Working together to get the job done

There are thought to be approximately 8.7 million different species of animals, plants and fungi in the world (Hawaii University).

To date, we have only described 1.3 million of them.

That leaves over 7 million extant species to be discovered, identified, named and described.

Last year, researchers knocked 229 off that list, and described another 36 that are known to have been extinct for over 20 million years.

Though this may seem underwhelming at first, when you consider that by far the most biodiverse regions of the world, the Amazon rainforest and the deep Ocean, are the two most unexplored ecosystems on our planet, and that all the obvious species have already been identified, 229 new species isn’t bad.

But discovering these new species does not necessarily mean that there are now fewer to find. Evolution will not stand still while we catch up – there are countless speciation events that have and will result in the rise of at least one, distinct new species.

Identification of new species is not an individual task. Several articles that reported these recent findings allude to the work of ‘international collaborators’ that contributed to the process: collaborators with a range of expertise and experience in relevant fields of study.

In general, it is rarely the work of one individual or organisation that builds or advances knowledge. Even notable, historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Captain James Cook, who have broadly been accredited as almost solely responsible for some revolutionary discoveries, did not describe the laws of gravity or cross the Pacific Ocean alone. Sadly, and in some cases intentionally, collaborators can be abandoned, disregarded and forgotten.

But there is a growing recognition in the natural science community of the need to encourage both inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration between research groups, but more specifically to encourage leaders of these groups to acknowledge their collaborators in an academic context.

Through advocating these types of collaboration, we would widen the scope of discovery to encompass regions previously unvisited as well as raise the profile of investigative projects in local areas, encouraging the continuation of research beyond the initial steps.

Collaboration in theory

In the simplest sense, collaboration is about communication between cooperating partners that have a common aim.

Inherent to collaboration is the idea that all parties must contribute, support and ultimately benefit from the project they are involved in. That contributions are complimentary is vital to achieve the goals such projects set out to achieve. But although the value each party adds to the expedition must serve to increase productivity and achieve targets, it is rarely evenly-balanced: one party often contributes more than the others.

This is almost entirely down to the financial disparities between those that lead a project, invariably recognised, occidental organisations, and those that are ‘employed’ to assist in the field: often experienced, native mavens.

As a result, the duty to integrate more local groups into research, or even corporate-driven, investigations must surely lie with those who financially support these projects?

In circumstances where both, or all, parties have the funds to invest, each collaborator has the power, or at least the opportunity, to be able to influence a decision. What is rare, and hence the current attention, is collaboration of the financially well-endowed with unrecognised, poorer businesses such as local guides or experts. What is rarer still is the recognition these local personnel receive: it is, and has been, far below the level of input they actually have in planning and carrying out a project.

Why is it an issue?

In articles I have read, explorers and conservationists often seem surprised by the level of contribution a local individual or group gives.

It would not be surprising that, at least occasionally, indigenous people know more about their environment than do those funding an investigation. It would therefore seem not only sensible but advantageous to engage with local experts more, utilise their knowledge and subsequently recognise them in professional reports.

It is certainly, in some part, through tradition that explorers and conservationists are stubborn in their methods: stereotypical, post-colonial male explorers intent on being the first to achieve something. Throughout recent history, this has been the case, almost to the level of trying to outdo previous missions in order to obtain a more impressive accolade.

Alternatively, or more likely in addition, there is a level of ignorance or naivety (it is hard to tell) that has led to the capability of those outside our immediate contact being underestimated. Writing as a white, educated, Westerner, as many researchers are, we believe that we should know what is best, or how to achieve something most successfully because we have invested so much time, money and effort into our academics.

I do not think you can blame us for that. Without investment and ambition to explore, research and learn more about our environment, we would not be in the position we are in. But in order to further our understanding of the natural or the human environment, we must acknowledge the role collaboration beyond basic assistance can have.

Collaboration in practice

The difficulty in maintaining a collaborative approach beyond field work lies in communication.

The evolution of the internet has undoubtedly enabled the recent surge in understanding: recruiting expedition personnel, disseminating research findings and collating past data have all improved since the inception of social media, email and telephone.

Such technologies make it easy for corporate organisations to arrange meetings. However, when those with the best knowledge of the region of interest or the greatest expertise of a certain species live in undeveloped or rural locations, this is not a feasible method of communication.

But problems can occur at even more basic levels: language barriers can cause miscommunication, confusion and inefficiency, particularly when using technical terms as research projects require.

Though these fundamental language issues exist, we cannot assume, even if it may be the case, that non-Anglophone collaborators do not understand the ins and outs of an investigation: it may simply suggest that we are not communicating our ideas in the best manner possible.

This is where cross-discipline collaboration can come into greater use.

Collaborations between scientists, geographers and mathematicians are relatively commonplace in academic investigations. But multilinguals can be equally valuable to an expedition. Communicating with a foreign individual can inform you of the local culture, lifestyle, religion or tradition as well as knowledge of the ecosystem you are working in. In other words, we can learn a lot more about an environment than we would do working in silence.

There is a risk that, should Western industries continue to forsake smaller yet essential international collaborators, conservation and wildlife projects, such as those that uncover and identify species, could become more expensive, more time consuming and less relevant.

Looking forward, collaboration should extend beyond basic help in the field: the entire process from planning to publishing should incorporate a higher level of collaboration between participants than is current.

Is Veganism actually healthier?

Veganuary is in full swing.

This year, 6% of people in the UK will attempt to avoid meat and resist dairy for one whole month.

It is thought more than half will adopt their new, fashionable lifestyle on a more permanent basis, continuing to abstain from an animal-based diet beyond January.

Some will probably have already given up.

Ethical vegans are extreme in their lifestyle, avoiding all animal-based products, including leather shoes, woollen clothing and make up tested on animals.

More popular is lifestyle veganism – abstaining from consumption of animal-derived products. There are now over 72 million #vegan Instagram posts, nearly 3,000 vegan items for sale at Sainsbury’s and over 2,000 vegan books for sale in Waterstones.

Of those who describe themselves as ‘vegan’, 31% were persuaded to adopt such a diet by the widely publicised health benefits that eating less meat and dairy can bring. A similar number cited environmental factors in their decision making, but concerns about animal welfare was a contributing factor for more than half of those surveyed (53%).

Despite its growing popularity, there is a lot out there reprimanding the apparent benefits of a vegan diet.

The mainstream media cannot wholeheartedly be trusted in reporting these contentions, so I’m going to quickly look at some of the science behind them.

Your daily essentials

A lack of vitamin B12 can cause a multitude of problems, most notably mouth ulcers and paraesthesia (fancy word for pins and needles), and more seriously anaemia, whereby the levels of functional haemoglobin in the body are reduced, causing extreme fatigue and deliriousness (Moll & Davis, 2017). Numerous studies have also implicated a lack of vitamin B12 as a contributor to psychiatric disorders including bipolar and depression (Oh & Brown, 2003).

Vitamin B12 is usually obtained through consumption of animal based products such as meat, cheese and milk. Now clearly, a devout vegan will avoid these foods, thereby shrinking the number of sources in their diet.

This is where a trip to Holland & Barrett might be advised (other health stores are available).

If you do follow a strict vegan diet, you should hopefully know much more about the world of pills and tablets than I do. From the stance of an amateur supplement taker, it all looks very complicated. I could buy 30 nuggets of Solgar Methylcobalamin for £11.99, or some B12 Boost Oral Spray for £8.99….

Now what I do know is that whatever diet you choose to follow, it is vital to maintain a healthy level of nutrients and vitamins. Whether this requires a supplement or not will depend on how strict your diet is as well as individual factors such as weight and age.

The more forgetful vegan might instead prefer to top up their nutritional intake with meals fortified with the necessary vitamins and minerals.

Fortification is the process by which extra nutrients are added to food to increase its nutritional value. From the dietary advice I have read, vegans are strongly encouraged to eat fortified foods or take supplements simply to avoid the myriad symptoms associated with deficiency. But, taking too many tablets and having a surplus of essential nutrients such as vitamin B12 can cause equally troublesome symptoms.

There are three main techniques used to fortify foods.

  • Home fortification: use of products such as nutrient-rich butter, crushable tablets or sprinkles to nutritionally enhance everyday meals. All have been shown to reduce the problems caused by symptoms of deficiency (Somasse et al, 2018).
  • Commercial fortification: this is where the industry itself enrich their products. Most commonly seen in breakfast cereal and milk substitutes, this is currently the easiest way for the vegan consumer to obtain extra nutrients, and is also a highly profitable technique for the trade.
  • Biofortification: enhancing the nutrient content of the crop itself, before it reaches production lines. Using natural genetic variation, breeding techniques and genetic engineering, fortified crops can be produced on mass. Research suggests this will be the most cost-effective and sustainable method of nutrient supplementation in the future (Wakeel et al. 2018).

On to calcium. If GCSE science taught you anything, it may be that calcium is required for strong teeth and bones and tends to come from dairy products such as milk.

But of course there are alternatives that can comfortably satiate your recommended daily intake (around 700mg for the average adult): these include soya products such as tofu and some rather unusual vegetables such as collard and okra.

Now many dieticians may argue that plant-based products offer equal or perhaps even greater levels of calcium compared to animal-derived products. It is important to recognise though that most almond milks, soya milks and such-like have been fortified, so it is actually quite hard to reliably compare them to natural alternatives.

More importantly, we must be aware of how much your body absorbs, not just how much you consume. Intake efficiency (the amount you absorb compared to the amount you consume) depends on several factors such as age, gender and vitamin D intake, so the best milk for you might not be the best for your parents.

Iodine is one of the building blocks of thyroid hormones, chemicals that control metabolism and regulate growth development. Statistics gathered in several studies have highlighted that lower levels of iodine, particularly amongst children on a plant-based diet, are causative to swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck and subsequent difficulty swallowing, as well as potential cognitive dysfunctions (Zimmermanm et al. 2008).

Common sources of iodine include some fish as well as common dairy items. The obvious and easiest replacement would be a tablet of course, but should you wish to obtain your iodine more naturally, you want to be eating more seaweed and bananas.

Is Veganism actually healthier?

Journalists are in constant battle to wrestle a bold statistic from researchers, who themselves seem to be in a never-ending competition to identify the latest healthy-eating alternative. Ultimately, this makes it very difficult to decipher whether a vegan diet is actually the healthiest diet for you.

Meta-analyses indicate that low-fat diets, coincident with a more plant-based regime, correlate with a lower risk of cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes, attributed in part to the lower intake, absorption and storage of iron that a plant-centred diet brings (Barnard et al. 2006).

Dieticians, nutritionists and active vegan champions may wax lyrical about the ways in which veganism has revolutionised their lives, but rarely do they fail to mention one key point: the ’well-balanced diet’.

A well-balanced diet is essential to reap the rewards of resisting meat – it is no good just replacing the chicken thigh with an extra potato, or the ham in your sandwich with a slice of cucumber. Getting the right proportions of nutrients, and at the right levels, can vary significantly from person to person, so planning your diet for you is a must.

It is hard to tell whether veganism is just a brief epidemic or whether it is here to stay. New fad diets are being developed all the time. The latest: the ‘planet-health diet’ which not only takes into account the need to encourage healthier, balanced eating, but also the need to reduce the strain on our environment and relax the need (or desire) for meat-based meals.

Share This