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“It’s a race against time,” said Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of the Republic of Mauritius, about the African continent’s efforts to conserve its unique biodiversity and the rich tradition of natural medicine that follows from it.

On Oct. 5, the University hosted Gurib-Fakim as part of Campus Dining’s Food and Agriculture Initiative, a multi-faceted effort to explore the complexities of global food-related consumption, production, and distribution. Gurib-Fakim discussed the subtle connections between the changing climate, the rapid loss of biodiversity in Africa, and the annual reduction in crop yields, showing how the conservation of plant and animal life in Africa offers a promising solution. 

This is what happens when you have a biologist leading the nation, interjected Daniel Rubenstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University. As director of the Program in Environmental Studies, Rubenstein is one of the intellectual forces driving the cross-disciplinary initiative.

According to Gurib-Fakim, the only practical way of ensuring food security in the future is to protect life on land now, the conservation of which is most threatened by the degradative effects of climate change and anthropogenic actions.

Today, only two percent of native forests remain, and many African plant species are going along with the land, disappearing before we can learn about their medicinal properties and use them for pharmaceuticals, according to Gurib-Fakim.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Gurib-Fakim revealed that one way to combat those effects is to diversify our food palate.

“According to our current food pattern, 90 percent of our needs come from fifteen plants and five species of animals,” said Gurib-Fakim. “Yet, there are about 250,000 plant species on this planet.” The untapped potential explicit in this statistic makes Gurib-Fakim’s bold proposition seem like a natural recourse. Having a plant species repository cultivated away from typical food resources would be an important backup source in the case that regular harvests yield less, added Gurib-Fakim. This conservation, Gurib-Fakim quickly indicated, is not a project limited to the Republic of Mauritius or the continent of Africa — rather, Her Excellency articulated the need for a universal biodiversity index to document all plant species.

In addition to threatening food systems, the four-degree temperature rise that is expected by the end of the century will bring an economic loss that “Africa simply cannot behold,” said Gurib-Fakim. As such, reforming food systems to nourish the people and the environment is key to meeting the sustainable development goals of eradicating hunger, addressing climate change, preserving life on land, and not least of all, promoting sustainable economic growth.

Gurib-Fakim’s lecture ended as it began, linking the venerable African culture with the pressing sustainability issues of the day, closing her speech with an African proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

The lecture took place in McCosh 50 at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 5.

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