Soil, Fungi and Chthonic Communication

Humans aren’t the only ones who send messages. In his third guest blog, visual artist Shane Finan talks how nature sends messages underground.

A photograph of a spoon of soil taken in a forest, with trees in the background
In a spoonful of soil you can find up to 100m of threads of fungal hyphae, as well as thousands of living organisms. Photo credit: Shane Finan

As I approach a residency that looks at networks in the forest, I have been investigating the soil and how messages are passed below the ground. Regardless of any other area of investigation on this project, soil provides the link that makes all other things possible. The idea of place is tied to the structure of soil – the demarcation of one place from another not by borders but by identity is how people perceive ‘place’. The earth under our feet is the connector that allows us to create place (although advanced sailors like Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook in the 1700s and purportedly could always point to his home island in any weather without aid of map or compass, may disagree).

The word ‘chthonic’ is defined as ‘subterranean’ or, in mythology, ‘of or relating to the underworld’. This word provides a strong basis for a historically enabled artwork that encompasses the underworld as a story-telling device and as a medium of transfer of ideas.

We often think of soil as a limiter, as the soil of one’s nation creating borders between places, or as a solid in an otherwise non-solid space. But soil is also a source, and a transmitter. Plants grow from the nutrients provided by soil. The roots of trees connect into the fungal bodies via threads of mycelium that weave through the soil. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there are as many microorganisms as there are humans living on the African continent (Nature, 2011). In the same space, there can be between 10 and 100 metres of mycelium curled around the miniature rocks and dust (Bragg, Boddy, Gurr, & Johnson, 2018).

A photograph of tree roots with soil attached to them, jutting from right to left. The soil is dry, implying that it has been exposed and the tree has fallen down.
Fungi and trees communicate at the level of roots, passing messages below the soil. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Fungi and plants often work together, forming the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. Although there are common partnerships, many mycorrhizal (green plant and fungus) networks are led by chance, where fungi find themselves next to unfamiliar trees. The history of mycorrhizal networks is as much as 420 million years old, among the oldest living relationships we know of (Remy, Taylor, Hass, & Kerp, 1994). In these partnerships, fungi and trees exchange water, nutrients, and messages.

Healthy soil is needed for the woods, and the Wood-Wide Web, to grow. The soil becomes a transmitter, providing nutrients, passageway for insects and other small creatures, and growing space for roots and fungi. Soil, as a transmitter, allows the movement of animals, water and roots, but also allows the transfer of parasites, chemicals, and other invaders from neighbouring areas. The fungi that find the most comfortable, collaborative environment can thrive and grow.

The underground ignores human demarcations and borders just as the overground does – roots do not know where one field ends and another begins. The delicate ownership of soil, and the ability to grow, is important and has been highlighted in recent years by artists, farmers and activists. Fungicides kill the helpful fungi as well as the harmful ones; pesticides kill pollinators as well as pests; chemicals sprayed in one area can affect neighbouring places unintentionally.

As with fungal networks, human infrastructural networks (water, electricity, internet) also creep through the soil, sometimes, unfortunately, coming into competition with tree roots or mycelia. These are usually controlled by states or companies and maintained locally by individuals or teams employed by these larger bodies.

A photograph of a sign that reads Danger Underground Cables in faded lettering. The sign is old, and overgrowth of grass and shrubs is beginning to cover it up.
Forests and human networks both pass messages underground. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Cables for telephone, internet or electricity stream through the landscape both over and underground. These structures create abstract networks of interconnectivity that follow less ordered patterns than in planned urban areas, flowing with the landscape around streams or forests.

The potential for ad-hoc networks to provide an unstructured system of communication is one that has been explored by technologists and artists as a way to ensure community control over network infrastructures (O’Dwyer, 2020). In places as diverse as Zambia and Thailand, rural ad-hoc networks that transmit short-range signals that bounce data from one home to another are established in villages by local residents (Johnson, Belding, Almeroth, & van Stam, 2010; Lertsinsrubtavee et al., 2015). These locally coordinated networks decentralise the ownership of the internet infrastructure and place it in the hands of those using the connectors. Decentralised networks are arguably stronger, less open to corruption, and can be self-regulated.

Transmissions happen underfoot all the time. They pass through the soil that seems so solid underfoot. Soil has to be imagined not as a solid, but as a transmitter, and my artworks are looking at soil as a transmitter, a point of movement of messages, nutrients, and life. It is only through this understanding that the chthonic can really be understood.


References

Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D. (Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D.). V. Brignell (Producer). (2018, 15/02/2018). In Our Time [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r3nwl

Johnson, D. L., Belding, E. M., Almeroth, K., & van Stam, G. (2010). Internet usage and performance analysis of a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th ACM Workshop on Networked Systems for Developing Regions.

Lertsinsrubtavee, A., Wang, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Crowcroft, J., Weshsuwannarugs, N., Tunpan, A., & Kanchanasut, K. (2015). Understanding internet usage and network locality in a rural community wireless mesh network. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Asian Internet Engineering Conference.

Nature. (2011). Microbiology by numbers. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 9(9), 628-628. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2644

O’Dwyer, R. (2020). Another Net is Possible. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 68-80). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.

Remy, W., Taylor, T. N., Hass, H., & Kerp, H. (1994). Four hundred-million-year-old vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91(25), 11841-11843.

Gender, arts and farming

Centre for Rural Economy artist in residence Joanne Coates has been exploring reasons for gender bias as part of her residency. Although the Covid-19 lockdown has halted her artwork, here she highlights how feminism and women’s leadership are viewed in farming and further afield.

Close up of crops. Credit: Joanne Coates

In the art historical world, gender bias is not a secret. Ever since stories have been told, they have been told through the voice, seen through the eyes, and felt through the experience of the masculine. As recently as 2012, only 4% of artists in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) were women. In my own medium, photography, only 15% of photographers are women. In the industry, women earn on average 40% less than men[1]. The situation is no different in agriculture. according to the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, with only 14.9 % of registered farm holders in the UK being women.

I have recently begun working with Professor Sally Shortall at the Centre for Rural Economy, and our conversations about gender bias get my mind racing marathons. One discussion brought me back to a time when I told a high-up middle-class (obviously) man in the arts that I was dating a farmer, and his exact words were, “you’ll just end up a farmer’s wife.” I can’t think of many jobs where you just end up somebody’s wife. I think of my partner’s Mum, the work she does for the farm, the behind-the-scenes running of farms women have done for centuries. Are these women ‘just farmers’ wives’?

Farmer Izzy Credit: Joanne Coates

Since December I’ve been immersed in research, preparing myself to move to rural Northumberland for the practical side of my residency. Lockdown was announced the day before I was due to move. I stayed put, in the lowest part of the North East, in the furthest-up part of North Yorkshire. A bleak rural landscape, my dog for company, (slow) internet, and my partner, a farmer. It is definitely a challenge to how I usually work. I’ve found solace in online conversations with people I’m yet to meet through email chains, talking about gender roles with women who are living the farming experience.

On one of my lunchtime escapes I was listening to the WNYC podcast ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ and two and two finally added to four. One moment in particular helped to explain much about the gender imbalance in farming and how portrayals of feminism link within this.

Dolly’s fans hail her as the original third wave feminist icon. However, Dolly doesn’t view herself that way. When the podcast presenter asks if she thinks of herself as feminist, her response is clear: “NO I DO NOT. I think of myself as a woman in business. I love men, I have a brother, a dad, a lot of cousins. I look like a woman but I think like a man, but I think like a woman too.”[2]

The podcast goes on to hear from Sarah Smarsh, who wrote a book called Heartland, and writes a lot about Dolly and Class. Coincidentally, Sarah grew up in a rural area, on a farm in a poor area 40 miles outside of Wichita, Kansas. She highlights how femininity has changed within the portrayal of feminism, with Dolly Parton paving the way in breaking down these stereotypes. To quote:

The feminism of the 1970s and 80s, it’s where you had a lot of women start with traditional roles in both the workplace and the home. That’s a moment. When women who had business ambitions were being encouraged to sort of downplay their own quote unquote femininity. You don’t need to wear makeup. You can cut your hair short and put on the pants. During the second wave Dolly is one of the first to represent the future third-wave. She went, like, in the opposite direction which was like you have a problem with my tits then here. They are hanging out. She played it up and was like, you can deal with it. I think I’m more kind of a millennial spirit of approach to feminism… There’s this idea of what feminists are supposed to look like. Feminism can be whatever that it is you wanted to be as a woman. You want to have big hair and big boobs and wear rhinestones then do it.”

What she said next also struck a chord with me. Sarah explained how women live feminism in different ways: “Let me put it through my own experience. I had a very complicated relationship to the term feminist when I was a teenager. In America they choose to sort of like feel this backlash (to feminism) that is full throated now. It was like burgeoning when I was a teenager and I could feel it. Certain words have a different life in those two worlds, but there are women who as we speak are living the tenets of feminism more strongly and in a more badass manner than women who wear the word on a T-shirt and March in the marches.”[3] This struck a chord with me.

Country landscape Credit: Joanne Coates

Sarah is from a farming community, and I’m part of a farming community. They can be closed communities, with outsiders not fully understanding their complexities. Rural villages and hamlets are not big cities, universities or towns. The language used is different, the way communities engage is different. Women have worked on farms for hundreds of years, they have supported and pioneered. The female shepherdess isn’t a new phenomenon. The language around being a woman in a traditional role, and the more recent trend of using ‘feminist icon’ as a term for a leader, makes many feel uncomfortable. This, however, doesn’t mean they are not. It is in their actions. We still have to look at and deal with the lack of female leaders within the farming industry. From conversations I’ve had to date, I have noticed a clear tendency to downplay their roles.

I’m a keen advocate of voices. For women to see themselves as farmers or leaders, they need to literally see themselves as farmers and leaders. To make space and create space for this. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

When it is safe to meet, I will take my interviews from screen to face-to-(covered) face. I will chat with women in different roles within agriculture. Together I am hoping we will look at and challenge attitudes currently held within the industry. For now, here’s to those women that have been leading the way in farming but not speaking about it. In the words of Sarah, those ‘Badass’ women of agriculture.

Footnotes

[1] Figures  from Women Photograph https://www.womenphotograph.com https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

[2] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

[3] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

References

https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

https://www.gov.scot/publications/women-farming-agriculture-sector/

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america


Material culture: mask behaviour in rural Japan

PhD researcher Chisaki Fukushima is currently in Japan conducting fieldwork. Covid-19 has caused the nature of her fieldwork to change, which she has had to adapt to, but it has also provided an opportunity to observe other phenomena, particularly, the changing role of masks in the community.

Masks handmade by Machiki-san. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Transformation, observation and Covid-19

It took only a couple of weeks from the beginning of March for the small rural town I have been living in for my field research to turn into a ghost town. All the stores were shut except for the supermarket and franchise convenience stores, and no one, except a few people in cars, was visible on the street.

Given a large part of my research involves human contact, methods such as face-to-face interviews and participant observation became impossible to conduct, apart from the latter, at a distance. My ‘outsider status’ has made my fieldwork further challenging; people recognise that I am from outside of the community, and, even worse, that I am from abroad, where the terrible Covid-19 crisis is taking place. Despite the fact that I have observed a quarantine period and observe scrupulous hygiene measures, people see the ‘outside’ world in me. (I am continuously reminded that my existence has multiple social layers that will impact the data I produce.) Therefore, in order to minimise my ‘alien’ attributes, I moved into my informants’ neighbourhood, which allowed me to interact with them daily and reduce the anxiety some people may have felt about me moving in and out of their space.

Material Culture: Mask Behaviour

While some elements of my fieldwork have been compromised, new opportunities have arisen. For example, I have had occasion to observe how the rural Japanese community I have been living in has adapted to the public health threat that is Covid-19. I have noticed the rise of social conformity regarding public hygiene, and mask wearing is a significant part of this.

Kinds of masks

The mask is a relatively recent development in public health, originally introduced in Japan during flu outbreaks just before World War One[1]. The masks I refer to are not face masks but ‘surgical masks’ which cover the mouth, the nostrils (depending on how they are worn) and the surrounding area, regardless of the size or fit. These come in an array of categories: unisex, men/women, adult/child, S/M/L. They are available in an astonishingly varied range of materials, brands, character designs, patterns, colours and so on. Some people opt for a utilitarian look, while others seem to want to express themselves, using their masks as a fashion statement. Both are quite commonly observed.

Mask wearing

Because of its coastal topology and a history of fishing spanning hundreds of years, the region is exposed to numerous and diverse diseases and natural disasters. People practice(d) exorcist rituals and the worship of an epidemiological god. However, wearing masks has not historically been one of their practices. Although fishing is no longer economically viable, the rituals and the storytelling around fishing are still actively practiced and maintained on a daily basis. Fishermen’s patriarchal kinship is still dominant, and status and position are inherited by men from prominent families. I do not know if fishermen’s machismo has something to do with not wearing masks, but this is a population proud of being healthy because of its high fish diet, and there are some people who seem to have actively resisted wearing masks so far.

PhD research Chisaki Fukushima in a hand made mask. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Masks and sneezing

The common pattern when people sneeze without a mask is to cover their mouth with the palm of their hand. Coughing and clearing the throat are associated with more varied hand gestures, including covering the mouth with the hand either stretched or in a fist. Using a hand to cover one’s mouth remains common in public spaces with or without mask. However, people in the home environment tend to alternate behaviours by not using their hand at all or covering their mouths with their hand slightly further out in front of the mask.

Gendered divisions

I have observed that both purchasing and crafting masks from scratch generally seems to be done by female family members, either the wife of the head of household or the wife of the older generation of the household. Machiko-san, an informant, complained, “There are no masks at the shop so I thought, I must make it rather than exposing (one/my)self to risk without wearing a mask!” She picked a couple of masks out of her beautiful batch for me. When she is praised by people, she demurs, “No, no, no, I just made use of a piece of textile that was of no use at home, handkerchiefs and towels, rather than let them go to waste. They are not authentic at all and only made up by myself (laughter).” I wear her mask every day and sometimes see the same patterns and designs worn by strangers on the street. I assume they were given by Machiko-san. Handmade masks are becoming very popular these days because people stay at home with reduced outside work, and this is something they can make at home. That is an interesting case of people’s needs matching their interests and talents in the face of the Covid-19 emergency.  

Meanwhile, masks are the first thing to run out stock at stores. It is not an exaggeration to say that the everyday discussions start and end with masks. I clearly see the mask becoming perceived to be one of life’s ‘necessities’. The cultural connotations of this are profound, but as yet, unknowable.


[1] Palmer, Edwina; Rice, Geoffrey W.(1992) ‘A Japanese Physician’s Response to Pandemic Influenza: Ijiro Gomibuchi and the “Spanish Flu” in Yaita-Cho, 1918-1919’. Bulletin of the History of Medicine; Baltimore, Md. Vol.66 Issue.4: 560.

How COVID-19 may impact rural communities and what can be done to support them

With the COVID-19 outbreak set to continue for the foreseeable future, the implications for rural communities have received relatively little attention in policy and the mainstream media. This blog summarises some of the main challenges and emphasises the importance of monitoring rural economies and communities going forward.

The present COVID-19 outbreak is affecting every aspect of rural life and as things stand, the duration of its impact is unknown. Rural areas have experienced something similar to this lockdown before, when the countryside was shut down in response to the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak, although this was not as widespread. There could be lessons to be learnt from that experience and the recovery afterwards.

Whilst certain aspects of rural life could prove to be a benefit at this time, being more sparsely populated areas of the country, other aspects of rural life can make life harder during the lockdown with implications for rural business, agriculture as well as wider societal consequences.

Rural businesses

For the rural economy there are both demand and supply-side shocks. On the demand side the impact will be greatest for those firms (and their supply chains) unable to provide their produce or services to consumers other than within their own business premises. On the supply side the lockdown predominately affects the availability and productivity of labour. Although the majority of UK farms are family farms where the workforce and capital is already on site, or drawn from their immediate rural localities, this will be a particular problem for certain agricultural sectors that rely on a mobile workforce, such as horticulture.

Social consequences

Everyone is feeling the pain of social isolation, both rural and urban. For those groups with limited access to the internet or with poorer mobile signal, this is exacerbated. Elderly people often do not have the skills to use the internet to stay connected, and there are issues of affordability. Some rural areas also have limited connectivity. This will have implications for home-schooling children, the online economy, and staying connected. Going forward, full digital connectivity is essential, regardless of class or place. It is also essential that training is made available so that people have the skills to be able to stay digitally connected.

It is also worth noting that Covid-19 is itself prompting many positive responses of community, neighbour and volunteer support. How public, private and third sectors effectively work together, and crucially with the rural voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) ecosystem, is critical to the immediate emergency response and will be vital to longer-term recovery. Greater support of these are needed.

One interesting aspect of the current lockdown is the social and cultural relationship between rural and urban populations. There has been widespread media coverage of roadside signs asking visitors to stay away from the Lake District and rural Wales, for example, sometimes reinforced by police checkpoints. Visits to second homes as rural sanctuaries have been especially divisive, reflecting the continued concentration of services in urban centres. Many rural residents fear their already limited services will be stretched to breaking point by the influx of urban escapes. This highlights ongoing battles around issues of sustainability of rural communities without the influence of tourism or second home owners.

Recommendations

Looking to the future, there is a need for ongoing and long-term monitoring of business impacts, resilience and recovery. Firms and social enterprises in different sectors and places are impacted and recover at different rates. Experience of FMD and credit crunch/recession showed that for some firms and rural economies the recovery will be swift, for others it will be delayed and this pattern is likely to be repeated in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Many of the core rural institutions also face a struggle for financial survival because of the impacts of Covid-19, including village halls, village shops and pubs. ACRE and the Rural Coalition report[1] that the ability of village halls to weather the storm is uncertain. Support for these institutions is critical to their long-term survival and the help they can give in the recovery phase.

The distance from sources of advice and support, issues with digital access and literacy also highlight a need for the monitoring of the uptake of support to ensure that it is taken and appropriate and equitable assistance. During FMD, when large swathes of the countryside closed for several months due to measures to prevent the spread of the disease, it was apparent that many firms had not sought or obtained special assistance. These included some that were severely impacted, and many were frustrated in their attempts to access aid or fell through the gaps of the support framework.Better monitoring is needed to ensure that this does not happen again.

This blog was summarised from a recent CRE briefing note. Read the briefing note in full here.


[1] Joint letter “Covid-19 and Rural Communities” to DEFRA Secretary of State from the chairs of ACRE, Plunkett Foundation, Rural Services Network and Rural Coalition, 20th March 2020.

The CRE Blog gets a facelift: announcing a new commissioning and editing process

Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) blog editors Beth and Adrienne have recently attended a training session with an expert editor, and are now ready to take the CRE blog to the next level. Here they announce some forthcoming changes to the commissioning and editing process.

What is the purpose of the CRE blog? Who is our audience? What information should we be trying to convey? These are some of the key questions that we, as editors of the CRE blog, have been asking ourselves recently.

We took on the role of editing the CRE blog approximately 18 months ago and have really enjoyed working with many of you to publish your ideas. It has been quite a learning curve for us, and while we have been really pleased with the number and quality of posts we have received, we think it is now time for us to up our game as editors. To this end, we connected with freelance writer and editor extraordinaire Julia Glotz, who ran a fantastic blog editing workshop for us earlier this month.

There is a wealth of experience and ideas within the CRE and we believe it is important that a channel is available to staff and students through which to communicate both with each other and to a wider, less-specialist audience. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has highlighted how valuable blogs can be for communicating complex information in an accessible manner. We also recently learned at training delivered by Newcastle University’s Policy Academy that rigorous academic blogs can be an important source information for policymakers, particularly when they are pushed for time and need insights into current issues in an accessible format and from a credible source. We believe the CRE blog can play this role.

One of the key things we learned in our blog workshop is that good editors need to be more than proofreaders. They must help their writers shape their ideas from the outset so that the final product is as engaging, accessible and informative as possible.

In order to ensure your writing gets the attention it deserves, we will be changing our editorial process to maximise the consistency and quality of the CRE blog going forward. This will include providing more guidance to you, our writers, in order to make writing a blog less of a daunting task.

We will shortly be circulating a briefing note that will outline the new process. We hope this will make the blog submission process easier, not more difficult, and encourage more of you to contribute. The CRE blog cannot be a success without you!

For now, we leave you with a few key takeaways:

  • A blog post should be able to tell readers something they don’t already know. What is surprising or unexpected about your idea? Are there any elements of conflict or change?
  • You should be able to summarise your topic in a catchy headline. If you can’t think of one, you probably need to adjust your idea!
  • Keep it simple and to the point. You should be able to convey your message in 600-800 words.

We look forward to continuing to work with you all to make the CRE blog the success we know it can be.

For more information on training sessions run by Julia Glotz, visit her website: www.juliaglotz.com. We can’t recommend her highly enough!

Overseas Institutional Visit – Toulouse School of Economics

In the latest CRE blog PhD student Elena Benedetti reflects on her recent study visit to the Toulouse School of Economics

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

During February and March 2020, I had the opportunity to visit the Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) at the University Toulouse Capitole, in the South-West of France. I was able to go following the kind invitation of Prof. Nicolas Treich, whom I met last year at a Centre for Rural Economy seminar. Nicolas is a senior researcher and director of INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), working mainly in environmental, behavioural and animal welfare economics. This experience was funded thanks to the overseas institutional visit scheme offered by my scholarship, the ESRC-NINE DTP. I really recommend every NINE DTP PhD student apply for the same scheme to visit another institution for a few months. ESRC can fund travel and accommodation, and also extend your scholarship, in some instances.

TSE is a world-renowned centre for research in economics, chaired by Nobel laureate Jean Tirole. It works to connect research to policy, in France, Europe and worldwide, and comprises various economic research groups, including applied economics (environmental, food, health), finance, econometrics, public economics, industrial organization and macroeconomics. The centre recently moved to an impressive new building that won the Pritzker prize this year. It was fascinating to study in this modern glass building with terraces, where we could go to have chats and coffee breaks (the coffee was free for everyone). I had a big office just for myself and I could focus very easily on my research. The environment there was very stimulating and, in a way, I was much more motivated to do my work and be constantly focused. Being there allowed me to appreciate more what I am doing for my PhD and be more willing to explore and study new things. I learnt how important it is to do research with people that are passionate about many of the same things as you. It is extremely vital to connect with other researchers and exchange ideas.

Overall, it was a great experience, both for my professional and personal development. My own research benefitted substantially from this visiting period. I believe the suggestions and feedback I received while there will notably improve the quality of my project. Discussions with various academics enabled me to consider new and different perspectives on my research. I met people that implemented very similar micro-simulation model to mine and we listened to and challenged each other. This was essential to correcting some parts of my research, allowing me to achieve better results.

In terms of dissemination, engagement and knowledge exchange, I had the opportunity to present my work and research findings in a seminar in front of experts in environmental, health and food economics, many of whom gave me excellent suggestions and feedback. This was without any doubt a very useful practice for my presentation skills in view of future conferences and my PhD viva.

Toulouse – Credit: Elena Benedetti

The best thing about my visit was the opportunity to meet different types of academics and have direct contact with them on a regular basis. Everyone was kind and willing to help, in every moment. The PhD community was very welcoming as well. They informed me about the possibility of attending the job market conference during my final year of my PhD in order to apply for job opportunities. I could talk with them about my issues and concerns and discuss my research at any time. We also had some social events together where we went for drinks and dinner. I really enjoyed this experience because I could talk with everyone about my project, also during lunch time.

The connection between TSE and IAST (Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse) offered the possibility to exchange multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge among researchers. I could attend one or more seminars each day (where the lunch was always provided), with speakers coming from everywhere. I learnt about new models and new research topics, among other things; every day I spent there was a learning opportunity. In fact, I am still able to attend these seminars online, which means I can continue to learn new things daily.

Some researchers read my working paper and provided me very detailed comments, essential for the improvement of my work, in view of future journal submissions. Also, I introduced to them the new part of my PhD concerning the effects of environmental regulations on trade. It was extremely useful because I was able to get suggestions on how to develop this new project and which direction to follow before starting it.

The city was very beautiful and charming, with nice streets and squares. The walk along the river is one of the best part of the city, and I was able to enjoy it every day on the way from my house to the university. The sunset was amazing, everything painted with pink color, from the houses to the sky. The food and wine was also great, especially the cheese! My favourite was the raclette and the fondue. I also had the possibility to travel around in the weekends.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Toulouse before the actual return date due to the coronavirus outbreak, but I am very satisfied for the overall experience. I managed to do what I planned to do and create some good networks with many researchers in view of my future career. I would like to go back sometime to visit some of the PhD students I met there. Again, I really recommend that everyone consider this opportunity. It is extremely worthwhile, and can help you appreciate your project more, get more exciting ideas and enrich your skills and personal development.

The importance of nature for mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest CRE blog features a guest post by MSc Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security student Jack Swain. Here he talks about the importance of nature and its’ impact on mental wellbeing.

Credit: Poppy Swain – https://poppyswain.myportfolio.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives across the globe. Here in the UK, we are forced to stay inside our homes and are only allowed to leave to collect food and supplies, care for vulnerable people and exercise once a day. The focus so far has been on reducing the lives lost to the virus and the economic recession that is likely to follow. However, the coronavirus will have other secondary wide-ranging impacts, namely on emotional wellbeing. But there is hope to be found in reconnecting with nature.

Emotional wellbeing has not been treated with the same priority as limiting deaths for obvious reasons. As we get further into this crisis, the secondary impacts of self-isolation will become more obvious. The term ‘social recession’ has been used by several commentators to describe the harmful effects to mental and physical health that reduced human interaction, loneliness and isolation can cause. The so-called loneliness epidemic just became pandemic.

Coronavirus threatens the social connections that humans require. We have evolved to feel safest in groups thanks to our hunter-gatherer origins, where teamwork translated to higher chances of getting food and defending our families. Forced isolation goes against our primal need for connection and causes increased stress. Cortisol levels, a key stress hormone, become heighted if experienced for an extended period of time and overall cardiovascular function decreases with the effect equivalent to the impact of being a smoker or non-smoker. Isolation just doesn’t suit our social nature. Adjusting to life inside, which involves working from home, caring for children and vulnerable people, and not visiting bars, restaurants and cinemas, can have a significant effect on our mental health. These changes can create the conditions for loneliness, referring to the subjective experience of isolation, and ultimately lead to an increase in long-term acute loneliness.

Nature can help us to lessen the impacts of loneliness and isolation. Spending time in nature has real, measured impacts on the body and mind. It has the healing ability of alleviating stress and providing deep psychological relaxation, as well as supporting physical activity. A study by DEFRA found strong evidence linking contact with nature and health benefits, stating that it improves mental wellbeing and even maintains a healthy immune system, effectively making you happier and healthier(1). This message is echoed in the traditional Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or taking in the forest atmosphere. Spending as little as 2 hours per week surrounded by trees and greenery has been found to have strong positive effects on health and wellbeing(2) by reducing blood pressure, increasing parasympathetic nerve activity and lowering concentrations of stress hormones(3).

The surroundings on the CRE forest bathing last year

Our rural spaces can play a large role in curbing the impacts of coronavirus on our mental health. Strict government measures have enforced many rules upon what we can do, who we can see and where we can go. But within these new rules is the guidance that people should still go outside for fresh air and exercise. A brief survey carried out for this blog post found that participants talked about feeling more peaceful, refreshed, inspired and generally positive when they made the effort to walk in parks and wooded areas. Being outside surrounded by nature reduced the feeling of being trapped or contained when isolated in their homes. Social distancing can still be observed when enjoying the natural environment and we have many parks, woodlands and urban green spaces that remain accessible to visitors. It is important to respect the current rules when out enjoying nature, ensuring you are at least two metres apart from those you don’t live with and not congregating in groups. I hope this blog post inspires you to go for a walk, run or cycle in your local green space during these tough times.

Why not tag @cretweeting on Twitter with images of the nearby outdoor spaces you are making the most of.

References

1. Lovell, B. (2017) DEFRA evidence statement on the links between natural environments and human health. Available at: https://beyondgreenspace.net/2017/03/09/defra-evidence-statement-on-the-links-between-natural-environments-and-human-health/ (Accessed: 26th March 2020).

2. White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S.L., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H. and Fleming, L.E. (2019) ‘Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing’, Scientific Reports, 9(1), p. 7730.

3. Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009) ‘The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan’, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), p. 18.

CRE PGR Symposium 2020

In the latest CRE blog, PhD students Hannah Budge and Ivy Matoju talk through their experience of organising the annual CRE postgraduate student symposium.

PhD student Ivy Matjou presents an overview of her research

Each year the students from the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) organise a symposium to showcase the research they are working. It also provides a fantastic opportunity to receive comments on their work from their peers and colleagues in CRE. This year the symposium was held in the impressive surroundings of the Howden Room on campus, which really helped to add to the occasion.

This year we took a slightly different approach to the symposium, with the day was filled with a combination of rapid 3-minute presentations by the first year PhD students, insightful talks from staff based on their own research experiences, 10-minute presentations by the second year and above students, as well as the usual short papers submitted by students for staff to peer-review prior to the day itself.

Following the introduction by Hannah, the talks took the audience across a range of subject areas and geographical ones too: from the development of Responsible Research and Innovation frameworks, understanding place attachment in the era of mobilities, to the aspect of human rights, and to women in agriculture, and; from as close to home as the north-east of England, to the Islands of Scotland and as far away as Mexico’s Valle de Jovel, Southeast Nigeria and West Papua (Indonesia).

PhD student Hannah Budge presentsing at the CRE symposium

The 3-minute presentations by the 1st years were exceptionally detailed given the time constraints they had (it was amazing just how much could fit into such a short space of time). They outlined providing outlines of the ideas they will be following through their years at the university, including room for change and adaption required when conducting research in the field. The remaining presentations focused on the results obtained so far in the students’ studies, hurdles they had encountered and changes they had to put in place.

The exchanges between the presenters and the audience were viewed as beneficial by both groups with the exchange of thoughts, ideas, concerns and interests amazing to witness. Participants in the symposium stated that the event had allowed them to see new links between the topics presented and their research areas of interest or more generally other opportunities to consider throughout their PhD, thanks to the inclusion of other talks such as the use of social media and experience of pursuing a PhD with CRE. The submitted paper was also deemed to be of the appetizing variety with the reviewers’ keen to read the full version conference paper entered. The social at the end of the day provided a good way of winding down and further conversation on shared interests and future opportunities.

The symposium in full swing

Reflections

We both enjoyed the opportunity to organise the CRE PGR Symposium, and the final event itself. How smoothly it ran reflected our combined efforts over the past few months. It was not however without some issues along the way, we have summarised this below in the form of some handy tips for those who are considering organising similar events in the future, including next year’s symposium;

  • START EARLY! It may seem like an obvious point, but we cannot stress this enough. We started meeting weekly from the beginning of November and this meant that the workload was spread out over a few months, making it much more manageable to fit in around our own research and prevented any last-minute stress.
  • Speak to others who have organised and attended past events. By listening to their experiences, for instance issues with too small rooms, this meant that we could learn from them and avoid similar situations. Additionally, their feedback was valuable in terms of how the event was structured. By showing that you have taken on their concerns means that people are more likely to engage with the event as it continues to evolve the fit the needs of students.
  • Be flexible and creative with your timetable. One problem we had was that many of the PGR students were away conducting their fieldwork when they symposium was on, meaning it was difficult to initially fill up the entire day due to a lack of participants. To solve this, we had had to think creatively on what we could do to fill this time, we settled on asking some staff members in CRE if they would be willing to help. We are very grateful that they were happy to do so! There was an insightful talk about doing, and life after, a PhD in CRE and a presentation regarding using social media to promote yourself as a researcher. The latter generated much discussion and potentially a future social media training session for those in CRE. This highlighted that thinking of what else you can therefore offer at an event is important.
  • Plan breaks to keep everyone well fed and hydrated. The continuous supply of coffee and food ensured that people’s concentration levels didn’t falter throughout the day, and by having breaks meant that people could chat to others about their research and give some informal feedback. So, a thank you to CRE for funding the refreshments!
  • And finally, enjoy it! After months of work it was great to sit and listen to the presentations highlighting the diversity of topics in CRE, and afterwards hearing that people felt more confident about their presentation skills. It was nice to hear our hard work had proved to be fruitful for others.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and contributed to the event! We couldn’t have done it without you all.

The Agriculture Bill 2020: What’s in it for British farmers?

In the latest CRE blog senior lecturer Carmen Hubbard discusses what the UK’s new Agriculture Bill might mean for farmers.

Sheep in Weardale

The reintroduction of the Agriculture Bill 2020 for its first reading on 16 January attracted attention from all quarters. Agriculture is generally regarded as a dull topic, but Teresa Villiers, the former Secretary of State for the Environment, heralded the new Bill as a “landmark” and “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years” which will take the UK “away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy”. 

The initial version of the Bill, tabled in 2018, stipulated a gradual phasing-out of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments (known as ‘farm income support’) and their replacement with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’. These include better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction.

At the core of its delivery was the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), described by Defra as ‘one flexible contract’ that will allow farmers ‘to deliver public goods alongside market products’.  The Bill also set out measures to increase farm productivity and fairness along the food supply chain, and included provisions regarding market intervention and compliance with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). To allow farmers to adjust, the Bill established a seven-year transition period starting from 2021.

Environmentalist groups reacted favourably, but the Bill was severely criticised by the industry for being too ‘green-focused’, and particularly for its lack of support for food production. The industry also complained about the lack of detail: how much money will be allocated, to whom and for what? Will food imports be subject to the same production standards as applied in the UK?

Moreover, a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee of the House of Commons that scrutinised the Bill in November 2018 reinforced the criticisms. It stressed the excessive empowerment of ministers, the imbalance between food production and the environment, the lack of a multi-annual financial framework to cover the transition period, and the absence of any procedures regarding standards for imported food products. Hence, the Committee called on the government to ‘put its money where its mouth is’.

Following the political turmoil that followed the departure of Theresa May, the Bill was put on hold, only to be revived with additional face-lifting in January this year.  

In response to this criticism, and to EFRA’s recommendations, the revised Bill contains some extras. It includes a new chapter regarding the government’s duty to report to Parliament on UK food security, at least once every five years. It also refers to the preparation of a multi-annual financial assistance plan, with the first plan covering the period of transition starting on 1 January 2021. Another part relates to fertilisers, identification and animal traceability; transfer of payments between red meat levy bodies across countries in Great Britain; organic production and agricultural tenancies. The Bill also reinforces the provisions for increases in productivity, transparency and fairness in the supply chain, and assistance during exceptional market conditions.

Notably, though, the Bill focuses mainly on England, with just one part (Part 7) dedicated to Wales and Northern Ireland. Public consultations took place across all four nations, and these led to different preferences being expressed: for example, the complete and rapid abandonment of direct payments has been treated with more caution in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, at least up to 2024. This is not surprising given that agriculture is a devolved issue, and Scotland, which refused to consent the initial Bill, published its own Agriculture Bill in November 2019. This allows the Scottish government to continue current CAP schemes, including direct payments, beyond 2020.

Differences between countries regarding farm support could create tensions, with farmers complaining about the lack of a ‘level playing field’. But the amount of money to be allocated to UK farming still lies with Westminster, and therefore the devolved governments may find themselves constrained on how they can use their own budget.  

As an economist, I never find agriculture or how we produce and trade food products at all dull.  But it does seem that the questions an economist would really like to see answered are still hanging in the air. Like its predecessor, the new Bill does not provide any specific budget, beyond saying that overall annual funding for farm support will remain at current levels for the duration of this Parliament. At the same time, the term ‘public goods’ has disappeared, to be replaced with ‘purpose’, and there is no reference to ELMS. Does this signal a shift in emphasis, perhaps even that the Bill’s intentions are not as ‘green’ as environmentalists suppose? 

Improving productivity is always the government’s ‘holy grail’, but our research shows that this is by no means the answer to every problem, either for the country or for the producer. The UK does not have a ‘comparative advantage’ (the ability to produce food at a lower opportunity cost than that of trade partners) in agriculture. However, as yet, the UK has not been threatened by food insecurity, as our imports have generally come mainly from suppliers (mostly EU member states) who are very stable economically and politically.  Could this explain the lack of any reference regarding the quality and safety standards of future imported food? 

Traditionally, economists have categorised farmers as ‘price-takers’ in the market. This is because farmers are numerous and typically small in terms of production. Consequently, they have little market power and therefore are unable, unlike for example supermarkets, to decide their selling prices. Farming Minister George Eustice wants them to become ‘price makers’, and to increase their power in the market. This is easier said than done. Grouping together to form co-operatives is one possibility, but these have never been popular in the UK. Another possibility is for farmers to ‘add value’ to a product, for example by transforming milk into speciality cheese or switching to organic production. But farmers who produce an undifferentiated, homogeneous product – potatoes, carrots, wheat, milk – are always likely to be ‘price-takers’.

Finally, any form of support is likely to be capitalised into land values (as well as captured by others across the supply chain).  Hence, the tenant farmer simply pays more in rent.  It remains to be seen how this might manifest itself under the new regime.

For the economist these are all fascinating questions that remain to be answered.  For farmers and producers they represent a worrying, and continuing, uncertainty.

This blog post originally appeared on The UK in a Changing Europe blog.

Bridging gaps between researchers to foster collaborations

In the latest CRE blog, PhD researchers Francis Naab and Ivy Matoju reflect on a recent visit to London where they presented their research to a newly launched social enterprise.

Researchers attending the Bobab event

On 20th Nov 2019, we attended a seminar held in London as part of the panel speakers for Bobab Africa, a recently launched social enterprise and online platform which aims to bring researchers and industry in Sub-Saharan Africa together to share ideas, form collaborations and generally work together for the development of the Continent. They are keen to hear from a broad range of individuals whose work (be that research or otherwise) focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. This includes early career researchers such as ourselves.

As part of their initiative of fostering collaborations, the Bobab Africa platform hosts seminar talks that can be viewed online or attended in person. Each seminar is focused on a different area, with the one we attended centred around “A growing ecosystem: Supporting off farm innovation for inclusive agricultural development”. Its main purpose was to foster discussions around policy reform related to off-farm innovation and enterprise, business models and how they work, education and training for youth engagement, and job creation along the agri-food chain. So how does our research fit within this?

Francis

My presentation focused on agricultural policy in Ghana, which has been a core part of my PhD research. More specifically, I discussed policies that affect the agri-food chain via two different routes: those that influence food production and those that influence demand for agricultural products, such as the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme that has been the focus of part of my PhD research. Whilst several of these reflect the key focus of government to increase staple food production and create a ‘Green Revolution in Ghana’, a financing gap to further support this exists, created by the recent banking crises in Ghana and the subsequent reform of the microfinance sector and other informal credit schemes.

As smallholder farmers form the majority of the rural population in Ghana, they are particularly hard hit by this recent banking restructure, which primarily served rural local communities and makes it difficult to invest. This is further compounded by a lack of a widely implemented agricultural insurance policy which would help with the increased climate variability in the country. Innovation within the agricultural sector has an important role to play in addressing this challenge, and I highlighted two Ghanaian start-ups as good examples of this: Cowtribe, which provides extension services to about 29000 livestock farmers using a mobile application, and SyeComp which renders services such farm mapping, localised weather forecasts, farm financing and value chain traceability. More organisations like this will be important in the future for helping in areas where government support is currently not strong.

Ivy

Innovation was an important part of the work I presented. More specifically: the acceptance of innovation at the policy level in sub-Saharan Africa and how this has changed over time: from of the Lagos Plan of Action (1980) to the current Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (2014). My presentation covered some of the hurdles faced when implementing such policies, especially within the agri-food chain. Using an example of genetically modified foods, I highlighted the contrast between public perceptions in Kenya and Tanzania (the two case study countries for my PhD) regarding genetically modified foods and their acceptance at the policy level. These differences may well be due to misinformation and a lack of public awareness, especially for those in the rural areas, and the pragmatic steps adopted by the governments in the form of controlled laboratory and field trials. I also emphasised the need for more inclusive societal participation in policy development, with this currently being limited. This should aid in efforts to increase awareness and acceptance of policies, thus helping ensure their effective implementation at all levels. My ongoing research will be looking to explore policy development further with a range of stakeholders involved in the food chain, and hopefully I can make more specific recommendations as my PhD progresses.

The event was live streamed and well attended, with discussions around the presentations ranging from agricultural initiatives, to power dynamics, to policy and microfinance. It proved a great opportunity for networking and to discuss our findings with other researchers from across the UK, as well as find out more about how other people are looking to tackle some of the challenges focused on during the seminar. The Bobab initiative provides a great motivational space for facilitating these conversations and we’re looking forward to future events.

For more information on Bobab Africa visit their website: https://bobab.org/