Thursday, 11 October 2018

Why Australian agriculture is inherently “the wrong kind of farming”

At the beginning of this month, Gracy Olmstead wrote a revealing article in the New York Times by veteran farmer and poet Wendell Berry. Berry has argued for half a century that today’s agricultural practices are detrimental to ecology, and that subsidies to wealthy agribusinesses and factory farms are a major factor in this problem.

Agribusinesses – including, perversely, organic agribusinesses – are today heavily focused on Australia because of its glut of flat land. Australia has by far the largest ratio of “arable” land to population of any country in the world according to the World Bank, a differential increased further when year-round frost-free seasons are factored in. In fact, its ratio, according to an old geography book (Collins Gem Basic Facts Geography) from my childhood, was four times that of any other country in the world. Cost differences between Australia and the rest of the world may be much larger than even the ratios imply because:
  1. Australia is extremely flat and its arable land likely to be highly contiguous, producing further efficiency advantages
  2. Figures for “arable” land do not take into account the huge areas of low-cost rangeland in the interior and north
  3. Effective tax rates – taking into account natural resource abundance – are extremely low in Australia
However, over the past quarter century, ecological studies have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that agriculture in Australia is fundamentally different from agriculture in any other extant continent. All other extant continents largely consist of soils formed from ongoing orogenies or from glaciations ending a mere 10,000 years ago. In contrast, almost all of Australia’s soils have been subject to continuous weathering since the end of the Dwyker Glaciation over 280,000,000 years ago. Most of this weathering has been under hot and humid climates, which were globally general from 250,000,000 to 40,000,000 years ago. Consequently, Australian soils:
  1. are extremely sensitive to erosion because of the absence of new soil creation
  2. possess unique texture contrasts (subsoils enriched in non-cracking clays) that cause unusual erosion hazard even on flat land
  3. are, for the reason noted in (1), a strictly non-renewable resource with a fixed supply of topsoil
    1. contrariwise, the great majority of soils in other present-day landmasses are renewed constantly via glacial tills, volcanic ashes or alluvia from the Alpine Orogeny
  4. are with insignificant overlap depleted in nutrients essential to the production of dense heterotrophic biomass. These elements are:
    1. extremely scarce in the crust relative to their solar abundances
    2. geochemically mainly chalcophile
    3. form weak bonds with oxygen
    4. either:
      1. formed the “primitive” elements known before the birth of Christ or;
      2. were unknown only because they could not be separated from such “primitive” elements
    5. highly efficient at coordinating with carbon and nitrogen, so that they are permit breakdown (catabolism) of large organic molecules like cellulose from plants
Combining Olmstead and Berry’s discussion of topsoil loss as inherent in high-input agriculture with the points above demonstrates that Australian agriculture produces uniquely high losses of wholly irreplaceable topsoil and wholly irreplaceable species. This is even more true when one factors in the extremely high Australian runoff variability, even in humid regions. Aborigines, even if Bruce Pascoe be correct that they extensively modified the landscape to increase food production in some parts of Australia, never attempted the growth of annual crops as has been normal for indigenous peoples almost everywhere else in the world. The extremely ancient soils and erratic rainfall meant that before industrial agriculture Australian subsistence was necessarily based on perennial plants – never as abundant or nutritious as annual plant or animal foods – whose productivity could be spread out over many years at low nutrient requirements.

If Australian land be sustainably managed, it cannot therefore be used for production of ill-adapted annual plants, nor for equally nutrient-intense animal protein. This of itself limits potentially “right” farming in Australia to perennial tree crops, but as noted in point (2) above most soils in agricultural districts are too clay-rich for unspecialised trees. The absence of deciduous trees outside the small glaciated areas of highland Tasmania – much too cold and wet for agriculture – further narrows possibilities. This – even theoretically – means any agriculture must be specialised evergreen tree crops like tropical fruit, and the peculiarities of northern Australia’s climate make even these highly dubious as “sustainable” or “right” farming.

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