Today is International Volunteers Day, apparently. There’s a day or a week or a month for everything, it seems, but volunteering is a good thing to stop and think about now and again. Volunteering – donating our knowledge, labour or skills for free – is a powerful way of creating the kind of future we’d like to see.
I’m volunteering on a big scale, spending a year working to help to develop skills and capacity in the team that tried to balance the social and economic needs for development with the protection of Peru’s network of incredible national parks and reserves. It’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing, to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture, using my skills to help accomplish things that I’m passionate about. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, to have found myself at a place in life where I could just pack up and go, to be able to afford to spend an entire year away without a real income. How fortunate I am to have the chance to try to change things (and how bizarre it feels to find myself the ‘expert’ in anything).
You don’t have to do something as big and crazy as I’m doing to change things though. In fact it’s often the local, community efforts that make the biggest impacts and really change the way we live. Volunteering at home, as much as abroad, gives us the ability to touch other people’s lives and contribute towards the world we want to live in. When if comes to building a sustainable, communal, joyful future, volunteering our time and effort is one of the the most powerful things we can do.
Through voluntary efforts we can fill gaps in public services, ameliorating the worst impacts of inevitable shortfalls in government funding and capacity. Through volunteering we can take actions to support our beliefs and keep things moving in the direction we value, even when the government may have different ideas. Volunteers bring our communities together and help us become more in collective than we are on our own.
On a personal level, volunteering can be very rewarding. It allows us a chance to put our values into action, to connect with others who share a vision, to feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to our community or to the planet. It lets us build new skills and try out our ideas outside of a traditional work environment. It provides opportunities to test new ways of working and thinking and to experiment a little. Altruistic collective action can be a powerful antidote to the individualistic consumption our culture promotes. Research suggests that getting our volunteerism on makes us happier, more socially-connected people who live longer lives.
It seems that in giving for nothing we actually receive. Certainly my year here in Lima will teach me much more than what I’ll leave behind. My life will be forever changed and new doors opened in exchange for some guidelines and improved protocols (it hardly seems fair, really…).
If you’re interested in the whole overseas volunteering thing there’s heap of different programs, from unskilled pay-to-go roles through to the kind of professional placement I’m in. You can give your time for a few days or weeks as part of broader travel, like I did with my orphanage garden work last trip, or you can make the project the whole point of the trip, as I’m doing now.
Closer to home there’s all sorts of ways you can get involved in building a better future. There’s fantastic community-based environmental programs like Landcare and Waterwatch (and their equivalents outside of Aus) that support volunteers to make real environmental changes. There are groups like Extra Hands that coordinate tree planting or clean-up days. If people are more your thing there are programs that help others get outdoors and learn about the environment, like WildCare’s migrant outreach program, or you can help out in a local school or museum or community garden.
If you’re better with animals than people and have the time to spare, it’s rather rewarding to be wildlife carer (though your sleep may suffer with wee ones I suspect the cuteness makes up for it). Less demanding but still rewarding is helping out at an animal shelter (as an ex RSPCA dog-walker I can confirm that payment in puppy cuddles is all kinds of awesome).
If you’ve got great business skills these too can be donated. Committees of community and volunteer organisations will always welcome a savvy treasurer or well-networked publicity officer. Musicians can donate performance time to raise funds for things they believe in, or raise the moral of others engaged in hard slog. Domestic gods and goddesses can bake and cook things to sell for profit or feed those in need (like many of us in Hobart did to feed the fire-fighters at the start of the year). Gardeners can donate surplus produce where it’s needed.
There’s plenty of unofficial volunteering too: simple things like helping out our friends and neighbours, sharing equipment, time or skills. Checking in on elderly friends, walking the neighbour’s dogs, mowing someone’s lawn (thank you Marcus for the many times you did this for me). For me there was the connections made the season I volunteered to help coach and manage a girl’s soccer team, and the friends made over a hot BBQ when I helped out friends run a stall at the Sustainable Living Festival as well as all the little things that tied my neighbourhood together. These simple acts help to connect us with each other and build a real sense of community. It’s a way to shape and change the place you live in and get to know others who value the same things.
You don’t have to be in a privileged position like me to get out there and make a difference. Use the opportunities you have to make a difference in your own backyard, in the community to make your home in, where you get to enjoy all the associated benefits, both of contributing to something you believe in and receiving the benefits of positive change in your neighbourhood.
And of course if you are thinking about the whole overseas volunteering thing, why not see what sorts of programs can use your skills? Within Aus there’s AYAD, AVI, AVID, ABV and the Red Cross, all involved in established aid and development programs, and internationally there’s groups like Doctors and Engineers Without Borders as well as a heap of great NGO programs in pretty much every place imaginable (like the CREES scientific volunteer program here in the Peruvian Amazon). Of course there are some dodgy “volunteer tourism” organisations too, so do your homework and take the time to see if there’s something that feels right for you.
It’s International Volunteer Day, which seems to me as good a day as any to think about how each of us can help create the kind of world we want to live in. And if that just happens to include a year in Peru, well really who could complain?
Seeds: they are amazing. That these tiny things hold within themselves the complete potential for an enormous tree, beautiful flower or delicious vegetable is a wonder of nature and evolution.
That anyone can harvest a seed, plant it, and grow plants to feed themselves is an extraordinarily beautiful thing. Seeds are part of our heritage, our culture, our civilisation. Without the ability to cultivate plants from seed we’d never have formed agricultural societies, and without agricultural society you would not be reading this.
Seeds are integral to what it means to be a modern human; to how we feed ourselves, how we structure our societies, how we manage our land and other natural resources. Such tiny things are so critical to who we are and how we live.
Seeds are important, and they are under threat.
I’ve written before about how important crop diversity is. Why it matters to grow rare and heirloom vegetables, and to save seed to cultivate plants best suited to local conditions. The maintenance and continual evolution of plant genetic diversity is critical to food security, to making sure we can feed ourselves and future generations.
The science behind this is incontrovertible.
That’s why I was horrified to find out about the proposed EU regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (aka the Plant Reproductive Material Law). Under the legislation, any seeds sold commercially must:
- belong to an acceptable variety or clone that has been registered with the UN;
- comply with the specific requirements adopted for the marketing category of that plant; and
- comply with legislated labelling, handling, certification and identification requirements.
i.e. for an annual fee and a pile of paperwork, you can be permitted to sell your seeds. Maybe. If the government decides your plants meet the registered “definition” for that variety.
What does a plant definition mean anyway? That means the seeds can’t show much genetic deviation from the registered type specimen for that variety, retarding development of strains and varieties that suit local conditions. That means restricting genetic diversity and increasing susceptibility to disease and climatic changes.
Although these laws don’t apply to backyard gardeners like me, they do apply to anyone in the EU who grows plants or distributes seeds for commercial sale. That includes your market stall holder, local nursery, native plant suppliers and market gardeners.
Why does this bother me? Because we’re letting politicians decide what constitutes a valid variety of food plant; because we’re stifling innovation and local adaptation, and at the same time reducing plant diversity; because the law gives advantage to large corporations who can manage the administrative imposts and pay the registrations, not to mention lobby governments over the very definitions of “acceptable varieties”.
Companies with have a track record of patenting plant genomes (making a food crop somehow “copyright”) and taking farmers to court who accidentally sow their seeds[3, 5,6]. Companies that deliberately push genetically modified (GM) crops that cannot be bred by farmers, forcing them to continue buying seed from Monsanto every year and preventing the development of new varieties and the adaption to local conditions.
Monsanto alone is alleged to have lodged 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits in the US thus far.
These companies aren’t in the business of protecting biodiversity. They don’t believe fair and free access to seeds is a fundamental principle of human rights. For these corporations, the narrower the range of crops and the less adaptable the plant genetics, the more opportunities they have to make profits by developing and selling copy-righted seeds. If we lose our ability to develop and distribute locally-adapted and unusual varieties, we lose control of our food sources, we lose our ability to develop crops that suit our soils, climate and cultural traditions and grow dependent on the corporations to sell us patented seeds to feed ourselves. Patented seeds the farmer cannot harvest and re-sow, sold for maximum profit, from the narrow range of crops that these companies invest in.
That’s a pretty scary road to be travelling down.
The science of genetically modifying, or engineering, plant materials forms part and parcel of the debate about seeds. GM science gets all caught up in the politics and corporate sociopathy, but it’s vital to examine the science in its own right. The science of GM is neither good nor evil; it’s how it’s applied that determines that.
GM: genetically modified. What does that mean? It means humans have messed around with a plants genome, the DNA that codes how that plant grows, what nutrients it has, how sensitive it is to chemicals, how tolerant of certain conditions. The genome that is copied into a plant’s reproductive materials: its seeds. The agri-corporations are using GM science to develop plants that are resistant to specific herbicides, usually owned by the same company, like Monsanto’s Round-up and their GM “Roundup Ready” seeds.
GM science can also be used to develop crop strains that can be grown in new areas, places too dry, too wet, or with soil too poor to grow traditionally-bred varieties. It can be used to reduce reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to increase crop yields, to improve nutrition and to develop plant resistance to famine-causing diseases.[4,7] The scientists working on GM foods are doing so because they see the science as a powerful tool for helping to feed a growing global population in an uncertain future, and maybe there’s a place for GM in the world-feeding toolbox. There’s just not when it’s in the hands of vested interests.
GM’s still a relatively new science too, and we’re not sure what the long term effects of GM foods might be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on the science though: it means we should be cautious and make sure the long-term studies and trials are done before we leap into GM cropping. That’s not what’s happening though, with the agri-corps pressuring government to permit GM seeds on the market before these (costly, long-term) studies are done. GM might not be evil, but right now there are a lot of good arguments for caution and maintaining large agricultural areas that are completely areas GM-free.
So what does all this mean?
To me, all of this shows how important it is that the community is informed, aware and involved in the business and politics of seeds. It’s too big an issue to leave to the lobby groups and politicians: all of our futures are caught up in the incredible potential of seeds.
Concerned? Take the time to get informed and make sure your voice gets heard.
I’m keeping an eye on the EU legislation and have signed the international petitions against the proposed EU legislation here (AVAAZ) and here (Noah’s Ark Foundation).
I’m also paying attention to the discussions happening here in Australia around GM crops, agribusiness and associated legislation. Here in Tasmania our temporary ban on GM crops is due to expire next year, and there’s good reason to get involved in local action campaigning for a renewal.
Seeds belong to all of us. It is critical to the future of humanity that this remains the case: that we can breed, grow and freely trade the food plants that best suit our climates, cultures and local conditions to ensure a future where we’re all well fed.
 The European Commission (2013) Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council – On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law); European Commission, Brussels.
 Rabesandratana T (2003) Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests; Science magazine; American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 Cornell University Law School (2013) Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company in first sale doctrine patent exhaustion infringement; Legal Information Institute, Cornell University.
 Kruft D (2001) Impacts of Genetically-Modified Crops and Seeds on Farmers; The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Pennsylvania State University.
 Wikipedia: Monsanto Canada Inc. vs Schmeiser.
 Tepper R (2013) Seed Giants Sue U.S. Farmers Over Genetically Modified Seed Patents In Shocking Numbers: Report, Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc.
 Walsh B (2013) Modifying the Endless Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops; Time Science & Space, Time Inc.
 DPIPWE (2009) Policy Statement: Gene technology and Tasmanian Primary Industries 2009-2014; Policy Division, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Government.
I’ve just returned home from a failed attempt to do my usual weekly produce shop down at my local farmer’s market. I go most every Sunday to buy my fruit & veg, perhaps a little free-range meat, and catch up with the friendly faces. Not today though: today it was bedlam as the collective insanity that is Christmas hit the market at full force.
We seem to lose the plot a little at Christmas. I don’t know why. The market was jammed with festive season shoppers, forming huge queues to purchase must-have items like raspberries and cherries. I stood there, watching, feeling totally overwhelmed (I dislike crowds at the best of times) and wondering how much of the food they were buying would just end up as waste. Honestly, who needs 2 kg of raspberries, or 5 kilos of cherries (or in some cases, “and”)? Are they really going to be able to eat them all before they spoil? Who needs all that in one glut anyway, when the fruit will still be available next week, and the week after?
It was enough to get me feeling misanthropic, so I beat a hasty retreat home, brewed a pot of tea, put some calming oil in the burner and some soothing tunes on the stereo. Ah, so much better!
Please don’t lose the plot this Christmas. Remember it’s not about having the most heavily-laden table or all the seasonal goodies. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t found the perfect presents, or if you haven’t bought presents at all. No one cares if you’ve missed out on raspberries this year, or if the panforte didn’t set (sticky, but still delicious!). It’s about spending time with the people who matter to you and celebrating the things that really matter: family, friendship, love.
Please, remember what’s important this season. Be kind to people, slow down, smile. Take your neighbours something from your kitchen or garden. Be nice to the people working to serve you and remember to treat them like the human being they are. Say hello to people you pass on the street: go, on, make eye contact and say it like you mean it! Reach out to others and let them know you care. Take stock of just how lucky we are to be living this life, with all that we have, and do what you can to build the kind of world you want to live it, a place you’d be proud to pass on to your children.
All I want for Christmas this year is a better world: more sustainable, communal, joyful.
Day by day, it’s what I try to build. I think, perhaps, you’d like it too.
On that note, I’m taking some time out in January to focus my energy on other things. I wish you the very best over the holiday season, no matter what your beliefs, and look forward to what 2013 will bring. See you next year!
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
Tasmanians, the Forest Peace Deal Agreement is going through the Upper House, where the legislation will either pass, or crash and burn with a huge loss of public faith and return to community division and ongoing stalemate.
The agreement isn’t perfect, I know, but it’s better than no agreement and it has involved compromise from both sides to reach. We can always build from here and work towards a better agreement once people have adapted to change and seen that the Agreement hasn’t led to wholesale economic collapse. Please don’t ditch the agreement because not every patch of high-value forest is protected, or not every forest job is saved. Extremism will never reach a compromise, on either side. The problems will never be solved by holding out for your own ideal of a successful outcome. Remember that it’s a step in the right direction to building a more sustainable future. The first step, with many more to come as we walk down the path together, as a cohesive community with a shared vision for the future.
Those against the peace deal – those who want unrestricted forestry at any cost, despite the reality of falling demand and industry decline, and those who will not accept that not all high-conservation-value forests can be protected – have mobilised opposition, further feeding bitterness and division in the community. They are petitioning the Upper House to reject the Agreement legislation and they’re creating a lot of noise.
Don’t let division and extremism determine the future of our State. Stand up for working together for long-term, sustainable outcomes for Tasmania. Sign the counter-petition and let our politicians know we support peace in our forests. If we don’t speak up, the voices of conflict will win. Rejection of the Agreement does not benefit anyone. Please raise your voice in support of a more sustainable future for Tasmania.
I love Tasmania’s forest. Happiness is a mountain-top or a myrtle forest in my world and I’ve spent many blissed-out hours walking through the mossy half-light of the old-growth forests that quietly soothe and revitalise the human spirit. These are special places, rich in biodiversity and ecological complexity. Special places that many people believe are worth fighting for.
You see, Tasmania’s economy is driven by primary industries. We don’t have a big manufacturing base or services sector on this sparsely-populated island, a long way from export markets. Our economy is a small and frail thing, prone to recession and heavily dependent on forestry, mining and agriculture, as well as nature- and food-based tourism, which make for strange bed-fellows and very strained politics. Forestry in particular has been an economic mainstay of regional Tasmania, with the fortunes of whole towns and communities closely tied to taking trees out of the forests.
Those beautiful trees that are the lungs of our planet, that support entire ecosystems and protect rare and threatened species, that the tourists come to our island to see, can also be viewed as potential employment and earnings for many people on an island with limited job opportunities and low educational levels. Families have their fates tied up in the forests, having invested their fortunes in tree-felling machines and logging trucks. For these people the forests are their livelihood and their future in Tasmania: worth more turned into building materials, timber veneer or – tragically – wood chip and paper pulp.
As a consequence of this strong dichotomy – conservation vs. forestry – there has been conflict in Tasmania’s forests for a very long time. Passions run high, occasionally erupting into vandalism and violence, as the future of the forests hang in the balance. We are a State deeply divided along divergent value lines, with this division breeding political and economic uncertainty in a place that can ill afford it.
A little over 2 years ago it was recognised that the only way to move forward was compromise: for the forestry industry and the conservationists to get together and find common ground. Sponsored by the Federal Government, the round table talks began for the Intergovernmental Agreement on Forestry. It looked as though, at last, there might be peace in the forests, with the highest conservation value patches of old-growth forest to be protected in new reserves and financial assistance provided to foresters to exit the industry. Remaining areas of forest would still be logged – after all, we still need timber products to come from somewhere – using “sustainable” practices. Working together, we would find a mutually-acceptable solution.
Except we didn’t. After a promising start the talks failed to find common ground. A Federal Government deadline came and went, and even the threat of losing a $120 million assistance package couldn’t get things back on track. Yesterday it was announced that the talks had failed. The Tasmanian Forestry Agreement is dead.
Both sides are blaming the other for the failure. Both sides are accused of being unwilling to compromise. The conservationists couldn’t win all the reserves they felt were necessary to protect old growth forests. The saw-millers wouldn’t give up access to coups they claimed were essential to fulfil their contracts. Forestry Tasmania, the government business enterprise that manages the timber industry, is operating at a $12 million loss and has been accused of questionable practices and political manipulation.
So where does that leave us? In a worse situation than ever.
- Around 435 000 hectares of forest that had been verified as high conservation value will now not be protected by national parks.
- Timber buyers have cold feet given the uncertainty of the industry and community hostility; contracts are being cancelled and one of the biggest buyers, Ta Ann, is likely to leave Tasmania. Although good for the trees, this is another economic blow for a State already in recession.
- With no forestry industry the economy becomes more dependent on the expansion of that other extractive industry: mining. The Tasmanian and Federal Governments will now come under stronger pressure to permit the expansion of mining activities in Tasmania, and that means more mines in the Tarkine, another area of high conservation values.
- Community divides have deepened and once again there is open hostility between those who see the value of trees as timber and we who think they’re worth more standing.
It’s a totally unsustainable state of affairs, economically, environmentally and culturally. The longer the conflict rages, the more Tasmania is torn apart.
The only way forward is to work together, to try to understand what motivates the opposing side and to talk with empathy and understanding. We need to build a Tasmania that has economic opportunities that don’t rely on extractive industries. That means investing in education and developing new industries that can provide stable employment for many years to come. Tourism and value-added agriculture alone can’t support this island. We need to put our heads together and create another way. With creativity, compassion and compromise we can build a Tasmania we can all be proud of and see peace in the forests at last.
What’s your take on the failed Tasmanian Forests Agreement? Do you have a vision for this isolated island state?
There is nothing like travel to give you a heaping dose of perspective.
We in the western developed world, the vast majority of us, anyway, are so damn spoilt.
Here in Australia we write ourselves the narrative of the battler; hard-done-by working class hero, struggling to get ahead. The reality, however, is far, far different. We’re incredibly wealthy. Daily we take for granted riches of which much of the world can only dream, and yet somehow we think we deserve it, that we’ve earnt the good life that has befallen us by the sheer luck of being born on these fortunate shores.
We turn on a tap and we have clean drinking water. How lucky are we? So lucky that we think nothing of using this precious resource to flush our toilets and water our plants. Over 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water[1, 2] and we let it run down the drain then complain about the cost.
Safe, clean water, on demand, at a fraction of the true cost. Want it hot? Turn on another tap and let electricity or gas work it’s wonders. Energy that’s cheap and reliable enough to heat our water 24-7. Energy so cheap that I’m sitting here, running a computer and monitor and listening to the radio while a pot of chickpeas simmers on the stove and a head of garlic roasts in the oven (I’m making humus). Yes, I’ve turned the lights off in the rooms I’m not using and I’m working by a single energy-efficient globe but even then my bills tell me I use an average of 15 KWH per day, which is only a little below the average for my dwelling type and suburb. I can do better (and yes, long, hot showers remain my biggest guilty pleasure. Maybe next year’s promise for World Environment Day…).
We’ve got safe water, ready power, large houses we fill up with stuff (biggest in the world, apparently, and this place feels exorbitantly large after my recent travels) and there’s the access to food and consumer goods. Walk into your kitchen right now and take a good, hard look in your cupboards. How much food is actually in there? How long could you go without really needing to shop? How much diversity of product is there? I have 2 types of rice, 2 types of lentils, 5 types of flour (I’m gluten-sensitive, so it’s somewhat excusable), black quinoa, quinoa flakes and a number of syrups and oils I most never use and don’t really need (lime oil, rosewater, pomegranate molasses and a serious tea collection…) and that’s after considerable down-sizing and being very mindful about what I buy.
It’s easy to indulge in food without even realising. Walk into any supermarket or grocer and look around: there’s so much food and so much choice! With the shelves so richly stocked our trolleys and household pantries look restrained by comparison. We have a culture that encourages food as a recreational pursuit rather than a nutritional need. Food shortages don’t even cross our consciousness for most of us, despite recent record droughts and soaring prices of staples. If we have the money it’s always there, waiting. Easy.
We are so damn lucky. Lucky to have been born in a wealthy country, a place of political stability and prosperity. No wars have torn my country apart. No dictators have drained us of our wealth (though Gina Rinehart may well try), no diseases have ravaged our people or our food production. Although drought, flood and fire take their toll, we’ve thus far been rich enough and agriculturally diverse enough to weather the storms and bitch about the cost of bananas.
And that’s what gets me really. We have this incredible wealth yet we complain about it. We sit here with our hands out, crying poor, asking the Government for more, always more. How can you be a battler with a place just for you and yours to call home, all the safe water you can drink, power whenever you want it and access to all the food you could ever dream of? When you have health care and social security? When education is free for all and retirement is considered a right? Yes, there are some Australians who truly are poor (particularly our indigenous people, who live in a different world to most of us), but for the vast majority of us and our compatriots in the western developed world, we are rich beyond our own comprehension. We have so very much. By accident of birth we find ourselves in the land of plenty.
Is it surprising, then, that others covet our way of life? That when we travel we’re seen as wealthy targets to exploit? You can hardly blame the rest of the world for wanting in on our privileged party. Yet the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. We can’t pull everyone else up to our standard of living. So do we try to keep it all to ourselves, spoilt children who don’t want to share our shiny toys?
Truth is it’s an inherently unsustainable way of life. We can’t maintain it while the rest of the world scrapes by. Sooner or later the rest of the world will come looking for their share as resources run out. We can try to hang on until then, in a final orgy of consumption, or we can start to learn to live with less. I believe it’s time we learnt the difference between wants and needs, asked ourselves some searching questions and reduced our footprints a little. It’s the only fair choice (and as Dr Samuel Alexander writes, it just might also be good for us).
There’s no point feeling guilty about an accident of birth, and not all of us are in a position where living more simply is a viable choice. Most of us can do a little more, however. We can be just that little more mindful about the choices we make and think about the type of future we want to build. That’s what I’m trying to do and y’know, I’m happier for it.
 water.org fact sheet
 WHO water and health program
 Energy Made Easy Australian power consumption benchmark
 ComSec housing data report 2011
 World Bank food crisis data
 ACOSS Australian Poverty Report 2011
 Radical simplicity and the middle class: exploring the lifestyle implications of a great disruption, by Dr. Samuel Alexander
The lovely Pauline Mak recently requested that I discuss the science behind my opposition to the FV Margiris “super-trawler” in a little more detail. Specifically, she quite rightly asked me to explain why I felt the quota was unsustainable given that respected fisheries scientists like Professor Colin Buxton and Dr Bob Kearney have spoken out in defence of the quota. If I’m going to cite my science degree to claim an informed perspective on the super-trawler issue I really ought to be backing it up with facts!
> You can read my original entry here.
First off, let me clarify that I am not a fisheries scientist. I’m an aquatic ecologist who specialised in freshwater systems and integrative ecology. Once upon a dim, dark undergraduate past I studied fisheries science before deciding that messing about in rivers was much more my thing. Fish ecology and aquatic ecosystems are, however, things I’m passionate about and I’d like to think I’m reasonably well-informed. Plus being a systems/integrative ecologist I’m trained to think in terms ecological interactions and broader ecosystem changes, which I think is relevant to the Margiris case.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
The quota currently set for the Margiris is 18 000 tonnes, or 7.5 % of the total estimated population of jack mackerel and redbait. Is this sustainable? My honest answer is: possibly.
7.5 % is a very conservative quota. For many fisheries a quota around 10 to 15 % is considered sustainable, and for some quickly reproducing species in productive waters, takes of up to 30 % may be managed. The species to be targeted – jack mackerel and redbait – are fairly short-lived species that do breed quickly and have bounced back from previous fishery activity, suggesting the populations are fairly resilient. On the face of things, 7.5 % seems ok, but when I think about it a little more, concerns start to surface.
The first big worry is where the stock estimates come from. Some of the data used to set the fishery quota dates back to studies done in 2002-2004. Normally, the age of the data would not be a concern since there has been no commercial fishing activity in that time, thus no reason for fish numbers to have decreased. Normally: we’ve never really had to think about the impacts of climate change on fish populations before.
Recent CSIRO studies have revealed that fish populations in southern Australian waters are changing in response to climate change, and changing faster than predicted. The ranges of temperate species like jack mackerel and redbait are shrinking. On top of this, tropical species are shifting further south and no one knows yet how the changing species interactions are impacting on predator-prey relationships and marine food webs. Given this environment of rapid, unpredictable change, 8-year old data doesn’t really seem good enough.
Is 7.5 % of an estimated fish population sustainable, in light of the impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems? Uncertain! We simply don’t have the data or ecological knowledge to say for certain, one way or another. Throw in the uncertainties around local fish depletion, the amount and species of by-catch and potential issues regulating the vessel and you start to understand why some scientists are concerned. Sure, the Margiris is unlikely to cause a catastrophic fishery crash but there’s enough uncertainty there to be questioning if the quota poses an acceptable risk.
So what is an acceptable risk? It all comes down to error: Type I or Type II.
We have 2 potential outcomes: the null hypothesis, that the quota is sustainable, and the alternative hypothesis, that the quota is not sustainable. The fisheries science to date suggests that the null hypothesis is correct, but there is a concerning level of uncertainty around that data. What are the consequences if we’re wrong?
|Null hypothesis is true:
Margiris quota is sustainable
|Null hypothesis is false:
Margiris quota is unsustainable
|Reject null hypothesis:
Stop the trawler
|Type 1 error:
Fishery could have sustained quota but remains unfished
Fishery unsustainable and trawler stopped
|Accept null hypothesis:
Allow the trawler
Fishery sustainable and successfully fished
|Type II error:
Fishery exploited beyond sustainable yields
So, if my concerns are false but the trawler is stopped or the quota reduced, a Type I error has occurred, but the consequences of that error are pretty minor. SeaFish Tasmania loses some money, AFMA (www.afma.gov.au ) loses a contract and the Margiris’s European owners lose a potential market selling the catch to Africa. Forty theoretical Tasmanian jobs disappear.
If my concerns are true and the trawler fishery goes ahead as planned, a Type II error has occurred. The consequences here are a little uncertain but potentially much more serious. We could see local fish stock depletion, changes in marine food webs, loss of local predatory fish species, changes in fish communities and impacts on local fisheries. We could see jack mackerel and redbait numbers crash, with unknown ecosystem consequences. It’s not certain to happen. It may not even be likely to happen, but the uncertainty is high enough that I believe it’s a significant risk.
I don’t believe we’ll see an orange roughy scale disaster with the Margiris, but I do believe there are serious risks related to her operations and quota and think we should apply a precautionary approach. Personally, I’d like to see the quota lowered to 5 % with monitoring of fish populations over next 3 years to:
- Confirm stock estimates, including identifying any evidence of shifts in response to climate change;
- Confirm no evidence of localised depletion or loss of genetic diversity; and
- Confirm no resultant shifts in predator populations.
When I take into consideration my other concerns about the Margiris – that she and ships like her have been implicated in fishery collapse in European and African waters, that she is a vector for the spread of marine diseases and invasive species, and that the industrial nature of her operations means she’ll only provide employment for 40 locals – I believe the risks outweigh any potential benefits. Add to that the environmental impact of sending a ship from Europe to operate in Australia for fish to sell in Africa and it doesn’t look sustainable at all; environmentally, socially, financially or ethically.
This is why I still say no. Pauline, I hope this answers your questions!
In theory I’m still on sabbatical and this blog should be dormant, but I just can’t help myself. I have to climb on my soap-box and open my big aquatic scientist mouth.
So what’s got me worked up enough to break my self-imposed silence? The imminent arrival of the FV Margiris, the world’s second-largest trawler, currently on its way to Tasmania to take up a licence for fishing jack mackerel (Trachurus declivis & Trachurus symmetricus) & and redbait (Emmelichthys nitidus).
There’s been a lot of noise in the media about this “super-trawler”, reflecting a lot of unhappiness in the community at large. Despite the promise of much-needed jobs in northern Tasmania, the local community is strongly opposed to the Margiris’s arrival, fearing devastating impacts on local fish stocks and the long-term sustainability of the local fishery. It’s not often you see environmentalists and fisher-folk standing arm-in-arm in Australia (just look at the debate over marine reserves), but right now common concerns are bridging the historical divide.
The 142 m long ship can process over 250 tonnes of fish per day, towing a 300 m net through the water. It’s a pelagic trawler, which means the net doesn’t scrape the bottom, but rather scoops through open waters, funnelling fish and other marine animals through its 2 800 m2 mouth. The operators, Seafish Tasmania, claim the trawl net is fitted with proven marine mammal exclusion devices and that by-catch is minimised. I can only hope they’re right.
The Margiris holds a licence for an 18 000 tonne* quota of jack mackerel and redbait to be fished over the Australian Small Pelagic Fishery Area. How many fish is this? Given rough estimate of 1 kg per fish (based on size to weight ratios), that’s 18 000 000 fish per year!
Opponents are worried about both whole-of-fishery and local-scale stock depletion: that the Margiris will take more fish than the ocean can sustain. The quota has been set by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in theory based on sound science, but there’s no great surprise that the community is sceptical. AFMA doesn’t have the best track record in accurately estimating sustainable yields and no-one in Tasmania has forgotten the near-extinction of the orange roughy, so let’s take a look at the science behind the Margiris’s quota: AFMA admits that the data used to calculate sustainable catch levels is 8 years old. Given the age of the data and the fact that it wasn’t collected for quota-determination purposes, it’s fair to question the reliability of the data. AFMA claims to have taken this uncertainty into account by setting the quota at the most conservative level of for sustainability derived from the data set. But is this good enough?
The truth is we can’t honestly model the impacts of fishing at this scale on the ecosystem. Modern science simply doesn’t have enough information or understanding of the complex factors and interactions involved in moderating marine ecosystems. There are incredibly complex food webs involved, a lack of information on fish movements, genetic exchange and breeding patterns, and huge gaps of our understanding of the impacts of weather and climate on breeding and survival rates. Fish stocks vary in response to many factors including climate cycles (El Niño versus La Niña years), water quality and chemistry, terrestrial run-off, predator pressure, habitat quantity, quality and connectivity and a multitude of other factors. The inter-relationships and feedback loops between these factors are complex and poorly understood. To add to the uncertainty, eight years is a long time in fishery population terms and we have no information on recruitment rates since the data was collected. Much could have changed in that period of time.
Add to that the impacts of a changing climate. Ocean temperatures and currents are changing and no research has been done on the impact of these changes on redbait & jack mackerel stocks. The climate will continue to change and we have no way of accurately predicting the future impacts of these changes on our fisheries. Given the high level of uncertainty, taking the lower yield estimate from eight-year-old data can hardly be called the conservative approach! To truly apply the precautionary principle I think it would be fair to initially harvest half the current quota, and to put in place a monitoring program to verify the impacts on the fishery over several generations and recruitment events.
Word is, however, that reducing the Margiris’s quota would make the venture financially unviable. So we have a fishery that’s only marginally profitable – given a pretty liberal estimate of fish stocks and a large quota – in an area with strong community opposition and significant concerns over local environmental, social and economic impacts. That really doesn’t sound like a sustainable business to me!
I don’t think the Margiris belongs in Australian waters under its planned operational regime, and I’d question the viability of super-trawler fishery operations anywhere on this watery planet. We already have a sad legacy of collapsed fisheries around the world; please don’t risk plundering our waters for short-term profits and a lack of rigorous science.
For balanced, fact-based information about the super-trawler debate, check out the following references and make up your own mind:
- ABC 7:30 Report investigation
- ABC Background Briefing coverage
- Seafish Tasmania FAQ page
- Australian Fisheries Management Authority Margiris FAQ page
- Department of Environment & Heritage: Australian small pelagic fishery report
- Australian Small Pelagic Fishery Management Plan (2009)
If, like me, you still think the Margiris is a bad idea, add your voice to the protest over at stopthetrawler.net
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.
Y’know something that really annoys me? Food waste. It could be the many hours I spent working in kitchens to support my studies, or it could just be simple economics, but it riles me.
There’s little sadder than seeing the hard work of our primary producers wind up in the garbage bin, uneaten and unwanted. You’re not just throwing away your own money, but also the labour, water, nutrients, transport and storage that got that food from the farm to you. It’s not just the lost resources either. Food rotting in land fill produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more climate-affecting than CO2. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary waste!
How bad is the problem? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Australia we throw out around 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That works out to about $ 7.8 billion in food waste, just looking at sale price alone! 40 % of our average household garbage is food waste – that’s taking out the people who compost – and in some parts of the country as much as 20% of the total food we buy is thrown away. With 30% of our population living below the poverty line how can we afford to waste so much food? I just don’t get it!
Lately I’ve come across a few organisations doing their bit for reducing food waste in Australia by taking the surplus from the fortunate and using it to feed the hungry. Here in Tasmania there’s Produce to the People, who collect the excess from backyard veggie gardens. In the bigger Australian cities groups like OzHarvest, Second Bite, Foodbank and Fare Share collect from supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Similar volunteer groups and food charities are popping up in major cities across the westernised world. These are fantastic programs, helping to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and redistributing the surplus it to where it’s needed, but I think it’s also important to do what you can on a personal level to ensure you get the most out of the food you grow and buy.
Very little food goes to waste in my house and what does goes back into the system via my compost bin, rather than rotting away as landfill. It does take a certain amount of effort though! I have to think about what I’m buying and make myself cook even when I really don’t feel like it. I buy in smaller quantities and seek out fresher local produce, so have to hit up the shops a little more often, and when I have over-bought or have been too busy to cook I need to come up with creative ways to use up the excess before it spoils (or freeze it until I land an idea later). As a side benefit, getting the most out of my food gives me a little more disposable income to splurge on a nice wine to wash my meals down with, or the occasional gourmet treat!
Here are my favourite methods for using up food and preventing waste:
- Save any sad-looking veggies or edible offcuts for making stock. I have a bag in the freezer that scraps get thrown into as I go, then once it’s full I’ll add some dried mushrooms or the bones from a roast chook and turn it into tasty stock.
- Preserve it! Make sweet sauces from over-ripe fruit, turn a tomato glut into chutney or simply pickle extra veggies for a piquant treat to enjoy when they go out of season.
- Turn extra herbs into pesto, or chop them finely and freeze in small servings for future cooking.
- Freeze cream or plain yoghurt into icecube trays, then add a few cubes to stews or sauces when you need to.
- Poach or bake fruit that’s past it’s best and add it to your morning cereal or enjoy it as a dessert.
- Get creative in the kitchen; challenge yourself to use up everything perishable before buying fresh food and see what you can invent from the odds and ends hiding in your fridge and cupboards (I’ve made some of my favourite meals this way)
- Cook it all up into tasty meals and freeze them in portions for lunches. With a hot home-made curry or stir-fry instead of a sandwich you’ll be the envy of the work lunchroom!
- Share the love: put on a feast for friends or give away food you won’t use instead of letting it go to waste.
Last week I went to listen to Warren Macdonald give a talk about his life, philosophies and experiences. The key theme of Warren’s talk was coping with change and a comment he made in passing really got me thinking…
Talking about coaching corporate clients on coping with change Warren commented that they often find it impossible to accept that global economy has permanently changed; that the “Global Financial Crisis” isn’t a temporary blip but a turning point but a brave new frontier.
So are we really watching the death of modern democratic capitalism? I can’t help but think that Warren’s right. This economic slow-down isn’t like others we’ve weathered: for the first time we’re experiencing a lack of capital. We seem to have reached the limits of our resources.
Combined with the stressors of climate change and peak oil production it seems highly unlikely that the good times will return. Economies around the world are collapsing with the exception of those countries lucky enough to still have natural resources left to exploit (and living in one such country it’s obvious that the resulting two-speed economy is entirely unsustainable. When we run out of things to dig up and export Australia too will be in economic trouble.). Countries harder hit by recession are trending towards political extremism at both ends of the spectrum in what seem like great acts of denial that the way we live needs to change.
Meanwhile the global distribution of wealth slides ever further into gross inequality, with the world’s richest 1% commanding 40% of global wealth (though it must be noted that the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has continually decreased over the last 30 years) and the general public seems more interested in celebrities than science, and politics than policy, with the media happy to play along. Here in Australia the quality of political discourse appears to have hit an all-time low, with politicians obsessed with popularity and opinion polls instead of sound policy and solid ethics. It’s getting rather depressing.
I look around me, at the politics, the economics, the environment, the science and the culture and become more and more certain that big change is coming. We in the first world can’t keep consuming at the current rate; the rich can’t keep accumulating greater wealth; corporations can’t keep selling us more stuff we don’t need. Our resources are finite and we’re crashing into our limits, but there is hope.
A growing number of people seem to be challenging what I see as our toxic culture, questioning the conventional economic thinking that continual growth is essential, that quality of life is intrinsically linked to spending power. I keep meeting thoughtful, intelligent people who are opting out, choosing a simpler life in the search for sustainability and happiness. Revolting against the dominant paradigm, these folk are finding that a life with a lower income and more hard work can actually prove more joyful than the coveted big-house-in-the-suburbs lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not consigning themselves to struggle-street or sacrificing modern conveniences completely, but making a conscious decision to question their values and reduce their consumption. They’re living smaller, more connected lives, more closely linked to nature and community, and they seem to be happier for it.
More and more people seem to be accepting that the world has changed, working with it instead of fighting and proving that sometimes less really is more. They inspire me.
Change is inevitable, but when we embrace it we can thrive.
Do you think the world has irrevocably changed in recent years? Have you made significant changes to your way of life? How has change shaped who you are and how you’re living?
 A few years ago Warren lost both his legs in a freak hiking accident. Now he climbs mountains and inspires others to find their passion and test their limits. Learn more about Warren at www.warren-macdonald.com.
 Wikipedia: Causes of the Great Depression & Causes of the GFC
 France goes socialist, Greece rejects austerity measured but fails to elect a government with votes split between fascist & socialist parties and the Tory-led UK is looking more and more like a basket case.