The year 2020 had been dubbed the super year for nature – critical global agreements on Sustainable Development Goals, biodiversity and the UN climate COP all hotly anticipated. But 2020 was instead famous only for COVID-19. But COVID, in its own terrible way, may change the way we view our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with risk and with our role as stewards of the future. From adversity, the green shoots of change are emerging in ways we could never have imagined at the turn of the decade.
The importance of small things
Locked up at home many of us have had time to notice more of the small pleasure nature brings; hearing the bird song without the hum of the cars outside on the road. I’m a biologist, the exciting small stuff for me, is the stuff we can’t see. The bacteria, fungi, micro fauna and flora that make the world habitable, that makes the soil fertile, which inhabit our gut, controlling all sorts of vital processes from the nitrogen cycle in agriculture to our elements of our own immune systems.
That mighty airlines, oil companies, nations were being brought to their knees by a microscopic virus is testament to the fact that none of us can escape our connection with all other living things. And we ignore mother nature at our peril. We are all reliant on millions of different species every day for our food, for our fresh air and water for mental and physical health in ways which we are only just starting to understand.
Indeed, as a 2020 Policy Exchange report (Outbreaks and Spillovers | Policy Exchange) explored, ‘Zoonotic pathogens (those that originate in animals) are a growing risk to human populations. There were three times as many outbreaks in the 1990s as in the 1940s, and cases continue to rise. The majority of new infectious diseases originate in animals, including well-known diseases such as SARS, avian flu, Ebola and HIV. Our destruction of natural habitats and populations is driving risk of future pandemics. Is this a risk that consumers, investors, governments will continue to tolerate in return for cheaper commodities?
The services that my own start-up provides – DNA based biomonitoring is just starting to uncover the ‘big data’ which the small things provide us when we can monitor species by the thousand rather than the tens painstakingly under a microscope. I hope that one change to emerge from this crisis will be a new respect for the ‘small things’. Now that we are able to uncover this new biological data layer for the world, there are plenty of reasons to crack on.
Risk and Resilience
When the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, Michael Gove made an impassioned speech on soils in 2017 stating that on the current trajectory our soils wouldn’t be able to produce food within 30 harvests, most people in the UK didn’t bat an eyelid. But I believe another change brought about by the pandemic will be our appetite for resilience over risk.
Now we can imagine how quickly life and circumstances can change. We’ve lived through upheaval to our lives we would never have thought possible. Businesses will have to adapt to a new world in which I believe more questions will be asked about the size and share of the risk and reward they create for society, for example in the management of our productive land, our seas and our climate.
For Climate Change at least, we have thankfully already secured our collective understanding of the goal and how to measure it – Net Zero – and this is being pursued by all but the most reckless of businesses and investors. I believe that this will not change and may in fact gather momentum after this crisis. However, for nature and biodiversity, the global community has been stuck without a yard stick. And with no way to measure the problem, it is hard to set meaningful targets and even harder to know whether you are achieving them. Leading businesses are now breaking cover, aiming for Net Positive Impact on Biodiversity, such as Anglo American across its global asset portfolio and Network Rail here in the UK. With the Convention on Biological Diversity now scheduled for later this year, national governments may come together to agree similar international targets.
This creates an exciting challenge for businesses like mine and others with 21st century big-data technology for nature monitoring. We must act quickly to turn our complex data into the simple aggregated metrics the world needs to start a rapid reversal of biodiversity decline.
If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of finding ways to uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the black swans. One exciting thing about monitoring nature with DNA is that you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to find. Most traditional ways of surveying biodiversity require an expert taxonomist to go into the field and to look for stuff that they know about, butterflies, or bats or amphibian experts were flown around the world, (until recently!) to conduct their part of Environmental Impact Assessments. With DNA based solutions, a small water filter or soil sample taken by any non-expert in the field can be used to trap the DNA of hundreds of species and our lab team can uncover them all.
We’ve identified over 100 more fish species than traditional monitoring in South America, we’ve detected 1000’s of bacteria species from deep sea sediment off the west coast of Africa and 100’s of mammals including night monkeys in South America.
In some cases, the risks we uncover are clear – 12 species on the IUCN threatened list in a head-to-head study versus traditional monitoring which found one – reducing the exposure of the business and investors to costly project changes down the line.
In other cases, we use the big data we generate to uncover patterns – is habitat restoration really working? How healthy is this ecosystem compared to a reference site? Is soil restoration being achieved? What is driving my crop productivity or disease from under the ground? The subtle changes going on in the small stuff that we can’t see might be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the ecosystem or population we care about. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of our understanding of what this data can tell us.
Building back better
In my own business, like many, we’re thinking hard about how not just to ‘weather the storm’ of COVID but to play our role in the global movement to ‘build back better’. Our innovation benefits from the fact that simple kits can be flown around the world and used by anyone to obtain high-quality objective data in a repeatable manner, rather than flying experts around to remote locations, only to have conventional sampling impacted by bad weather! In a recent head to head with traditional monitoring just three non-experts in the field for 20 days were able to collect samples containing more data than 600 person-days of conventional survey methods in the same area.
The pandemic will cast a long shadow over our collective future, but I remain hopeful that out of extreme adversity, we can grasp the opportunity to rebuild a healthier, more resilient world driven by a deeper respect for our place in the natural world.