Warrior

Warriors beachThe desert bakes the feet of the brave warrior even in the shade of the acacia. A waft of thick air brings a strange scent, somehow fresh and made of vibrant colour. Our warrior turns toward the smell and an urge comes to stride out. Instinct draws feet forward ever faster as clean air banishes the torpor of heat. So powerful is this cleansing that he runs towards the breeze. As beads become rivulets down his temples he reaches the edge of a cliff and is amazed at what he sees, an azure vista full of promise and opportunity. Fatally he stops to think. The view is too much. It calls and repels in equal measure, pregnant with the opportunity of pastures new and yet is far away. His breath hurts and his legs stiffen in fear of further exertion. He thinks again and returns to the safety of the scalded earth.

Soil carbon | What we think

I wonder what went through Steve Jobs mind just after the image of the iPad came into it?

Perhaps it was an original idea that formed in a flash of inspiration from the ether — the sort of thing that happens to imaginative types.

Or it could have been a steady accumulation of images, ideas and bits of less elegant technology that came at him from all and sundry that suddenly coalesced into something elegant.

Maybe it arrived as he peered over the shoulder of an Apple designer.

No doubt Wikipedia or the upcoming biopic knows the answer to what the origins were, but we can only speculate as to what he was actually thinking.

It was probably something like…

Hey, I’m really onto something here. Finally a device that everyone will want to have and fits our brand so well our competitors will just have to make copies. And hey, there’s big bucks in it.

You can bet he wasn’t thinking…

Oh boy, I have seen this all before. Crazy how it takes so long to get good ideas to stick, I mean I dreamt this little design up years ago. It will cost so much to develop that I can’t see anyone wanting to buy one from a store or even eBay — that is if the hardware people can even make the thing.

I reckon a big part of the reason Mr Jobs enjoyed so much success is that he didn’t ever think the glass was half empty.

And I don’t mean this in the ‘ra, ra, ra’ kind of can do attitude that Americans are so prone. I get the feeling that his was more a sense of knowing when the idea is right and that it would work.

Recently I attended an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change Forum’

organized jointly by the United States Study Centre, University of Sydney and the DIICCSRT [the Australian federal government department of many acronyms that includes the bureaucrats responsible for implementing climate change policy]. There were 80+ people present who all had more than a passing interest in promoting soil health. Some were just crazy passionate about it… and good on them.

Soil heath is a timely and critical topic. In many ways it is a ‘Jobsesque’ idea being simple, elegant, functional and ultimately something that we cannot live without. A global population that will rattle around 10 billion for at least half a century will go hungry if we stick with the current paradigm of soil as a place to put plant roots and inorganic fertilizer. The biology of soil is what gives its potential to sustain and provide, and whilst we do not fully understand why, managing for soil biology is the agricultural equivalent of an iPad.

So it was depressing [a carefully chosen word] to listen to an apologetic speech outlining how DIICCSRT, who as part of their atmospheric responsibilities also deliver the Carbon Farming Initiative, have failed to get soil carbon management onto its list of CFI offsets.

It wasn’t that there are technical challenges to soil carbon accounting for everyone knows there are. They are as fundamental as decisions to measure or model or even to go with simple activity reporting. They also involve gathering in uncertainty about what agricultural management does to soil carbon stocks [although here I believe we know more than we realize].

It wasn’t even that it has taken so long. We all knew it would.

What was so depressing was that the glass was half empty… and oh so hard to fill

Whatever Steve Jobs thought when the iPad first registered in his mind, you can be sure it was hugely positive.

Luckily the tone of the soils workshop was rescued thanks to a presentation from an overseas guest from the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture. His was a glass ready to be filled. He knew we had a problem with soil and that it was a big one. He knew that it was going to be hard to convince his research staff that they didn’t yet have all the answers and that the solutions would probably come from left field, possibly even from the ‘snake oil’ salesmen. It was going to be about going where we might not be wholly sure of ourselves because that was where the answers would be found.

He didn’t quite say, “boldly go”, but that was what he meant. I was hugely enthused.

It could be argued that we need both of these opposing attitudes to challenges. We need the naysayers to keep out feet on the ground and we need the ‘gung ho’ types so we can keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I think that we don’t yet know how to get the balance right and, in Australia at least, we are stuck. When it comes to environmental policy we have become paralyzed, exquisitely versed in stalling tactics and so fearful of innovation that we fear it like the devil. This is not good and may well be our undoing.

Mr Jobs would have shaken his head.

Environmental value | perception is everything

Not a HyundaiSuppose for a moment you are in the market for a new car, a nice sporty hatchback to help you ease into mid-life.

And what if, due to some bizarre rift in the fabric of reality, I told you that for one week only a Mercedes and a Hyundai were the same bargain price. You could snap up either a zippy, sexy and undoubtedly metallic new Mercedes or equally zippy and metallic Hyundai for $20 grand.

What make would you choose?

It would be the Mercedes of course — and why not? The Merc has prestige written all over the badge on the bonnet.

As it happens and despite similar specs on performance, size and reliability, there is roughly $15k difference in the retail price in Australia between a standard Hyundai and the bottom of range Mercedes hatch.

In the real world without rifts where most folk are budget conscious it is no surprise that more Hyundai units are sold. And yet there are still enough people who value the Mercedes enough to fork out the extra cash — almost twice the amount to do essentially the same job.

Perception of value is obviously a powerful force.

The extreme of this for me is the handbag. Its functionality is always that same. Sure its looks vary from brand to brand but enough for the name on the clip to mean a handbag could retail for $50 or $5,000? Bizarre.

Here is another example.

Suppose you are accused of a crime that you did not commit. It’s a complex fraud charge and the police arrest you. Right away you call the best lawyer you can afford for even though you are innocent you know it will need the $500 per hour worth of expertise to prove it. Naturally as you are innocent and the judge agrees, the court awards you damages and you recoup all your expenses.

My point though is that at the time you gladly pay what it takes. In that circumstance of false accusation there is plenty of value in that $500 an hour.

Perception of value is also a highly contextual and personal thing. This is just as well. Individual preference for value helps create much of the complexity and variety in our society and we are the better for it. If you have the means and derive sufficient pleasure from a $5,000 handbag, go for your life [although part of me can’t get past the reality that $5,000 is roughly what it costs to keep 7 Ugandan children in school for a year].

So we come to environmental value and the same rule applies: perception is everything.

In western economies the majority of people who live on and off the land value it because it provides their livelihood. A paddock is a sheep factory and a field a grain production unit where primary production is harnessed to deliver goods for sale.

Of course there is some heritage, love of the great outdoors, feelings of wellbeing and social good that comes from growing food but ultimately it is about the production and sale of a commodity. And this production value is reflected in the price of goods and the production potential that is reflected in land value of rural properties.

Except that the end buyer of the goods, the consumer, never sees the paddock. She only sees the produce and the price sticker in the supermarket. The value to her is in what she can get to feed her family for her weekly budget, or in this metrosexual age, his weekly shopping budget.

The retailer does not see the paddock either. He [or she] just negotiates a wholesale farm gate price or better still enlists a supplier to do all that dealing. These business people see value in cost reduction and the ability to bargain down. And they use the powerful levers of volume and distribution to achieve the best price.

Their perception of environmental value is profit and we are grateful that they focus on it. Without this system of wholesale production and efficient retail we would have far less money to spend at the movies.

We could say that in this scheme of producing, buying and selling produce environmental value does not exist. The value is in the goods that we manipulate the environment to produce.

‘Ah but…’ I hear you shout. We do value the environment for itself. Why else would we have national parks, laws to prevent clearing and pollution and whole bureaucracies assembled to manage all our development activities?

Well yes, there are some picturesque, relaxing or wild patches of the environment that we ‘value’ and sometimes pay good money to visit. There are also places of cultural significance that mean a great deal to us. And yes, we have planning in place to allocate and sometimes restrict activities to preserve and maintain areas that we hold dear.

But, and it’s a Kardashian sized butt, these are not direct, back pocket values.

We ‘value’ conservation, wilderness, cultural heritage and are prepared to forego some development to retain it — an opportunity cost that we collectively wear — and yet we rarely ever feel that we have actually paid money for this. Nor I would suggest would we pay directly if pushed.

Back in the day in a lecture I gave to my biodiversity class, I asked the students what they would be prepared to pay to know that elephants still existed in the wild in Africa [the technical term is ‘existence value’]. What from their wallets or purses would they prepared to give, right there and then? $5, maybe $10 they said, with concern on their faces.  That was until I actually went round with a hat as though moving through the church pews and tested their commitment. None were actually able to part with their cash.

 

Radical suggestion

So here is a radical suggestion.

In our modern, city orientated system for living, there is no environmental value beyond a small suite of goods and services what we are prepared to pay for. No fiscal value to what the environment gives beyond what we can buy and sell because we have no system beyond cash to detect value and without cash our valuation senses have become numb.

If true I would say that this is not a failure of economics or even an unhealthy preoccupation with profit. It is actually a failure of perception. We simply do not know that we have a debt to the environment. We are not aware that we have been and continue to mine its resources without accounting the full cost.

No one has put in the marketing dollars to create the brand ‘environment’ equivalent to the Mercedes logo stamped onto the bonnet. Not surprisingly most people do not see the environmental value and happily continue to purchase the goods at bargain prices.

Even though we know that we are degrading soils, wasting almost half the food we produce and sending valuable resources to landfill, none of these things matter at the checkout. There will be few folk willing enough to buy the $4 net of sustainably produced onions when there is a net of equally good looking onions in the same isle at $1 because our perception of value is right there in the store. It happens as we compare the price per kilo to what is in our back pockets. We find it hard to make purchasing decisions on values that are distant and intractable.

 

A challenge

Here is a challenge for you.

Every time you make a purchase of anything from a tomato to a television, force yourself to consider the environmental value in the goods that you are about to buy.

Do not use these thoughts to make yourself feel guilty, go ahead and buy anyway, but do have a thought for what happened in or to the environment to make your purchase possible.

 

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

A food security challenge

I have been writing a few articles lately about food.

Oddly not in the culinary sense, given the profusion of cooking shows and what seems like an exponential growth in the number of celebrity chefs.

I am more interested in ‘How we will grow enough food‘ and whether we can cope with a global dietary change given ‘What we eat‘.

An observation made by a friend of mine who recently retired from a distinguished career as a public servant in agriculture and natural resource management gave me pause.

After observing the agricultural community in Australia for several decades his comment was that farmers take up practices that improve productivity and sustainability when times are good.

When it’s tough they just do what it takes to stay viable.

The implication of this logical and insightful observation is that future food production is dependent on how well farmers are doing now, in the immediate.

Those of us who get our food from commercial agricultural production (nearly everyone in agricultural economies) have become quite used to highly reliable food quality, variety and supply. And to keep the supply consistent the farmers relax and adopt sustainable practices when the weather is good and the seasons have behaved.

The likely response to drought, flood, frost and heat waves, or soil degradation is do what you can to get some kind of crop to market. This is because the market demand requires it and, as a business, the farm must at least cover its costs or it goes out of business.

The same response occurs when input costs rise. Do what you can to keep the business viable. In short, get some product to market.

This understandable response is a food security challenge, especially where the bulk of food production comes from the small to medium size businesses that we call farms.

If farm viability is so important to both the market and the individual business then there is little to stop exploitative practices when times are tough. At the margins risks will be taken just to keep the business going; because the alternative is the businesses go under. We do it in manufacturing, retail and service sectors so it should be no surprise that we do it in agriculture.

We will save the government subsidy issue for later. What we might think about is the challenge to good practice presented when times are hard.

The reality is that good practice will only be good if it results in some buffering of economic returns when times are tough. Sustainable practices are those that keep inputs to a minimum, make optimal use of the conditions even when its warm and doesn’t rain, and end up with some salable produce.

Where this is not possible, then the farm ceases to be a business. And given that in our current model we buy almost all our food, business failure makes food supply far less secure.