sardine_ball_flickr_dsc_0161_209323Business funding of public projects, including actions by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have come under cold scrutiny lately. But private-public partnerships are also becoming crucial as conventional donors cut back on funding to non-profit initiatives. Are the ideological purists missing the story? Peter Hulm in Geneva considers the question.


The company’s called Plentiful Rice. You probably know it as Toyota. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which is based in the Swiss Lake Geneva town of Gland,  is regularly described as the best-kept secret among environmental organizations. You’ve probably heard of its Red List of endangered species. It’s the go-to place for info on elephants and rhinos, sharks and turtles.

partnership_a4_web_1_209299Plentiful Rice is now funding IUCN’s Red Listers in a programme designed to increase the chances of food security for the world’s human population in a time of climate change caused in part by our addiction to the gas-guzzling automobile. IUCN’s Director-General Inger Andersen and Toyota’s European Chairman Didier Leroy signed an agreement in Geneva last week on 10 May committing the auto company to fund research into the risks of extinction for more than 28,000 species over the next five years.

It may prove the most significant deal yet for our future on this planet in the face of global warming. And the chances are you didn’t hear much about it. Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme, points out that “80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 dominant agricultural crops and 50% of these calories come from just the three big grasses: wheat, maize and rice.”

IUCN-Toyota deal.
IUCN-Toyota deal. Photo: Peter Hulm.

“We now live in a world where climate change is affecting the way our food grows,” she told journalists at the Geneva Press Club in a news conference that was also broadcast to reporters. “The key to finding new crops that can adapt to warmer and different climates is to conserve the relatives of these crops in the wild,” she argued. “This is because these wild relatives are the source of genetic material used to develop new varieties of crops.”

This requires countries and scientists to know how endangered these wild plants are. “If these crops became extinct,” said Dr Smart, “there would be [a] huge impact on food security and livelihoods. Yet little is known about the state of these crop wild relatives [and] what actions we need to take not only [to] protect them but to enable them to thrive.”

So IUCN will be focusing much of the research funded by Toyota on wild rice, wild wheat and other domestic crop relatives in the wild. “We are also focusing on marine fish such as sardines, pilchards and sole because they are a source of food for billions the world over,” Dr Smart adds.

In 2016 Toyota will give some $1.2 million toward the project, it was announced. Ms Andersen said the gift “will enable our Red List researchers to take a big leap forward towards reaching our goal of assessing 160,000 species by 2020.”

She stressed the contribution IUCN’s research could make to the United Nations Zero Hunger target in the Sustainability Development Goals adopted last year. IUCN has U.N. observer status, and its Red List research is often the first step towards conservation policy and action, including controls enacted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), where IUCN is a technical advisor.

wild_rice__alamy_stock_photo_209311The Red List, just over 50 years old, has assessed nearly 80,000 species and rates 23,000 of them as threatened with extinction. More than 3.5 million people visit the IUCN Web platform each year to access data in the Red List. The Toyota grant will go to upgrading this platform as well as help fund activities to improve biodiversity awareness. The money will also support research into other economically important plants, fungi, freshwater fish, reptiles and invertebrates such as dragonflies, the partners announced.

Philanthrocapitalism, as it has been dubbed, has not had a good press in recent months, particularly with Linsey McGoey’s No Such Thing as a Free Gift. It gathered a lot of attention last year because of its focus on the Gates Foundation.

The former World Health Organization consultant didn’t get much cooperation from the Foundation (surprise!) and the organization is notoriously close-mouthed about its revenue-gathering investments. But she took it to task for putting so much money in Coca Cola when the Atlanta-based firm finances so much research denying a link between sugared drinks and obesity. She also lambasts the Foundation’s links with Big Pharma, when cheaper drugs could solve health issues at a fraction of the cost of Big Pharma’s medicines.

McGoey doesn’t spare the press, which gives prominent headlines to Gates spending when its nowhere near as much as the U.S. and the U.K. put into health aid. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg’s transfer of almost all his Facebook wealth into a private trust under his control was treated as if it was a philanthropic gesture because he said it was, she complains.

Toyota has its own problems with persuading sceptics of its bona fide philanthropy, of course. In 2014 it had to pay $1.3 billion in the U.S. for covering up accelerator defects in its cars. In early 2015 a top executive resigned after being caught carrying illegal drugs into Japan.

Then in October 2015 Toyota announced its six-goal Environmental Challenge 2050 – 20 years longer than the United Nations’ own long-term goal. Toyota’s new “zero-emissions” car the Mirai (meaning Future in Japanese), using hydrogen fuel cells, makes business sense in the light of California’s zero-emissions legislation. Toyota has an estimated 25% of the State’s auto market.

When the Belgian advertising standards authorities condemned Toyota for misleading ads for its Prius hybrid car (it has sold 8.5 million hybrid vehicles), Friends of the Earth attacked car manufacturers, including Toyota, for resisting emissions standards and accused them of “greenwashing” through their ads. One commentator pointed out that the high cost of the Mirai ($57,000 in the U.S.) will tempt drivers to hang on to their polluting vehicles. This will far outweigh the savings from zero-CO2 emissions via the Mirai.

But others have described Toyota as already the greenest auto manufacturer, often achieving zero landfill targets at its plants. Mr Leroy pointed out that Toyota’s hybrid cars have saved 60 million tonnes of CO2. He traces its concern for environmentally friendly vehicles in the 21st century back the the 1990s.

Leroy also noted that Aichi Prefecture, the home province of Toyota, hosted the 2010 meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biologial Diversity that set out the goal of “mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society” by 2020.

potamarcha_congener_philip_bowles_209335Though the first three challenges of Toyota’s 2050 goals aim at reducing emissions, the other three focus on resources, such as water and recycling as well as (Challenge 6) “being in harmony with nature”. The IUCN grant is its first activity under this heading. Dr Smart commented: “As an environmentalist who has been working for over 30 years in the field, I am not easily impressed, but this is impressive.”

At an informal reception after the signing, the Japanese ambassador jokingly expressed his astonishment that a company should set goals for 35 years into the future, when politicians don’t usually make promises for beyond the next election.

A veteran environmentalist cautioned me against naivety in judging business efforts to spend philanthropically. “No company comes to us with clean hands,” he reminded me. And I knew a fierce Greenpeace campaigner who said he found it easier to talk to business leaders than with politicians, because they were willing to acknowledge the longer-term implications of their practices. They were willing to be won over if he could show them the economic benefits of taking action.

Certainly, Toyota can hardly be accused of seeking maximum publicity for itself with a comparatively small contribution — $1.2 million in 2016 vs a $1.3 billion legal settlement. Geneva is often the graveyard of headline events (think disarmament and peace negotiations). And the signing took place on the day the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens — much closer to the U.K.’s centres of media power — announced that one-fifth of the world’s plants are under threat in its State of the World’ Plants report.

“A recent inventory has revealed that there are currently 3,546 prioritised global plant taxa identified as ‘crop wild relatives’ and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) includes 688 crop wild relatives among its over 78,000 accessions, but there are still substantial gaps,” the Report notes (pages 20-23).

Kew says climate change is responsible for only four per cent of the threat to plant species at present but the percentage is likely to grow, with the full impact perhaps 30 years down the line.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, for example, estimates that up to 30% of areas growing maize and bananas, and up to 60% growing beans, “are likely to become unviable by the end of the century”. Cassava and yams, however, are showing “much great resilience” (pages 36-39). So these, along with drought-resistant cereals such as millet and sorghum may be the “climate-smart” crops of the future.

The IUCN project offers a focused way forward on assessing in detail plants we rely on for our nutrition and may need to switch to in the future. Not a bad return for a $6 million investment.

Peter Hulm is a Swiss-based writer and journalist focusing on environmental, communications and other related issues. He has previously worked as a media consultant with IUCN.