Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Compelling reasons to care about rural livelihoods

I recently came across this piece by Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year in 2007. Flannery, a mammalogist, paleontologist and global warming activist, published this piece in July, 2010, in The Age, the Melbourne newspaper. It appeared under two different headlines, "Saving the Bush," and "Should Australia Give Up on the Bush?" and was published in the run up to Australia's national elections in August, as suggested by the first few paragraphs:
As the 2010 election looms, the fate of rural Australia seems all but politically irrelevant. It has been decades since the bush had a strong political voice, and neither major party really understands it, nor is committed to it. 
If push comes to shove, they will always act on behalf of their urban base. That urban base is more alienated from regional Australia than ever before, its understanding going no deeper than the stories of drought, fire and farmer suicide that pepper our media.
Flannery refers to the cycle of boom and bust long associated with Australian farming, "with each cycle [leaving] the inland more degraded." He says the once productive countryside was a "moonscape" by the 1980s, lamenting the loss of biodiversity caused by farming. Then, however, the piece turns more hopeful. Flannery describes a number of agricultural innovations that hold the promise of rejuvenating the land, enhancing biodiversity and reversing climate change. Here's one of them:
Traditionally, livestock is kept in paddocks for weeks or months. They nibble away at the most nutritious plants, giving the noxious weeds an advantage, destroying biodiversity and profitability.

A new approach, holistic management, reverses this. The herds are moved from one small cell to another, as often as every day. The livestock eat everything in a cell, but over the following months the pasture is rested and the grass grows back luxuriant and sweet. Cattle are better fed, less worried by parasites (because the moving disrupts the parasite cycle), calmer and seemingly happier (perhaps because the animals live in a more natural herd structure). Farmers are happier, too, because their workload is more evenly spread and their businesses are more profitable.

In times past, ploughing was a declaration of war on biodiversity. Everything was killed, leaving a bare surface into which the crop was sown. Chemical fertilisers were then applied, and pesticides and herbicides sprayed to keep other species out. That destroyed not only plants, but soil fungi and bacteria that are essential to healthy soils. If the rains didn't come, the soil could end up in Sydney or across the Tasman. 
Traditional ploughing is being replaced by kinder methods such as "zero kill". Michael Inwood, a farmer near Bathurst, showed me how it works. You can't see where the plough has been in his fields because the native grassland remains thick and green, and his crops spring healthy from among the tussocks. You might think the wheat or oats would suffer from competition with the grass, but instead they benefit from the extra soil moisture and soil carbon. 
Inwood has gone a step further. He has done away with fossil fuels, dragging his modified plough behind an electric ute, which is powered by solar panels. His entire property runs on energy from the sun, and it remains as profitable as ever. But life is a lot richer than before because the environment is now home to fantastic biodiversity, including hawks that accompany him as he shifts his sheep from one grazing cell to another, and the lizards and other wildlife that benefit from the luxuriant native grasses.
Thus, Flannery asserts, the paddock and plough need no longer be "weapons of mass destruction." He also discusses wildlife conservation efforts and the "endless energy resources" of the interior, including geothermal, wind and solar.

Some of the innovations Flannery discusses may be similar to what USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager has been advocating in the United States. Here's an excerpt from a November, 2010, story in the Omaha World-Herald, quoting Tonsager:
Agriculture is at the forefront of changes that could transform the nation, he said, such as agricultural production increases that could help close the international trade gap, adoption of biofuels and other alternative energy sources, even new food supply structures that emphasize locally grown products. 
“Rural America has a shot at leading us out of the recession if we stand up and address the challenges,” said Tonsager, a former South Dakota farmer. The challenges include husbanding resources such as fertilizer and water, as well as developing scientific advances necessary to supply food and fuel.
Tonsager's thinking seems rather less sophisticated and visionary than Flannery's--and also more oriented to economics. But the quotes from Tonsager are also less detailed. Perhaps Tonsager's reference to "husbanding resources such as fertilizer and water," includes the sort of innovative practices Flannery touts. I hope so, because Flannery also makes the point that government support for these path-breaking and earth-saving initiatives is critical.

Indeed, to return to politics for a moment, I was heartened by Flannery's closing call for an appreciation of both rural and urban, as well as of the interconnectedness of the two.

[W]e need a new kind of politics reflecting the reality our nation, both city and country, needs to work together. Nation-building initiatives such as an east-west electricity interconnector are important not just for the opportunities they create, but for the message they bring: we're a nation united and by working together, we can bring opportunity to all.
If political powers in both the United States and Australia can see that rural and urban are interdependent, the current path of metrocentric and urbanormative law- and policy-making might be moderated to take into account rural livelihoods.

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