This is The ChangeUnderground for the 7th of March 2022.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
Time displaced rewards. Those three words defined the human ability that separated us from the rest of the biological world. Clearly there are exceptions, squirrels burying acorns for later and so but as a general rule it is a good working hypothesis.
While time displaced rewards are, let’s call it, one of our evolutionary advantages, the concept does not separate us from Nature. Now while I’m on an extreme generalisation roll I’m going to define a salient feature of Nature in a few words: Redundancy not efficiency. There’s no better place to explore this than our own bodies. Two lungs, eyes, ears, ovaries/testicles, kidneys, arms and legs when clearly we could make do with only one of each. The view of an economist would suggest we could lease out, say, a lung and be fine with the other. The lunacy of this is obvious. To whom would we lease our “spare” lung? It is also worth remembering that words become twisted. In an economic sense “being made redundant” means being removed from the economic system, maybe with a payout, maybe not. “You’re redundant, the business no longer needs you.” It is a truly barbaric twisting of the word. Back to our body analogy from a “Redundancy not efficiency” point of view having a spare keeps us alive and, as far as it pertains to Nature, able to reproduce, to pass on our genes for as long as possible. Yes, I understand the menopause sort of belies this but actually it contributes to care and development of those who carry grandma’s genes. A different sort of investment but another difference in humans that has survived the tests of the evolutionary process.
I just mentioned economics and here we enter the problematic notion of the cost of time delayed rewards. That we were able, as a species, to wait for a reward meant we had to incur a cost. Planting seeds now will lead to more seeds later. We could eat the seeds immediately and satisfy our hunger but we choose to plant and receive a time displaced reward. The cost is having to find something else to eat in the meantime.
Another aspect of this, which probably did more to create fully modern humans than anything else, is the idea of communal eating. Sitting down to meals together. Bare with me, this all comes winds back on itself and the point will become obvious, I hope. To eating. Fisher-gatherer-hunters do an odd thing, in the primate world. If you look at the way other apes eat, it’s a constant on the go food into mouth and keep going. This is especially true for gorillas. We have, relative to our body size, tiny stomachs. So the gorillas keep piling in the leaves and grasses and nuts and berries and so on until the alpha male and female are full and the troop rests. In fisher-gatherer-hunter “troops” communities, the food is collected and brought to a central location where it is cooked and distributed. There are generally very complex rules around distribution which mean everyone gets a feed. The point being, the time delayed reward of food is at the cost of possibly being a bit peckish. The benefits are enormous. Culture developed around cooking points, story telling, cosmology, the passing of knowledge from elders to others. Reports of hostile animals in a given location kept others from going there and so on. And it is culture above all that is humanity’s evolutionary advantage and it is built upon the idea of time delayed rewards.
Enter the wonders of efficiency. Remembering we are actually a part of Nature, efficiency is like a knife to the heart of ecosystems. We could rely on the steady flow of nutrients through the system to power our agricultural systems. We could do so and still feed 10 billion people without too much trouble but we’ve decided, even if that decision has been made by others in boardrooms far removed from topsoil, we’ve decided to go for efficiency.
Taking the efficiency versus redundancy paradigms, what happens in a system with built in redundancies in a crisis? There are fallback positions. In an ag setting if one crop fails, there are others and as each crop is not that large relative to the others, a harvest is still possible. In an efficient system where the paddocks are ploughed fence to fence with say GMO corn, the output in a good year can be financially sustainable. What about in a year when, oh I don’t know, fuel, fertiliser, pesticide and seed prices more than double? What’s that look like? Toss in some debt levels and producers indentured, in effect, to processors and it’s no wonder we have a farmer suicide crisis across the globe.
How do we build redundancy into our food systems? We have to accept that some years some things will fail and in other years or even the same one things may produce too much. Let’s unpack that. How can we produce too much? Let’s talk wheat. A bumper year around the world, huge harvests and an oversupply brings prices crashing. If our individual farm units are monocultures they just take the price. If these same individual farms are multispecies mixed operations, the wheat which now sells for less than the cost of production, becomes a feed source for livestock, either as grain or grazed off in the paddocks. Or a hail storm bruises all the fruit in an orchard, they monoculturalist has to take the lower payment for juice quality fruit rather than the higher price for undamaged fruit. Or as part of a complex farm, the fruit could be used to create rising levels of nutrition in ewes prior to mating and thereby increase the number of multiple births in five months’ time. The possibilities are endless.
Which brings me to this episode’s title: “Fertiliser Prices”. An article this week on the Agriland site entitled Goulding Fertilisers withdraws its price list points to the dangers of off farm inputs based upon efficiency as the sole reason for farming.
Goulding Fertilisers issued a letter this week stating that it has withdrawn its current price list – as of December 6, 2021 – and all existing quotations.
The company, which manufactures and distributes a range of fertilisers, sent the letter on Wednesday, March 2.
The company cited increased costs and decreased supplies, associated with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, as reasons for the price withdrawal.
More specifically, the company said those reasons are attributed to:
- The huge increase in natural gas prices in the last week with gas now trading at 10 times its normal level for this time of year;
- Reduction in ammonia availability due to the closure of Ukrainian ports, leading to increased production costs for DAP and urea;
- Increased cost of potash caused by sanctions on Belarus, which supplies 30% of European potash;
- Decrease in supplies available from Russia, which normally supplies 25-30% of Ireland’s annual fertiliser.
While this is specific to Ireland, the effects will be felt around the world. The specifics in this will change over time. Of a more worrying nature is the Sixth Assessment Report from the IPCC, link in the show notes, which points out the effects of Climate Change aren’t just in the future but with us now. So unexpected weather events, like three named storms in a week across Ireland and the UK or a wet summer on the east coast of Australia leading to record flooding events along the coastal hinterland whilst here in the NW of Tasmania we’ve had the third or fourth driest summer on record.
Shocks are coming. I don’t mean to be alarmist but shocks are coming. We haven’t even grappled the virus situation to the ground. Who knows when and where a new variant will pop its nasty little head up? Maybe it won’t and we can leave all that in the rear view mirror but I’d be very surprised.
We needed to prepare for all this fifty odd years ago when the science community told us it was coming but given that train has left the station, today looks like a great time to find redundancies in our own lives. Don’t panic about it but think carefully. I would suggest growing at least some of our own food, that shortens a major supply line immediately. If you’re up for it, keeping some of that food as animals, especially scavenging animals who can turn what is inedible for humans into what is edible, would be a good place to start. Rabbits, chooks, pigs, ducks and so on are easily managed on a small scale. Pigs maybe not but with some thought, maybe and the poultry turn the inedible into eggs too.
What’s the takeaway?
Things are crook, things may get worse but, and this is a big but, we still have the time and the ability to start building a few redundancies, safety nets in other words, into our lives. Grow something, preserve what you can, or learn to, think carefully about what parts of your life and your community’s life is running the hyper efficiency paradigm and look for way to build redundancies
If you need help to shorten your supply chains there’s the free ebook at the World Organic News website and the No Dig gardening course is there too. Links in the show notes.
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.
The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:
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Goulding Fertilisers withdraws its price list
IPCC Sixth Assessment Report