Interview: Claire Kremen, conservation biologist

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Claire Kremen knows her stuff. As a campus professor of environmental science, policy and management, head researcher at the Kremen Lab Group and seasoned conservation biologist, she brings her experiences in academia and beyond to the forefront of some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. In a very fitting conversation on this past Earth Day, Kremen told the Weekender about her stance on major threats to our beloved planet. We discussed everything from her experience at Princeton University to her conservation work on the island of Madagascar, habitat destruction to climate change and the pairing of scientific research with outreach to elicit environmental change.

Daily Californian: Tell me about your background. How did you get to Berkeley, and how long have you been here?

Claire Kremen: I’ve been here for 10 years. Before I came here, I was at Princeton University for four years as a faculty member and I bounced around quite a bit. After I finished my Ph.D., I spent about 10 years working for nonprofit organizations in conservation biology, and I did most of my work at that time in Madagascar.

DC: Is there a certain experience or memory that brought you to conservation biology?

CK: When I was in graduate school, I was studying biology, but I wasn’t yet in the field of conservation biology. In fact, the field of conservation biology didn’t really exist. I was studying the field of evolution and development. I was getting close to finishing my Ph.D., and I had a postdoctoral program lined up. But I just wasn’t feeling excited about that particular move. It was intellectually interesting, but it wasn’t going to make an immediate impact on the world.

At the time, I was reading a book written by Catherine Caufield called “In the Rainforest.” As I was reading it, I felt such an incredible desire to do something about biodiversity conservation. I applied to design and teach a course in conservation biology at Duke University while I was still a graduate student. Since the field of conservation biology was just beginning to emerge, it was the first course taught at Duke University on conservation biology. I was usually just half a step ahead of my students.

DC: How would you say conservation biology came to be as prevalent as it is today?

CK: It took a long time. I remember when I told my professors back in graduate school that I was going to leave academia and become a conservationist, they were very skeptical. Now, you can be sure that most ecology departments across the country also have a conservation biology component. It could just be a growing recognition among ecologists and evolutionary biologists that there are so many severe threats to species around the world and they are the ones with the skills that could be brought to bear on these problems.

DC: Why Madagascar? The only thing I can really base my perception of Madagascar are the Dreamworks movies.

CK: The reason Madagascar is such an important conservation priority is really for two reasons. One is that most of the species that you find in Madagascar are endemic to the island. That’s because it broke away from Africa several hundred million years ago. There’s also been many subsequent arrivals of different species from mainland Africa. So there’s what’s there, but there’s also what isn’t there. A lot of what’s not there would have been the things that were presented in those movies. The giraffes, the lions, the hippos — none of that stuff is in Madagascar.

The other reason that Madagascar is such an important priority is because the threats to biodiversity are quite severe. The main threat, the same main threat in many other parts of the world, is habitat loss. In Madagascar, there is a rapidly growing poor population. They use the forest land for agriculture and destroy many habitats in the process.

DC: How do you apply your research about conservation biology and get people to listen and care?

CK: Although many people don’t realize this or make those connections, there’s this whole study of what we call ecosystem services: the services we get from nature that we benefit from. One of the services is one that I currently study: pollination. About 30 percent of the crops that we eat depend on animal pollinators for its production, but even more important than that, about 75 percent of crop species produce greater fruits and seeds when they’re visited by animal pollinators. By elucidating the ways that we rely on ecosystems for our own well-being, we can make more of a connection for many people about the significance biodiversity.

First of all, we need to let people know why biodiversity is important to them in their daily lives. And second, we need to let them know what is happening to biodiversity. Basically, every habitat on the planet suffers from biodiversity loss from habitat destruction, from climate change, from invasive species, pollution and overexploitation, such as overhunting. Those threats are very interacting with one another, and they can have multiplying effects.

DC: So is the issue at hand not just to inform on an issue-to-issue basis but to link these threats in a sort of causal web?

CK: Absolutely. For instance, people are now starting to be aware of climate change. But that is just one of a series of global changes. Everyone can get their mind around the fact that the temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are increasing. But how do you get people to understand that a 1-degree temperature shift or a 2-degree temperature shift or, oh my God, a 5-degree temperature shift has major consequences? That’s the task at hand.

DC: You run a lab group at Berkeley. What kind of work does your lab produce?

CK: We work on ecosystem services in farming systems. We’re coming from the premise that to have an agriculture that’s sustainable, you need to support the underlying biologic processes.

DC: Where do you publish your findings? In other words, how do you get the word out?

CK: We publish a lot of papers in the scientific press. Sometimes the media will pick up our story if it’s particularly exciting.

DC: Can you think of a particular research topic that got the media’s attention?

CK: Recently, we compared organic versus conventional agriculture. We brought together the results from many different studies that had already been conducted. The goal was to find out whether the yields between organic and conventional differed very much and, if so, by how much. What we found was there was a yield gap, but it was much smaller than previously reported.

DC: Will you expound upon some of the key differences between organic and conventional agriculture?

CK: The minimum for organic agriculture is that it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers. Adding organic matter to the soil builds the soil’s health, as opposed to just adding chemicals, which doesn’t add to the structure of the soil. The soil organic matter also stores water, which is super important especially considering California’s drought. Another key attribute is pest control. In industrial agriculture, the full sweep of registered pesticides can be applied. In organic agriculture, there is a very limited palette of chemicals that can be utilized.

It’s switching from an agricultural approach that solves each problem one piece at a time, as in industrial agriculture, to an agriculture approach that looks at the whole system and thinks more long-term about what is needed, as with organic.

DC: Why did this topic get so much attention?

CK: People want to know what the agriculture of the future should be. How are we going to feed the people of the future? After recognizing that agriculture as it’s currently practiced is having many unintentional, negative environmental consequences, many would say — and I would agree — that our current agriculture is not sustainable. We have to change it. Organic agriculture is a more favorable alternative in terms of its environmental sustainability, but can it produce enough food? In regards to that trade-off, I would argue that we have to have sustainability. The whole point about sustainability is that if it’s not sustainable, eventually it’ll crash, and we won’t be producing any food. In my view, there’s really no question. We need to direct more attention to making these sustainable practices also more productive.

DC: What are the most important skills that up-and-coming scientists should harness? For instance, when you became interested in conservation biology, it wasn’t even yet a field. How should students grow equipped to know what scientific matters are worthy of the most attention?

CK: Test things out: if you have the opportunity to work in a lab, for example, and find out how interested you really are. If you’re thinking about scientific outreach or a nonprofit organization get some experience. Whatever you learn in the classroom is great, but in the end, you’re going to learn the most on the job.

Adrianna Dinolfo is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]