That is why Ribena is investing £500,000 in a five-year project with the James Hutton Institute to develop a new variety of blackcurrant that doesn’t need a cold winter to deliver good summer fruits.
“We are seeing big shifts in our climate. We’ve had an incredibly mild winter, followed by the sunniest May ever, and the driest May in 124 years,” Ribena’s blackcurrant agronomist Harriet Prosser said. “That puts us in a really difficult position.”
Standard blackcurrant varieties need around 2,000 “cold hours” – when the temperature drops below 7C – before they start to bud in the Spring, Ms Prosser explained. The cold spell reduces the risk of frost damage to new buds, and ensures blackcurrant shrubs flower at the right point in the season for peak pollination.
But this year, blackcurrant growers in the UK’s South East saw just 1,300 “cold hours”, raising the risk of lower yields and an unevenly ripened crop.
Ribena is trying to manage Britain’s unpredictable weather patterns by sourcing blackcurrants from across the country, from Kent to Scotland. Its growers also use a range of varieties, including some better adapted to warmer climates.
But each year growing a bumper crop of blackcurrants in Britain becomes more of a challenge. This year Ribena resorted to using a specially developed nutrient-rich “energy drink” on the plants to encourage fruiting, Ms Prosser said.
Finding a blackcurrant that thrives in Britain’s warming winter conditions is crucial to the sector’s long-term prospects. “I think we would always work to keep British blackcurrants going,” Ms Prosser said. “It would get harder without this breeding programme.”
Acclimatise are delighted to announce the establishment of a new partnership with Forum for the Future as co-delivery partners on the Cotton 2040 initiative.
To survive in an increasingly
climate-disrupted world, the cotton system requires significant, radical change
which can only be achieved by a systemic, collaborative approach involving
actors across the supply chain.
Cotton represents about 25% of
all fibre used in the textile sector globally and supports the livelihoods of
around 350 million people. The industry is facing increasing climate change
pressures include changing rainfall patterns, availability of water, rising
temperatures and competition for land for food and fuel.. Increasing the amount
of sustainably grown cotton is key to reducing cotton’s impact and
adapting to the negative impacts of the climate crisis; but while progress is
being made, uptake and production is limited, preventing sustainable
cotton from mainstreaming.
See a recently published blog by Forum for the Future’s Associate Director, Charlene Collison, on why we need to transform commodity value chains in light of the current pandemic and the on-going climate change threat.
About Cotton 2040
Facilitated by Forum for the Future and supported by Laudes Foundation, Acclimatise and Anthesis, Cotton 2040 aims to accelerate progress and maximise the impact of existing sustainability initiatives across the global cotton industry, by bringing together leading international brands and retailers, sustainable cotton standards, existing industry initiatives and other stakeholders across the value chain.
Since 2016, Cotton 2040 has been engaging the industry to understand and align around potential future risks and opportunities for sustainable cotton. The initiative’s progress to date includes building the CottonUP Guide to sourcing sustainable cotton, creating the first platform providing comprehensive information on sourcing cotton across multiple sustainable standards. Forum for the Future have also been carrying out foundational work with sustainable cotton standards, programmes and codes on pathways towards greater alignment in traceability and impact reporting (the latest phase of this work has been carried out in collaboration with Project Delta).
Cotton 2040’s progress has been
guided by a steering group that included sustainable cotton standards,
programmes and codes (organic, represented by Textile Exchange; The Better
Cotton Initiative (BCI); CottonConnect; Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA); Fairtrade;
MyBMP (Cotton Australia); and the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA). Brand and
retail partners have included M&S, Target, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail
Ltd. and Burberry, among others, alongside industry partners such as IDH, ICAC
Over the next three years
(2020-2022), Cotton 2040 and its partners will deliver a set of three
interconnected workstreams with the biggest potential to drive a systemic
shift to mainstream sustainable cotton through collaborative efforts.
Acclimatise will co-partner the
delivery of the first of three workstreams planned for Cotton 2040. This first
workstream is related to planning for climate adaptation. The three workstreams
Planning for climate adaptation: Creating sector-wide collaborative action to understand and adapt to the changing climate. Working with cotton producers, brands and retailers and industry initiatives, we will develop a common understanding across the cotton system as to how climate change is likely to impact key stakeholders and regions, and agree on a shared set of priorities for action across the cotton sector.
Sourcing sustainable cotton: Driving the uptake of sustainable cotton with brands and retailers, building on the success of the CottonUP guide launched in 2018.
Developing sustainable business models: Supporting a widespread shift towards alternative business models which ensure fairer distribution of value and risk between stakeholders, and enable the regeneration of land and resources.
How to get involved?
Each partner involved in Cotton
2040 has joined in recognition that no one organisation or company can solve
the sector’s challenges alone. But we need many more to join – and more funding
to make the impact that is needed.
We are now inviting expressions
of interest and commitment from organisations wishing to contribute to one or
more of these workstreams in 2020 and beyond.
Those wishing to find out more can contact Charlene
Collison, Associate Director – Sustainable Value Chains & Livelihoods at
Forum for the Future on email@example.com
Small businesses operating in the Caribbean are faced with constant challenges.
First, the challenges when operating from an island: you are in a remote and isolated location with limited natural resources; costs of production are high; transport costs are high; there are no economies of scale; and your domestic markets are quite small.
Second, trading policies are unfavorable to local producers. There is a high level of dependence on imported inputs (including fuel); a lack of diversity in the goods exported and in trading partners; and a rapid depreciation rate of some Caribbean currencies (such as the Jamaican dollar), which increases operational costs and reduces business competitiveness, both locally and internationally.
Third, access to finance – including finance for innovation and for relief – is very challenging. High interest rates, lack of collateral, and the burden of government (in terms of tax rates and bureaucratic inefficiency) are highly problematic.
Agriculture in the Caribbean has also been fundamentally shaped by the colonial legacy of plantation economies. There is a tendency in favor of export-oriented production, and the best arable lands have – and continue to be- allocated to major export crops such as sugar cane and bananas in large scale operations. This leaves only marginal – and hilly – areas for small-scale domestic production. These areas are generally under-utilized, many times due to farmers lacking the investment capital to clear and develop more land at their disposal, or to update their equipment and practices to increase land use efficiency.
And this is just the top of the iceberg.
Climate change, a threat multiplier
Add to this reality climate change: A threat multiplier capable of generating new and amplified perils to a group of actors that are already in relentless struggle for survival. Analysis of observed meteorological records show a warming and drying trend across the entire region as well as an increase in tropical storms (especially for hurricanes category 4 and 5). In the future, the Caribbean region is expected to experience further erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, stronger droughts and greater climate variability.
Multiple effects on agricultural systems emerge from these changing conditions. In particular, changes in temperature and in rainfall patterns and diversion from favorable agro-climatic conditions can hinder farming productivity, lowering yields and the quality of the produce. Increase intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms can increase the incidence of coastal and riverine flooding and expose assets to high wind speeds. These hazards can generate damages to infrastructure and equipment, making it difficult to undertake farm operations and reach markets; and it can also impact on communities and labour force.
But it is not just farmers that are exposed to the challenges generated by these changing conditions. When we take a whole value chain approach, we can see that climate change generates differentiated risks along all tiers of a value chain, depending on the resources and activities needed to carry value chain operations. To illustrate this point, Figure 1 below shows the different actors, resources and activities along the cassava value chain in Jamaica and some of the key associated climate hazards that each tier is exposed to.
Strategically relate to better adapt
New forms of innovation aligned with the socio-economic and climate realities of the Caribbean are therefore needed. It is herein that a relational approach to climate adaptation can be most beneficial.
As a form of soft innovation, relationship building and strengthening can help actors in agri-business reach critical resources – such as finance and information – helping to increase their adaptive capacity. My research also finds that business relations affect actors’ ability to share or transfer climate risks, making businesses more or less susceptible to adaptation actions taken by others and granting businesses greater or lower flexibility when responding to climate hazards. These dynamics can alter businesses’ perceptions and attitudes towards climate risks and their adaptive responses. In addition, effective relationship management can increase value chain flexibility, visibility and agility, strengthening the overall resilience of agricultural value chains and their capacity to withstand and respond to external shocks, including climate hazards.
When thinking about barriers to climate adaptation, a key challenge that SMEs face is their ability to engage in and benefit from open innovation processes. Due to their size and financial capabilities -which restrict resource allocation for in-house R&D- SMEs are more reliant on open innovation processes than larger firms, and also perform it more intensively. However, SMEs ability to engage in open innovation processes is not only reliant on SMEs internal organisational learning capabilities: It also depends on their capacity to build collaborative relationships with counterparts in order to unlock access to new inflows of knowledge, and on the overall levels of inter-organizational knowledge and innovation openness of the broader business network.
What is the role of government in promoting relational adaptation?
Governments can formulate adaptation strategies focused on stimulating and incentivizing relational innovation, i.e. innovation that occurs through the establishment of new relationships or the re-structuring of existing ones. They can promote the development of cooperatives, business associations and industry clusters, as these networks facilitate information flows between agribusiness and support the dissemination of adaptation best practices. In order to help reduce the current R&D investment gap, strategies can also promote the development of linkages between universities and value chain actors. If done effectively, these network developments can help to reduce the burden on government extension services, as actors can then access information and training through others.
Moreover, business networks improve collaboration, information sharing and joint problem solving. They also help developing shared values and beliefs among businesses, and promote the creation of a shared risk management culture, which are thought to increase value chain climate resilience. There is therefore scope for governments to provide support and allocate resources to the formation, expansion and maintenance of business associations and industry clusters, as they can directly enhance the capacities of businesses to respond to climate risks.
Government and development agencies lacking the resources to promote harder (i.e. more technologically driven) forms of adaptation, may see the promotion of relational innovation as an interesting avenue to promote adaptation. As a form of soft adaptation, supporting relationship building could complement existing adaptation strategies in agriculture whilst easing the burden of government activities.
An enabling environment that promotes adaptation through relational innovations grants greater agency and responsibility to value chain actors. In other words, governments can help framing the conditions for the development of a network structure that facilitates exchange and interaction, but that relies on actor’s abilities to develop and manage relationships effectively. Thus, whilst businesses can directly seek to increase their adaptive capacity by building strategic relationships, governments and development agencies can also play a role in facilitating the development of an enabling environment for relationship building.
This article is based on the research studies carried by Laura Canevari at King’s College London. Free access to peer reviewed publications available below.
Canevari-Luzardo, L. (2019). Climate change adaptation in the private sector: application of a relational view of the firm. Climate and Development. doi:10.1080/17565529.2019.1613214[
Canevari-Luzardo, L., Berkhout, F., & Pelling, M. (2019). A relational view of climate adaptation in the private sector: How do value chain interactions shape business perceptions of climate risk and adaptive behaviour? Business Strategy and the Environment. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.2375
Canevari-Luzardo, L. M. (2019). Value chain climate resilience and adaptive capacity in micro, small and medium agribusiness in Jamaica: a network approach. Regional Environmental Change. doi:10.1007/s10113-019-01561-0
A new World Bank study shows that reduced rainfall in developing countries has caused around 9% of cropland expansion and deforestation over the last two decades. The study looked at the land cover and rainfall data from 171 countries over the 23 years from 1992-2015, to see what impact rainfall anomalies (increases or decreases from the average) had on cropland expansion in subsequent years.
It’s well established that periods of drought damage crops and reduce yields for farmers around the world. However, until now little was known about the consequences of such pressures on cropland expansion. The researchers found that in developing counties, cropland expanded for up to five years following a drier-than-normal year. They did not find the same effect for increased rainfall.
The findings demonstrate the close connection between climate adaptation measures and climate change mitigation. The researchers found that regions where water infrastructure, such as irrigation, was present did not show similar cropland expansion. Adaptation measures such as improved farming practices, irrigation infrastructure or drought resistant crops, may therefore reduce the pressure on smallholder farmers to replace forested land with cropland.
These impacts will become more acute in the future as climate change is expected to reduce water availability and increase the frequency and intensity of drought events in many developing countries.
Singapore turned to its urban farms to accelerate local food production as the coronavirus pandemic continued to disrupt global supply chains. The municipal government published plans to turn car park rooftops in public housing estates into urban farms and is looking for other areas to grow food within the city.
With a population of five and a half million and a landmass of just 715 square kilometres, the tiny republic of Singapore is forced to import most of its food, meeting just 10 percent of its requirements from local production. The country imports most of its fresh vegetables and fruits from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, and from further afield from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Chile.
However, restrictions on population movement because of the coronavirus outbreak have severely disrupted farming and food supply chains, raising concern of widespread shortages and price increases. “The current COVID-19 situation underscores the importance of local food production, as part of Singapore’s strategies to ensure food security,” authorities said in a statement. “Local food production mitigates our reliance on imports and provides buffer in the event of food supply disruptions.”
Lessons for climate change response
Widespread disruption of agricultural supply chains is something that many cities have been preparing for in preparation for climate change. Extreme weather events, and slow onset
climatic shifts disrupt agriculture at every stage of the value chain and can lead to the sort of supply restrictions and price rises that cities are facing due to COVID-19.
Spikes in demand from panic buying has put further pressure on supplies and forced the government to look at ways to overcome the shortage of land. Only 1% of the country’s territory is devoted to agriculture and production costs are higher than the rest of Southeast Asia.
In response, the government has provided a US$ 21 million grant to support production of eggs, leafy vegetables, and fish. They have also begun to identify alternative spaces for urban farming, such as industrial areas and vacant sites. As part of that project, The Singapore food agency will launch a tender for rooftop farms on public housing car parks for urban farming.
This movement builds on existing projects such as the Sky Greens project, which uses vast, glass towers that rotate to capture sunlight. These multi-layered vegetable towers take around eight hours to complete a full circle absorbing sunlight and being watered when it reaches the bottom of its cycle.
Singapore has fostered many such innovative urban farming projects over the past several decades, however few have managed to deliver food supplies at scale. However, with renewed attention on local food production, perhaps the urban farming revolution will now begin to bear fruit.
A new study has provided clear economic evidence of the benefits of mangrove forests for coastal storm protection. The research, published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, finds that without mangroves, flood damage costs would increase by more than US$ 65 billion a year, and 15 million more people would be flooded.
provide incredibly effective natural defences, reducing flood risk and damages,”
said Pelayo Menéndez, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Marine Sciences
at UC Santa Cruz
and lead author of the paper.
the study, the researchers provide high-resolution estimates of the economic
value of mangrove forests for flood risk reduction across more than 700,000
kilometres of coastlines worldwide. They combined engineering and economic
models to provide the best analyses of coastal flood risk and mangrove
benefits. Their results show when, where, and how mangroves reduce flooding,
and they identified innovative ways to fund mangrove protection using economic
incentives, insurance, and climate risk financing.
Mangroves show wide ranging benefits across geographies
geographical analysis of the benefits of Mangroves, shows that the flood
protection benefits are widely distributed across countries with exposed
coastlines. However, the type of benefits varies significantly according to the
flood characteristics, mangroves extents and the degree of exposure.
the research found that mangroves provide the greatest benefits in the Western
Pacific and Caribbean islands. This is in part due to the amount of benefit
mangroves provide in comparison to a country’s GDP. For example, in Belize,
Suriname and Mozambique, the flood protection benefits from mangroves were
found to account for over 15% of the national GDP.
The study also found that mangroves provide critical flood protection benefits in countries with lower GDPs with coastlines that were highly exposed to climate hazards; for example, Mozambique and Bangladesh. The study found that these countries receive over $US 1 billion in benefits per year.
absolute terms, the countries that receive the greatest annual economic
benefits from mangroves were found to be richer nations, benefiting from
protection to high-value coastal assets and real estate. The United States,
China and Taiwan reap most rewards in these terms. On the other hand, Vietnam,
India and Bangladesh were found to benefit the most from mangroves in terms of
number of people protected, due to the high density of coastal populations in
the study also found that the benefits of mangroves do not accrue only to those
countries that experience extreme coastal storms such as hurricanes and
cyclones. While Mexico, India and Vietnam, do benefit from this protection, the
research also finds that countries, where cyclones are not as common such Japan
and China, mangroves still provide significant benefits from common high waves
Analysis provides vital evidence to inform adaptation
analysis is vitally important for climate adaptation decision making as it
provides clear evidence that Mangrove conservation provides significant
economic gains, and mangrove restoration essentially pays for itself in most
that we can value these flood protection benefits, it opens all kinds of new
opportunities to fund mangrove conservation and restoration with savings for
insurance premiums, storm rebuilding, climate adaptation, and community
development,” said co-author Michael Beck, research professor in the
Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
The study valued the social and economic coastal protection benefits provided by mangroves globally. Many 20-kilometer coastal stretches, particularly those near cities, receive more than $250 million annually in flood protection benefits from mangroves.
Despite their numerous
benefits, almost 10,000 km2 of mangroves were lost since between 1996
and 2016 and a further 1,400 km2 of mangroves have substantially
degraded over the same period. The Middle East, South East Asia and Central
America and the Caribbean have suffered the worst losses, primarily due to
deforestation for aquaculture, and coastal development, including the
construction of public infrastructure such as ports and airports.
As well as coastal flood
protection, losing mangroves also undermines livelihoods, food security, valuable
timber production, and one of the most efficient and important carbon stores on
High restoration potential
The good news is that
Mangroves remain relatively well distributed geographically, being found in
over 100 countries globally. As an ecosystem, mangroves are relatively
resilient and, with careful management can be restored successfully. The
researchers note that projects in Vietnam, Philippines, and Guyana have
restored 100,000 hectares of mangroves in recent years. “Mangroves are
resilient and can grow like weeds, even around cities, if we give them half a
chance,” Beck said.
To ensure the study’s
findings have a bearing on policy and conservation work, the researchers are
now working with insurance companies, the World Bank, and conservation groups
to use these results for risk reduction and conservation.
One of the greatest
challenges for ecosystem-based adaptation measures is convincing policy makers,
engineers and urban planners of their value, using hard evidence. This is why
the researchers used the “expected damage function” approach,
commonly used in engineering and insurance sectors to assess flooding.
Hydrodynamic models were used to calculate the flooding that occurs globally
under current and no-mangrove scenarios. In this way the study is able to show the
places where mangroves provide the greatest flood reduction benefits, this
study informs policies for adaptation, sustainable development, and
The large, single-crop, farms that dominate today’s agriculture industry may be undermining the resilience of the food system, according to new research from Stanford University. The study found that farms that have diverse crops planted together are more resilient to climate change, provide better habitats for wildlife.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, highlight the importance of farms that grow multiple crops in a mixed setting instead of the more common practice of planting single-crop “monocultures.”
The study relies on a long-term analysis of how farming practices affect birds in Costa Rica. “Farms that are good for birds are also good for other species,” said Jeffrey Smith, a graduate student in the department of biology and a co-author on the paper. “We can use birds as natural guides to help us design better agricultural systems.”
The team found that diversified farms are more stable in the number of birds they support, provide a more secure habitat for those birds. “The tropics are expected to suffer even more intensely in terms of prolonged dry seasons, extreme heat and forest dieback under climate change,” said Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology and a senior author on the paper. “But diversified farms offer refuge – they can buffer these harmful effects in ways similar to a natural forest ecosystem.”
As climate change increases the pressure on natural ecosystems, farms with diverse crops were found to support larger quantities of birds and other forms of wildlife. The study represents one of the first long-term studies on how agricultural practices impact biodiversity. The authors used almost two decades worth of field data to understand which birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland.
“It is only because we had these unusually extensive long-term data that we were able to detect the role of diversified farmlands in helping threatened species persist over multiple decades,” said Tadashi Fukami, an associate professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior author on the paper.
Costa Rica offered the ideal laboratory for the research as it has a mix of intensively farmed monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. The researchers were able to compare biodiversity levels across the various landscapes.Diversified farming methods does not mean turning away from profitability, the study’s authors note. “There are so many cash crops that thrive in diversified farms. Bananas and coffee are two great examples from Costa Rica – they’re planted together, and the taller banana plant shades the temperature-sensitive coffee bean,” they note “The two crops together provide more habitat opportunity than just one alone, and they also provide a diversified income stream for the farmer.”
Food security is increasingly a challenge for countries and governments worldwide. Of the food produced globally, 40% is wasted or lost, while more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day.
“The global supply of food is an incredibly complex system, involving multiple actors and a diverse value chain from production through to consumption”, says Juliet Mian, Technical Director, Resilience Shift.
“It relies on critical infrastructure throughout, in the form of water, energy, communication (digital and analogue), and transportation. Disruption to any part of any of these systems can cascade through to other parts of the supply chain and is likely to have unexpected consequences that are felt elsewhere in the world”, she explains.
Resilience requires a whole systems approach and a focus on the end-to-end resilience of a system, not only the ability of one organisation to maintain business continuity. The resilience of transportation infrastructure (road, rail, marine, aviation) is often taken for granted—until it fails. In this article, evidence is drawn from different systems, geographies, and stakeholders to show how a more integrated approach can enhance the resilience of transportation infrastructure networks and, consequently, the global food supply chains that rely on them.
The authors define food supply chain resilience and provide an overview of the view from industry. They expand on the following six principles for enhancing the resilience of food transportation systems that are relevant globally and throughout the supply chain:
Accepting complexity and recognising interdependencies
Creating a clear link between safety and resilience
Overcoming fragmentation in the supply chain
Adopting an ‘all hazards’ approach to resilience
Avoiding new, unintended, vulnerabilities related to technological innovations
A new UN report warns that global food production will be
altered fundamentally by climate change. Released to coincide with World Water
Day on 22nd March, the report warns that food insecurity will result
from even small shifts to growing seasons and water availability. The findings
of the report show how important ‘slow onset’, gradual climate change effects
will have massive impacts on human systems.
The World Water Development Report, emphasises that increased food insecurity could lead to price rises which, in turn, would increase rural poverty. Recent studies show that changing regional rainfall patterns will have significant impacts on wheat, soybean, rice and maize production, and that climate impacts will be felt significantly by 2040 in most regions.
Some regions would experience drier conditions, while other
face permanently wetter conditions. Land currently dedicated for wheat
cultivation in India, for example, would get more precipitation between 2020
and 2060, assuming current trends in greenhouse gas emissions. In certain
agricultural regions of countries like Mexico and South Africa, however, 87 and
99 per cent of the land, respectively, may receive less rainfall.
Quoting the study, the UN report says that, broadly
speaking, the tropics and the north would become wetter, while parts of Africa,
the Americas, Australia and Europe would become drier. In India, 100 per cent
of the land dedicated to rice cultivation, 91 per cent of land for maize and 80
per cent for soybean would face wetter conditions within the next 40 years.
The report also emphasises that rainfall in many areas is
expected to fall in shorter, more intense bursts. This is less useful for
agricultural production, which often requires rains to be spread across a
longer growing season. It could also lead to flooding and other extreme events
that threaten crop production and access to markets.
According to the report, there are several important climate
change drivers that make the world’s agricultural systems especially
vulnerable, these include: 20 years of increasing surface water flows, followed
by substantial reductions in surface water and groundwater recharge, changed
seasonality of runoff and peak flows, increased peak flows and flooding, and increased
Areas of significant vulnerability
The report highlights several regions of especially high
vulnerability to slow onset climatic shifts. These include the Indus and
Ganga-Brahmaputra agricultural systems which “face limited room to adapt to
climate change in the first instance”, the report said.
Non-monsoonal sub-Saharan Africa was also categorised with a
‘very high’ vulnerability, according to the report. The region could witness
declining yields because of increased rainfall variability and more frequent
droughts and floods.
Water scarcity was a particular concern for agricultural
production, as adaptation options are limited when water levels cross critical
thresholds. Challenges for agricultural water management are two-fold. “First,
there is the challenge to adapt existing modes of production to deal with
higher incidence of water scarcity (physical and economic) and water excess
(flood protection and drainage).” The report said. “second, the challenge to
respond to the policy drives to decarbonise agriculture through climate
mitigation measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance water
The current global food system is able to meet growing calorie demands today, however the report notes that the number of those severely undernourished is rising in absolute terms. As the global population rises, demand for food will too. This will be accompanied by competing demands on water from industry and services which could threaten food security. Early investment in adaptation and resilience building, focussing on water conservation and management must be a global priority.
The world of fungi has attracted a lot of interest and seems to be becoming very fashionable of late. A new exhibition at Somerset House in London, for example, is dedicated to “the remarkable mushroom”. No surprise: we’re being promised that mushrooms may be the key to a sustainable future in fields as diverse as fashion, toxic spill clean ups, mental health and construction. It’s in this last field that my own interests lie.
Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time: buildings are hugely complicit in the crisis. Together, buildings and construction contribute 39% of the world’s carbon footprint. Energy used to heat, cool and light buildings accounts for 28% of these emissions: households are the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2015, accounting for a quarter of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.
The remaining 11% of buildings’ carbon emissions consists of those associated with construction and building materials. The UK construction industry, for example, uses around 400 million tonnes of materials each year and approximately 100 million tonnes become waste. Cement alone is responsible for a whopping 8% of global CO₂ emissions. Compare this to the much maligned global aviation industry, which emits 2% of all human-induced CO₂ emissions. Buildings and, by association, the construction industry, are profoundly responsible for climate change.
There is evidently a real need for the construction industry to reduce the impact of its material and energy use and to take part in the transition towards a more sustainable economy by researching and using alternative materials. This is not an absurd ask: such materials already exist.
And yes, one such material happens to be derived from fungi: mycelium composites. This material is created by growing mycelium – the thread-like main body of a fungus – of certain mushroom-producing fungi on agricultural wastes.
Mycelium are mainly composed of a web of filaments called “hyphae”, which acts as a natural binder, growing to form huge networks called “mycelia”. These grow by digesting nutrients from agricultural waste while bonding to the surface of the waste material, acting as a natural self-assembling glue. The entire process uses biological growth rather than expensive, energy intensive manufacturing processes.
Mycelium materials offer an exciting opportunity to upcycle agricultural waste into a low-cost, sustainable and biodegradable material alternative. This could potentially reduce the use of fossil fuel dependant materials. The materials are low-density, making them very light compared to other materials used in construction. They also have excellent thermal and fire resistant properties.
To date, mycelium materials have been used in a number of inventive ways in building projects. One particular company of note is The Living, a New York based architectural firm which designed an organic mycelium tower known as “Hy-Fi” in the courtyard of MoMA’s PS1 space in midtown Manhattan. Designed as part of MoMA’s Young Architects Program, the structure illustrates the potential of this biodegradable material, in this case made from farm waste and cultured fungus grown in brick-shaped moulds.
Another project of note is MycoTree, a spatial branching structure made out of load-bearing mycelium components. This research project was constructed as the centrepiece for the “Beyond Mining – Urban Growth” exhibition at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 in Seoul, Korea. The project illustrates a provocative vision of how building materials made from mycelium can achieve structural stability. This opens up the possibility of using the material structurally and safely within the construction industry.
I am investigating the development of mycelium materials using locally sourced materials such as wheat straw. Wheat straw is a cheap and abundant source of waste in the Yorkshire region, so would be a fantastic raw material for construction. My main objective is to develop a material for use in non-load bearing applications, such as internal wall construction and façade cladding. The material displays similar structural properties to those of natural materials like wood.
The development of mycelium materials from locally sourced agricultural waste could reduce the construction industry’s reliance on traditional materials, which could improve its carbon footprint. Mycelium composite manufacturing also has the potential to be a major driving force in developing new bioindustries in rural areas, generating sustainable economic growth while creating new jobs.
The construction industry is faced with a choice. It must be revolutionised. If we carry with business as usual, we must live with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.