Episode 277. Death by Efficiency

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 8th of November 2021.

 I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

I spoke with a friend the other week who has a masters degree in agriculture. We discussed the Fukuoka process. He became obsessed with the nitrogen. 

This got me to thinking and reading. Nitrogen, artificial nitrogen is the cornerstone element of the Green Revolution. The intensification of agriculture from the 1960s on. Intensification is a strange thing. It basically means obtaining a greater return from the same piece of land. Now that can be done in a number of ways. Farming something with a higher return per kilo than what’s currently being grown, for instance. But this too has consequences.

We are currently, here in Australia, in the middle of an avocado glut. Not ten years ago we were in a shortage. Price signals drove more and more producers to plant the millenial delight. Now farmers in Western Australia (See the link in the show notes) are dumping their produce rather than pack and ship because the market is flooded with local and imported fruits. Now then, for some reason, fresh fruit doesn’t trigger the same reaction in the political classes as does the cereal crops.

The Green Revolution triggered the same result. Many smallish producers, relative to the size of the market, and an increase in supply to meet a demand leads eventually to oversupply and price collapse. In the US this led to subsidies through the Farm Bill. In Europe, given the cultural memories of famines during the 20th century’s wars, this food was collected into butter mountains and wine lakes. 

The problem with subsidies is they don’t allow movement out of uneconomic enterprises and into more profitable ones. Ok, let me re-phrase that. It’s not that subsidies do not allow change, they encourage producers to keep doing what they already do because their income is guaranteed. There is little reason to change, for economic reasons. When the subsidies end, things are very unpleasant.

We lived through this in Australia in the early 1990s when the wool price collapsed. There was a guaranteed floor under the market. Any wool not purchased by the market buyers was purchased by the growers corporation, backed by the federal government. Buyers stopped buying, wool stores overflowed, the grower’s company held out their hands for more federal funding until they feds said, enough. The guaranteed price collapsed. It took twenty years or there abouts to clear the stockpile which perversely kept prices down until it was all sold off.

Some graziers stayed with wool, they were good at it, others focused on lamb and perhaps a small majority moved into beef. The national sheep flock fell from 180 million in 1990 to 104 million at present. It went lower but lamb prices are ridiculously high, La Nina has brought rain after basically the whole of this century being in drought and graziers are restocking.

This process from subsidies to “free market” has been a painful one for many. Farmers left the sector, farms became larger and economies of scale efficiencies were promised. 

And yet, soil erosion has continued, artificial fertilisers continue to flood into waterways, when they have water in them.

For a good example or perhaps a bad example of this efficiency leading to unwanted consequences see episode 246 Growing in Subsoil?

The pattern continues.

Efficiency, squeezing every last unit of output from a given piece of land is a thing I think we should avoid. It is extractive. Imagine if you can, from a bird’s eye view, the flow of food. From paddocks through factories, green grocers, supermarkets, farmer’s markets and whatever other means of exchange to individuals and thence through their respective local sewerage systems. Now think of the energy used to move all that food and the energy embedded in the fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and the diesel burnt, all sitting upon plants and their peculiar ability to photosynthesise. Plants do this for free. There are limits to this but still, free energy.

The fossil fuels we’re currently burning through are simply time relocated products of photosynthesis. Given the amount of energy falling on the surface of the planet, we have opportunities to avoid this and its known consequences, COP26 notwithstanding. The technology is already available. Political will is missing, in many places, but the tech is sufficiently developed to replace the old photosynthesis and all without overly inconveniencing people. Now there are times when people need to be inconvenienced, that’s coming and has been here for decades. I feel uncomfortable describing the Black Summer fires of 2019-2020 as inconveniences but you get the point. 

With the correct application of current technologies, the agricultural sector can be more diffusely spread through a more diffusely spread population. We can work, in the developed world, in many but not all sectors, from anywhere. As this beds into societies, food systems can adapt to a more localised affair. Instead of trucking produce to a central market in a capital city and then back out to the growing region centres, local markets would provide better efficiencies and fresher food. 

A long term dream of mine is to see every golf course repurposed into 2 to 5 acre smallholdings and I have friends for whom this idea is tantamount to heresy but well, never mind.

With smaller settlements spread across space and high speed rail interconnections we can achieve large area re-wilding, productive, complex ecosystem based agriculture, nil emissions and a chicken in every pot, so to speak.

If we chose, as a society, to continue with the recipe model of ag, chemical fertiliser plus pesticides/herbicides plus irrigation equals massive amounts of homogeneous output, we are doomed to recreate the salt marshes of Mesopotamia, the collapse of the Harappan cultures and the US dust bowls of the 1930s.

Food is the one key to quick wins on CO2 and methane. How our food is produced matters, we need to be the ChangeUnderground and lead the way. Millions of households increasing their own food production will have a huge effect if we do it regeneratively. Remember Bill Mollison’s prediction/suggestion that just 10% of us need to move from consumption to production and there’ll be enough for all of us. That “us” includes the biosphere. To steal a misquote from the “Blues Bros.” “Our sorry arses are in this too.”

Keep growing as much of your own food as possible. This removes transport and production emissions from some of our food and if done regeneratively actually builds soil by decarbonising the air and recarbonising the soil

If you’re ready to make the leap into growing your own food in an integrated animal supporting/supported way go to the website: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/ and you can obtain a free copy of The ChangeUnderground No-Dig Gardening System.

And don’t forget the Facebook Group: ChangeUndergound Podcast Group where I see we have rocketed up to 12 members. Slowly, slowly is how exponential growth begins.

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:


FREE eBook: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/

email: jon@worldorganicnews.com


Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1546564598887681


Bubugo Conservation Trust


Avocados dumped amid glut in domestic supply and imports from overseas


Episode 246: Growing in Subsoil?


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