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Croton Project Featured in Wired Magazine

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Wired Magazine listed the Croton Water Filtration Plant in New York as one of “25 Masterpieces that Prove 2016 was an Incredible Year for Architecture.” The water filtration plant is built underground and includes a 9-acre green roof that features a golf course. The innovative design was created by Grimshaw, to whom Great Ecology acted as the ecological consultant. Great Ecology planned and designed constructed wetlands for the site. The wetlands, whose construction is set to begin this spring, will capture and store storm and waste water from the site, process and improve the quality of this water, and then recycle it for reuse onsite. Additionally, Great Ecology helped designed the bioswales in the plaza.

Croton Water Filtration Plant Under Construction

Croton Water Filtration Plant Under Construction

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Bees & the Endangered Species Act

By: Liz Clift

If you regularly read Great Ecology’s blog, it should come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for pollinators (currently with a focus on native bees, which I’m just beginning to learn about). It should also come as no surprise that I’m fond of citizen science, and opportunities for people (including children, educators, and others) to participate in science and field studies.

So, I’ll start with the good (and simultaneously bad) news: Seven species of the Hawaiian yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus sp.) were listed as endangered species on Friday, September 30th, 2016. They are the first bees to make the list, and this could have a ripple effect on other bees and insect pollinators, as protections for these bees are implemented.

This is good, because these bees will now have federal protections. It’s bad, because like with all other species that make the list, it means their numbers are critically low—and we are quite dependent on pollinators (no comment on pollinating robots).

If you’re like me, you’d like to make efforts to support bee pollinators. But, perhaps you don’t have a yard or even a patio to plant flowering plants on. Or perhaps you live in the middle of a city with very few flowering things that can act as “bee highways” to help get bees to your location. Or perhaps you have a bit of a black thumb.

There are still things you can do!

Bumble Bee Watch, “is a collaborative effort to track and conserve North America’s bumble bees.” To participate, you need to have access to a camera (luckily, most of us now carry one around in our pockets all the time), the internet, and some places bumble bees might like to buzz about.

Bumble Bee Watch encourages citizen-scientists to take photos of bumble bees and then upload them onto the Bumble Bee Watch website, where you are asked to try and identify your bumble bee and map where you saw it. An expert later verifies your identification. You have to sign up on the Bumble Bee Watch website to participate—or to browse their gallery—but in exchange, you get to help science by doing something you may already be doing (such as photographing bees or flowers; gardening; or generally being outside with your phone in places where you might see bumble bees).

Bombus affinis

Bombus affinis

Your participation helps build a map of bumble bee sightings, and the data can be used to help all of us better understand how bumble bee species shift over time, if their numbers are growing or declining, or if a certain species still exists in a particular area.

Bumble Bee Watch, and the citizen-scientists who participate in this project, helped develop some important records of the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). In late September 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it is proposing to list the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), due to large declines in 9/10ths of its historic range. This is due, in part, to work done by the Xerces Society. This week, the rusty-patched bumblebee was added to the endangered species list.

The ESA listing may provide major aid to the other 3,600 species of native bees that exist in North America, because of the work that will go into protecting the rusty patched bumble bee from threats of disease, pesticide, and habitat loss. In fact, pesticides and diseases (like Nosema bombi, a fungal parasite) carried by commercial bumble bees are thought to be primary culprits in the decline of the rusty patched bumble bee.

If you want to learn more about the rusty patched bumble bee, you can watch this short video (approximately 20 minutes).

Want other ways to help? The Xerces Society has published guidelines for creating and managing habitat that will attract bumble bees and other pollinators, and Great Ecology is able to help private and public sector clients incorporate pollinator gardens into their projects.

 

 

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What Happens After the Mountain Lion Crosses the Road

By Liz Clift

Wildlife corridors are designed to help limit the impacts of human infrastructure on animals. These impacts can look like increased fragmentation of habitat areas for animals, the development of dense urban areas, busy freeways or other roads, building dams, and other things. An estimated 1 to 2 million cars hit animals every year—and that number only includes reported instances of collisions, so it’s likely the number is even higher. This indicates that there are strong social (and economic) reasons to implement wildlife corridors: people generally only report hitting large animals or when the collision creates a disabled vehicle.

Wildlife corridors can take many forms, including underpasses, gaps in guard rails, bridges, and connected habitat corridors (i.e. – riparian areas for migratory animals) that are designed specifically to allow species to move (more) safely across roads and other barricades—which can include large swathes of developed areas.

Example Wildlife Corridor in Canada

I was reminded of the significant impact wildlife corridors can have on animal welfare recently, while reading about one of the Santa Monica mountain lions (P-39; Puma concolor), a young female lion, who was killed while crossing a highway in the Santa Monica mountains. Her young cubs were orphaned as a result, and according to the National Park Service, are not expected to live.

P-22, the mountain lion which has made Griffith Park (home of the Hollywood sign) his home managed to safely cross two freeways and through a densely populated urban area to reach the park which is only 8 square miles (he could use up to 200 square miles as his territory, if that was an option). But, in this isolated area, he is unlikely to find a mate and he is subject to exposure to rodenticide, as well as other pollutants.

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Mountain Lion P-22 (Photo Courtesy: NPS)

Wildlife corridors not only provide a way for animals to move from one place to another more safely—it can also be a way of creating enough territory that a species of animal can just survive. One example of this is the Terai Arc Landscape, which traverses 14 different protected areas in India and Nepal. The protected areas are comprised of grasslands, forests, and river valleys, and as such offer critical habitats to a number of species including Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), and Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris), all of which are considered vulnerable or endangered. Individually, the parks and preserves don’t offer enough acreage to support these species, but connected they provide plenty of habitat range.

Other examples of wildlife corridors include overpasses off Highway 9 in Colorado that allow elk to migrate; a bridge structure in Australia that allows crabs to scuttle up and over a road during their migratory season, turtle underpasses in Florida, and Norway’s bee highway. Design—and purpose—of these corridors matter, and the type of animal(s) and their preferences or needs around habitat must be considered when creating wildlife corridors.

Wildlife corridors are not currently a standard part of restoration projects in a traditional sense—but restoring or enhancing habitats, and strategically planning to preserve or build around specific flyways or migratory pathways can serve many of the same purposes. These things allow for the less habitat fragmentation and less obstructed movement of wildlife. Restoration efforts can also enhance critical habitat areas (i.e. – resting, breeding, or nesting spots) and decrease the influence of human development (i.e. road noise, river sedimentation due to increased runoff).

Restoration professionals, science educators, conservationists, departments of transportation and others can all help clients and the public better understand the benefits of wildlife corridors—not only for wildlife, but for people as well.

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Consider the Roly Poly

By Liz Clift

When was the last time you really thought about the roly poly (Armadillium vulgare)? You know the little detritivore that primarily consumes dead plant materials

As a kid, I collected roly polies and kept them in jars. I didn’t know that they were a type of crustacean . I liked that these isopods came in browns and greys and near-black. I liked that they curled up in my hand and I could gently roll them around on my palm. I liked that when I flipped them over on their backs, their little legs wiggled around. I grew up in the south—an environment with lots of moisture and decaying plant matter, their preferred habitat—and so I’d find them under logs and rocks and in piles of pine needles—but also crawling into the swimming pool and walking steadily along the side of the wall under water.

It wasn’t until I was doing restoration work, and installing a native plants garden, on a previous employer’s property, that I ever saw a roly poly that wasn’t an “earth tone.” The one I found was blue. This blue coloration was caused by something caused iridovirus, which is deadly to the roly poly (not to humans). The virus can also cause the isopods to appear purple.

Roly Poly with Iridovirus

Roly Poly with Iridovirus

Roly polies are also susceptible to environmental stressors, such as the addition of nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are commonly applied to field crops, and insecticides. The permethrin-based insecticides have proved especially fatal to roly polies, which is unfortunate since permethrin-based insecticides are pretty widespread and roly polies do not appear to have mechanisms for detecting and avoiding them.

As if all of this wasn’t enough of a struggle, roly polies are also impacted by a microbe called Wolbachia. This microbe alters the development of hormone-producing glands, which means that a genetically male roly poly (ZZ chromosomes) who is infected with Wolbachia grows up to be female. Eventually genetically female (ZW chromosomes) roly polies disappear from a population (and all the roly polies appear with ZZ chromosomes).

Scientists have been studying this phenomenon for forty years, and in the 1980s, some scientists showed that some populations that are not infected with Wolbachia still have only ZZ individuals. They had no way of proving their hypothesis: that the microbe had left a piece of its DNA behind and that was influencing the chromosomal make-up, but as of this year, science is close to proving they were right.

The long and the short of it is this: ZZ individuals who are female always have a trace of Wolbachia hanging out in their DNA; those who are male don’t. Ever. Wolbachia turns one of the roly poly’s other chromosomes into a new sex chromosome that behaves like the disappeared W chromosome.

The science is still out on this research around roly poly DNA and how it may or may not be influenced by Wolbachia, at least for now. Some other researchers are waiting for further data to come in, and wonder if perhaps other chromosomes impact sex. All of this research is important—even though, perhaps, most of us wouldn’t think twice about the biological sex of a roly poly or how it feels in say a flooded environment or one laced with permethrins—because it demonstrates the intricacy of natural systems and how small shifts can have a major impact.

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Tis the Season for Chapped Hands

Liz Clift

Let’s talk about something really practical.

It’s winter, and for a lot of us—especially those of us living in drier and colder places—that means not only chapped lips, but also chapped hands.

This can be particularly true if our work takes us outside frequently—as is true if we work with or manage open spaces, parks, or other public or private lands.

Chapped hands might itch, or crack, or bleed. Cracking and bleeding can be painful, and provide more opportunities for the usual nasties to sneak in and cause an infection. At the very least, these things can be hard to keep clean.

It’s because chapped hands are very real (and uncomfortable) that I started making a healing hand cream about a year ago. At the time, it was a direct response to a friend who had perpetually chapped hands (of the cracked, bleeding variety) from parenting two young children and the frequent hand washing associated with that. But, I’ve since gifted it to friends who spend a lot of time outdoors or work in professions where frequent hand washing is a must.

The hand cream I make is based on several different recipes, but the important thing is that it contains a higher level of oil (coconut, because that’s easy to come by) to beeswax, which makes it a softer consistency and enables it to be absorbed more quickly into the skin.

This hand cream doesn’t take long to make and mostly contains ingredients you can find at your local healthy-foods grocer if you don’t already have them at home. I recommend storing it in a small metal or plastic container if you’re out in the field a lot, but if it’s just sitting around your house, you can probably get away with keeping it in a glass jar (though be careful of picking it up and putting it down with your newly hydrated hands!).

Healing Hand Cream

Healing Hand Cream

With this cream, a little goes a long way. Try out just a little the first time and then use more if you need it.

Healing Hand Cream

Ingredients:

.5 oz (by weight) of pure, unscented beeswax (grated or in pellet form)

1 oz almond, grapeseed, or extra-virgin olive oil

1 oz coconut oil

2-3 drops Vitamin E oil

Essential oil, optional* (I like lavender)

Container to store the balm in

Chocolate melter or double-boiler

A deep glass measuring cup and a hand mixer**

 

Clean and sterilize all your equipment—since we’ll be putting this on our chapped hands, which could have micro-cuts, we’ll want to make sure we decrease any risk of infection.

Combine the wax and oils except the essential oil, if using, in the double-boiler, and allow everything to melt together. Once melted, add a few drops of essential oil, if using. Pour it into a deep glass measuring cup, or another glass or metal container that you can use your hand mixer in.

Whip the mixture, periodically scraping down the sides, until the cream is room temperature and creamy. This could take a while, but resist the urge to do anything extra to cool it down. If any moisture gets into it, you’ll ruin the batch and need to start over.

Store in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place or use an opaque container.

 

*If you use essential oils, the smell won’t be as strong as it is diluted in these others, so if you want additional scent, you may need to slowly up the amount you use, checking every couple of drops to see if it’s at a level of scent you’d like. Lavender has some anti-bacterial properties. Be cautious about using citrus-based essential oils. These can cause you to burn more quickly in the sun.

**If you don’t have a hand mixer, you can double or triple the recipe (use the extra as gifts!), and use a stand mixer, or you can whip this sucker up by hand—just prepare to be working at it for a while!

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Restoration May Save Cloud Forests

Liz Clift

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried out at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunshine, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn as the round earth rolls.” –John Muir

Cloud forests (aka upper montane rainforest or montane laurel forest, among other names) are one of the ecosystems that are disappearing as the planet grows warmer, and with them, many of the plants and animals that have made these unique systems home. A cloud forest is generally located in the tropics or subtropics, and displays a montane and moist evergreen forest characterized by persistent or frequent low-level cloud cover.

cloud_forest_world_distribution

Distribution of Cloud Forests. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

Cloud forests are likely remnants of the last ice age. The trees in this area “retreated” to higher elevations as a way to survive the invasion of tropic trees as the planet warmed, and the descendants of those trees are the ones that still exist in Mexico and Central America. These cloud forests host many endemic plant and animal species and are a “living reservoir” because they capture and store so much water. In addition, the water that comes from these forests is cleaner than some other sources of water—vegetation and slow infiltration of the water that falls into streams or rivers does a lot of work to filter the water.

But these forests are disappearing. This is due to a variety of stressors, including human actions like logging and clear-cutting tropical forests to harvest tropical hardwoods and to develop coffee plantations (among other reasons). This is because tropical forests in the lower elevations helped capture and store moisture, which would create microclimates and draw moisture further inland or to higher elevations. As these areas become drier and hotter, through deforestation, that moisture doesn’t always make it to the cloud forests.

At the Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático, researchers are working with research plots to help determine which trees will grow with the changing climate, and why an oak might grow in one location but a walnut or another tree might not. The hope is that by planting a variety of native trees at various elevations, researchers will be able to begin to understand which trees will thrive at which elevations.

This type of facilitated restoration practice is not new—and research on cloud forests shows that these types of restoration efforts can help a cloud forest recover quickly. This is good, since continued ecosystem loss means not only lost ecosystem services that directly benefit people, but also the continued loss of species we may not even know exist yet (earlier this year, scientists made an announcement about three new species of micro-salamanders that were discovered in a cloud forest).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mt. Kinabalu. Image from: Wikimedia

And we know that facilitated restoration does help ecosystems recover—whether it is this specific and critical research in cloud forests, or using developed best practices and plantings for your region.

If we think about this in terms of the eternal, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we want to contribute to the eternal—to dawn still breaking over cloud forests, to the call of birds among the mist, to the continued existence of amphibians and other species we didn’t know existed. And perhaps we must also think about how our work as restoration ecologists or conservationists (or educators or regulators or any number of other careers) functions to help perpetuate certain eternal systems.

What better time to do this than at the cusp of the new year?

Check out these gorgeous cloud forest photos from Mexico! These ecosystems are also found in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.

 

 

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Great Ecology Launches Office in Madrid, Spain

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that we have launched an office in Madrid, Spain led by Alejandro Baladrón Julian, M.S., a specialist in hydrology, and Carlos Rivero Moro, M.S., a sustainability expert.  We are excited to establish an international presence, and for the opportunity it presents to make a positive impact on the environment worldwide.

Alejandro and Carlos have a combined experience of more than 16 years in the environmental services field. Together, they recently competed in the Climate Launchpad clean tech business idea European Union finals competition. There, they presented an urban management solution to model the movement of energy within urban areas. Learn more about that project in our news archives and about Alejandro and Carlos on our staff page.

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Sequoias: Can they Withstand the California Drought?

Liz Clift

It’s no secret that California is entering Year 6 of a drought-period. And though this rainy season has had one of the wettest starts in 30 years, at least in northern California, that doesn’t guarantee the end of the drought. In fact, the Department of Water Resources made an announcement in November that State Water Project customers can expect to receive 20% of their requested deliveries in 2017 (this is an initial estimate and likely to change).

Part of what impacts this is the overall health, or depth, of the snowpack in the Sierras. Snowpack can store millions of acre-feet of water that refills lakes and reservoirs as it melts—and how empty or full lakes and reservoirs appear provide a quick indicator of overall drought conditions.

However, it’s more difficult to account for some of the other impacts of a prolonged period of drought. Since 2011, more than 102 million trees in California have died, more than half of them (62 million) this year. These trees provide important ecosystem services, including supporting healthy watersheds, providing wildlife habitat, and acting as a “carbon sink”—meaning they capture atmospheric carbon. Even giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which are usually fairly resilient during drought periods, are showing evidence of drought through browning crowns and showing up as standing dead (sequoias are more likely to fall over when they die, because they’ve stretched too far from their stabilizing root systems).

Researchers Wendy Baxter and Anthony Ambrose began studying the impacts of drought to sequoias in 2015, with the support of the National Park Service (NPS). They, along with a team of volunteers, climb the sequoias using jumar ascenders, and collect samples at a couple of different points—including from the crown of the tree. These samples help researchers understand the severity of water stress the sequoias are under, the water content in their needles, and the amount of carbon-13 isotope the tree uses during the photosynthetic process (which provides additional insights into drought stress).

This information will ultimately be used in forest management—and could include selective thinning that would eliminate less resilient trees that are competing for water.

And the competition is tough: giant sequoias can take in 800 gallons of water per day. Water is drawn up through the xylem primarily through the release of water vapor through the leaves’ open stomata (transpiration). This creates a vacuum affect. As leaves conduct photosynthesis, water and sugars flow down the phloem*. These sugars are then either stored for later use when photosynthesis slows or used for the tree’s basic maintenance. As drought conditions continue, the tension created by the transpiration process increases and can eventually snap the xylem. This creates an embolism that prevents additional water from flowing up the trunk. If this happens too much, a tree will shed its leaves and eventually die.

Baxter and Ambrose aren’t the only research team working to figure out what’s happening with California’s forests. Another comes in the form of an airborne observatory that maps what’s happening with trees across the state (the technology is advanced enough that the observatory can pick up images about what’s going to become apparent to the human eye).

This should concern us all because forests act as carbon sinks—and if they are dying, that means the carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. Higher levels of atmospheric carbon are linked to global climate change. In addition, forests have a cooling effect on the surrounding area, in part due to the transpiration process, and provide habitat for many different species.

We’ll have to see what this rainy season in California brings—it is a La Niña year, which comes with the possibility of a relatively dry winter, despite the wet beginnings of the season.

*Like that pneumonic? Flow down à phloem!

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ADB Holds First Green Business Forum for Asia and the Pacific

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ADB president Takehiko Nakao leads the opening plenary of the first ADB Green Business Forum for Asia and the Pacific. Image: Eco-Business

Original news article on eco-business.com.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) this week hosted its inaugural Green Business Forum for Asia and the Pacific, which features high-level talks and panel discussions on sustainable business opportunities in the region.

The forum was held at the ADB Headquarters in Manila from November 22 to 24 amid the need to address Asia’s own socio-economic and environmental challenges – such as climate change, population growth, dwindling natural resources, land degradation and water and air pollution – through sustainability in the region’s economic development.

According to ADB, Asia is home to 60 per cent of the world’s current population which are fast migrating from rural areas to overpopulated urban centers. The region comprises nearly 40 per cent of global output and contributes 60 per cent to global growth.

This raises the need for building resilience through sustainable business growth.

Global as well as regional experts and frontliners from government, the private sector, and academia in areas like green financing, technology and sustainability brought to the table principles and best practices in sustainable business that can be applied to spur green growth in the region, specifically in the areas of agriculture, eco-tourism and services.

On the first day of the forum, answers to some of the common barriers to sustainable business were raised. These included how to have an enabling policy and regulatory framework in place to support sustainable business, how to create a strong and consistent market for environmental goods and services, how to access funding, how to use technological innovations in green business set-ups and most importantly, how to make money while going green.

ADB president Takehiko Nakao said at the opening plenary: “We’ve had so many forums like sustainable transport, water management and clean energy, and also how cities can be cleaner. But in a sense this forum is focusing on the profitability of doing all these things and I think there is great potential.”

UNEP executive director Erik Solheim, who joined Nakao in the panel, said Asia will take a driving seat in spurring sustainable business in the world.

“In a few years Asia will lead, and at the core of that is China,” Solheim said. “The most important issue is the issue of mindset. People see the environment as a cost instead of an enormous business opportunity.”

Other speakers at the opening plenary were Dr Madhu Khanna from the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in Urbana, Illinois, Bangladesh Environment and Forestry Minister Anwar Hossain Manju, Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary Regina Lopez, and Daniel Spitzer from the Bhutan-based Mountain Hazelnuts Group.

‘Green can make money’

To help establish a strong sustainable business sector in the region, Nakao expressed ADB’s commitment to lend funding to more public and private sector groups that are pursuing green growth initiatives.

He highlighted that in the Philippines, ADB issued green bonds which financed private sector geo-thermal power plant projects while in China, ADB funded initiatives to address the imminent issues of water, soil and air pollution. Nakao said these issues have to be addressed seriously to avoid causing social instability in countries.

“Perhaps the very important focus of this forum is that green can make money. It is about profit.” Nakao said. “The market is ready for environmentally-sustainable food and products. Consumers are ready to pay a little bit more.”

He added: “Fifty years ago, when we started ADB, the main agenda was how to feed people. But today it is about climate change and environmental sustainability. It’s not because of COP21. It’s not about the Sustainable Development Goals. Asian countries want this. People want this. And ADB is reacting to that.”

‘Name and fame’

Underscoring that there is a strong business case for green products and services in Asia, the forum discussion moved to identify enabling policies and regulatory frameworks that must be in place to ensure that green businesses thrive.

Dr Khanna said that in order for existing businesses to be motivated to adopt sustainability, there has to be a policy push from the government, and that governments may mandate businesses to go green but without being punitive.

Government policies will ensure there will be a long-term demand for environment goods and services, Dr Khanna said.

For example, in the aviation industry, the push from Europe to impose carbon tax on flights based on the airlines’ fuel consumption is leading the aviation industry to shift towards renewable fuels, she explained.

“The combination of technical expertise [from universities] as well as the policy push is what creates the demand for these technologies,” Dr Khanna said.

She added that market-driven incentives that have been created by civil society also lead to a demand for green business, making them profitable.

“We’re seeing a shift to that now. China is a leading country in terms of ISO certifications in most recent years and far surpassed the rest of the countries. Why is China’s companies doing that? It’s a way for them to gain access to European and western markets,” she said.

For his part, Solheim said that international forums and financing facilities such as the G20 and the recently-launched Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility in Jakarta will also help drive sustainable business.

“We’re now going into green finance through the G20, which is the most powerful vehicle for regulating markets. China leads in the green finance at the front and centre. Germany is continuing. They want financial disclosure. Which means that companies should disclose their bank assets in an environment and not just in a financial way.”

Solheim added that if a company had caused abuses to the environment, then it must be disclosed.

“On the positive note, if you have green [investments] in your portfolio, that should be made open to everyone so that we could name and fame your business.” he added.

Both Nakao and Solheim concurred that governments have enormous impacts on the sustainable business market by the way they allocate budgets to support green growth, enforce compliance, and incentivise the public for buying green. This will create the economic and social pressures conducive to promoting sustainable business.

The second day of plenary discussions featured talks on how diffusing green technology would support business innovation and what are profitable business opportunities that sustainably utilise the rich and diverse natural capital in the region.

To view tweets of discussions and commentaries from the forum, visit #GreenBizAsia.

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Will the Future Have Coconuts?

Liz Clift

Coconut water. Coconut milk. Coconut cream. Coconut butter. Coconut oil. Fresh coconut meat. Dried, unsweetened coconut. Dried, sweetened coconut. Coconut flour. Coconut sugar. Coconut aminos. Coconut vinegar.

That’s a lot of coconut (and here’s a recipe that uses five different forms of coconut).

And that’s not even including the uses for the leaves, shells, and fibers associated with coconut—and we know from watching Tom Hanks in  Cast Away that coconuts are pretty useful.

But the coconut is in danger.

Bacteria that cause a lethal yellowing are wiping out coconut trees in the Caribbean, Cote d’Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea (the latter two, of which, are living seed banks for the coconut). The proposed name for the version in Florida and the Caribbean is Candidatus phytoplasma palmae – and it affects not only coconut palms, but other palms as well, including the date palm. A variety of subgroups of phytoplasmas exist, and scientists are still debating appropriate nomenclature.

Although it’s called lethal yellowing, yellowing of the foliage isn’t the first sign in mature plants. Instead, for those palms that produce fruit, the earliest symptom is a premature drop of most, or all, of the fruit, and in coconuts, one end usually develops a brown to black appearance.

This is not a new problem. The earliest known reporting is 1834 in the Cayman Islands, with similar reports in Nigeria and the Dominican Republic before 1920.

But, I’m getting into the weeds.

The takeaway is this: the coconut is the seed and they don’t store in seedbanks easily. So, we can’t just save seeds until scientists figure this out. Instead, we have to use living seedbanks—which means coconut plantations specifically dedicated to growing coconuts for posterity. Because coconut trees can grow so tall, ensuring genetic purity can be difficult (it’s a risky task to climb a coconut palm and pollinate it, much less to bag female flowers so you can ensure they are only pollinated by the appropriate male flowers).

And of the five international living seedbanks—in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cote d’Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea—as I mentioned above, the last two are threatened by the bacteria. Additionally, all are in places where land grabs may threaten the plantations.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution for what we can do about this.

The International Coconut Genetics Resources Network has funded research that has focused on isolating and freezing coconut embryos (fun fact: most of the coconut’s meat and milk is endosperm, which is what allows the embryo to develop!). While scientists have figured out how to successfully freeze embryos, thaw them, and then grow them in a controlled environment until they are large enough to plant in the soil, the success rate is only 5-10%. Unfortunately, additional funding for this type of research is difficult to come by. Most coconut growers are small farmers who only maintain a few acres. They don’t have the money to help invest in coconut research or gene banks. In other industries, big companies usually foot the bill for this type of research—a good practice, if they want to be able to continue to market a resource.

This hasn’t happened yet for coconuts.

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