Picture: THINKSTOCK
NUTRITION: Prof Charlie Shackleton at Rhodes University studies the nutrient content of wild foods such as vegetables, mushrooms and small mammals. Picture: THINKSTOCK

ALL environmental systems — whether humans and the environment, alien plants and existing ecosystems, or barnacle larvae and ocean currents — are connected.

This is the message from three academics in different departments at Rhodes University.

The aim of Prof Martin Hill, head of entomology, is to reduce the quantity of pesticides and herbicides used in the country.

"In 2010, more than $50bn (was spent globally) on pesticides. We are looking at alternative control methods." One method is biological control, particularly on alien plants and aquatic weeds.

"We do good, fundamental science on applied systems, and then implement it," he says. Once the alien plant (or animal) has been characterised, "we go to the region of origin, find out what (creature or predator) is controlling it there, bring it back here, do stringent testing and then release it".

However, "we’ve taken it a step further … (we are) developing fungi and viruses…. There is no non-target effect; they are specific to a pest species," Prof Hill says.

Prof Charlie Shackleton, head of the environmental science department, investigates the "links between humans and the environment" — the use of natural resources, poverty dynamics and how the environment shapes what humans can do.

"The harvesting of numerous natural resources provides consumptive products for millions of poor South Africans, as well as income for equally significant numbers. Consumption of and trade in these resources is the very mainstay of their wellbeing and crucial in preventing deeper poverty levels," Prof Shackleton writes in a 2009 commentary in the South African Journal of Science.

"Wild foods — veggies, mushrooms, small mammals — are widely consumed," he says in his office at Rhodes. He is studying the nutrient content, the effects of preparation techniques and the percentage contribution to diets.

"There is a balance towards applied science, but there doesn’t have to be," he says, noting that there has been a groundswell in the theory of socioeconomic systems in the past decade. "There are debates about the governance of resources that are held in common and … (can be) trashed by exploitation (by) the masses."

Marine biologist and research chair into marine ecosystems Prof Christopher McQuaid says he is a strong believer in the importance of fundamental research: "Applied (science) pertains to a particular problem at a particular point in time and space…. I do blue-skies science, but it almost always has an application."

For example, an understanding of reproduction in the sea is intrinsic to conservation efforts. "Most (creatures in the sea) have external fertilisation. Where is it going to land? Shores are full of barnacles, but we have no idea about reproduction. Understanding the movement of larvae is fundamental," Prof McQuaid says.

He is unequivocal about the link between humans and the environment. "We are just another species. We can’t divorce ourselves from the environment".