support you will need to make it. Sure this will cost you equity in your company but if it isn’t successful you won’t owe anyone a cent and if it is successful you pay back the money as if it were a low-interest loan out of your profits.

Now that’s a supportive, low risk, startup environment!

innovation ecosystem
Positive start-up environment (left) – easily available and low-risk investment cash, combined with talent and ideas gives economic growth. Negative start-up environment (right) – low investment funds, jobs and ideas not realised and poor economic growth

Guns and olives

But there are also some other things which make Israel fairly unique.

Jerusalem MEE_0
Israeli Defence Force on Temple Mount

All young adults, men and women, do military service and most spend 2 and 5 years in their chosen service sector. They are given alot of responsibility in these roles and it helps develop them as leaders. By the time they leave the army they are disciplined and mature and have good organisational and team skills – almost ideal for entering the business world.

The religious and community context of Israel also can’t be underestimated. During my trip, Jews who had settled in Israel from elsewhere in the world talked of ‘coming home’ and it is clear the foundation that is felt from building on 3500 years of history.

Top 5 contributors to startup nation

So here are my top 5 reasons why Israel is the startup nation.

  1. Cultural – Natural desire to get on, self-belief, willingness to try (and fail), celebrate success
  2. Military service – Instilling a sense of responsibility and leadership
  3. Economic – An innovation ecosystem with co-located multinationals, commercial incubators and easy to access startup cash
  4. Education – Good education system and flow of ideas
  5. Supportive government – low tax for companies and incentives for startups

The typical route into a startup is for someone who has completed their military service and then a degree in their chosen area of specialisation to work in a multinational. Then armed with their domain expertise, leadership and business experience they have a go at starting a new company by late twenties or early thirties, an ideal age to take the risk.

In fact in Israeli society, particularly Tel Aviv, its almost the norm and certainly the expectation that a young person will be involved in a startup.

Australia just needs to invest more in early-stage, low-risk funding for startups to really get the startup economy going.

But has Israel hit peak innovation, and what can we do in Australia?

Whilst I was impressed in Israel, I also noticed a few issues.

There was an apparent mad rush to commercialise almost all ideas and in the time we were there saw at least 3 technologies for monitoring plant water stress. One was clearly superior to the other two, and I guess that’s the point of a startup culture to get a number of promising ideas to market readiness – not all of which will succeed.

I was left feeling that Israel had hit peak innovation and that many of the low hanging fruit had been commercialised and that the ones remaining would be a harder call

Also, I noticed that the flow of ideas out of universities was surprisingly low, with only 5% of startups coming out of universities, most driven by individuals with a keen sense of a business idea.

So where does this leave Australia? I think the ‘have a go’ attitude and natural business acumen of the Aussies at least counters the cultural and military training aspects of the Israeli ecosystem. Also, the excellent universities and relatively similar taxation structure and business support are bonuses. Australia just needs to invest more in early-stage, low-risk funding for startups to really get the startup economy going.

In South Australia, there is a significant opportunity to build an innovation ecosystem around the expanding agricultural and agtech sectors, developing wine, horticulture, livestock and cropping.

The three main challenges as I see it are:

  1. entice multinational companies to co-locate with the world leading R&D expertise that exists in the state – and is exactly what Lockheed Martin has done to build on the State’s world leading AI R&D expertise;
  2. liberate the ideas from the university sectors where cutting-edge research is being undertaken. Students should be incentivised to take ideas and products to markets supported by the university and government sector;
  3. Build a complete startup ecosystem around agtech from early stage low-risk funding, through mentoring and incubators, to access to serious international investment.

Is Australia up to the challenge?  I think so. There can’t just be one startup nation!

Putting fear into food – needles in strawberries

The recent discovery of needles in fresh strawberries highlights how vulnerable our food supply chains are to deliberate contamination and tampering. This latest attack could be viewed as a form of food terrorism, which can have major economic impacts. However we can and should continue to buy strawberries and consume them safely – here’s how.  

Strawberries contaminated with needles have now been discovered in all Australian States. Let us be clear that this is a deliberate malicious act, not a problem with machinery or processing. One of the perplexing issues with the case is that it isn’t targeting a particular supplier or seller of strawberries, but rather it seems to be targeting Australian strawberries as a whole. The other perplexing issue is that it is not clear who is responsible for these incidents, as they would also have had to act quickly and on a national scale – a syndicate of disgruntled raspberry growers or organised overseas strawberry gang perhaps.

Australia produces 800,000 punnets a day and with only seven needles found, you’ve got a better chance of winning the lotto than being affected.

If the tactic of the attacks is to undermine the Australian strawberry industry, then it’s already starting to work. Some of the major Australian strawberry suppliers are now having to dump fruit as big stores are finding it harder to sell fruit or selling it at much-reduced prices. And overseas New Zealand announced yesterday that they would stop selling Australian strawberries until the needle contamination issues had been resolved.

So let’s look at this issue of fear in food in a bit more detail

Food terrorism – the dynamics of fear

Targeting food supply chains by poisoning them or contaminating them can be a form of terrorism. Where terrorism is defined, in its broadest sense, as the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence or intimidation as a means to create terror among masses of people; or fear to achieve a financial, political, religious or ideological aim.

The strawberry-needle case can be viewed as intimidation (threat of harm if you do something – eat strawberries) most likely for a financial outcome.

But its not clear who is undertaking the acts (terrorists usually identify themselves and use the acts to promote their organisation) and what their goal is (again terrorist acts usually aim to support a declared cause or outcome).

Concerns about threats to the safety and security of food supplies are particularly prevalent in America. After the September 11 attacks the U.S. government allocated $4.3 billion to protect “America from a possible bioterrorist attack or other catastrophic public health emergency”, and resulted in several investigations of food security or bioterrorism in food supply chains, from farming to manufacturing.

Certainly some terrorist organisations use or consider using food terrorism. In early September, ISIS called for its supporters to target “unbelievers” (i.e., the West) by injecting poisons (such as cyanide) into fruits and vegetables or containers of ice cream found in supermarkets and grocery stores.

However the latest strawberry needle incident is unlikely to be an ISIS orchestrated attack, but rather a financially motivated attack.

The cost of fear 

Previous food contamination cases have had a big impact on the targeted industry.

The current impact to the strawberry industry is likely to be felt for some time, and at least till the end of the calendar year.

Perhaps two of the most well-known food tampering scandals in Australia involved Top Taste and Sizzler.

Brisbane-based food company Top Taste shut down operations after foreign objects, including a sewing needle and a razor blade, were found in cakes in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. More than 4 million cakes were destroyed in a nationwide recall.

The restaurant chain Sizzler closed all self-serve salad bars in Australia after rat pellets were found at two eateries in Brisbane. Sizzler outlets in Toowong and the Myer Centre were contaminated with green pellets and a woman was charged over the incident.

In the case of Sizzler, they barely survived the attacks, they’ve nearly collapsed with only a few stores now – they cease to be the iconic brand they used to be.

We are yet to realise the full economic extent of the strawberry-needle attacks.

Mitigating fear 

But despite the fear, lets keep this all in perspective.

Only one person has been injured from biting into a strawberry containing a needle. As Strawberries Australia Inc Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels says, Australia produces 800,000 punnets a day and with only seven needles found, you’ve got a better chance of winning the lotto than being affected.

But none of us would choose to bite into a needle contaminated strawberry so what can be done:

  • You can still buy and consume strawberries but chop them or slice them before consumption;
  • With strawberry growing season upon us, buy from local suppliers or pick your own.

But if needle contamination continues or spreads to other sectors we may need to consider the introduction of standardised testing for metal fragment contamination in food supply chains.

A bread company targeted by a disgruntled employee, who introduced needles into batches of bread dough, used metal detectors to remove contaminated loaves from supply chains. This action also kept knowledge of the attack out of the media and avoided associated economic impacts.

The best way to reduce the risk of food terrorism, and its consequences, is to develop and implement a food biosecurity/defense management plan.

In Australia, food producers undertake a range of safe handling practices designed to reduce contamination, and are the best systems to build on to detect and mitigate deliberate contamination. It is now probably time to consider introducing further testing for a range of deliberate contamination.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has ordered Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZA) to immediately investigate the contamination. He has also tasked the federal agency to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses and systemic changes required.

The problem with honey fraud

According to recent media coverage, Australian honey and honey producers are under threat from fraud.

Certainly, there is significant evidence of honey being mixed with cheap sugar syrups (derived from a range of crops including corn and sugar cane) that allows the mixed product to be sold much cheaper and thereby undercutting pure honey producers. Also for consumers, in these fraud cases, they are not getting the product they are paying for.

…the honey fraudsters are now becoming more cunning and they are now mixing honey with other syrups that can’t be detected by the C4 test…

Fraud has been a significant problem for honey being imported into Australia for some time.  But there is a test available to detect if honey has been adulterated with sugar syrups, known as the C4 test. The test is so named as it can detect the difference in products that come from plants with a normal photosynthesis metabolism, known as C3 plants, from those with an alternate photosynthesis metabolism, known as C4 plants. This C4 metabolism is common in topical grasses, which include corn and cane, and so can be used to identify if honey has been mixed with sugars that come from cane and corn.

image taken from the Australian Science Media Centre website

This test is not new. However the honey fraudsters are now becoming more cunning and they are now mixing honey with other syrups that can’t be detected by the C4 test, such as syrups from rice, wheat and beats.

The latest honey fraud issues have involved a new test, based on the recognition of plant sugars using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, done by a company in Germany, which can purportedly detect a wide range of syrup adulterants.

Several Australian suppliers of honey (including Capilano Allowrie-branded Mixed Blossom Honey, Aldi’s home brand and IGA’s black and gold brand), have been implicated in the mixing of honey containing syrup adulterants by this test.

The honey bee industry says that as we cannot be certain about the outcome of the test because of a lack of information about the types of sugars in most honey types, but the company doing the tests maintains that the database is quite extensive. It is also likely that other tests will be developed to help combat this type of fraud, for example, pollen analysis of honey.

Nevertheless, for those who want to buy pure, unadulterated honey, their best bet may be to buy honey that is 100% Australian – this way they will also support Australian beekeepers.


Featured in a comment to the Australian Science  Media Centre by

Professor Andy Lowe – Director of Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide and Chief Scientist for DoubleHelix tracking Technologies in Singapore. 


Dr Katja Hogendoorn – native bee expert and a Research Associate within the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide.

Learning the dark arts of media communication

I’ve just been in Sydney doing a stint as Scientist in Residence for the Australian Financial Review, and I’ve picked up quite a few useful tips for getting research and academic messaging more effectively to a general audience.

Initially, I was surprised at how noisy and distracting the typical media workplace is. Lots of people chatting and exchanging ideas, surfing the web or watching the constantly-on TVs, and reading other newspapers and magazines. But then it dawned on me that this workplace is a satellite dish designed to capture current ideas and memes as they fly around the planet. It’s important that this context is captured and understood, as this is how news items are then pitched to tap into and leverage current zeitgeists.

andy_Web_2 credit Ryan Stuart:Fairfax Media
Prof Andy Lowe, Scientist in Residence with the Australian Finacial Review, image credit Ryan Stuart/Fairfax Media

But this is quite an alien environment for an academic. Typically academic ideas will be developed in isolation by reading other academic papers (in detail and a few 10s not skimming 100s of collated sources). Academic ideas and results may be discussed over coffee with colleagues, and if sufficiently novel, will be more formally presented at meetings and conferences where questions will follow, hopefully with more informal follow-up and collaboration discussion in the bar afterwards.

In the media workplace, the ideas are only presented after they have been through a collegial vetting and focusing process. The two modes of operation and communication are very different, but the two can work together. The media relies on good content and academics spend their lives developing sound and robust ideas and analyses, that can serve as this content. It should be a shoe-in to combine the two, but in my experience its not straightforward.

One model is for academics to become better versed in the dark arts of media communication. This path helps get academic and scientific ideas into the public domain (and helps combat the epidemic of fake news), can help draw attention to particularly research outputs (and promote circulation and citation of results), and can be tremendously personally rewarding and satisfying for those that venture down this route.

Here are some key tips I’ve picked up whilst being here at the Financial Review, and from a previous stint at The Advertiser, as Scientist in Residence.

1. Understand the context of your story
It’s as important to pitch your story within a currently trending topic as is the story itself. If it’s pitched to leverage a current trending topic it’s more likely to be read.

2. Present a balanced viewpoint
Your side of the story may be one side but there are likely to be others that need to be heard. Mention these sides even if they are then downplayed.

3. Validate your position with external interviews
This was a bit odd being an expert myself, but of course, I can’t cover all areas of expertise. For the story I’m writing today I’m interviewing a chef, an entrepreneur and the head of industry sector organisation.

4. Know the news cycle
Understanding the best time to release a media release so that journos have time to work up a story and get it into their publication is critical for impact. Typically publications will have a number of meetings during the day to discuss and agree on content, usually morning, early and late afternoon. If you release your media release mid afternoon it’s not going to go anywhere. Send out media releases in the morning or send out a day or so before with a release date to give journos time to frame the story.

5. Going exclusive
Consider whether it is better to do an exclusive with a large publication instead of just releasing a press release. Some of the best distribution we’ve had was from this route, particularly with large international organisations like Reuters.

ALowe w tiser crew
Prof Andy Lowe in The Advertiser newsroom during his stint as Scientist in Residence, October 2017. L-R Luke Griffiths, Valerina Changarathil, Richard Evans, Andy Lowe, Cameron England

6. Make friends with journos
They are people too. They are also interested in interesting content. I was surprised how welcoming both the News Corp and Fairfax Media groups have been to my terms as Scientist in Residence. Find the right person to support your piece.

7. Learn how to write
Short sentences are a must. No acronyms. Explain concepts and terminology in simple language. Use stories, anecdotes and cultural references to anchor points.

8. Write often
Get used to pitching your academic ideas to a general audience. Writing a blog or short piece on recently published papers can be a start. This will also give you a body of written work to draw on if you need to produce something quickly down the track and is a good practice to get into to improve your writing.

9. Find opportunities to work with the media
Working with communications and media people to create articles and get feedback will help you write for a general audience.

Many thanks to the team from the Australian Financial Review and The Advertiser for sharing their time, and to Susannah Eliott from the Australian Science Media Centre and Ramona Dalton for helping set up these experiences.

The Scientists in Residence program is run by the Australian Science Media Centre ( for more info)

The next big things for food

WITH food production and processing going through its biggest change since the industrial revolution, what can we expect our food to look like in the future? Some of these advances will be to the product we eat, some will be to the packing the product comes in and some will not be so obvious, but will be major changes to the way food is produced.

Here are some future casting predictions to watch out for:

New protein sources

Protein is the new black. We are likely to see an increasing diversity of animal protein snacks (not just jerky). Other protein sources are likely to come online: Insect protein; Protein rich plant products (e.g. quinoa); and, Protein grown from animal cell lab cultures, or in vitro meat (several new companies have been established in California); all of which are also potentially healthier and more environmentally friendly than traditional animal protein

Driving forces – growing global middle class demanding a higher protein diet.

Technological advances – laboratory tissue engineering techniques

Mind your microbiome

We will see more supplements, not just yoghurts, that aim to fine tune our resident bacteria, otherwise known as the microbiome. Potential health improvements include weight loss, mental health improvement and allergy reduction.

Driving forces – recent advances in understanding that our gut microbes are intrinsically liked to our health

Technological advances – capacity to analyse and manipulate our gut microbiome.


Functional food

We have seen new food crops such as chia and quinoa come into our diets. The diversity of foods is also likely to increase in the future, and new overseas and Australian native foods, some of which are naturally very high in vitamins and antioxidants (e.g. Kakadu plum). We are also likely to see new ‘healthier’ varieties of existing foods bred for specific health functions. For example new lutein-rich wheat strains that can help prevent blindness.

Driving forces – improved dietary and health understanding

Technological advances – ability to edit plant gene to improve crops


Printed food

We have only just scratched the surface of food printing. The Cube in McLaren Vale sports the first restaurant-grade food printer in SA, but we are likely to see this technology used more and more for a range of large-scale food preparation activities, including ready meals, airline meals, baby food and food for the elderly.

Driving forces – consumer demand for innovation and convenience.

Technological advances – 3D printing technology using a range of edible materials

The 3D printer at D’arenberg’s The Cube restaurant. Picture: Supplied


Food identity

Food is big business – to prevent food fraud and secure future food supply it will be increasingly important to know the origin of food.

Driving force – consumers are increasingly wanting to reduce their carbon footprint and eat ethically. Eating locally and sustainable is a growing trend.

Technological advances – digital blockchain, to track products along supply chains. DNA, chemical and biomarkers, which can be analysed to determine the species of animal or plant in a product (e.g. tuna not dolphin), the origin (Australia not China) and also food safety status (e.g. good to eat for another 10 days).


Biodegradable packaging

Packaging is essential for food safety and transport through the supply chain. However, we are likely to see a range of plastic-replacement packaging made from materials such as starch or carbon which can protect food but are easily biodegraded or recycled.

Driving force – plastics are the new hate symbol of the 21st century. A move away from plastic packaging is inevitable and urgently needed,

Technological advances – biochemical and chemical engineering.


Reduced food waste

Australia currently wastes about 40% of the food it produces. Whilst in-date food waste goes to food charities like Food Bank and Ozharvest there are other options. Food waste can be transformed into a range of useful products, not just landfill, including nutraceuticals, cosmetics and biofuel.

Driving force – public demand to reduce unethical and costly food waste

Technological advances – emerging fields of food science and biotechnology



Agriculture is changing – we are likely to see huge changes in the way farmers grow and harvest food. The intensification of food production will accelerate, including vertical farming with improved water and energy efficiency. Farming systems will increasingly use robots and drones to tend crops, remove weeds, treat plant diseases and harvest more efficiently.

Driving force – increasingly unpredictable weather due to climate change is driving the need for better ways to predict harvesting and maintain yield and profitability.

Technological advances – include big data analytics, robotics, drones, visual analysis, remote sensing and smart machinery with artificial intelligence.


Killer robots

To exterminate feral foxes and rabbits on farms – (just kidding…)

This article is part of the Scientist in Residence series published in the Advertiser

Reversing the great global bee ​decline

Bees mean honey right?

Well yes and no.

Yes, we have exploited and managed bees for their delicious byproduct for millennia. Besides a great tasting and relatively healthy sweetener, honey has been used for other purposes. The ancient Egyptians used honey for its antibiotic and wound healing properties. Indeed interest in the antibiotic qualities of honey has recently spiked with the availability of Manuka honey and its fabled extra special antibiotic action.

Hieroglyph of ancient Egyptian beekeeping

But no, honey isn’t the only benefit from bees. The other key benefit is – pollination.

Most plants require the movement of pollen between flowers and individuals to set their seed, this task is performed by bees and other pollinators (insects, birds and even bats and mammals).

Because bees pollinate some of our major crops – berries, apples, pears, avocados, melons – bees contribute massively to our production economies. The value of these ‘pollination services’ in Australia is valued at more than $6.5 billion pa, and is fundamental to the harvest of many fruit, nut, seed and oil crops.

With the global price of honey coming down, not least due to the flooding of international markets with cheap ‘honey’ adulterated with corn or rice syrup extracts, profits made by selling pollination services can match or even outstrip profits made from honey. This is particularly the case for highly pollination-dependent, high-value crops such as almonds.

Interestingly, in some countries, it is even profitable to have labourers hand pollinate crops. Gruen, The Pitch (Series 10, Episode 6) ran a skit on this issue to highlight that if all the bees died out people would have to take on jobs pollinating plants, but this practice has existed for centuries.

Hand pollination of apple flowers in China (image Huffington Post)

But hived bees, mainly the European honey bee, only provide a relatively small fraction of the overall pollination services for crops, and across the world’s natural ecosystems.

Most crop pollination is provided by wild pollinators, which include feral honeybees (European honeybees that now live in wild colonies as compared to managed hives), native bees, flies, beetles and other insects, which are also the major pollinators in natural systems.

But globally there has been a decline in bee abundance and diversity, and the incidence of colony collapse disorder – basically the death of a hive and its bees – is on the rise. Several significant factors are interacting to place stress on bees and hives, including the clearance of native habitat, pesticides, parasites and diseases, climate change and even the declining mental health of bees.

Heres a pretty neat video that explains some of the key issues.

Certainly, the declining plight of bees has been previously highlighted (the Great British Bee Count), and there have been some pretty dire warnings, such as the collapse of society within 4 years, if bees died out. That might be a bit extreme, but we would certainly have difficulty finding a good cup of coffee – which is pretty serious.

There are several lines we can investigate to find solutions for these problems, but perhaps one of the best is to look at options to help keep bees healthy through diet.

Recently David Attenborough (#savethebees) has suggested a more proactive approach. If we find tired bees we can let them sip a sugar solution to give them some energy and help revive them. But rather than the simple sugar found on our tables (sucrose), bees also like to mix it up with fructose and glucose, and they also need protein to grow. We could look into providing them with life-reviving ‘bee smoothies’, where we could mix table sugar into fruit juice – to get the right mix of sugars – and then throw in some whey protein for good measure and a balanced diet.

However perhaps a more long-term solution, and one which also gives us some benefit, is to plant a range of flowering plants around our gardens so that pollen (protein) and nectar (sugars) are available to bees at different times of the year, and through the seasons (although bees tend not to be active in winter).

This idea can also be extended to establishing pollinator supporting habitat around crops so that the numbers of bees is increased, particularly prior to crop flowering. Such plantings would also help support our native bees, of which there are an estimated 2500 in Australia.

This appears to be a good idea, at least in theory, as we know for example that the density and diversity of pollinators increases as you get closer to natural vegetation, crop yield can be enhanced through planting native plants, and the health of both native bees and honey bees increases as the diversity of native vegetation increases.

Pollination researchers, crop managers and restoration project officers can find common ground to avert a global meltdown in pollination capability. By including considerations of bee food in habitat plantings, the local abundance of pollinators can be increased and is expected to have an economic spin-off for growers and consumers of pollination-dependent crops.

We are underway with a large multi-partner project to examine these issues and establish, for the first time, large-scale trials to test the efficiency of pollination plantations on crop productivity and bee health and diversity – see video below.

Also, I’m attending the Australian Bee Congress ( this week in the Gold Coast when a group of us will talk about these issues, including:

Assessing honey bee colony densities at landscape scales

Dr Ben Oldroyd will deliver:

  • ‘How many bees do we need and how many do we have’ as part of the ‘Pollination – Helping beekeepers and growers maximise profits’ session. Thursday 28 June, Session 1, 9:30am.

Dr Tanya Latty will deliver:

  • ‘How many bees in the bush? Estimating social bee densities in crops’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 12.10pm.

Securing crop pollination through vegetation

Prof Andrew Lowe will deliver:

  • ‘Working with native habitat to improve pollinator services’ as part of the ‘How can we design agricultural landscapes to maximise pollinator efficacy?’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 5, 9am.
  • ‘Plant pollination networks – DNA barcoding applications’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 12:30pm.

Dr Katja Hogendoorn will deliver:

  • ‘Tailoring revegetation to enhance crop pollination: timing, rewards and crop rotations’ as part of the ‘How can we design agricultural landscapes to maximise pollinator efficacy?’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 5, 10am.
  • ‘Marketing revegetation for crop pollinators’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 11:50am.

The efficiency of crop-pollinating insects in Australia

Prof Saul Cunningham (ANU) will deliver:

  • ‘What part will crop pollination play in future agriculture?’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 10:50am.

Dr Romina Rader (UNE) will deliver:

  • ‘The identity and effectiveness of Australian crop pollinators – status and trends’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 11:30am.
  • ‘The pollination contribution of stingless bees to 5 Australian crops’ as part of the ‘Symposium on the pollination contribution of stingless bees – what are the key impediments to developing a successful industry?’ session. Saturday 30 June, Session 11, 1:30pm.

The Congress runs from 27 – 30 June 2018 at RACV Royal Pines Resort, Gold Coast. The full Program Outline can be found at

Thanks to Katja Hogendoorn for fact-checking this blog

Media follow up: The Land

The project described above and entitled ‘Securing Pollination for More Productive Agriculture: Guidelines for effective pollinator management and stakeholder adoption’ is supported by AgriFutures Australia through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program, as well as Horticulture Innovation Australia, Australian National University, University of Adelaide, University of New England, University of Sydney, Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board, Almond Board of Australia, Apple and Pear Growers Association (SA), Australian Mango Industry Association, Australian Melon Association, Costa, Department of Environment Water and Natural Resources SA, Greening Australia, Lucerne Australia, Native Vegetation Council, Natural Resources Northern and Yorke, O’Connor NRM, Primary Industries and Resources SA, Raspberries and Blackberries Australia, South Australian Apiarist Association, Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Network Eco-informatics and Trees For Life.

Saving threatened species from the danger of poachers

Illegal logging and wildlife poaching are driving species to extinction. But the scientists working to save these species may also inadvertently be releasing information that helps poachers find and destroy these species. Read on for helpful advice on how to avoid releasing a treasure map for poachers, rewritten from an interview with Robyn Williams for ABC’s Ockham’s razor

Illegal logging and wildlife poaching are environmental crimes, extracting a huge toll on our planet.  According to a recent analysis, these problems have been the number one cause of species extinction over the last 500 years. In that time, we have lost nearly 250 unique plants and animals.

The main problem is that this unsustainable trade is worth big bucks. For example, did you know that a third of the global timber trade, that’s $60 billion dollars worth, is estimated to be illegal. And the trafficking of animals is valued at 23 billion dollars a year. That’s almost as profitable as the smuggling of drugs, people and arms.


Listen to Prof Andy Lowe’s interview with Robyn Williams:  Stopping the Poachers on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor.




But in contrast to those other black-market-industries, few go to jail for these environmental crimes.

The international trade in wildlife is largely driven by collectors. They want to own these rare plants and creatures – birds, lizards, frogs and orchids.

These species are just trophies.

Chinese cave gecko, popular target for poachers. Image from ABC News website, supplied: ANU/Carola Jucknies

So how do poachers find these species?

Well, it’s as easy as just going online, this knowledge is easily available by visiting wildlife trade websites, pet and naturalist clubs, citizen science sites, social media, and even in the popular press.

Without realising it we are serving this information up to poachers on a platter, and this despite laws and regulations, that are meant to stop these activities.

Against this background, scientists working to protect biodiversity may also be inadvertently contributing to the issue.

The problem arises when information on where to find these threatened and highly tradable species is openly published, adding to online resources.

Scientists are then caught in a classic dilemma.

They are encouraged to publish data so that their discoveries can be shared and scrutinised – which often includes the exact location where species can be found – but by publishing this information they are providing a treasure map for poachers to find these species.

If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.

Take the recent example of the Chinese cave gecko.

It went extinct at the location where it was first discovered and described – potentially at the hands of scientifically literate poachers.

To prevent this problem, some have recommended that this information should be withheld by researchers.

However, this course of action will mean that this information is not available to researchers or governments to continue to help conserve and manage the world’s most threatened species. Indeed typically the problem for threatened species is there isn’t enough information on their populations and location for proper conservation management. For example, in New South Wales more than 150 species have missed out on conservation funding because of a lack of such information.

Clearly the location of highly collectable species clearly needs to be kept secure, but withholding these valuable data, risks the loss of vital knowledge in the quest to protect wildlife.

So how do we move forward?

Here’s how – a step by step guide for researchers studying rare and threatened species

1. Researchers need to know and understand the threatened and protected status of the species they study.  Highly collectable species include; highly, desirable or commercially valuable taxa such as brightly coloured birds, reptiles, amphibians, cage/aquarium-friendly species (lizards, salamanders, frogs), attractive/unusual plants (cycads, ferns, orchids), or invertebrates vulnerable to excessive collection. Other problems are ‘rare and easily disturbed species’ – those vulnerable to physical disturbance, disease, feral species being introduced by collectors, photographers. Information on the threatened status of animals and plants can be gained from the EPBC websites for Australia or the IUCN red list internationally.

2. Researchers working on highly collectable, rare and easily disturbed species should not publish the location data of study populations in printed literature, including scientific publications, published reports and media articles, or in social media or openly accessible websites.

However, recognising that researchers have a responsibility to publish information (including location) of their study species and populations, so that it can be used as the basis of future conservation and management, we recommend that this be done through secure information portals that can appropriately manage this treat.

Examples of these portals include DataONE, South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute, Australia’s Virtual Herbarium, Australia’s Department of Environment, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, and the Atlas for Living Australia. Most science journals also allow sensitive data to be appropriately managed and authors should contact the journal editor about publication. A wealth of advice is also available to researchers and data managers on how to manage threatened species information, such as the guidance provided by Science International, the Australian National Data Service, and leading journals such as Science and Nature.

Typically data are protected in one of three ways:

  • masking sensitive information by giving only approximate locations or non-specific species names
  • making data available only after approval by the legal owners
  • embargoing the data for a maximum of two years.

3. Many governments have implemented information publication guidelines to protect species data. These policies, some of which have been in place for more than a decade, have kept secure the locations of hundreds of highly collectable species, including for example Australia’s Wollemi pine.

Grove of Wollemi pine, the location of which has been kept secret for more than 25 years (Jaimie Plaza)

But governments also have a responsibility to find and take down location information of highly collectable, rare and easily disturbed species. This is an ongoing and difficult task.

For example, the location of the wollemii pine was discussed by bushwalkers and published online, only to be taken down shortly afterwards by state authorities. It is possible, but needs increased vigilance, action and prosecution. The simple steps above will help ensure that scientists aren’t contributing to this problem.

4. The online repositories that house and manage sensitive data should move to harmonise their procedures and work more closely with governments and conservation organisations to rapidly update rare, threatened and disturbed species lists.

These simple steps will help ensure that scientists aren’t contributing to poaching problems.

Fundamentally, however, we also need to tackle the core problem here – wildlife poaching.

We should perhaps be seeking to motivate poachers to help protect our most endangered wildlife, and establish a sustainable framework for our most glorious species – as has been done for the Wollemi pine.

Such tactics are thought by some to have contributed to the discovery of several endangered bird species populations, and potentially the recent rediscovery of the night parrot in Queensland, after we thought it had gone extinct over a century ago.

If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.

Andrew Lowe, Director of Food Innovation, University of Adelaide
Anita Smyth, Data manager, TERN, University of Adelaide
Ben Sparrow, Associate professor and Director – TERN AusPlots and Eco-informatics, University of Adelaide
Glenda Wardle, Professor in Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney
David Turner, TERN, University of Adelaide
Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

This article is rewritten from a piece originally published in The Conversation and acknowledges the co-signatories of a letter published in Science: Ken Atkins (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Ron Avery (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage), Lee Belbin (Atlas of Living Australia), Noleen Brown (Qld Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation), Amber E. Budden (DataONE, University of New Mexico), Paul Gioia (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Siddeswara Guru (TERN, University of Queensland), Mel Hardie (Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), Tim Hirsch (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), Donald Hobern (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), John La Salle (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Scott R. Loarie (California Academy of Sciences), Matt Miles (SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), Damian Milne (NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources), Miles Nicholls (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Maurizio Rossetto (National Herbarium of NSW), Jennifer Smits (ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate), Gregston Terrill (ACT Department of Environment and Energy), and David Turner (University of Adelaide).

The Federated States of Degradia​

With almost a third of arable land classified as degraded, what can we do to reverse the rapid pace of degradation and can we do it in a way that benefits us?


Does this species look familiar to you? This is Homo sapiens, this is us.


For most of our history we have been hunters and gatherers. Low in number, with rudimentary technology and very limited impact on our environment.


Forests were largely intact, water was clean and the air was pure. If we had the chance to go back in time and observe our planet from space it would be virtually impossible to even notice our presence on the globe.

However, things have recently taken a very di­fferent turn.


Countless breakthroughs in technology, medicine and agricultural practices have radically changed the influence that we, as a species, are having on our planet.

In only a few thousand years our population has exploded and so has our impact.


Today, when observing our planet from space, a very di­fferent picture appears. Enormous areas that used to be covered by uninterrupted forests are now occupied by farms, pastures or megacities.


Much of the earth is now overexploited and degraded by unsustainable management.

In fact, approximately a third of the world’s ecosystems are now, in some way, degraded.


To put this in perspective, if we were to combine the most degraded areas into one geopolitical boundary, it would form a country larger than Russia.


This country, which we could call “The Federated States of Degradia”, would be inhabited by 3 billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.


So what should we do about Degradia? Can we halt its ever-expanding borders?


Should we let it become almost uninhabitable for human beings? Why are we even thinking of terraforming Mars when our priorities should be here.


Planting trees is a tried and tested way of restoring degraded lands and the good news is that there are now ambitious restoration agreements in place.

The Bonn Challenge has set a global goal of 350 million ha to restore by 2030, and 107 million ha have been committed already.


But these goals, whilst impressive, will still only address a fraction of the world’s degraded areas and a lot more work remains to be done.


Let’s be honest, restoring the planet to the ‘Garden of Eden’ it was thousands of years ago, simply isn’t an option, the reality is billions of people are sharing this earth. We need pragmatic innovation to restore Degradia.


As individuals we can all help by participating in tree planting schemes and, ticking that box to offset carbon emissions from your international air travel!


However, if we focus on monoculture plantings for carbon benefits this misses opportunities to restore a broader spectrum of biodiversity and fails to harness a wider range of natures benefits, known as ecosystem services.


Science now allows us to engineer our landscapes through plantings that provide ecosystem services that purify air and water, rebuild soil fertility, pollinate crops, control soil erosion, sequester carbon and even improve human health.


Investing in evidence-based restoration approaches allows us to terraform degraded landscapes…here on this planet. Such investment has clear economic and social returns, above and beyond the initial outlay.


Imagine mitigating climate change, saving our threatened species and improving the health of communities all at the same time. Terraforming ecosystems is a smart way of realizing multiple benefits for people, businesses and the planet. We need to be bold enough to pull the inhabitants of Degradia out of environmental poverty.


So what next?

  • We can link you up with community projects or provide information for you to terraform your own backyard;
  • We can work with your business to design plantings that realize multiple benefits for urban developments and rural communities;
  • Or perhaps you wish to work with us to develop the cutting-edge science to underpin these programs.


But whatever you do, join us in helping to restore Degradia.

This blog is based on a recently published paper found here


Erin Simple Shapes Degradia Infographic 4
Visual abstract for paper