How much more meat are we eating?

How much more meat are we eating?

I was born in 1961.

That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.

It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.

Here is one.

Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.

In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.

Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.

All good.

Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.

In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.

Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.

All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.

And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.

The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.

This is a huge change in a very short time.

In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.

Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.

What about HANPP?

Come again?

HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…

to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.

It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.

Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.

Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.

These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.



NPP Net primary production

Net primary production (NPP) is

the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.

Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.

NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]

This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.

Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.

For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).


There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases

Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing income

Zhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215

Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.

Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.

Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.

But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.

The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.

As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.

Just a reminder.

We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.

The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.

I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications

The implications of food consumption

We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.

Will we all starve? No.

Will we all become vegans? No.

Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.


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Are we a product of the times?

Are we a product of the times?

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was a product of his times

Mr Wallace was truly remarkable, a gentleman in the time when such a description meant something, and a traveller when getting from one town to another in England was a feat of endurance.

In the mid-1800s he covered the length of the Malay Archipelago on limited means. Which actually meant he was wealthy beyond belief to most of the indigenous peoples he met but had limited old money when compared to his peers back home.

Wallace was a naturalist and collector of exotic animal specimens caught or shot in the jungles and mountainsides at dozens of locations on remote islands. He made what money he could from the sale of preserved bird skins, mammal skeletons and pinned insects to museums and his less adventurous fellow gentlemen collectors back in Europe.

He was also an extraordinary observer able to recall almost at once if a butterfly or beetle was new to his collection. Anyone who has dabbled in natural history collections will recognize this skill. A good naturalist needs to be proficient at it and Wallace was, by all accounts, exceptional.

But what made Wallace truly remarkable was that he didn’t just observe nature, he observed people too. He saw the forms, behaviors and habits of all the locals he met on his travels. Indigenous peoples and colonists alike, they all fascinated him. And then he tried to explain the patterns and behaviours in the people with the same logic he applied to nature.

No doubt he also carried with him the prejudices of his peers. His times were of colonial rule, the greatness of empire and knowing one’s place in the pile. It is unlikely his observations were not clouded by at least some prejudice.

His seminal work “The Malay Archipelago” is well worth its 500+ pages. At once a primer on natural history, a window into thinking on the theory of evolution, a catalogue of the biology and peoples of the region, a gentleman’s travelogue, a commentary on economics and an insight into how the Victorians saw the world. Often the prose carries all these things in the space of a few pages.

By Unknown author – Marchant, James (1916) Alfred Russel Wallace — Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. Plate between p. 36–37 Retrieved on 16 October 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372562

Famously Wallace figured out what Charles Darwin, his contemporary, himself became famous for, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Crossing the deep and treacherous straits between Bali and Lombok in 1859 he landed and began collecting no doubt with an expectation of what he would find. Only there was a large number of species that to the west were organisms related to Asiatic species and to the east a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin.

Wallace saw in that line, later named the Wallace Line after him by Thomas Huxley, a disruption to the pattern that he expected to see. The continuous variation that he followed in the myriad diversity of animals that fell into his traps should not have such an abrupt disjunct.

The genius of Wallace, that he shared with Darwin, was not only to recognise the disjunct but to realise it meant something profound.

Gathering his observations together he figured out what Darwin had also discovered, the concept of evolution by natural selection.

His views diverged from Darwin’s but the two through both private correspondence and published works exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period and they both agreed on the importance of natural selection, and some of the factors responsible for it: competition between species and geographical isolation. They diverged on why. Wallace gave evolution a purpose in maintaining species’ fitness to their environment, whereas Darwin hesitated to attribute any purpose to a random natural process.

Although we now agree with Darwin on the randomness part, Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection all his life. And remember this was highly contentious stuff at the time. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.

It was what a gentleman would do.


This gushing account of Alfred Wallace was written a year or so ago after I had read the Malay Archipelago.

I was and still am amazed what some of the old-timers managed to get done and more, to figure out what a bunch of it meant. They are inspirations.

As I finally got around to editing the post, I am struck by how little the gentlemen and women of today inspire me. Where are they? I have to assume that they exist.

They do not seem to be among the celebrities or the internet influencers who are driven only by narcissism.

Heaven help you if you try to find them in seats of government.

They are not in the business community that continues to promote the economic model that is both precarious and gives not a jot about the resource base — much of the biology that Wallace saw is gone forever.

They are not among the clergy. I cannot even bring myself to go there.

Perhaps, and here is a left-field assertion that I never thought was possible. Perhaps they are hiding among the scientists.

I know, crazy suggestion right.

We are talking about the fence-sitting nerds who have bamboozled us for decades and failed miserably to get their messages across.

Well, there is an idea going around promoted by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is to cause science to be done differently with collaboration, speed and efficient up there as the biggest changes.

That in this time of crisis it is the scientists who are working together to us get through it all as fast as possible while their fellow technical specialists doctors, nurses and support staff on the front line provide the heroic bravery.

That sounds like what gentlemen would do.


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Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.

Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia

Do you know the basic process of science?

Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.

Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.

It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.

This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.

Now let’s see what happened next.

The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.

The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.

The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.

In short, science is important.


It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.

It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.

The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.

Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.

He is spot on.

Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.

Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…

  • If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
  • The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
  • An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
  • Correlation is not causation.
  • And here is a statistic that everyone should know — 8,000 per hour

These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.

Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.


Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to.

Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Here is a list of some of the choicest statements from the president of the United States, the so-called head of the free world, about then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton…

  • She has a serious chronic illness
  • She is sleeping all the time
  • She founded ISIS “literally” with President Obama
  • Trump blamed the tax code that allowed him to not pay millions in taxes on her
  • She wants to eliminate the second amendment
  • She started the birther movement
  • She will be indicted (after Comey’s letter to Congress)
  • Her Emails (in relation to Anthony Wiener’s computer) are worse than Watergate

Founded ISIS, always asleep, started the birther movement… for goodness sake. And it helped get him elected. What is wrong with people?

This stuff is just ugly and anyone should know that it is fake.

Each one either a blatant falsehood or hugely disrespectful drivel that I really shouldn’t be printing again.

No matter what your political allegiance nobody should have anything to do with such nonsense. It demeans everyone, especially the person who went on the be the president. Please, heaven help us all.

These choice examples are easy to spot as fake. There is not even a loose fact among them.


Source: US academic Professor David Ross


What about these…

  • Urgent: Koalas could be extinct in NSW as early as 2050. We can’t let this happen — WWF website
  • “Climate change has not caused the [2019-20] bushfires, unprecedented arson has” — Australian Liberal MP Craig Kelly
  • An electric vehicle won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
  • I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 3 March 2020

How do you decide if these claims are fake or fact? Do you even bother? It is hard after all.

Most information comes at us all polished and convincing. The presenters are slick, the writers persuasive and the messages short. Why wouldn’t we believe such well-rounded packets of influence?

All of those in the list above are false with only modest provisos.

There are many reasons for our failure to spot fake claims and fake news

Information overload

An average smartphone owner in a mature economy is exposed to more information in a day that many of our ancestors saw in their lifetimes.

Here is what one set of information scientists think goes on…

In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words, every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of five hours of television daily, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images.

The reliability of these numbers is not important here. The point is that we are all awash in information, all the time we are awake.

This can swamp our filters and certainly our reflection time so a lot of information is believed to be true because there is not time to decide otherwise before the next packet of critical information arrives.

Much of the information we receive is true

When your phone beeps an alert that your 9 am meeting is in 10 minutes, it is true. There is no reason to ever doubt it.

When you press the icon in your favourites tab to ring your better half and its answered, hostile takeover or the cleaner being helpful notwithstanding, it will be your better half who answers.

If my phone rings and the icon says it is my sister, I answer. When she tells me that my mother passed away in the night, I believe her.

Read a tweet from Brixton Barry that says “Holy shit, here is a riot going on” and, well, maybe there is, Brixton has had riots before… And why would he call himself Brixton Barry unless he… well, you get the idea.

But hold on, that was a long time ago and who is Barry? In this case I would be sceptical unless more tweets began rolling through the feed, perhaps with an image or two, before I believe what Barry is saying.

It is more likely that the tweet from Brixton Barry passes by my sceptic filter because so much information already has and has not caused an issue.

Plus if I live in Detroit or Hounslow, a riot in Brixton might not be worth a fact check.

An endnote

Here is what the late, great author Terry Pratchett said about the spread of fake news on the Internet back in 1995…

“Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the second world war and the Holocaust didn’t happen and it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up”.

Terry Pratchett

That was 1995 remember, near to the beginning of the whole internet age. It was prescient certainly but it was also sage advice.

Go to the source for any information that is important and if there is no source, go generate that information yourself.


Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks

Cardiologist

Cardiologist

Just before the lockdown, I made my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to see my cardiologist. It’s a long story to do with genes and familial lines and some inevitabilities of the way biology works.

The visit was a success from my end thanks to a fine doctor who is a sensible and pragmatic professional. His motto seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’. This is somewhat unusual in our interventionist times and a bonus for me because the last thing I want is another procedure.

Anyway, we dealt with my heart issues fairly briskly and got onto stress.

This was a problem for me and the cardiologist agreed although he was quick to say that he was not qualified to advise on what I should do about it. My blood tests are good and my blood pressure in the middle of normal so from his perspective not much to be done.

My wife asked if retirement might be a solution.

“Oh no, that would not work,” he said, ‘you’re an environmental scientist right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well then, the stress will still be there even if you retire. This country is in a political mess.”

He was actually rather less polite than this but his point was a good one. There is a level of stress and malaise over many scientists right now in the age of spin, fake news and normative science.

Scientists, especially environmental ones, are purposely misunderstood, maligned and ignored.

I experience it every day.

When I try to speak the listeners switch off or glaze over. People seem to have no skills with logic and numbers and have no interest in gaining any. Anything more complex than 2 + 2 is near impossible to communicate.

The really important issues that involve an understanding of settled science, some skills with likelihoods, and the application of proper scepticism — these things are just not even in the conversation.


Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Time for scepticism

Why can’t I retire

Well, I can and I will, but only from the day job.

A lifetime of buzzing around as a lonely fly avoiding the wafts of the disinterested and the annoyed is debilitating. I’m knackered.

But then there the issues that still get me excited and incited. My normative feelings rush in and I’m wanting to say something, even if it is to extoll the virtue (another normative word) of being objective.

I will be my own worst enemy and keep on thinking about all this until I get hit by a bus.

Meantime there was another thing.

It was a relief to hear that the expert thinks my heart with its grafts is doing fine. Keep doing what you’re doing and come back in a year was the message. I will take that from a fellow scientist.

It was a shock to hear how much trouble he thought the world was in and that was before we had a pandemic.


A short primer

Normative science — science based on preference or value.

This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.

Food and diet are obviously normative. They are both chockablock full of values. What we eat is what we can afford and what we choose based on our preferences that are rarely free of value.

There are ways to quite quickly decide if the science presented is normative.

1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and value-laden words

In the English language, the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion.

Science should be all about the world of ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.

The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.

Bad, better, bigger, catastrophe, destroy, disaster, good, slashed, tremendous, ugly and all similar value-laden words and phrases are red flags for normative language.

2 – How was the evidence generated

True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.

Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.

It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be all together and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.

The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough.

3 – Who provided the evidence?

If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.

Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.

Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.

Beware though, for no one is immune.


Feel free to browse some more ideas for healthy thinking

More brumbies

More brumbies

Eighteen months ago Allporus posted a piece on the brumby, what Australians call wild horses, specifically the controversy over the NSW Government passing the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses in the national park. This is a law protects a known driver of biodiversity loss.

It was one of the more bizarre decisions that politics is capable of throwing up and is another example of the worrying trend to ignore science whenever it suits.

A few months after that post came out an aerial wildlife survey of the alpine national parks and surrounding state forests in NSW and Victoria was conducted, a follow up to a similar survey of the same area five years earlier.

In that time between surveys, the feral horse population has more than doubled from 9,187 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019.

This is a growth rate of 24% per year.

It’s a great ‘I told you so’ story.

These animals are introduced. They are not native, repeat, not native.

They are big, bulky and hard-hoofed grazing animals, features that no other herbivore in these habitats has. The last big herbivores were browsers, the Diprotodons that likely died out 12,000 years ago.

Horses will alter vegetation. It will mean some sensitive plant species will be lost along with the invertebrates that go with them. Other plants will come in on the back of the disturbance and some of them will be invasive themselves.

More importantly than this, the ecological integrity of the alpine systems will be altered by horses.

And we now know who promoted it.


Since this little whinge was written the politicians of all hues have been standing next to scientists, patting them on the back and seeking out their learned advice; as they should.

The politicians who are not listening to their health professionals will have a big problem getting re-elected after COVID-19 has passed through the world on its first journey. The epidemiologists know what they are talking about, they know what it takes to slow a pandemic and the logistics folk know what the limits are to the capacity and capability of the health systems.

The problems of a pandemic are acute and affect everyone. The public expects that all sensible advice should be consulted and heeded.

The thing is that the conservation scientists, the biodiversity specialists and the wildlife biologists, well, they know their shit too. Just because their knowledge might save non-human lives, even whole species, of native plants and animals, it is no less valid as science.

So here is the truth.

Remember that all political decisions are value-based. They are not based on science unless the science aligns with the dominant value.

We are grateful that it does when human lives and livelihoods are at stake.

When the human stakes are lower we would do well to be grateful for science then too.

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.

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.