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.

Ask Alloporus

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt has been a quiet spell on the Alloporus blog but you’ll be pleased to know it is not for want of healthy thinking. Although I sometimes wonder if thinking isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. A day or two without it would be glorious.

In blatant ignorance of all blogging rules here are my excuses for a lack of posts.

First there is the day job that every now and again gets out of hand — lately it has been more out of hand than in.

Then there were two lots of house renovations — enough said already.

My climate change wisdom website hit a search engine wall and demanded some resuscitation only for the wall to be [temporarily] insurmountable — plus I discovered that all you need to fix any climate issues is to change the government. No websites are necessary [but don’t get me started on the most bizarre myCFI.gov.au].

And so to the main excuse. My new website Ask Alloporus  — not satisfied with a SEO website on climate I have created another on environmental issues.

The idea is to talk about the environment without all the spin. It is similar to climate-change-wisdom but with a less restrictive topic [and maybe a few more winnable search terms]

So far there are 70 odd pages grouped around

 

 

Please pop across to Ask Alloporus and have a gander and let me know what you think. All feedback would be gratefully received.

There is also an Ask Alloporus a question page if you want to create some content.

If you like the site, a link to Ask Alloporus from your site would be fantastic.

Happy thinking.

Sounds Crazy #10 | Pest control means getting on with it

DeerFeral animals are pests in large parts of rural Australia. The list of culprits is long with foxes, cats, feral dogs, goats, rabbits, pigs, deer, and camels all causing problems for farmers and conservationists alike. In production terms the cost is estimated at billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly there are pest control programs all over the country with poison baits, mustering, hunting, trapping and a host of other control tactics in place.

In 2005 some scientists became curious to see if any of these control programs actually made a difference.

They interviewed as many of the pest control organisers as they could in all the states and territories for control programs that had a conservation focus. They established that the majority of over a thousand programs they identified, 68% in fact, had no form of monitoring in place at all. The pest control teams did not know how many pests they had removed or what had happened to the species or habitats the pests were affecting.

In short they were operating blind.

Now a pilot in Papua New Guinea on a stormy afternoon, if he had any sense, wouldn’t take off. Flying blind is dangerous.

Except that the only immediate danger in pest control is to the pests. The operators simply get on with control. Indeed the researchers found that there was some monitoring of person days spent tracking, numbers of baits released, and helicopter logbooks full of hours mustering sufficient to show that the job was being done — but nothing on the outcome.

After habitat loss, pests and weeds are the next most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia. In many places they are the main cause of biodiversity loss and attempts at control make sense.

What is crazy is to have no idea if control measures have made a difference. We have no idea if they are worth all the effort.

Perhaps it is that distinctly human trait where being seen to do the right thing is just as important as doing it.

Sounds crazy to me.

Google Scholar can link you to the original research

Reddiex B, et al (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. I. Patterns of control and monitoring. Wildlife Research 33, 691–709

Reddiex B. & Forsyth D.M. (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge Wildlife Research 33, 711–717

Natural capital

Okavango delta Botswana.jpgSuppose you are given $100,000 as an inheritance and told to live off it for a year. You are also told not to worry too much because there would be more money from the estate coming your way in the future.

It would be a pretty safe bet that most of us would happily spend at least some of this $100,000 bonus — perhaps a new car, maybe a nice holiday or two.

The cautious amongst us might put most of the money aside for a rainy day knowing that in the real world such windfalls are rare and we would be right not to be taken in by promises of it being windy again next year.

Now suppose that the $100,000 was definitely a one-off with no unexplained windfalls to follow. Receive the capital as a one off and a few more of us might decide to invest it and only spend the interest — invested wisely $100,000 would yield enough return on investment for a nice vacation each year for years to come.

Now suppose that the relative who left the money to you was not quite so well off or maybe there were a few other relatives to share the legacy and the sum bequeathed was $1,000.

It is unlikely that this amount would be spent on shares, bonds or bullion.

More likely it would be absorbed into the current account of everyday life and barely touch the sides.

Now consider an admittedly rare and unlikely situation where the relative was Buffet-like wealthy and left you a more serious $10,000,000.

You could spend all of this in a year but you would be getting quite a lot of ebay deliveries. Even with the attentions of the taxman, most normal folk would have trouble spending the annual interest on this sum.

If the money didn’t go to your head the interest on investment would see you and your family live like kings indefinitely.

All this makes sense. It has been explained many times over and the subtleties consume the days and nights of many a financier.

So here is a question. Why do we ignore all these fundamentals when it comes to natural capital?

We treat natural capital — the fundamentals of nature that supply useful goods and services — as though it were in the $10 million bracket: infinite, and inexhaustible with endless yield.

Admittedly there is some justification for this. Agriculture has leveraged natural capital most efficiently. We know this because there are now 7 billion of us. The mines and drilling rigs still bring minerals and fossil fuels to help us create goods and power with apparently no end on sight… yet.

Only it is just like the $10 million. It sounds like a huge sum for most people. And yet just like the majority of lottery winners, even big sums can be spent given enough profligacy

It is time that we both learn and accept that natural capital is finite and that we should pay the same attention to nurturing its yields as the investment bankers do attending to their profits.

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.

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.

 

 

Farming not fracking

land-clearing-farmingStrolling through the village, as you do on a sunny winter’s Saturday morning, is a real treat.  It is a privilege just to take in the bustle of folk going about their weekend business — buying the paper, greeting a neighbor or settling down for coffee with friends serenaded by a teenager with a guitar and dreams of fame and fortune from his songs. This is why we are so fond of community.

Abruptly my reverie was rudely broken.

“No thank you,” I said to a brusque individual who ambushed me from behind the ‘vote green’ placards that were cluttering the pavement. The pamphlet purveyor was most indignant at my refusal and gave me the death stare. If that had happened in the playground it would have been called bullying.

I strolled on by and observed both the wave of annoyance that passed over me, and the slogan on one of the placards that read ‘ farming not fracking’.

For the uninitiated fracking is the controversial process of getting gas from coal seams by injecting fluid into deep rock layers to fracture them. This releases the pressure that holds onto the gas. Once free the gas can be piped to the surface. It is similar physics that happens when the seal is broken on a soda bottle and bubbles start to rise.

The Greens are on to fracking because it is another nasty resource exploitation process that results in burning of yet more fossil fuels, risks pollution of groundwater or local subsidence, and worst of all, will displace farmers from the land. Not all land, but the land gas companies might buy to exploit the gas reserves beneath the paddocks.

No matter that in greenhouse gas terms natural gas is cleaner than the coal that will be burnt instead to meet growing energy demand, that boreholes have always coexist with farming, and that legislation already prevents anything nasty being used as the lubricant.

As a slogan ‘farming not fracking’ is just silly. It is not even the issue.

Deliver it with a ‘holier than thou’ look on your face and even your supporters will cringe. Everyone else will tell you to take a hike, probably far less politely.

How about this instead?

We don’t like fracking or exploitation of coal seam gas so we have come up with this solution.

The energy that would have come from gas can be generated from alternative sources [solar, wind, wave, geothermal] plus some savings from improved energy efficiency. Both initiatives could be resourced from a small but compulsory ‘no fracking’ investment of say $500 from every household in the country — this one-off payment from everyone  would raise roughly $4 billion.

The return on investment is twofold. Cheap energy in the long run as alternative sources would get over the commercial hump and there will be environmental benefits from avoiding pollution risk. Plus, there would be lower greenhouse gas emissions from the soon to be necessary shift to alternative energy sources again saving money on transition costs.

All this for the annual expenditure to households of one weekly coffee and cake in the village.

The pamphleteer would probably look at me aghast and blurt out, “You mean to ask people to give up their Saturday morning coffee and cake, what are you thinking?”

Then he would spontaneously take up the chant “farming not fracking, farming not fracking…”

And no doubt the young songwriter could weave it all into a lyric.

Sounds crazy #4 | Logging of native forests

Logged forest NSWIt is wise not to believe everything you read in the newspapers. Most of the time the stories are, at best, economical with the truth, spun faster than a flywheel, and sensationalized out of all recognition.

This week though I was taken by the “Hatchet job on native forest logging” headline in the Sun-Herald [18 May 2013].

The report claimed that the recently privatized Forestry Corporation of NSW was making an $8 million loss on revenue of $111 million from logging of native forest across NSW — equivalent to a $671 loss per hectare of trees cut.

If it is true that logging of native forest makes a financial loss then to continue such a destructive practice that was never fully able to account true environmental costs is madness. It would be stupidity that borders on negligence

The piece notes that plantation forestry is profitable [$32 million in 2010/11] and implied that the plantation estate effectively subsidizes the harvest of native forest.

Clearly the story is never just about profit. There are jobs at stake, impacts on rural economies to consider if production stopped, and significant flow on effects to the supply chain. Consumers would still want timber. Suppliers are likely to source their hardwood timber from overseas where controls of logging practices may not be as tight as they are in Australia.

And yet, operating the logging of native forest at a financial loss really does sound crazy.

Paradigm shift

grey kangaroo | NSW“You cannot solve a problem from the paradigm that created it” is a famous Albert Einstein quote.  The great man reminding us not only that lateral thinking is powerful, but that it is easy for us to stay with what we know at the expense of the things that we do not.

At times we appear so stuck in our ways that innovation seems all but impossible. We think in the current paradigm, work in it, live in it, trust it and are horribly uncomfortable when forced to go anywhere else.

Take sheep for example. A godsend if ever there was one — just about perfect wool and lamb cutlet factories. Nations were built on their backs.

In the late 1800’s there were more than 15 million of them in the parched lands of western NSW, outnumbering people by thousands to one.

Now we have talked about sheep before on Alloporus [Last chance to see | Buying up the land] and risk New Zealander and gum boot jokes if we go there again, only it is too good an illustration of what Einstein was on about.

Sheep production has been successful in Australia even when the conditions didn’t really suit them. Herding large numbers of the docile creatures on paddocks was the approach imported from overseas where the same thing had worked for generations.

It was difficult in dry country so, by necessity, the paddocks became quite large and the sheep stations huge. Graziers sweated hard and found a way. Countless sheep were reared, sheared and sold.

So many sheep left the stations over the years that it became apparent that these dry and dusty paddocks were becoming drier, dustier and less able to recover when the rains came. Growing numbers of feral animals, especially rabbits, didn’t help. Over time the rangeland became degraded almost everywhere threatening the viability of farms and bringing any number of unwanted costs from biodiversity loss to muddy waters.

What to do?

Here are some of the ideas that were tried:

  • make the paddocks even bigger
  • make the paddocks smaller
  • try running new sheep varieties
  • spell [rest] the paddocks for a while
  • turn the water points on
  • turn the water points off
  • apply some fertilizer to the paddocks
  • maybe keep the sheep but bring in feed from elsewhere to get them through the droughts

All these ideas and more were tested at some point. What you will notice is that they are all within the sheep-growing paradigm

A few innovators tried rearing goats or harvesting kangaroos. This is better perhaps but is still within the grazing paradigm.

A few very brave souls have suggested there are alternatives to meat and wool production and be paid for the carbon sequestration and/or ecosystem services provided by the land. And there is always ecotourism.

Again this may be better in some circumstances [although ecotourism is rarely the panacea proponents might like it to be] but it is still the economic paradigm.

So is it actually possible to solve the problem if it is so hard to think outside the core paradigm?

Fortunately there are enough ‘out there’ folk to become the early adopters of even quite wacky. The first business suit wearing users of the early mobile phones that were the size of a small suitcase looked most odd until they started doing deals from coffee shops — then everyone wanted one.

So paradigms do change and the grazing one might just be about to.