When you’re living in a desert city of 10 million people in the developing world resources are stretched tightly. There’s not much room for nature in Lima, beyond the inevitable urban pigeons and a few hardy native birds that take advantage of the artificial oases of urban parks and gardens. There’s no space for wild places within the vast city limits, with one remarkable exception: Los Pantanos de Villa.
Los Pantanos is the sole protected natural area within the Lima urban footprint. It’s what’s left of the band of coastal wetlands that first allowed people to flourish in the desert. It’s why the original inhabitants built their towns and temples here, long before the Spanish dreamt of Incan gold and conquest. Over time the urban creep of the city has consumed much of these important habitats, and now Los Pantanos is all that remains, a surprising wedge of green constrained by dusty urban development and the sea.
In a city like Lima, an urban swamp becomes a treasure. Las Pantanos is an oasis of biodiversity here in the city. It has been named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention1, which recognises its value as habitat for waterbirds on an international scale. When I visited Los Pantanos de Villa in November, when the migratory birds were just beginning to arrive for the summer, it’s importance to waterbird conservation was immediately evident.
It’s not just the waterbirds that make this place special, however. The surprising variety of wetland types within the reserve mean it supports a diverse array of life for such a small space. There are blackwater, saline, acidic, basic, freshwater and brackish water ponds, each with their own specific biological communities, from the algae in the water that form the base of the food chain to the surrounding vegetation and the animals that call it home.
The water that feeds this complex ecosystem originates high in the Andes. Wet season rainfall slowly percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, seeping it’s way beneath the desert and reaching the wetlands some four months later. Here it interacts with the ocean currents and salinity to well up to the surface, forming this intriguing mosaic of marshes and ponds. This slow and complex fluvial geomorphology brings life to the desert.
The park buzzes with dragonflies, damselflies and other insects with aquatic larval phases, which in turn provide rich pickings to the spiders and terrestrial birds. The dense thickets of reeds and mounds of samphire provide excellent habitat for any number of small critters that would otherwise be homeless in the urban expanse of Lima. There’s even a remnant population of wild-type guinea pigs, locally extinct, surviving in the centre of the swamplands.
The birds are the big drawcard though, and in summer the migratory species descend in their thousands to feed and breed in the reserve and on the adjoining beach. On the day I visited a small ceremony was held to herald the first arrivals of the season and honour the special connection between land and sea these wetlands represent. It’s a great way to get the community involved with the reserve and build traditions that contribute to environmental education and protection, and it’s in the area of community engagement and education that Los Pantanos de Villa really shines.
I was lucky enough to meet the team of biologists and rangers who take care of this rather special place. They are passionate people who understand that real, long-term environmental protection needs the support of the community. This means helping people to understand and value the ecology of the wetlands and other protected areas, and the team are involved in a lot of outreach and communication work. They’re building a new visitors information and interpretation centre and nurturing relationships with local schools and institutions. They understand that, in the crowded suburbs of Lima, the reserve needs to be a good citizen and get along with its neighbours. The local community is learning to love what used to be thought of as wasted land, and through engagement and education activities environmental awareness is increasing.
The more people who understand the value of the wetland, the better protected it will be, long into the future. Like the ripples from the wake of an Andean Duck, these changes will fan out and build public understanding and value of the environment as a whole, from the urban fringes of Lima to the shrinking rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. These changes are the real impact of urban national parks and wildlife reserves: they provide an opportunity to connect city-dwellers with nature and sow the seeds of change. The most important thing is to get the conversation started.
Los Pantanos de Villa
What: Wildlife Refuge and wetlands complex, listed as a Protected Natural Area by the Ministry of the Environment, co-managed with the City of Lima
Where: Chorillos, a coastal suburb in the south of Lima, Peru
How: Take the Metropolitano mainline bus to Chorillos. From the bus station catch the yellow metro feeder bus. The Pantanos de Villa bus stop is on the main trail into the reserve.
Thanks to park manager Daniel Valle Basto and his wonderful team for inviting me to visit Low Pantanos de Villa and attend the welcoming ceremony for the birds. I’ll be back as soon as I can!
1. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention” — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.
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 been working on a serious post on seed legislation, GM crops and sustainability, but it’s going to take me a little longer to finish. I’m struggling to find time to research the issue thoroughly and I really want to make sure I’m properly informed. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote a little while ago and didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully I’ll have some science-based content ready for you soon! T.
Recently I realised, really properly realised, that my life is completely dependent on modern technological society.
It’s something I’ve been aware of, to some extent, but it’s only now that it’s really clicked how total that dependency is. I’m not talking the small stuff, like how I derive my income, clothe myself and support my lifestyle. I’m not talking about the medium stuff, like my dependence on modern agriculture, transport, water and sanitation systems. Yes, if those systems collapsed right now I’d be in a lot of strife. Our society would fail and life would be extremely different and difficult, but it wouldn’t kill me. The loss of modern medicine? That would.
I am medication-dependent. I have no thyroid gland. We killed mine, modern medicine and I, bombarding it with radiation until my ability to regulate my own metabolism was no more. There was nothing wrong with my thyroid, per se. We killed it because we couldn’t find a way to stop my immune system from attacking it, and with a rogue immune response on the rampage I was pretty sick and would eventually get terminally so or go into thyroid burn-out anyway.
I am medication-dependent. My life depends on the technological-industrial machine. Somewhere they make synthetic thyroid hormone, press it into tablets and pack it into blister-packs of 100 doses. From that somewhere they ship it great distances to my local pharmacy, where it finds its way to me. They need to be refrigerated, my little life pills, as the hormone starts breaking down after two weeks at ambient temperatures.
I am medication-dependent. I need access to a doctor who understands my ailment. I need routine blood tests to confirm my synthetic dose. I need international freight, aluminium blister packaging and refrigeration just to survive. That means I need the mining, mineral processing, manufacturing, petroleum, transport, refrigeration, pharmaceutical and health-care industries so that I can stay alive. I am completely dependent on the system, and that’s a very sobering thought indeed.
If I go off-grid, I get sick and I die.
How many of us are there? Every person with a thyroid condition, with insulin-dependent diabetes, with rheumatoid arthritis or one of hundreds of other non-terminal-if-treated conditions. Millions of us, all dependent on the technological-industrial complex to keep our bodies functioning, to stay alive.
Today I was seriously thinking about my future, about where I want to go, what I want to do with this one precious shot at life. I want to change the world, but at the same time I have to live within it. I could choose to reject this modern technological society, to live outside it, truly sustainably and free, but to do so would, ironically, be choosing to die.
A grim choice, indeed, but one I’m lucky to even be able to make because I had the good fortune to be born here, in the turn-of-the-century developed world. I got sick and modern medicine took care of me. For how many others is there no choice at all? No access to the life-saving interventions and drugs we rarely stop to consider? It’s making me stop and really think about what a human life is worth versus the value of our planet and the ecosystems that support the whole 7 billion (and rising) of us. Is it justified, this environmentally-costly medical intervention? I’m certainly very happy to be alive and in good health, and being aware of just how tenuous good health can be, has driven me to make the most of the time I have here, to try to leave the world in a better state, but is my life really worth it? Am I worth the sum of my impacts? Is caring for the sick environmentally sound?
Whatever the answers, I know I’m incredibly privileged to be here, to have the machine on my side. I’m forever grateful to my doctors and for everything that goes into these little white pills that keep me alive. I can’t opt out of the machine now, my life is tied to it, but I can choose what I do with this life. I’m lucky to be here, the least I can do is try to make the world a better place, not just for me, but for everyone.
This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
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?
It’s time for another guest post! I believe we should hear from a range of different voices in the sustainability conversation: we have different perspectives, expertise and experiences and should learn from each other, working together to build a shared vision of the future. Fracturing into camps (locavores, vegans, off-the-gridders and the rest of us just trying to step a little more lightly and make sense of it all…) does us no favours at all. I want to build a community where all our voices are heard, and I could use a step down from my soap-box here and there. So if you’re interested in having your say, please drop me a line and come join the conversation.
Today’s post is from my friend Van, a keen naturalist with a background in environmental sciences. These days Van is a freelance journalist, poet and weaver based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Van writes beautifully about nature and the pursuit of sustainable living, drawing inspiration from his local environment and his personal sense of connection to place. He regards a river as metaphor for life and shares his words through his blog: Speed River Journal. I recommend heading over for a read.
I hope Van’s vision of the shape of things to come gives you food for thought and that the conversation keeps on growing.
We live in such a dynamic time I want to live long enough to see what happens to our civilization, but things probably will not play out that quickly.
We can address the shape of things to come from three different perspectives:
- We can deny global environments are being degraded and civilization is at risk of collapse.
- We can acknowledge the problem and try to fix what is broken,
- or try predicting what is likely to happen and prepare for it.
Most environmentalists fall into the second category. Environmental thinkers have likened people’s attitudes about climate change to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair and acceptance. They assume when enough people reach acceptance, we can all buckle down and fix this dilemma. Unfortunately, in terms of grief, acceptance seldom involves saving what was lost. It means letting go, which scares most people. They do not want to talk about giving up the fight.
My mother died of breast cancer in February 2008 at the age of 74. She was able to enjoy most of the last six years after her diagnosis because she accepted her mortality. She undertook some treatment and was in remission for a brief period, but in the end she was less concerned with fighting the disease than with treating each day as a gift. Acceptance means being realistic about limited opportunities and making the most of them.
Faith in a cure for climate change is another form of denial, especially when it supports continued consumption of non-renewable resources. The system is limited and if we cannot control our urge to take more than we put back, it will enforce its own limits. Our biosphere has already changed irrevocably. We must face the mortality of our convenient, petroleum-based way of life. Technology cannot facilitate endless consumption, it can only give us useful tools for sustainable living.
We must believe the testimony of history. Civilizations collapsed, over and over again, whenever:
- too much power was held by the elite,
- food production could not support expanding population,
- environmental degradation threatened food security, and
- wars erupted over scarce resources.
History also offers a prognosis: civilization will fail but people will survive. We probably will not see and apocalyptic disaster, but a gradual dwindling of population and prosperity. We should focus our ingenuity on this likelihood of survival.
I can hardly begin to understand or address what our strategy should be. Here are some principles I believe we must follow:
- Communities are the best social units for solving people’s problems, so we must strengthen them.
- Establish and protect local food security and include everyone in its production.
- Restrict the power of corporations.
- Rely on sustainable energy sources.
- Make nature—both nurturing and brutal—more accessible to people.
- Build rich, biodiverse ecosystems everywhere.
- Look for ways to ease the transition to a simpler way of life.
- Seek satisfaction more in experiences than things.
- Let us all find work that contributes to the community and makes us happy.
- Enjoy every day.
Let us begin the conversation.
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
It’s early spring here in southern Tasmania; no doubt about it. The bulbs have pushed their green fingers through wet soil, the daffodils have thrust their cheerful faces towards the sky and the garden is gently unfurling itself, seeking the warming sun. The nights are still chilly but the days are lighter and warmer, and this weekend the first bees appeared, contentedly buzzing among the bright blue flowers of my borage.
It’s the lean season in the garden: winter crops of brassicas are going to seed and falling victim to the aphids that manage to appear out of nowhere. My spring greens, freshly planted, are little more than shoots and sprouts and the summer veg still lie in coiled potential within their seeds, sleeping in the warmth of my tiny greenhouse. The lack of local produce at this time of year can be felt at the grocery store and at the market. Winter root vegetables are past their best, with potatoes threatening to sprout in the cupboard and parsnips turning woody. There’s still kale about, but after 4 months of kale feast I’ve had my fill until next winter. At my local grocer the shelves are stocked with eggplant from north Queensland ($14 a kilo!), strawberries from Western Australia and green beans from somewhere in northern New South Wales. It’s all food that’s travelled a long way from market, by boat or plane, or spent months in cold storage, before it reaches our plates.
Me, I like to eat fresh local produce that reflects the seasons. There’s a whole load of good reasons to do this:
- Local food gets to you sooner, so the food is fresher, tastes better and has peak nutrient content.
- It’s more energy efficient, as less energy has been used to store and transplant the food.
- Seasonal growing also requires fewer resources as we’re working with nature: no lighting, no heating, less fertilizers, less pesticides and less irrigation.
- Seasonal eating allows us to taste the changing seasons and be more connected with the world around us.
- It supports local growers and brings local products to market, improving food security and helping to build community.
- It’s cheaper, as you’re not paying for the transport, storage, and other resources, plus you can grow a lot to eat yourself!
So what to eat in Hobart in September, when the pickings are slim and the shops full of imports? It turns out that there’s quite a lot! Between my little garden and Farm Gate Market I’m managing surprisingly well. You just might need to broaden your definition of vegetables to get the most out of early spring. A 10 minute forage in my still-establishing garden yielded the array of tasty goodies pictured above:
- The last tiny shoots of sprouting broccoli, surprisingly sweet and just bite-sized.
- Delicate fronds of salad burnet, rapidly unfurling new spring growth.
- The first pickable leaves of oak lettuce, a self self-sown surprise in the berry bed.
- The last few leaves of my winter crop of rocket (arugula), now in full flower.
- “Rocketini” – the whole seedling thinnings from the spring crop of rocket – densely packed with nutrients and flavour.
- Soft new leaves of the nasturtiams - such a lovely peppery taste.
- A few sprigs of salad-friendly herbs: coriander shoots, sea celery and deep green mint.
- a beautiful selection of edible blooms: bright yellow kale, maroon and cream rocket, borage blue and the cheery orange of nasturtiam.
Edible flowers are one of my favourite spring garden things, and this evening’s pickings turned my garden fresh salad into a delicious, nutritious work of art. With the addition of avocado donated by a friend with a bumper crop, some baby radish greens* from the incredible new season radishes I picked up at the Market (thanks Provenance Growers!), some Huon Valley smoked salmon and a splash of local raspberry vinegar for dressing, everything on my plate this evening came from this little isle and most of it came from my back yard, a new patch that’s only just beginning its kitchen-garden journey.
That said, I still find myself yearning for a glossy dark eggplant (aubergine) or a bright red capsicum (bell pepper). I grew up in Queensland where European veg grows through the winters and summers are full of south-east Asian flavours, but I have learnt that the well-travelled specimens that grace our southern shores are a poor echo of the flavours I’m dreaming of. Better off waiting for the long days of late summer, when the locally grown stuff appears and life is Mediterranean-flavoured. For now I’ll celebrate the flavours of Tasmanian spring in all its fresh green glory, and preserve the few excesses of the season to flavour the summer to come.
Want to know what’s in season where you are? There are lots of great, region-specific seasonal food guides available on-line, or wander down to your local produce market and see for yourself!
* Yes, radish leaves are perfectly edible! So are beetroot leaves. Both can be used as salad or lightly stir-fried but the youngest, freshest leaves are best.
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.
Wood heaters, eh?
In the month I’ve been living here in the Cottage I’ve developed a complicated relationship with mine.
I’ve learnt, now, how to get a decent blaze going with minimal fuss and there’s little nicer than curling up in front of a toasty fire on a cold night, glass of red in hand. The heat it produces is lovely, and when it’s working properly I can set it before bed and the house will stay toasty warm all night. Poking and prodding the fire into cooperation is fun and it’s immensely satisfying to get a good burn going on a cold night.
It’s less fun, however, on nights like tonight when the weather’s foul and I work late, and at 9 pm it’s still a little chilly even with the fire going. It’s been raining all day so the firewood is damp and the baffle plate on the flue has bent (yet again), jamming the flue wide open and significantly reducing the efficiency of my burn and heat transfer.
Heh, a month ago I had no idea what a baffle plate was, let alone what it did. I’d not spared much thought to wood moisture content or burn efficiency, and I’d never considered the price of firewood by the tonne (between $150 and $200, for the curious).
I still feel a little guilty about lighting the fire. In a State where my power is hydro-electric (not exactly environmentally benevolent, but a darn sight better than coal), lighting the fire is both less efficient (in terms of energy cost by yield) and generates a lot more emissions (CO2 and particulate emissions) than using electric heating.
On top of that, the wood I’m burning has to come from somewhere. The current fuel for my fire comes from a beautiful old eucalypt tree that had to be felled over at the House of the Gumtrees (mmm, free firewood!), however my ex-landlord only let me take what I could fit in my Corolla (a surprisingly large amount when you’re determined…) and I’m about to run out. Firewood sales in Tasmania are unregulated, with many sellers setting up trucks on the roadside with cheap loads for sale. Problem is you don’t know where that wood has come from or what condition it’s in:
- Is is green, wet or rotten?
- Was it illegally taken from State Forests, National Parks or trespassing on private land?
- Were old hollowed trees felled that provide important habitat for wildlife (including several endangered species)?
And that’s without considering if it’s actually the tonnage they’re saying it is!
There’s no hiding from the truth: the wood heater is not an environmentally friendly way to heat my home! It’s what I’ve got, however, so it’s up to me to make the best of it.
I’ve been researching wood heaters and firewood recently and I’ve learnt that:
- The moisture content of your timber needs to be below 25% for an efficient burn.
- Burning green or wet timber increases particulate emissions (as well as being much less efficient).
- Even stored under cover, firewood has an amazing capacity to absorb moisture on rainy days.
- Burning pine needles is fun.
- Baffle plates significantly improve the heat exchange from your wood heater (and having it bend and jam open – again – is a bad thing. *sigh*).
- Burning old painted fence posts is an environmental no-no, no matter how much free timber it is or how much your lovely new neighbours assure you it’ll be ok.
- Accidentally throwing in an envelope with a plastic window results in noxious fumes: don’t do it.
- You can’t add the ash and charcoal to your compost, but a small amount mixed with other things is ok in mulch.
- There’s no regulation of the firewood industry in Australia, and there are a lot of dodgy vendors in Hobart (if the internet is to be believed)
- There is a voluntary industry code of practice that sets out standards that wood will be sustainably harvested, in accordance with all laws and protective orders, stored correctly and sold with moisture contents below 25%, with weighbridge tickets provided.
- There is one supplier in the whole of Tasmania who is signatory to the voluntary code, and they’ll deliver to my suburb.
- The cold metal of my bed frame is very nice to rest my blistered skin on when I inevitably burn myself on the wood heater door/frame/handle
- So. Many. Splinters.
So, after a little research and environmental guilt I’ve come to the following positions:
- The wood heater only gets lit if (1) the temperature is below 10oC and (2) I’m going to be home all night (no fire on taiko training nights!)
- Use discarded newspaper from work and household waste (loo rolls, paperwork from the last lease, letters from politicians) to get the fire started
- Pay the extra to buy firewood from the lone code signatory supplier; it’s not that much more than other suppliers and I know it’s as ethically sound as I’m going to get.
- Keep my garden prunings to burn next winter: at least the damn invasive vine I cut down will be useful!
- When the fire’s lit, actively enjoy it.
Hence I’m writing this sitting on my couch, watching the flames over the top of my monitor instead of working with the lap-top docked in the study. If I’m going to commit environmental crimes in the name of keeping warm I may as well keep the most of it, and once Winter properly arrives and the fire is going during the day on weekends I intend to try my hand at cooking on the coals. I’m thinking coal-roasted foil-wrapped eggplant (that’s aubergine for the northern-hemispherians) is going to be a beautiful thing. Baba ganoush for all!
This weekend I’m going to buy my first load of firewood and spend far too much time hauling and stacking the stuff in the little space under the house, and I’ll be talking to my landlord about getting that warped baffle plate replaced this time instead of another attempt at repair. Right now though I’m going to finish this post then put another piece of tree on the fire, sit back and watch the flames while I finish the glass of red that’s mysteriously appeared in front of me.
Have you ever lived with a wood heater or fireplace? Got any firey tips for this recovered teenage pyromaniac?
Come sit with me and tell me all about it. There’s enough red wine to share and though my couch may be fat and bulky it’s pretty comfy.
Last week I was lucky enough to score an invitation to tour the new Sustainability Learning Centre, under construction here in Hobart (thank you, day job!)
Developed as a partnership between the Department of Education, Greening Australia, the Catholic Education Office, the Association of Independent Schools of Tasmania and the CSIRO, the Centre will be a mixed educational, research and operational facility, attached to Hobart College. That’s pretty cool and all, but what makes the Centre so exciting and the reason for our tour is that the construction is a showcase of sustainable design in action.
The architects (morrison & breytenbach) are aiming for a 6-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia, which would place the building in the “world leadership” category for environmentally sustainable design. To get this certification the building uses a range of clever designs and materials. Being able to get a look at the construction process to see how it’s done was fascinating!
Here are a few of the design aspects and construction techniques they’re using for the project:
- Recycled building materials – all steel including the roofing, major structural timbers, bricks, crushed glass (as fill, aggregate and in concrete) and some insulation. Even the office desks will be made with recycled floorboards!
- Passive solar design – floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows (double-glazed) with Trombe walls and other convective and radiative heat transfer structures, coupled with clever insulation (ceiling, under-floor, window frames, etc.) and venting systems to allow good thermal control (openable windows – how sadly novel in a modern building).
- Alternative energy infrastructure – solar photo-voltaic cells, solar evacuated tubing water heating, underfloor water-based heating (powered by used cooking oil) and maximised sunlight.
- Alternative building materials & techniques – clinka for insulating aggregate and ‘concrete’, PVC-free materials (polyethylene plumbing and e-cables), using screws and nails in place of adhesives, minimal steel and concrete use (mostly recycled)
- Water saving – rainwater, greywater and blackwater capture, treatment and re-use, including water-garden filtering and small-scale drinking water treatment.
Sadly I forgot to grab my camera (first thing Friday morning is not my sharpest time) so I don’t have any photos to share. More disappointingly, there isn’t a web site for the project, so at present there’s no way yet to share all the great information and resources from the project with the wider public. Greening Australia are planning to put a site together soon though, and students at Hobart College have been able to study the design and construction as it progresses: a great hands-on way to build interest in and understanding of sustainable design.
I really hope this project gets some more promotion and the partners involved work to get information out about the techniques and materials used and the resources available for those of us interested in applying sustainable design principles to our own homes and projects. The people I spoke to seemed surprised that I thought it so important as “the information’s all out there”. Yes, there’s a lot of information out there, but without serious research or expertise it’s impossible to know what will and won’t work in a specific city or climate, or what is suitable and efficient to apply at domestic scales. It’s also hard to find information on what’s actually available in terms of resources, materials skills and knowledge in your local area, and to build those networks between designers, suppliers, builders and ourselves.
Hopefully Greening Australia Tasmania will get a suitable website going soon and we can all share in what’s been learnt through this project; meanwhile I’m happy to be sharing the many things I learnt last Friday. Most of all I’m very pleased to know that we have the knowledge, skills and determination to get a project like this happening in Hobart: little city on an island at the bottom of the world, far away from the environmental leading lights of Europe. If we can do it, with our small population, apparent skills shortage, shitty economy and the tyranny of distance, then most anywhere can. The key ingredient is finding the people with the drive and leadership to steer the idea to reality.
We need more people who believe that projects like this can be done, and finding that they exist might just have been the most exciting part of my little tour.
Have you thought about building ‘green’? Please share your projects, inspirations, experiences and resources!
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.
Slowly but surely the house move is happening. I have the keys to the Cottage, half of my possessions are boxed up, I’ve eaten my way through everything perishable in the kitchen and I’ve sold, donated or made gifts of a raft of unnecessary possessions (though in the process of packing I keep finding yet more things I’m happy to live without and will be re-homing once moved). I’m excited about the Cottage and looking forward to turning it into my cozy, sustainable home and finally getting started on that garden. Yet I find myself procrastinating, time and again, drifting off in day-dreams of where I’d rather be…
You see, it’s Fagus season here in Tassie: that special time of year when the only deciduous plant on our ancient island – the Tanglefoot Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) – turns the slopes of Mt. Field and Cradle Mountain golden with its firey foliage.
The Nothofagus genus is a relic of Australia’s Gondwanan past: an ancient plant family once common across Australia, Antarctica and South America. Of the three species left in Australia, two are found in Tasmania: the majestic evergreen myrtle beech (N. cunninghamii) and the incredible endemic tanglefoot. While myrtle beech forests are still quite widespread, both in Tasmania and on the south-eastern Australian mainland, the tanglefoot is not only found on two rugged Tasmanian mountaintops: Mt. Field, near Hobart, and Cradle Mountain in the island’s north-eastern highlands.
It’s an incredibly slow-growing plant, highly sensitive to fire and other disturbances and notoriously difficult to propagate: not exactly a prime candidate for survival in our rapidly changing modern world! There’s no arguing, however, that our Tassie Fagus is really rather special.
Both the Cradle Mountain and Mt. Field Fagus forests are protected national parks, and around this time each year hundreds of keen bushwalkers and nature photographers like me trek around these mountains, lugging heavy lenses and tripods, to witness and document the beauty of this fascinating plant. Except this year I’m not joining them: I’m moving house instead.
Thus I dawdle in my labours, lost in wistful longings for misty mountainsides, painfully early mornings and the unforgettable sight of Cradle Mountain – one of my favourite places in the world – draped in that golden autumn coat of fagus.
Next year, I promise!
I’ve just returned from a short trip up to the southern Gold Coast to spend the Easter break with my family. It’s a trip I make about once a year to hug my parents, play with my niece and spend some quality time with the kind of old friends who have become family.
I missed out on a window seat this trip, so instead of spending the flight more-or-less glued to the window, watching the landscape unfolding below, I got to thinking about my travels in the context of sustainability
Travel: it broadens the mind, feeds the soul and strengthens the bonds of family and friendship. What’s not to love about it? Well, environmentally-speaking not a lot!
Air travel is the single biggest contributor to my carbon footprint. This trip alone generated roughly 306 kg of CO2 (source: International Civil Aviation Organisation carbon offset calculator). I also make one or two trips to Melbourne each year to catch up with friends and to dip my toe back into the rushing current of modern life: a much-needed perspective check when you live in a beautiful but isolated backwater like Tasmania. That’s around 172 kg CO2 per trip.
This year I’m also heading off overseas for the first time in 6 years. I’m heading off to South America for a few weeks to experience new cultures and explore remarkable environments like Machu Picchu and the Atacama Desert. Getting there and back again? A whopping 1 994 kg of CO2!
For flights booked so far this year I’m clocking up a total of 2 563 kg of CO2 (and that’s without any business travel).
My annual carbon footprint without flights comes in at around 5 tonnes (source: CarbonFootprint.com), so my flights add another 50% to my impact, bumping it up to 7.6 tonnes CO2 p.a. – that’s not a good number. So flying is definitely bad from the carbon emissions perspective, putting a big black mark in the environmental component of my sustainability score. Does that mean I shouldn’t fly? What about all the benefits of my travels?
Living a sustainable life means making choices that also look after my mental and physical health, build strong social networks and interpersonal relationships and live a life that inspires, challenges and enriches me. Travel provides an excellent way to meet many of my personal objectives. My social and personal benefits of travel include:
- Maintaining family relationships
- Building and strengthening my friendships and support networks
- Growing my awareness and understanding of other cultures and ways of doing things
- Inspiring personal change and global thinking
- Learning from others and from the experiences travel provides
- Developing a greater appreciation of the world, its environments and cultures
These are all good things, for sure, but are they enough to balance out the environmental costs? Are there other ways I could gain the benefits of travel without the CO2 emissions? I really don’t know.
What I do know is that I enjoy travel and everything it brings, and that means I’m probably going to find ways to justify keeping on flying, but perhaps I can travel a little smarter…
Better ways to travel:
- Flying less often (and making more use of Skype)
- Choosing closer destinations and non-stop flights
- Travelling by bus or train where possible and reasonably practical
- Paying extra for airline carbon offsets – does this accomplish anything? Perhaps a blog topic for another day!
- Tying overseas trips to environmental or social volunteer work
How do you reconcile your ideals with your impacts? What are your ideas for managing the impacts of travel?
Hello. It’s been a little quiet around here, and it’s going to stay so for a little while longer. Life is busy: big plans are afoot.
Last week I found myself a new home: a tiny cottage tucked away in the inner-Hobart suburb on Lenah Valley, neglected gem among ageing flats and renovated grandeur.
The cottage is old, though a thoughtful make-over about 15 years ago has made it comfortable. It’s small, basic, and is going to be a great exercise is living simply, as there’s no other way to make the place work. Aside from a few kitchen cupboards there’s no built-in storage and little room for furniture. There’s a cosy lounge, a workable but modest kitchen, an enclosed porch that’ll be my dining room (under lovely north-facing windows), a crowded bathroom-cum-laundry, a big-enough bedroom, and a teensy “second bedroom” that will just fit my desk and become the study.
I succeeded in getting my northerly aspect and efficient-to-heat spaces but didn’t do so well on insulation. The enclosed porch cannot be insulated and I’m pretty sure the main part of the cottage isn’t either. The floor has been tiled too, which may be a little chilly on winter mornings! Despite this, I don’t think I’m going to be too cold, for the lounge room houses a wood heater, built into the old fireplace. With a fire going the cottage will be toasty warm.
I was a little hesitant about taking a place with a wood heater, I must admit. It is more work and expense, buying and preparing firewood and collecting kindling, and the fire will need some time to get going before the cottage heats up. On top of that, burning wood for heat really isn’t the most environmentally-sound option when your power supply is hydro-electric. Of course hydro’s not a perfect option, but it’s a damn sight better than coal and green enough to make me think twice about lighting the fire.
In the end, the cottage ticked so many other boxes that I decided I could cope with the wood heater. The location is perfect: walking distance to shops and friends houses, a nice cycle to the office and my favourite coffee haunt, on a major bus route and in a surprisingly quiet little cul-de-sac off a main road. Although the kitchen window faces south, the rest of the cottage opens to the east and the north, making the most of the winter sun. Best of all though; it comes with a surprisingly large garden, ripe with potential!
It’s going to take some hard work to realise that potential, but I’m already dreaming about potato patches, beds of leeks, reams of beans and peas and a raft of sunflowers. The yard is fenced, so perhaps I could convince the landlords to let me have a couple of chickens to help keep the bugs down and give me fresh eggs. Oh, my mind is so full of ideas my hands itch to put into action!
I get the keys next week, on Friday the 13th (What better date to start a new adventure?), but there’s much to do between now and then. I’m sorting through and culling my possessions, reducing the amount of stuff I have to manage the lack of storage. The things I don’t need are being sorted into lots to sell, store, throw or give away, with attempts made to re-home as much as possible (I hate throwing out useful things!). I’m tidying the gardens here in preparation for leaving, digging up plants I plan to take with me and collecting seed. I’m refusing to shop, using up the food in my cupboards and cooking up all sorts of unusual but tasty things. Then there’s the inevitable paperwork associated with moving… Oh, and I’m broke. Paying bond plus double rent for a month will do that.
It’s Easter this weekend and the associated days off would be perfect for getting started on packing, but I won’t be here. Instead I’m travelling up to the sunny southern Gold Coast to spend time with family I haven’t seen in over a year. A trip booked in January, long before I’d thought about moving, to soothe the sting of not going home for Christmas. Yep, life is busy.
Wish me luck!