The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world would be its end.

So is the end of the world nigh? No is the short and reassuring answer.

It is about 5 billion years before the sun turns into a red giant and consumes the planet and before then, perhaps 1 billion years or so, the sun will have increased its radiation levels enough to evaporate the oceans on earth. Homo sapiens will be long gone before then so no worries there either.

Careful observation of the fossil record suggests that a typical mammal species persists for about 1 million years, although it can be as long as 10 million years. Suppose that Homo sapiens makes it as an outlier it would mean we have roughly 9,650,000 years to go. Even as an average mammal we have 650,000 years to go, more than enough time to figure out how to mess up other planets.

So the world will end but not anytime soon and even then we will not be around. Not such big news then, the end of the world, unless it comes early.

Is the world changing? Yes and a lot faster than is healthy for human beings. But we know this already, there is no need to keep banging on about how different it was in Grandad’s day. Change is a given.

Only the changes we are seeing are big news, at least they should be.

A year ago I posted a comment on a truly scary percentage; namely the 75% decline in the biomass of flying insects in Europe.

And whilst I know that fewer yucky critters in the world might sound wonderful; picnics in the park without flies, moonlit strolls on the beach without sandflies, barbecues without mozzies and oh the joy of not getting stung by a wasp or bitten by an ant… surely these are all benefits to send us into rapture.

Well yes, some activities will be more pleasant for us.

Farmers are less upbeat.

A few things must happen before a crop makes it to the packaging facility. Farmers must prepare the ground, plant, nurture the plants as the grow, protect them and then harvest the part of the plant that people eat or use. The seed comes in big packets and the seed spreader or direct drilling machine helps the farmer avoid stony ground. He can rely on ever more reliable weather forecasting and turn on the irrigation just at the right time and use growth models to apply fertilizers just when the plants need it. All sophisticated and controlled stuff.

There is one key process that the farmer relies on nature to deliver. Most fruit, vegetable and nut crops (the foods that give us most of our essential vitamins and minerals) do not pollinate themselves, they rely on animals to transfer pollen.

Some greenhouse crops are pollinated by hand. Easy enough but still labour intensive. Outside it’s the flying insects that do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Beekeeping sounds like a honey-making business, but it became that way because bees are great pollinators, especially of fruiting trees and shrubs.

In natural habitats over 80% of the plant species rely on animal pollinators for fertilization.

So the loss of insects should be the biggest news story in the world; just ask the First Dog on the Moon.

Only there is more…

A 75% loss of flying insects is serious business. There will be a direct link to pollination and profitability whenever this happens and the suggestion is that is is a global pattern.

As I write this post I am on the outside deck at home. We are privileged to live in the Blue Mountains of NSW and surrounded by nature I expect a few insects to alight on the screen, perhaps buzz around my ear. Nothing, nada. Same on a recent camping trip to the NSW north coast. Anecdotal but notable for someone with an eye for this kind of thing.

Only there is more.

What if this loss of insects applies to those that live in the soil?

Many of the flying types have larval or pupal life stages in the soil, but there are also plenty of permanent soil dwellers. If worms, mites, springtails, woodlice, millipedes and the many other types of invertebrates in the soil food web have declined by 75% too, then the world will be fine but we are all in serious trouble.

These soil animals are essential to decomposition and nutrient transfer to plant roots as well as much of the physical structure of soil that we recognise as essential for plant growth.

I’ll leave the details for later as this post is already too long but the link between soil biology and soil fertility is established through research and known to every farmer who runs soil through his fingers.

However, we don’t know the extent of soil animal numbers or diversity so it is impossible for us to know if they are in decline.

It should be a Kardashian sized news story if they are.

Yet more…

Nearly 20 years ago I co-authored an article about how to measure the diversity of invertebrates in an academic volume entitled “The other 99% The conservation and Biodiversity of Invertebrates”. Our paper was moot, the ‘yet more’ point here is that most of the non-microbial biodiversity on earth is invertebrate.

There are more species of creepy crawly critters than there are birds, mammals and reptiles put together, and then some.

So if soil animals are in decline in the way that their flying brethren are, then species loss rates are going to be through the roof. Saving the koala will be the least of the conservation issues if we are serious about saving species.



My mum, who is chin wagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people. Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in possession of the facts and we let opinion rule. My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in the everyday or risk getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more. There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct
  • Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Food security

Food security

A key food security issue went through without much comment in a recent Alloporus post on meat.

Via a calculation on the carbon footprint of omnivory, an estimate of the amount of productive land needed to provide all the humans on the planet with enough calories from plants to meet their daily needs came out at 4 million km2.

Next to this number we can put the FAO estimate that says there is roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth and a simple conclusion is reached: we should be fine.

All we have to do is eat plants.

According to this juxtaposition of area estimates, we have 10 times the land area we need to grow enough food to feed everyone. Surely all the chatter and concern about food security is unnecessary.

We grow more than we need, waste a whole bunch, and still have land to spare. Get over it.

There appears to be more than enough productive land to meet human needs. Perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more meaning we could go beyond needs towards our wants too… rib-eye and chocolate moose anyone?

Well perhaps.

Thanks to energy inputs, technology and a global supply chain there is remarkable capacity to feed people – the global requirement for roughly 14 trillion calories per day is a lot of food. That this happens every day with a declining failure rate is miraculous. Yet it happens and this supply seems to be keeping up with increasing demand. All the indices of poverty, hunger, the size and frequency of famines are heading in the right direction. Proportionally fewer people go hungry today than 5 years ago and serious regional famines are historical.

There is always more to do of course. Hunger and poverty still exist, even within wealthy societies, but the pragmatist will see food security as a social or political problem, not a problem of production.

So why does a Google Scholar search on food security pull up 729,000 research articles from the last 5 years alone with 60,000 of these published in the first 9 months of 2018?

Presumably a lot of researchers and the people behind the systems that fund their work believe we have a problem. Perhaps we need to go deeper than simple ratios.

The first confounding factor is in the 4 million km2 calculation where all the calories come from plants, the most energy efficient food source.

We know that people like to eat animal products in all their myriad forms. If a quarter of the required calories for each person’s daily needs come from animals (meat, milk and eggs) then the area requirement jumps dramatically thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Meat contains calories but the animal also needed calories to maintain itself and grow before it gave up its tissues to the food chain.

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

So if a person eats 600 calories worth of meat and dairy products per day, then the animals that created this protein needed to consume 5,400 calories. They get this from plants (and the occasional meat based protein pellet).

If everyone consumed a quarter of their daily calories from animals instead of plants then the 4 million km2 requirement becomes 13 million km2. This is 27% of the available area.

Still plenty of buffer, right?

Well yes and no. The original calculation assumed that production was efficient. Crops produced predictable yields at near average levels. Averages are a useful metric in this type of calculation because they absorb the inevitable variation from one region to another, one landholding to another and even among fields.

Just as important though is the variance in production.

Suppose that the average yield of wheat is 3.0 t/ha, near enough the global average. However, in the low input, low output production systems of Australia the average is 1.9 t/ha, whilst the global average is 3.3 t/ha Yield is double. A drought or a widespread plant disease in Germany, where wheat production is over 24 million tonnes and the average yield over 9 t/ha, would have a disproportionate effect on global production than dry times in Australia.

Also averages can change over time. It happens that average grain yields have risen consistently for several decades at up to 1% per year for some commodities. More security you would think. Only there is a physical limit to yield, and, in time, averages could easily decline for any number of reasons. There is also the risk of catastrophe.

Among the many interesting numbers generated by the FAO is a critical one for our calorie count. The FAO report that 40% of soil in production systems is degraded. Below average in other words.

So let’s suppose than over the next decade yield averages decline on these degraded soils, let’s say by 50%. The 13 million km2 to grow enough calories becomes 15.6 million km2 and we are up to a third of the available area.

Then there are the climate change effects that will mess up average yields as well as increase catastrophic risk from drought fire and flood. If 2 million km2 of production area fails due to local catastrophe there is a 15% shortfall in calories. This amount will be hard to even out across the global supply chains.

These are enough production side challenges to tweak nerves. Next though we have to look at demand. First is the 1 billion or so people who consume far more than 2,400 calories per day; the average American ingests 3,600 calories. This pushes the area up to 19.8 million km2.

Not to forget the 8,000 new souls every hour of every day.

All this doom and gloom calculator craziness can go on and on. There is still a land buffer. At the moment there is land to spare and to absorb all the inevitable inefficiencies.

However, the 200 research articles per day on food security through 2018 is both reassuring and an alert. We need sharp minds on this real and present risk.

Think about all of this the next time you see a kilo of onions on sale for a dollar.

Soil degradation

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is defined as a change in the soil health status resulting in a diminished capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. Degraded soils have a health status such, that they do not provide the normal goods and services of the particular soil in its ecosystem.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

No wonder you have never heard of soil degradation.

How the Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the concept is as impenetrable as a dry chernozem, replete with dull jargon and weak science. Since when can dirt have “soil health status” or sentient status sufficient to have beneficiaries. It makes soil sound like a shop or an accounting firm when it is actually a mixture of minerals, water and biology.

How about this definition?

Soil degradation has happened when soil grows less food less often.

I admit this simplification does not hint at the why of the outcome; something about soil being unwell, but I am sure you paid a little more attention to a focused definition. And you should. When soils grow less food less often it represents a risk to the wellbeing of us all.

Fortunately, this definition also allows the positive mirror

Soil degradation is reversed when soil grows more food more often.

So if you are of the positive thinking set there is a version for you where the graph goes from bottom left to top right.

Less facetiously, this definition is closer to the practical reality: humans use soil for their benefit. Natural vegetation converted into productions systems that capture solar energy into food, our own specific source of energy, is still the most efficient and cost-effective (or profitable if you prefer) method to feed people on mass. In these systems soil is the growth medium of choice.

Soil is still the cheapest, most ubiquitous and (usually) the most resilient option to grow food at a profitable volume. In short, we use it for profit.

Soil is gold, bitcoin even.

When soil degradation is defined as a loss in that use value it is logical at least. It fits with our notions of value – philosophical antagonism over human values applied to nature notwithstanding. ‘Health status’ is just silly but at least the FAO got the goods and services bit right.

Let’s run with the economics for a while.

If I make money from soil because I use it to grow food that is sold in a market, then my business needs the soil to continue to provide conditions for commodity production for as long as I need to run the business. This is as true for a subsistence farmer taking some excess melons to his village square as it is to a 5,000 ha precision agriculture operation in the Australian wheat belt. At first glance, soil degradation is not good for either business.

What if there is a time horizon on the business?

The subsistence farmer would rather have a job that pays more than tilling his field and hopes his children will break out of the hand to mouth cycle of his own life. Sales of the melons help buy his kids school uniforms.

Intensive agriculture must make money to satisfy creditors and benefit investors. Modern farms require immediate and increasingly significant capital and liquidity to function. Creditor terms run to months at best and investors are expecting annual dividends. Whilst the banks are happy to help with lumpy cash flow and insurance taken out against more acute disruption from acts of god and the market, even in a financially planned farm business, money goes in and out all the time.

All this means that the time horizons are short when it comes to growing food. So whilst I might want to grow melons for generations and wheat far into the future there are concerns right now. Production has to happen soon. It might be desirable for the business to be sustainable, that is to continue for as far into the future as we can realistically imagine, but cash is king and cash is immediate.

More food more often fits this model of course and ‘less food less often’ does not, so the last thing I need is soil degradation…. but the first thing I need is production. And this takes precedence whether it means food for a family or interest payments on the loan for the centre pivot. Farmer sustainability has a short time span, way shorter than the farm business and the soil that supports it.

This is the true problem with the “goods and services for its beneficiaries” definition of soil degradation. It will sneak up on you before you even know it is a problem. The average couch potato is functional but unhealthy and is fine with it. He would be less fine if you cut his Netflix allowance by half and restricted viewing to three nights a week (less food less often).

So now you have heard of soil degradation at least. It is a problem sneaking up on us all with ‘diminished capacity’ about to make all our lives more difficult.

There is something you can do.

Soil degradation is usually reversible through prudent production, encouragement of soil carbon, allowing soil biology to flourish and taking the long view.

And you can help with this by gearing yourself up to pay more than $1 per kilo for your onions.