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You are here: Home Resources Nature and Society, Journal of the Frank Fenner Foundation 2001 Nature & Society - April 2001

Nature & Society - April 2001

The Forum's Journal

Editorial

In August 1999 Nature & Society reported on the revolutionary business approach taken by Interface, one of the world’s leading carpet manufacturers. Rather than aiming to sell ever more of its product, the company decided to sell a floor covering service. In its view customers did not want to own a carpet as much as to possess the feel, the comfort, the colour, the ambience of a good floor covering. To this end the company started a leasing service, with a guarantee that it would replace worn carpet tiles as needed. This could be done overnight, with no need for the major office disruptions caused by complete replacement; areas of heavy traffic wear are not under the furniture, and only about a fifth of the total would need replacement. The company also investigated new materials to replace its petroleum-based feedstock, and can now produce carpets from maize and other renewable resources. The new carpet is a better product - it can even be hosed down - and it is completely recyclable, so Interface has broken its connections to the oil well and the rubbish tip.

Amory Lovins recounted Interface’s story in a talk on Natural Capital on ABC’s Background Briefing (28 Jan 01). Old style capitalism has been based on abundant free goods and services being available from nature, but nature is in difficulty, our profligate ways and huge numbers make too many demands on it. Ecosystem services, the natural processes that clean the air and water, cycle nutrients, maintain a balance in the atmosphere, pollinate crops and generally keep the earth habitable, are worth considerably more than the gross (economic) world product, but are in crisis now, as we mine the soil, pollute the air and water and destroy biodiversity. A new Natural Capitalism will see these natural resources as precious and limited. It will treat nature with respect and care, husband it and factor it into production costs.

People are now the abundant resource, and business will recognise, just as Interface has, that using less from nature while employing more people is efficient. At present there is so much waste in the American and Australian economies that we extract twenty times our own body weight in material per person per day and waste 99 per cent of that. Power plants in the United States throw away as heat roughly the same amount of energy as Japan uses in total.

In Natural Capitalism waste of any kind will be seen as unsaleable production and no business will want to produce it. Carrier, a major air-conditioning company is now leasing ‘comfort services’. It has teamed up with other companies which make buildings comfortable, recognising that if they do not do so the company could be rendered obsolete.

Technologies available now to improve efficiencies are quite amazing. Retrofitting existing buildings can improve energy and water use efficiencies three or four fold. New buildings can be constructed to provide comfort while using only a tenth of the energy formerly needed.

Companies such as Interface and Carrier are leading the way to the new economy. Their competitors are going to have to learn to reduce their inputs to as little as three per cent of their current raw materials. Governments and the commercial world will find that business-as-usual is no longer desirable or sensible.

The drive for efficiency has been a catch phrase for a long time, and is often used as a justification for the globalisation of trade. It has been a key factor in the restructuring of business and government services. But too often efficiency has been seen only in terms of reducing the number of employees and the wisdom of that has to be questioned.

Businesses, government departments and agencies have been urged, or forced, to reduce staff and reorganise in the quest for efficiency. Parts of their functions have been outsourced, apparently because this cuts the number of people on the pay roll. How efficient is this? If the work is still being done, then someone else is being contracted to do it, so it is quite possible the saving is illusory; the cost has simply been moved from one part of the balance sheet to another. Or the work is not being done. If it was not essential that is all right, but too often it was essential and lack of inspection and maintenance, lack of technical skill, and loss of corporate memory may have to be paid for several times over in the future. A reduction in the number of teachers, nurses, maintenance workers and other essential services is actually a public cost, leading to a run down in services and a shortage in skilled personnel. The push for outsourcing computing divisions in scientific research centres failed to take into account that the computing skills were actually an integral part of their research capacity, and their removal would result in higher costs combined with poorer outcomes.

Whatever the resulting bottom line looked like in any of these cases they also ignored the cost to the public purse of fewer people employed and therefore paying taxes, and an increase in numbers of people needing social security services of various kind. None of this seems very efficient when looked at as a whole. And it is certainly not efficient to have numbers of people depressed, suicidal or ill. Making people miserable has high financial costs as well as social ones. If Lovins’ ideas on Natural Capital come to fruition then it seems we shall all benefit socially, economically and environmentally.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

18 April- 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston, ACT

Sustainability and Petroleum Supply - Brian Fleay

Brian Fleay will give a brief up-date on world oil supply and the current peaking of non-Persian Gulf Oil, but with an emphasis on post-peak issues. He will focus on petroleum's connection with population, food supply and associated land degradation issues such as dryland salinity. An outline of imminent peaking of the North American natural gas supply and its connection with the Californian electric power crisis will be given. If time permits, he will comment of the relative importance of Greenhouse in this context.

16 May - 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston, ACT

Mother's Milk and Markets - Julie Smith, Senior Research Fellow with The Australia Institute, Breastfeeding Councillor and mother of three.

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Biosphere 2

Report by Derek Wrigley

Professor Barry Osmond, recent Director of the ANU Research School of Biological Sciences has been accorded a great honour in being appointed the new Director of Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Readers may recall that the original Biosphere 2 was opened in 1991 and in 1996 it began to be operated as a Division of the Columbia Earth Institute of Columbia University.

Around A$500,000,000 was spent on a huge glass building of varying configurations to house a viable rainforest 40m high x 1600m2 in area, an ‘ocean’ with waves and corals, savannah, organic vegetable gardens, grain crops and small livestock. This housed and fed four women and four men for four years in a ‘sustainable’ closed environment, the only input being electricity, daylight and sunshine. Imagine a Crystal Palace and Kew Gardens magically biomorphed into the middle of the Arizona desert and you get some idea of the scale & architectural texture of this experiment in natural inter-relationships.

In essence it was a controlled experiment in biological systems research to study large scale interactions in a closed environment. The closed system engineering was, however, too successful. Biosphere 2 exchanged only 10% of its atmosphere in two years, but the oxygen declined to 14% in 15 months. This undoing was ascribed to the tonnes of rich organic soil which were imported for the biological systems, but it proved to be too rich; the bacteria degraded the soil carbon and consumed oxygen, to the detriment of all other living matter—humans included. Oxygen deprivation sapped energy & mental agility. The unsealed concrete also competed with the plants for carbon dioxide from the soil and oxygen levels could not be maintained.

The glass structure absorbed almost all the ultra-violet light to the detriment of the health of all living systems; the air handling system was perhaps too gentle in not mimicking the perturbations of nature — strong winds and lashing rain which help to create resistive strengths in biological structures.

From a social point of view a crew of eight balanced humans developed weaknesses and like all committees seemed to need the odd casting vote.

In view of the energy supply problems currently being faced by the US west coast it seems strange that the excellent slides revealed an absence of renewable energy systems such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, as wind and sun are abundant in that part of the world. With a shortage of electricity there could be no water, no control systems, no computers — a Biosphere’s Achilles heel? The developing energy problems in the US are a very important lesson for us to learn and one of the energy policies of our Biocentre is that we aim to generate all our own power on site and export our surplus to the grid.

Biosphere 2 is a thriving educational centre, attracting enthusiastic students of varying disciplines with US$15,000 to spend on a 16-week ecology course, not to mention around 200,000 visitors every year, each paying US$10-25 entry fees.

For those who wish to know more there is a book called Life under glass - the inside story of Biosphere 2 by Alling & Nelson, Biosphere Press.

This is a unique and wonderful opportunity for Barry and Cornelia (whose research on viruses will continue there). We wish them well and look forward to more detailed updates on their return visits to Canberra. Our Biocentre could learn a great deal from the Biosphere.

Their house in Canberra is being retained — wise move!

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On meaning

John Schooneveldt

At the October forum I talked about some of the ideas developed in my recent PhD thesis. No one it seems took any notes so the editor asked me to report on my own talk.

I explained that the thesis wrestles with some of the ideas that have long puzzled me. I realised as a teacher in PNG in the 1960s that the stuff in the syllabus was not very useful to my students and, on top of that, I had no idea how the teaching process worked any way. I turned to psychology and after a four-year degree I knew something about rats and pigeons and paper and pencil psychometrics, but nothing about what goes on in human minds. In the 1980s I thought that language might be a key to understanding mental processes and after an MA in linguistics, I knew something about language structure, but very little about meaning and nothing at all about the role of language in human thinking. So I turned to biology in the 1990s and this thesis. Now all this searching may sound like some deep mysterious quest after truth, but it wasn’t like that at all. I enjoy thinking about these things. It’s a kind of hobby really, like stamp collecting. I collect ideas.

I began my talk by pointing to a common assumption underlying Western thought, and arguably most human cultures: the idea that the universe is made up of ‘things’: bits and pieces of matter that can be given names. The way these things are categorised and named might differ from culture to culture, but their essential 'thinginess' is unquestioned. The fact that all the languages of the world include a large number of words that can be described as nouns offers evidence of the universality of this cultural assumption.

In my talk I presented some of the evidence that cause me to question this assumption. The talk speculated that it might be more realistic and useful to think of the universe and the world around us, not in terms of 'things' but rather 'processes' and, more specifically, the constant interaction or juxtaposition of events or processes and the organisms that experience them. Naming or labelling certain combinations of processes or events as an entity or object may be a useful shorthand, but, if this view is correct, the universal human experience of a fundamental 'thinginess' may be illusory.

At an abstract level there is nothing new here. The Greek philosopher, Hereclitus thought of reality as a 'constant state of becoming' and more recently, the English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, expounded similar ideas. These have been developing quietly as a minority philosophical position known as 'Process Philosophy'. What I argued in the talk was that there is a growing body of hard empirical evidence that supports this way of thinking, not just on the cutting edge of physics, where everything is in a ferment and flux at present, but even in the biological sciences and psychology where, I argue, perception, memory/learning and cognition can be best explained in process terms.

Much of the work with animals involves testing animals to see if they can memorize, respond to and even reproduce words and signs of things. The great apes, dolphins and parrots have been studied in this way, and this has made us realise that these creatures are far more intelligent than many people once believed. But this top down approach does not give us any insight as to how an animal sees and thinks in its natural state. In my thesis I proposed a bottom up approach that looks at how simpler organisms internalise their experience of the world. I argued that starting at the bottom better enables us to identify the stages in the evolution of perception, cognition and consciousness than top down approaches. Now it so happens that a 'process' approach works much better than a 'nominal' approach. Naming things perhaps came much later in the evolution of mind. Deep down as Buckminster Fuller has pointed out we are verbs!

Process thinking is difficult. Many can accept that the universe is in a constant state of flux or process through time as current physical theories suggest, but only if we conceive that there are some sort of entities, items, particles, objects or things which are experiencing the process. I argued against his view and suggested that it is all process all the way down to the very small, sub-atomic levels, and even smaller, if one can think in such terms. Conversely, going in the other direction, it is process all the way, to the very large cosmological processes and beyond.

Space does not allow the evidence to be summarized here. The key argument rests on the way organisms subjectively experience the world in which they live, and the way this subjective experience must have evolved into more and more complex experiential patterns. This complexity is inside us and to varying degrees in every motile organism that exercises choice in its interaction with its environment. It is the subjective experience of external events (not things) corresponding to physiological processes involved in perception and memory that is the key. Rather than look at these from the outside as neurological processes, I suggest that they should be looked at from the inside as subjective experience of those neurological processes.

The Western tradition has had a lot of problems with subjectivity and its related ideas of mind, meaning and purpose. Increasingly over the last few hundred years the West has avoided the problem through reductionism. I say ‘avoided’ the problem advisedly, for the problem is not solved, nor does it go away. In essence it has been ignored by science and while the humanities have dealt with these important aspects of the human experience through literature and the arts, they lack the rigor and verifiability that is central to science. Reductionism involves progressively reducing the context of a phenomenon until only one or two aspects are left to be manipulated or observed. This has been a highly productive process, generating enormous amounts of knowledge, but it has come at a price. It has reduced our understanding of the world to machine-like simplification that is systematically destroying the natural world of which we are a part and on which we depend.

A process approach promises to give us a better set of tools for understanding the richness of human and animal experience. The experience of listening to Bach is rather richer than we might ever imagine by watching a pattern of neurons firing in some organism’s brain.

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Electricity from biomass

Some thoughts from Frank Fisher, Associate Professor and Director, Graduate School of Environmental Science, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University

The following submission was sent to ALP parliamentarians, on request from various green groups seeking to stop woodchipping for power generation.

I am concerned that you do all in your power to find life-affirming energy sources which are the essence of what is meant by renewable energy. In the current matter, this means opposing the use of biomass, especially from old growth forests, as an energy source and especially as a source of electricity.

The reasons for this stance are:

1) until we commercialise direct conversion of biofuels such as alcohol, methane etc., to electricity in relatively benign technologies such as fuel cells, the use of presently available conversion techniques are a wasteful, dirty obscenity:

  • wasteful, because some 70% of the energy available in fuels has to be discarded in the old-fashioned thermo-dynamic transfers current electricity generation techniques require,

  • dirty, because wood is in principle a difficult fuel to burn cleanly and

  • obscene, because the land used to generate the biomass could be used1 directly to generate:

a) commercial crops that humans could feed from directly as in cereals or livestock crops or, where this is not possible,
b) indigenous crops of the native flora and fauna that originally stocked that land (i.e. national parks), thereby contributing to the maintenance of what remains of our indigenous wildlife. This applies especially to so-called old growth forests.

2) the concept renewable is demeaned or trivialised by turning forest into biomass. This applies especially to indigenous trees when transformed to a resource rather than retaining them as parts of living ecosystems that are integral parts of wider habitats.

In this connection note that dead trees and litter give the illusion of being waste or being redundant to life’s processes. This is not so. They are habitat for other organisms that form parts of the living trees’ (and our!) habitats.

3) once a dedicated technological system, with all its investments, is created upon the new resource (biomass), supply of the resource has to be maintained to supply the requirements of investment. Thus the imperative becomes cast into the (local and wider) community’s continuing economic priorities even though the resource may have run out or/and the insights that identified it and generated the industry, may be obsolete.

4) while the transition to renewable energy forms is to be encouraged, we should do all in our power to ensure that the renewables only replace and do not just add to our energy production capacity generating a new set of earth consuming demands. Note that renewables themselves do have environmental consequences!

An enlightened (twenty first century) strategy would recognise that the first energy priority must be to reduce per capita energy use across the board and that the potential to do this by social institutional change and technical efficiency improve-ments represent better investment-dollar efficiencies than any renewables. This has already been well-demonstrated. It is most notably the case in the Scandinavian countries where lifestyle improvements (in all dimensions) persist while per-capita energy use steadily declines.

The implication is that energy conserving institutional changes actually constitute an energy resource!

1 Note these italicised words. Each one carries an interpretive punch. In this case it is that of nature being seen as a resource to be “used”; in the next, “feed” we are again speaking of nature as a “feedstock” and “renewable” does the same again. In each case nature is de-natured or rendered down to an essentially discardable tool for the political economic machine. Which is not to say that we ought not live from/in nature, only that our terminology might retain respect for living as nature while we seek to satisfy ourselves through it – where it or nature is recognised to be our extended selves.

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And then there was ...

Jenny Wanless

 

In the beginning, Bryan Furnass suggested NSF should run a conference on food — all aspects of food and nutrition — and the environment — what are the impacts of agriculture, fisheries and the rest on the world's systems? Bryan put a lot of effort and thought into organising such a conference, to bring together all manner of aspects that are usually not thought of. Most conferences focus on nutrition and human health, or what are humans doing to the environment or how can we have sustainable agriculture. The conference proposed by Bryan sounded really interesting.

Next there was the hard slog of seeking sponsors and speakers, and wondering whether anyone would come. Which led to the thought — do people need to come? Why not hold an internet conference? After all, we should be trying to reduce greenhouse gases from transport, so we should not encourage people to travel. Let us use the Internet and see how that works. Thus, Food — for healthy people and a healthy planet was born.

How will it work?
Registered participants will be able to contribute to a bulletin-board style discussion and exchange of information with experts on the issues of nutritional health and the environment. Keynote contributors will be experts in the fields of medicine, nutrition, public health, and the environmental, agricultural and horticultural sciences. Their papers will be put on a special NSFconference website and grouped according to themes. The six themes are: Biological background of nutrition, Nutrition, health and disease, Food and animals, Choices in food consumption, Food, population and resources, and Sustainable food production.

So that is the conference. It provides the opportunity for all our members, wherever they live, to participate (at a very low cost in carbon dioxide emissions and money). So please get involved. Email your interest, provide us with suitable contacts and help make this pioneering effort a great success.


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The right amount

Alan AtKisson

Alan AtKisson is the author of Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World. He is president of AtKisson and Associates Inc., a consulting firm focused on accelerating sustainable development. He is also a Senior Fellow with the independent policy institute, Redefining Progress, and formerly its program and executive director. Mr AtKisson is a member of the board of directors of the Centre for a New American Dream.

My friend in Sweden has two towels. Actually she has three, but the third she uses for travel. When the bathroom towels are dirty she washes them. When they wear out she buys two more — and very good ones, so they'll last a long time.

"Why do I need more than two?" she says. "Dar ar lagom."

What she says in Swedish does not quite translate to "This is enough". The word "lagom" — pronounced melodically, the "la" in a falling tone, the "gom" (rhymes with home) a shorter syllable that's right back up where the "la" started — means something like, "exactly the right amount."

What a delight to learn this word! When it comes to thinking about responses to over-consumption and consumerism, we are stuck, in English, with far less pleasing words. "Enough" sounds to most American ears as though it had the word "barely" just in front of it. For some reason, "enough" never sounds like ... enough. "Balance" sounds difficult; I'm always losing mine. "Sufficiency" carries the whiff of technical economic jargon. Even "simplicity", the current fad-word-of-the-moment in some marketing circles, tends to appeal only to those folk with either a moral commitment or a serious case of overwhelm.

We need a concept for thinking about how much, in terms of stuff, is the right amount — and the Swedes have given us a word for it.

The concept of "lagom" can be applied to everything from cake to carbon dioxide emissions. What is "lagom" for chocolate cake? For me, it is usually a little bit more than "enough". But what's "lagom" for CO2? Only as much as the ecosystems of the earth can reabsorb, and no more. "Lagom" allows for more than enough — but it still sets limits.

What if our society were organised around the concept of "lagom"? Not that Sweden is organised that way; although my friend is hardly an extremist, she is a more enthusiastic lagom-ist than many of her fellow Swedes (imagine the Vikings taking only "lagom" when they plundered!). And most Americans have trouble just pronouncing it. But I have developed a small fascination with this word, because it has an attractive quality that "enough", "sufficient" or even "simple" often lack.

Most people in the world do not want enough. They want more. They certainly want more than the bare minimum, and research suggests they want more than those around them. This desire for more seems to be deeply wired in the human organism. We developed over a millennia in hostile environments, both natural and social. To have more than we need has always been our first defence against the vagaries of an uncertain future. Hoarding is the first act of those who believe themselves to be in the path of a storm (or a marauding army of plundering Vikings for that matter).

So while there will always be those of us who love the idea of "enough-ness" and "voluntary simplicity", it seems likely that such concepts will never quite be ... well ... enough to transform the masses of humanity (or the marauding army of corporations vying to fill their houses with stuff, in a kind of reverse-plunder operation).

But it does seem possible to promote a sensible Swedish sense of "lagom" worldwide — if we can find other good words for it — because it speaks more to what people actually want. Let's admit that it's very nice to have good shoes. No one can be faulted for wanting them. But does a person really need fifteen pairs? No. But is one pair enough? Perhaps not. "Lagom" acknowledges that people have varying needs at different times.

They want nice things, and comfort, and security. They want more than the bare minimum and they might even need it. If their desire for more than enough is accepted, even supported, perhaps they might be willing to consider how much is too much.

Clearly, here in America, we are far beyond the limits of "lagom". Once in a while I make a point of wandering into a Costco or a Sam's Club — huge retail warehouses full of consumer goods, on sale cheap. The spaces are large enough to house a submarine assembly plant. You can buy everything from taco shells to trampolines to model wooden boats, by the crate. The shopping carts are as big as a small car. Walking around the aisles of one of these stores allows me to indulge in several radically different feelings: raw consumer lust, great moral outrage, and aching environmental angst.

But when I took my same Swedish friend to see one of these places, her response was more practical. "I suppose people can save quite a lot of money here," she noted. "And it's much better to buy some things in large quantities" (not towels). "But perhaps it's just very tempting to take too much in such a place." Nobody really needs too much, and in fact, most people don't really want it. But nobody wants too little. Perhaps our vision for a sustainable world should include not just enough for all but "lagom" for all, with fewer temptations to take too much.

And while I could write a great deal more about this lovely new addition to my vocabulary, perhaps this page, too, is "lagom".

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Money talks

Earthbeat, Radio National 24 Feb 2001

One of the features of the investment scene of the last few years has been the growth of ethical investment. It started with people who did not want to invest in the gambling, alcohol, armaments or tobacco industries. Latterly it has grown from screening out companies such as these, or environmentally damaging ones like native forest logging to support positive initiatives such as renewable energy, sustainable forestry, small businesses and unlisted companies. Such socially responsible investment (SRI) is articulating the concerns of people who do not want any part in socially or environmentally destructive activities, and who want the power of money to be harnessed for change for the better.

Australian Ethical Investment (AEI) started over a dozen years ago and now manages $(A)120,000,000 of shareholders’ funds. AEI uses both negative and positive screens. It is also just beginning to extend its scope into socially responsible venture capital, to support enterprises in a way not generally available to the public.

Two years ago AEI entered the superannuation field, so contributors can choose a fund that uses their contributions to create a better future. Because most workers have superannuation, even if they have no other investment, superfunds can play a big role in SRI. By law now, big pension funds in Britain and Germany have to state their policies on SRI.

The first big financial institution in Australia to get involved in ethical investment is Westpac, with its recently launched Ecofund. This uses criteria based on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which operates on a ‘best of sector’ approach. This does not screen out any sector of the market, but looks for the best environmental performer in each sector. The expectation is that other companies will improve their performance to try to get on the index.

Next month AMP expects to launch three SRI products. They have employed a consultant from the UK business Henderson Global Investment, well known in the SRI field. They will screen out sectors such as armaments and tobacco, considering that businesses that cause death are not really sustainable.

SRI funds are growing in many countries. In the USA SRI funds are worth trillions of dollars and are growing twice as fast as the general market. In Japan the emphasis is on the environment, not social issues, but the new ecofunds are growing spectacularly. They seem to have inspired many first time investors, especially women.

The public can now even choose to put their money in the bank to work for SRI. Last year Bendigo Bank (Victoria) teamed up with Community Aid Abroad to launch an ethical fund. It raised forty million dollars (Australian) in just eight months. Profits are being used to support Australian community groups which have had difficulty getting finance.

Yet another way in which investors can influence social and environmental outcomes is by shareholder activism. Green shareholders successfully pressured Boral to get out of its Tasmanian forestry business.

Information on ethical investment can be found on the on-line Ethical Investment Magazine. Its editor, Paddy Manning is launching a bigger magazine in the newsagents in May.

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Working with Nature

New Scientist 3 Feb 2001

The biggest movement in Third World farming today is low-tech not high-tech, and it is yielding rich rewards.

In a dramatic turn-around farmers in Africa are finding that planting weeds amongst their crops can lead to increased yields with less work. Stem borer insects often destroy a third of the region’s maize, and the weed Striga wrecks about ten billion dollars worth of maize per year, threatening the livelihood of a hundred million Africans. Ziadin Khan, working at the Mbita Point research station, Lake Victoria, Kenya, found that planting napier grass, a local weed, among the maize, worked wonders. The stemborers prefer the napier grass, but it produces a sweet sticky substance which traps and kills them. Where Striga is a problem it can be kept out by planting another weed Desmodium between the rows. It is not known why Striga will not grow near Desmodium, but the latter’s presence saves women from one of their most time consuming jobs.

Jules Pretty from the University of Essex analysed more than 200 such projects on four million farms in fifty two countries and found average crop increases of 73 per cent. For example in Mexico when one hectare is planted with maize, squash and beans it produces as much food as 1.73 hectares planted with maize alone.

On Madagascar a local Catholic priest found that he could raise rice yields from three to ten tonnes per hectare. His method involves transplanting the seedlings at an earlier stage and in smaller numbers so more survive, and keeping the paddies unflooded for much of the growing season. On Madagascar 20,000 farmers have followed his lead and the method has shown increased yields in tests in China, Indonesia and Cambodia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 cut off supplies of grain, tractors and agrochemicals to Cuba, resulting in a halving of the calorie intake of Cubans. Now they are well fed again, with teams of oxen instead of tractors, and farmers using organic methods to grow mixed crops of maize, beans and cassava.

Actually one of the most widely adopted techniques around the words has been to stop ploughing. Although ploughing aerates the soil, and helps to rot weeds and crop residues, it also can damage soil fertility and cause erosion. A third of Argentinian farmers have stopped ploughing and now plant winter crops to stop weeds, or they spray with a biodegradable herbicide. This has reduced costs and produced richer soils, higher grain yields and increased income.

A side benefit is that unploughed land absorbs up to a tonne of carbon per hectare each year, whereas ploughing releases carbon dioxide as plants rot. The major benefit of all these initiatives though, is to farming communities, where people are becoming better fed. Most of the increased produce is eaten by those who grow it.

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