It is with deep sadness that we share the news that Soils For Life founder and patron Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery passed away peacefully at home this morning, Friday 18 December.
Born in Wiluna in Western Australia, General Jeffery’s distinguished military career included operational service in Malaya, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He served as Governor of Western Australia from 1993 to 2000 and as Australia’s Governor General between 2003 and 2008.
However, it was his work as Australia’s National Soils Advocate that made him so well known and loved within our community. In that role, General Jeffery was pivotal in alerting Australians to the generally poor quality of our soils and working to encourage everyone to focus on their regeneration.
General Jeffery founded Soils For Life in 2013. His vision – to encourage all Australians to focus on soil health and the urgent need to regenerate our rural landscapes – still underpins the work of Soils For Life.
His ability to connect with Australians across the country around his passion for agriculture and the healthy landscape it depends on was undiminished until the very end.
Funeral arrangements are to be advised. Further enquiries should be sent to the Office of the Major General.
Read more about General Jeffery and his work as National Soils Advocate here.
Each year, World Soil Day celebrates the importance of soil health and raises awareness for the sustainable management of our soil resources. The theme for World Soil Day 2020 is ‘Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity’.
Sampling the soil at Winonato assess the soil microbial biomass.
What is soil biodiversity and how can we manage soil resources to protect it? We asked soil scientist Katharine Brown a few questions on how to protect soil biodiversity and keep soil alive:
Q. What is soil biodiversity?
A. In the simplest terms, soil biodiversity is the variety of living organisms in the soil. The living soil may include bacteria and fungi as well as larger soil organisms such as earthworms and insects. It is estimated that greater than 25% of the living organisms on Earth live in the soil!
Q. Why is soil biodiversity important?
A. Soil organisms represent the soil ‘workforce’. They contribute to soil health, plant growth, water purification, carbon sequestration and human health. A range in workforce skills (soil biodiversity) will result in greater outputs (soil productivity).
Q. How do we protect soil biodiversity and keep soil alive?
A. Soil organisms have the same needs as we do. They need air, water, food and shelter to survive. Implementing land management practices that promote soil aeration, maximise water infiltration and retention, provide a food source for the soil organisms and preserve the soil structure, will protect soil biodiversity and keep the soil alive.
Smelling the soil at Rothesay. Healthy soil with a diversity of active organisms will smell earthy and sweet.
Q. What can land managers do to protect soil biodiversity?
A. There are a number of ways land managers can both protect and encourage soil biodiversity. Maximising groundcover and minimising soil disturbance are two effective methods.
Groundcover, whether it be green plants, stubble, mulch or leaf litter, protects the soil surface, promotes infiltration, stabilises the soil (think anchoring roots and root exudates binding soil aggregates), and contributes as a food source.
Minimising soil disturbance preserves the soil structure (shelter for soil organisms), reduces the rate of breakdown of organic material, and reduces the loss of soil biodiversity as a result of soil erosion.
Q. Does soil organic matter help soil biodiversity?
A. Increasing soil organic matter will definitely help soil biodiversity. Planting green manure crops or spreading mulch or compost are examples of how a land manager can increase soil organic matter. Managing the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the soil to control the rate of organic matter breakdown and the release of nutrients is also important.
A. Plants contribute by transforming carbon dioxide and water from the air and soil into sugars (a food source for soil organisms) through photosynthesis. Some plants contribute to the soil (for example, nitrogen fixing legumes), others deplete the soil, particularly under agricultural land uses. Introducing plant diversity and rotation can help to both preserve soil nutrients and prevent pests and disease. In addition, planting trees, shrubs and grasses (along boundaries for example) will provide habitat and food sources for soil organisms.
Q. Does the use of chemicals have an effect on soil biodiversity?
A. Yes. A useful analogy is to consider the effect antibiotics have on our gut bacteria. It is common knowledge that antibiotics can eliminate both harmful and beneficial bacteria. Ultimately, the balance of the gut biome is disturbed. A similar imbalance will occur in the soil when chemicals are used to either eliminate or promote an element or organism. Minimising the use of chemicals will help to maintain the balance and diversity of soil organisms.
The proof is in the tasting: Regenerative producers take out major produce awards!
Congratulations go to regenerative farmer Garry Kadwell, a Soils For Life case study farmer, for winning the Producer of the Year award in the prestigious Delicious Harvey Norman Produce Awards announced in October!
The Harvey Norman Delicious produce awards are some of the most prestigious food awards in the country. Decided on by a panel of expert palettes, including Matt Moran, Maggie Beer and slew of chefs from around the country, these awards recognise the best of the best-tasting produce in the country. Medals are awarded for top producers in categories such as “From the Ground”, “From the Paddock” and “From the Dairy” as well as selecting a producer of the year from among all the entries.
And the winner is…
Regenerative farmer Garry Kadwell took out the Producer of the Year Award. He grows seed potatoes on his farm outside Crookwell in NSW, having implemented a number of regenerative practices on his property, Fairhalt, since he took over from his father in the 1980s.
Garry’s innovations include:
Increased time between potato crop rotations to allow soil health to repair.
Lucerne and grass species cropping post-potato crop to improve soil health. Compost and lime applications to provide soil nutrients and fix pH levels.
Utilisation of a “one pass” tilling machine to reduce tilling impact on soil.
Habitat corridors planted across the property to link stands of remnant vegetation.
Set aside 32% of the property for conservation purposes.
Constructed wetlands on the property to provide habitat for birds and other fauna.
Rotationally grazing fat lambs to maintain ground cover.
And the proof of his success is in the tasting! Judge Matt Moran declared his potatoes, an older variety called Andean Sunrise rarely seen in Australia, to be the best potatoes that he had ever tasted!
New researchon Indigenous grains for culture, nutrition and the environment
Over the past decades there has been a growing interest in production of native grasses. In collaboration with local Indigenous groups, farmers and researchers, the most extensive study of indigenous grains from paddock-to-plate has just been completed by the University of Sydney.
The Indigenous Grasslands for Grains project from the University of Sydney was a year-long research project into the environmental, economic and cultural viability of growing native grains. The study’s first report, showing very promising results, was recently released.
Native grains on Gomeroi country
The project studied what is known in the local language as dhunbarbila (meaning lots of edible grain/seed in one place; similar to English ‘grain crop’) on Gomeroi country near Moree and Narrabri in NSW. Guiding the study was Black Duck Foods, a social enterprise and commercial grain production business owned by indigenous food expert Bruce Pascoe on Yuin country near Mallacoota. The project used a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the economic, environmental and social features of the ancient native grain food system of Aboriginal people in the modern world. After studying 15 native grain crops in conjunction with local Indigenous groups and farmers, researchers found native millet to have the most potential on Gomeroi country with its nutritional value, sustainable growth and ease of processing.
Other species were found to have niche uses. Dhamu (purslane or pigweed) was found to have a potential for export as it has an established market in cultures around the world and is high in omega-3. Wattle, kurrajong, nardoo and quandong were other promising edible species which have been flagged for future research.
The future of native grasses as food
In consultation with Bruce Pascoe, ecologists, social researchers, food scientists and business experts, the project found that improved seed processing and marketing would be the next step towards making the grains commercially available. In consultation with the Local Aboriginal Land Councils from Wee Waa and Narrabri indigenous people expressed the need for:
Where can I study regenerative agriculture?03 Nov 2020There are now a variety of courses that explore regenerative agriculture practices and principles. From university education to professional development, we have compiled a… …
Agroecology is a unique and valuable lens through which to view the landscape. Inspired by a deep commitment to landscapes and communities, Kirsty Yeates is a passionate agroecologist working towards widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture at Soils For Life. She bridges together research communities, government organisations, not-for-profits and the landholder to improve regenerative approaches and support people in transition.
What exactly is agroecology? Is it different from regenerative agriculture?
Agroecology for me is the ‘science’ behind regen ag. It’s about bringing ecological or systems thinking into agriculture. It’s about the science of complex, self-organising systems.
It’s about understanding how the natural ecosystems work and then thinking how we incorporate those natural processes and functions into a farming production system. It recognises that a farm system is a complex adaptive system. It has its own iterative processes that it responds to, as well as environment and climate.
Often it is not recognised that agroecology in regenerative agriculture draws quite heavily on ecological and environmental sciences. It’s about what we are and how we relate to the land and drawing on these perspectives to think much more holistically about the whole farm system.
What drew you to agroecology?
I have always been interested in our food systems and social structures. I come from a political social science background, but I was thinking much more about our food systems and our landscapes. I was very attracted to the Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture Systems at CSU.
The more I studied, the more I engaged with the regen ag community and farmers more broadly, and the more excited I got about the work that’s happening out there and the opportunity to work with this group of amazing people. I love the complexity that comes from farm systems and how you integrate more effectively natural ecosystem processes and functions. I think it’s a really exciting space and its one that’s got a lot of challenges into the future.
How does an agroecological farm system design work?
Agroecological farm system design is about trying to take a little bit more of a structured approach about how you do things within your farm system to improve ecological functions. It’s really about thinking in systems. Like how energy is captured and flows through the system; photosynthesis, organism growth or how nutrients cycle and water flows.
Then we consider how farmers support and work with those systems to enhance the beneficial relationships within it. Farmers already have so much knowledge about their landscape, so they’re really well placed to understand and think about what is happening. Agroecological farm design works with farmers to try and put in place some of those frameworks and structures, and design a system that works for them and helps to improve the condition and productivity of their system over time.
Where does soil fit into this system?
I think increasingly we are coming to recognise that plants push energy into the soil system. The more biodiverse range of organisms we have, the more opportunity there is to improve soil structure.
For me that incredible life within the soil has many benefits for increasing the resilience for systems around water, like increasing the amount of water that can be stored. The more nutrients and water available encourages growth which gives more energy to everyone. It is also important for carbon sequestration and co-benefits of fertility and health. We know a lot about these processes, but we could be better at quantifying these benefits.
You recently completed work out at Katalpa station. What did you see?
Soils For Life has quite a few case studies in the rangeland environment. The rangelands are a really surprisingly complex ecosystem and it’s a really important part of the agricultural industry. These are environments so remote the farmers have to be really resilient in working with these incredibly harsh but also beautiful landscape.
I visited with a NSW DPI team working on a project called Selecting for Carbon. This is a project about understanding how targeted approaches to grazing and water management can increase soil carbon and ground cover.
At Katalpa, Luke and Sarah Mashford are focused on rangelands rehydration . They combine both grazing management practices with this rehydration technique. It was an exciting opportunity to see these farms firsthand and see how the soil teams are sampling and designing their research to take into account what the farmers think are important. It’s also incredibly exciting to see that science coming together. We’ve got lots more planned for the Rangelands so we’ll be sharing more about that soon.
Do you think the paradigm of agricultural land management is shifting towards regenerative agriculture?
There is a lot more curiosity about regenerative systems at the moment, and I guess agroecology is just one approach to that. I am seeing lots of interest from the work I do with the research and extension community and I think people are wanting to know more about it. There is an opportunity to take a closer look and to understand how some of these processes work and to continue to improve the way that we are farming in this more ecologically-oriented approach.
At the end of the day, climate change and our broader economic system means that farming is a really difficult business, but also so fundamentally important. One of the really important things that regenerative agriculture offers is helping farmers to find a broader range of tools and options, and different ways of thinking about how to farm. The better the range of tools available, the more likely they are to be successful. And there are many farmers doing incredible work.
So there are more people around Australia that are trying these things, there is certainly more interest and demand. Is it a paradigm shift yet? I’d like to think so, I’m not sure its hard to see that until after the fact.
Finally, what advice would you give to a landholder just starting their Regenerative Agriculture journey? How do you interweave your knowledge of your own land with the other regenerative agriculture knowledge that’s out there?
1. Connect with other farmers. I think farmers just have this knack for talking to each other about what is going on in their systems and questioning and supporting one another. Connect with farmers that are doing things you’re interested in, and there are so many farmers in the regen ag community who are willing to engage and work with others.
2. Get to know your land. Farmers already have a great understanding of their land and a process of observation. That is, seeing how the land is changing over time (whether as a result of rain or drought, fire or flood), but also how it responds to what you do. That watching and observing can highlight patterns.
3. Start! Try something new, whether that’s adding an extra plant into your pasture species mix. If you’re not sure whether somethings worked, run a bit of a trial. If you’re changing practices and want to know how rests work, just exclude cattle from a small part of a paddock and see what happens.
Why revegetation is important in agricultural landscapes
Without vegetation, life would be impossible. Vegetation plays a critical role in supporting life on the planet by providing habitat and food, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. It also moves water from the soil to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration and ensures rainfall is absorbed into the soil where it falls.
Why think about revegetation?
Extensive clearing of vegetation to create cities and towns for human habitation (and agricultural land to feed them) occurs worldwide. This ultimately results in species extinctions. The effects of vegetation clearing are particularly evident in south-east Australia where it is estimated that only 5% of the ecological community of White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Woodland remains from its pre 1788 state. A decline in native fauna species, such as the Superb Parrot, is an example of the ramifications of a decrease in vegetation in this area. Significant erosion damage has also occurred in agricultural landscapes within Australia, partly due to vegetation clearing.
The importance of woody vegetation within the Australian landscape was recognised at a Government level in 1989 with the formation of Landcare Australia. With the assistance of Landcare, many Australian land owners undertook tree plantings on their properties. The image of a few lonely paddock trees, however, is still a common sight across much of south-east Australia.
This raises the question, ‘what happens when those trees die’? The species which are reliant on tree hollows only found within mature trees may disappear from the landscape. The ramifications of past land clearing will continue to be felt as long as inaction occurs today.
Revegetation in action
Fairhalt is a property that straddles the Great Dividing Range just south of Crookwell. Fairhalt is owned and managed by Garry Kadwell, a regenerative potato and lamb farmer who has featured as a Soils For Life case study. A major component of Garry Kadwell’s regenerative land management is his approach to native vegetation on Fairhalt. During his youth Garry was taught by his grandfather and father to value vegetation and grew up planting trees alongside them with an eye for the future. Over the years Garry has fenced off areas of remnant vegetation from livestock and allowed natural revegetation to occur unimpeded by livestock grazing. Garry has also planted habitat corridors across Fairhalt to link the areas of remnant vegetation and allow fauna to move through the landscape. Currently 30% of Fairhalt is covered in native vegetation reserved for conservation purposes.
Revegetation at Illawong
Bryan Ward has transformed his property Illawong, located in the hills north of Albury, from a highly deforested landscape into a mosaic landscape covered with patches of native vegetation. When Bryan was conducting the revegetation work on Illawong he specifically targeted problem areas of the property such as hill tops, eroded areas, gullies above dams and around lone paddock trees. By doing so, Bryan has repaired much of the past erosion damage and ensured minimal erosion can occur into the future.
Direct seeding methods were used to conduct revegetation work on the property. Bryan reserved specific conservation areas by fencing them off from livestock. He used a rock hopper machine to navigate the steep rocky country and spread seeds within them.
The benefits of revegetation
The benefits of the revegetation projects on Fairhalt and Illawong are not limited to the landscape. Garry Kadwell and Bryan Ward both gain an immense amount of satisfaction from the revegetation work that they have completed on their properties. The feeling that they are leaving the landscape in a better state than what they found it is a legacy which can be handed on to the next generation.
The benefits of conducting revegetation projects are not limited to environmental and social factors. On farm productivity can also be influenced by revegetation projects. Revegetation in the form of shelter belts for livestock have been found to halve lambing mortality rates in areas with cold, wet and windy weather conditions. In hot conditions, trees also provide shelter for livestock which can reduce stock losses caused by heat stress. (Heat stress has also been found to reduce fertility rates in cattle and sheep).
The first step of conducting a revegetation project is to map the property with enterprise and landscape features to identify suitable areas for vegetation. Following this, an appropriate method of revegetation must be selected. Regional organisations, such as Greening Australia, Landcare Australia and state government agencies such as Local Land Services NSW provide revegetation information including the correct species to plant and where to purchase seeds and seedlings. These organisations may also provide funding assistance. For example, the Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation project offered by Greening Australia pays land owners to conduct revegetation projects in degraded treeless paddocks.
Methods of revegetation
Methods utilised to conduct revegetation projects include
tube stock planting
Typically tube stock plantings are the most expensive followed by direct seeding and natural regeneration respectively. Seek expert local advice when deciding which method of revegetation to undertake.
Prior to direct seeding or tube stock planting the ground is often prepared by ripping along contour lines to create disturbance in the soil and a place for the seeds or seedlings to grow. Read about how this was done at Illawong. Tree guards are often used when planting tube stock to offer protection from grazing and the elements whilst the plant matures.
Natural regeneration is more likely to occur in areas which have been recently excluded from heavy livestock grazing and where mature plants are present in the landscape.
Thinking for the future
Revegetation is a process that requires time, patience and a forward-thinking mindset. Though its benefits may not be observed for many years, current generations must adopt this mindset and act to rectify the land clearing of the past.
The Soils For Life team provides professional assessment of properties that are using regenerative landscape management practices. Our case study program considers the quadruple bottom line of each property by looking at the effects of regenerative agriculture practices on a farm’s production, economics and ecology as well as the social implications of these practices.
As well as conducting extensive desktop research, our ecologists conduct field trips to assess first hand the impacts of regenerative agriculture on the ecology of the farm. They chose ten criteria to represent the regenerative and productive capacity of each major land type on a farm.
Here are the ten things that they are looking at when they visit a farm:
1 – Resilience to major natural disturbances
Resilience to major disturbances includes the following factors depending on the agro-climatic region (wildfire, drought, cyclone, dust storm, flood, frost). A major natural disaster or natural disturbance event can occur at any time. Some disturbances give a warning, such as a windstorm or electrical storm preceding a wildfire or a flood. Once a disaster happens, the time to prepare is gone. Lack of preparation can have enormous consequences on farm life including social, ecological, economics and production.
2 – Soil nutrients including soil carbon
Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a vital role in influencing available soil nutrients. Generally for every tonne of carbon in SOM 15 kg of phosphorus, 15 kg of sulphur and about 100 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen become available to plants as the organic matter is broken down. It is vital to know how much carbon we have in soil so that we can roughly estimate the potential supply of nutrients. SOM releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes the structure, biological and physical health of soil, and is a buffer against harmful substances.
3 – Soil surface water infiltration
Soil texture and structure greatly influence water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity. Of the water entering a soil profile, some will be stored within the root zone for plant use, some will evaporate, and some will drain away. In agro-ecological settings, by increasing water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity this will usually act as a stimulus to improve ecological function. Management regimes that promote the capture and utilisation of rainfall where it falls generally enhances ecological function.
4 – Biological activity in the soil
Soil biology affects plant and animal production
by modifying the soil physical, chemical and biological environment within
which plants grow and persist. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is important for land managers to
understand – too many bacteria can indicate an unhealthy and unproductive soil.
In healthy soils, there is a good balance between
fungi and bacteria; invertebrates including arthropods and worms are usually
present. Collectively these form a vital part of a plant nutrient supply web.
5 – The physical properties of the soil
Soil is a medium for plant growth, given the right environmental conditions. In some agroclimatic regions, the naturally occurring surface layers (A horizon) have historically been adversely impacted by inappropriate land management regimes. Major and moderate loss of the A horizon either through water or wind erosion may have diminished the ecological function of the soil as a medium for optimal plant growth.
6 – Changes and trends in the reproductive potential of plants
Grazing production systems rely on an ecosystem’s inherent capacity to bounce back after grazing and natural climate events (e.g. wildfire and drought). Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented to build or rebuild the reproductive potential of plants and pastures, we look at the observed outcomes on plant/pasture reproduction, germination, establishment, development and maintenance.
7 – The extent of tree cover
Tree cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits, including mitigation of soil erosion; shelter for pastures and crops; improved animal welfare; enabling added revenue from stacked (multiple) enterprises; habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and predatory insects birds and animals; improved salinity management; improved interception of rainfall; and improved aquifer recharge.
8 – Status of ground cover
Ground cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits. The quality of ground cover provides essential protection to keep the soil cool against direct, searing summer heat by reducing evaporation and protecting bare soil against raindrop splash and wind erosion. A dense, matted ground layer of pasture grasses slows overland flows during the intense rainfall events and assists with infiltration of rainfall, thus mitigating soil erosion and replenishing soil moisture. Ground cover also provides essential habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and insects and birds and other biodiversity. Land management regimes that promote higher levels of ground cover and biomass in critical growing seasons generally enhances ecological function.
9 – The diversity of tree and shrub species
Intensively managed agricultural landscapes typically adopt management regimes that simplify the diversity and number of species of trees and shrubs for pasture and crop production. Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented there has been an observed increase in the number of tree and shrub species.
10 – The diversity of grass species
In many grazing production systems, the
implementation of regenerative land management regimes can improve the variety
of pasture plants (annuals and perennials). In turn this can improve pasture
production, animal nutrition, protect natural resources (soil and water) and
build the capacity of farming systems to adapt to future production and
environmental challenges. The intensity of the grazing management system will
determine the health and vitality of pastures and their longevity.
The management and selection of the perennial
pasture species for a grazing production system should be based on
considerations of climate, soil conditions and performance of pasture species
under different management regimes.
Read about how land managers have improved each of these ecological criteria on their farms in latest case study reports. You can search them by state or sector here.
Katharine Brown recently joined the Soils For Life project team, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and curiosity about soils. We asked her what she finds most fascinating about soil in this Q and A.
Q: What do you find so fascinating about soil?
A: There are an infinite number of fascinating facts about soil! If I were to choose one, it would be that “each soil has had its own history. Like a river, a mountain, a forest, or any natural thing, its present condition is due to the influences of many things and events of the past.” That’s a quote by soil scientist Dr Charles E. Kellogg from 1938. When you observe a soil, you gain an understanding of its past (how it formed), its present (how it functions), and its future (how it responds).
Q: You’ve been a soil scientist for 20 years now. What has been the most exciting thing/change you’ve seen in your career?
A: I am encouraged by the growing consensus on the significance of soils and the value of soil information. In particular, the recognition that soil is a finite natural resource and that soil condition will determine the extent society, the nation and the planet will benefit from ecosystem services. I am equally encouraged by the increase in the number of women soil scientists in what continues to be a male-dominated profession.
Q: What’s your new role with SFL and what will you be doing?
A: As a Soils For Life Project Team Member, I will be researching the benefits of regenerative agriculture on the soil, encouraging the adoption of land management practices to improve soil condition, sharing soil science knowledge with my colleagues, community and regenerative farmers, and increasing my understanding of regenerative agriculture practices.
Q: What’s one myth about soils you’d like to see busted?
A: That the “magic” happens in the topsoil. To understand the past, present, and future of a soil, we need to dig deeper!
Q: If you could change one thing about how people think about soil what would it be?
A: I would like to dispel two common thoughts:
1. That we can take from the soil without giving back.
2. That soil is dirt. Dirt is inert. Soil is alive.
Read more about the expertise on the Soils For Life team here.
As the world reels under corona virus and the resulting
economic meltdown, another crisis – far
more serious – appears to be building: the potential collapse of global food
For those who cry “We don’t want any more bad news”, the
fact of the matter is we have landed in our present mess – climate, disease,
extinction, pollution, WMD – because we steadfastly ignored previous warnings.
The first warning of a corona pandemic was issued in a
scientific paper in 2007 and was blithely ignored for thirteen years. In it,
the scientists explicitly stated “The presence of a large reservoir of
SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating
exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence
of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the
need for preparedness should not be ignored.” [i]
Similarly, in 1979, the World Meteorological Organisation
warned “… the probability of a man-induced future global warming is much
greater and increases with time. Soon after the turn of the century a level may
possibly be reached that is exceeds all warm periods of the last 1000-2000
And climate warnings have been coming thick and fast ever since, to scant
Now we have a new warning from the UN Food and Agriculture
Organisation, a cautious body if ever there was one, that states “We risk a
looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most
vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s
impacts across the food system.” [iii]
Border closures, quarantines and market, supply chain and
trade disruptions are listed as the chief reasons for concern. However, like
many national governments, FAO insists “there is no need to panic” as world food
production remains ample.
This, however, depends on fragile assumptions. It assumes
that farmers and their families do not get sick. It assumes they will always be
able to access the fuel, fertiliser, seed and other inputs they need when
supply chains disintegrate. It assumes the truck drivers who transport food to
the cities do not get sick, that markets, cool stores and food processing
plants are not closed to protect their workers. That supermarkets continue to
function, even when their shelves are stripped bare. All of which is starting
to appear tenuous.
There is never a ‘need to panic’ as it does not help in
resolving difficult situations. But there is definitely a need to take well-planned
precautions – as we have failed to do in the cases of climate and corona virus.
The looming food crisis starts from three primary causes:
The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and
supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security. It is
all about money, and not about human safety or nutrition. Its links are fragile
and any of them can break, precipitating chaos – especially in big cities.
The agricultural system we know and love is
becoming increasingly unreliable owing to climate change, catastrophic loss of
soils worldwide, shortages of water and narrowing of its genetic base. Farmers
are struggling with their own pandemics in the form of swine fever, army worms
and locusts. This unreliability will become increasingly critical from the
2020s to the mid-century.
The predatory world economic system now punishes
farmers by paying them less and less for their produce, driving them off their
farms and increasingly forcing those who remain to use unsustainable methods of
food production. This is causing a worldwide loss of farmers and their skills
and destruction of the agricultural resource base and ecosystem at a time of rising
The reason that a food crisis is far more serious than
either the corona virus or its economic meltdown, is that the death toll is
generally far larger. More than 200 million people have died in various famines
over the last century and a half, and many of those famines led to civil wars,
international wars and governmental collapses. That is why we need to pay
attention now – before a new global food crisis arises. Not brush it aside, as
so many inept world leaders have done with the virus.
The Spanish have a well-learned saying that “Lo que separa
la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.” [v]
The French and Russian Revolutions both arose out of famines. WWII arose partly
out of Hitler’s desire to capture Soviet farmlands in order to avoid another
WW1 famine in Germany. Many modern African wars are over food or the means to
produce it. The Syrian civil war began with a climate-driven food crisis.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that lack of food plays a catalytic role in
around two thirds of contemporary armed conflicts. As US former president Jimmy
Carter has observed “Hungry people are not peaceful people.” [vi]
Food failures bring down governments and cause states to
fail. In 2012 a drought in Russia and the Ukraine forced them to cut grain
supplies to Egypt and Libya – where governments promptly fell to popular
revolutions. It was a strange echo of history: in the third century a
combination of climate change and a pandemic caused a failure in grain supplies
from North Africa, an economic crash and, ultimately, the end of the Roman
While there is ‘no need to panic’ over food, there is a very
clear and urgent need for plans to forestall major shortages around the world. Yet,
there is very little evidence that governments worldwide are preparing to head
off a food crisis, other than to reassure their citizens, Trumplike, that there
isn’t a problem. However, lack of trust
by citizens in their governments has already prompted a global rush to stock up
on staple foods which has ‘upended’ the vulnerable ‘just-in-time’ food delivery
system in many countries.[vii]
Over four billion people now inhabit the world’s great
cities – and not one of those cities can feed itself. Not even close. None of
them are prepared for catastrophic failure in fragile modern food chains, on
which they are totally reliant. It would appear almost nobody has even dreamed
of such a thing. We are sleepwalking into something far larger and far more
deadly than corona virus. The delicate web of modern civilization is fraying.
What is to be done? The short answers are:
Introduce emergency urban food stocks
Compulsory reduction of food waste at all points
Prepare for WWII-style rationing if needed
Pay farmers a fair return
Increase school meals programs and food aid to
Encourage local food production and urban food
Develop a global emergency food aid network as a
Reinvent food on a three-tier global model
encompassing: regenerative farming, urban food production (and recycling),
accelerated deep ocean aquaculture and algae culture.
There are few crises that cannot be avoided with careful
forward planning, including the ten catastrophic risks now facing humanity as a
It is time we, as a species, learned to think ahead better
than we do, and not listen to those who cry “no more bad news, please”. They
only lead us into further crisis.
*Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His book Food or War describes what must be done to secure the world’s food supply.
Cheung VCC et al., Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of
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