Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Fungus Among Us: Fantastical Yeasts

Bread. It's one of the most basic of foods - 15% of the world's calorie intake comes from wheat - and also one of the oldest processed foods. Even before the advent of agriculture, people realised they could turn ground grain into a leavened loaf (as well as alcoholic beverages...). However, they likely didn't know about the little microbes causing their bread to rise. For these fermentation processes to happen, we need our little fungal friends, namely Saccharomyces cerevisiae (and its various strains). And that, my friends, is what we will talk about today - yeast.

This past week, I skipped yoga to listen to a researcher from the University of Queensland regale us with tales about catching and cultivating local yeast species and strains and brewing beer. These funghi are important in the brewing process, feeding on sugars in the grain, converting them to carbon dioxide (fizzy!) and ethanol (alcohol). Different species and strains metabolize sugars in different ways, affecting the flavour (like acidity) and texture (like carbonation). But all this talk of yeasts, got me thinking about bread, and the microbiota involved in my weekly bake.

Now when you buy those little packets of dried yeast, or any bread from the grocery store, you're getting a bountiful monoculture of S. cervisiae. Sourdough starters are more likely a slightly untamed backyard garden - a mix of yeast species (typically Candida milleri, S. exiguous, S. cerevisiae, and C. humilis) and lactobacillus bacteria. These little guys, naturally found in our surrounding environment, will colonize a flour and water mixture left out for a few days (after they've fought off the less deliciously fragrant microbes). When mixed with flour and water and used to make bread dough, a bit of biochemistry takes place. The lactobacilli convert sugars (maltose in this case) to lactic and acetic acids, giving the bread a slightly sour taste. And the yeast do the same thing they do in beer-brewing ...  metabolise sugars (sucrose, and others) to make ethanol and carbon dioxide, giving the bread additional depth of flavour and some lift.

This may seem a bit high-brow, and sourdough bread has definitely developed a reputation as the new hip thing. But it is also commonplace and central to daily life. As a critical component of many diets around the world, the cost of bread, and the essential grain ingredients, is a useful indication of the state of a country and the welfare of its people. We've seen in the past how the rising price of bread can play a role in social unrest and protest. While some of us may get pre-occupied dwelling on the fascinating microcosm within this tasty baked good, it is important not to forget that bread is at its core sustenance - wheat is the primary food of 35% of world's population. I'll be trying to subsist for five days, with mostly this fabulous fermented grain serving as the basis of my diet. Please join me for another year of Live Below the Line and contribute to the Oaktree Foundation.

Read more:
The Biology of ... Sourdough - Discover Magazine 2003
Let Them Eat Bread - My Munchable Musings 2015
Secrets of Sourdough - The Atlantic 2017

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cinta Coklat: Indonesia and the Cacao Scene

Cacao in Central Region, Ghana
When you think of agricultural products from Indonesia, palm oil is probably the first thing that pops into your head. While the bulk of global cacao still comes from West Africa - particularly Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana - Indonesia clocks in as a close third in terms of the world's largest producers. For the most part, all these beans are exported unprocessed to the US, Malaysia, Singapore (or from Africa, Europe) to be made into chocolate. Unlike West Africa, where there is a narrow band of suitable habitat and climatic conditions - the high forest zone running toward the south - basically, all of Indonesia could viably grow cacao. Right now, about the same area is under cultivation as in Ghana - just for scale, Indonesia has about 8 times the land area - and Sulawesi makes up the bulk of the production area (about 75%), followed by Java and Sumatera.

At this point you may be asking yourselves, "why is she rambling on about cacao again? I thought that was over and community forestry was the new topic du jour." Well, the two are actually related! Very exciting. Cacao is one of these awesome crops that is traditionally grown in the understory of a forest. Young cacao needs shade to protect it during vulnerable stages, and older trees can benefit from the retained moisture and moderate temperatures. Yes, there are also production downsides, but agroforestry models of cacao production are tuned for the long-term, maintaining benefits like soil fertility and structure better than monocropped trees.

Rubber in West Kalimantan, Indonesia
As such, along with coffee, bamboo, rattan, and rubber, cacao has been considered as a potential forest-based "alternative livelihood". Old habits die hard (especially when there is no desire for them to die at all...), so you can imagine my elation when cacao came up in conversations with community forest managers. (... up in northern Borneo, we quickly decided I would have to come back in 2-3 years to "help", once the trees had matured...). Though the prospect may be rather alluring, cacao is still a bit of a mystery to many Indonesian smallholder farmers and forest community.

Why? Well, I don't have a solid answer, so my musings will have to suffice. With regards to the other non-timber forest products: bamboo has always called Asia home and frankly grows like a weed; rattan is a natural forest crop in Southeast Asia that locals have used for centuries in household items; and although rubber is native to Latin America, it received years of attention during the colonial era and has largely remained a smallholder crop. Coffee has its roots in East Africa and a history in the region similar to cacao, yet somehow the product of this understory shrub has fed the global market for centuries and recently embedded itself in Indonesian culture (ngopi much?). Mysteriously, even though cacao - also indigenous to the Americas - has actually been present in the region since the 17th century, and cultivated in Indonesia since the late 18th century, it hasn't garnered the same interest. The crop didn't experience the same colonial heyday as in West Africa, and farmer disinterest combined with pest problems early on meant production remained limited until the latter half of the 20th century. 

But Indonesia's time may have come. It happens to be an ideal place to set up shop in terms of the regional consumer demand and climate suitability. It also offers an opportunity to support multi-use forestry and provide a high-value cash crop for locals in areas where forests may be on the chopping blocks. That said, despite my enthusiasm for cacao as a potential agroforestry crop in community forests, I definitely have a few qualms.

First off, this involves planting non-native species. Not that we haven't already introduced a crazy amount of agricultural products into novel places (hmm, like oil palm, rubber trees, and coffee, to name a few here in Indonesia), but in this case it means doing so within forests meant to be restored or conserved for limited non-timber uses. Would we be losing some of the ecological value in deference to economic by planting non-natives? Or would the benefits outweigh the costs if it means maintaining higher biodiversity and general forest cover than business-as-usual?

Second, it's a slippery slope, towards commercialisation and global markets. In Ghana, cacao started as an understory crop, as well. But over time it has moved to being grown predominantly in full-sun. With government policy supporting the use of chemicals and new sun-loving varieties for greater production, soils have become exhausted, and problems like erosion arise. Would Indonesia follow a similar trend?

And finally, is there the support available to ensure capacity for sustainable production? Fair trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ certification, etc. are all active across African and South American growing regions (and present in Indonesia, though more quietly...). There are major research centres in Costa Rica (CATIE) and Colombia (CIAT) that both have cacao programmes and are active in trials and training on both continents (though there is the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute). Asia, well, is new to the scene and generally underrepresented. The industry will continue to be developed here regardless, especially since cacao in other parts of the world is likely to bear the brunt of climate change, so making sure does so with sustainability at its core is essential. 

All of this is to say, if anyone is looking for a cacao agroforestry enthusiast (with little agronomic training but plenty of passion), I'll be on the market for gainful employment in roughly 18 months :)

AND If you're on the lookout for existing awesome Indonesian chocolate, give these a try:
Pipiltin Cocoa is a Jakarta-based bean-to-bar chocolate company that directly sources beans from Bali, Aceh, East Java, and Flores. [more from the founder]
Krakakao is an organic chocolate company that sources directly from farmers in South Sumatra, providing training and support sustainable practices around the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. They also have a few bars from Bali, Sulawesi, and North Kalimantan, including my favourite bar, packaged with a slow loris on it ...
Pod Bali was founded on its namesake island and sources all the ingredients locally and supports communities producing cacao in high conservation value areas.

Read More:
The Rise of Southeast Asia Chocolatiers - Michelin Guide Singapore, 2017

Monday, February 26, 2018

Weathering Change: Women Farm Cocoa, Too

You have probably read an article or two (or more) about how climate change is going to be the end of chocolate. Compounded by potential losses of our other favourite indulgences - coffee and wine - this is nothing short of tragic. But what these articles don't really discuss is what happens to the farmers who grow these valuable export crops. Studies documenting how climate change affects rural people generally point out that they're likely to lose income, and that women are particularly at risk of experiencing negative effects. But not everything is about money, and not all women are in the same boat. The coarse resolution at which poverty and gender are often treated means we may get a skewed picture of who is actually vulnerable to climate change and for what reasons.

Back in 2014, I was working on surviving my MPhil degree, and reveling in the joys of fieldwork. From June to September, I was in the Central Region of Ghana, chatting with women in cocoa farming communities about their lives, their work, and the stresses they face. The idea was to get a sense from past experiences of "weather events" - the usual droughts and floods, mostly - in order to get an idea of how climate change could alter the lives of these farmers in the future. While the dissertation may have long since been done and dusted, one piece has lingered in the shadows. After 2.5 years since its first draft, some of the insights from this project finally made it through the peer-review process to see the light of day!

Yes, Kakum looks like a seahorse. Credit: Alex Morel
It's a bit off-point from the usual ecology fare (or maybe that's not so usual these days...). The idea of our little study was to get a better sense of who among cocoa farmers is vulnerable to climate change and how. While by no means the definitive works, the paper describes how women involved in producing cacao are vulnerable in different ways. Because I've been told it's acceptable to celebrate your first first-authored paper, I'm unabashedly taking this time to share the highlights.

First off, why cacao? Besides the logical reason of its being the precursor to chocolate, cacao is an interesting case in a changing climate. A bit of a "Goldilocks" crop - it is best suit to a limited area around the globe - it needs certain amounts of rain, a tight temperature range, and both these things at the right times. So shifts in climate may have severe consequences for cacao crops. One finding from the study was that women who own cacao farms may become more exposed to adverse weather conditions - merely because the crop is particularly finicky - in comparison to those women who don't and grow a range of vegetables and starchy staples that have different optimal growing conditions.
But that's where the relative benefits of not owning cacao seem to end. Farmers are very much like investors - they diversify their portfolios of activities to reduce their sensitivities to any single unfortunate event. Cacao can be a highly profitable cash crop, and the women I spoke with who managed their own cacao had more disposable income and independence to take up a variety of income streams. They could spread their nest eggs across many baskets. Independence was not just about finances, though. The confidence and sense of empowerment that came along with owning cacao differed considerably from the pessimism and hopelessness expressed by many of the women who did not. Someone must have said that "success is a state of mind", and while tangible resources do help, having a proactive attitude can make all the difference in responding and adapting to challenges, not the least of which is climate change.

Couldn't have managed without Auntie Fausti,
who looked out for us while Homaho!
Last of all, while not explicitly part of the analysis, I did notice a strong tendency for women with cacao to point out the importance of ecological stewardship. Perhaps because it is harder for women generally to obtain fertilisers and pesticides used in cacao production; perhaps because many also cultivate the veg that they then feed to their families (and who wouldn't want to feed their kids safe and nutritious food?); or perhaps it's because many have inherited land after farming all their lives and building up knowledge of ecology over time, rather than receiving agricultural extension training focused on technology and inputs (also largely unavailable for women). Perhaps that is a question for another research project!

Unfortunately, none of this solves our chocolate predicament. But hopefully it's a step toward more nuanced ideas for helping farmers face the current and pending climate changes.

Read the full paper, if you're feeling ambitious...
Vulnerability of Ghanaian women cocoa farmers to climate change: A typology. Climate and Development. doi: 10.1080/17565529.2018.1442806

Related Posts:
So much thanks to my co-authors- Mark and Emily, Rebecca for constructive comments on the paper and support in the field, and all of the ECOLIMITS team for letting me tag onto the project. This would not have been at all possible without the amazing interpretation skills of Anne, the local know-how and tech support of Mike and Prosper, and of course all the women who gave their time (and often food and hospitality) in opening up about their lives and contributing to this project. I'm forever grateful, and hope one day this can help in some small way. Medaase!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Four Stages of Interview Success

Camp! Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar, 2007
Fieldwork is often the bread-and-butter of many researchers' work. This ritual of going 'out' to collect 'data' forms the core of how both natural and social scientists build their understandings of the world. I fell into field ecology my second year at university, doing fun things like counting the number and size of trees in a certain area, or seeing how many different types of bugs we could catch in pitfall traps set at regular intervals. The methods were pretty much the same if we went to the rainforest in southern Mexico, a deciduous forest in northern New York, or across the globe to the temperate humid forests in eastern Australia. Expeditions could require a fair amount of logistical magic - between wrangling gear (like massive measuring tapes for transects or containers for sample collection) and obtaining appropriate permits (particularly if in a foreign country or accessing protected areas). Something will inevitably go wrong - inclement weather, malfunctioning equipment, lost luggage - and it can get lonely. But it can also be peaceful, contemplative, and rejuvenating (...anyone need a field assistant?).

I don't think we made it to the village... Central Ghana, 2014
But this 'fieldwork' has changed a fair bit for me since the last excursion in ecology just over a decade ago, as more of the natural gets replaced by social. Yet, particularly in a school of biological sciences, I get the feeling that social science methods are underestimated in terms of their complexity and questioned for their legitimacy and robustness. In becoming more familiar with the social sciences over the last few years, though, I'm coming to terms with their own methodological challenges not too dissimilar from carrying out an ecology fieldtrip. Yesterday, while trying to sort out a few remaining interviews for a study here in Indonesia, we were discussing all the behind-the-scenes activity involved in the final 45-90 minute interview. For your benefit, I've detailed the four stages of "interview success" below:

First Success! Obtain contact information for the target interviewee, either directly, or through circuitous process of snowballing. For example, you know someone, who knows someone, who used to work at the organisation the right person might still be affiliated with.

Second Success! Make contact with target interviewee, and proceed with a long series of WhatsApp messages, often missing vowels or half the word. Then, you realize that your explanation in bahasa Indonesia implied you are implementing a “project” and not “studying” something on the topic of interest, and you spend the next exchange of messages explaining that you’re doing something else entirely, and you really just want to talk to them and hope it eventually makes a difference in the world.

Third Success! Set a time, date, and location for the interview. Change said time, date, and location because of heavy rains and flooding. Then realize the location is actually perfectly situated for acoustic augmentation of motorbikes revving, which is all a dictaphone or mobile actually picks up. 

Fourth Success! Actually meet target interviewee, conduct congenial interview, shake hands (maybe taken token photo), and part ways. This does eventually happen. 

Bonus Success! Interpret your notes scribbled during the interview and somehow manage to fit them into a framework you thought was applicable to the "study system". Proceed with analysis and writing up, ultimately trying to make some sense of the messy world we live in.

A recent paper reviewing the use of interviews in conservation research provides some useful insights into good practices when choosing interviews as a methodology.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Embrace the Cloudy Skies

We all have those days. You wake up to the light pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof. Peering tentatively out the window, and all you see is a blanket of gray. You pull the covers back over your head and hope no one notices you straggling in several hours late for work. 

Last week, many of my Brisbane compatriots may have tried to pull off something along these lines, bemoaning the gray and rainy weather. Though I love the usually brilliant blue skies and sunny days of Brisneyland, I have to admit that my Seattle upbringing makes me crave dreariness and gloom (weather-wise) every now-and-again. But the lack of rain piques my interest (and concern) for another reason. It's indicative of a worrisome trend across the globe - one that is not just about how much water falls to the ground in a specific place, but at what time of year and how intensely. So, let's talk a bit about rain!

Queensland is home to the Great Barrier Reef and a belt of tropical rainforest. But it also seems to have a recurrent precipitation problem. During December, arguably the start of the wet season, rainfall and soil moisture were below average for most of the state. Here in Brisbane, like the rest of Southeast Queensland, we rely on capturing rainwater in reservoirs throughout the year to feed demands for drinking water, etc. While this is efficient during the frequent summer deluges, it leaves us at a bit of a risk when the skies are clear for too long.

Moving to a more arid region, Cape Town has made headlines repeatedly in the last week or two. This is because the South African city with a population of 4 million people is likely to run out of this year's water by around May. Growing water demand (i.e. more people) and record-level drought (potentially augmented by climate change) are being implicated in the urban water shortage. Ultimately, the city is drawing on its underground aquifers and rivers faster than rain can replenish. Indonesia's capitol city, Jakarta, also made headlines for unsustainable use of groundwater (caused by illegal well-digging), though the big concern here is the risk of land sinking and falling below sea level.

Our last case study of rain troubles is Seattle, WA. This is another story altogether. Here it rains. In fact, in 2017, Seattle got a year's worth of rain in just 5.5 months. Cool, so water shouldn't be an issue, right? Climate change predictions show Pacific Northwest of North America as getting wetter and warmer. Unlike arid Cape Town or sub-tropical Brisbane, much of Seattle's drinking water comes from spring snowmelt. And this, my friends, is reliant on the temperatures dropping low enough for winter snows to fall and remain in the upper parts of the watersheds. Or, if precipitation becomes more concentrated at certain times of year, when it is less likely to fall as snow, we are also likely to see water shortages.

So Brisbane is back to sunny skies, but rain should never be far from our minds. We had three different water supply stories, but a common thread of precarious precipitation ran throughout. It matters where, when, and how much, but perhaps we could still embrace those cloudy days just a bit more!