Powering our farms with sunshine not oil

Graham Harvey, the author of The Carbon Fields, has a good opinion piece here, where he talks about our lack of food security:

Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history. This makes it inherently unstable and vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic meltdown that threatened the banking industry. First, there’s the danger of extreme weather events, worsening as a result of climate change. Grains are at risk both from heavy rainfall and from drought, and this year’s rain-drenched harvest was saved only by a fine spell in September.

Then there’s the reliance of wheat farmers on oil.

This matters in New Zealand, as well as Britain, because grains are a staple food here and in many other western countries – and most of the grain we eat in New Zealand is now imported, despite it growing very well here. 

In the early days of the second world war, prime minister Winston Churchill called on Britain’s farmers to boost our supply of home-grown food. Today, they would be unable to respond even if they wanted to. First they would have to negotiate prices for fertilisers and pesticides, then await shipments of oil.

Harvey discusses the impact that the global trading system, and in particular subsidies that favour large corporate farms have driven sustainable pasture farming off the land. 

The interesting thing is that more sustainable pasture farming could be one of the most important solutions to climate change.  But sadly it is not on the agenda for many politicians who still don’t see the dangers inherent in our current food production system:

The Royal Society has estimated that better management of the world’s farmlands could capture as much carbon as is accumulated in the atmosphere each year. A US group, Carbon Farmers of America estimates that returning the US prairies to the soil organic matter levels of the original prairie grassland would return global carbon dioxide counts to pre-industrial levels.

15 thoughts on “Powering our farms with sunshine not oil

  1. Who are the Carbon Farmers of America, and how do they propose converting a thousand gigatonnes of CO2 into prairie? Or am I reading this wrong?

    If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…

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  2. XYY Says:
    November 5th, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    >> Who are the Carbon Farmers of America, and how do they propose converting a thousand gigatonnes of CO2 into prairie?

    a prairie can absorb carbon through the following process: grass grows’ absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Animals eat the grass, and poo on the ground. Dung beetles eat the animal poo, and break it down into carbon-rich soil. If you take no biomass away, you get a net increase in carbon in the soil.

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  3. The answer lies in the soil! It always did of course, but oil-based technology has tended to mask that.

    Not into prairie as such, but restoring the organic matter levels that existed in those soils before they were mucked around with. The kind of science we need more of.

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  4. But it’s the magnitude of the claim that’s the problem. If this was verified as true it would be huge news, but as far as I can tell it’s neither.

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  5. - “Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history. This makes it inherently unstable and vulnerable”

    This Graham Harvey has it backwards. Food security is enhanced by diversification of supply through trade. The devastating Irish potato famine being an example of what can happen when you don’t have such diversification.

    Is the rest of his writing so completely misguided?

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  6. Pasture farming means grazing animals, very few of which aren’t ruminants and therefore methane producers.

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  7. Harvey seems to be trying to dream up all sorts of reasons to attack what is obviously his pet hate – corporate farming.

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  8. The Irish potato famine was actually caused by an overdependence on an imported monoculture. All the potatoes were genetically the same, so if one was susceptible to disease they all were. It is also more complex than this, being part of a system of colonisation by the English.

    f the Irish had self determination over their own land, and the ability to use a wide range of crops adapted to local conditions, they would not have had a famine. The potato famine actually highlights the danger globalisation has on food security.

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  9. Globalisation enables the ups and downs of food production in different regions that occur as a result of drought etc to be bridged, meaning that people linked into that global trade don’t go hungry in bad times. If you’re not part of that global trade in food tough luck.

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  10. I suppose we all tend to take what we want out of these kinds of statements.
    Freeman Dyson was one of the first to propose the use of vegetation as a carbon sink to address the CO2 problem. This was years ago in “From Eros to Gaia”. I drew it to the attention of Simon Upton when he was negotiation the early Kyoto protocol. However, Dyson insisted “It;s roots not shoots” namely that far more carbon is sequested below the ground surface than above it. However, we tend not to see the roots for the trees. Then about four years ago a group of US scientists studied CO2 concentrations in the air on the west coast of the US and then on the East coast expecting to find the concentrations higher in the East because the winds blow from West to East and would have picked up human CO2 along the way. To their surprise it was the other way round and they concluded that all the open land was actually a carbon sink.
    Then Freeman Dyson (two years ago I think) calculated that the US could absorb all its surplus CO2 by increasing the depth of top soil over half of the US arable land by one tenth of an inch.
    Then early this year US researchers concluded that pasture was more effective than forests as a carbon sink over long time frames provided the pasture was perennial and that the grazing animals lived outdoors year round and identified New Zealand pastural farming as the ideal compared to the US where the grasses were annuals and the cows are corn fed indoors for most of the year.

    So if you read the whole story we are once again the good guys. BUt prefer to flagellate ourselves in spite of the evidence. The ruminants are a necessary part of the equation because they keep eating the grass which stimulates more growth both above and below the ground.

    But of course if your real issue is against large scale farming because it feeds people and makes money then these details will be of no interest.

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  11. Sequestering carbon in the soil by increasing the hummus content (and hence carbon levels) in the soil is a critical remedy and offset to our other on-farm emissions.

    Significantly the resarch I’ve seen strongly suggests that biological agriculture systems and good organic and biodynamic farming systems improve soil hummus levels far more quickly than conventional farming methods.

    However, the caveat with all this is that it needs to be researched and shown to be proven and measurable so that it will be accepted internationally as a valid offset.

    The Green Party needs to get all over this as it is part of a very promising set of responses to our climate change obligations. It can potentially generate significant financial benefits for our agricultural sector, encorage huge numbers of voluntary conversions to biological and organic farms and help resolve the problems we have with nitrification of our waterways.

    It’s a winner all round. Forget GE research – where’s the government research funding on this?

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  12. kiwinuke Says:
    November 6th, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    > Sequestering carbon in the soil by increasing the hummus content (and hence carbon levels) in the soil is a critical remedy and offset to our other on-farm emissions.

    I find it’s more efficient, and longer lasting, if you sequester it as humous/humus, rather than hummus.

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  13. That’s vey humorous, kahikatea – but does it taste as good?

    Kiwinuke’s suggestion (with kahikatea’s adjustment) is a superb idea.

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  14. Add forestry in on erodible hill country (has anyone been down the para para’s near Wanganui lately!?) and we might be on to something here.
    Just how do you measure the overall carbon/phosphate/nitrogen/etc balance of open land anyway?

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  15. greenfly Says:
    November 6th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    > That’s vey humorous, kahikatea – but does it taste as good?

    not really, but it’s still safer than trying to eat Hamas

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