Friday, June 18, 2010

What they didn't teach me at university: Soil is Life.

I've spent a lot of time recently learning about the so-called Fertile Crescent: that once-fertile and super-diverse swathe of land across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and southern Turkey that we (Westerners) are now more likely to think of as lifeless, war-torn desert.

There is so much to learn from, and say about, the Fertile Crescent, that I hardly know where to start. So I thought I'd take Maria von Trapp's advice, and start at the very beginning ...


Agricultural scientists and farmers are often surprisingly slow to figure out what's good for the land that they profess to care so much about. Usually, they start by doing what's good for themselves, at least in the short term. For example, scientists do whatever research they can get funding for (meaning that their research is often driven by the interests of Big Business), while farmers grow species that produce high yields, and/or fetch high prices.

Sometimes a farmer comes up with a genuinely good idea - but the good idea is all too often sparked by a farm's declining productivity, caused by too many years of mining the land for every last drop of vitality. In other words: necessity is the mother of invention. 

Colin Seis's development of pasture cropping is a good example of this. "Pasture cropping" is the zero-till sowing of cereal crops into perennial pastures - a simple and logical farming method that has been hailed as revolutionary by farmers and scientists around the world (just Google the terms "pasture cropping" + revolutionary to see what I mean about the buzz surrounding this "novel" farming technique).

The fact that intelligent humans can get so excited in the 21st century over a technique that nature has been using for countless millennia is, frankly, depressing to me. I think we were kidding ourselves when we called our species Homo sapiens, which literally means wise man.

I have a rather nice piece of paper, given to me by the University of Western Sydney, which declares me to be a Bachelor of Applied Science in Systems Agriculture.

I first developed an interest in agriculture on one of my train trips out to western NSW to visit an aunt and uncle during school holidays. (That was back in the old days, when passenger trains actually ran out to western NSW).

Gazing out through the train window, I was alarmed by the gully erosion I saw in paddock after paddock. I didn't really know anything about soil or agriculture back then, but even as a child I could see that gully erosion was (for want of a better word) wrong. In other words, even a child could see and understand that our agricultural land was damaged and depleted.

What is gully erosion?
"Gully erosion occurs when water is channelled across unprotected land and washes away the soil along the drainage lines. Under natural conditions, run-off is moderated by vegetation which generally holds the soil together, protecting it from excessive run-off and direct rainfall.

Excessive clearing, inappropriate land use and compaction of the soil caused by grazing often means the soil is left exposed and unable to absorb excess water. Surface run-off then increases and concentrates in drainage lines, allowing gully erosion to develop in susceptible areas." 
I wrote recently about Deborah Bain and her agricultural propaganda-fest called Farm Day, whereby impressionable city folk are encouraged to believe that Australian farmers are "committed to enhancing and protecting the environment".

However, according to the NSW Department of Environment, my local catchment area (Central West NSW) has upwards of 12,500 instances of gully erosion. Interestingly, that figure is more than 20 years old, but the Department states that it is "still indicative of what is happening today".

Meanwhile, Dr Christine Jones writes (in an article titled How to build new topsoil, which is well worth reading in its entirety):
"In little over 200 years of European land-use in Australia, more than 70 percent of land has become seriously degraded (Flannery 1994). Despite our efforts to implement 'best practice' in soil conservation, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Annual soil loss figures for perennial pastures in Tablelands and Slopes regions of NSW generally range from 0.5 to 4 t/ha/yr, depending on slope, soil type, vegetative cover and rainfall (Edwards and Zierholz 2000).

These figures probably underestimate the total amount of soil lost. Erosion can occur at much higher rates during intense rainfall events, particularly when groundcover is low. Areas which have been cultivated (whether for pasture establishment or cropping) are more prone to soil structural decline."
In light of these facts, I really wonder how people like Deborah Bain can stand up in public, and, with a straight face, claim that farmers are "enhancing" the Australian environment? As I've acknowledged before, there are exceptional farmers who are passionate about regenerating Australia's soils - but the key word there is "regenerating", meaning that they're attempting to re-build the soil and biodiversity which has been lost over the previous 100 years or more.

It's a rare farmer indeed who runs a commercial farming enterprise on land which is currently in better health than it was prior to European settlement.

And this brings me back to my experience of studying agricultural science at university.

Straight out of high school, I spent two unhappy years studying agricultural science at Sydney University. I sat through seemingly endless lectures on chemistry, physics, economics, and statistical data management. I found almost all of the course material mind-numbingly irrelevant to my interest in the land.

I found the course at Sydney University to be far too reductionist for my personal taste. (I'd probably get a lot more out of it now than I did as a teenager, but the simple truth is, I don't easily relate to soil, plants, and animals on a molecular level). My friends who thrived in that course went on to write academic papers with esoteric titles such as "Modelling soil attribute depth functions with equal-area quadratic smoothing splines".

After two years of fairly hard-core science and mathematics, I transferred over to the "Systems Agriculture" course at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). The course at UWS was as holistic as the course at Sydney Uni had been reductionist. At UWS we studied subjects like "Human Activity Systems", and our lecturers were big on concepts such as "praxis" (the process by which a theory or skill is enacted or practised).

I had a blast at UWS. I loved that course, because it allowed me to go and knock myself out with "praxis" in extraordinary places, as diverse as the Bayswater Colliery in the Hunter Valley; Warrah biodynamic farm on the outskirts of Sydney; and Kanchanjangha Tea Estate in the foothills of the Himalaya in Nepal.

Life at UWS was one amazing and life-changing experience after another. But the UWS course was critically short on science, and students who weren't smart and/or motivated could fairly easily cruise through the course without learning anything much at all.

So, the course at Sydney University taught its students to revere pure science, while the course at Western Sydney taught its students to revere farmers - but no one taught us to revere the land, the soil, the water, that every single one of us depends on for our lives.

No one taught us that soil is life. Indeed, how could they teach us that, when almost every aspect of agriculture concerns itself with controlling (and usually destroying) the soil food web? We were not taught to observe and respect the land; we were taught, instead, to "master" it, by grazing, ploughing, fertilizing, and irrigating it. We were taught to exterminate a staggering array of "pests" (ranging from fungi to kangaroos), with never a thought given to what crucial role those "pests" might play in the ecosystem.

We were taught to manage, to control, and to subdue nature. (Ha!)

We call ourselves Homo sapiens, but I think a more apt title might be Homo arrogans, or perhaps Homo insciens. As a species, we seem utterly incapable (or are we just utterly unwilling?) to learn from nature, and from our mistakes. As a species, we are apparently not as clever or as wise as we think we are.

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