A parasitic species, with especially irrational consumption patterns, is expanding on the planet today. It is the human species. UNGS NewsHe spoke with the educational researcher Walter Pengue about the consequences of this parasitism and those irrational consumption patterns, and about why the pandemic that is alarming the world today should be thought of as the result of a process of global change in our environment.
Agricultural engineer Walter Pengue is Professor of Ecology at the UNGS Suburban Institute and one of the main authors of the Sixth Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC), which will be presented in 2022. Also He is a researcher for the Landscape and Environment Ecology Group (GEPAMA) of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of Buenos Aires. In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, which is a cause of concern and discussion among experts around the world, the specialist spoke withUNGS News on the causes of the phenomenon, and especially on the process of global environmental change, which includes as one of its main indicators a very significant modification of the modes of land use on the planet.
The problem, says Pengue, is the persistence of a very inadequate belief: “We have always thought that natural resources were at our disposal to be exploited to our liking and pleasure. " But this serious mistake has dire consequences: "The change in land use generates a brutal loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of natural environments, leaving less and less space for other species to live in their surroundings. This causes the surviving species to move to other places. In short, the exit or emergence of species, which are of all kinds (including viruses that reach even the human system), come precisely as a consequence of these transformations that we are generating and that world society is not clearly perceiving”, Assures Pengue.
The specialist warns of the fact that we are exerting unprecedented pressure on the planet's natural resources. "More than 75% of the earth's surface would already be degraded, and this proportion could increase to more than 90% by 2050. At this rate, nothing will be left. Every year, humanity eats the equivalent of half the size of a European Union (4.18 million km²). The numbers also indicate that most of the degradation will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where deterioration of soils could cut crop production by half, a phenomenon that is also occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
In 2014, Pengue warned former Director General of the United Nations Office for the Environment Achin Steiner about the relevance of soils, which he called then and still calls “the food basket of humanity”. Pengue emphasizes, didactically, that deforestation comes first, then bad and unsustainable agricultural exploitation, then soil degradation and erosion, later desertification and finally human migration. "One of the most dramatic processes of human exodus”, He emphasizes.
They are all indicators, Pengue observes, of the serious lack of apprehension with which humanity has been treating nature, with which it has had a clumsily instrumental relationship for too long. The environment is presented to us as if it were an inexhaustible source of available resources to feed the consumerist trend that animates the current economic organization of the world, and that on the other hand produces the brutal deforestation of vast areas of the planet, the loss of its biodiversity , bioinvasions, pollution and its multiple effects and climate change. With all of that put together and combined, Pengue explains, “we have a perfect cocktail, a perfect storm”. This pandemic that we suffer today, he says, “it is only a sample of the catastrophic effects that nature generates when it is not considered”. That is why he prefers to talk to us about systems and not about conjunctural issues, and to attend, beyond these, to the type of perspective that is necessary to have on global environmental change.
In a recent article, Pengue confirms that in 2016 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a program of which it is also part, warned about zoonotic epidemics and specified that “75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of animal origin, and that these conditions are closely related to the health of ecosystems”. The researcher also emphatically highlights the latest report from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), from 2019: “The report alerted us to the disappearance of a million species in the coming decades and told us that our irrational food system is one of the main drivers (directing factors) of this transformation and disappearance. We are destroying the habitat of these species”.
Pengue recently participated in the first virtual world meeting of IPCC authors. It was the first time that a meeting of this caliber was carried out in this way, given the cancellation, due to the COVID pandemic, of the face-to-face meeting that was planned to take place in Quito. The meeting featured the interventions and contributions of 270 experts from 65 countries. Asked byUNGS Newson the causes and development of the pandemic that is shaking the world today, he explains: “A virus, present in bat droppings, is deposited on foliage and consumed by a wild animal (possibly a pangolin that feeds on ants). This animal reaches the markets, "the wet markets", of a very modern Chinese city through new ideas coming from the irrational consumption of humans, linked to changes in some dietary patterns of certain high-income segments in search of nutritional sophistication or new delicatessens, or even some traditional medicines that use parts of wild animals.”
The problem, the researcher indicates, is that these changes produce alterations in the rhythms of nature. And this, says Pengue, “it is something we should not venture into. On the one hand, we destroy spaces and, on the other, we bring new elements into our own environments. And even within our own bodies. In relation to this, I would not overlook the fact that Wuhan, where the coronavirus infections began, is a city where one of the most prominent biotechnology laboratories in all of Asia is housed.”, He reflects. The biological, social and environmental crisis in which we are trapped is very serious, but precisely for this reason, Pengue believes, it can be an opportunity to change our eyes and start thinking very seriously about a series of transcendent transformations in national economies and in the global economy. Pengue also cites a very recent article by Walden Bello, who coincidentally also highlights the relevance of not losing the opportunity opened by the crisis to produce necessary changes.
Indeed: "We are facing an opportunity to propose a civilizational change, a new roadmap towards a sustainable socio-environmental transition”, Pengue maintains. "Science has been warning about the enormous costs that civilization would face if it did not change its forms of production and consumption.”, He says, and further states that“the conventional view of science on environmental problems has been limited and even biased. Moreover, today again faced with the problem of the pandemic, the expectation only lies in the creation of the new vaccine. There will certainly be a vaccine, it is a matter of time, and it will save some lives, perhaps even ours. But if the looks are not transformed, the intensity and recurrence of environmental impacts will be increasingly harsh and, in one way or another, they will force us to change”.
Pengue alerts about the immediate impact in the post pandemic, which, according to his vision, will be linked to the provision of food and the food system. The Agroecology and Ecological Economics team (Agroeco2), led by Pengue at ICO, has been developing, among others, the MASA project (Agricultural Models and Food Systems), which has already produced some advances and results related to the complex situation of the system global and regional agri-food industry, and that it has been indicating that this food production model is cracked. "Even before the global pandemic, the economic, social and environmental crisis was dramatic”, Pengue emphasizes, and adds:“It is clear that today, and in the post-pandemic, the issue will be even worse.”
Another report in which Pengue actively contributed, “Measuring what to measure in food and agriculture”, From the United Nations Environment, alerted him, and focused on what Pengue calls Environmental Intangibles. That is to say, those environmental and social values to which global society until now had not paid attention and even less, valuation. The enormous biophysical volumes consumed on the planet for the satisfaction of an irrational global food model shows, says the specialist, “the enormous irresponsibility of countries in leaving the most crucial aspect of humans, food, under the domination of a few world corporations. Until now, neither governments nor companies took these values into account”.
Pengue is concerned that the world, as he says, “have not understood until now that to produce this biomass very large volumes of natural resources are needed, especially soil, water and genetic resources”. And exemplifies: "When we export a cow, we export everything that she consumed and goes with her. It is much more than the exported weight. The case of land is very important in that the change in land use, as we have said initially, is one of the factors that produces the greatest pressure on natural ecosystems. The change is dramatic. But sometimes, the monetary numbers of agriculture outweigh the natural savings bank that exists in the ground."Pengue warns that"the ecological footprint, that is, the amount of land necessary to satisfy the basic and non-basic needs of each person, grows radically. Each of us uses at least two and a half hectares to meet their needs. If we divide the available area of some 14,000 million hectares by the more than seven billion humans that we are, it is clear to us that we are eating the world. And this is impossible to get around. Every year we have less planet ...”
Pengue smiles and reiterates, in a tone of alert, that we cannot miss the opportunity that the crisis gives us. "This can become civilizational, and it is certainly possible that remarkable transformations can be achieved from there, starting perhaps with the simplest thing: food. Change and go towards an eco-agri-food system. That breaks the logic of the current forms of production, irrational and polluting by others based on agroecology, that promote self-consumption and local consumption and are accompanied by rescue processes through the social and solidarity economy. The society that today is suffering from this system can take advantage of the crisis and understand how through agroecology it is possible to eat better, cheaply and sovereignly and generate a paradigmatic change, which in a country like Argentina would be the one that could lead us to an economy of soybean monoculture to natural”. Pengue thinks that “this globalization is over”, And that there may be an opportunity to rescue other views. "Live with what is ours”, He says, and the phrase leads him to the memory of the moment in which he managed to gather Aldo Ferrer, Jorge Morello and José L. Coraggio at the UNGS to talk about environmental issues in a Conference on Ecological Economy. "We are learning”, He reflects.
Pengue talks about these topics in his courses, such as the current one on Contemporary Environmental Issues for the Ecology career, where he emphasizes that in reality those future ecologists are, more than that, the “nature doctors”. And so he speaks to them. They, like this group of more than thirty students who meet weekly (now through their remote talks) are the basis of this educational transformation that is proposed by a public university such as UNGS, which has decided –says Pengue– “put the problem of the environment and the rights of all humans and all species at the center of their concerns”. Pengue tells us that she hopes that these ideas that she passes on to her students every week will reach and transform thousands, and change the lives of millions.