‘Photosynthesis could heal’: why agriculture should be driven by environmentalists | Science


The juggernaut of globalisation has been inescapable for Australian agriculture. From the start, merino wool was a major export earner, and it still is. Australia has 70 million sheep and wool reaches markets far and wide. Overall, 70% of all our primary produce is sent overseas, including much of our organic produce.

Agriculture is as much an export business as mining, so when I see asparagus from Peru, garlic from Mexico and cherries from California on supermarket shelves, I wonder why we still need to import so much food. The answer is simple: all year-round supply and money. Cheap is the name of the game. Cheap food is as political as cheap power and the supermarkets are happy to comply. The global shopping cart is at a store near you and on your computer.

But in exporting agricultural produce, we are also exporting our soil and water. Every time we sell something that’s been born, shorn, cut or harvested – from cotton fibre to goat meat, from wine to my beloved garlic bulbs – a little bit of soil has changed, often sacrificed, along with as much as 70% of the nation’s water supply.

Far from a feeling of professionalism and prosperity, Australian farming’s arse is hanging out of its trousers. Where are the neat and tidy sheds housing the shiny machinery? Not on our place.

We regularly hear that the world will struggle to feed its people. I don’t agree. That is to say, I think this situation is inevitable only if we keep proceeding the way we have been. In Australia so many fertile paddocks lie idle – land that is capable of storing a lot more nutrients and water and therefore producing more food. And this is possible without adding billions in inputs. The problem is a lack of people who know how to manage soil properly, and a lack of people wanting to do the work. At the core of it all is a poor understanding of how to harmonise with our unique, varied and complex environments.

Our farm isn’t a perfect site for olive trees. We learnt the hard way, first killing some with kindness, planting others in frost pockets. While the layout of the grove was designed for light and access to irrigation, some sections have poor soil, despite our best attempts to improve it, and bad drainage. And with summer heat now threatening to melt the thermometer, it’s uncertain if either olives or garlic will be viable in the future. In the here and now, I’m constantly rethinking the things we produce, the way we do things, and the way we sell things.

For the three years of 2016–18, the summer crops on the farm have failed. They germinated, starting their life under a scorching sun, but could not be irrigated due to drought, relying instead on the existing moisture in the soil.





An olive grove in Western Australia on a dry summer’s day.



With soaring summer heat, it’s uncertain if either olives or garlic will be viable in the future on Patrice Newell’s farm. Photograph: Jennifer A Smith/Getty Images

Ten straight days of temperatures over 40C will wilt many plants. The absence of the lush rich green cover crops we once produced meant that the soil’s organic matter was reduced, and the structure of the soil became less friable. We’ve pruned the olives into smaller trees because we can’t guarantee them water, and a smaller tree needs less water. But as we’ve pruned – with the help of the sheep, which nip the lower branches – the tree trunks have been more exposed and, as a result, get sunburnt. If temperatures continue to climb, we’ll need to change the pruning shape to better protect the trees.

Meanwhile the fire permit season has been extended: in 2018 it started in August. And it looks set to become a three-season affair: spring, summer, autumn. This means any small fire needs a special permit from the local fire brigade otherwise no fires are permitted. When a welding accident close by sparked a bushfire, we banned outside welding in summer and discouraged smoking. If this is the future, the seasonal calendar will have to undergo many more adjustments, with winter becoming the time when many tasks can be completed.

And yet the conversation about climate change has been alarmingly slow to progress. Denialism is entrenched. The coalmines of the Hunter Valley bring in local money and provide state funds via royalties. They are also a source of greenhouse gas so it’s easy to understand why there’s resistance to change, but the conversation is little better elsewhere in Australia.

Farming and land clearing have also driven climate change. The agricultural sector in Australia is the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gas, after electricity generation and transport. A tractor pulling a plough releases carbon instantaneously with every pass. Clearing plants that we dismiss as “scrub” also pushes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So does spreading nitrogen-based fertiliser.

But there is a way to redress this, and that’s photosynthesis, the miraculous process that plants perform naturally, removing carbon dioxide from the air and earthing it in the soil via their roots, also releasing oxygen along the way. Plants not only hold the soil together, they help hold soil carbon.

Photosynthesis could heal the world if we let it. Every farm can be part of a system to manage the climate. One of the worst sights during this latest drought has been the slow denuding of hillsides, the turning of pasture to dust. Thousands of bare hectares without plants is not using the sun to build the soil and sequester carbon.

Agriculture needs to be driven by environmentalists. That statement, I know, scares a lot of people. At a conference in 2008 of around fifty farmers who identified as sustainable, I asked people to raise their hands if they saw themselves as environmentalists. A grand total of five hands went up, and they were tentative and apologetic. Wavering wavers. I’d asked my question assuming that the whole audience would be proud wavers. Even among progressive farmers, the word ‘environmentalist’ is problematic and divisive.

Yet environmental policy must begin at the farm gate because it’s farmers who own the land, the soil – or at least that land that isn’t mortgaged to the banks – and they’re the people who need to undertake the repair work. A big reason that many farmers won’t put their hand up comes down to a collective loathing of “environmentalists”, who, to be fair, have yet to learn how to talk to farmers. We have a classic failure to communicate.

Environmental damage began in Australia with the First Fleeters of 1788, who were met with the gift of clean water, trees galore for timber, and beckoning grasslands. What could possibly go wrong? Tragically almost everything, from day one.

Australia is a country of vastly different soil and land types within short distances of each other. The settlers here did not let the land itself define its use. Different fibre and food crops demand nutrients and water in different ratios; different animals require different terrain.

We might want to increase production or diversity but that doesn’t always mean we can, at least not without first carrying out some restoration. Respecting the capacity of the land, of all our different landscapes, is essential if we are to avoid further disaster.

This is an edited extract from Who’s Minding the Farm? by Patrice Newell ($35, Penguin)

Source link