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.

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 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.

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Gogglebox is a popular TV show in Australia. Turns out that ‘watching people on TV watching TV’ is actually a clever and cheap way to capture the intensity of emotions that the producers of television entertainment have wet dreams about.

It happened this week when we watched people watching a show about a zoo in the UK where a giraffe, pregnant for 14 months, gave birth on film. The 60-kilo youngster entered the world from a great height and lay still on the ground for an eternity.

Was it alive?

Did the fall break its neck?

Was it stillborn?

Oh my god, will it breathe? Breathe, please breathe.

Look! There, there, its nostrils are twitching.

It’s alive. Thank heaven it’s alive. Pass the tissues.

I kid you not. These were the reactions of the Goggleboxers and no doubt most of the viewers who saw the show when it went to air. It’s why the producers made it. They knew there would be a deep reaction and they knew they had gold as soon as the birthing footage was in.

Rather than scurry along with the psychology of the entertainment industry, the healthy thinking idea today is what makes us so attached to animals and to birth in particular.

Consider the giraffe

Back in the day, we ate giraffes. At least we would if we could catch them.

An adult giraffe is hard to pull down with primitive tools and the more manageable youngster has its mother with dinner plate sized hooves to help protect it. Even lions find it hard to kill a giraffe, so no doubt our ancestors did too, but they would have tried. Cuteness did not overcome the desire to eat.

Somewhere along the way cuteness grew or, as seems more likely, hunger withdrew. As soon as we had agriculture and food supply chains then it was much easier to build cuteness into our lives. We even started to keep pets, perhaps in response to our insatiable need for human relationships, especially those between parent and child.

How many lap dogs are obviously surrogate kids that behave themselves?

Cuteness in animals is because they can look like babies. The cutest pets tend to be small, have forward facing eyes, are unconditionally needy, and fluffy or, as in the case of the giraffe on Gogglebox, newborn. Many of these attributes can generate more satisfaction than the real thing and are excellent surrogates for people who either have grown up children or none at all.

This is the key. Animals are just like babies.

Their cuteness is attractive. And it sticks thanks to that unconditionality that all animals have, even the giraffe caged in a zoo. The animal is controlled and cannot hurt us.

As visitors, we can smile, sigh ahh, say a few squishy words, whiff the dung and move on.

In return, it looks at us with those doughy eyes and we think it loves us. Well, it does love its keepers because they bring a regular supply of food.

You can’t go past the unconditional affection from a dog, even the pretend aloofness of a cat. And then they are soft and cuddly, wow.

The reality is we love animals, the cute ones, not the yukky creepy crawly ones. And surely this reality is of little consequence. All it means is that we will have pets, keep animals in zoos and pay money to ensure that the koala can be saved.

We love animals

This love is hard-wired. It is not going away.

These days people would starve before they could knock the baby giraffe on the head and roast its leg. And if they were mad enough to do it, they would go to prison and suffer a slow death by social media.

So we love them. It is a given.

Now let’s think about what that means…

  1. There will be pets, lots of them, just shy of 90 million dogs in the US alone and growing in number by over 1 million per year
  2. We will prefer to protect koalas because you can hold them and their fur is soft but maybe not polar bears so much, and elephants less than bears
  3. It is unlikely that we will ever consider it important to protect insects
  4. We will have to ignore the fact that before we ate its rump, the cow was cute(ish) and that venison was… no, you can’t say it.

Even if you go past the obvious contradictions, we have ourselves a problem.

Why are species going extinct?

Why are species going extinct?

Species go extinct because of the process that created them.

Ah ha, not the answer you were expecting. You thought I was going to say habitat loss, pollution, introduced pests, climate change or some other lefty topic sung about by old hippies and youngsters frightened for their future.

Indulge me for a few minutes and follow this little sequence of logic to the end of the post and you’ll see why extinction is more about the process of evolution than it is about humanity.

Polar bears and koala (not) bears

If you go to northern Manitoba, Canada, you can go out to the wilds and see a polar bear. There are even tour operators who will take you and look after you so the bears don’t rip your Gortex jacket.

You cannot see a wild polar bear in Australia.

However, if you go out to the Australian bush, into the right habitat types, keep your eyes keen, and have a bit of luck, you will see a koala. And, yes, a koala is not a bear, it is a marsupial mammal.

There are no wild koalas in Canada.

Canada, polar bears; Australia, koalas. This we know and take for granted. The reason is that all species have regions where they occur in the wild and regions where they do not go and have never been seen, except in a zoo. It’s called their geographic range.

Let’s extend this idea a little.

Bird species in Australia

There are 828 bird species in Australia that are known to be present. Some are rare, others common. Some occur everywhere and some are found in just one or two places or in the case of the King Island scrub tit, on one island. It would take a lifetime of twitching holidays to personally see all these species because it is also nature’s way that species have certain habitats and places they prefer.

Some species are super specialists and only occur in certain very specific habitats, for example, old growth forest. As there is not much of this habitat left, these species have a narrow range. You need to hike into the forest and be very patient in order to see one.

Other species are just about everywhere. The Indian myna or the house sparrow are familiar to half the people on the planet, even those who have never owned a pair of binoculars.

Even in a habitat that occurs everywhere, like open woodland or backyards, not all species occur everywhere. There will be a dozen or so species in the average Aussie backyard in Sydney only several of the species in the Melbourne suburbs will be different, and those in Brisbane different again.

This is normal and always has been. Some species are rare, some are common. Some are localised others are everywhere. Welcome to nature.

In fact, nearly half, 400 or so, of the 828 bird species in Australia occur nowhere else on earth. They are endemic or unique to the island continent or both.

Alright, I’ve laboured this enough.

The point is that this is what the process of evolution does, it creates diversity. Random mutation alongside natural selection results in diversity as organisms focus on the most efficient way to harness resources that they convert into more organisms.

If you prefer to replace organisms in the last sentence with genes, you get Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene.

I use organisms because a gene does not do it on its own, it needs other genes to make a vehicle that can travel forward in intergenerational time. But, of course, Dawkins is right, really it is genes that are selected.

We are so familiar with the result of natural selection, namely a huge variety of species unevenly spread across regions and habitats, that we take it for granted. Don’t be stupid, everybody knows that there are no wild polar bears in Australia, it’s too hot for them.

Nature is made up of gene combinations that are the most efficient at converting the resources in a given place, given the conditions. This is what evolution does all the time, everywhere.

This is the bit you need to follow… given the conditions.

Specialisation happens as an inevitable result of natural selection. There are still generalists with a fine working model of existence, crocodiles for example, that have not changed much, but the majority of species become quite specialised.

The problem with specialisation is what to do when the conditions change. Just ask the dinosaurs how that went for them.

Again we accept that mass extinction 66 million years ago without blinking. A huge, diverse group of land animals all die out in a short space of time because a meteorite hit the earth and changed the conditions. They couldn’t cope with what the impact and its aftermath did to their food and shelter. It disrupted things too much for them to adapt fast enough. Except for the crocodiles who could switch to fish.

The 5th mass extinction that knocked out the dinosaurs and 76% of species alive at the time, is a dramatic, iconic example of change. Only, the thing is that conditions change all the time. And this means that species go extinct all the time. It is an inevitable part of the process.

I’ll just say this again. If conditions change (and they always do) and they change fast enough, big enough or for long enough, some species cannot survive and go extinct. Period.

This is just a consequence of natural selection creating diversity and the whirlwind of a spinning planet with a complex atmosphere, ocean currents and mobile continents generating change.

The flip side of change that causes extinction is the opportunity for diversity. Change things and gaps open up for new species to exploit. But we’ll save that idea for another time. Today we are on the extinction consequence.

Change and extinction are inevitable

Only this is not what you are told.

Take this example from the front page of the Guardian online feed on 31 March 2019 stating that record numbers of Australian mammals face ‘imminent extinction’ that includes this quote

“The report calls on the next Australian government to commit to a policy that no more of Australia’s unique wildlife species will be allowed to go extinct, and to ensure, backed by the necessary laws and resources, that this policy is fulfilled”

Wilderness Society’s national forest campaigner, Peter Roberston.

Pause and read that quote again.

This person is asking you to believe that extinction, a law of nature that has a history as long and deep as life itself, can be overturned by muppets in Canberra.

Come on, get over yourselves.

You are not that important. Human activity is the biggest current agent of change sure, but to think that a specific political decision can rewrite evolution means you really do not understand the challenge.

We could leave it there as today’s healthy thought. Only there is just…

One more thing

Thinking we can ‘save the koala’ forces us into a bind. We are now imagining that extinction is terrible, an awful result that must be prevented. So important is this premise we even ask the politicians to make a policy to stop it happening.

We would have a very different view of conservation if extinction were an acceptable option because that is what happens in nature.

The choice to save a species from extinction becomes a conscious one made with a clear understanding of cost and benefit. We may still want to save the koala or the panda or the Southern Corroboree frog but if we do it’s a positive choice.

Important postscript

This post simplified natural selection as just about honing a solution to shelter and food and secretly implied that competition for these resources is what sorts out the weaker options. This is true but it’s not the only way.

There is also sexual competition that drives specialisation. Just so you know, Charles Darwin figured this one out too.

Amazing.

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.

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Palaeontologists have a fine time of it. They fossick around in obscure parts of the world where there are few people and take a hammer to rocks.

They have done this for generations, found lots of fossils, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Here are five of them.

  • 444 million years ago 86% of species were lost.
  • 375 million years ago 75% of species were lost
  • 251 million years ago 96% of species were lost
  • 200 million years ago 80% of species were lost
  • 66 million years ago 76% of species were lost.

These are, of course, the five mass extinction events in the fossil record. The last one being the most famous when all the dinosaurs copped it.

Here is another pattern they found

Over time diversity has increased despite these mass extinctions and several smaller ones in between them.

There are more species alive today than at any other time in evolutionary history, despite the obvious fact that humans are kicking the sixth mass extinction into existence.

This is the history of life on earth. It is dynamic with huge shifts in diversity but with an underlying driver powerful enough to increase diversity over time.

If you believe this evidence then a few core concepts become clear:

  1. Extinction happens.
  2. Large extinction events happen often enough to make another one inevitable.
  3. After extinction events, diversity recovers
  4. And for at least 150 million years the trend is for diversity to increase rapidly, noting that the non-avian dinosaurs were lost during this time.

Diversity happens because there is time enough for mutation and natural selection to hone any number of specialisms. When organisms specialise they are successful in a relatively narrow set of conditions. A proportion of species become vulnerable to change in those conditions.

Enter human beings. Modestly specialised initially but with a distinct advantage. They had the brains and communication to adapt to a wide range of conditions, especially when they tamed fire and then much later discovered fossil fuels.

Once in control of energy humans have appropriated over half the global biomass production, removed vegetation, getting rid of wildlife and altered the composition of the atmosphere. More than enough change for mass extinction.

Humans affected the change but change would have happened at some point. Tectonic plates moving to cut off ocean gyres, volcanic eruptions, another meteorite strike, it would happen soon enough, maybe 50 million years hence.

Is the reality of extinction too painful?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are just too much in the present day to accept timeframes beyond ourselves. Certainly, there will be huge consequences of extinction for our production systems, the ecosystem services we rely on, and the very liveability of the planet for our species.

We’ll need a lot of adaptation to survive.

What we might also remember as we plan for change and seek to retain what we can of the diversity of life, that extinction is real and inevitable. It is as much a part of the process of evolution as the creation of new types.