Biodiversity and Food Systems

This month the Office of Sustainability (OS) is pleased to welcome Dr. Kelly Lyons and Stephen Lucke. The topic we are discussing is “Biodiversity and Food Systems”. A little bit about each person can be found below, including which Climate Ready Committee they are serving on with respect to San Antonio’s (SA) Climate Ready Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP):

  • Dr. Kelly Lyons – Dr. Lyons is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Trinity University, and she holds a PhD in Plant Ecology. Her research is extensive and explores questions concerning conservation biology, restoration ecology, and management of invasive species. She also conducts studies on the use of plant materials for climate change mitigation and improving food security in a changing world. Dr. Lyons is serving on the Technical & Community Advisory Committee.

  • Stephen Lucke – Mr. Lucke is Founder and CEO of Gardopia Gardens, an education based non-profit. His formal background is in Biochemistry (Bachelor’s degree) with a Master’s in Nutrition, with a focus on physical / environmental health. He is also certified in organic farming and strength and conditioning. Mr. Lucke is serving on the Technical & Community Advisory Committee.


OS: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions reflecting on your career and what brought you to serve on the SA Climate Ready Committees.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what your work entails? 

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons: As a university professor, I wear many hats. My broad research focus is concerned with the influence of diversity on how ecosystems function, and I have used this area of research to assess how restoration of grasslands can be used to solve problems such as carbon sequestration and invasive species control. I am an associate editor for the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management and have served as a long-term board member of the Texas Society for Ecological Restoration and the Friends of the San Antonio Natural Areas.

Stephen Lucke: Given my research and teaching interests in climatology, I was very excited to serve on the Technical and Community Advisory Committee. It is important that we translate our scientific understanding of climate change into actionable policy and being a part of the committee seemed like an excellent opportunity to contribute to our City’s climate policy goals.
Stephen Lucke

OS: Our theme for this conversation is ‘Biodiversity and Food Systems,’ since you have done extensive work and research in one or both of these areas. 

The impacts on these two areas are far-reaching and integrated into many aspects of the CAAP. What do you think are the most pressing impacts on SA’s changing climate? Why?

Stephen Lucke: Biodiversity and food are critical. We know over the past few decades that we have taken away habitat that was available to the plants and animals in this region. By harming and degrading the environment, it’s leading to a heat island. It's getting hotter in the interior of the city and we’re seeing more flash flooding, because there's so much concrete, there's so much runoff.

Flood mitigation is an issue right now as well as air quality. We are earmarked by the Environmental Protection Agency as a to-watch community for our air quality here in San Antonio, which can lead to more asthma.

Are there longer-term solutions that you also consider crucial?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: Food systems and natural and restored ecosystems can play an important role in the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to first re-envision the urban interface as a problem-solving space. San Antonio faces two critical issues. First, we are an agricultural desert. For a city our size, we have very limited agricultural development in the urban and para-urban areas or in local plant materials. Second, we will face an increase in the cost of food transportation as fossil fuels become more expensive. Efforts to create food-shed corridors in places like Marion, TX will be critical to provisioning San Antonio with local, climate-adapted food crops. There is potential to plan and expand urban farms, in particular orchards, that can sequester and hold carbon while providing resources. The new urban tree farm in Padre Park, Ecocentro's Garcia Garden, and Gardopia provide excellent examples of efforts that we need to support and expanded with City funding.

Stephen Lucke: Creating tree canopies and organic matter in the soil to help with flood water runoff will essentially create a better quality of life and increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which is limited currently here in San Antonio, especially to our underserved populations.

OS: Biodiversity and food systems intersect issues surrounding both environmental and public health. How do you see this directly impacting the SA community? 

Stephen Lucke: Well, I think by having a food system that is growing sustainably in the city, it does improve our health because we currently have a sedentary lifestyle.

We have the standard American diet, and that has led to an unhealthy population where two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and have other diseases related to that, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and hypertension. We need to heal our population in multiple ways but one of those can be increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

If we do this  in a sustainable manner, then it will improve our environment at the same time. It's really a win-win situation. I like to say it's a low hanging fruit when you think about sustainability, because everybody needs to eat. Everybody wants to eat. However, a lot of us don't know where our food comes from because we've been disconnected from nature. And so ,when we create that appreciation for nature, at the same time, we're improving our own health.

Are there areas – whether environmental or social – that see the worst effects in this changing climate? If so, where and why?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: On the food security issue, I anticipate that, without aggressive research into and implementation of new directions in food security, our region will be faced with high food prices due to a decline in local agricultural production and an increase in transportation prices. Of course, the impact of this will be more substantial on the poorer sectors of San Antonio.

The impact on biodiversity is being almost completely missed. With climate change we have species moving into new ranges. Then, as a result of humans moving more species around, increasing the number of exotics, we can expect more invasive species that threaten native species persistence. I anticipate that if we allow the climate situation to become direr, we will become more and more human-focused, paying less attention to the well-being of other species. 

What can be done to address those highly impacted areas?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: The best way to protect biodiversity is to increase the engagement of humans with nature. San Antonio has come a long way in improving the interface between humans and their natural surroundings by promoting outdoor exercise, expanding the greenways and bike trails, developing the River and the Missions and supporting school and urban food production initiatives. It helps immensely when the leadership in San Antonio makes protecting local biodiversity a priority. At the moment, we have a number of new council members who will help in creating this norm.

Stephen Lucke: In addition to the neglected areas, we also need to be thinking about high impact areas and commercial corridors that could be flagships for what we can do here in San Antonio for resiliency, sustainability, and the overall public.

OS: In your opinion, what opportunities lie ahead with regards to biodiversity & food systems, particularly as it relates to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Why?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: First, reducing local CO2 levels sets an example for other municipalities. Indeed, if progressive enough, it could set the standards upon which all municipalities are expected to strive. It also creates a community collectively engaged in thinking about solutions to problems. San Antonio and the surrounding region has been an (underappreciated!) leader in public utility and water management. Why would addressing climate change be any different? As we have done before, we can set a standard for all municipalities across the country.

Personally, I would like to see development of "Low Input-High Diversity" grassland ecosystems across our extensive rights-of-way systems. These grasslands can sequester carbon, provision for wildlife, control erosion and runoff, and decrease impervious cover while simultaneously conserving our native species and expanding the native seed market. They could also serve as native seed sources. In the future, an effort like this could be paid for, in part, through the inevitable carbon offset market.

Stephen Lucke: San Antonio still has undeveloped land in some areas; we have a lot of vacant lots. If we can start putting these underutilized parcels of land into production, whether it be food production or pollinator gardens to help with the sequestration of carbon and the absorption of rainwater into our underground water reserves.

We know that the most innovative carbon sequestration machine is a tree. Trees are amazing. They literally are the lungs of the earth. And so, we need to preserve green space and plant more trees, not only fruit trees, but shade trees and ornamental trees to really create the diversity that's needed for a healthy ecosystem. And again, that can be done in conjunction with growing food.

OS: Which community members will be most affected by the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and food systems? Why?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: Due to the fact that the biggest impacts on food systems will be scarcity and costs, the poor and disenfranchised sectors of our economy will be the hardest hit. 

Stephen Lucke: Right now, with our current economic model of profit over people and the planet, everything is financially driven. That means that those who have resources are able to preserve and create beautiful parks and have beautiful landscapes and have the most exotic foods, the freshest foods, and those who don't, can't.

The Bexar County Health Collaborative report for 2020 shows the staggering results of life expectancy by zip code. Depending on where you live, your life expectancy can be a 10 to 20 year difference which is crazy to think about.  The zip code that you're born into, can determine your overall health and then your quality of health and the way that our environment impacts your health.

OS: What is one key action that every individual can take to help tackle climate-related challenges and have a positive impact for themselves and their community?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: Everyone must get involved in the practice of reducing their use of fossil fuels and supporting organizations focused on carbon emission reduction or carbon uptake. Then, we must lean on public officials to create systems that EFFECTIVELY reduce carbon. People can start on a personal level by focusing on one practice at a time. The City can help by educating people on the low and high impact practices. 

Stephen Lucke: Everybody can start a little garden and grow a tomato or two. Beyond gardening, rainwater collection is pretty easy. Solar panels can be pricey, but that's another good step. Dedicating one day a week to riding your bike instead of riding in a car. Switching to reusable water bottles and grocery bags. These are all little things that can add up to a lot if everyone does it.

OS: What inspires or encourages you most about your work and/or that of others with whom you partner on this critical issue of biodiversity and food systems with respect to the effects of climate change?

Dr. Kelly Lyons: I am relieved to see so many young people involved in these issues, but we need more of them. I've also been impressed with the cross-section of our SA community that is included on the committee. I commend the Office of Sustainability for constructing a committee that is representative of almost all stakeholders and is also diverse in gender, race, and ethnicity. 

Stephen Lucke: We work a lot with youth. I think that's really where we can make the biggest change. We're looking for that 20-year change. What does San Antonio look like in 2040? If we teach them now, then in 20 years, we could be in a better situation.

Also seeing the successes of these projects. Right now, we're piloting a project with the Office of Innovation for urban agriculture at SASB school. We're turning a park into a farm. Another example is  the City of San Antonio working with the Hay Street Bridge Group to create the Berkeley VM Dawson Park.  It was going to be concrete, and now it's going to be a beautiful park. Those are small wins that can continue to keep the ball rolling, so that hopefully in the future, all of these initiatives and strategies will move forward.

OS: What is your hope or vision for a SA that has overcome these challenges? What does it look like? Paint us a picture.

Dr. Kelly Lyons: The only way to overcome the challenges we face with climate change, is to work in concerted fashion across all sectors of the City and County. The only way this will happen is through unusually strong leadership from the mayor's office. We've seen it under Covid-19. We know it can be done. 

Stephen Lucke: I think the biggest thing we can do is have a forest using renewable energies, collect rainwater, and utilize a multimodal transit public transportation system that allows people to get from the north side all the way downtown without even getting in their car.  It should be accessible to all areas of town and not just one area.  I know we’re a long way from there, but if we start making the investments now, and slowly biting off those chunks, we can get there.