Why do we bury the important stuff?

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.

This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.

The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…

Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.

A ‘crisis’ you say?

Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?

As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.

Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.

Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.

Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite

The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.

Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place

Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.

Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.

There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.

Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.

Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.

Not to worry.

The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.

So what should be done?

Well, there are some things that will help.

Solution #1 — increase efficiency

Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.

There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.

Solution #2 — be frugal

Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.

Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus

There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.

There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.

Solution #4 — reduce waste

Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.

Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.

Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.

Solution #5 — all of the above

Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.

In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.

Some numbers you should know

Some numbers you should know

In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

No doubt this is designed to be scary.

Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.

I could be glib here, but for once I will not.

Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.

It is true.

We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.

The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.

300% increase in food crop production since 1970

This is a remarkable gain.

Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.

The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.

Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.

Here is another number to ponder.

23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation

This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.

At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.

This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.

This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.

We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.

“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”

Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.

Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.

The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.

It really should be.

Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

“…ours is a brain that is programmed for a combination of speed and certainty, not accuracy. Acting decisively in the face of a speeding truck can save your life, while trying to determine truth can leave you a splatter on the road.

Patrick King, The Art of Clear Thinking

Do you feel the truth in this? We are so easily a splatter on the road if we let our thinking brains slow us down.

So we don’t. We prefer speed for our own safety.

The instant we realise, getting out of the way of the pouncing lion is imperative. Instinct triggers the impulse to leap (speed) as a proven option for giving us a chance to escape (certainty). Given enough time to think about the lion, our brains would come up with any number of smart options to manage predator exposure in the first place, such as deciding who should be the lookout with sharp eyes willing to stay awake (accuracy).

Accuracy takes way too much time and effort so in the human brain opts for speed and certainty.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this as thinking fast and slow.

Accuracy that requires us to weigh up options, think through options and make evidence-based decisions just takes too long and too much effort on our part for the majority of everyday decisions. If we did it all the time we would grind to a halt from inertia. So the fast brain takes over. This gives us quick options and makes us intellectually as well as physically nimble.

In human evolution, this was essential and perhaps one of the things that made us so successful. We are fast thinkers. Our speed and certainty of thought give us a competitive advantage over most creatures, other tribes, and even human rivals in our own team.

Once we escaped the lion and were relatively safe around the campfire, so then we were able to ponder, remember and weigh up our experiences and, through language, share our ideas with others. This time to ponder set us up for big innovations and future successes that made evolutionary sense of having both thinking mechanisms.

It also gave us connections with each other. Slow thinking helps deepen the connections that allow us to build trust and organise the lookout roster.

All good so far.

Patrick King goes on to say…

In the absence of threats to your life, truth should always be the end goal, and opinions should be formed only after making an honest effort to pursue it.

Patrick King

This is a laudable suggestion. We would all do well to heed it for even if we are just aware that we have two modes of thinking that is a great start. And even if the longer one takes effort, the accuracy if offers should be attractive enough for us to use it more often. No matter how fast you think there are times when you will appreciate the heads up from the lookout.

So what happened to all that debate in the pub? Wither the discourse and thought about issues of the day and the future? Replaced it seems by cute cat pictures and a swipe right.

In our modern jungles, the benefits of the slower, more considered mode of thinking seem forgotten. Immediacy has again taken over from thought.

Ironically, there are a thousand discussions on this issue of how we became thoughtless and the conclusion appears to be that speed and certainty override accuracy because most matters no longer require serious thought. In the west at least, immediate needs are easily met with fast decisions — pizza or Thai? — the everydayness of everything. It is easy to get by without a nightwatchman.

When there are more serious matters, such as who should get my vote, the choices are lamentable with little payoff from seeking accuracy.

If we combine lack of need with a limited payoff then the call to ‘honest effort’ will ring hollow. Why put in the effort for no reward?

Enough.

If you have read any posts on this blog or anything by dozens of more erudite thinkers then you know this is not even a question. There are 7.7 billion reasons to make the effort and you are one of them.

Everyone has a duty to buck up their ideas, turn their thinking brains on every day, build strong connections, and find some solutions to the multitude of challenges presented by so many souls.

Help a brother by thinking about accuracy.

Density and competition

Density and competition

In the second year of my PhD scholarship, I boarded my first aircraft, a bog-standard commercial flight from London to Rome but wow, what a thing?

The energy pushing you back into your seat, the stupidity of being suspended 30,000 feet up in the air and the impossibility of such a heavy tube of metal being able to get you and your seat up there. Just one experience I now take for granted that 30 odd years ago were a wonder to a youngster.

The journey was the first of many plane trips in my professional career, including some far more risky ones than a smooth jaunt across Europe. This first one was to attend a scientific conference, a meeting of minds for most of the world’s woodlice researchers. Some 50 people from all over Europe and North America who were into the behaviours, physiology and ecology of the terrestrial branch of Isopoda, an order of Crustaceans, the majority of whom live in water. The isopods that is.

So before we get to the publication, a brief ponder on the notion of a woodlouse conference. That humans, the most curious of beings, should have individuals dedicated enough to spend most of their waking hours understanding the biology of a peculiar group of animals that should be in the ocean but are not is quite miraculous. That these scientists can also be organised enough to get together periodically to discuss their obscure findings is bizarre too. This one in Urbino on the east coast of Italy in September 1986 was the Second International Symposium on the Biology of Terrestrial Isopods. It was a hoot, including a crustacean themed dinner with more than a dozen courses one of the very few meals from the distant past that I can still remember.

I was there to present some of my PhD research on competition and in the conference proceedings appeared my first single-author paper.

Dangerfield J.M. (1989) Competition and the effects of density on terrestrial isopods. Monitore Zoologico Italiano (N.S.) Monograph 4: 411-423

When reading this piece again for this post I could not even recall running the experiments the paper describes. It wasn’t until I read the methods of culturing broods of the tiny critters in plastic containers and feeding them uniformly ground leaf litter that it came back to me. The pots layered up on racks in controlled temperature rooms and hours weighing thousands of animals individually. Such is the dedication and forgetfulness required for higher learning.

A series of experiments tested the effects of crowding (although I called it density for formality) on growth, survival of young and the reproduction in adult Armadillidium vulgare, the common pillbug, with the general result that crowding matters. That is if you’re a woodlouse and you are around your woodlouse buddies too much they affect your biological success. The more is not the merrier for woodlice even if there is abundant food. Woodlice also compete against other woodlouse species, who doesn’t, only the win in the competition is affected by the size of the arena. It would seem that for woodlouse at least life is lived very much in three dimensions.

All up my conclusion and the most likely explanation was that there was interference going on in the cultures. The activity doing enough to generate measurable competitive effects. Noting that there was always enough food to go around, at least that is what I assumed. I remember being quite chuffed at this explanation because at the time the theory was that competition was not just about food but proving this was always tricky. So to have generated numbers suggesting it for such a lowly critter was fair play.

By Franco Folini – San Francisco, California, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=789616

It is hard to go past a simple experiment. Easy to design and deliver with all the satisfaction of hypothesis testing at the end. It’s the stuff of early career ecologists, they love it. I certainly did.

Did this science add to the pile of human knowledge? Well, not really, despite my enthusiasm over interference. It is likely that woodlice are competitive and these interactions can have consequences for their populations but there is also a lot more going on. Just because a mechanism exists does not mean it is important. But finding out that it is possible is worth the effort.

Later work could build on the findings but even in themselves, they show how complex patterns in nature can be. Today I would say that all of nature is constantly competitive. It is why we have natural selection and why there is so much diversity. Organisms become different to try and avoid as much of the constant competition as they can, usually with only limited success.

If nature is innately competitive, and we are of nature, not a rhetorical question, then we need not go much further than competition and how to avoid it as an explanation for many a human woe.

Back in 1986, that first plane trip got me started on my research career. My first single-author paper and a small but important step toward independence as a researcher.

Little did I realise how far and wide that journey would go.

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.