Earth Day – just the one?

First published: Wairarapa Midweek 20 April 2016

In case you’d missed the news, this Friday is Earth Day. Ever since the 1970’s, the world has celebrated April 22nd as a day to support environmental protection.

I’m all for raising awareness of climate change and the steps we need to take to mitigate it, but a once-a-year celebration feels a bit like the crash diet we start every New Year, just as the Christmas ham runs out. We start off with the best of intentions, but drop back into old habits a few days later.

As far as Earth Day events go, 2016 has one of the big ones. The landmark Paris agreement on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is due to be signed on the 22nd by the United States, China and 120-odd other countries. Continue reading “Earth Day – just the one?”

Media: Dairy farming needs a clear vision for the future

First published: Farmers Weekly 13 April 2015

The government’s Business Growth Agenda demands we double food exports (mainly dairy) by 2025. Even if we could do that with the current state of the art, where would we put the millions of additional cows required? Which rivers and lakes should we sacrifice? Which rural communities will shoulder the crippling debt of dairy conversions? Growth for it’s own sake is the methodology of the cancer cell. That cannot be our future.

The message that’s missing is a clear vision of our sustainable agricultural future. An agricultural sector that progressively decouples itself from volatile commodity prices; that rewards farmers with greater value-add income, not just ever increasing costs in a race to the bottom; and that is truly environmentally sustainable. The only winning future for our dairy industry is one that acknowledges our limits, then makes the best of working within them.

Mr English, who has the substance abuse problem?

(First published on The Farming Show July 2012)

At the recent Federated Farmers AGM, Bill English made an off the cuff joke about drug testing beneficiaries. It got some laughs and applause from the audience, no doubt happy to see the government picking on a group other than farmers for a change.

His comment got me thinking. If ever there was a substance that agriculture was addicted to, it’s phosphate. Unlike some of our other inputs, there’s simply nothing that can stand in for it. In the words of the U.S. Geological Survey “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture”. We currently import most of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

Until recently, Moroccan phosphate seemed to be our only option for importing fertility (locally made urea is our primary source of supplementary nitrogen) but that looks set to change with recent offshore developments. Large deposits of rock phosphate exist on the Chatham Rise and extraction is being investigated now.

Continue reading “Mr English, who has the substance abuse problem?”

Can we embrace the maths of sustainable farming?

(First published on The Farming Show June 2012)

A maths lesson might seem an odd way to start a column on sustainable farming, but bear with me for a second.

We’re all familiar with the idea of exponential growth: it’s the function that drives compound interest, economic growth and population size. Those hockey-stick graphs that shoot upwards ever steeper are just the exponential function on paper.

Any system that repeats percentage growth qualifies as exponential. It doesn’t stop for a breather: it’s a percentage increase year on year that uses the previous year’s total in its calculation for the next.

In farming and food production terms, we all know that we’ll face the global problem of infinite growth on a finite planet eventually, as we hit the ceiling of food production and input resources.

Continue reading “Can we embrace the maths of sustainable farming?”

Peak Phosphate – do we have time to mitigate?

Graphic from The Oil Drum

NZ currently uses about a million tones of phosphate fertiliser each year. Its use underpins our entire agricultural economy so in the context of global shortages of oil and other resources, it should play a big part of our discussions. According to the U.S. Geological Survey “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture” (organic and permaculture aside). We currently import 80% of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

While Morocco has their name on the manifest of the bulk carriers that regularly stop off at Tauranga, Napier and Port Chalmers, the phosphate in fact comes from West Sahara. This region is under military occupation by Morocco and while the NZ government acknowledges the occupation is illegal, the importation of phosphate from Morocco is allowed.

Ethics aside, we don’t currently have too many options. Morocco controls two thirds of the world’s phosphate resources and are happy to do business with the West, but they themselves are facing “peak phosphate” in the near future. Just like oil, we are a small player at the end of a long, fragile supply chain. We are dreaming if we think we can keep importing it indefinitely in the face of a global shortage.

The price of rock phosphate has gone up tenfold in the last year – from $US50 a tonne to $US490 and this is making a local source of phosphate near Milton, in the South Island a viable opion again. The Milton deposit was last commercially mined during World War 2 when Japan took control of Nauru, our source of phosphate at the time. Fertiliser co-operative Ravensdown has signed up mineral and land agreements over 72ha but they are looking at as much as 500ha.

This deposit could provide us with 10 years of self-sufficiency in phosphate if it proves viable to extract it. Once world phosphate supplies start to decline, they are gone forever so surely the smart thing would be to keep ours in the ground as long as possible, giving us a 10 year window to mitigate against peak phosphate by adopting new practices. Industrial agriculture and horticulture will not exist without an abundant cheap supply of phosphates and we know a time is coming when they will be gone.

Something as vital as a 10 year reserve of phosphate should be nationalised as part of a complete food security strategy – this is simply too important to leave it to the markets to decide what to do.