(This is adapted from a talk given by Rodger Savory to the Shifting Paradigms Conference, A Club of Budapest and Global Peace Centre Initiative, on 12 December 2015 at Deakin University.)
Australia is creating a future drought fund. Let’s explore how the country got into the mess it is in today, and how it might find its way out again.
First, understand that Australia has 14 million voters, but of those only 41,000 voters are rural farmers (0.29% of the population). This means that in an urban-based democracy farmers have absolutely no voice. This is an extremely dangerous situation to find ourselves in. As with no voice and no way to change things this will breed discontent and lead to conflict. Please remember agriculture is the very basis of civilization, and civilization by definition is city based.
Australia has never had a cohesive agricultural policy and as such we are like a rudderless ship floundering at sea between booms and busts. With no clear intended course to guide decision making, but instead pulling in different directions based on objectives, the outcome is bound to be unintended consequences.
- Let’s take for one example equal pay for aboriginals as a result of strike in 1966 at Wave Hill Station, which resulted in equal pay within 3 years and also a massive redundancy in aboriginal workers who in effect became wards of the state. These workers are trying to rebuild a sense of pride and rebuild their knowledge base after a lost generation, the effects are being felt particularly in the North of the country, where whole communities were destroyed.
- Another example is the live export ban, where after 3 years farmers are still committing suicide due to depressed prices and lack of markets for their animals.
- Or 23 cents per liter for milk as a result of farming regulations combined with market deregulation. While Australian milk sold in China sells for $9 per liter. This has caused thousands of dairies to sell up and the land be turned into more profitable housing estates. It is madness for productive agricultural land to be repurposed in this way. If an Australian farmer sells healthy raw milk for human consumption the penalties are stiffer than for dealing in cocaine!
- Or how about the killing of millions buffalo and cattle to control brucellosis when vaccines could have been deployed more effectively, leaving entire regions without a means of earning a sustainable income and having the resulting land degrade due to insufficient grazing animals to keep the grassland alive.
- Or a law that prevent the killing of female kangaroos so they breed from 1-2-4-8 or 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, 80,000 with no benefit to the farmer.
- Or how about labour minimum wages on farms whereby entire industries collapse as those same industries have to compete with international markets not tied to those same standards, while cities complain of the high unemployment figures of youths and elderly couples in their 70’s try to run huge properties on their own.
It is fine to say all this is wrong with Australia however to point out a problem without giving a solution is pointless. So what is to be done?
First, I believe we need at least 7.5 million urban voters to demand the nation create a national holistic context and an agricultural policy within that context, or we are all in serious trouble.
So how do we create a national holistic context and then how to use it to create a national agriculture policy?
There is no question, we do need policies. Policies themselves are not the problem, but the way we develop them is. We currently develop policy with a single objective in mind.
To succeed and not result in unintended consequences the objectives of policy need to meet 3 criteria:
- They need to have public support
- They need to address the underlying cause of the problem, not just its symptoms,
- And they need to have a context greater than the problem – a holistic context which I will explain in a moment.
Think about that for a moment – could any policy imaginable concerning agriculture, drugs, terrorism, saving charismatic species, climate change, immigration or whatever not have social implications? Not have environmental implications? Not have economic implications? No, that is impossible.
Here is a generic holistic context quality of life statement that has been created for the nation for illustrative purposes.
Stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security while free to pursue their own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.
Do you think there is anyone who would not desire to live such a life here in Australia?
If we were to write policy with the outcomes desire as above then in writing policy we would need to ensure that all our policies in all portfolios met the above described social, economic and environmental criteria we as a nation all desire. We would then presume that any policy we wrote was in fact incorrect and we would have a mechanism within the new policy to in fact monitor for unintended results and allow for fast rewriting or scrapping of the policy.
For example did you know that in terms of English law, if you threw an object through a shop window the law states the penalty was death? The law may still be in the statute books, but the world has moved on. All policy needs to have a self-destruct clause built in, as Thomas Jefferson in America stated we needed revolution every 20 years. Another way that could have been written into the American Constitution is all laws are only valid for 20 years. We need a fundamental shift in governance towards holistic policy created with a national holistic context.
For example as a result of having no agricultural policy for the nation to follow but a huge number of objectives which all compete with each other for national attention and funding dollars the overall result is decline. Decline in number of farmers, decline in lands productivity, decline in real prices paid, decline in profits, decline in numbers of rurally employed, decline in rural communities, decline in nation sheep flock size, decline in soil fertility and carbon content, decline in health of rivers, decline in the health of our oceans, basically decline in the dream.
Drought and flooding are two sides of the same coin. Both are symptoms of a non-effective water cycle on a micro scale.
When soils are bare and it rains, this is what happens.
The rain hits the ground at terminal velocity, its splash separates the particles by size as they fall back to earth creating a dense impenetrable crust that then prevents water from seeping into the soils subsurface. The rain also has nothing to slow it down as it travels downhill with gravity speeding up in volume and velocity with time and distance traveled.
This leads to flash floods. Also bare soil has roughly 80% evaporation back into the atmosphere so most of what fell that doesn’t cause flooding goes straight back up to where it came from. So not only is there a flood but when it is over there is not much water left in the soil and that is when the drought occurs. What we call a non- effective water cycle. While covered soils those with 100% ground cover only 10% evaporates, and 10% slowly flows off without enough velocity to disturb the soil particles leaving 80% of the rainfall in the soil to effectively provide moisture for the plants. What we call an effective water cycle.
Only two things create bare soil: resting land, and fire.
Fire, used for 41,000 years in Australia, has changed the country from an animal-maintained habitat to a fire-maintained habitat. In a 1,000 year period 90% of the species of both vegetation and animals that depended on each other went extinct. The same period when man first arrived here with the tool of fire.
With the loss of animals causing the grassland to be rested and the use of fire bare soil ensured the creation of the Simpson Desert and the changes to the micro-climate all the way up to the coasts.
How we create deserts
Grasses cannot drop their leaves and as such must have a grazing animal in their life cycles to cycle the carbon flat onto the ground. We need large herds of tightly bunched grazing animals to graze and trample the grass flat onto the ground whereby it can be broken down by the micro-organisms in the intestine or by those in contact with the soil surface.
So if droughts and floods are caused by non-effective water cycles and if it is our management of the land that causes bare soil then it is a fair assumption to say that Australia’s droughts and floods are man-made. That is both the bad news and the good news. If they are man-made then we could create policy to prevent them.
I would argue that most events labeled as “drought” are in fact just below-average rainfall and non-effective water cycles. Remember that to have an average you need higher and lower rainfall and that you will almost never actually get an average rainfall.
Australians also often cite the belief that the country suffers from the most unpredictable rainfall in the world, and yet when I look at properties’ rainfall records I see predictable traits, even though while not ideal traits are still predictable. If in 30 out of a 100 years you can expect to see an 18-month period of not much rain then this is predictable and should be planned for. In Holistic Management we call this a brittle environment because there is not enough atmospheric moisture to allow micro-organisms to break down the carbon while the air is dry.
This means either there needs to be a national policy to create enough water storage for 18 months without rain and an irrigation system based on that with a livestock watering and holistic planned grazing based on that also, or more boom and bust agriculture. And that is another example of policy towards an objective, while within the context described earlier this would become part and parcel of all policies in environment, lands, forestry, agriculture, riparian areas, labour, etc. to accomplish the desired outcome without for example hurting riparian areas or creating saline soils.
For example, if we are irrigating bare well-prepared soils and we have 80% evaporation it stands to reason that the salts would be drawn up to the surface by capillary action and then left on the soil surface as the water evaporates. Over time that creates a hostile growing environment for plants to grow.
However, irrigation rarely applied when needed on thickly covered soils would not have the same negative impacts. Furthermore, fertilizers currently manufactured from petrochemicals are salt-based. Did you know 1 kg inorganic fertilizer will kill 22kgs of soil micro-organisms? The release of nitrogen from the dead micro-organisms’ bodies is what gives the soil its temporary perceived fertility. But it is only temporary. Each subsequent year, more fertilizer is needed, and that means more salts being applied.
The latest improvement in the fertilizer marketing world being “slow-release” fertilizer which is basically speaking tiny plastic bags coating each grain of fertilizer. What happens when all that plastic which does not break down without uv light builds up in the soils?
What the difference is between sand and soil?
Sand is basically inorganic chemicals while soil is those chemicals with life in them, and around them. The more life the more ‘fertile’ a soil is. The less life the less fertile. Therefore life begets life, more life begets more life. As recently as 10,000 years ago man invented the plough and with its invention began the increased speed of global desertification, which has now affected approximately two thirds of our planet.
The reason I believe it has been so successful and so destructive at the same time was this.
We have recently learnt with the use of electron microscopes and DNA testing that is single cubic cm of soil can contain as many as a billion microorganisms. These tiny creatures have their own distinct habitats in the soil structure. For example, those that live in the top millimeter of soil only live there and those that live 30cm down only live there.
When we ploughed soil and turned it over, this killed billions of life forms. These animals when they died released nitrogen, this released nitrogen could then be used by the planted plants and they grew better than those plants in surrounding healthy grasslands. This was easy for early man to see a direct correlation, ploughed land better crops.
After 3 years, when the soil life was depleted man, moved to a new field and repeated the act of killing soils and all soil life. Deep soils took longer to kill all life but once started, farming and agriculture nearly always resulted in a desert being created. This happened not only in places with seasonal rainfall but even in the jungles!
What happened slowly before the tractor, has accelerated massively in the last 160 years following mechanization in farming. We are effectively turning more land turning to desert at a rate we have never achieved before.
Global climate change is being caused by agriculture
Global climate change is being caused by agriculture, with 10 tons of eroding soil per ½ ton of food produced for every human on the planet this is seriously unsustainable.
A bare soil micro-climate absorbs the sun’s heat so gets hotter. When you add up the billions of hectares globally that are currently bare soil, the overall effect is to start to change macro-climate.
We urgently need to get our soils covered again to…
- get climate change under control and
- carbon sequestered out of the atmosphere and back into life in the soil.
We now have people managing their land in ways whereby the crop fields are kept covered with plant litter 100% of the time, and where we grow plants to feed the soil micro-organisms and other plants for our commercial harvests all in the same fields without ever turning the soils over.
This improves soil fertility (life in the soil) and water holding (drought-proofing) of cropping lands. This can be done on extensive scales, however most farmers do not have enough livestock to really do it effectively. This means we have room to increase both livestock and crop production on the same lands while regenerating landscapes.
Ms. Livingstone, President of the Business Council of Australia, she stated recently that only in Agriculture has Australia got a competitive advantage. The steps laid out to improve it where however towards an objective without a context and would have unintended consequences.
We need more grazers
Take the example of Brazil from 1976 to the present day. In 1976 Brazil realized that if they did not get serious about producing enough food for their exploding human population, the politicians were going to lose control. So they created a national agricultural policy and plan.
In 1976 Brazil had 12Million cattle and 200Million hectares of grazing land. In each 6 year period thereafter they doubled the size of the national herd. So in 1982 they had 24 million, in 1988 50 million, and today they have 200 million cattle on 200 million hectares of grazing land. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world, and they only export a tiny fraction of what they produce.
While back on the Australian station in 1976 we had 23 million cattle roaming 400 million hectares of grazing land and a nation who boasted being the most efficient cow cockys on the planet. Today Australia only has 27 million cattle and its sheep flock is but a fraction of what it was (from a high in 1960 of 170 million to a paltry 68 million today).
While I believe using holistic planned grazing that Australia could easily carry 400 million cattle or 2 billion sheep (or more likely a bit of both), this is not possible until everyone in the cities demands a holistic context for the nation with an agricultural policy to meet it. While improving grazing lands health will also improve cropping lands and ability to grow crops on currently infertile lands.
Instead of shipping coal to the global North, our ships should be sending protein to a world more hungry for food than it is for non-renewable energy. 400 million cows would have enough steers which, when slaughtered, could supply 1 billion people with 200g of meat per day – the lowest protein level needed to sustain healthy brain development in children.
The most efficient way to deliver that would be as freeze-dried minced meat, using wave energy from tidal zones in Australia’s North to create the energy needed for the freeze drying process. However all this would be tied to the Context and the Agricultural policy which would be tied to immigration policy and wage policy etc..
Just as the USA and Canada ship grain around the world, Australia should be shipping grass finished meat around the world to where it is needed. Remember there are already 1 billion hungry people in the world with another 1 billion born in only 11 years time and 2 billion born in 23 years’ time. If we got serious about our animal production we could only feed a billion of the already 7 billion on the planet.
A hungry man knows no boundary
If there are already a billion hungry people how will Australia be able to keep people from coming? I have no way of verifying it but a friend of mine in the navy told me that secretly the navy turned back over 600,000 people last year. This if true is a flood that will become more and more difficult to stem over the next 20 years as all the new humans look for food.
No one likes leaving their home and only desperation drives mass migrations. How can a navy possibly stop the masses of future hungry arriving? As long as the USA is our protector then all good however at what point will US China relations outweigh US Australian interests? At whatever point that is we are on our own and 260 + million Indonesians just North of us will need feeding either by invasion of by us shipping tons of food to them, the choice is ours but we need clear thinking and a policy to ensure we are proactive not reactive. An army and navy made up from a country with only 23 million people spread over 400 million hectares will quickly be overwhelmed.
Only a holistic context and policy written within its framework can give us the clarity of thought needed to create an agricultural policy to keep us safe and secure and prosperous in the long term.
For the last 4000 years when prices have been manipulated and are reset, two things have always held their value: gold and cattle.
I believe as hunger becomes greater and as it sinks in that we have to produce more protein in the next 50 years than in all of recorded history combined cattle will become even more important as a measure of wealth in a hungry world. Land is an unstable asset, revolutions ensure that and hunger has caused more revolutions than any other single cause and is the reason why global governments have done all they can to destabilize staple foods prices and keep them low.
For example beef and wheat prices have not moved in price for 60 years and in fact if inflation is added have actually dropped. At some point it will no longer be possible to keep controlling these and whole countries will topple. We have seen a 40% decline in the number of farmers in the last 30 years.
Please remember it is failing agriculture, not armies, that has destroyed 26 civilizations before ours. But without agriculture – the production of food, and fiber from the worlds lands and oceans – you cannot sustain city-based civilizations.
Managing holistically is the only hope for humanity and Australia
Do not put your hope in genetically modified organisms and foods, while they may have looked great the research is now beginning to show that we are in for a very bumpy ride. Human and environmental health is taking a beating.
Professor Seralini’s research has clearly shown in a long term study that there is a very negative correlation between GMO (which are designed to be Roundup-resistant) and tumours and cancers. We are already seeing evidence of how when we change any part of the whole the whole collapses.
Smuts warned us scientists in his book “Holism and Evolution” that we would not understand nature until we understood that nature functions in wholes and patterns.
- When predatory Starfish were removed from tidal pools in Oregon, numerous other species died out.
- When one animal (man) was removed from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, the rivers dried up and silted up.
There is no need for GMO’s as in numerous places around the world we are now getting great yields with unimproved corn just by getting soils healthy again.
We already have all the evidence we need that plants, fungi, animals all need each other to develop healthily. If you think about it there is no plant on earth which does not have animals and fungus as an integral part of the plant, and there is no animal which does not have plants and fungi parts to it, and there is no fungus that does not have animals and plants as part of its whole.
So if all plants, fungi and animals are interconnected in complex ways, it stands to reason that we cannot remove our societies and cultures from the natural world and hence neither can we remove our economies from our life support systems and the part of the whole that would cause our instant demise is if we remove plants as without them we would have no oxygen to breathe.
So please if we want a peaceful and sustainable future we need to do all we can to encourage all life on the planet as life begets life, more life begets more life, and diminishing resources is always the root cause of conflict.
If we want to remove conflict, it has to start with us increasing the abundance of all life and with those increases come more food, more water and more fibres to support team humanity into the future.