When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

Alloporus is looking into online courses. I know, once a student, always a student is a nasty affliction.

It is fascinating to see how this format has evolved given that back in the day, that being the late 1990’s when I first built a website for my undergraduate students at Macquarie University, it was a struggle just to code a homepage. How I would have swooned over today’s functionality back then. Uploading self-made videos to cloud platforms with real-time chat, get outta here. I guess that just makes me old.

Anyway, please excuse my reminiscences and get us up to date to an online course from the excellent and free MOOC edX.org entitled “Feeding a Hungry Planet: Agriculture, Nutrition and Sustainability”.

It is fascinating and, I have to say, scary stuff.

Early in the proceedings Professor Achim Dobermann who is Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research UK, the oldest continually operating agricultural research station in the world, gives a 12-minute presentation on the risks associated with agriculture to 2050 should the world follow current business-as-usual for food production.

It is a courageous and smart summary of what global food and nutrition will be like for the next 30 years.

Here are a couple of headline numbers for what is required.

Global per capita meat consumption will rise from 40 to 50 kg per annum that will mean an additional 180 million tons of livestock production or 64% more than today.

Grain consumption per person will rise too and overall grain production will need to increase 1.1 billion tons or 52% more than today, in part to feed the extra animals.

My take is that agricultural and social science is telling us that food supply has to grow at an average of 2% per annum each and every year for over a generation. In short, another Green Revolution.

Such a change to business-as-usual will mean a plethora of production and consumption efficiency gains along the whole supply chain, innovation everywhere, and some nimble policy.

You can see Professor Dobermann’s full presentation here.

These numbers and their consequences present any number of risks to getting a second Green Revolution underway. Here are a few off the top of my head…

  • not enough land for agriculture
  • not enough usable water to increase yields
  • soil degradation, especially ongoing loss of soil carbon
  • peak fertilizer, especially micro-nutrients
  • pests and disease, especially of core crops
  • climate change

These are some of the obvious food production end risks, but once we get to the people part there are many more…

  • resistance to agricultural innovation
  • rapid changes to diet
  • food waste

And then there are the food supply chains themselves that these days are long and involve many parties each claiming a clip. This evens out supply by moving seasonal produce around and feeding the people now congregated in cities — 55% of the total according to the UN. In other words, we would be lost without them.

But long can be brittle, inefficient with losses at each stage and, thanks to the many parties and their clip, raises the price of food; all factors that reduce food security.

On the upside, mass transport and production efficiency has reduced the global agricultural price index over the last century which is a good thing for most consumers; only it has also lowered the farm gate price. This is not so good.

It means that many farmers must push their production rather than nurture it. When the price squeeze happens at the farm gate they must mine their natural capital to keep their business alive instead of investing returns into efficiencies and soil inputs.

Whilst the level of risk and demand growth is scary, at least they are known. The big picture is clear enough.

In addition, we already have a thousand solutions to reduce or mitigate risks from biochar to farmers co-ops to Meatless Monday. We can and should use all of them as and where they make sense because 2% efficiency gains across the board each and every year for 30 years is a massive challenge with unfathomable complexity.

Also, being a bit scared is a good thing. It is a powerful motivator to do something positive.

180 million tonnes extra is a lot

Endnote on awareness

We have to avoid the single focus solutions.

One of the latest is the trillion trees idea — to save the world from climate change we need to plant a trillion trees.

Good idea if you are worried about greenhouse gas emissions given that trees sequester CO2 into woody biomass that can persist for a long time in the landscape. So yes, we should plant, nurture and grow trees and we should resist cutting any trees down.

Only we have to be very careful where we do it.

We can’t put tree planting on the lists of risks to the 2% per annum of food production growth.

Will we die of the populist virus?

Will we die of the populist virus?

A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.

The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.

Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.

Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.

Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister

“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.

Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.

Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.

This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.

Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.

Is the populist virus fatal?

Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.

It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.

The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.

Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.

The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.

Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.

Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.

The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.

You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.

At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.

But I have a solution…

Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.

More than the rare things

More than the rare things

Suppose you have a choice to make. It is not an easy choice but you have to make it nonetheless, and you only have a moment to think about it.

The choice is this.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that 1,000 pre-school children in Burkina Faso will not starve to death.

The plants or the kids? I’m guessing that without any context information you would go for the kids even though they are black, a long way away and of a different culture.

Now, let’s make the choice a little more personal.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that your granddaughter has a good education

The plants or your granddaughters future? Again, I’m guessing that your granddaughter is more important to you than an endangered plant community.

Now you might be asking, what on earth is an endangered plant community? A fair question for otherwise you would have no idea as to the magnitude of your choice.

Formally, a plant community is “a collection or association of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighbouring patches of different vegetation types”.

In more simple terms, plants that occur together often enough to form a recognisable grouping.

An ‘endangered plant community’ is a grouping of plants that is at risk of being lost, usually due to some change in conditions brought about by human activities. A typical example might be where a swamp is drained to extend a suburb. The wetland plants cannot survive without the water.

Now the problem here is a value proposition. How much do I value something I might know very little about over something that I can imagine (starving kids) or is personal to me (my granddaughter’s education)?

In the world today there are many endangered plant communities and there are starving children as well as those in need of a good education. The choice may not be explicit but it is actually part of what society has to do. We are going to have to make choices about how much of nature we can protect and save from our own use of resources without compromising human values.

I doubt this is how conservation is proposed. It is usually presented as a ‘we have to or else’ kind of decision and rarely as a choice between competing values. The reason being that if we thought about it in value terms, where human values are among the choices, the people would win every time.

The irony is that this would be a disaster for the people. We might be able to lose an endangered plant community here and there but we cannot lose them all for we cannot live without plant communities. They feed us, clean up our water, produce oxygen… well, you get the idea.

The conservation movement still sets the choice up as a loss of rare things.

Recently the Adani coal mine was approved by the Federal government in Australia. In the absence of any sensible climate policy, the only legislation to stop it was from environmental protection, in this instance some unique plant communities associated with freshwater springs and possible impacts on the Black Throated Finch (Poephila cincta) currently listed as ‘Endangered’ under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

So when the approval went through and the indignation from the conservationists begaan, they led with the plants and the bird.

What were they thinking?

Just the previous day Norway’s $US1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, tightened its investment rules to divest further from coal that meant they would pull out $1billion investments in a slew of Australian companies. They should have led with this news. It is hip pocket gold, just as good as choosing your granddaughter’s school over a bird with cute plumage.

Now, of course, cash of this size is about strategy and in the case of Norway the move out of coal into integrated energy companies is as much a hedge against future oil prices as anything to do with the climate. Only that is fine because the climate issue is addressed by the strategy option, numerous values win so the choice becomes less about nature versus people.

It is time we started thinking carefully about the trade-offs that are always present in these value propositions. The green movement really has to or history will record their passion for the rare things as misguided fantasy.

Why there is so little leadership in politics

Why there is so little leadership in politics

Recent research from Swinburne University of Technology suggests that most Australians don’t believe that political parties show leadership for the public good and just a handful think that they do.

It is tempting to blame the endless nonsense around Australian politics on the press coverage and given that the surveys were conducted just before a federal election, we might expect partisanship at a zenith.

My party has a bigger pork barrel than yours and all that.

More worrying though is that over a quarter (26.3%) of respondents in the survey said they believed that the federal government, as an institution, shows no “leadership for the public good”. One in four has lost faith in government as a leadership option irrespective of the politics.

This is a much bigger problem than dissatisfaction with political parties. It suggests that a fair few people have little choice in the polling booth, they don’t even think the system works, let alone the parties within it.

The Swinburne and other researchers claim that the reasons for this disillusion are found in the importance of transparency, accountability and ethics to perceptions of trust and confidence in leadership. The idea that people want their leaders to be good, trustworthy people who can be believed. These qualities are lacking in Australian politicians right now and arguably in the political leaders of many other western democracies too.

Wooah, hold on a minute. Just back up, back up will you.

Let’s get this straight. The reason people are disillusioned is that people value transparency, accountability and ethics and they are not getting it from their political leaders.

Alright then, so how does the public, a few months after the survey, vote into government leaders with the worst local record on all three counts?

A gotcha if ever there was one.

Well, we can only assume that whilst people value transparency, accountability and ethics or their own version of it when it comes to their mates, their family, maybe their employer, it doesn’t stretch to who gets their vote. Other factors must influence their choice there.

What we know is that the election campaign was replete with lies, claims and innuendo and was fearfully lacking in explanation of policy. Indeed the party that tried some policy options lost an election that polls, pundits, and even the punters said they couldn’t. All this on the back of a decade of narcissistic nonsense in the parliament that gave the country enough prime ministers to fill a tour bus and enough fiddling around to inspire a quote involving Emperor Nero.

No, here is what is more likely. People may well want their leaders to hold key values but enough of them ignored the lack of these values when they cast their vote, probably because, for the individual, the link between their vote and who they will get in the parliament is tenuous at best.

After the votes were cast and tallied the politicians in the coalition were elected into power. These are the people who completely ignore every single erudite value when they enter the Canberra bubble. They ignore the process of compiling policy options on a whole host of core issues and presenting them for debate in the house and with the public in favour of no policy at all.

Instead, they bring in a lump of coal into the parliamentary chamber and wave it around like it were gold… because they believe that it is.

I am sorry white-coated ones, people might hold laudable values but they went with the biggest liars when it mattered.

The awareness chasm

The awareness chasm

Take yourself to a glacier in the Alps.

It is a fine spring day and you are descending toward the green pastures in the valley below. The ice is slippery as the sun beats down on it but all is well as your experienced guide has filled everyone on your trek with confidence and humour.

As the smell of the fields reaches your nostrils the guide stops and raises her hand.

In front of you the glacier has inched forward and cracked right across the chosen path. It has opened a bottomless hole toward the earth two meters wide. In the few hours since your party passed this way the glacier just reminded everyone that they are standing on a frozen river.

What happens if you try to cross this chasm?

There are no ropes or ladders or material for a bridge. You will have to jump.

Realistically, only one of two things can happen.

Success or failure, the latter bringing certain pain and likely death.

What to do then? Take the risky leap or walk an unknown distance around the obstacle? Perhaps decide that either option is too scary and staying where you are is the safest choice.

There is something similar hidden in the minds of consumers.

They stand on one side of a mental chasm where the milk and meat come from the fridge in aisle 3. On the other side is what it takes to breed, feed and slaughter the livestock to actually produce the milk and the mince.

The same applies to aisle 1 where the bread is stacked. How it gets there is on the other side of a mental chasm. Most of us eating the smashed avocado on sourdough toast know very little about where the deliciousness came from beyond the Blue Moon cafe on the high street.

Only the glacier analogy is a poor one.

Consumers are not on a trek. They don’t perceive the awareness gap at all and whilst there are supermarkets with produce and checkouts there is no need to even think about it. So long as a proportion of household income allocated to food, usually somewhere around 10 to 15%, is available in their current account, it is easy to tap away and load the SUV with the weekly shop. No questions asked.

Now we should say that these generalisations apply to the billion or so people who are at level 4 in Hans Rosling’s development scale, the people that live on more than $64 per day. The 6.5 billion humans on levels 1, 2 and 3 who must survive on less than this are far more aware. Those on level 1 with less than $1 per day of income, acutely so.

However, most of the money flows via those in level 4 and so the supply chain is designed for them. It is long and complex. It makes it possible for seasonal fruits to be on the shelves in all seasons with only modest price fluctuations.

Supply chains mean the shelves and fridges are well stocked and it means that there is no need to even think that a chasm exists let alone be in a position to have to cross it unaided.

There is a chasm of scale though between the individual consumer and the system of production. Most people on level 4 don’t know it exists but they should.

Why they don’t is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone understand what it takes to run one. They are consumers not producers and fair dues. It is enough to know how to select the cut of meat, roast it with sliced fennel and serve with a red wine jus.

It is also important to the psyche to know that there is food in the supermarket at all times. No need to worry or hoard produce. Just rock up and tap your card. Sustenance is a base need that seems surprisingly easy to cheat. We are too easily fooled that supply chain to the supermarket will always work. We don’t see a psychological chasm of food insecurity at all any more, even though this was a primal driver for our ancestors and for over half the global population still.

It may be that this psychological chasm of food security has to open up before we realise it is there.

Instead we have an awareness chasm. Only there is no reason for us to cross. It’s just a precipitous gap in the ice that looks dangerous.

Everything we need is on our side so meh, why worry?

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison. For me, it meant I could now travel across the border from my home in Botswana to visit the fantastic country of South Africa. I went many times over the next few years often to Sun City in Bophuthatswana.

Beyond my own minuscule protest, I was not really present to the truth of what was happening until on one visit to Sun City I saw Johnny Clegg perform. I knew a little of his music but not much about him other than he was one of the few white musicians to integrate himself fully into black Africa.

Near the middle of the set, he introduced what he said was a new song called ‘The Crossing’ dedicated to his friend Dudu Ndlovu who was assassinated during the apartheid struggle. It talks about how the spirit crosses over, the spirit of a friend.

I am playing it now and cannot control the sobs for this truth cradles the soul.

Many years later when Johnny Clegg came to Australia I went to see him play in Sydney.

Older and wiser, and now very familiar with his music, I realised that this man was pure of heart and soul, his songs and his presence letting the world know of his love for his fellow man and for Africa, a love that we should all embrace.

Johnny Clegg passed away this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

My tears are in sadness and memory of a musician and a man that helped me understand part of my own journey.

They are also in thanks for his life and his music that blessed this earth.

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

We love a landscape, we really do.

I bet you are familiar with at least some of these names: John Constable, Thomas Cole, Joseph Turner, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh.

Yes, they are all famous painters and are especially remembered for paintings of landscapes.

Likely you are also familiar with this painting by Constable, The Haywain, that depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex or perhaps this one rings a distant bell, A View of Arles by Vincent van Gogh.

Many of the most famous landscape paintings are of rural scenes where human intervention has altered the scene dramatically from the original ‘wilderness’.

This was handy for the painters of course. It meant that as they stood at their easel or sketched their charcoal renderings, they could see a long way into the distance. They could compose across open fields dotted with human-made interest.

Presumably for the landscape painter a pristine forest is less interesting visually, has fewer vantage points for the sketch and, critically, it has no obvious human connection. There are no objects or patterns to link the viewer to themselves.

We have already spoken of the biblical instruction in Genesis 1:28 for mankind to have dominion and, over the centuries, humankind has readily complied. Almost all landscape are altered by our hand, our chainsaws and our D-9s.

What most of the famous landscape artists painted was a human-made landscape, there were very few fully natural views that made it onto canvas.

So why do landscapes excite us?

Landscapes…

  • Are familiar to us.
  • Represent the dominion that we feel we have to have
  • Provide an image of perceived security that comes from dominion over nature
  • Under our control make us feel safer.

If we control nature then all her diabolical beasts and storms and winter chills are less of a threat to our person. If we control the profusion of life and can use it as needs must then we feel that security from food and water is easier to find. More viscerally, open land makes it easier to see the danger coming

The rainforest image was taken in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

It looks natural enough, pristine even, but it has been altered by people planting trees they need closer to where they need them. Sure these trees occur naturally in the forest but their locations and abundance have changed over the thousands of years that people have been living in the forest.