A Conversation with Exequiel Ezcurra, Tyler Prize Executive Committee
Exequiel Ezcurra is a plant ecologist and conservationist, and a member of the Tyler Prize Executive Committee, responsible for selecting the Tyler Prize Laureate each year.
A Professor of Plant Ecology at the University of California Riverside. Dr. Ezcurra is known for translating scientific research into tangible, positive conservation outcomes. His work has influenced policy at the highest levels of government. It has also created strong and lasting collaborations between the governments of Mexico and the United States. His highly interdisciplinary work spans desert plant ecology, mangroves, island biogeography, sea birds, fisheries, oceanography, and deep-sea ecosystems.
What are your views on our agricultural systems? Are we making progress or going backward?
I think we definitely need to change the food and agricultural system at a global level. We have moved, in the last 30 years, from keeping animals in a more or less open system to growing them industrially, in very close quarters, and with incredible risk of disease hitting the populations.
By the way, the unsustainability of our food system also underscores the vulnerability we have to pandemics. We are feeding our animals huge amounts of grain that we could use to feed human populations, and also giving them incredibly large amounts of antibiotics in order to make them able to grow in these huge animal concentration camps that are the feedlots and the animal barns. That needs to change.
It is unsustainable, it is pushing our agricultural system, driving the border of agriculture, the frontier of agriculture, into natural ecosystems. It has become the main driver of native vegetation loss and biodiversity loss, and also a huge health risk for the human population.
How should society be changing its approach to diet?
The main change you could make to your diet is the same recommendation that the World Health Organization gave some six years ago, that the United Nations environmental program reinforced, which is eat less animal protein, eat more plants. Basically, that very simple rule should be our guiding principle. Unfortunately, we have walked in the opposite direction.
In the case of Mexico, for example, a case I’ve studied well, we have moved from eating less than 10 kilograms per year of beef per person to over 40 kilograms per year of beef per person. And the cost of growing that beef in feedlots has become completely intolerable for the country and extremely unsustainable for the natural ecosystem.
So again, we’re talking here about two things: our own health; we need to cut down on the consumption of animal protein for our own health, and also a health issue for the planet, for the sustainability of all of us. It is not conceivable that we can keep this system of production of animal protein in the long term, with the world’s growing population.
One change you could make is to eat less animal protein. Especially be aware of the forms of animal protein whose production is extremely destructive on the environment. Like for example, the rearing of animals in enclosed industrial systems or in feedlots. The best thing you can do both for your diet, your health, and for the planet is what Michael Pollan [food author] recommended: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
People argue that we could just use technology to farm in previously unused areas. What do you say to that?
My work, and the work of my colleagues, many colleagues, in deserts, has shown that for many decades, we have tried to change the environment of deserts by bringing irrigation, by bringing modified soil fertility, and by bringing huge amounts of inputs into desert agriculture. What we are proposing now is that we should, instead of changing the environment, change the plants we cultivate in deserts.
We can cultivate, for example, prickly pear cacti. We could cultivate agaves that maintained huge millions of person populations in ancient Meso-America. We can cultivate drought-tolerant trees, like Mesquite. There is a myriad amount of plants that will grow in deserts very well. So, our basic recommendation, vis a vis in front of climate change, is do not attempt to change the desert environment. Adapt to the desert environment with plants and animals that can survive in it.
So that covers desert areas, but what about places like swamps, wetlands, and mangroves?
Mangroves are important because they have become almost an emblem of the human capacity to destroy ecosystems, and the need to rethink the way we interact with nature. Mangroves are swamps, and in popular culture, the idea of a swamp always brings the idea that it’s an evil place that needs to be drained, that needs to be destroyed and change it into something nice, like a golf course. As a matter of fact, what we have discovered is that mangroves produce an incredibly large amount of ecosystem services, a la Gretchen Daily.
Mangroves protect the coast from hurricanes, mangroves filter the water in estuaries from pollutants, mangroves store incredible amounts of carbon. One hectare of mangroves might store as much carbon as a hundred hectares in the Amazonian rainforest. Mangroves produce hatchery for fisheries, produce the hatching grounds for fisheries that later go to the open sea, and that are the base of the richness of all our coastal fisheries. And I can go on and on, but this basic idea that how can an ecosystem that is as valuable as this one has been conceived as something that needs to be destroyed, has become for many of us in conservation an emblematic cause to change the way we see our relationship with the environment.
To read more on Dr. Ezcurra’s incredible work: