Objectivity

Objectivity

I’m sure you would say that you are impartial and that you are “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Indeed you would say that objectivity is a feature of your everydayness.

At least this is what our parents and teachers taught us to say.

What these good folks often forgot to mention was that being objective takes effort and a lot of it. In order to be objective a person must know or have access to real kernels of truth, irrefutable information, that is things that are known or proved to be true.

In short, objectivity requires evidence.

This means that becoming and remaining an objective person takes constant effort to assemble and evaluate evidence. It means knowing a fact when you see one and also where to look for those that you do not have to hand. It takes rigour.

This should be easy enough in this world of internet searches and virtual assistants but just because an important or famous persons says something or it is reported on commercial media, does not make it a fact. There is learning, skill and experience in making sure that information is factual, reliable and accurate, not to mention relevant.

Just yesterday there was typical vision on the news of a windswept reporter wearing logo embossed gore tex standing in front of a collapsed shed. There had been a supercell storm. An event so powerful “the town was all but destroyed”. Only wait a minute. The ‘town’ was home to 20 people, it was a hamlet at best where most of the houses were still standing. Pan out from the close crop of the flimsy shed and the destruction was hard to see.

Access to information is only the first part of objectivity.

There is information in profusion and some of it is irrefutable. The shed was in a mess. The problem is there was no town and no information beyond the close up of the shed to indicate destruction. What we actually have is a visual fact and a host of loose interpretation and opinion. We must also trust the reputation of the news channel and believe that the reporter was indeed in central Queensland. She could have been in a studio with a wind machine and a green screen.

One irrefutable fact – an image of an upside down shed – is not enough.

Objectivity requires numerous validated facts that must override a host of deep, ingrained and often long standing feelings that are part nature, part nurture and part sheer bloody mindedness. Objectivity means not just accumulation but the ability to sift through facts and put them into context, a process of evaluation to generate relevance.

Now we are lurching rapidly toward some serious effort.

Not only must we have asked Alexa or said hey Google for the relevant facts, we must not just take what the virtual assistants on the smartphone says as gospel. There is another step to objectivity that requires we evaluate the facts for their individual efficacy – are they true – as well as what that piece of information brings to the challenge or conundrum we are trying to be objective about.

Knowledge is not just about committing facts to memory, it requires an additional step, relevance.

A koala example

Let’s consider an example and try to be objective about the following statement:

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it.

Australians understand what this means but it doesn’t have to be the koala, it could be the lion, tiger, African elephant or the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, known only from a handful of tiny sites in Oxfordshire.

Feel free to insert into the clause whatever species you are told is in danger of extinction. The challenge is how to be objective when presented with such an edict of irreversible loss.

Begin with getting yourself across the suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts.

And here is the initial challenge. What facts are these?

Well given the edict, it would have to be facts about how many koalas are currently alive, what has happened to their numbers in historical and recent times, and evidence for the presence and veracity of threats to their continued existence.

In other words you need to be cognisant of and able to evaluate the population dynamics of koalas as well as the key drivers of those dynamics before you can be objective about the clause regarding extinction.

Curiously, the Australian government factsheet on Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and national environment law does not say how many koalas there are in Australia. What is does say is there are koalas living wild across a range that stretches the entire eastern seaboard of the continent.

Similarly the NSW government’s $44.7 million NSW Koala Strategy does not mention how many koalas there are in the state of NSW.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000. However, the link that sends you to a page on how this estimate came about was broken.

You need to go to the science literature to get a more robust estimate.

Phillips (2000) reports koala population trends in the reputable journal Conservation Biology as declining from a population size somewhere <100,000 to “an order of magnitude larger”. That’s a discrepancy estimate of around 900,000 that, even for an error estimate, is quite a few more than the 43,000 the conservationists would have us believe are currently extant.

More recently McAlpine et al (2015) looked at ‘Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges’ in the equally reputable journal Biological Conservation and presented some density data but no actual numbers for total population.

I could go on but I suspect you are getting the message.

The suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts are not easy to find or may not exist at all. In the case of koala numbers, it would seem that nobody knows how many there are in Australia right now, let alone historically. The key facts are actually a known unknown (although nobody close to the problem would admit to this).

In the absence of accessible facts we might choose to rely on the Commonwealth Scientific Committee that gathers information to match the status of species and habitats believed to be at risk of extinction and evaluates this information against agreed IUCN criteria, the global standard. This is the independent body of scientists tasked with deciding if a species or habitat type is at risk of extinction across Australia.

What they said about the koala in the koala population factsheet was nothing about the populations of koala, that is, how many there are now or were around in the past. There’s a nice map of where they are known to occur and if you are a species with a distribution that covers a third of a continent you are probably not too worried. But even in the absence of evidence and a truth that the koala is unlikely to go extinct soon, if at all, the federal environment minister listed Australia’s most at risk koala populations in April 2012 as vulnerable under national environment law

This means that the system set up to evaluate the evidence for decision making on whether a species is at risk of extinction in the wild did not find enough evidence, but it made a decision anyway. Perhaps the scientific committee invoked the precautionary principle or, dare I say, they temporarily put objectivity aside in favour of political expediency or public opinion.

How dare you!

What to do?

This example is typical. It means that it is very hard to obtain and evaluate enough relevant facts to be truly objective. There will usually be holes in your own or the collective knowledge, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is rare that we are across all the relevant facts.

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it

Most of us don’t have the time, inclination or access to the facts to evaluate this statement with objectivity. Somewhat ironically you can find reference to the science on Google Scholar but not all of it has free access. You also need to know where to look for not all sources are credible.

Reality is that it takes too much time to hunt down and assemble the facts (oops, poor choice of words), that’s before you put in the intellectual effort to evaluate them and find the truth.

We would also have to work hard emotionally to suspend our feelings enough for healthy skepticism. There is a reason koalas, pandas, polar bears and other creatures with fur are used in these extinction statements: to humans they look cute.

So we resort to our default source of objectivity; what we feel. Our instinct, the gut response we have somewhere deep down that is part guide and part conscience.

Should we be brave enough to discuss our objectivity with others, this gut feel will be exposed to serious peer pressure, and must pass some collective logic that comes from group gut feel, known round these parts as the ‘pub test’.

How to be be objective without the effort

And this is just one of the many opinionated statements we have to filter every day.

Koalas are cute because humans beings have a genetic predisposition to find expressive forward pointing eyes either side of a nose clustered together rather low in a much larger “face” impossibly attractive… Think about it.

We are going to need an inordinate amount of seriously powerful facts to overturn such innate prejudice. Most people would not even see the need to try.

Koalas are cute after all, what’s your problem dude?

Any objectivity has a precipitous, ice-covered cuteness cliff to climb.

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.

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.


Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.