May 222018

Today is designated as International Day for Biological Diversity (or World Biodiversity Day) by the United Nations: a day for the promotion of biodiversity issues. The International Day for Biological Diversity falls within the general scope of the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals. In this larger initiative of international cooperation, the topic of biodiversity concerns stakeholders in sustainable agriculture; desertification, land degradation and drought; water and sanitation; health and sustainable development; energy; science, technology and innovation, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building; urban resilience and adaptation; sustainable transport; climate change and disaster risk reduction; oceans and seas; forests; vulnerable groups including indigenous peoples; and food security. The critical role of biodiversity in sustainable development was recognized in a Rio+20 outcome document, “The World We Want: A Future for All”.

From its creation by the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly in 1993 until 2000, Biodiversity Day was held on December 29 to celebrate the day the Convention on Biological Diversity went into effect. On December 20, 2000, the date was shifted to commemorate the adoption of the Convention on May 22, 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, and partly to avoid the many other holidays that occur in late December. The theme of the Day in 2018 is: Celebrating 25 Years of Action for Biodiversity

Coinciding with the observance of International Day for Biological Diversity, on May 2011 the Indonesian Forestry Minister inaugurated the Ciwalen Canopy Trail that is 120 meters (390 ft) long and 60 metres (200 ft) wide at an elevation of 30–40 meters (98–131 ft) above the ground at Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, West Java, to accommodate five to ten people in one trip to experience biodiversity first-hand.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), biodiversity typically measures variation at the genetic, the species, and the ecosystem level. Biodiversity is not distributed evenly on Earth, and is richest in the tropics. These tropical forest ecosystems cover less than 10% of earth’s surface, and contain about 90% of the world’s species. Marine biodiversity tends to be highest along coasts in the Western Pacific, where sea surface temperature is highest, and in the mid-latitudinal band in all oceans. There are latitudinal gradients in species diversity. Biodiversity generally tends to cluster in hotspots, and has been increasing through time, but will be likely to slow in the future.

Rapid environmental changes typically cause mass extinctions. More than 99.9% of all species that ever lived on Earth, amounting to over five billion species, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth’s current species usually range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86% have not yet been described. More recently, in May 2016, scientists reported that 1 trillion species are estimated to be on Earth currently with only one-thousandth of one percent described. Think about it for a minute: it’s possible that only .001% of all living species have been documented. I hope that boggles your mind. It is tribute to the vast ocean of ignorance about living things that we swim in, yet we claim to be oh-so-knowledgeable. Maybe in future centuries this period will be known as The Age of Scientific Ignorance (assuming Homo sapiens survives that long).

The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. The earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates to at least 3.5 billion years ago, during the Eoarchean Era after a geological crust started to solidify following the earlier molten Hadean Eon. There are microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia. Other early physical evidence of a biogenic substance is graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old meta-sedimentary rocks discovered in Western Greenland. More recently, in 2015, what were called “remains of biotic life” were found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.

Since life began on Earth, five major mass extinctions and several minor events have led to large and sudden drops in biodiversity. The Phanerozoic eon (the last 540 million years) marked a rapid growth in biodiversity via the Cambrian explosion—a period during which the majority of multicellular phyla first appeared. The next 400 million years included repeated, massive biodiversity losses classified as mass extinction events. In the Carboniferous, rainforest collapse led to a great loss of plant and animal life. The Permian–Triassic extinction event, 251 million years ago, was the worst; vertebrate recovery took 30 million years. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago and has often attracted more attention than others because it resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The period since the emergence of humans has displayed an ongoing biodiversity reduction and an accompanying loss of genetic diversity. This reduction, called the Holocene extinction, is caused primarily by human impact, and if I were to put my finger on the single most important event I would name the Industrial Revolution as the villain of the piece. The reduction in biodiversity can be attributed to a number of causes such as increased pollution, climate change, destruction of habitats etc., but they all lead to one principal cause: the expansion of industrialism. Fossil fuels used in industry and transport pollute and produce greenhouse gases, habitats are constantly destroyed in the service of agribusiness monoculture and industry, and so forth.

The Industrial Revolution had a gigantic impact on all world cultures in a cascading domino effect. For example, factories in Britain in the 19th century needed raw products for manufacture which led to massive global colonization and imperialism, which, in turn led to slavery and enforced labor, deforestation, land clearing, and other impacts that caused the destruction of habitats – not to mention the fact that the factories consumed millions of tons of fossil fuels which polluted the air and created significant carbon dioxide emissions. Soon the rest of the world was following Britain’s lead, and we are living in the wake of that fundamental shift in vision of how we want the world to be. This means that individual efforts to reverse the trends that are causing a loss in biodiversity are feeble – at best – and probably (in my ever-humble opinion) doomed to fail in the long run. We want to eat our cake and have it. We want all the modern technology we have now – and more – and yet we want to (somehow) not pay for it with non-renewable resources. I do not see how that is possible. My dismal prediction is that Homo sapiens will be one of the species driven to extinction along with the millions of others, but, of course, I have no idea when that will come about.

Certainly, we should do our level best to convert to renewable energy sources, shift to sustainable foods, and the like, as much for ethical reasons as anything else. But I do not believe that these changes will have a lasting effect on the inevitable outcome. To put it bluntly: Homo sapiens is not a sustainable species. In other posts, I have spoken many times about thinking holistically when making decisions about what to eat or wear, what energy sources to use, and all the rest of it. You can’t avoid eating meat because of the cruel ways that farm animals are raised, but drink coffee produced by slave labor. You can’t avoid wearing animal products, but wear synthetic materials that can be as damaging, if not more so, to the environment. In any case, this is not a matter for individual change, but for cultural change on a global level: and that is simply not going to happen. As long as some people are making piles of money from processes that are destructive of the environment and biodiversity, nothing will change until it is too late (if it is not too late already).

All that said, there is no need to contribute to species extinction personally, even if the final outcome is unavoidable. We can still take personal responsibility for our actions. Therefore, I strongly advocate eating organically produced foods (if they are genuinely organically produced, and not simply claimed to be by devious marketers, as they are so often in the US), which do not use pesticides that endanger a number of species; to avoid eating species that are endangered, or whose consumption endangers other species (as in the case of Pacific mackerel and tuna); and to be aware, holistically, of the effects of certain diets.

The food groups that are underused in the West, seaweeds and insects, are frequently vaunted as “sustainable” but I want to raise a note of caution here. No species is by definition sustainable.  If a particular insect or a particular seaweed is suddenly touted as “nutritious and sustainable” and there is a run on it because it has become a new fad, it is quite likely that global stocks will be depleted in short order, causing shock waves throughout the food chain. Seaweeds and insects have not been hanging about for millennia waiting for some human cultures to discover them as food. They have been eaten by other species for that time as their major food sources. They are also invaluable environmentally. It has recently been shown that seaweeds absorb more far more carbon dioxide than terrestrial plants, and, therefore, overusing them would have as significant an effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as deforestation.

Rather than give you a recipe today, in light of these warnings, I am going to suggest a fundamentally important rule, namely, to maintain biodiversity, diversify your diet. You do not need to eat the same foods all the time to maintain your usual balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates. I hope this blog has already made you aware of the incredible diversity of ingredients in the world. Today’s challenge, therefore, is to eat something today that you have never eaten before. It doesn’t have to be spiders or grasshoppers or kelp. It can be goat or squab or wild mushrooms. You can even use your normal recipes, just with different main ingredients. The point is to break out of eating the same foods all the time because by doing so you are contributing to a reduction in biodiversity. There are tens of thousands of edible species in the world, most of which are more readily available than you might think. Take advantage of them all.

Jun 082016


Today is World Oceans Day. It has been unofficially celebrated every 8 June since its original proposal in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in late 2008. It has been coordinated since 2003 by The Ocean Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group, with increasing participation each year since.


Marking the World Oceans Day, the UN has underlined these facts and figures:

— Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 per cent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume;

— Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods;

— Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at 3 trillion dollars per year or about 5 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product;

— Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions.

— Oceans absorb about 30 per cent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

— Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

— Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.

— Subsidies for fishing contribute to the rapid depletion of many fish species and prevent efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate 50 billion dollars less per year than they could.

— As much as 40 per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats.


It’s astonishing to me how cavalier people are about the health of the world’s oceans. I get the impression that people assume that the oceans are so vast that you can just dump anything you want in them and they will take care of it, instead of understanding that they need care, same as any other ecosystem. This year, the theme of World Oceans Day is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” with a specific focus on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a serious threat because it degrades very slowly, polluting waterways for a very long time. In addition, plastic pollution impacts the health of aquatic animals, not least because animals including zooplankton mistake the microbeads for food and are seriously damaged by their ingestion.

Children play on the litter-strewn beach off Jacmel

When I was a teenager, certain fish such as cod and mackerel, were treated in Britain (and elsewhere) as inexhaustible stocks for food. Overfishing has proven that perspective to be misguided. Cod and mackerel are now reaching dangerously low levels worldwide and may be unsustainable in the near future. A big part of the problem lies in limited culinary habits in some cultures. Just because a recipe calls for cod does not mean you have to buy cod. Use pollock, coley, hake, or whiting instead. These are wonderful fish, and not endangered as yet. But for today’s recipe ideas I’m going to turn from fish to seaweed.

Seaweeds are used extensively as food in coastal cuisines around the world although consumption varies widely. Seaweeds can be foraged naturally or farmed, and are generally favorable to marine ecosystems. The main potential problem with farming is the possibility of certain species becoming invasive. Seaweed has been an important part of the diet in China, Japan, and Korea since prehistoric times. Seaweed is also consumed in many traditional European societies, such as Iceland and western Norway, northern and western Ireland, Wales, and some coastal parts of South West England, as well as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is much less common in coastal France, Spain, Italy, and the United States, although interest is growing there because of the influx of Asian cuisines.


Seaweed has many health benefits because it contains abundant health-promoting materials, such as dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. It can be a good source of protein and lipids, with concentration levels varying between the types of seaweed.

I’d say have at it with whatever seaweed you can find. In China and Japan there are tons of fresh varieties readily available in supermarkets. I always had some on hand for salads or stir fries and soups when I lived in Yunnan. In the West it’s not quite so common, but you can find varieties in oriental stores as well as in conventional supermarkets if you look hard enough. Sheets of nori are pretty common. Here I’ll focus on kombu.


Kombu (昆布) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae and is widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带). Most kombu that is sold is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. With the development of cultivation technology, over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea.

During the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) in Japan, a newly developed drying technique allowed kombu to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period (1603 and 1868), as Hokkaidō was colonized and shipment routes were organized, the use of kombu became widespread throughout Japan. Traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet and this practice began in the Edo period. Okinawa uses more kombu per household than any other prefecture. In the 20th century, a way to cultivate kombu was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.


Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (oboro kombu, tororo kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi. Kombu is a good source of glutamic acid, an amino acid responsible for umami, the Japanese word used for a basic taste identified in 1908, but still not very widely acknowledged in the West. Wake up people – we have taste buds just for umami.

Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi stock. I’ve described how to make this already: .


Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It can also be included when cooking dried beans to add nutrients and improve their digestibility, reputedly because the kombu cuts flatulence when the beans are eaten.