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.

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.

Eat your greens while you can

Eat your greens while you can

Many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. The proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing. Overall, the diversity of crops present in farmers’ fields has declined and threats to crop diversity are increasing.

FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

This banal quote comes from the web summary of a critical FAO Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

It is bad people.

Biodiversity loss is not just about Andean condors, orangutans, koalas and rhinos, as important as these iconic creatures are, it is also about a myriad of plants, microbes and invertebrate animals, and especially insects, that actually make nature what it is and, crucially, allow nature to provide for us.

Alloporus has banged on about this for ages. Blue in the face kind of stuff. Here are a few:

They have bored faithful readers witless. And the message still holds.

Biodiversity loss is bad for humans.

This recent message from the FAO is a little more subtle. It refers to the loss of biodiversity in the diversity that humans have created over generations of artificial selection. This is the diversity we get from humans playing god. Think chihuahuas and great Danes, sausage dogs and schnauzers. Only it also applies to crops and livestock.

We made it and now we are getting rid of it.

Let’s back up a little and ask why we made genetic, species and ecosystem diversity in agricultural systems in the first place.

Well right from the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago it was clear that wild varieties of grass were never going to deliver enough grain and wild cattle were way too unruly for the herd boys to cope. Better options were needed.

Initially through trial and error and later through the wonders of more formal selective breeding, farmers were able to choose crops and varieties that were best suited to the specific conditions on their farm and run livestock that would breed well and grow fat without squishing the shepherd.

It did not matter if that was in the highlands of Scotland or southern Sudan, there were suitable beasts and ideal crops.

This was humans creating variety for their own ends. Selecting the best production system possible. And for a few thousand years this meant the creation of all sorts of efficient breeds and crop types that became familiar to local communities. It helped to create distinctive cuisines and trade in the items that couldn’t be grown locally, spices being the most famous example.

Then two inventions changed everything.

The first was mechanised agriculture.

This meant ploughs that would never tire and fertilizers that made it possible to grow crops that unimproved soil could not support. Ubiquitous energy also meant we could synthesize and deliver pesticides and herbicides whenever they were needed.

The second was that we figured out genetics and how to use this to rapidly select for optimal varieties that could use the tilled soil and fertilizer to deliver the best possible yields.

It was possible to make serious money from agriculture if you could harness these breakthroughs and scale them up. So we did. We tilled the fields and spread fertilisers, then planted fewer and fewer types of crop. The ones that gave the best yields and market prices: corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.

This production we converted into more people.

Agriculture created diversity to ensure food production was possible almost everywhere. Fossil fuel energy homogenised production for high yield crops on the best soils in the most benign climates and squeezed the market.

No problem surely. What is the FAO going on about? We have more food than ever and in most places, it is as cheap as chips.

Well, what happens if the handful of species that make up the bulk of production are hit with a disease or what if the climate changes in the main grain growing regions?

If the production system is diverse then it can adapt to these events shifting readily between crops not affected by plague or drought. If the system is simple, it is far less resilient to change.

More importantly, if these crops and varieties from ancient genetic stock are lost, there is nothing for the geneticists to latch on to and engineer their way out of a production crisis.

This brings us back to biodiversity proper. It is the resilience of diverse systems that is most valuable to humanity, not the presence or not of iconic species. We have to have as much genetic, species and ecosystem diversity as possible if only as a reserve for future options should things go sour.

There is great irony in the FAO report.

Humans first create and then destroy diversity. That is a hoot.

That we are doing it as blindly as we eradicate what nature created makes you want to cry.

What do you see?

What do you see?

Magnificent beach isn’t it?

What do you see?

Wide expanses of sand, huge vista, no buildings and just one person and their dog as far as the eye can see (almost).

I’m guessing you would travel quite a way to visit such a place, especially if I tell you that it was a balmy 30 degrees in the shade when I took this photo.

This is Jimmy’s Beach at Hawks Nest, NSW, just one of the many truly beautiful places on the east coast of Australia.

On our walk along the crisp clean sand we saw dolphins in the ocean, a sea eagle flying over the dunes past sooty oystercatchers, pied oystercatchers, turn species too numerous to know, and any number of interesting shells. We’ll ignore the bull ant that bit my wife’s foot as we passed through the fringing woodland. That was truly painful.

You cannot see all these things in the picture but it is easy to imagine them and believe that they are there and that we saw them on our visit, even that you would see them too if you go there.

You should, it is a fantastic place.

But what else do you see in the picture?

There is a sign that says ‘No vehicle access past this point’.

The tyre tracks extend either side of the sign. This suggests that not everyone heeded its instruction. Clearly many a 4×4 passes up and down this beach, tyres let down to the lowest tolerable pressure. Most are driven by middle-aged white dudes looking for a place to throw a fishing line into the water. A few of them do it for a living.

You can also see footprints. Well, more like depressions in the sand, but evidence that many people visit this place. Obviously not all at the same time; but people are here, often. The sand is not blown into the ridges you’ll see in a desert, it is pot marked, trodden on.

Whilst at first glance Jimmy’s Beach looks like a remote wilderness, an unspoilt gem near the edge of the world. It isn’t. A time lapse image would tell us that people come here all the time, walking, jogging, swimming, driving, fishing, birdwatching, picnicking, sunbathing, surfing… any number of beach time activities.

All these visitors love it.

Many pinch themselves at their good fortune to be there. Some may not be that aware. Either way it is a public place that the law of the land says can be used by anyone so long as they abide by a few rules designed to prevent abuse of the privilege.

And that use is on the increase. In the campsite there is a flotilla of caravans drawn by large 4x4s with their tyres optimally inflated. These are the homes of choice of grey nomads, the older contingent of Australians enjoying at least part of their retirement on the road. They make up a sizeable chunk of the 12 million caravan and camping nights a year around the country and its increasing as the population ages and more people take to beachside touring.

How will Jimmy’s Beach fare as numbers of visitors increase?

Well the sand will be fine. The tides will ebb and flow and the waves will crash every minute of every day until the sun explodes.

We can be less confident about the animals.

As each visitor strolls quietly along toward the turns resting on the wet sand only one thing happens. At some point the birds take to the wing and fly off.

If this happens a few times a day then it is all in a day’s predator avoidance for an animal that is vulnerable on the ground. If it happens a few times an hour, then the energetics of it may bite. If it happens during mating or brooding it could influence breeding success. And there need be no intent to disturb. Walking along the beach is enough.

Does this mean restricting access to Jimmy’s Beach? No. What it means is that there are always an array of consequences that the presence of people have on nature, like it or not.

Our challenge is to recognise this and to plan accordingly.

So, what else do you see?

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Tomorrow I will tootle off to my local primary school to vote in the NSW state election. It is a legal obligation I have as an Australian citizen and I am grateful for it.

At a deep level, I know that to vote is a privilege that I must take seriously.

I find it easy to honour this feeling thanks to growing up through the Thatcher years in the UK and then witnessing at close hand South Africa change from apartheid to a majority democracy with a global legend as its first president. Whilst politics is always messy, there is a much bigger reality with democracy, the recognition of individuals and that they have a right to speak.

Voting is a public display of that right.

This time, more than all the others, I have no idea which of the muppets should get my vote. None of them gives me any confidence that they can speak for me, even for part of me. They are all incompetent, out of touch, and passionate about the wrong things. The better ones try hard and may even have their hearts in the right place but enthusiasm alone is not enough to earn anyone’s vote.

The benefit from my public display of democratic right should go towards outcomes, real benefits to society. That is I’d like to vote for policies.

I recognise that policies are attached to politics and therefore candidates. And I know that this means I can’t cherry pick my policies, they’re a job lot, but I would like to know what they are, even in general terms.

I consider myself reasonably well read and someone who pays attention. I know the names of the local candidates, at least for the major parties and the leaders of those parties at state and federal level, but I do not know the policy positions of the parties or their candidates. This is not good.

What do I know?

Well, I know that the posturing and attempts to manipulate me are rampant.

Witness the idiocy of the Federal prime minister unable to say the word ‘coal’ in public when a year ago as treasurer he held up a fist-sized piece of coal in the parliament to wave aggressively at the opposition. See a witty summary of this coal lunacy by Katherine Murphy.

I also know that outside the Canberra comic book the manipulation in other parts of the world is creating chaos (Brexit), erosion of the rule of law (Trump and the US attorney), extremism (Brazil, Trump again), poverty (North Korea, far too many countries in Africa), overconsumption (everywhere) and, well, the list could go on and on. There is no doubt we ‘live in changing times’ to quote the old Chinese curse.

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Knowing you are cursed is one thing. What you choose to do about it is another.

The other day I sat with a colleague in a delightful coffee shop on the second floor of the Queen Victoria Building in downtown Sydney. More privilege that we acknowledged as we drifted onto the topic of the vacuum in global politics.

It was easy to agree that we are in changing times and that what we see now in Trump, Brexit and aimless Australian politics are symptoms of the vacuum. We also easily agreed that nature hates a vacuum and will rush to fill it.

What we couldn’t figure out was what nature would come up with: more extremes, a progressive middle, something different altogether.

Our conclusion, that there will be a holding pattern while the stupid white men die off and then the youngsters come up with something wonderful, felt shallow and, frankly, a cop-out. Why abdicate in favour of the next generation when we are the ones with the batten?

I think because we are actually at a loss.

My generation and the couple that came after mine does not have an alternative.

We cannot give up capitalism because we actually like what it gives us (we like wealth and privilege a lot) and, more or less, capitalism is steadily doing it for more and more people. We actually don’t have a realistic alternative to mobilising capital and labour for profit.

We cannot ditch democracy for similar reasons. We like it, for the most part, and we know that the alternatives are risky and erode our liberty.

We certainly cannot lose the right to speak through our vote. That would be going back to the dark ages, literally.

Instead, we can just hobble along because it’s what we’ve always done and, hey, it has worked so far. Who’s to say it can’t keep on working.

So the answer is no, we don’t have an alternative.

This both scares me and ensures that nobody will like this post.

Happy thinking.

Fighting for me

Fighting for me

If I get into a fight in a pub at best I’ll be thrown out, maybe banned or if the police arrive, arrested and given a legal clip around the ear.

If I fight a family member and someone finds out the law should prosecute me for that too, although not enough of such actions are punished.

Suppose I am a wimp and decide I need someone else to fight for me. I can hire a more robust type and for a fee they would achieve the biffings I need done.

It could be a bigger fight that requires the services where the taxpayer pays the fee for so-called legitimate fights knowns as wars, and that is fine. War is the worst kind of fight hurting everyone involved for a long time. People die and those that survive are scarred forever.

None of these typical uses of the term fight are pretty. Indeed most fights are not either worth it or the best way to resolve matters.

So why does my local politician have a campaign slogan ‘fighting for you’?

Well obviously she wants to be on my side. Perhaps be the hired biff to do my dirty work for me so I can be at arm’s length from the law.

Maybe she sees me as a wimp.

Obviously she wants me to think that there is something worth fighting for, that the services and legal systems that parliaments legislate are actually a fight for one against another. If you fail to fight you fail to get your share.

I don’t want that at all.

Biffing the other guy because he wants a different policy to me is not what I want.

I’d like robust and intelligent discussion that uses of all available evidence and then a set of solutions chosen to maximise the collective best interest for today, tomorrow and generations to come. I’d like this to be a constructive process, one that builds relationships and supports as much diversity of views and ideals as is possible with the common ground of health, wealth and happiness supported for everyone.

Surprising as this may sound, I don’t think that wanting this outcome makes me a wimp.

Pragmatic resolutions require considerable courage and fortitude, not to mention patience and tenacity.

Fighting is the last resort not the first and certainly not a slogan I can vote for.

Good evidence

Good evidence

It’s fake news.

That is all I need to say to put doubt into your mind about anything in the media. Fake news is rhetoric that is nothing to do with the actual news item, who knows if the President did or did not spend private time with scantily clad Russian ladies, the point is for you to doubt the source. Just by calling anything fake the seeds of doubt are sown. Whatever evidence there is now has a much more difficult task.

The FIFA world cup in Russia was great entertainment for the soccer tragic. No doubt the aforementioned ladies also enjoyed it. The use of VAR technology to replay the action and review the minutiae of key decisions by the referee changed results but not the players behaviours towards the ref. They still jumped all over his decisions, and his person too. Players protestations to reverse a decision are even more vehement in the VAR age than they were before. They would claim it was fake even as the visual evidence played to a global audience.

Why do players protest so aggressively?

No referee has changed his mind because he was shirt fronted by an expensive haircut. In oblong ball codes such behaviour ends up in the sin bin.

The soccer boys do it to get into the referees head. Maybe he’ll be less inclined to decide against them next time. And it works more than we realise. Even in the world cup with VAR looking over the referees shoulder there have been post protestation biases.

Fake news and haranguing the referee are just two of the tactics in the seeding of doubt game. It began with the mad men of advertising and is now everywhere.

There is a larger game at play here too. Consider this quote about the use of evidence.

In any decision–making setting there will be people with greater power than others to assert what counts as good evidence, but this does not mean that the less powerful will agree.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

The President of the United States has more decision making power than most. He can start a war, release a nuke, pardon a criminal and gain any number of retweets. But it does not mean we will all agree with his decisions even if he presents credible evidence for his choice. In other words he could demonstrate the real and immediate threat of global annihilation from WOMDs and not everyone would agree with a pre-emptive strike.

I can still run in my head the footage of missiles landing on Baghdad to start the first Iraq war. It was wrong.

So if the less powerful will not agree despite the evidence, a smart play is to discredit all evidence. Then agreement defaults to feeling and all you need then is enough people to feel like you do about your decision. Tariffs for example.

Again evidence, that is facts that generate real inference, struggles even for a voice. This applies no matter how good the evidence is.

There is no simple answer to the question of what counts as good evidence. It depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what contexts we envisage that evidence being used. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

Shouting ‘fake news’ has the effect of weakening evidence however good the evidence is, just as the protestations and rolling around in fake agony of the $10,000 a week boys gets into the referees head to weaken the evidence he see with his own eyes.

What to do?

The instinct is to rail against the ‘fake news’ tirade and seek ways to show that evidence matters, do the fact checking, use only credible sources and spend enough money to keep honest reporting somewhere near the front page.

This should be done but it is not enough on its own. Demonstrating fact from fake is unlikely to change hearts.

Tackling the psychology is the go, only that is a much longer play.