Subsistence

Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic

 

Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.

 

Are we doomed?

food spreadRecently I was able to have dinner with my eldest son. He was born in 1989 and now has some life experience under his belt.

As always we had some good conversation covering the usual topics that’s Dads have with their grown up sons — soccer, cricket, work, cars and the like. We took taking great care to avoid topics that mothers might ask about.

Then out of the blue he asked me what I thought would happen to the world. “Are we doomed?” he said. “Will we run out of food?”

Startled, I blinked and rattled off my usual patter.

“There are 7 billion of us” I said, “and for the 600+ million that live on less than a dollar a day we have already run out of food and for another billion or so who manage on less than $10 a day they would say food is very scarce. Then there are the billion or so fortunate ones who live in the mature economies amidst relative plenty and are copping obesity and its associated diseases.”

I paused and realised, partly from the blank expression opposite, that I had not answered the question.

“Immediate doom is unlikely because we will invent distributed and cheap sources of power, fuels cells probably. Power gets us over the water problem because we can then desalinate and/or pump freshwater to wherever we need it to irrigate the desert or flush the toilet. We will have to recycle nutrient like crazy so as to replenish the soils but again that can be done.”

“Doom is also unlikely because people will not like it. In extremis human beings are incredibly good at making things better. It happens because we hate it when things are bad. The Victorians with their class system and global exploitation managed to get rid of the smog that was killing thousands in London. The Chinese will find a way to do the same for Beijing. Even wars end because the horrors are too much spurring one side on to victory or a compromise agreement.”

Such was my immediate answer and it seemed satisfactory.

Then I got to thinking. Whilst most of my answers on this sort of thing had solid enough logic and a degree of history to back them up, I was not convinced by any of them. If pushed I wouldn’t buy my own arguments.

I genuinely don’t what is going to happen.

Some days I can’t believe the economic and social systems that I live within can possibly persist another day. They appear so fragile. But that is what we said last year, and every year back as far as can be remembered. Instead I marvel at human persistence.

So I have decided that it is time to think seriously about what might happen. I’ll get back to you after a good cogitate.

Meantime if you have any suggestions please post comments.

What it takes to be a profitable farmer

Australian farmerA friend of mine grew up on a farm. After a career in the corporate world he is thinking of returning to the land by buying a property and running some cattle. Being very aware of the necessity for commercial viability he asked what I thought made a profitable farmer.

There is much irony in this question. I was not brought up on a farm, nor do I have any farming experience. I even fail at growing veggies in the garden as the possums eat any green things the wallabies leave behind.

But I do think about farming a lot. Not about the skills in fixing the tractor or knowing when to plough but with a bias for the big picture that determines a doubling of production from a dwindling stock of viable farmland.

Answering the question of how to be profitable, here are the first six things that came into my head…

  1. You really have to know what you are doing as the Pareto principle applies — 20% of farms deliver 80% of production
  2. Choose your property wisely — it needs to be either productive or restorable
  3. Decide if you will broker your own deals with retailers or go with aggregators
  4. Don’t always listen to your neighbours because what great-granddad did might not work today [arguably it didn’t back then] but at the same time you will need their help
  5. Climate change effects will be real but manageable given that the Australian climate is already makes agriculture a challenge
  6. Diversify, diversify, diversify

In other words, farming is a business just like any other. You need to know how to do it well to be profitable and that means efficiently matching skills to the available resources.

And it takes guts to farm. Thankfully there are many brave souls with such courage, otherwise most of us would starve or work in vain to feed the possums.

Post comments to suggest things to add [or remove] from the list.

Happy thinking.

Both sides of the coin

We are told that the universe is fond of opposites: black and white, ying and yang, United and City. And this week gave us a cracker.

In the UK the supermarket chain Asda had its corporate responsibility director come out with a climate change adaptation solution. He said “Businesses and other stakeholders in the food sector need to work with farmers and suppliers on water-related activities to ensure current and future demand for produce is met and to reduce their risk to supply-chain disruption.” Good PR speak as you might expect, only he went on to say, “We launched a water-trickle scheme for celery growers in Spain that provided a water-spray kit to farmers with the aim of ensuring a secure supply of product to our stores.

Asda justified this largess because they believed that global food prices and supply would be affected by “dire droughts” around the world. Not to mention the floods in the UK.

In other words the retailer realized that farmers are critical to their business and although this sounds like a no brainer to a supermarket, it is surprising how modern complexity of the commodity markets makes it easy for them to forget.

And so on to the other side of the coin.

Coles, a similar sized food retailer in Australia, asked its suppliers for cash payments. Yes, they just went out and asked suppliers to pay for the privilege of having their commodities sold in Coles stores. Nominally these payments were to “to help pay for what it claimed was improvements to the super­market’s supply chain”.

The competition watchdog got wind of this cheek and got upset. According to court documents Coles had a $30 million target from their supplies and had penned sales scripts to help their staff get on with it. We will wait and see if they get more than a wrist slap.

Now we could accept that the universe will always throw out some bad with the good on the celestial wind and let it land where it will. Apply this karmic logic to food supply in a commercial world and for every company with a vision there will be another out for a buck. Coles were just not in touch with the good bit.

Except that the world is looking at a doubling of food production by 2050 and I am not sure what the celestial balance makes of that.

Sounds crazy #7 | Hidden hazards in the backyard

produce-01This ‘sounds crazy’ is an absolute ripper.

This bottom column headline and grab appeared on the front page of the weekend Sydney Morning Herald this week…

Hidden hazards in the backyard — Families are unwittingly exposing their children to the risk of sickness and even brain damage from lead hidden in backyard soil and paint… 

Fair enough. No doubt there is many an older inner city property that has not been renovated since the time lead was in most paint stock and some of that old stuff is peeling away and ending up in garden soil across the suburb.

Any city dweller knows that cities are not exactly pristine. The air is heavy with particulates from brake dust to builders waste and on a rainy day it washes all over your shoes. It comes with the territory.

The grab continued…

Lead experts fear the trend towards home vegetable patches and community and verge vegetable gardens is also putting children at risk.   

So at a time when all our electronic conveniences have deprived our youth of knowing anything about life giving soil, we must put the fear of god into those with the umph and initiative to get back to sharing produce they have tended.

Thousands of generations of good folk grew vegetables in their backyards. They planted, watered and cared for their crops and then fed their families wholesome fresh food. The extra they exchanged with their neighbors or sold at a local market helping to create the very essence of community that is so central to our wellbeing.

And they did this even when cars were spitting out lead, when the pipes were made of lead and when DDT was the pesticide of choice.

Did those dangers stop them? Not at all, they prospered and went ahead to multiply by the millions. So much so that today we need to double global food production in the next 30 years just to keep up with demand and will need every square foot of productive space we can find.

All I can say is shame on those ‘experts’, university academics with a career to build, and shame on the media for printing such fear mongering [and this time you can’t even blame Rupert].

For heavens sake, growing veggies in the backyard is a good news story.

I just wish the possums would stop eating mine.

Slow, slow, quick, quick

It was 1987 at the end of the dry season, 26 years ago almost to the day that I first visited a non-descript patch of miombo woodland near Marondera on the Highveld of Zimbabwe.

Scattered amongst the mature Brachestegia and Julbernardia trees were many wooden boxes all set on stilts ready and waiting to catch anything that fell from above. On the woodland floor beneath the cathedral canopy were mesh bags containing known volumes of leaf litter steadily decomposing, some with and some without the attentions of termites, ants and their tiny critter cousins. Everywhere there were small plastic flags of pink and yellow popping up from the lichen covered soil like daffodils in spring.

As a bushy tailed postdoctoral fellow my job was to take all this in. I then had to figure out how to make reliable counts of all the soil animals in this small patch of savannah and, for good measure, in the adjacent maize field.  Over the coming months many a sweaty day went by digging through that sandy Marondera soil but also much joy when sometime later the results were published in a peer-reviewed journal. The paper entitled ‘Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats’ was published in Pedobiologia [a journal title that sounds a bit dodgy but is actually quite legit as pedon is the Greek word for soil] and provided much academic satisfaction and a handy unit of kudos.

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandEarlier this week I visited a rather similar patch of woodland. Only this time it was in Australia just 30 minutes drive from home where a parcel of Cumberland Plain woodland owned by the University of Western Sydney had been similarly commandeered for scientific research.

The litter traps and mesh bags were all present along with the ubiquitous daffodil like flags. The major difference was that there were also vast steel cages that formed circular sampling plots around clusters of trees designed expertly and with considerable precision to enhance the carbon dioxide levels throughout the vegetation. Once I forced myself to ignore the $40 million outlay for the infrastructure and the $1.5 million per year just to supply the extra carbon dioxide, it was a real back to the future experience. All that was missing was the soothing aroma from the tannins as they volatilize from the floor of the African bush.

Aside from the complex technology and infrastructure to enhance CO2 levels it felt like not much had changed. Today’s researchers were sampling the soil biology in pretty much the same way.  The challenges of understanding the complex biology that goes on under our feet were still there and no amount of high-tech wizardry had yet helped to break us out of the sampling constraints.

We like to think of research as being at the cutting-edge. It is after all where we find out solutions to our problems and create greater understanding that can be used to improve our lives.

Certainly since 1987 there have been major advances in a whole range of fields — back then the iPad or even the mobile phone were not even imagined let alone in use by everyone. What I took away from my déjà vu visit the notion that even when well resourced, progress is not a given.  Advances are just as likely to be patchy or steady and rarely come in spurts.

Back in 1987 the idea that soil could be defined as much by its biology as its structure was an exciting ‘new’ thing. There were a host of applications from understanding the basics of how natural systems functions to practical advances for agriculture and forestry.

Interestingly it is still a ‘new’ thing. Progress has trundled rather than sprinted along. Somehow all those benefits of understanding and managing soil biology failed to reach the farm gate [perhaps because it was easier to throw in some fertilizer].

Fortunately there is a new generation of the bright and bushy tailed. Only this time I suspect there really will be serious attention outside the close world of academia. We cannot achieve the push toward the next doubling of agricultural production that demand projections say we will need by 2030 without a hefty input from soil biology, not least because we are reaching the limits of yield benefit from fertilizer application.

So more power to those modern pioneers pumping CO2 into Cumberland Plain woodland and to their research colleagues around the world and let’s hope we can get a foxtrot happening.

Here are the citations

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats. Pedobiologia 34: 141—151

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann)(Isoptera; Termitidae) within a miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology 28: 15—20

Soil productivity | maxing it out

dung-maize-fieldHumans are extraordinary competitive creatures. We have found myriad more or less peaceful ways to challenge ourselves from sports to corporate takeovers. We even harass each other for parking spots at the shopping mall.

And everyone does it, even nerdy types. They will play ‘Warhammer’ or go for best online score on their ‘Words with friends’ app. My own nerd gene forces me to log my golf score into a spreadsheet after every round for a record of my personal best, all in the knowledge that because I avoid the club competitions, the only person I can beat is myself.

This requirement to compete means we are not programmed for moderation. We like the best, fastest, strongest, and would be those if we could.

A World Bank project in Kenyan used this instinct to help subsistence farmers grow more food on their tiny 1 ha plots. If a farmer adopted more sustainable land management practices he would receive a payment for the additional carbon his actions sequester into the soil. More importantly his yields of maize, yams and beans increase.

The instinctive requirement to outgrow your neighbor helped enormously in getting the project started and with uptake. No small feat considering a rural community of some 60,000 needed to change some life-long habits in order to receive money from air!

I learned about this interesting example [one of the few successful land-based carbon projects activities that are not about growing trees] at an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change’ Forum held in Sydney recently.

Whilst the mood in the room was congratulatory toward the guest presenter who had made the long journey from Washington, there was a question for the presenter from a vastly experienced CSIRO agronomist with firsthand knowledge of the project area.  He wanted to know why, even though productivity improved, the maize yields were just one third of the potential for the district. Did the farmers not have access to inorganic fertilizer? “No they didn’t” was the predictable answer.

But what struck me was the intent behind the question. It was though the ‘increase yield by a little and enough to encourage the farmers’ was not right. If the potential yield is three times that, we should try to max it out.

Why stop at just a small yield gain when there was all that potential left in the ground?

No matter that the question was posed politely. There was no doubt it was a criticism. The project was underselling that soil potential — surely the farmers would be better off with three times the yield rather than modest gains off a low base.

Well no they wouldn’t.

Even if the soil productivity potential was much higher than realized, it was only possible with more intensive farming at significant financial cost.  Taking on a growing reliance on inputs, farmers would risk the debt spiral that afflicts so many of their cousins in the West [including Australia]. And, needless to say, subsistence meant there were no resources to purchase inputs anyway.

Whilst moving to a high input system might increase yield, it would also put pressure to adopt other profitable options such as economies of scale. Surely it would be better to merge those 1 ha plots into much larger units that could accommodate mechanization.

You see the point. Our CSIRO friend had a paradigm in his head based on what he knew would work best from his viewpoint — and that involves commerce, commerce that feeds on competition.

Maxing it out might increase yield but it would put great strain on both the human and the physical system. It seems unlikely that those 60,000 people in the project area could reallocate the 40,000 ha without most of them having to suppress their innate competitive instinct. In other words we would be asking most of them give up their options to participate in the competitive paradigm that spawned the solution we have suggested. Bizzare.

When it comes to feeding the global population both locally and that commercial scale, we will need to suppress the competitive gene and think more pragmatically. Maxing it out is just brinkmanship. We need to come up with far more equitable and environmentally benign solutions.

A modest incentive to adopt sustainable practices buys time for us to figure it out.