Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia really is a tough place to grow food.

It is invariably hot and dry and the soils lack nutrients. Then the next day there is a storm that flattens the spindly crop and floods the roots.

This has always been the case.

Australian soils are old and the continent big enough to make for a truly continental climate. The dry times are long and deep and the storms bring golf ball hail. The soils are low in carbon and many are friable with a tendency to want to fly across the Tasman sea to New Zealand on the strong westerlies.

And then, the climate is changing. There will be less water, more extreme storms, and even hotter temperatures.

It makes sense that the agricultural sector would be concerned. They should be. Many farm businesses will struggle to cope.

One concerned group of producers, Farmers for Climate Action, launched a report Change in the Air that claims ‘Australia’s agricultural production will fall and food insecurity will rise without a climate strategy’. They managed to persuade the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to launch the report.

The local media made a big deal that National Party MPs — the minority party in the coalition government — refused to attend on the notion that some still doubt the science of climate change and are not sure if human activity was contributing.

Remember that the right-wingers in the Australian government are making the country the global climate laggard and, yes, it’s now beyond laughable and irreprehensible. We are in the realms of criminal negligence.

Now before you read on, regular readers will know that Alloporus strongly agrees with the premise of a coordinated response to climate across all sectors, especially agriculture, and that part of this response needs policy support.

In other words, Alloporus believes that both the state and federal governments have a key role in both climate mitigation and sustainable food production.

The government part of the coordinated response will begin with an acknowledgement of the problem — the climate is changing — and then some policy options that support climate adaptation, not just emission reduction for that alone is nowhere near enough.

Laughing is not ok. It is time to take serious action.

This makes the next comment unfortunate.

The Change in the Air report is dreadful.

I meant it, it is terrible.

What claims to be a ‘research report’ is, at best, a weak catalogue of already published evidence without meaningful review or summary.

The highlight recommendations are for ‘more research’ and ‘a national strategy on climate change”.

Oh my lordy.

There is no time to stuff around with more research and even if there was we already know more than enough about what to do.

Again, why wait for a national strategy when the government has been bumbling around without one for more than a decade.

Here are the key dot points in the report:

  • Risk minimisation
  • Focus on potential opportunities
  • Strong RD&E
  • Transition to clean energy generation in agriculture
  • Capture and storage of carbon
  • Address climate policy gaps

Only one of these is a tangible solution. The rest are aspirations at best. Indeed this was the real problem with the report, it whinged.

Basically, there were no solutions offered just a plea for the government to fix the problem.

This is not ok.

Right now, at the pointy end of the problem, it is time for solutions.

The weird thing is that if you scroll down the report to Appendix 2 on page 64 you will find a lengthy and reasonable list of adaptation and mitigation strategies sourced from the research literature.

Here is the section for grains…

Shame they didn’t lead with this.

Alright, enough moaning.

Most likely the people behind Farmers for Climate Action are well-meaning and believe what they are doing is important. However, we have to consider the possibility that the minister was happy to promote the report because it does what the government wants, namely to kick the issue further down the road by asking for more evidence.

Better would be some simple tractable solutions.

How about an across the board 2% gain in soil carbon in all production soils through production practices that retain vegetation cover, promote deep-rooted perennials and support the addition of organic or inorganic carbon in cropping systems.

This is just one of the many options available.

No more messing about. It is time to get on with it.

Nature does not behave like a banker

Nature does not behave like a banker

The economic model that has made the west wealthy claims a design that promotes investment with the greatest certainty of returns and least risk.

It is easy to find advocates of this ‘mobilise capital to grow it’ paradigm. A few might even admit that it is acceptable to externalise as much of the cost as possible and minimise the rest with the cheapest labour and materials you can find. All good so long as you are a shareholder and, after all, most of us in the west are thanks to our superannuation or our government’s investments.

Investment options that promote the long, dare we say sustainable, game resolve the full risk profile but often at a cost. They need to discount current profit to ensure that profit accrues for longer. This is the essence of resilient and sustainable systems and is exactly how nature does it.

Try telling that to a banker or a fund manager.

They want to achieve a capitalist outcome. They want to use capital, ideally someone else’s, to generate profit. That’s all. Well, almost all. They also want to do it as fast as possible and they would like to squeeze as much profit as can be squeezed because the sooner the profit accrues the sooner it can be churned back into the system as capital, after taking the clip for the new Ferrari.

Capital is being lazy if it waits around for the profit to accrue. Laziness is judged on the rate of return that itself is set by the market through interest rates and the opportunities for the specific use of funds in each sector and market segment.

This is the dry explanation.

When it comes to the bankers and financiers themselves, well, they are people, individuals with desires and dreams. They want to be successful and competitive so they will be hard-arsed to find and squeeze the best balls of steel deals that they can. It will help them reach their dreams and make them feel good as they do it.

The banker will drive the bargain when an opportunity presents and will walk away in an instant if the numbers or the risk smell of anything below the going rate. For them, efficiency in opportunity is the currency that will bring success.

You should be able to see that this is not how nature does it.

Despite the ‘tooth and claw’ rhetoric that does play out as organisms compete directly with each other for resources, the consequence of competition in nature is to balance resource use and make it efficient. This happens because there are organisms designed to benefit from both the long and the short game – the tree that persists through drought and flood or the weed that exploits in an instant and then dies. Together the variability in nature’s market is absorbed and used efficiently by diversity.

Ecological theory suggests that this is why nature persists, there is always an organism that can exploit and another that can wait until later. It also tells us that diversity is important. Not so with finance.

Bankers are short players. They have always been so. They exhibit diversity but only to shorten the game.

It is time we invented a new breed of financier, one that instead of picking off the best short-game opportunity can look long, very long. What about a financier who invests for returns that accrue to his grandchildren?

It can be done. Indeed, it must be done or there will be no Ferrari.

Agriculture needs long-game players

The place to begin is in food production. The global numbers have demand increasing steadily over the next 30 years by at least 60% for both grains and meat. That suggests a strong market but one that is short of the 7-10% returns expected in most capital markets. A three-year investment yielding 5% will always outcompete a 2% per year, even if the growth continues steadily for a generation.

The temptation is to invest in intensification. A centre-pivot irrigation system that improves yield by 10% with a non-linear 20% gross margin return sounds attractive. Only now the monoculture under the pivot-arm is mining the soil nutrients much faster than before and in a decade the cost of inputs negates that gross margin benefit.

In agriculture at least, high returns often kick ultimate risk further down the road. No problem if the Ferrari is already in the garage but an opportunity missed if the demand keeps growing.

Much better for the farmer and his backer is a longer play that looks to intercropping the cash crop with a legume that replenishes the soil nutrients and carbon. The average yield is lower but is consistent even in dry years. Economic returns are more modest but they are stable and costs go down over time so that profitability increases.

Is there a banker out there willing to play this longer, lower risk game?

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.