Here is a picture of Babylon taken recently. Babylon was the first great civilization founded on the idea of the power of irrigation to deliver intensive agriculture. It and all such societies collapsed because nature demands her due.
In our next chapter we will show the threat in more detail but for now a hopeful question.
We know that farmers can and do change if they have the right incentives.
What would happen if we incented farmers to become true stewards of the biosphere? What if they were paid primarily to keep us viable as a society? What if we could see that they could do more than produce commodities for multinationals and see if they could produce valuable services for us who share the same landscape? What if we could afford to pay them for this service?
What if we understood and applied ALUS or Alternate Land Use Services? ALUS is an idea that is now being applied and is having the kind of effect on farmers and on the biosphere that we need to shift farming into becoming a profitable and restorative process.
I heard about ALUS from my old friend John MacQuarrie, who is the Deputy Minister for Environment and for Energy on PEI. We had breakfast the other day so that I could find out more. Here he is with his daughter Amy who has become a keen hunter.
He got my attention right away with the New York story. (Great Link with tons of detail told very well)
New York depends on the upstate watersheds to provide it with clean and safe water. New York needs a lot of water everyday. 4.9 billion litres a day! New York's water comes via a tunnel system that rivals the aqueducts of Rome from the Delaware, the Catskill and the Croton systems.
The problem was that intensive commodity farming in the watersheds was threatening the availability of safe water.
At first people just accepted the idea that the water quality would decline as how we farmed was unchangeable. It was estimated that a filtration plant would cost about $8 billion to build and about $300 million a year to operate. As with oil, there is no fooling with water - we have to have it and we will pay anything to get it.
But then another idea began to take hold. What if we paid the farmers to farm in a different way? What if we paid them to have a holistic farm plan that looked at all the variables and that allowed us to pay them for delivering safe clean water?
Of course at first most people thought that this was a stupid idea. But it has grabbed a hold now. People saw how it worked for their neighbours and then they too joined. Now the plan is to pay $1.8 billion to farmers to raise the value of their steward role.
Everyone wins. New York saves a lot of money and has a sustainable water system. The local communities, where the farmers themselves live, have a better and a safer environment. The farmers now have a new and predictable source of income based on a planning process that enables them to see what is really going on. Not only can they now see the bigger picture but with this new and predictable source of income, they are less dependent on the multinational Ag companies. They are experiencing more freedom. They can see more opportunity.
The only losers - Big Ag who no longer control all the incentives. Power is shifting back to the community.
I asked John how he saw things.
"A prize winning farmer, who since left farming, said 'There has to be an easier way to go broke?'
Our farmers are caught in a vice. On the one hand they are being told to export more and to be more efficient. But this does not make them money. Realized Net farm incomes have declined from over $3 billion annually in 1989 to a historic low of about $3 million in 2003 and 2.1 million in 2004. Farm debt rose from $23.5 billion in 1994 to $49 billion in 2004. All the time commodity prices have been going down and input prices, nearly all connected to oil, have been going up.
Stats can figures released in December showed for 2004 machinery expenses up 8.7%, fuel costs up 12.9%, crop expenses up 4.9%, marketing up 17.5%.
Caught in this vice, farmers have no choice but to squeeze the natural capital."
Aren't you trying to regulate better practice?
"Rob - the problem is just too big for that. Farmers spent $171 million on environmental protection in 2001. They cannot afford this and the forces that drive them are too powerful and are outside of their control.
What we are finding is that if we can offer real money for real services that extend beyond growing the inputs for the Food Giants then they can help not only the rest of us but also themselves."
What do you mean by real services John?
"I mean "Ecological Goods and Services". Such as the value of wetlands in purifying water and in reducing flooding. Remember Katrina? The value of Riparian zones in filtering soil and other contaminants from run off entering watercourses. The value of natural areas in providing wildlife habitat.
These are all Goods and Services that we can and should pay for. If we lose them, we lose it all. Once we have lost them we cannot get them back."
You really think we cannot apply technology to get them back?
"Well the $200 million Biosphere experiment failed. We do not seem to be able to replicate the kind of large scale systems needed to keep our biosphere healthy. We cannot manufacture watersheds, gene pools, wetlands, pollinators and topsoil."
What might this all be worth - can we put a dollar figure on it?
"In the 2003 report, Securing Natural Capital, the National Round Table of the Environment and the Economy pointed to a 1998 report where some economists estimated the world wide value of being $16-54 trillion a year."
That's a lot
"The gross world product in 1998 was $28 trillion. So my point is just as there is a value for the food that farmers produce there is a value for these critically vital services. We pay for the food - we can pay for the services too."
Is this just an idea or has it got some legs. Can we see this idea in action?
"It began outside of Canada. In the US the Conservation Reserve Program has seen nearly 5 million acres of cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region restored back to grass. There are programs like this in Europe too.
In Canada, ALUS originated in Manitoba with folks like Ian Wishart, Vice President of Keystone Resources. It has been designed and promoted jointly by Delta Waterfowl and Keystone and has been adopted by farm groups throughout Canada. In recent months pilots have begun in Manitoba and in Ontario. We are talking about a pilot here on PEI as well.
There has been a national deputy ministers Environmental Goods and Service Committee formed that I co chair with Barry Todd, DM of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. We are finding that this is an idea whose time has come. After a slow start, the value of this simple but powerful idea is being recognized."
Thank you John - I look forward to checking in with you for progress.
In our next chapter - we will look at the trends that we will have to change if we are to still have a viable biosphere.