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Interview with Terry Sunderland

📷 Terry Sunderland

Journalist: Solene Delumeau

Solene: Welcome to SciSection. Today’s interview is with Dr. Terry Sunderland from UBC. Thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Sunderland: Thank you for having me.

Solene: Firstly, could you introduce yourself, and what you do?

Dr. Sunderland: My name is Terry Sunderland, I’m British as you can probably tell, I’ve been at UBC for almost 3 years now. Previously I was based in Indonesia for 12 years and previous to that, in West Africa for 15 years. I’ve been involved in the practice of forestry for a very long time. I work on tropical forestry, based between agriculture and forestry, and the impacts it has on global food security, as well as the social impacts of conservation of protected areas on local people.

Solene: Many people don’t know about the Green Revolution. Could you explain

what it was, and how it changed agriculture?

Dr. Sunderland: The Green Revolution started around the 1950s, as a response to basically provide more food- thinking of food in terms of calories alone- to a growing population, particularly in the developing world. A lot of research and resources went into plant breeding for high-yielding cereals in particular, the main staples. Wheat, barley and rice in particular all went through major breeding programs in order to increase yields over a large area. What it resulted in was basically the shifting to a more permanent form of agriculture, and the expansion of monoculture- whereby a lot of smallholder farmers who grew a diversity of crops were replacing those with a single crop. The Green Revolution had the desired effect as it improved the amount of food we grow, but it had a major impact on the diversity of food- it reduced the diversity of food we grew and we’re seeing the impacts of that today.

Solene: The link between agriculture and infectious diseases is not really obvious.

Can you explain how they are connected?

Dr. Sunderland: Well, the biggest problem with commercial agriculture today is that it requires yet more land. The expansion of agriculture occurs in forested landscapes in particular- notably in the tropics.

Dr. Sunderland: In Brazil we see the expansion of cattle, and soybean plantations, and in Indonesia, oil palm. Shifting into the forest frontier increases that contact with zoonotic diseases and we’ve seen that in many respects with the latest pandemic, but it’s also been responsible for the spread of Ebola, and other zoonotic diseases. The closer you get to that forest frontier, the more risk there is of a spillover occurring between zoonotic diseases resident in a forest host for example, whether it be a bat or a pangolin. That crossing over to humans with the expansion of agriculture has been problematic because it’s been seen as the major transmission route. The biggest problem is also the simplification of those landscapes- it removes any natural predator that zoonotic disease may have had. So it’s easier for that transmission to occur and diseases to spread.

Solene: The current pandemic is also putting pressure on forests in turn,

like a vicious cycle. Why is this?

Dr. Sunderland: Well one thing we’re seeing, if you think of the images in the news from India in April and May- the economic downturn that’s happened globally has had a huge impact on employment. I have a field site in west Kalimantan in Indonesia, and it’s seen a massive influx of reverse migration- people moving back from urban areas to their rural homes because of lack of employment. So, it’s having a huge impact on the environment there because they’re going to be extracting resources, be it timber or other, but also farming. And it’s also having an impact on the demography of the regions, because we’re seeing a lot of young people coming back from urban areas, and a lot of the rural areas were still primarily populated by the older generation. So we’re seeing some interesting demographic conflicts occuring- and this is being mirrored in India, areas of Southern Africa, and across the world- we’re seeing this reverse migration from urban to rural which is having a huge impact on land and resource management.

Solene: What kind of agricultural system would be sustainable and not put us at

risk of viruses crossing from wild animals to humans?

Dr. Sunderland: I think the first thing is that there’s no black and white answer to this. Obviously, we need commercial agriculture to an extent- but the problem is that agricultural systems and our food systems have come at the expense of more diversified smallholder cropping systems. It’s estimated that between 40 to 80 percent of the world’s food is grown by farmers who have maybe only one to two hectares of land. They grow a wide variety of crops which are resilient to economic and environmental challenges, and yet these farmers get little or no support from governments. If you think of the subsidies that are paid to farmers in North America and Europe, smallholder farmers in the tropics get nothing near that level of support. So I think what we need to do is think about a matrix of agricultural systems from the smallholder to the large commercial production systems.

Solene: Do you have any tips for our listeners on how to make a positive change

in their food consumption habits?

Dr. Sunderland: Well, the obvious one is reducing meat consumption- meat production has the greatest ecological impact on the globe at the moment.

Dr. Sunderland: We’re seeing consumer changes in the middle class in many parts of the world, their meat consumption is increasing dramatically. Plant based diets are far more ecologically sound, and also nutritionally sound. And also, we’ve forgotten what seasonality is like. When I was a kid, you could only get strawberries in the summer- now you can get them all year round, wherever you are.

Dr. Sunderland: The global commodity market needs to reflect the natural cycle of seasonality rather than being geared up to provide goods and products all year-round. So it really is consumer-led.

Dr. Sunderland: One of the biggest problems in Southeast Asia is the expansion of oil palm.

Dr. Sunderland: The shift in diets to more processed foods has resulted in that expansion because palm oil is in pretty much anything that’s highly processed. If we weren’t actually buying into that dietary system, we wouldn’t need that expansion...

Dr. Sunderland: ...and we would be able to mitigate some of the deforestation that’s happened because of it. In countries such as Norway, the consumer has had a very powerful role to play in reducing oil palm production and import. By identifying the products that contain palm oil, they’ve boycotted them basically- they’ve reduced their oil palm import by about 50 to 60 percent. So the consumer has a very powerful role to play.

Solene: Finally, what is the most memorable thing you experienced during your

career so far?

Dr. Sunderland: That’s a really tough one, didn’t see that one coming! One of the things that has had the most satisfaction is that for years, we were talking about the importance of forests for food security and nutrition. A lot of people were scratching their heads thinking that we were absolutely mad thinking about this possible link. And it was only because having spent so long in the field, and seeing people rely on not just forest foods, but also the ecosystem services that forests provide for agriculture, this was obvious to us but it wasn’t obvious to the world at large. Now we’ve produced such a broad body of evidence to show that this is the case- the dialogue’s starting to change and people are talking about forests in the context of food security and nutrition. So that’s been very satisfying and fulfilling, and we’ve got a great body of people working on this as well.

Solene: That brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you for joining us today!

Dr. Sunderland: Thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure!

Solene: That’s it for this week of SciSection! To all our listeners, make sure to check out our podcast for the latest interviews.


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