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Cafe Scientifique at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Last Monday, a science event took place at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The grand west gates were open to the public late into the evening. Inside the Terrace Cafe, the audience were gripped by a talk from leading botanist, Toby Pennington. He heads the Tropical Diversity Section at gardens and has an important message for us all.

He opened with a series of trivial questions about the forests of Latin America. “Can you estimate how many plant species live in the Amazon rainforest?” 80,000. “Do you know how much of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed by deforestation?” More than 20 per cent.

The audience answered these questions and feeling very smug, we pressed on.

“Have you heard of the Cerrado?”, he asks. A quiet murmur. This seasonally dry forest in Brazil, he tells us, is the Amazon’s lesser known, but more threatened cousin. Here, less than 10 per cent of the forest remains.

The audience was informed as to why these areas are so threatened. This land, the so-called cradle of humanity, has been cultivated by civilisation for thousands of years. The fertile soils, suitable climate and less dense landscape was perfect for growing important food crops such as maize, beans and peanuts. However, due to the explosive expansion of the soy trade, a high value crop as it is used to feed livestock, biodiversity is under severe threat.

Pennington takes a fairly moderate, refreshingly optimistic approach to solving the problem.

He does not push the audience to become vegetarian, vegan, boycott supermarket or go on hunger strike. Instead, he offers us sources of information, such as the WWF soy scorecard, to find out more and encourages us to use these sources to take action.

These events are an opportunity to directly ask researchers questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it and what this means for us, as the general public.

The casual atmosphere lends itself to audience participation, inquisition and open discussion. It also brings people with different kinds of knowledge together to discuss current issues, paramount to solving the complex problems we face.

Image: Ham (User on Wikipedia)

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