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.

 

 

TED | Alan Savory

CattleTED lectures are a neat idea. Somehow they have managed to legitimise thinking outside the box and I suspect we don’t fully appreciate how important this is.

Most ideas that stick come from our current paradigms for anything really new must be pretty special to succeed in a society dominated by commerce and naturally conservative mind-set. So ‘good on ya’  TED.

About a decade ago I met Alan Savory on one of his trips to Australia to promote his ideas on holistic management. It was an interesting encounter [for me at least] that took me back to my time in Zimbabwe in the late 1980’s and then to thoughts of what it must have been like to both wander through the bush and the corridors of parliament in the time leading up to Zimbabwean independence in 1980 as Alan Savory had done.

He claims in his book that it was a combination of his science training, days on end tracking in the bush, and his time in politics that brought him to understand the importance of intensive, timed grazing by larger herds for the health of our grazing lands. Now he has extended his idea as a solution to two huge global issues: desertification and climate change.

Check out his TED lecture, it starts slowly but is worth persisting to the punch line.

http://on.ted.com/Savory

Something unexpected

Teaspoon of soilHere is an interesting situation, almost unimaginable.

You are approaching your 60th birthday and are about to be surprised by an unexpected inheritance from a wealthy relative that you barely remember.

Many years ago your great Aunt, who was always rather odd, left you some money.

She stipulated that you could only access the balance of the funds when you are 60 years old, 40 years on from when the money was deposited.

The good news is that the initial capital she left was $10 million, a huge sum even if nobody quite knew how she came to be so wealthy. The bad news is that the $10 million capital has lost value to the tune of 1.3% a year.

Bummer. Not only did you have to wait to be rich, but also each year there were 1.3% fewer funds. Still, in a few months time when you reach 60 there will be a bank cheque for $6 million in the post, more than enough for a world cruise or two and a luxurious retirement.

Your younger brother was less fortunate. The dowager only bequeathed $1 million to him under the same rules. He has to wait longer for his funds and gets a much smaller cheque of $593,000.

A tidy sum for sure but not quite enough to fund his retirement.

Your three cousins, who soon found out about the unexpected inheritance, were also hoping for something from this distant relative that they only just realized they had. Sure enough, she did not forget them and deposited $100,000 each for when they reach their 60th birthday. They get $59,250 — certainly better than a kick in the teeth but hardly a pension fund.

On the first of your world cruises you mull over the odd situation of financial capital failing to appreciate.

What if your retirement savings, that before your great slice of luck were your only means of support in old age, were being eroded at 1.3% a year?

Each year the amount you had saved up went down a bit, not much admittedly but it went down. Likely you would seek to reinvest your capital quick smart rather than run the risk of not having enough funds for your retirement. Also likely you would fire your investment analyst and rant at everyone you could, looking for a scapegoat for such a fundamental error.

And what bad news it was for your brother. If he had known about that $1 million all those years ago and invested it wisely he would have more money than you right now.

As you sip a G&T on the sundeck you can’t help thinking it funny what we take for granted.

 

Another unexpected thing

Soil scientists have estimated that the amount of carbon in agricultural soils in Australia has declined by 51% in the last 40 years — that is 1.3% a year.

Soil carbon is a critical environmental asset that drives plant growth because carbon fuels soil biological activity, promotes soil structure, aids infiltration and moisture retention and supports nutrient exchange. Handy material to have and not something to be squandered.

What is worse is that science has little idea about the initial carbon stocks [the capital]. It might have been the equivalent of $10 million in which case we can keep going for a while.

We might even have time to reinvest by adopting smart agricultural practices and get the capital to appreciate again.

The worry is that we may be as uninformed and as poorly off as your cousins.

 

Here is the original scientific reference for loss of soil carbon [you can find a copy on Google Scholar]:

Zhongkui Luo, Enli Wang, & Osbert Jianxin Sun (2010) Soil carbon change and its responses to agricultural practices in Australian agro-ecosystems: A review and synthesis. Geoderma 155 (2010) 211–223.

 

And some more articles on soil carbon

Carbon in Soil – Why Organic Carbon is So Important

Soil – the missing carbon sink

Paying more for food

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As regular readers of alloporus will know, posts on food appear quite often on this blog.

Not new recipes for banoffee pie [can be too bananary] or salted caramel tart [delicious with just the right amount of salt] but more about how we are going to consistently grow enough of food to feed the growing and increasingly fussy global human population, not to mention their pets.

Food securityA food security challenge | What we eat

Recently I asked a question in my confused Confucius series on the article site Hubpages to see if food security was something people thought about.

Being confused Confucius the question was just a tad lateral: Would you be prepared to pay more for your food if it meant food supply was secure? [The link takes you to the answers and comments] and there is also a summary Hub

Turns out that there were three main objections

  1. Could not pay more because it was already a struggle to cover the food bill
  2. Paying more would not solve anything
  3. We already pay

Social media is a great tool to canvas opinion but, unlike answers to exam questions from my long-suffering undergraduates, answers to questions are often oblique.

Not being able to pay is fair enough and no doubt very real for many people all around the world.

Paying more not solving anything did not really answer the question by making the assumption that it was not possible to pay for security. Bit of a dodge I think and quite common I suspect in our thinking. We jump onto the polemic in order to avoid searching ourselves for what we truly think.

The ‘we already pay’ because our production system is riddled with externalities, also didn’t really answer the question.

I guess all I was asking is if we would pay to be secure, pay more for our current food to know that we would always have enough food in the future.

So far the answer seems to be either ‘no’ or ‘not something I want to answer thanks’. This I find both curious and just a little disturbing.

The last loaf of bread

Consider the situation if this delicious crusty loaf was the only one on the planet.

More than that, it is the very last loaf of bread there will ever be.

After thousands of years of grinding grains into flour, adding yeast, a little salt and some water, kneading the mixture and applying some heat, the making of bread has stopped. And this loaf is now the last of its kind.

What would you do?

What should you do?

A while ago I wrote a story about Joe who was prescient enough to realize that he had this very conundrum.

You can download Joe’s story from the free downloads page of my Climate-change-wisdom site.

If you like it, why not download my ebook Stories for a change to read some more adventures and anecdotes that will tweak your environmental imagination.

You can get a copy in your preferred ebook format at Smashwords for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Food security | What’s wrong with this ad?

Check out this ad snapped on a recent rip to the local supermarket.

A handsome, young bloke stands with his arms wide to embrace his achievement, another nutritious crop of vegetables for the table. Good on him you think. A warm feeling creeps up on you as though you are being wrapped in a safety blanket. Thanks to strong dudes like this one, I know I am going to be fed with healthy nutritious food.

No doubt the ad, that also appeared as a full page spread in the Sunday magazines, would have cost several hundred thousand dollars to run has nothing much to do with bok choy, or even fresh vegetables for that matter.

It is all about putting the retailer front and centre.

By showing the farmer as a member of the team we are being made to think that our food comes from the supermarket and not the paddock. The retailer is now the supplier.

The messaging appears to be about fresh food, from local farms grown by young and, dare I say, virile farmers who may be in search of a wife. But really it is about the retailer being the source of our food security.

So what is wrong with this particular ad beyond the obvious sexism?

Here is a hint. I purchased the weekend paper in the supermarket and not far from the newspaper stand was a special in the vegetable isle: a net of onions for $1.

That is pristine, firm onions for 15c each.

Good food at great prices. It’s enough to close down the agencies on Madison Avenue. Who needs advertising when the prices are this cheap and the produce so enticing?

The reality is that farmers cannot supply produce sold out of the supermarket at 15c unless they are selling to one buyer who runs a monopoly over them. What is wrong is that the smiling farmer is actually walking a tightrope of viability. If fertilizer prices rise by 20% then they go out of business.

The market is failing them.

The profiteering opportunities and perverse competition of a retail duopoly (two supermarket chains supply most of the food to households across the country) creates huge risks for Australian production systems. Running at the price margin is a challenging way to run any business but in farming the corner cutting and frugality it severely limits sustainability.

It is well known that farmers look after their land best when they are doing well. When they are under pressure they tend to push the land harder to make ends meet.  We are at the point globally where we cannot afford for such structural risk. We need every acre of productive land to produce and to remain productive.

The message of food security provided by your friendly supermarket is false. It fails to take into account the risk that the farmer takes on when he has only one buyer of his produce.

And another thing, most farmers are over 50.