Why do we bury the important stuff?

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.

This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.

The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…

Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.

A ‘crisis’ you say?

Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?

As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.

Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.

Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.

Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite

The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.

Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place

Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.

Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.

There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.

Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.

Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.

Not to worry.

The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.

So what should be done?

Well, there are some things that will help.

Solution #1 — increase efficiency

Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.

There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.

Solution #2 — be frugal

Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.

Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus

There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.

There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.

Solution #4 — reduce waste

Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.

Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.

Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.

Solution #5 — all of the above

Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.

In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.

Some numbers you should know

Some numbers you should know

In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

No doubt this is designed to be scary.

Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.

I could be glib here, but for once I will not.

Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.

It is true.

We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.

The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.

300% increase in food crop production since 1970

This is a remarkable gain.

Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.

The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.

Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.

Here is another number to ponder.

23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation

This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.

At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.

This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.

This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.

We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.

“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”

Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.

Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.

The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.

It really should be.

The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world would be its end.

So is the end of the world nigh? No is the short and reassuring answer.

It is about 5 billion years before the sun turns into a red giant and consumes the planet and before then, perhaps 1 billion years or so, the sun will have increased its radiation levels enough to evaporate the oceans on earth. Homo sapiens will be long gone before then so no worries there either.

Careful observation of the fossil record suggests that a typical mammal species persists for about 1 million years, although it can be as long as 10 million years. Suppose that Homo sapiens makes it as an outlier it would mean we have roughly 9,650,000 years to go. Even as an average mammal we have 650,000 years to go, more than enough time to figure out how to mess up other planets.

So the world will end but not anytime soon and even then we will not be around. Not such big news then, the end of the world, unless it comes early.

Is the world changing? Yes and a lot faster than is healthy for human beings. But we know this already, there is no need to keep banging on about how different it was in Grandad’s day. Change is a given.

Only the changes we are seeing are big news, at least they should be.

A year ago I posted a comment on a truly scary percentage; namely the 75% decline in the biomass of flying insects in Europe.

And whilst I know that fewer yucky critters in the world might sound wonderful; picnics in the park without flies, moonlit strolls on the beach without sandflies, barbecues without mozzies and oh the joy of not getting stung by a wasp or bitten by an ant… surely these are all benefits to send us into rapture.

Well yes, some activities will be more pleasant for us.

Farmers are less upbeat.

A few things must happen before a crop makes it to the packaging facility. Farmers must prepare the ground, plant, nurture the plants as the grow, protect them and then harvest the part of the plant that people eat or use. The seed comes in big packets and the seed spreader or direct drilling machine helps the farmer avoid stony ground. He can rely on ever more reliable weather forecasting and turn on the irrigation just at the right time and use growth models to apply fertilizers just when the plants need it. All sophisticated and controlled stuff.

There is one key process that the farmer relies on nature to deliver. Most fruit, vegetable and nut crops (the foods that give us most of our essential vitamins and minerals) do not pollinate themselves, they rely on animals to transfer pollen.

Some greenhouse crops are pollinated by hand. Easy enough but still labour intensive. Outside it’s the flying insects that do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Beekeeping sounds like a honey-making business, but it became that way because bees are great pollinators, especially of fruiting trees and shrubs.

In natural habitats over 80% of the plant species rely on animal pollinators for fertilization.

So the loss of insects should be the biggest news story in the world; just ask the First Dog on the Moon.

Only there is more…

A 75% loss of flying insects is serious business. There will be a direct link to pollination and profitability whenever this happens and the suggestion is that is is a global pattern.

As I write this post I am on the outside deck at home. We are privileged to live in the Blue Mountains of NSW and surrounded by nature I expect a few insects to alight on the screen, perhaps buzz around my ear. Nothing, nada. Same on a recent camping trip to the NSW north coast. Anecdotal but notable for someone with an eye for this kind of thing.

Only there is more.

What if this loss of insects applies to those that live in the soil?

Many of the flying types have larval or pupal life stages in the soil, but there are also plenty of permanent soil dwellers. If worms, mites, springtails, woodlice, millipedes and the many other types of invertebrates in the soil food web have declined by 75% too, then the world will be fine but we are all in serious trouble.

These soil animals are essential to decomposition and nutrient transfer to plant roots as well as much of the physical structure of soil that we recognise as essential for plant growth.

I’ll leave the details for later as this post is already too long but the link between soil biology and soil fertility is established through research and known to every farmer who runs soil through his fingers.

However, we don’t know the extent of soil animal numbers or diversity so it is impossible for us to know if they are in decline.

It should be a Kardashian sized news story if they are.

Yet more…

Nearly 20 years ago I co-authored an article about how to measure the diversity of invertebrates in an academic volume entitled “The other 99% The conservation and Biodiversity of Invertebrates”. Our paper was moot, the ‘yet more’ point here is that most of the non-microbial biodiversity on earth is invertebrate.

There are more species of creepy crawly critters than there are birds, mammals and reptiles put together, and then some.

So if soil animals are in decline in the way that their flying brethren are, then species loss rates are going to be through the roof. Saving the koala will be the least of the conservation issues if we are serious about saving species.

Soil degradation

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is defined as a change in the soil health status resulting in a diminished capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. Degraded soils have a health status such, that they do not provide the normal goods and services of the particular soil in its ecosystem.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

No wonder you have never heard of soil degradation.

How the Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the concept is as impenetrable as a dry chernozem, replete with dull jargon and weak science. Since when can dirt have “soil health status” or sentient status sufficient to have beneficiaries. It makes soil sound like a shop or an accounting firm when it is actually a mixture of minerals, water and biology.

How about this definition?

Soil degradation has happened when soil grows less food less often.

I admit this simplification does not hint at the why of the outcome; something about soil being unwell, but I am sure you paid a little more attention to a focused definition. And you should. When soils grow less food less often it represents a risk to the wellbeing of us all.

Fortunately, this definition also allows the positive mirror

Soil degradation is reversed when soil grows more food more often.

So if you are of the positive thinking set there is a version for you where the graph goes from bottom left to top right.

Less facetiously, this definition is closer to the practical reality: humans use soil for their benefit. Natural vegetation converted into productions systems that capture solar energy into food, our own specific source of energy, is still the most efficient and cost-effective (or profitable if you prefer) method to feed people on mass. In these systems soil is the growth medium of choice.

Soil is still the cheapest, most ubiquitous and (usually) the most resilient option to grow food at a profitable volume. In short, we use it for profit.

Soil is gold, bitcoin even.

When soil degradation is defined as a loss in that use value it is logical at least. It fits with our notions of value – philosophical antagonism over human values applied to nature notwithstanding. ‘Health status’ is just silly but at least the FAO got the goods and services bit right.

Let’s run with the economics for a while.

If I make money from soil because I use it to grow food that is sold in a market, then my business needs the soil to continue to provide conditions for commodity production for as long as I need to run the business. This is as true for a subsistence farmer taking some excess melons to his village square as it is to a 5,000 ha precision agriculture operation in the Australian wheat belt. At first glance, soil degradation is not good for either business.

What if there is a time horizon on the business?

The subsistence farmer would rather have a job that pays more than tilling his field and hopes his children will break out of the hand to mouth cycle of his own life. Sales of the melons help buy his kids school uniforms.

Intensive agriculture must make money to satisfy creditors and benefit investors. Modern farms require immediate and increasingly significant capital and liquidity to function. Creditor terms run to months at best and investors are expecting annual dividends. Whilst the banks are happy to help with lumpy cash flow and insurance taken out against more acute disruption from acts of god and the market, even in a financially planned farm business, money goes in and out all the time.

All this means that the time horizons are short when it comes to growing food. So whilst I might want to grow melons for generations and wheat far into the future there are concerns right now. Production has to happen soon. It might be desirable for the business to be sustainable, that is to continue for as far into the future as we can realistically imagine, but cash is king and cash is immediate.

More food more often fits this model of course and ‘less food less often’ does not, so the last thing I need is soil degradation…. but the first thing I need is production. And this takes precedence whether it means food for a family or interest payments on the loan for the centre pivot. Farmer sustainability has a short time span, way shorter than the farm business and the soil that supports it.

This is the true problem with the “goods and services for its beneficiaries” definition of soil degradation. It will sneak up on you before you even know it is a problem. The average couch potato is functional but unhealthy and is fine with it. He would be less fine if you cut his Netflix allowance by half and restricted viewing to three nights a week (less food less often).

So now you have heard of soil degradation at least. It is a problem sneaking up on us all with ‘diminished capacity’ about to make all our lives more difficult.


There is something you can do.

Soil degradation is usually reversible through prudent production, encouragement of soil carbon, allowing soil biology to flourish and taking the long view.

And you can help with this by gearing yourself up to pay more than $1 per kilo for your onions.