Apr 26, 2016

Nature is neglected in this election campaign – at its and our own peril

By Don Driscoll & Euan Ritchie

Our natural heritage, the plants, animals and other organisms that help define Australia’s identity, are in dire straits.
The electioneering has begun. In a campaign set to be dominated by economic issues, the Coalition and Labor are locking horns over who can best manage our finances, protect jobs and make housing more affordable. The Greens predictably decry the major parties, including their cavalier climate change policies.
These are important issues, but are they the highest priority on the political agenda? An arguably even greater issue exists that nobody is seriously championing, but which impacts all of us, socially, environmentally and economically.
Our natural heritage — the plants, animals and other organisms that help define Australia's identity are in dire straits. Yet this biodiversity crisis is barely mentioned in political discourse, nor is it foremost in the public consciousness.
The world economy is losing $73 billion a year through lost ecosystem services. It is predicted to lose $20 trillion a year by 2050 without action now. With potentially 7% of global economic product at stake by mid-century, nature conservation must surely be on the agenda in this election.
Actions needed to conserve our natural heritage, and reap substantial rewards, will challenge some of our most cherished ideas about social and economic policy. This demands reforms to reverse creeping losses to our democratic process.
Looking at the major parties' platforms, it is clear that nature is not on the agenda. Labor lists 23 positive policies, none of which deals directly with conserving Australia's plants and animals. The Coalition has done slightly better, claiming to believe in preserving Australia's natural beauty and environment for future generations. However, itsfederal platform, released last year, shows no evidence of this belief.
Public concern has also shifted away from nature issues and towards other concerns such as terrorism, as well as traditional areas of focus such as health care and the economy. This shift can be seen in some surprising places, such as the major grassroots lobby group GetUp!. Of its ten current campaigns only one, the fight to save the Great Barrier Reef, is directly about conserving wildlife diversity.

Apr 24, 2016

The effects on soil biology of agricultural chemicals

By Alan Broughton
February 2013.

In the last few years the soil science community has showed a new interest in soil biology. This is possibly because of the growing influence of the organic and biological farming sectors, coupled with the government’s Carbon Farming Initiative and the increased costs of fertilisers. However it is of concern that many of the scientists advising farmers on methods to enhance the benefits provided by soil biological components treat agricultural chemicals as essential for farming and therefore untouchable. 

There is a large body of research that shows agricultural chemicals do have varied and significant effects on soil biology and must be included in any discussion about capturing the services of soil biology for the benefit of agriculture, farm sustainability and soil carbon sequestration. The large number of successful organic and biological farmers demolishes the myth that agricultural chemicals are essential. 

The term “agricultural chemicals” refers to inorganic fertilisers and pesticides in the broad sense that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides and anthelmintics (worming drenches).

Plant varieties: Why are we losing them?

By Alan Broughton

Over the past century there has been a huge loss of genetic diversity in crop plants, running at about 2.5% per year, amounting to more than 75% of garden food varieties which have disappeared. For some crops the loss has been much higher (97% of peas for example). 

Of vegetable varieties in old USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) lists 97% are now extinct. Of the 7078 apple varieties in the US in 1904, 86% are extinct; of pears 88%. In India once there were 20,000 varieties of rice grown; now 75% of plantings are from 10 varieties. In Taiwan 2000 rice varieties were grown in 1910; by 1920 there were 390. In China in 1949 10,000 varieties of wheat were grown; by the 1970’s only 1000. If you compare Australian fruit or vegetable catalogues from early 1900’s with today’s you would see a huge reduction in varieties offered. Many of the early ones are no longer known to be in existence. At the same time wild ancestors of food plants around the world are disappearing as the land is being used for agriculture or grazing. 

There are several causes of this loss of diversity: government policies, concentration of ownership of seed companies, hybridisation, fewer farmers and home gardeners, and the drive for ever increasing profits.

Land grabbing – A new colonialism

By Alan Broughton
November 2012

Since the global financial crisis of 2008 and its associated food crisis that sent another 200 million people into malnutrition there has been a massive grab for land by large corporations around the world. Worst hit has been Africa, where food security is already non-existent for many people. Governments, including our own, welcome this “investment” in agriculture, some bizarrely claiming that food security will be increased.

Estimates vary as to the extent, because there are no accurate records and some deals are confidential, but Oxfam estimates that 227 million hectares in the developing world, the size of North-Western Europe, has been either sold, leased or licensed to foreign corporations between 2000 and 2011, or is under negotiation. In 2009 alone 50 million hectares was transferred from farmers to corporations. Some of this land has been purchased while the majority has taken on long term leases of 25 to 99 years, usually renewable. This includes 63% of all the arable land in Cambodia, 30% of Liberia and 20% of Sierra Leone. Other countries that have lost more than 10% of their agricultural land to foreign investors are Ethiopia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines. More than half is in Africa. 

There are several reasons for this land grab, none of which will increase food security in the areas targeted. The most important impetus is for biofuel production, particularly oil palm, soy and corn, as a direct result of mandatory biofuel targets set by European and North American countries for their domestic energy supplies. The UK is the biggest investor in biofuel production in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by the US, India, Norway and Germany. Land formerly being used by small farmers for their own food needs is converted into plantations and crop monocultures to feed the cars of the industrialised world. Some land is also being used for forestry plantations used to offset carbon emissions in the rich countries.

Carbon Sequestration on Land – the Government’s Greenhouse Gas Policy

By Alan Broughton
May 7th 2014. 

The Labour Government set up the Carbon Farming Initiative in 2011, soon to be renamed and adjusted as the Emissions Reduction Fund. This will be the Abbott Government’s key strategy for greenhouse gas abatement. The aim is to use the ability of soils and vegetation to absorb the emissions from industry while at the same time reducing the emissions from agriculture. Landholders get paid to sequester carbon or reduce emissions under the scheme. 

While the potential exists for a large proportion of greenhouse gases to be taken out of the atmosphere by sequestration in soil and vegetation, it is unlikely to occur for several reasons: the cost and difficulty of verification of soil carbon increase, the extra work in record keeping, the long time before farmers get paid (at least five years in the case of soil carbon sequestration), the uncertainty about the price per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalents they will receive, the absence of any training program for farmers about how to sequester carbon, and the increasing emissions from the coal, gas and oil industries that are not at the same time being addressed. 

Apr 22, 2016

Ruminant livestock and greenhouse gases

By Alan Broughton 

Within the climate change action movement there is a stream that places priority on reduction in livestock numbers as the key strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. I believe this is mistaken. The choice to not eat meat or other animal products should be regarded as a personal choice, not an ecological choice. There is no ecological justification for advocating a drastic reduction in livestock numbers as part of climate change mitigation. Efforts would be better spent in focusing on the real issues: energy generation, transport and the sustainability of farming systems. 

Livestock production can become an effective carbon sink with great potential to modify the greenhouse gas effect. The obstacle is not livestock but how the animals are managed. This essay addresses the ability of well managed grasslands to sequester the methane produced by grazing ruminant animals and some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by industry.