Our friend Jennifer Biringer of SustainAbility chaired a panel on The Biosphere Economy at the Social Capital Markets (SoCap) Conference in San Francisco last year with leading philanthropic foundations and investors. Here she reflects on the panel and on the direction of the broader natural capital agenda.
“…Standing in the seed ‘vault’ of Lynmar’s biodynamic winery in Sebastopol, CA with scads of garlic heads, amaranth spikes, and jars of funny-shaped seeds lining the walls, it’s easy to have a moment of hope for the state of biodiversity. Master Gardener Michael Presley estimates that the 3 year old vault is already worth a quarter of a million dollars, though he notes the real value of the seeds – what he calls ‘last year’s ideas’ – is much more. Watching this micro-scale activity of seed saving in a reconstituted barn and regenerative agricultural practices in action, you see biodiversity teeming in a real sense – frogs jumping underfoot, the sweet smell of living soil, noisy chattering birds and an adjacent wetland inhabited by blue herons. And a very productive winery with delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
“Sweeping up to the international level where talks are nearing a close at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, it is relatively easy to be despondent about biodiversity’s fate. This is a reckoning year for the CBD as it country parties assess progress against its 2010 target to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. To say that the target has not been met is an understatement. Virtually all global ‘systems’ (nutrient cycles, etc) are in poor condition with biodiversity overshoot assessed last year by a team of scientists published in the journal Nature to be the most significantly surpassing safe operating limits (much surpassing climate change, interestingly). Biodiversity truly is the meta-issue with which we all have to refocus our efforts in a serious way. Rates of species extinction are 100-1,000 faster than normal rates and scientists tell us we are nearing ecological tipping points which, if exceeded, will lead to irreversible loss of ecosystem functioning (the Amazon and its role in creating rain, e.g. on which Brazilian agriculture is dependent is one example). And yet, CBD talks are stalled not least because the US, ever the CBD rebel who refuses to play joins Angola as the only country not in attendance (or having ever ratified the treaty).”
“Zooming back to California and the recent SoCap Conference of entrepreneurs to a panel on the Biosphere Economy (named and inspired by Volans’ report) which I facilitated, we heard of the promise of investments in natural capital. The Skoll Foundation’s David Rothschild described efforts they are funding to track deforestation on a real-time basis (vs the normal annual measurements on behalf of the Brazilian government) and feeding this not only to policy makers within a timescale in which they can act more quickly to enforce forest laws, but linking the tracking mechanism to beef supply chains so companies can determine whether a pound of ground beef purchased valued the surrounding forest on which it is ultimately dependent. Lisa Monzon of the Packard Foundation told of their efforts to invest in transforming markets for sustainable seafood by rolling up their sleeves and diving deeply into supply chains where they are applying a variety of financing tools to influence contractual arrangements that impact how fisheries are managed. Lisa and Jason Scott of EKO Asset Management, an asset management firm specializing in monetizing unrecognized environmental values, both underscored the importance of regulatory levers to bring about scale.”
“And while public policy is crucial, and companies have an absolutely critical role to play in showing their support for biodiversity-friendly regulation and incentives, the pace and scale of biodiversity loss means that we can’t wait for policy to save the day on its own. Companies are beginning to act. Mars, for example, is experimenting with true triple bottom line accounting, and has also recently invested in mapping and making public the cacao genome in the hopes of creating a more sustainable supply of cacao – one of the top 10 global crops which currently suffers substantial yield losses due to weak strains that are susceptible to pests and disease. The lives of 6.5 million farmers in Africa, Asia and South America depend on a sustainable cacao supply chain. Similarly, our quality of life, and the goods and services we have come to enjoy for free, depend on it also.”
“Interestingly, the top vote from the audience of the SoCap panel for kick starting the biosphere economy was to get serious about activating different sorts of relationships – between companies, the public sector, and communities — at a variety of scales (not just the micro or the macro) to create a more functional network better geared for success. An analogy exists in the form of ecosystem relationships and functionality from which we can borrow inspiration.”