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Monday, January 29, 2018

Wasted Effort

We are wasting our effort, dissipating our effectiveness, peeing against the wind and farting at thunder.  We are ensuring our failure.  I refer to our various  campaigns.  Save the flowers, save the bees, save the snails, save the trees.

i could go on and on with  mitigating climate change, re-wilding, stopping all sorts of pollution, getting control of trade agreements that shaft us, stopping subsidies to fossil fuel companies, saving our corals, preserving our fisheries resources, stopping getting into war after war that 'the west' looses and on and on it goes.  There is one ring that controls them all.

Nowhere is that old adage "Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune" more true than in politics.  We, the peasants,  think we are gaining some advantage by others paying for the election campaigns of our elected officials and then, we wonder why the elected officials do the bidding of the vested interests.  What a great investment for them.

They pay pennies and get back dollars, pay millions and get back billions.  For big business and the uber rich, this has to be one of the best investments they will ever make.  They support politicians, often on both sides, just to hedge their bets and the politicians make sure that the legislation is in favor of big business and uber rich individuals and ensure that they get tax breaks, favorable legislation and subsidies.  Do you realize how many countries still give financial concessions to coal companies!!!

Because of the system, many countries and especially America and Australia have socialism for big business and the rich and capitalism* for the poor.

*Incidentally there is nothing wrong in theory with Capitalism or any other 'ism'.  The problem is with uncontrolled capitalism;  what used to be called Laisse faire and now is called the New Liberalism.  As an individual, I am not allowed to kill by commission or omission, throw my garbage on the commons or the property of my neighbour, bear false witness, lie to the authorities with no consequences and so forth and so on.  Big business and the uber rich get away with all of these in both overt and subtle ways.  We espouse everyone being equal before the law but it is just lip service.  Similar to how various regimes have used religion to keep the peasants under control.

The politicians don't do the bidding of their financiers because they were supported in the last election.  They do their bidding because they know if they don't, they won't be supported in the next election.

The ultimate argument of politicians to explain their failure to fulfill their election promises is that if they aren't in office they can't do anything.  Nonsense.  Far better a one term MP that does what is necessary, sets an example and begins to steer the ship of state in the necessary direction than a 5 term MP that continually compromises to the point of total betrayal of the people who elected him.

This is costing us hugely in our day to day life and it is now clear that this system could bring down our civilization.

Even if some of the milder scenarios from the scientists are correct with respect to the effects of climate change, we could  knock ourselves back into the dark ages or even the stone age.  The fringe scientists suggest we could trigger a run away green house effect that would turn us into a new Venus.  Just look at Australia.  As of the beginning of 2020 it is disappearing in a cloud of smoke the ning nong of a PM still denies climate change is real and promotes the massive sale of coal*

*Australia sell three times as much coal as she uses in Australia and in Australia, coal is the main source of electricity; this, in a country with, arguably the greatest renewable energy sources in the world.

If some of the predicted tipping points are reached, climate will change faster than our very precariously balanced agriculture can cope with.  Even a single year of crop failure in the grain belts of the Northern Hemisphere and Australia will be disastrous.  This grain is shipped to countries all over the world.  Imagine a decade of such crop failure until we work out how to grow crops  under the new climate regime.

Or even more disastrous, it is a real possibility that our climate will flick-flack back and forth between the existing and the new climate regime before it settles down.  This would be even more serious than a sudden change to a new climate. You would have no idea what crops would succeed from year to year.

At least by the end of the process, the world population would probably be down to the Lovelock Number*

*James Lovelock, the man who articulated the Gaia Hypothesis, suggested that within this century the population of the earth will have fallen to 1b (it is at present at 7b and predicted to go to 9b)

We have seen, in the 1930's and again, even more so, in 2008, how interconnected the world  is.  Back many centuries ago, if Europe crashed, America didn't even know Europe existed.  Now one country going down economically brings all down.  How much more disastrous would it be if our food supply suddenly crashed.  America, Canada, Russia and Australia provide most of the grain to a wide range of third world countries.

And consider this.  The higher you are the harder you fall. All the predictions say that the poor will suffer most under climate change and this could well be so.  But most cities in the so called civilized world have only enough food to feed their residents for three days.  Most large cities would take far longer than that to evacuate (and where would they go).  At some point in the future we may see some internal migration in the so called first world to the rural areas with really nasty consequences.

Some commentators suggest that the Arab Spring was triggered (not caused)  by the rise in food priced caused by a poor grain harvest in Russia.  If so, that was just a wee warning shot across our bow.

Consider, as well, the refugee problem, mainly in Europe at present.  It is just a tiny fore-taste of what will face us when climate change begins to get really serious.  Consider the social disruption this mini migration is causing in many European countries.  Then multiply it by 10 and 10 again.

So what is the bottom line.  If we want politicians to do what is best for "we, the people", we must be the ones that pay for their election campaigns and the first order of business after this is achieved is to pass legislation that anyone who pays money to any politicians for any reason what-so-ever gets mandatory jail time.  This, of course, includes any non monetary bribes.  Campaign money must come from the exchequer.

And......It doesn't have to cost the ridiculous amounts that it costs now.  Politicians can be given a legislated amount of money and a legislated time on national radio and television.  They would get a legislated space on news papers.  Venues would be rented for them to hold town meetings where each candidate answers questions from each other, from the moderator and from the audience.  These would be put in their entirety on Youtube and shown on Television channels.

We should also set up a standard web site for each of them
On their individual, standardized web site, they can express themselves as they please.   But there will also be a section, inaccessible to them, in which past promises are compared with their voting record and a second section comparing their voting record with any other politician one is interested in.    Of course, they can use the Internet to their hearts content.  It costs nothing.

If we want to call the tune, we have to pay the piper.  We should stop all our campaigns for various causes and concentrate a huge ground swell on this one alone.  Then we can return to our other vital campaigns with a much better chance of success.  We are so smart individually but so dumb in the collective.  How hard is it to understand.
Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kao-pectin and the pharm industry

When I was a young fellow, some 60 years ago, there was a sovereign cure for the trots (diarrhea).  It was called Kao-pectin.  As the name suggests it was a suspension of fine clay in a solution of pectin.  It was mildly distasteful to swallow but, man, did it work.  After a few one table spoon doses taken about an hour apart, you could once more trust a fart.  I can only speculate how it works.

Clay is made of fine platelates and a small amount of clay has a huge surface area.  It apparently adsorbed the nasties in the GI* track and firmed up the contents so that peristalsis could move them down stream to be eliminated.

Also, I only have a sample of one.  Myself.  The stuff was a miracle.  Can I buy it now in my local pharmacy. Not on your nelly.  At least in New Zealand, the UK or Canada, the pharmacies I have tried don't stock it.    Why not.  It is still produced in some other countries so it is available.

I suspect that there is not enough profit in it.  After all, how much can you charge for a suspension of clay in a solution of Pectin.  When I was young, I watched the evolution of this product.

First they made the new improved Kao.  They added a bit of flavoring and some colour.  Judging by the color, it was probably Tartrazine, not something you want in a medicine.  Whatever was added, the Pharm industry could now charge more.  It still worked so not too much harm done except perhaps for someone at the bottom of the earning ladder with sick kids.

Next they added some sort of medicine to it.  I seem to remember that it was an anti-biotic of some sort.  It wasn't needed.   The original formulation worked a treat but now they could charge even more.

Finally, the product was discontinued.  Still not enough profit??

There is no denying that we get valuable, effective cures for various conditions from the pharmacies but they have the morals of a cigarette salesman.  If their isn't enough profit or if it will detract us from buying a more expensive product, they ain't going to carry it.

I'd like to see some double blind testing done on simple Kao-pectin against other products to see just how effective it is and then, if it proves to be as good as I say it is, to publicize it widely.  Can't be done in a university.  They can't endanger their funding from the Pharm industry.  It would have to be an independent research outfit that isn't in thral to the pharm industry.  What we need is a government research branch for research that can't be funded by vested interests.

Mitigating the harm dairy causes to the environment

We are having a debate in New Zealand for and against irrigation.  It really boils down to a debate on our national dairy herd.  With irrigation, you can put cows on land that otherwise would not support them.  Our dairy herd can then increases and with it the pollution of our environment.

True, there are some concerns about the irrigation itself but the main concern is that it allows the increase in our national dairy herd and with it increased pollution.

To come out for or against irrigation  may be good for radio sound bites but as with most cases in the affairs of man, the devil is in the details.Clearly we need irrigation for our farmers to fill in the gaps left by nature. Even in the best areas, there are periods without rain.  A farmer needs reliable inputs to be able to run his business.

On the other hand, equally clearly, if we can not find ways of farming that preserve our environment then the crude sledge hammer method of reducing herds and restricting where they can graze must be taken.  The question is;

 Can we have dairy herds and not pollute.

The answer may be yes for some areas and no for others and will depend, to quite a large extent, on the details of how we farm.

The core of the problem is to be able to apply the waste output of the cows back on to the  land a) in a way, b) in a concentration and c) at the right time such that it constitutes a valuable fertilizer, is taken up by the pasture plants, and hence is not an environmental pollutant. If this can be done, dairying is no longer a source of pollution.

As a bonus and possibly the most important consideration, applying organic material such as the manure of cattle to our soils preserves the soil organisms on which we depend for fertile soils.

Throughout history, societies that trashed their soils, declined and disappeared.  One factor in trashing soils is not returning nutrients to the soil that are extracted. so far  as is possible, nutrients must be returned in an organic form that benefits the soil organisms.  Quite clearly, the urine, manure and spilt milk from a dairy herd constitutes a valuable resource for the enhancement of the soil.

That is not to say that chemical fertilizer should not be used but as you will see, much less of them can be used if farming methods are tweaked.

If farming remains a process of plow, add chemical nutrients, sow the seeds and irrigate then our soils will degrade, wash to the sea, pollution will be rampant and we will go the way of many previous societies that mined their soils  instead of farming them.

It takes a lot more 'smarts' to farm in a way that improves the soil, reduces  inputs, increased water infiltration,  and leaves you with a much better farm to pass on to your children or to sell at retirement than when you started.  What is not generally realized is that you can do this while improving your bottom line and your resilience to weather and  price fluctuations.

Let's look at some of the tools we have available.

Riparian Zones
Fencing off streams and encouraging the growth of trees, shrubs and grasses between the fence and the stream is a great help.  Not only does it stop the cows from entering the stream and urinating and defecating into it but the roots of the vegetation of the riparian zone take nutrients from the water table which is slowly flowing toward the stream.

However, it has been reported that 70% of the nutrients entering the streams comes from the very small feeder streams and ditches.  It is simply not possible to fence off every little feeder stream. We need some other measures in the pasture.

Composting Barns
Composting barns use deep layers of wood shavings or coarse saw dust as bedding and the cows are allowed (not forced)  to bed down there at night.  They also have free access to the barn to escape inclement weather.  The bedding is stirred mechanically every day, keeping it aerobic.  It has been found that cows prefer such an environment to bed down in, even choosing it ahead of a straw-lined byre.  The composting process produces heat which reduces the feed needed by  the cows and a rich compost eats up pathogens.  The compost captures all the nutrients from the waste of the cows including N and S which in an anaerobic system  go off as the gases NH3 and H2S.

The bedding can be applied to the fields at the correct concentration and correct time which most benefits the soil and the pasture plants and hence causes no pollution.  Some research needs to be done on what portion of the effluent of a cow is released while in such a barn compared to what proportion is released out on the pasture*.  Do they mainly urinate and defecate at night or in the day,,,, while they are grazing or when they are chewing their cud.  this would give an indication of how much of the nutrient stream can be captured by a composting barn.

*Great job for some long suffering masters student

Bio-Gas Generators.
At long last a farm in Southern New Zealand is using the waste produced in the milking shed* to generate bio-gas.  The biogas is use  to produce electricity. The waste heat from the motor which drives the generator is used to heat the water used in the milking shed.  This combination, utilizing the waste heat from the motor that powers the generator, makes for a very efficient system, energy wise.  The effluent from the biogas generator contains almost all the nutrients in the waste stream since mainly C and H have been taken off as biogas (and some of the S).   As with compost-bedding the effluent remaining after extracting the biogas, can be applied to the fields when and in what concentrations most benefits the pasture and hence least pollutes the environment. Excess electricity is sent to the grid for an added income stream and/or excess biogas can be used in the house and farm.

*More work for that long suffering student.

Managing the Pasture
We have now removed a portion of the waste stream with a)Riparian zones, b) compositing barns and c)biogas generators.  Let's see what we can do out on the pasture.  There is a fantastic book by David R Montgomery called Growing A Revolution; Bringing back our soils.  In it he describes visiting farmers all over the world who have independently come up with a way of farming.  The methods they use would be familiar to any farmer before the advent of cheap chemical fertilizers but each method is updated in light of modern knowledge. Farming this way results in an improved bottom line, slashed pollution to the environment, reduced farming costs, increased infiltration of rain, continually improving soils  and as a bonus sequesters significant amounts of carbon in the soils.

It has become to be known as Conservation Agriculture.

It also, due to the greatly increased organic content of the soil, results in the capture of much of the Nitrogen when a cow urinates. The urine is soaked up by the organic material giving the soil organisms time to scavenge the nitrogen.

Of course, it also results in the sequestration of considerable carbon in the soil.

Before we go off half cocked and reduce one of our most valuable industries, we must pay attention to the details.  Farming can not be allowed to degrade our environment but there are farming methods which address this problem.  What is great is that these methods can improve the bottom line of the farmer and his resilience to weather and fluctuating prices for his products while at the same time making him the darling of the greens.  The devil is in the detail.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Conservation agriculture

There is a 'new' sort of agriculture practiced by a handful of farmers in diverse locations around the world.  Conservation Agriculture is not a descriptor although the words describe to some extent what it is.  It is, rather, a name given to a suit of farming methods which taken together are called Conservation Agriculture.

This so called Conservation Agriculture involves a) not ploughing the soil, (and hence, direct drilling) b) rotating crops in a random fashion, with longer periods between growing the same crop, c) leaving all the unused parts (stems, leaves and, of course roots) of the past crop on the land as a mulch and d) the planting of cover crops between commercial crops.  It is not absolutely against using chemical fertilizers but results in great reduction or even  elimination of the use of such chemicals.  In addition it may involve grazing down the standing crop residue and/or cover crops, and thus converting them into dung and urine. If grazing is used, it is very intense, very infrequently.  It may also involve,  the incorporation of char into the soil.  To find more detail on the methods go to this site or to get a historical perspective on the fate of societies that didn't preserve their soils, to this site.  What I would like to explore in this blog is the logic behind the methods.

Let's take a corn plant as an example.  The seed grows into a plant and the plant uses water, carbon dioxide and various minerals to build it's roots, stems, leaves, and seeds (the corn we eat).  The energy to transform these simple, low energy substances into complex, high energy compounds comes from the sun and this captured energy is now in the form of chemical energy.  The resulting chemicals (largely cellulose along with many other  compounds in lesser amounts) can be burnt as a fuel but can also be 'burnt' by soil organisms just as we 'burn' the corn in our bodies for energy.  The soil organisms  incorporate some of this stover into the substance of their bodies, especially proteins and vitamins just as we do with the corn seeds.

Saprophytes (funguses) are specialist in using dead plant material for their sustenance.  Think of the fungus growing on dead wood in moist conditions.  But these are the fruiting bodies of the fungus.  Most of the fungus consists of thin filaments (mycelia) that extend through the media and collect nutrients.  Of particular importance in-so-far as we are talking about soil health for crop production is that the funguses not only use dead organic material for energy but can also mobilise minerals in the soil that are in insoluble, mineral form and make them available to plants.  Many of the funguses grow their mycellia inside or around root hairs and exchange the nutrients they have mobilized  for energy rich compounds that the plant provides. Anything to encourage the growth of these funguses and to avoid disrupting the mycellia that extend throughout the soil is good for the crop.  Therefore we put lots of organic material on the soil where the fungus can access it and we do not plough

 The obvious question is why don't we mix this material into the soil.  Firstly, this would involve ploughing and hence the disruption of the mycellia of the funguses but there is another reason.  If there is a large amount of reduced carbon (cellulose and other compounds) in the soil, the micro-organisms that produce cellulase* and hence can access this source of carbon and energy, will scavenge all the available soluable nutrients from the soil to build their bodies.  The funguses are not the only organisms that can utilise cellulose.  Many single cell soil organisms have the same ability.  If a considerable amount of cellulose is incorporated into the soil, there will be nothing available for the growth of the crop you have planted.  Put the organic material on the surface and it is gradually incorporated into the soil and nutrients are still available for the crop.  But the surface layer of mulch has other benefits.

* The enzyme that can break down cellulose.

The surface mulch shades the soil and keeps it from heating up so much.  The soil looses less water by evaporation, leaving more for the crop.  The mulch softens the blow of the rain and slows the flow across the ground and hence avoids sealing the surface of the soil and increases infiltration.  Again more water for the crop.

A word here about trophic levels.  As a first approximation, only ten percent of the material consumed is fixed into the next trophic level.  10 tons of algae will make one ton of krill and one ton of krill will make a tenth of a ton of whale.  Sounds good since the 90% excreted is mineralized. Some of it is in a form that can be taken up by plants, but here is the rub.  If there is lots of cellulose around, the micro-organisms which can break down cellulose will use the cellulose as energy and scavenge all the mineralised material, which has been released by other organisms, leaving none for the plants.  Of course as the quantity of remaining cellulose decreases, more and more of the mineralised nutrients will be available for the plants.

So, the next thing is why do we plant a cover crop when the main crop has been harvested.  First we capture more sun energy in the form of the chemical energy of the cover crop and hence produce more organic carbon for the soil organisms.  Secondly we scavenge any left over soluble nutrients from the soil and turn them into a slow release fertilizer (the bodies of the plants).  As this organic material breaks down it releases its nutrients into the soil over time.

If we include a deep and a shallow rooter, we scavenge nutrients throughout the depth of the soil as well as spreading roots through the soil which will not only disintegrate over time but will provide passages for water and air to penetrate the soil.

If we include a legume that is either inoculated with the appropriate rhyzobium bacteria or finds the correct bacteria in the ground, atmospheric nitrogen will be taken from the air and turned into a nitrogen compound that can be used by the next cash crop.  Since most of the nitrogen compounds produced will be incorporated into the leaves, stems and seeds of the legume, it is important that this material be left in the field to enrich the soil.

If we include a root crop such as a radish or turnip, as they later disintegrate, in addition to releasing their nutrients, they create tunnels for water to infiltrate.  They also often are deep rooted which will help to scavenge nutrients from lower levels.

It is important to cut down the cover crop or trample or roll it into the surface of the soil before it sets ripe seeds.  You don't want the plants of the cover crop to themselves become weeds.

If you decide to graze the cover crop, it is grazed very heavily for only a day or two.  This tramples some of the crop into the surface of the soil, ensures that all plants are utilized and not only the favorites, including weeds that you have not planted, and turns the cover crop into urine and manure.  This short sharp grazing leaves lots of time for the soil organisms to  sort out any surface damage and to incorporate the animal excretement into organic material.

When the cash crop is then planted by direct drilling, it has all the best of the soil structure and soil organisms to support it.