Interview Louise Vet, prof. Evolutionary Ecology

Strawberry Earth Sustainable Mastermind Louise Vet


Interview series for Strawberry Earth, called ‘Sustainable Masterminds’, with scientists, designers and other experts in sustainability and design.

Did you see an ecologist chasing butterflies lately? You may have, but it’s more likely you’ve come across one on TV or at a hip Summer festival. Because more than ever, ecologists are linking their love for nature to stunning and economically viable projects that influence our daily lives. Professor Louise Vet is one of these modern, outgoing and communicado-savvy ecologists. She is director of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) and Professor in Evolutionary Ecology at Wageningen University. Her work focuses on the cleverness of nature’s circular methodology. Working with nature, not against it, that’s her life motto. Her publications on biological pest control, parasite wasps and the project ‘poop is gold’ have been picked up by media all over the world. You may have seen her speak at Universiteit van Nederland or TED. Louise will change your look at ‘number 2′ or wasps-in-your-soda forever.

You’ve published amazing work on insects’ behaviour, but what personal behaviour instantly reveals that you’re an ecology lover?
I’m intrigued by all things nature so when I’m having lunch outside and there’s a wasp flying around the table, I will not hit it or try to chase it away. I will simply enjoy looking at its behaviour. What most people don’t know is that when wasps are in danger they produce a substance that attracts other wasps. So you’d better slowly put a glass over it and enjoy how the wasp starts grooming, washing and eating.

Oops, we will not chase wasps again! So, you would never kill a bug simply because it bugs you?
To be honest, I do kill mosquitos sometimes if they bug me, but not without checking first whether it’s male or a female, because only the females bite. You can easily recognize a male by its feathered antennas. So, the male will live.

What inspired you to start working on a happy marriage between ecology and economy?
The genius of nature. When studying nature, one gets fascinated with all the amazing processes of defence mechanisms, biological warfare and intrigues; they’re not that different from humans. It’s very interesting to see how different species have developed specific solutions for their problems.

And how do you stimulate these fields to work together?
We do not tell people what they can and cannot do but instead we show them that it’s possible to see new opportunities with the help of ecologists. Ecology is already being adopted by large industrial companies as a part of their strategy. Frontrunners are companies like Desso and Interface. Interface works with recycled nylon and has designed a profitable business model for the people that gather the damaging nylon nets from the coral reefs. Unilever is one of the big industries that’s changing its systems even in the smallest details. It’s important that more ecologists start working in different industries and large companies, because they will help transform linear thinking into circular thinking.

Could you tell us about famous ecological research that has a major effect on our daily life?
We all know penicillin; it’s being produced by a fungus and attacks nasty bacteria that make us sick. But we all know that these bacteria are becoming resistant to our antibiotics and we desperately need new ones. At NIOO we are searching for new antibiotics by looking in the soil that is full of still unknown bacteria and fungi. We’ve discovered lots of social interaction and warfare between bacteria species and try to find the substances they produce in their fights. That may turn out to be our new antibiotics.

How do you see the role of GMO in ecology systems?
GMO covers a broad field and I am not against all GMO’s. It is possible to use GMO in perfect harmony with nature. There are some interesting and beautiful techniques that offer us the possibility to modify plants, for example in producing more aromatic substances that will attract the natural enemies of pest insects, so we can use them in a natural pest control program. Obviously I am against the use of neonicotinoids and other chemical pesticides, they are toxic and bad and we should get rid of them. I’m just saying that not all GMO-technologies are bad.

What scientific development has revolutionized your work?
The high costs for DNA-sequencing have substantially decreased in the last five to ten years. That has made it possible for us to do research at the molecular level of species, to look at their genes and how these work. It’s a great extension for the work of ecologists worldwide. We can now for example study how and when plants defend themselves and what triggers that, by studying their genes. Another important discovery is the interaction between above- and belowground processes. Broccoli plants produce higher doses of healthy super food substances in the presence of specific bacteria in the ground.

What would you change in people’s attitudes towards ecology if you could?
People still think of ecologists as butterfly-chasing individuals who have hardly any connection with the so-called ‘real world’. But nature is the real world. That’s why it’s so important to involve ecology in our views on the world as a whole. I would also like to see people to ask more questions when buying or consuming. For example when ordering an exotic fish or a bottle of Italian water in a restaurant, simply ask where these products came from and what processes were needed to get them on your table. Asking questions is not a burden, it’s very enriching and fun to know more about everyday products.

Good point, we do take a lot of products for granted. How do you think we will consume in the future?
Sharing and borrowing will be big. The LENA fashion library for example is a great initiative, I would surely be willing to borrow a festive dress there. Furthermore, I think that future generations will all think that the system of landfills is crazy. It just makes no sense, we should design things differently so we can use them in circular recycling systems instead of dumping them. New technologies for sorting out the fibres in clothes will revolutionize recycling business models. This will make recycling economically viable and if that’s the case, no company will get away with using scarce raw materials anymore.

Which ‘Sustainable Mastermind’ is inspiring you?
Interface’s founder Ray Anderson and of course Braungart and McDonald, the driving forces of the cradle to cradle philosophy. It’s because of their book that I started combining ecology and economy. They inspired me to stop focusing on bad things, but instead develop positive, new ways of problem-solving. Environmental action groups and NGO’s are very valuable – we need them to alarm us when things go wrong – but we also need a lot more positive, smart solutions to change the bad things.

Favourite sustainable products. Name one.
WakaWaka lights. It was the Christmas present for all 300 members of our team. It’s a positive and beautiful product.

We’re all Homo sapiens, so…what’s your not-so-sustainable guilty pleasure?
I sometimes eat meat. Not very often and when I do I choose certified organic meat, but still, it’s meat. I feel very guilty about it and at the same time I really enjoy it.

Got some tips for Sustainable Masterminds-to-be?
Do not isolate your work, but connect with other people and collaborate. If you’re not socially skilled, then make sure you’ll learn those skills. Love people, love your work and show it.

Published @ Strawberry Earth//Oct 20, 2015//© Miranda Writes//