The earth is the only known habitable planet that sustains life, yet many forms of life on the planet are under threat from climate change. Over time, temperatures and weather patterns have shifted, causing disruptions to the earth. Planet earth consists of ever-changing continents, atmosphere, oceans, ice and life. The habitability of planet earth results from a complex network of interactions between the earth and its components; and a systems perspective is required in understanding the earth with all its attendant interactions with other habitants (including humans and animals) and with the environment.
The theme selected for Earth Day in 2022 is ‘investing in our planet’. The key point for this theme is stated as:
- Act in a bold way.
- Innovate in a broad way.
- Implement in an equitable manner.
Acting boldly, innovating broadly and implementing equitably all require collaboration and partnerships. Every government, business and individual has a role to play. Investing in our planet will take people coming together and giving one another the platform to use their voices to make a difference in addressing challenges linked to the earth system, such as food insecurity.
What does it mean to think about investing in the earth from a food systems perspective? A food system consists of actors and interactions from input supply, production, transportation, processing, consumption and disposal. Food systems also include the enabling policy environments and cultural norms around food. In financial terms, the main purpose of investing is to realise a return from the invested asset in the form of profits or dividends. Taking this as a metaphor, we can imagine the earth as an asset, and current human actions on the earth the investment; today’s actions will determine the quality of returns realised on the earth in the future. Continuous extraction from the earth by producing food unsustainably will deplete the resources for future generations. In other words, current human activity is not consciously investing in the asset earth.
Changing investment strategy, for example, to reduce negative impacts on the environment in the long term, could reap rich returns in the form of a secure future for generations to come by contributing to the sustainability of food systems. In agriculture, for example, several ‘investment’ measures can be practically taken to realise returns on asset earth, including natural resource conservation; resource use reduction, reuse and recycling; water and energy conservation; education; and responsible research and innovation. The FSNet-Africa fellowship contributes to these practical measures through research focused on strengthening different parts of the food system. FSNet-Africa is a University of Pretoria project funded under a partnership between the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The University of Pretoria leads the project in partnership with the University of Leeds and the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN).
The FSNet-Africa fellowship seeks to maintain responsible research and innovation, which is central to investing in the planet. In a broad sense, responsible research refers to reflection, analysis and debate concerning the moral acceptability of new technology and innovation. Responsible research and innovation thus begins with an awareness of the potentially devastating influence of human beings on the earth. It implies, among other things, that we must be willing to pose and answer challenging questions about the impact of our research and innovation activities. As researchers, we need to ask ourselves if the research solutions we are developing speak to the needs of society and yield positive outcomes – for example, if they help improve incomes, access to food, health, and the environment.
Ethical and responsible research and innovation is a key focus area for the fellowship, where addressing societal challenges is a priority. This means that the research should not be limited to adding new technical functionality to the world. Innovation processes, systems and investments should preferably address societal challenges and our urgent global problems, in climate, health, planning, energy, water and quality of life. Emphasis is placed on ensuring that the research is relevant to stakeholders and can be taken up to improve the lives of people and the planet. The FSNet-Africa fellowship responds to pertinent societal challenges using the cocreation principle, where relevant stakeholders are engaged from the conceptualisation of research to its fruition. On the other hand, risk assessment and monitoring contribute to the understanding and management of unintended outcomes; the impact of research is consistently monitored for any unintended negative consequences.
Responsible research calls for educating researchers to steer away from extractive research that ignores the importance of considering social and ecological risks of research. This means that a risk assessment of the research is performed, in which potential negative impacts of the research are clarified and mitigation strategies considered. In essence, the relevant parties affected by the innovation should be adequately considered at a very early stage: risks and potential harms, as well as well-being, values, needs, rights and interests. Ethical boards and structures have an important role to play in institutions of higher learning. Their processes should not be seen as tick-box exercises but as ongoing processes that ensure that risks and harm are minimised while benefits of research are maximised.
Investing in the planet earth means that the current generation of researchers conducts well-considered, responsible research and innovation. Failure to take on such ethical research standards and responsibilities ignores the role that the earth plays in sustaining lives; it turns a blind eye to the effects of climate change and its devastating impacts on the sustainability of human life on earth.
As we celebrate Earth Day 2022, let us remember that future returns on our current investments in planet earth will be realised if we deliberately practise responsible research and innovation in our current research endeavours. According to Dolores Huerta (a civil rights, workers and women’s advocate), ‘every moment is an organizing opportunity and every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world’. What will you do to invest in our earth’s future?