Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Better Soil Counts - and Improves Water Use

Soil science is being overlooked in the rush to save Australia’s dwindling water reserves, says a leading group of researchers.

Some of the most promising ways to boost water use efficiency lie at our feet, claims Professor Emeritus Robert E White, former chair of the Australian Society of Soil Science Inc (ASSSI). “Soil science offers technologies for more efficient irrigation. Australian researchers are uniquely placed to optimise understandings into the soil-water link,” he said.“For example, irrigation efficiency is greatly improved if it is designed to take account of a soil’s capacity to store available water for plants, and its ability to drain excess water.“Efficiency is also improved if water application is matched to crop demand, which changes with the weather and a crop’s growth stage.”

Agriculture is Australia’s biggest consumer of water, accounting for about 65% of the total water use. Most of this water is used for irrigation. Prof White explained: “More efficient irrigation enables profitable agriculture to be maintained while making more water available for the environment, and soil science offers useful water-saving boosters.”Using techniques and tools such as Global Positioning Systems, in-ground soil sensors and computer-based Geographic Information Systems, irrigators can make precise maps of changes in soil properties as they occur in a single paddock, orchard block, or over a whole farm.“Soil surveys and high-resolution soil sensing underpin precision agriculture in Australia’s irrigation areas, which account for more than 40% of agricultural production.”

Sensors are also being developed to detect when a water front has reached the end of a flood irrigation bay. “A wireless signal sent to a computer-controlled operating system triggers the opening or closing a gate that controls water flow into the bay,” said Prof White. In this way, water application is timed to more closely match crop demand than is possible manually.“To ensure that essential supplies for irrigation are maintained and the rivers regain their health, water must be managed more efficiently”, he said. “Soil science is a fundamental tool to achieve this.”

The Australian Society of Soil Science Inc works toward the advancement of soil science in the professional, academic and technical fields.

Monday, October 27, 2008

GM Crops Deserve a More Reasoned Debate

Debates around the potential benefits of GM crops for developing countries, as well as developed countires, must be reasoned and evidence-based, says Albert Weale.

The World Bank recently estimated that a doubling of food prices over the last three years could push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty. And the future does not look brighter. Food prices, although likely to fall from their current peaks, are predicted to remain high over the next decade.

As the world considers how to respond, the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops has inevitably reared its ugly head. 'Ugly' because the public exchange about this technology has usually seen extreme viewpoints gaining the most airtime. For example, in the United Kingdom, Prince Charles' spirited but ill-informed attack on GM crops this summer led to a flurry of opinionated responses. We could have been back in the polarised debates of the earlier part of this decade.

Since 1999, the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics, has twice examined the ethical issues raised by GM crops. In a 2003 report, the Council specifically focused on developing countries. Two of the conclusions are still particularly relevant today.

Ethical obligation

First, the council concluded that there is an ethical obligation to explore whether GM crops could reduce poverty, and improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries. In coming to this conclusion, the council considered differing perceptions of risk. When people have enough food, as in developed countries, consumers and producers will feel free to avoid risk — even if that risk is theoretical rather than real. But developing nations, struggling with widespread poverty, poor health,limited pest control and poor agricultural sustainability, have a different risk-benefit calculation.This is perhaps why the acreage of GM crops has tripled in developing countries over the past five years, compared to just doubling worldwide.

Consumers in prosperous countries are being asked to suppress their doubts about GM crops so that research relevant to the developing world continues. In effect, they are being asked to concede that any potential losses to them are outweighed by potential gains to poor countries, where yields are declining and conventional agriculture is increasingly unsustainable.

This does not belittle other factors needed for poverty reduction and food security — such as stable political environments, appropriate infrastructures, fair international and national agricultural policies, and access to land and water. GM crops are just one part of a large and complex picture. But we will not know how important a part until we explore their potential.

Case by case consideration

The Nuffield Council's second key conclusion was that the wide range of GM crops and situations must be considered individually. Those who oppose or support GM crops per se make an unhelpful generalisation.

Each time, the gene or combination of genes being inserted, and the nature of the target crop, must be assessed. It is also important to compare a GM crop with local alternatives. For example, Golden Rice — enhanced for b-carotene to help fight vitamin A deficiency — is not needed where people have sufficient vitamin A from leafy greens, or ready access to vitamin supplements. But where this is not the case, the crop may significantly improve nutrition.

Similarly, herbicide-resistant soybeans can reduce demands for local labour. This may be devastating if a community relies on wages from manual weeding. But it may help communities struggling with a labour shortage due to high prevalence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

The role of research

Scientific and other evidence must be central in the debate, and over the past few years evidence about GM crops has grown. For example, according to a recent news report in Science, soon-to-be-published research will clarify the amount of Golden Rice a child would need to eat each day to prevent vitamin A deficiency. This kind of research is vital if governments and farmers are to make informed decisions about GM crops. Indeed, before new research is funded, national and regional bodies in developing countries should be consulted about their priorities for crops and desirable GM traits.

In the United Kingdom, the government has committed £150 million (US$263 million) over the next five years to research aimed at making agriculture more resilient to the pests and diseases affecting poor farmers, and increasing smallholders' agricultural productivity.

Research efforts are also growing in the developing world, with South African scientists developing and working to commercialise virus-resistant maize, and countries like Kenya and Nigeria hosting projects to develop virus-resistant varieties of key African crops (see 'Agri-biotech in sub-Saharan Africa: Facts and figures').

Striking a balance

Many people worry about possible environmental risks from GM crops, such as gene flow to other plants, and this is something that scientific research must clarify. But alarm-raising without evidence is as helpful as calling 'fire' in a crowded theatre. Similarly, demanding evidence of zero risk before allowing a new technology is fundamentally at odds with any practical strategy for investigating new technologies. Mobile phones or aeroplanes might never have seen the light of day if such stringent demands had been placed on them. In the case of GM technology it is clearly crucial to ask what the risks of adopting GM crops are. But it is also important to ask what the risks of not doing so are. Realistic cost-benefit analyses that consider local social and environmental conditions and development goals are needed on a country-by-country basis.

Heated debate about the food crisis must not detract from an evidence-based assessment of biotechnology's potential for improving agricultural productivity in developing countries. The benefits of GM crops must not be overstated. But neither can poor arguments be allowed to obscure strong arguments for a good cause.

Professor Albert Weale is chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and professor of government at the University of Essex, United Kingdom, and he has made a sound case.

In northern Australia, one of the big questions is over the use of GM cotton. Extensive studies in both the NT and WA have shown no gene movement into the wild cotton relatives nor have there been any movement into weedy plants. Yields have been higher, and costs lower.

Yet the NT government in particular is pandering to urban voters over its non acceptance of GM cotton, or GM anything! This region is in essence a developing region where GM crops could be very useful.

The issue of individual consideration of a crop or usage is most relevant for this region.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Green Roofs and Food Production

After posting a note on using roofs as green roofs mainly for environmnetal benefits, there may be an even greater requirement that combines both environment benefit and the simple need to grow food, within the large world cities that are now developing.

In Asia especially, large urban conglomerations are rampant......cities with many millions of residents, dependent on outside areas for food, and the logistical chains that are needed to bring the food into the area.

I think the classic case is Singapore. Not only are they dependent on non Singaporean sources for food, the residents are now also almost totally divorced from the food production process especially of fresh foods, and people have little knowledge or understanding of horticulture or agriculture.

To add to the comments, Professor Julian Cribb, author of "The Coming Famine", said that Australian cities also needed to be aware of the issues, and the global food crisis was a forewarning of what could be expected as civilisation ran low on water, arable land and nutrients, and experienced soaring energy costs. He said the urban farmers of the future - who would primarily grow vegetables - would play a much larger role in the global diet. "We need new skills in designing this diet and developing the intensive vegetable culture needed to support it," he said. "This intensive urban veggie culture is an entirely new industry and will need a new professional - the urban farmer who can grow food on the roofs and sides of buildings, in intensive biocultures and by other novel methods to feed the megacities of 30 million-plus inhabitants. "If we don't, by 2050 we will have more than three-quarters of the human population - almost 8 billion people - living in places where they are totally without the means or the knowledge of how to feed themselves. "Our giant cities will be gigantic death traps, at the mercy of even quite minor glitches in regional or global food supplies."

In Australia ,The City of Sydney council has commissioned a report to look at ways to encourage the greening of rooftops. A report is expected before Christmas, 2008, which will examine the option of fitting green roofs on older buildings. The council already supports gardens in the city.

"Green roofs would create more open space and enhance bio-diversity," Ms Hoff the Deputy Mayor said. "They will also reduce energy consumption by insulating buildings, reduce stormwater run-off, reduce greenhouse gases and could be practical, too, by growing fruit and vegetables."

Green Roofs Australia executive Jim Osborne, a landscape architect, said councils and governments needed to provide incentives such as greater planning and monetary support for rooftop gardens. The benefits of these gardens had been established overseas but more scientific research examining Australian conditions was needed.

This last issue is critical, especially for tropical Australia. In this region, temperate class plants are usually just wrong to use, and a new group might be needed. Watch this roof space!

Friday, October 10, 2008

KISSS for Green Roof Applications

There is a new product by the KISSS group that is well suited to green roof applications. It is called Ebb and Flow mat

The KISSS Ebb and Flow Mat represents a giant leap forward in green roof technology. The mat is an integrated extensive green roof system that provides not only irrigation, but drainage and root protection. The Ebb and Flow Mat has several advantages over other systems, Most importantly, it is an "active" drainage system that intelligently manages the moisture level of your green roof soils. Additionally, this system is the most cost effective system on the market today.

The KISSS Ebb and Flow System is simple to install and saves a tremendous amount of labour. Additionally, it is easy to work with in the event that a roof leak should occur.
Simply roll out the Ebb and Flow mat onto the roof and overlap the mats as shown below. Finally, install your drainage system. Then you have an active drainage system, irrigation system, and root barrier all in the one system.

The KISSS Ebb and Flow Advantage
The perfect solution for an extensive green roof on structures that are sensitive to water loading. This system provides an active drainage layer while elimination water holding on structure.
Integrated design and roll out installation reduces labour and eliminates the need for many of the standard components within other green roof systems, making it the lightest and most economical system in the market today.
The system can be manufactured to be compatible with conventional green roof systems and add supplementary drainage, as well as effective irrigation.

An ideal system for green building initiatives like LEED.

Light weight, flexibility, and low cost make it a prefect fit for any retro-fit with a restrictive weight allowance or budget.

Green Roof Frequently Asked Questions

How does it work?
The KISSS Green Roof product irrigates the soil media above it, and assists in the drainage of the soil to keep it at optimum moisture content. It does this without the soil being saturated, as saturated soil forces out air. Air in the soil media is just as important as water to plants, and especially on a roof where the minimum amount of soil media should be used to minimize the loading on the roof, and maximize the run-off in heavy rainfall. The difference between the KISSS system and other green roof irrigation systems is that it can drain the soil media at a gentle rate, and if the media is drier than the irrigation system, the system will provide more water to the media via capillary action. This keeps the top few centimetres reasonably dry which reduces evaporation and weeds germinating, but keeps the lower layers moist which encourages deeper root growth.

What soil/media can be used?
Plants of any kind can be grown on a green roof and the only limiting factors are enough soil media for support, moisture, air and nutrients. We suggest a light weight media product and there are a few in the market eg
CocoEarth media mixed with sands of a particular grade to give stability and hold water and nutrients that are required. These can be provided by the installer.

How durable is the material?
The materials in the KISSS product are not biodegradable. They are synthetics that are made from polyester and polyethylene and do not break down in soil and do not compress easily. The materials are made in such a manner so that the water and nutrients runs along the fibres but do not fill the fibres and only the pore spaces in between the fibres hold the water, soil and nutrients.

What about roots damaging the materials?

Roots can invade the materials and run between the fibres, but will not penetrate the fibres themselves therefore the fibres still maintain their functions. The drip line that is in the system to supply the water to the geotextiles is encased in the geotextile for protection and also to make sure the water flows uninhibited across the fibres. The system is made to encourage the roots to invade the system to provide a source of water and nutrients and not to just rely on the soil above the system.

Can the system provide nutrients to the soil/media?

Liquid injection can be used with the KISSS system to add nutrients at any time. The benefit of the KISSS system is that the roots are in direct contact with the fibres in the system so that if nutrients are supplied through the water then the roots get access to these in solution immediately, thereby reducing the amount of fertiliser required. Controlled release fertilisers can be used on top of the plant material or soil media and the rainfall and moisture in the atmosphere will make these available over time, but 30% less fertiliser will be required than the rate for potted plants.

What can I grow on the green roof?

You can grow just about anything from lawn to shrubs to small trees to cactus to ferns to veggies for the family and it all depends on what you want and the aspect and climate of your roof. The simplest solution is to just turf your roof and have a veggie patch or flower garden. Small areas can be grown with a simple UV stabilised corflute structure that can be laid out on the mat and filled with media and planted out with whatever you desire.

What if I don’t want a green roof but want to grow my veggies or herbs?
KISSS has an answer with the combination of their ebb and flow mat and the veggie box on the mat. This can be planted out with flowers, herbs or veggies. The unit is 4.5m long by 1.2m wide and 200mm high. It can produce a wide range of veggies and herbs for all the family and can sit in the backyard on the ground and be connected to the tap and only requires two irrigation cycles of one hour each per week in summer and once a week in winter. It uses drip technology inside the ebb and flow mat to spread the water to the soil. The Cocoearth media is optional and can also be sent in the mail and you will require 12 blocks for a 4.5m long unit costing $80 plus postage and handling. Nutrients can be added by liquid form or organic fertiliser mixed in by shovel or chemical fertiliser as slow release. The corflute box is UV stabilised and light weight, and the system will last for 7 years under normal sunlight if the materials are not damaged by mechanical means or animals.
For more details see -

Monday, October 06, 2008

Free Range Eggs are Probably Not

It seems that only about one in three of those labelled as free range eggs actually are free range. At least in Australia.

That has a bit to do with the semantics of how free range is actually defined, but evidence shows about one million free range chooks EXCEPT that the markets indicate over 2.5 million seem to be around, based on the number of free range eggs that are labelled that way. And sold at much higher prices, too.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of barn-laid eggs are passed off as free range in an egg-substitution racket that costs Australian consumers billions of dollars each year, Ivy Inwood, the president of the Free Range Egg & Poultry Association of Australia, told The Sunday Age.

Two years ago, egg substitution was estimated to have cost consumers $13 million annually but the problem has become worse as the sale of free-range-branded eggs continues to soar, she said.
The true cost of the scam might never be known because proper records are not kept, and governments have left themselves effectively powerless to police the egg-substitution issue. "The ACCC has its hands tied because there are no agreed standards, they can't do anything," Mrs Inwood said. "You can call anything free range and get away with it."

Mrs Inwood has called on all Australian governments to urgently develop a nationwide, legally binding definition of free-range eggs, including how they should be produced.

Any new laws should require that laying hens be allowed out of sheds at first light, have adequate space for foraging and that all hens should be reared as free rangers from hatchlings.

"Over half the free-range eggs are falsely labelled because they're not coming from genuine free-range farms," Mrs Inwood said. "The public is paying big bikkies for these things, so we need to get genuine free-range eggs."

And this is following the recent news that really, free range eggs are no different to caged egg production in quality. Did they actually test free range eggs?

I cannot note any differences, except the outlandish high prices for free range eggs.

So should we be throwing mud at China?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Carbon Emissions Reduction in Australia - Here We Come - Maybe: The Garnaut Report

The Garnaut Report - the final report is published today on 30 September 2008.

It is a gargantuan report, and is best digested in small bites.......a bit like a termite munching through wood! There is a significant chapter now on agriculture, and the report does join agriculture and forestry together as land users with potential for doing good, carbon wise.

Much will be made of the view espoused in the report that we need to reduce cattle and sheep and farm kangaroos, principally to reduce methane emissions. Maybe modification of the gut bacteria using modified bacteria is feasible as recently suggested at a conference I was at which looked at carbon issues in agriculture. A "big science" approach might be needed to achieve an outcome, but the payoff would be huge...and exportable. However, in the report, a 5-6% increase in costs at retail level for beef would occur at a carbon price around $20 per tonne. So that is modest, although cattle producers would have to purchase permits.

However, the potential for soil carbon sequestration is recognised......and about time, even in tropical savannah woodland, as the photo.

Savannah burning contributions to the carbon emissions, including the West Arnhem Savannah Burning Project gets a mention, but for Australia, the carbon contributed by this source is very small, even if large for northern Australia. In this project fire reduction by wet season buring at low intensity, funded by a large emitter, offsets their emissions from another source.

Carbon sequestration in soils has enormous potential for Australia, and the report does make some serious comment on that issue, with some detailed references on soil carbon management by Dr Rattan Lal among the citations. It is not just carbon is as much about higher soil productivity in Australia.

The chapter on agriculture and land use can be accessed at:

It is too detailed a topic to easily cover here and should be required reading by those in Australian agriculture.

More detail and individual chapters are available at .