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

Nature & Society - August 2001

The Forum's Journal


Of all the things we think we need in our daily living not many are true necessities, but no one could live without food, water and air. One of the great success stories of the 20th century must be the production of food, for despite the unprecedented leap in human numbers, food supply per person actually increased in all continents except Africa. One of the big questions for the 21st century is whether we can keep up the food supply, especially as population is still growing.

Why could this be a problem? There are many reasons. We have taken a lot out of the soil in extracting our food over the last century. We have mined the trace elements and in many cases ruined the soil structure with heavy machinery. We have depleted many ground water reserves. We have lost beneficial species of insects, plants and microorganisms.

Desertification and salination threaten large areas which were major food producers in Africa, Asia and Australia. In the latter we have been producing food surpluses and exporting them, enough to feed 80 million people. Some use this as an argument to say that Australia could feed a much larger population than the present one. So it could, in the short term, but we would have to cut our exports markedly, so would suffer in terms of trade. Much worse, it is probable that within this century we will have lost half of the Western Australian wheat belt and half of the Murray-Darling basin to salinity. What food surplus would we have then? We would be hard put to feed our own expanded population.
Fisheries have been an important source of protein but all around the world they are in trouble. Many have collapsed, many are heading the same way, from overfishing. Inshore areas have been damaged by nutrient run-off and other pollutants. The destruction of mangroves and other coastal developments have destroyed fish nurseries. Aquaculture, often touted as a way of increasing protein supplies, is usually inefficient, requiring many more tonnes of fish meal to feed the penned fish, than will be harvested from those pens. Aquaculture also pollutes estuaries and encourages disease in the crowded conditions.

There are other threats to food supply, too. With climate change, some of the current food producing areas will become less productive. One of the counter-intuitive results of global warming could be the freezing of north-western Europe. If the North Atlantic circulation shuts down - and there are indications that it is doing just that - the present temperate areas will experience severe winters like those of Newfoundland, an area not noted as a food producer now the cod have gone.

Rising sea levels will exacerbate all the problems currently faced in Bangladesh and other low-lying areas. The Pacific Islanders will nearly all have to migrate and be fed elsewhere.

Add to all this the fact that for the last fifty years modern agriculture has specialised in turning fossil petrochemicals into food. Oil has powered the agricultural machinery without which we could not have had great increases in food production. Oil and coal have powered chemical plants to produce fertilisers. Gas has been used as a feed stock to make fertilisers. Oil is used to transport produce to the market, and electricity powers the factories that process so much of our food. Oil distributes food all around the globe, but if there is one thing more certain than most, it is that oil will run out. Some people pin their faith in producing ethanol from plant material to fuel our agricultural machines and transport, but think of the equation. We would probably need more ethanol to produce the crops and process them than we would get out at the end of the procedure.

Over the last few decades we have seen a drive to globalise food production as well as other trade. Yet this is beset with problems such as the increasing risk of globalisation of animal pathogens. It is in no country’s interest to import contaminated food for stock or people. It is in no country’s interest to have to destroy millions of animals. If world food shortages occur it could be considered criminally negligent to have to destroy any potential food stocks.

Australia has the purest air in the world, at Cape Grim in north-western Tasmania. Now Cape Grim rainwater is being bottled and sells at a premium price in America. Wouldn’t it be better to clean up America’s water and air? Sending bottled water around the world seems to be about as silly as you can get in satisfying those basic needs for food and water.
The sustainability of food supplies is certainly not assured, and that is without any consideration of nutrient values and ecological and ethical concerns. All this and more will be addressed in our forthcoming internet conference on food. Do remember it is interactive. You can ask questions, raise issues that may have escaped attention and put your point of view. Do register and log on.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

Tuesday 28 August- 7.30 pm, Heysen Street, Weston, ACT

Visits to the main environment centres in the UK with particular emphasis on the Eden Project in Cornwall- Derek Wrigley

9-15 September at

Internet conference - Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet

19 September - 7.45 pm, Heysen Street, Weston

Nature and Society Forum Annual General Meeting

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What wetland?

Landsat remote-sensing satellites have shown that about 90 per cent of the Mesopotamian marshlands, home of Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, has dried up to a salt-encrusted desert.

The Marsh Arabs rebelled against Saddam Hussein in 1992. Soon afterwards dams and drainage projects in the area diverted water from the marshes. Human rights groups claimed Saddam was repaying the Marsh Arabs for their rebellion, but Iraq countered that the works were to drain salt from agricultural soils so they could be farmed.

Hydrologists studying the area now say that the destruction was caused at least as much by dams built on the upper Tigris and Euphrates by Turkey in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By cutting off the spring flush of floodwaters, thereby drying out up to three-quarters of the marshlands, the dams made it possible for the Iraqi engineers to build their drainage systems. The storage capacity of the dams on the Euphrates is six times the annual flow of the river. That flow has been reduced by a fifth and could be halved in the near future.
The draining of the marshes has affected the Gulf shrimp catch, as the marshes were a spawning ground for shrimp. Kuwait’s catch has dropped 40 per cent.

The combined effect of Turkish dams and Iraqi drainage is that the wetlands are no more. A unique human culture, with at least a 5000 year history, has been destroyed along with an important ecological system. The director of the UN Environment Programme described the loss as “a major ecological disaster, comparable to the drying of the Aral sea and the deforestation of Amazonia.”

New Scientist 19 May 2001

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Camping in the Naltar Valley, Northern Pakistan

John Harris

Last month, I had the good fortune to be camping in the upper Naltar Valley in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan. It is camping with a difference. I was camping with Jane, Akbar, a local Gujjar, and Dr Kashif Sheikh, who had invited us to his PhD field research site. Our camp was on the shores of one of the three Naltar lakes at 3,200 m. These small lakes are crystal clear and freezing cold as they are spring fed. The abundant aquatic plants in our lake coloured it vivid emerald green. The setting was the steep-sided partly forested Naltar River valley hemmed in with snow capped peaks set against a predominantly blue sky.

Akbar, who was Kashif's former field assistant, was our interpreter so we could talk with the local Gujjar people and learn something of their semi-nomadic life. Our camp turned out to be on the main track leading further up the valley where there were good grazing lands for domestic sheep, goats, cattle and yaks.

Kashif cooking the evening meal with lots of encouragement Lake Osprey, a glacial lake in the Karakorams

There were dozens of people passing our camp each day on foot or on their tiny donkeys herding their animals. Families carried their cooking gear and musical instruments as well as the occasional rifle. Some of these travellers called in to talk to us or ask for 'medicine' for fever, cuts and burns. One morning we were fortunate to see a dozen yaks on their way to high pasture. They find their own way and are rounded up later in summer to be taken back down the valley for their rich milk.

Over the next few days we came to see the rhythm of the movements of Gujjars up and down the valley. There were those going up to small villages higher up the valley where there was good summer grazing near Naltar Pass (4,700m). They would stay for the summer months. Those going down were usually on their way to gather tools or groceries such as flour from Altar village, 3-4 hours away by foot from our camp. Other movements were daily ones for collecting firewood and the daily 'comings and goings' of children tending their mixed flocks of sheep and goats. Once, we were woken at dawn by the rumble of 30 goats and sheep streaming past our tent as two boys drove them on their way up the adjacent steep hillslopes for the day. And then there were the children of the local families who came to visit each day - boys and girls maybe around 7 or 8 years old. They lived in rough homes of rock with timber and mud roofs that were hidden nearby amongst the rocky landscape. They would bring us hot chapatti and fresh chicken eggs for our meals, which had been bartered for by Akbar. We treated these children's cuts and scratches. They would also sit near our flat rock table at breakfast and tea no doubt fascinated by these strangers with our tents and other camping gear and strange eating habits, all the while hoping for some leftovers and sweets.

On three days Kashif, Jane and I ventured out for the day. When we left, Akbar would look after our camp. We spent one day exploring the Naltar lakes identifying common native plants and animals. The trees around the lake and campsite were pine, spruce and willow. We saw all three species of wagtails (white, grey, yellow), large-billed bush warbler, leaf warbler (an endangered species), hoopoe and several other bird species, which are a feature of the valley. We also found the native toad (Bufo latesstti) along the shoreline. The outlet of the lake flows into the Naltar river, which originates much higher up the valley and was in full flood following the spring snow thaw. Osprey lake, a glacier lake at around 3700m, was our destination another day. We took lunch and set out early as it was slow walking at this altitude and by mid-day it was around 35C. On the way we visited the other two Naltar lakes (Sapphire lakes) which were smaller and surrounded by coniferous forest of pine and spruce. Walking is not easy owing to the dry rocky terrain so we were pleased to be able to follow the paths of the local people. We occasionally met travellers on these paths but mostly they were on the steep hillslopes tending their animals or cutting trees for firewood in the forest. Many of the hillslopes were too steep and dry for vegetation, especially, the very steep rocky talus slopes. Always there were the beautiful snow-capped peaks towering above us.

The day before the weather broke, we followed the Naltar River up-stream to the highest summer village set in sparse forest just before the steep ascent to Naltar Pass. Scattered birch trees were clearly visible forming the tree line at 3,800m before the clouds and rain descended. The glacial valley has several turbulent streams or nullahs roaring down the steep rocky slopes. Stone summerhouses dot the valley. During winter, these are deserted as the inhabitants have moved further down the valley to Konodas (place of nomads), and Gujjardas - closer to Gilgit, the central administrative town of this region.

Local transport for two tired brothers Growing potatoes in the Lower Naltar

Most of the people of the Naltar valley are poorly educated and many are illiterate. They rely on their traditional skills as animal herders, shepherds and agriculturists. Potatoes have become the main cash crop in the valley after their introduction 10-15 years ago. They are grown in the lower valley, especially around the permanent village of Naltar. Potato cropping is steadily increasing in the valley, which requires the clearing of forested areas. This is on top of firewood cutting. There is also increasing evidence of overgrazing and trampling by the thousands of animals living in the valley. There were few summer flowers when we visited and Kashif told of increased incidence of soil erosion and landslides, which brings down more trees.

Kashif's pioneering research focused on the ecology, habitat use and conservation of bird populations in the Naltar Valley but his research also noted the all too common human syndrome - environmental overuse. Kashif observed 100 species of birds in the valley. Of these, he chose 14 for an in-depth analysis of their distribution, breeding and habitat use. A vegetation map of the valley was completed employing GIS techniques together with an analysis of the habitats of these 14 species. During his research, Kashif became concerned for the conservation of the bird populations and this mountain environment owing to the loss of habitats so he lived and consulted with the local people, incorporating their perspectives into his thesis. He is now seeking funding through IUCN and other external funding agencies to develop a Naltar valley biodiversity conservation plan, which would further involve the local Gujjar people.

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Down under and up there: a brief glimpse of the European environment

Derek Wrigley

A visit to Denmark, Norway and the UK in May and June gave me an opportunity to compare (somewhat superficially, I must admit) the Down Under environmental awareness and action with Up There — and in particular to see how effective the mega-million £ environment centres in the UK were in putting their messages over to the community.

The countrysides (except for that part of Norway above the Arctic Circle) looked wonderful and full of moist spring greenery to Australian eyes. Evidence of underlying environmental problems had to be searched for — even the foot and mouth problem in England was only obvious because it prevented walking in some areas. On the surface everything was business as usual.

Certainly, commercial and government bodies in Scandinavia and the UK seem to be very aware of the need for new sources of renewable energy and are way ahead of Australia in the practical application of some technologies. This is evidenced to some extent by the number of wind turbines in Denmark which supply some 14% of their electrical energy, none in Norway because 99% of their electricity is from hydro sources and they seem to export most of their natural gas. UK has about 15 wind farms around the country, particularly in Cornwall, with several more offshore windfarms planned around the coast — and I must say to the critics how beautiful they look in the landscape.

These wind turbines are elegant pieces of technology and I was able to have a conducted tour around the Nordex plant at Give in Denmark.
The nascelles are amazing, cramming gearbox, brake, generator and yawing mechanisms into a shell some 10m long x 3m across with ample room for service staff to move around inside. This is industrial design at its best and a good example of how, given government encouragement, a small country with a similar population to Australia can lead the world with innovative design. The noise problem of the very early turbines has been overcome (by government insistence) and we had no problem conversing at the base of one of the largest in Denmark.

While the turbines were busy producing green electricity I found that internal house and hotel temperatures, particularly in Denmark and Norway, were too hot for me — they could have been 5º lower and still have been comfortable. The conservation of energy message at the grass roots level still has to penetrate into action and if practised on a national scale could obviate a significant amount of new generative capacity.

Northern Europe’s weather is not as kind to photovoltaic and hot water absorbers as it is in Australia, nevertheless there are several applications on rooftops, mainly hot water absorbers — roughly the same distribution as in Australia and, so I am told, without any financial incentive to install. There are one or two exciting pioneer projects — one in North London has fitted 241 new private houses with solar tiles, the next logical generation of integrated photovoltaics which act as the roof itself. When will our developers learn?

These new PV panels can even be semi-transparent, allowing light to penetrate below — but how will these panels suit the Australian summer ?

The word ‘sustainable’ seems to be the latest promotional catch-cry in England, but it seems apparent that few people really know what it means. It is applied to many new buildings which use high embodied energy materials and construction, make no use of renewable energy solar collecting techniques nor use of passive building design. Who are they kidding ?

One of England’s biggest problems is the huge mass of old, existing buildings which do not readily lend themselves to economic remodelling to take advantage of solar gain. In addition, in some visually sensitive areas like the Cotswolds, Lake District, etc, the heritage value (as a tourist attraction) is incompatible with the addition of applied, external solar technology. This is a real dilemma.

In some of the inner suburbs in cities like Bristol, London etc, there are countless rows of Victorian terrace houses, often with extremely small front gardens — or none at all — with no access to their back garden. Consequently, their wheelie bins (or, more commonly, black plastic garbage bags) are kept in the front ‘garden’ which is most unsightly. Urban aesthetics are the first casualty.

A compounding problem for the inner city areas is the dominance of the private motor car.Often, the suburban terraced streets are narrow and perpetually lined with occupants’ cars, bumper to bumper with their nearside wheels on the pavement, leaving one lane free for moving vehicles. Leave your spot and you are never sure that it will be there when you return. Street cleaning vehicles must have an impossible job and rubbish just accumulates in the gutters. I was unable to find out how the garbage collection was done, but it would have been ‘with great difficulty’.

Those houses with larger front gardens have often been paved over to accommodate the occupants’ cars, increasing the speed of stormwater runoff. The softening effect of greenery has been greatly diminished.

The car has now become an embarrassment to city dwellers, being neither convenient, nor cheap and theft from cars seems to be growing. As we left the UK the government was proposing a tax of £5 (approx A$15) per day for cars to enter the London metropolitan area. It will be interesting to see how successful this proves to be.

Prices of some Victorian terrace houses — from a friend’s experience in Bristol — would be of the order of A$700,000 with a poor quality ambience, no solar access, traffic noise, ancient plumbing and sewerage systems and no garage. Lack of choice and an equal lack of knowledge among the buying public about solar benefits and sustainable living techniques would seem to be facing UK city dwellers with very difficult decisions. Canberrans should count their blessings.

There is, nevertheless, a growing groundswell of green living. A nationwide ‘Sun day’ was held in June to demonstrate solar technology — similar to our ‘Green Living Fair’, and I picked up a free copy of ‘Positive News’ which has been started in a tiny village in Wales giving us all the good news about a more sustainable lifestyle. Try for more information.

The Guardian newspaper has a regular environmental supplement devoted to schoolchildren and is referenced to the national curriculum on environmental topics and to important websites for follow up material. Australian papers should take note if they are serious about the environment.

One encouraging item in 'Positive News' is the long awaited production of the compressed air car in Nice, France. The car will roll off the production line early in 2002. Price will be around £6250 +VAT (~A$ 15,600) +GST. Try for more information.

But despite all these encouraging indicators the average person still behaves as if there is no problem, or that it will be fixed by somebody else. Beyond some sporadic paper recycling most people I observed seemed to take no responsibility for changing their behaviour, which must come about if we are to achieve the environment we need. The message is not getting across to the person in the street and I suspect it is not very different here. We have a long way to go to achieve total environmental awareness.

On Tuesday 28 August I will be giving an illustrated talk at the NSF in Weston at 7.30pm on my visits to the main environment centres in the UK with particular emphasis on the very exciting Eden Project in Cornwall — and what we can learn from them in regard to our own Australian National Biocentre. Come and make your comments — they could be valuable feedback for us.

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Reports of meetings

Jenny Wanless

Manna Relief

Terry Baker was to be the speaker at our June meeting, but as he knew he would be delayed he got Barbara Eckersley to open the meeting. Barbara spoke of the fairly recently discovered role of phytochemicals and glyconutrients in human health and of her personal experience with them in improving the health of her family. Her interest had been triggered by the diagnosis of her daughter’s chronic fatigue syndrome and the lack of any satisfactory treatment.

When Terry arrived he showed a video about Manna Relief, an American based charity which is supplying these micro nutrient supplements to orphanages in Rumania, with significant improvement in the children’s health. Similarly good results have been experienced with the supply of such supplements to children with AIDS in Africa.

Manna Relief was started by some families who had witnessed remarkable improvement in the health of family members who took the supplements because they were suffering from various major untreatable conditions. The video detailed some of these cases, including muscular dystrophy and tumours.

Barbara Eckersley is presenting a paper on phytochemicals and glyconutrients in our internet conference on food.

Biological Exhibits

Robin Garnett, our speaker in July, presented a most interesting and stimulating discussion on a group of biological exhibits she developed while working at the Science Centre and Manawatu Museum, Palmerston North, New Zealand. The town is a centre for agricultural research and the scientists there were very keen to help develop biological exhibits and communicate their work to the public.
Exhibits Robin worked on included ones on feral pests such as possums and rabbits. In the case of rabbits the exhibits showed that whereas shooting and warren ripping each have a short term effect on rabbit numbers, and the rabbit haemorrhagic virus has a longer term effect on the population, the best control is achieved by a combination of all three measures.

New Zealand fish are unusual in that a great many species are dependent on both a marine and a fresh water stage in their development. This means that they are particularly threatened by the annual activities of the white bait-fishermen, who collect schools of small fish which include the juveniles of many different species, some of which would live up to forty years. One of Robin’s exhibits was designed to raise awareness of the perils caused to native fish by such fishing activities, and also by changes to habitat and stream flow by construction of weirs and other alterations.

Such exhibits managed to interest and involve many different age groups, but their message also needed to be backed up in other ways such as text and video. The presence of real human explainers was invaluable. The scientists concerned had a wonderful day when they were able to be present for an open day!

Robin also showed part of a video of a workshop on genetic engineering which had been held to try to increase public understanding of this controversial and little understood topic. The video of the proceedings had been widely distributed so that it could reach as big an audience as possible.

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Encouraging developments in the Third World

Bryan Furnass

Developing countries are usually seen as lands of poverty and oppression where the drinking water is poisonous, stomachs are empty, and most adults are illiterate. In fact, there have been vast improvements in life expectancy, nutrition, adult literacy, poverty and human rights over the past 30 years.

The 2001 Human Development Report, published by the UN Development Program, says that, far from being a cause for pessimism, the developing world is a source of optimism, despite some local disasters. Across the world, life expectancy has risen from 59.9years in 1970 to 66.4, including a rise of 12 years in South Asia and 14 years in Arab countries. Improved nutrition and better medical services have combined to halve infant mortality.

Many of the health advances have been the result of extraordinary economic progress, which has seen incomes in East Asia quadruple, with the Chinese economy growing four times as fast as Europe’s, and even the Indian economy outpacing those of rich nations. The UN report attributes the progress to the spread of democracy and human rights, with a general reduction in poverty despite increasing inequality. On the dark side of the equation, life expectancy has fallen in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Here are two examples of grass roots developments in the Third World:

  1. The Simputer, a hand held computer developed by Indian scientists, and run on three AAA batteries, will become commercially available in India for $200. Its revolutionary message is the Illiterate Markup Language — the software which allows the Simputor to translate English into a variety of Indian languages, then read the information aloud to the user. The need is overwhelming in a country where 50% of the population is illiterate. Swami Manohar, a leading member of the development team states: "It is not access to technology, but access to information, that is critical in relation to poverty elimination schemes, women's welfare schemes and health education."
  2. Fred Kajubi, an engineer in Uganda has developed a low-tech solar panel which can run anything from a radio to a mobile phone or cooking stove. The wafer-thin silicon photovoltaic cells are ten times cheaper than the more common crystalline solar panels, selling at $8.50 (US). They seem more appropriate and accessible for a country, only 3% of whose citizens have access to electricity than do the grandiose schemes for a dam and centralised hydroelectric power, favoured by the World Bank.

Thirty years ago, the wealthy members of the UN General Assembly committed themselves to giving 0.7% of their national wealth to poor countries, but only five of the 22 countries capable of achieving this have hit the target. Shamefully, the powerful G7 leading industrial countries currently give an average of 0.19%, being more concerned with collecting interest on their loans than giving genuine help to the poor nations. Despite this parsimony, it is encouraging how much innovative technology is springing from the Third World which would also be of value to industrialised nations on this planet of shrinking resources and increasing pollution.

from The Guardian Weekly, July 26

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