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.

Food security

Food security

A key food security issue went through without much comment in a recent Alloporus post on meat.

Via a calculation on the carbon footprint of omnivory, an estimate of the amount of productive land needed to provide all the humans on the planet with enough calories from plants to meet their daily needs came out at 4 million km2.

Next to this number we can put the FAO estimate that says there is roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth and a simple conclusion is reached: we should be fine.

All we have to do is eat plants.

According to this juxtaposition of area estimates, we have 10 times the land area we need to grow enough food to feed everyone. Surely all the chatter and concern about food security is unnecessary.

We grow more than we need, waste a whole bunch, and still have land to spare. Get over it.

There appears to be more than enough productive land to meet human needs. Perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more meaning we could go beyond needs towards our wants too… rib-eye and chocolate moose anyone?

Well perhaps.

Thanks to energy inputs, technology and a global supply chain there is remarkable capacity to feed people – the global requirement for roughly 14 trillion calories per day is a lot of food. That this happens every day with a declining failure rate is miraculous. Yet it happens and this supply seems to be keeping up with increasing demand. All the indices of poverty, hunger, the size and frequency of famines are heading in the right direction. Proportionally fewer people go hungry today than 5 years ago and serious regional famines are historical.

There is always more to do of course. Hunger and poverty still exist, even within wealthy societies, but the pragmatist will see food security as a social or political problem, not a problem of production.

So why does a Google Scholar search on food security pull up 729,000 research articles from the last 5 years alone with 60,000 of these published in the first 9 months of 2018?

Presumably a lot of researchers and the people behind the systems that fund their work believe we have a problem. Perhaps we need to go deeper than simple ratios.

The first confounding factor is in the 4 million km2 calculation where all the calories come from plants, the most energy efficient food source.

We know that people like to eat animal products in all their myriad forms. If a quarter of the required calories for each person’s daily needs come from animals (meat, milk and eggs) then the area requirement jumps dramatically thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Meat contains calories but the animal also needed calories to maintain itself and grow before it gave up its tissues to the food chain.

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

So if a person eats 600 calories worth of meat and dairy products per day, then the animals that created this protein needed to consume 5,400 calories. They get this from plants (and the occasional meat based protein pellet).

If everyone consumed a quarter of their daily calories from animals instead of plants then the 4 million km2 requirement becomes 13 million km2. This is 27% of the available area.

Still plenty of buffer, right?

Well yes and no. The original calculation assumed that production was efficient. Crops produced predictable yields at near average levels. Averages are a useful metric in this type of calculation because they absorb the inevitable variation from one region to another, one landholding to another and even among fields.

Just as important though is the variance in production.

Suppose that the average yield of wheat is 3.0 t/ha, near enough the global average. However, in the low input, low output production systems of Australia the average is 1.9 t/ha, whilst the global average is 3.3 t/ha Yield is double. A drought or a widespread plant disease in Germany, where wheat production is over 24 million tonnes and the average yield over 9 t/ha, would have a disproportionate effect on global production than dry times in Australia.

Also averages can change over time. It happens that average grain yields have risen consistently for several decades at up to 1% per year for some commodities. More security you would think. Only there is a physical limit to yield, and, in time, averages could easily decline for any number of reasons. There is also the risk of catastrophe.

Among the many interesting numbers generated by the FAO is a critical one for our calorie count. The FAO report that 40% of soil in production systems is degraded. Below average in other words.

So let’s suppose than over the next decade yield averages decline on these degraded soils, let’s say by 50%. The 13 million km2 to grow enough calories becomes 15.6 million km2 and we are up to a third of the available area.

Then there are the climate change effects that will mess up average yields as well as increase catastrophic risk from drought fire and flood. If 2 million km2 of production area fails due to local catastrophe there is a 15% shortfall in calories. This amount will be hard to even out across the global supply chains.

These are enough production side challenges to tweak nerves. Next though we have to look at demand. First is the 1 billion or so people who consume far more than 2,400 calories per day; the average American ingests 3,600 calories. This pushes the area up to 19.8 million km2.

Not to forget the 8,000 new souls every hour of every day.

All this doom and gloom calculator craziness can go on and on. There is still a land buffer. At the moment there is land to spare and to absorb all the inevitable inefficiencies.

However, the 200 research articles per day on food security through 2018 is both reassuring and an alert. We need sharp minds on this real and present risk.

Think about all of this the next time you see a kilo of onions on sale for a dollar.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popper gets to wriggle again.

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

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

Only the example is also real.

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

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

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

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.