Conservation is necessary for food security

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The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to realise global food security, due to a growing world population, shifting dietary preferences, and the expanding use of crops for biofuel and other industrial purposes. This reality threatens the world’s forests, as agricultural expansion is currently the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. Half of the native forests that once covered the planet are gone, and about 13 million additional hectares disappear each year. At current rates of deforestation, nearly all unmanaged forests may be gone by 2100.

But just as humanity needs food security, humanity also needs the world’s remaining forests. One billion of the world’s poorest depend on forests for their daily needs for food, water and materials for shelter. Forests and the food derived from them also act as important safety nets when the poor and vulnerable face additional hardships, whether from natural disasters, war, drought or crop failures.

Forests are critically important to the world’s poor yet we all depend on forests for the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide. Native forests underpin and support agricultural production by providing habitat for pollinators and predators of agricultural pests, improving soil fertility, providing erosion and flood control and protecting water supplies. Forests also support agricultural production by providing climate regulatory services. Agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to climactic changes, and forests help mitigate anthropogenic climate change by capturing and storing carbon.

Deforestation

On the other hand, forests become potent carbon emissions sources when they are burned or destroyed. Deforestation currently accounts for more annual emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Without keeping the world’s remaining forests intact, we have no chance of limiting climate change to a 2 °C average increase (relative to pre-industrial levels), the threshold thought by scientists to be the maximum warming allowable to avoid catastrophic global consequences, including detrimental impacts on crop yields.

Given that humanity needs both food security and forests, how do we address these two seemingly conflicting needs? A first step is to recognise that the dichotomy between conserving forests and achieving food security is a false one. Achieving food security is not just a matter of producing more food via agricultural expansion. Instead, achieving food security largely depends on addressing both poverty and the poor’s ability to access and utilise the right types of food.

To achieve global food security in 2050 and beyond, we need integrated policies that recognise that poverty, food security, climate change and forest conservation are all inextricably linkedBy acknowledging the contributions of forests to agriculture development and food security, we can better conserve forests while creating more effective agricultural policies. In so doing, we can also better meet global development and climate change mitigation needs. At stake is the possibility for a more humane and hospitable world.

 *Libby Blanchard [2012] is doing a PhD in Geography focusing on climate change. Picture credit: pupunkkop and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Breast cancer business challenge

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On February 10, 2013, my mother passed away after a 3 year battle with breast cancer. Walking beside her on her journey was a life-changing experience for everyone in my family and it is an unfortunately all-too-common experience to have. Approximately one in eight women is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime and though advances in treatment have facilitated great strides in increasing survival after diagnosis, 40,000 women still die from breast cancer in the US every year.

Diseases like breast cancer, which wage total war against patients, are not easily resolved by currently available technologies, and new solutions are essential to solve the challenges they present. To that end, the Avon Foundation, The National Cancer Institute and The Center for Advancing Innovation have partnered to organize a “first of a kind” international, university student-based startup competition: the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. Launched in October, 2013, this Challenge provides an opportunity for students to develop a business plan for an innovative technology and launch a startup with the goal of bringing to market novel and high-impact technologies to tilt the scales in the fight against breast cancer.

My team is one of the winners of the business plan phase of the Challenge, and we are excited to be able to take our startup, Radial Genomics Ltd., forward. Early diagnosis is considered by many the foundation of recent successes in breast cancer survival rates, but increased screening efforts are a double edged sword: more and more cancers are being caught at a curable stage, but some early stage cancers are also being caught that may never progress or pose a danger to the patient. This ambiguity poses a difficult challenge for doctors. No current tool in medicine specifically addresses the distinction between early stage cancer and invasive subtypes, which require more careful and aggressive treatment planning to resolve, potentially leading to unnecessary surgery and/or chemotherapy. These early stage cancers account for 20% of all breast cancer diagnoses, and 25-50% of these cases become invasive within 10 years. Moreover, many patients do not want to risk their lives on a bet that a cancer may not develop. This makes treatment planning all the more challenging since over-diagnosis and overtreatment are chronic problems in our healthcare system today, harming patients and costing our economy billions.

Radial Genomics Ltd. is working hard to provide the solution to this ambiguity in early stage cancer diagnosis. We are a cancer diagnostics company using proprietary technology to diagnose and guide treatment in breast cancer patients through a novel, quantitative method of assessing changes in a patient’s genetic material in response to cancer. It is our hope that with our technology, we can improve patients’ quality of life and outcomes by giving doctors and patients the most comprehensive understanding of a patients’ cancer going forward.

My team is happy to be developing Radial Genomics Ltd.. As a biochemist, I have never stopped learning and growing since this team, which includes finance, law, engineering, and medical specialties, came together. A startup is a team effort and we and our mentors are confident we have the skills and passion to make Radial Genomics Ltd. and the promise of our game-changing technology a reality.

My own experience with breast cancer was a study in guessing and hoping. My team and I want to make sure that future patients never have to guess again.

*Grecia Gonzalez [2012] is doing a PhD in Biochemistry.