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Charcoal Chronicles: Navigating Environmental Sustainability and Societal Needs in sub-Saharan Africa  

Response Doctoral Programme


In the vast expanse of sub-Saharan Africa, trees sustain the timeless tradition of producing charcoal; the very charcoal used to grill food at barbecues. Charcoal is a vital energy source fueling households and industries. Having said that, this seemingly innocuous practice of burning wood in a kiln comes at a hefty price tag. Converting trees to charcoal disrupts the delicate balance of carbon in ecosystems, with consequences that reverberate far beyond the local landscape.

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Could Swiss agriculture produce Planetary Health Diet?

Grégoire Saboret1, Loïc Thurre2, Noémie Pidoux 3(2024). Food for Thought: Could Swiss agriculture provide healthy and sustainable food for its population? (PDF)

The Planetary Health Diet (PHD) is a reference diet for the entire population aimed at respecting the planetary boundaries for environmental resources while optimizing human’s population health (Willet et al. 2019).  Swiss consumption of certain types of food is far from the PHD. This suggests that dietary habits should shift protein sources towards plant-based options, preferably non-transformed such as beans, lentils or soy. This change can’t be triggered without considering a transformation of our agricultural systems. Currently, one-third of Switzerland’s land is dedicated to agriculture, covering about 1.5 million cultivated hectares, or roughly one hectare per five to six inhabitants. We posed a simple question: Could Swiss agriculture theoretically produce the PHD on this area?

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Providing genomic resources for important forage grasses

Response Doctoral Programme

Forage grasses are the primary source of roughage for ruminant livestock and substantially contribute to sustainable milk and meat production. Cultivars adapted to specific environments and management conditions are needed to produce the required amounts of high-quality roughage. Moreover, there is a need to efficiently breed for novel forage grass cultivars to mitigate challenges emerging through climate change and to facilitate sustainable and productive agriculture. 

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Food for Thought: Towards Circular Nutrient Economy in Agriculture

Agriculture is facing a major challenge of feeding the growing world population. Since the green revolution, the abundant use of fertilizers has been widely regarded as a fundamental tool to address this challenge. Switzerland’s agriculture, on average, has used excessive amounts of fertilizers at relatively low efficiency, indicating the need to improve the nutrient use efficiency of Swiss agricultural production.
In this article we present a thought experiment on how to close nitrogen- and nutrient-cycles in Swiss agriculture and thus foster a more sustainable fertilization.

Radek Zenkl, Andreas Berlepsch-Valendas, Frank Liebisch (2024). Food for Thought: Towards Circular Nutrient Economy in Agriculture. Download the report (PDF)

The report was written during seminar: „Sustainable Plant Systems“ (551-0209-00L) at ETH Zurich in 2023.

Exploring Positive Futures: Insights from an IPBES Youth Workshop on Biodiversity

Response Doctoral Programme

As part of his internship at the Swiss Forum Biodiversity, RESPONSE Fellow Simon Landauer was participating in the one-week Regional Youth Workshop on IPBES for Europe and Central Asia 2023 on the island of Vilm, Germany (Nov 6 to 10, 2023). The aim of the workshop was to understand possibilities for youth engagement in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and apply the novel Nature Futures Framework (NFF) to develop scenarios for positive futures. The workshop itself was organized and hosted by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and its International Academy for Nature Conservation Isle of Vilm (INA), with the support of the IPBES Technical Support Unit on Capacity-building.

Decoding the Acronyms

Let’s start by demystifying the acronyms. IPBES, often dubbed as the IPCC for biodiversity, is a global panel synthesizing scientific and traditional knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Complementing this, NFF serves as a tool for scenario development, offering three unique values perspectives: Nature for Nature, Nature for Society, and Nature as Culture.

Figure 1: Nature futures framework showing the three perspectives of nature which overlap and seamlessly blend together. The resulting human-nature relationships may be understood by different knowledge system and world view, which is partly depicted by the right spiral– which is not exhaustive (IPBES 2023).

Setting the scene

On this scenic island, which is itself a symbol for nature and biodiversity conservation, participants were comprised of early career researchers and students from various nations within the regional chapter Europe and Central Asia. This regional chapter, being a geographical sub-unit of the global IPBES, spans all the way from Portugal to Kazakhstan. Each participant was representing their country of residency or origin as well as their respectively affiliated (inter)national youth networks and academic institutions.  

Crafting Positive Scenarios

During the workshop on Vilm, individual groups developed scenarios for positive futures based on a mix of the above mentioned three value perspectives. The core principle when applying the NFF, is to envision futures without any rational constraints. In other words, conceptualize scenarios without any limits, to foster a more radical approach to transformative change. This was best done in an iterative moderated group discussion. Starting from seeds, innovative projects for positive future groups collected key elements and states for envisioned futures before identifying synergies between different future states. Again, feasibility was never assessed throughout the process to avoid limiting ideas. Eventually, a narrative was formed through an interview-like process where moderators encouraged group members to put forward descriptions of a daily routine in the developed future to understand organization of society and nature.

Figure 2: Three future wheels for initial seeds (center white hexagon) with synergies (threads) between matured seeds.

Creative Summaries

The workshop’s outcomes were as diverse as the participants themselves. Various scenarios were not just documented but creatively summarized. Focusing on the interface between Nature for Culture and Nature for Society, Simon’s group, for instance, created a fairy tale on the envisioned future in a graphic novel style using artificial intelligence. Such aimed to summarize the core values and components of the visions and highlight human-nature relationships in an engaging way.

Insights and Future Exploration

The workshop’s impact has not ended on Vilm. Ongoing efforts involve translating the insights gained into a scientific publication as well as creating a new youth network. Simon and his colleagues are actively contributing to the conversation on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the pivotal role of youth. By sharing lessons learned and making experiences accessible, the group aims to spread the motivational spark for positive futures and highlight the importance of collective discussion with people from different backgrounds to bring upon transformative change. 

Links and Further Reading

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (2023). The Nature Futures Framework, a flexible tool to support the development of scenarios and models of desirable futures for people, nature and Mother Earth, and its methodological guidance. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8171339

Kim, H., et al. (2023). Towards a better future for biodiversity and people: Modelling Nature Futures. Global Environmental Change, 82, 102681.

Pereira, L. M., et al. (2020). Developing multiscale and integrative nature–people scenarios using the Nature Futures Framework. People and Nature, 2(4), 1172–1195.

Simon Landauer is a fellow of the RESPONSE Doctoral Programme (DP) «RESPONSE – to society and policy needs through plant, food and energy sciences» funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 847585.

The photos are owned by Simon Landauer and Jutta Stadler (group picture).

Fachtag Buchweizen – Ein Rückblick

Response Doctoral Programme

Im Rahmen der Doktorarbeit von Fabian Hess (ETH Zürich) zum Thema «Erschliessung genetischer Ressourcen von Buchweizen zur Diversifizierung der Schweizer Landwirtschafts- und Ernährungssysteme», die u.a. von ProSpecieRara mitbetreut wird, fand im August 2023 ein erster “Fachtag Buchweizen” statt.

Am Fachtag hat sich eine äusserst vielfältige Gruppe zusammengefunden, um sich gemeinsam vertieft mit dem Buchweizen auseinanderzusetzen und über die Chancen und Herausforderungen entlang der Wertschöpfungskette zu diskutieren.

Dieser sehr erfolgreiche Fachtag ist Teil des aktuellen und zukünftigen Engagement von ProSpecieRara, die Buchweizenvielfalt für die Praxis nutzbar zu machen.

Der umfassende Online-Artikel zum Fachtag befindet sich hier.

Diese Veranstaltung wurde geleitet von Fabian Hess (Doktorand an der ETH Zürich). Fabian Hess ist Stipendiat im Doktorandenprogramm RESPONSE (DP) ” RESPONSE – to society and policy needs through plant, food and energy sciences”, das durch das Forschungs- und Innovationsprogramm Horizon 2020 der Europäischen Union finanziert wird. Dies geschieht im Rahmen des Marie-Skłodowska-Curie-Fördervertrags Nr. 847585.

Die Fotos wurden zur Verfügung gestellt von ProSpeciaRara und Michelle Nay (Agroscope).

RESPONSE Mentoring Workshop – Getting Your Message Across: How to Make Yourself and Your Research Visible  

In this workshop, participants will learn how to reach a wider audience with your topics and texts and how to prepare and convey your content in an understandable and attractive way in the digital age. They will work on a popular science blog post, learn about graphic tools to support the text in a multimedia and interactive way, learn about the pitfalls and strengths of social media and how to create and manage your own web presence for yourself and your research. Another focus is on visibility: How do I build and manage a community? How can I communicate the importance of my research for politics, economy and society – and actually reach them?

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