Thursday, May 21, 2015

Albert Einstein, Soil, Honey Bees and Biodiversity.

Among the manifold quotes that are attributed to Albert Einstein, are variants along the lines of:
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."
Whether it was in fact the author and originator of "Relativity" (both special and general) and the "Photoelectric Effect", the latter of which, from his annus mirablis, won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, is disputed, ", nonetheless, Einstein was a man of great awareness, as might be summarised by his more provenly attributable quote, to the effect that: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." The latter axiom is indeed true.

There is a tendency for humans to perceive ill occurrences as unconnected events, rather as the Biblical plagues of Egypt: water into blood, frogs, lice, wild animals or flies, deceased livestock, boils, storms of fire, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn. Scientists now believe that these events really happened, but they were in fact all results of a single cause: not the wrath of a punitive God, but climate change Modern humans are aware of contemporary global menaces: a changing climate, peak oil, a dodgy economy that could collapse at any moment, and the extinction of honey bees, but relatively few of us know that the world’s productive soils are also under threat. What has been most noticeable is that the price of food and fuel has increased markedly over the past decade, during when we have also experienced an economic crash. We fear another such shock, even amid whispers of “growth”, which can only be expected to be of a slow stuttering kind, since we cannot significantly grow our rate of production of resources. Thus, the price of a barrel of crude oil had more than trebled since 2004, prior to the recent, but temporary, crash, while global production has practically flat-lined at around 75 million barrels a day over that same period, leading to the view that we have reached the ceiling of our oil supply

Given that all components of human civilization are inextricably linked to petroleum, either as a chemical feedstock or a fuel, if we cannot elevate our production rate of oil, nor can we grow the global economy. The troubles of the human condition, however, are more fundamental, since we are steadily using-up Mother Earth’s bestowal to us of fertile soil. This has been dubbed “peak soil” in analogy with “peak oil”, and while the two phenomena are not of the same kind, they are connected, as indeed are all the elements listed in the title of this article - soil, land, water, climate (change), bees, oil and food. Alice Friedmann wrote, in the context of the unsustainable nature of growing land-based crops and producing biofuels from them:

“Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world, yet in the past century it’s eroded from an average of 18 inches to less than 10 inches (Pate 2004, Klee 1991). When topsoil reaches 6 inches or less (the average depth of the root zone in crops), productivity drops off sharply (Sundquist 2005). Soil erodes geologically at a rate of about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005). But on over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 11,000 pounds per acre, 27 times the natural rate, and double that on the worst 7% of cropland (NCRS 2006), partly because farmers aren’t paid to conserve their land, and partly because hired farmers wrench every penny of profit they can on behalf of short-sighted owners.”

This is deeply disturbing, all the more so because rates of erosion that are in excess of the natural rate of soil formation are not restricted to Iowa, but are a global feature According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) some 20% of the world’s cultivated areas are afflicted by land degradation, and in order to feed Humankind over the next 40 years, food production must be increased by 60%. This conclusion is drawn, in part, from the expectation that another 2.5 billion people will be added to the current number of just over 7 billion of us, and that a rising middle class will have greater expectations of their diet, particularly in wanting to eat more meat. The amount of food that is wasted is another consideration, and combining this factor with population increase suggests a daily gap between the demand for food and what is likely to be available by 2050 of 900 calories (kilocalories) per capita.

Many of the limitations to meeting such a testing challenge are those of the modern industrialised agricultural system per se. The factors involved are complex and inseparable, and in short provide a critical nexus for survival, or demise should any of its elements fail. The impact of climate change adds further weight to the problem, and seven clear courses of action have been identified, by which we might adapt to ensure food security into the future 24% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are from agricultural activities, including methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, carbon dioxide from running tractors and combine harvesters etc. and from changes in land use. Furthermore, 70% of all human water consumption is claimed by agriculture. In the last 40 years, 20 million square kilometers of land have suffered degradation, which accounts for around 15% of the total land area of the Earth, while 30% of the originally available cropland is now unproductive. As noted for Iowa, the degradation of topsoil is occurring many times faster than the rate at which soil is generated by Nature, which can take longer than 500 years to form just an inch of it

There is an increasing pressure on water supplies too, which may begin to struggle in meeting demand in the food basket regions of the Americas, west and east Africa, central and eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and south and south-east Asia, within only 12 years As alluded earlier, the costs of both fuel and food have risen markedly over the past decade: food prices follow oil prices because oil and gas are involved at all principal stages in the food production and distribution chain. The World Bank has proposed restricting oil prices as a means to mitigating food price increases

There appears little doubt that future oil prices will be perpetually high, since the global oil supply will increasingly be provided from unconventional sources, e.g. producing shale oil by fracking, oil sands  and (ultra)deepwater drilling, all of which have poorer net energy returns than does conventional crude oil Indeed, had the price of oil not risen to $100 and more a barrel, prior to the recent price crash, no one would have bothered to produce it from such expensive and demanding sources. There is also the critical question of how high an oil price the economy can bear, before it falls into recession and finally collapses

Indeed, with the currently relatively diminished oil price, unconventional sources of "oil" such as oil sands (in reality tar sands, which contain bitumen not petroleum) are no longer viable, and investment in them is being pulled back In total, across the globe, some  $100 billion worth of investment, mainly in unconventional oil projects, is being curtailed

According to the U.S. National Agriculture Statistics there has been a decline from about 6 million bee-hives in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008, representing a reduction by 60% Over the past 10 years, beekeepers in both the U.S. and Europe have reported annual hive losses of 30%, and last winter losses of 50% in the U.S. were not uncommon, with worst case examples of 80-90% Since one third of all food crops rely on bees to pollinate them, if this “bee-collapse” continues, the effect on world food production could be calamitous. To this phenomenon, we might afford the euphemism "Peak Bee", as a sibling of "Peak Oil" and "Peak Soil". Various causes have been brought culpable for killing the bees, including pesticides, parasitic mites, intensive monoculture farming methods and urban development. The nexus of components that we have identified is totally out of kilter with providing sufficient food for a population of 9.5 billion by 2050 and maybe 11 billion by 2100

The various ills we have described are outcomes of the industrial nature of monoculture farming, which frets the ecology and does not restore it, including the soil itself. Alternatively, methods of regenerative agriculture and permaculture have been advanced These help to rebuild the soil, making it more fertile through increasing its soil organic matter content (SOM), including establishing a healthy network of microbes and other creatures to live in it (the soil food web), thus securing fertility and crop productivity. Such methods of ecological food production can be done on a more local scale, and the food consumed closer to where it is grown, largely obviating the necessity for an extensive transportation/distribution system powered by oil-refined fuels. They are further less intensive in their demand for other inputs, such as water, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. By keeping the soil covered throughout the year, it is protected from erosion, and the SOM improves its structure so that it can absorb water more effectively and allow aquifers to recharge, thus mitigating both water shortages and flooding. It is likely that a reduced use of pesticides, through reintroducing biodiversity, might help to bring the bees back too.

I am scheduled to give a lecture on "The Global Oil Supply and Implications for Biodiversity" at the Linnean Society of London in September


Michael Stephenson said...

Your link to has a trailing punctuation mark which makes the not work.

California is in a very interesting state, I think surely they are close to reaching their peak in at their agricultural growth, if not economic growth, and most certainly population growth.

If I suspect the population of California is peaking and about to embark in decline it will serve as a very interesting case study.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks for that, Michael. Now corrected!

Yes, California is in a particular situation in part due to their failing water supply, but other factors too.

It will indeed be interesting to see how that unfolds. I suspect Sao Paulo will also prove interesting, in view of its troubles over water.


Michael Stephenson said...

Have you listened to this peak prosperity podcast yet chris?

Surely if the state does serve any positive function, which I doubt, given the current water crisis over there it would be to roll small farms operating on this method across the entire state.

California is probably rich enough to even compensate the current land owners.

Have you ever read about People's Temple? If not you will no doubt be aware of the Jonestown Massacre.

Basically Jim Jones agitated a bunch of mostly black people from poor neighbourhoods to persue an agrarian lifestyle in Guyana, they started courting the Soviet press (Pravda), the US government didn't like it, sent a US senator to threaten them into leaving Guyana or a GDF death squad would come after them. The more militant wing of the community decided to go gun the senator and his entourage down at the airport while the pacifist majority was talked into killing themselves by Jim Jones, it's all in the death tape.

Not something to be repeated obviously, but what it does show you is that through agitation a sizable group of people could be created in the same poor neighbourhoods of California today, and they could be doing something a lot more positive with that farmland than the current occupiers.

Michael Stephenson said...

Jonestown was a piss poor effort to be fair, killing themselves over a threat from a senator? 82 people overthrew the Cuban government, and the Jonestown lot with much larger numbers against a very weak government didn't even try, for shame.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

It's all quite scary how it might go, but indeed it does show that people have more power than they think. That said, there may be resistance from the ruling authority when they try to use that power.. come the day.

Michael Stephenson said...

If the Californian state bought back the land from the current farmers, there would be plenty of takers who feel like they have lost their shirts already and there are no other buyers for their land, people who expect all the real work to be done by migrant mexicans or with air conditioned farm machinery and would never seriously go down the small scale route as they would see it as beneath them, they would all sell up.
Then the land would be given to groups of people who would farm it in CSA's on a usufruct system, would go a long way to solving the water problem, the jobs problem and it would empower californias poorer citizens.
The right wingers who would be most likely to oppose the idea might also be the people desperate to flog their land so it might even get voted in.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Good point! Maybe this will be a driving force for change worldwide, in terms of who has access to the land, and a move to the smaller scale of food production?

There was a recent study from Sheffield University that showed that allotments have much better quality soil than industrialised farms do.

Michael Stephenson said...

Just a heads up this no doubt great film is premiering tomorrow across the country, including in reading, and is followed up by a Q&A of Joshua Oppenheimer by Louis Theroux.

Michael Stephenson said...

Here's a link to the first movie if you haven't already seen it:

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Deeply disturbing!

Michael Stephenson said...

True, but I think bearing witness to such things is essential, understanding the world we live in and what we face is an essential prerequisite to doing something about it.

I saw the new movie at the cinema, and it was a truly great documentary. It was centered around a man who was born shortly after the purges, and whose brother has been exterminated a couple oif years before he was born, he interviews those who had killed his elder brother and it was immensely powerful.

Michael Stephenson said...

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I agree with that sentiment, Michael! I am often struck by how little "news" seems to be on U.K. media. So much is just ignored or swept under the proverbial carpet.

I find Russia Today and Al Jezeera more informative.

It must be incredibly difficult to cope in the aftermath of such times. I imagine that in Northern Ireland it was not easy to lay aside the past and find a peaceful way. To forgive.

Michael Stephenson said...

The BBC is a joke, and it sure ain't funny. I have taken to calling it the minitrue amongst friends, hopefully it will catch on.

How people believe that having a convoluted funding mechanism somehow leads to it not being state tv, and out of the governments influence I can't understand. The credulity of the British public is quite astonishing at times.

Here is quite an amusing clip of Glenn Greenwald on the Today show talking about the supposed threat to British agents created by the Snowden documents.

“I mean you are not suggesting that President Putin’s government is on a par in its support of democracy and human rights with the United States or Britain, or are you?”

Ah the credulity of BBC hacks. Reminds me of this Chomsky clip with Andrew Marr, where Andrew Marr has unsurprisingly never heard of COINTELPRO.

The funny bit is around 11:00 minutes in where Chomsky basically calls him a clueless hack to his face and Marr starts to lose his cool.

I like RT, it produces some very good interviews with some very interesting people, also some great comedy at times, the Keiser report is always good for a laugh. But, really all the best journalism is going on in the blogosphere IMO.

Yes it must be extremely hard to put the troubles behind them in Northern Ireland, and I can't really see it ever being put to bed fully. The hard thing for the survivors in Indonesia is that their torturers are still wealthy and powerful, the school systems teaches their children that the communists were evil wife swapping heathens, I've never been to Northern Ireland but one presumes they don't have to stomach that kind of black propaganda every day.

Michael Stephenson said...

If you ever questioned whether the BBC and Andrew Marr and stenographers for the Foreign Office and the Cabinet this clip won't leave you in any doubt:

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

The Keiser Report is just brilliant. I agree about the blogosphere. I have stopped watching the UK "news" regularly, and get most of my information via the internet.

Michael Stephenson said...

I think the genius of the Keiser Report is by keeping in some some ambiguous ground between whether it is a serious financial show, or whether it is comedy/satire he has given himself a free hand to do whatever he likes, if the show had less of a clownish atmosphere I don't think Max could get away with being anywhere near as seditious as he is.

Media Lens has a good write up of the media complicity in the British governments attempt to smear Snowden ahead of the introduction of the new snooper's charter here

And speaking of Ireland, RTE showed a documentary about British state collusion with Loyalist Paramilitaries which has shocked a lot of ROI citizens, apparently they were previously unaware of it, perhaps they just previously dismissed such things as "conspiracy theory".