Diverse Introspectives: A Conversation with Claire Kremen (2 Comments)



On September 6th, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Claire Kremen of UC Berkeley. I’ve been following Dr. Kremen’s work since becoming interested in agro-ecological systems and native pollinator ecology, areas where she has made innumerable contributions. I was thrilled that she was willing to chat with me for Diverse Introspectives.

The themes of our conversation mirror those of her career: as a biologist, Dr. Kremen began focused on conservation of the intrinsic value of biodiversity through cooperative preserve planning in Madagascar and has more recently shifted toward conservation of functional biodiversity within diversified agricultural systems. Here, she eloquently distinguishes the two approaches, while offering thoughtful advice to graduate students and sharing insights about the current and future direction of conservation biology.

We are very thankful to Dr. Kremen for sharing her thoughts and time with us.

What is a foundational paper that influenced you in your early career?

Well, I should preface by saying that in my graduate school days, I was not doing ecology or conservation biology, I was actually doing developmental biology so that was really different. I remember, it’s kind of embarrassing actually, but a New Yorker article that really had a big impact on me by Catherine Caufield and she wrote a book on it called In the Rainforest, it was a popular book about deforestation and destruction of tropical rainforests and biodiversity. It made me start to pursue conservation biology and get interested in it. So at the time, 1986-7 there were really not very many text books–the journal Conservation Biology wasn’t available or anything–but there were a couple of edited books by Michael Soule that I was looking at–I don’t remember a specific paper that stood out– it was the whole thing and I was just eating it all up. Scarcity and diversity was one of them. There was a book by Frankel which was called Conservation and Evolution. Now you would really look at this stuff you think “oh my god that’s so simplistic,”

What are the most important questions today?

I really do think that conservation biology continues to be in crisis mode, we have severe environmental crises going on, so we don’t really have the luxury to do stuff perfectly or the way we’d like to. The biggest challenges are in the social-ecological arena. We need to figure out how we are going to change peoples’ ways of working on the landscape, ways of living, and we need to do that very quickly to achieve sustainability. When I started my career in conservation biology I was working to establish protected areas in Madagascar. I still very much believe in the importance of protected areas. It’s vital that we have protected areas so that we can maintain some of the biodiversity that can’t manage in human dominated areas. However at the same time, the more that we impose on protected areas with what we are doing in human dominated landscapes, the less viable those protected areas are going to be. So we really have to work towards more sustainable modes of being.

What is the bridge between science, advocacy and action? There is a lot of work now, for instance what you’ve done, that demonstrates the benefits of diversified agricultural systems, do you think that can be translated to mainstream practice and if so, what will it take?

We need to better understand the process of transitions and how to facilitate them. I’m in a faculty working group right now that is focused on the social elements of transitions. People usually talk about two traditional mechanisms of change, which are government regulations and markets. Government is a top down approach for change in contrast to a market driven approach that is focused on demand, where consumers vote with their dollars to perhaps influence corporate practices. We know that neither of these approaches is perfect, or we wouldn’t have the world we have today.

But another thing that’s happening, which my colleague Olivier De Schutter who is leading this workshop, calls “social experiments,” “social innovations” or “socio-diversity” where we think about having many different–potentially even competing–mechanisms of alternatives to the dominant model. In this case we are talking about food, so the dominant model is industrialized agriculture but you can think of it in terms of any environmental problem or paradigm. For instance with climate change, where the dominant model is energy use based on fossil fuels, the challenges to that are developing solar power or wind power etc.

In food systems, the dominant model is monocultures with very intensive chemical usage of pesticides and fertilizers tailored to work with very specifically engineered, bred, or hybridized seeds. The whole package is kind of a corporate driven approach that is sold to farmers and then sold to consumers on the other end through agribusiness. Having these economies of scale means that the distribution system itself becomes sort of monopolistic, monocultures that are monopolistic–it’s all a package. These are the dominant business models, but they can be challenged through social innovations. Some of the innovations are happening where peasants around the world are uniting to take back the land through La Via Campesina, and for people in the US wanting to support small-scale farmers and not the large-scale approaches–ecological approaches to farming that are better adapted to small scales.

Then at the distribution end, there are efforts like setting up regional markets, urban areas that have food policy councils that try to connect consumers with the kind of food they want to be buying — because after all, consumers are at the mercy of what’s available. If they can’t produce it themselves and want to buy sustainably produced foods and want to not feel like someone else’s life was ruined to produce it because of labor practices, they don’t generally have that option. But food policy councils start to make connections between buyers and sellers and create new opportunities for people to vote with their dollar for what they want. So things like that are happening in the marketplace–plus farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and farm to school programs.

What we then need to do is link-in government to facilitate them, in a role to encourage challenging the dominant model, not to enforce it, and then we will have better success…but I almost feel that we need a revolution where people just need to go out and go on strike and say “no, we won’t take this anymore, we have to change things”!

It seems like there is a sudden increased interest in pollinators. Do you think that’s a result of science-making it to the media, or the media grabbing ahold of crisis stories like CCD and the mass bee killing in Oregon from Neonicotinoids?

I definitely think it’s CCD. Since 2006 there has been a big increase in the stories about honeybees, it’s also about the neonicotinoids but less-so, because in Europe they have a 2 year restriction on them and we’ve tried to push that here, but the EPA has been resistant to that. I think it’s a sign of the times, pollinators are a canary in the coal mine. It’s really good that the media is grabbing ahold of this.

There has also been a lot of science happening–I always like to say pollination services is the poster child for ecosystem services because we’ve been doing a lot of work on it and keep putting out publications. Additionally with the extinction crises of pollinators, more and more science is coming out about that, and about neonicotinoids– but I think that science is getting publicized because of CCD, if we didn’t have that going-on, this other science wouldn’t be getting picked-up to the same degree.

What are your hopes for the next generation of scientists? What should we be focused on?

I think the next generation of scientists is much more interdisciplinary than my generation of scientists. People are more aware of the need for these very interdisciplinary approaches and more aware of the complexity of problems. It’s so much more complex than it was when I was training. At that time, species-area effects were everything to us. They aren’t everything, there is so much more.

So what are my hopes? My hope is that you guys will figure out how to save the world. That will require a combination of skills…not all of which can be found or used in academia. I would suggest people consider other careers, people with science backgrounds are needed in NGOs, in sustainable industries and in governments.

So what other skills do you think we should cultivate, that we might not traditionally get in the course of graduate school?

That’s a good question.  Communication skills. I am not putting myself up as any kind of model, I never had any formal training in this but learning how to do outreach, how to get your message out there. Also organizational skills, those are critical in an academic or NGO environment. Another important one is knowing how to network and keep your eye on what’s going on in the world. Additionally, having an understanding of how policy is made and politics work.

I don’t think anyone can do all of these things, but people can identify what they are best at, and complement their science with these key skills that look toward society and how to work within society.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given to you when you were a graduate student?

Oh lots of different pieces of advice. I wish someone had said to take loads of statistics. I did sort of catch up on my own later but it would have been really helpful to learn much more early on. Also, be very consultative…get your work reviewed constantly. Get a lot of people to provide input. When we were working on the park plan in Madagascar, we got input from people in the country which was important, but I wish we had gotten those plans outside the country for review.

And take opportunities to do things that are not strictly within your academic interests. When I was doing developmental biology I had an opportunity to do work with The Nature Conservancy…but I thought it was too much, I didn’t think I could balance it with my PhD work. I sort of regret that I didn’t take that opportunity because it delayed my entry into conservation biology.

In your work–is the framework that you approach things with: “I’m interested in solving a problem, so what are the questions that we need to answer in order to solve that problem”? OR “I’m interested in conserving biodiversity, so how do I study biodiversity in a way that is compelling?”

I think I’ve taken both approaches at different times in my life depending on what I was doing. Certainly when I was working to set-up protected areas in Madagascar my main focus was to conserve biodiversity and the question was…what information do we need to know to make a good park design, one that is actually going to be useful for conserving biodiversity and also be politically feasible? And in order to be politically feasible it needs to not be too greedy, not take up too much of the land that people need to survive, and it needs to provide something for them–that helps to grease the wheels in terms of politics and social needs and get people behind it.  It has to be positive for local people which gets back to a basic conservation biology question–what is the most effective way of doing conservation when there are competing interests and needs?

But back to your question, in the case of protected areas, I was interested in conserving all biodiversity…genetic, taxonomic and functional. But more recently I’ve been more focused on sustainability.

With sustainability, there is less need to be a purist in protecting every native species in its native environment. We instead need to create a functional system that will be sustainable and resilient, it has to be based on biodiversity in order to sustain and regenerate of course.  But it can include mixtures of species and “novel ecosystems”. If we want ecosystem services, a healthy and resilient system, that is different from wanting all species. It’s a different goal from a focus on the intrinsic value of the diversity of life.

I think I’m now more in the problem solving mode. Solutions are more than ecological– they are social and political. You could come up with a great ecological solution for providing pollination services, but if it won’t work because of politics or economies of scale etc. it’s never going to fly. We have to get beyond our ecological science to consider how these things are actually going to happen. I don’t have the answers, but that’s why I work with people from social sciences and policy backgrounds to collaborate and bring our work together.

How would you respond to the suggestion that biodiversity is sort of a false religion, and that it’s not something that the public responds to?

As I was getting at before, biodiversity can be viewed in at least two ways. There is the conservation of all species, and there are ecosystem services. Biodiversity is unequivocally tied to ecosystem services but it is not a one-to-one relationship, therefore you don’t need all the species…there can be some that are more important than others or that provide the bulk of the services.

However, while I believe in intrinsic value of the importance of biodiversity, and hence protected areas, I agree with Peter Kareiva in that biodiversity is not a very compelling term to most people—we conservation biologists are in the minority. The problem is that people don’t respond to it…the general populace doesn’t get biodiversity or ecosystem services as terms. But when explained they do relate to the idea that services, and some species are useful to humans. Biodiversity, not so much, people start to pick and choose–”I don’t like those creepy crawlies” etc.

But you need intrinsic value (of biodiversity) arguments to support the continuation of protected areas– in and of themselves they may not support a lot of ecosystem services or if they do they are dilute. They might sequester carbon, but that could also be done with a monoculture of trees. If ecosystem services are broadened to include cultural services such as enjoyment of beauty and the diversity of life, then that framework is still compelling for conservation of protected areas.

Biodiversity in relation to ecosystem services is a different thing. It’s a subset of biodiversity that provides services, but it’s still biodiversity. For example in agriculture, monocultures are not diverse or very functional compared to diversified agricultural systems where there are plentiful species… the crops, weeds, insects, bacteria in the soil, everything living in the system–some are functional that humans derive something from, others are just associated, but it’s presumably a more resilient system and there are more services, but might not require ALL the species.

What’s your advice to people that want to be advocates and engage?

Its’ great to pursue those tracks, but don’t overstep the boundaries of the science, make messages that are scientifically accurate but are also meaningful. You can be scientifically responsible–I don’t want to use the word advocate because that implies a bias–but you can still put forward information that the public needs to know. I would maybe call it more of an outreach or extension capacity. I think [advocacy vs outreach] are different; it can be difficult to maintain scientific credibility if you are perceived, or if you actually are always, advocating for a position whether there it is scientifically supported or not. You have to be willing to admit when there is uncertainty, when we don’t know. But also paint the future scenarios: OK if it’s like this, which we don’t know but it’s highly likely, then this is the outcome. If it’s like this, then this is the outcome…here are the risks and rewards of both.

If you’d like to explore Dr. Kremen’s work, start with the following list of key papers that she shared:

Garibaldi, L. A., I. Steffan-Dewenter, R. Winfree, M. A. Aizen, R. Bommarco, S. A. Cunningham, C. Kremen, L. G. Carvalheiro, et al. 2013. Wild Pollinators Enhance Fruit Set of Crops Regardless of Honey Bee Abundance. Science 339:1608-1611.

Kennedy, C., E. Lonsdorf, M. Neel, N. Williams, T. Ricketts, R. Winfree, R. Bommarco, et al. and C. Kremen. 2013. A global quantitative synthesis of local and landscape effects on wild bee pollinators in agroecosystems. Ecology Letters. 16: 584–599.

Kremen, C., A. Iles, and C. Bacon. 2012. Diversified farming systems: an agroecological, systems-based alternative to modern industrial agriculture. Ecology and Society 17(4): 44.

Kremen, C., and A. Miles. 2012. Ecosystem services in biologically diversified versus conventional farming systems: benefits, externalities, and trade-offs. Ecology and Society 17(4): 40

Winfree, R., and C. Kremen. 2009. Are ecosystem services stabilized by differences among species? A test using crop pollination. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 276:229-237.

Kremen, C., A. Cameron, A. Moilanen, S. J. Phillips, C. D. Thomas, et al. 2008. Aligning conservation priorities across taxa in Madagascar with high-resolution planning tools. Science 320:222-225.

Kremen, C. 2005. Managing ecosystem services: what do we need to know about their ecology? Ecology Letters 8:468-479.

Kremen, C., N. M. Williams, and R. W. Thorp. 2002. Crop pollination from native bees at risk from agricultural intensification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99:16812-16816.

Kremen, C., J. O. Niles, M. G. Dalton, G. C. Daily, P. R. Ehrlich, J. P. Fay, D. Grewal, and R. P. Guillery. 2000. Economic incentives for rain forest conservation across scales. Science 288:1828-1832.

Kremen, C., V. Razafimahatratra, R. P. Guillery, J. Rakotomalala, A. Weiss, and J. S. Ratsisompatrarivo. 1999. Designing the Masoala National Park in Madagascar based on biological and socioeconomic data. Conservation Biology 13:1055-1068.

October 8, 2013