Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Second Woe of the Wombat

Wombats are probably my favourite native Australian animal. They dig in soil to make their homes. They have cute noses and whiskers. And they are mysterious; hiding in their burrows, and sometimes difficult to find. They are the largest soil moving mammals in Australia, and are an important part of our ecosystem.

I definitely have a soft spot for the Wombat; especially as it is a creature of soil. 

Wombat, via Wikipedia

I was very sad to hear that the Southern Hairy-Nose Wombat are under threat due to lack of feed and weeds, with a decline of 70-80% in the Murraylands of South Australia. I was listening to Radio National's Bush Telegraph program about the plight of one of my favourite creatures in the South Australian region, likely linked to drought. 

The Wombat Awareness Organisation (WAO) is concerned about drought, lack of feed, and weeds causing wombat malnutrition, lack of condition, and ultimately the death of the wombat. They are worried that there are thousands of wombats affected in South Australia. Researchers have identified a range of problems related to the condition and death of wombats, including toxic plants (potato weed) causing liver damage, changes in land management, compromised immune responses and diseases. Researchers said, however, that there are many complexities to the problem and more research is required. 

Southern Hairy-Nose Wombat, via Wikipedia

The WAO has found that wombats health improves after eating straw. They are wanting to get Government approval to place straw as a feed source in locations where there are affected wombats. Researchers would like a strategic approach to helping the wombats, including a monitoring program to determine if it the straw is helping the wombats. 

I hope that WAO and researchers are able to find a way to improve the conditions for the wombats, whether it be through food placement, altered land management practices where possible (such as control of weeds and improved feed), or looking into more wombat care centres. 

If you want to know more, or get involved, you can contact WAO and their Drought Relief Project or listen to the Bush Telegraph program. I have also previously written about wombats and mange, which affects wombats in South Eastern Australia (NSW, SA and Victoria). 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How much was that? Counting sustainability and fairness in costs at the supermarket

At the *insert name of a large supermarket chain here* checkout, as my on-special environmentally-friendly olive oil got scanned, the Peppy Checkout Girl serving me exclaimed: "That was half that price last week! You should have bought it then." I mentioned that I don't go to *large supermarket* very often, but needed to on this occasion. I asked her why it was cheaper. She said that "...there are always huge discounts just after a bulk purchase". She then spent some time trying to convince me to check out their specials online weekly. I said that I was pretty happy with the price anyway, and she looked dumbfounded and stopped chatting to me with so much enthusiasm.

This bothered me for a couple of reasons.

Olives from Jordan (via Wikipedia)

The first was concern that Peppy Girl wasn't thinking of where the product came from, the story behind it. She was just concerned with the cost to her. The product I bought has environmental credentials. It minimises inputs, minimises soil erosion, and maximises soil health. This is part of sustainable farming; looking after the land during food production, so that we can produce food in the long term. We have the option when shopping to buy these products, and know we are contributing to better environmental practices and food security. Not all products are environmentally friendly; many products may even be having a detrimental impact on the environment at the cost of future generations ability to eat.

And it wasn't just about how the food was produced. Peppy Girl was thinking about her pocket, and not about who is actually paying for the food. When we pay low prices at the supermarkets, it is great for us; super cheap groceries. But, is that the real cost of the food? There is a tradition that at low prices to consumers, farmers may not be getting a fair deal (UKFG, 2005). With a fair deal being a price that covers production of the food and allows them a comfortable life. However, there is mixed information available regarding the exact nature of deals between producers and retailers (ABARE, 2005), and it is very difficult to tell if this product or other products are a fair price.

February 26th: Fairtrade fortnight!
Fairtrade products (via Richard Thomas aka Flickrich on Flickr)

The second reason was whether the low cost of the product is reflective of its sustainable and environmentally-friendly credentials. The week before I bought the olive oil, it was about $3.00. When I bought the oil, it was $6.00, and still on special. This seems very very cheap. Why? An environmentally sustainable products cost more to produce. This is because they often use less land with more land in conservation, produce less, it is more labour intensive, and they use specialist practices, all of which cost more. As a 'speciality product', the trade off for the high cost of production is by getting a premium price, or higher price compared to non-sustainable products. How much did the retailer pay for the oil? Was it enough to cover the cost of the oils production, environmental sustainability and for the livelihood of the farmer?

I don't like to be negative, and I hope that making food production processes more transparent and accessible to consumers will help people understand where their food comes from and what choices they can make. A national sustainable farming scheme, like Target 100, aims to promote sustainable farming practices, bring farmers together and educate consumers about environmental practices. You can also download ethical guides for iPhone, such as The Good Shopping Guide, Shop Ethical and Sustainable Seafood Guide by NGOs and researchers, which help to make more informed decisions whilst shopping. Other national labelling schemes have been previously discussed as a way of helping people to make more informed choices about what they are buying, and their environmental and social credentials.

What else can we all do when we shop?
* Go to your local farmers markets and stores (my favourite producer owned stores in Canberra are Choku Baijo and Lost River Butcher), and buy direct from producers
* Look for environmental credentials on the product: organic, biodynamic, sustainable, environmental, Landcare, Fairtrade etc.
* Download ethical guides to take and research whilst shopping

And ask yourself: why is this so cheap? Are the farmers getting a good deal? Does the product have environmental credentials?

For me, knowing where that product came from, the environmental story behind it and that the farmers got a fair price is the most important choice for me when shopping. I desperately wanted to explain to the Peppy Girl why cheapest isn't always best for the environment, for the producer and even for Peppy Girl's future.

There are many more ethical, environmental, and fair produce arguments in this debate, and you can check out more of them here:
Target 100
Ethical Consumer Guide
Organic Certification - Australia
Australian Academy of Science: Sustainable links
Fairtrade Certification and Aust/NZ
A blog post I wrote about sustainable eating.
There are also many books available on this topic, with interesting debate.

What are your thoughts on sustainable food and supermarkets? Prices? Labelling? Are you worried that paying low prices could result in non-sustainable practices? Are you a producer that is concerned or thinks you are getting a fair price? Perhaps you are a retailer who is experienced in Fairtrade? Please share your comments and ideas below.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Soil Scientist: Andy

Meet Andy Scott: Runner, Forest lover and Researcher in soil science and management

I grew up on a sandy ridge about 200 m above the White River in southern Indiana, in the midwestern U.S. My backyard was a mixed hardwood forest that included many sandstone outcrops, mini-caves, and a great little pond. None of my friends lived near me, so I spent all my time exploring those woods or playing in the 4x5x1.5 m subterranean clubhouse I dug out of the side of a hill in a Alvin-Bloomfield complex.

I was always fascinated by the grubs, plant bulbs, roots, centipedes, and the interesting colors I found while digging. I also created probably 1 km of trails through the woods with an axe and a garden rake before I turned 14. During that same time, a major battle between the nearby Hoosier National Forest and some environmental groups raged over harvesting, and while I didn’t know what the issues were at the time, this debate over harvesting left a real impression on me.

Andy undertaking sampling

I went to college to study Forestry, not expecting to actually stay in that major, but it seemed okay to start with until I found something I really liked. Then, after my freshman year, I got a summer job working for two Ph.D. students helping with their forest soils research projects. I got to plant trees, dig soil pits, measure forests, take soil samples, root samples, foliage samples, and sort leaves. I also got to work in the laboratory preparing samples for analysis. I kept this job for the next three years of my undergraduate, and ended up doing my own research project to supplement the graduate student projects. During my sophomore year, I took Purdue University’s famed AGRY 255 (Introductory Soil Science), and loved it so much I almost switched majors. But instead I realized then that I could combine my love of forests with my love of soils and study forest soils. I maintained my Forest Management major, but took a soils course for every possible elective. I did the same thing for both my graduate degrees; I majored in Forestry but took as many if not more soils courses.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation. Photo by Andy Scott

My primary research interest has always generally revolved around how disturbance (usually anthropogenic) affects various soil properties and processes in forests, and how forests respond to those changes. Virtually all my studies have been oriented toward forest managers or landowners. I get the most satisfaction from my work when I know that someone, somewhere, might be able to protect soil quality while still managing their forest for a host of goods and services (can be timber, but game animals, carbon sequestration, water quality, biodiversity, and other outputs are finally being recognized for their value). Currently, I’m spending most of my time assessing the potential and actual impact of the “new” woody biomass industry on forest soil quality and productivity.

My favorite soil

I don’t know that I have a favorite soil. I don’t get enough time in soil pits to really develop a particular favorite. I’m fascinated by all sorts of soils, even relatively boring but quite productive brown Ultisols (like the Beauregard series that support this productive loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation).

Beauregard Series. Photo by Andy Scott

Forest soil science is my passion. Why?

Soils are unbelievably complicated ecosystems, arguably more complicated than the ecosystems existing above them. Soils covered by forest ecosystems generally are less productive or have some constraint to development or agriculture, meaning they often are at high risk of decreases in quality if managed improperly. Conversely, they are also quite resilient if managed well. High-quality forest soils provide many services to society and have value all their own as well, but degraded soils are very costly to restore or costly due to lost ecosystem services. By continuing to study how forest management affects soils and how soils affect forest management, I hope to ensure that all landowners can make good decisions and sustain soil quality.

Andy now works as a Research Soil Scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Southern Research Station.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Favourite Soil: Martian Soils

This months MFS is written by Eriita Jones from ANU. Eriita has just completed a PhD on looking for life on Mars. She is also a keen baker, crafter and gamer.

Soil on Mars is very different to soil on Earth. As there is no vegetation on Mars and little or no organics at the surface, martian soil has not formed from organic processes such as the decaying of plant matter and the action of microorganisms. The martian soil has formed simply from the erosion and weathering of rock- large crustal rocks being ground into smaller and smaller pieces- through physical and chemical processes. What we know about martian soil comes mainly from the six successful missions that have landed on the surface. The outer layers of the martian crust are primarily basalt, like the oceanic crust of Earth, and the soil is composed mainly of iron oxides, iron rich smectite clays, and salts. I am interested in the search for life on other planets, and so I am fascinated by the question of whether the martian soil could support any Earth-like life. Low availability of liquid water is the strongest challenge for any life at or near the martian surface. Let’s assume for a minute though that the martian soil is in contact with frequent liquid water. Then would it be hospitable for some forms of life?

Yes! The soil on Mars has plenty of sources of nutrients. The soil is quite salty, with chlorides, sulphates and carbonates. The image above shows a layer of bright white soil rich in sulphates (iron and probably calcium) with small amounts of water bound to the minerals. The minerals present in this bright soil formed in hydrothermal vent conditions (hot water!), analogous to the kind of vents found at Yellowstone National Park. This tells us that these conditions, under which many Earth organisms thrive, must have existed millions of years ago on Mars. Amazingly, this subsurface layer was only discovered because the Spirit rover was forced to drag its broken wheel behind it, effectively tilling the soil. Soil analysed by the Phoenix lander in the image below has plenty of nutrients (potassium, magnesium, chlorides) and with its slightly alkaline pH it would be ideal for growing vegetables like asparagus and turnips, if there was liquid water available. The concentrations of salts found at both these sites (and in fact everywhere that we have looked at the martian soil) are very important in the search for life on Mars. The main reason for this, apart from the nutrients that they provide, is their ability to draw water vapour from the atmosphere to form liquid films within the soil. Salts help to wet the soil, and they also help stabilise any liquid water so that it has a longer lifetime in the martian soil.

Curiosity Touching Down, Artist's Concept

Curiosity Touching Down, Artist's Concept via NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr

There is so much still to learn about soil on Mars. We hope to learn more about the soil when the Mars Science Laboratory lands in August, but there is always more to learn from the multitude of imagery and spectra that we have of the martian surface. You can also learn about martian soil by looking at soils on Earth such as in the photo below – where I examined the salty dry soil around gullies (we see similar features on Mars) near Arkaroola. Mars is such an exciting place, and every day we draw closer to finding environments that are hospitable to life, have the potential to support microorganisms, and can help us answer the question of ‘is there life on Mars?’. The best way to learn though, would be to visit and dig up that soil ourselves!