Wednesday 17 April 2019

Holistic accounting

For every Irish person living in this Our Bold Republic there are 1,999 other people on the planet - Inuits, Italians, Indians, Indonesians. That 1:2000 ratio makes the accounting fairly straightforward when trying to fairly divide up the pain we will all have to endure to reduce the global carbon footprint to sustainable levels. We don't need to take more than our fair share of hair-shirt. Well actually, compared to Inuits and Indonesians, we really should recognise that we've consumed far more than them and so could give up proportionately more - ice-cream, the second car, that trip to Majorca, that electric sandwich toaster, that U2 concert in 1997, all the €30 restaurant meals, deliveroo, the subsidised education, a two three flush toilet[s] - to stop the ice-caps melting.

I'm thinking thus because this week The Institute is hosting the national environmental science "colloquium" [as they rather pretentiously call their annual talk-fest and knees-up]. It's the welly-brigade's equivalent of the nerd-fest that I organised in 2014. The theme of this year's meeting was 'Climate Change' and many of the speakers tried to give their research presentations a CC gloss. This was a bit of an ask if the talk presented a count of aquatic invertebrates identified in the gut of another, more rapacious, aquatic invertebrate. But in other cases, the organisers had secured a talk from senior experts working directly on quantifying the amount of carbon produced by [species | countries | ecosystems] or developing policy on how to slow down our voracious consumption. One of the good aspects of a general eco-conference is that you get exposed to a wide variety of subjects and approaches. Some times those rather random juxtapositions can generate new-think on the basis that two half-ideas [even half-baked] is a whole idea.

For the last generation it has been a truism, accepted by the whole Irish agribusiness sector, that the very best that you can do for your cattle-farming bottom line is to plant a mono-culture of perennial ryegrass Lolium perenne, lurry of the nitrates, and feed the grass to the cows - direct or as hay / silage. More nitrate = more tonnes of dry-matter / hectare which means more muscle or more milk and therefore more money. Teagasc, the agri-advisory service, has graphs and analysis backing up these equations. One of the talks yesterday was from a young chap who seemed to be saying that planting a pasture with 6 carefully thought out species - notably including clover Trifolium repens to fix the nitrogen naturally [it falls from the sky stupid] - could have an equivalent productivity to Lolium only + double nitrates. That was rather iconoclastic but he had data. hmmmmm half-idea.

Both of the carbon drives climate change big-wigs independently waved their hands rather imperiously to say " . . . IF we ignore the agricultural contribution THEN carbon footprint is generated thus:
  • 48% heating poorly insulated homes and offices in poorly chosen [the whole temperate region north of 50° lat] locations.
  • 32% transport - driving between these two places 5 days a week and flying to more exotic locales every month
  • 20% energy to make the shite which we have been convinced that we need or desire
At the end of the second such talk I raised my hand and asked "That's all very well but, for me the udder in the room is the agri-contribution which you have waved aside (because methane doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as CO2) what about if we all stopped eating butter and burgers . . . starting with meat-free Monday?" [whc prev]. I did get a coherent answer to that question but it requires more numerical analysis than I can muster right now.

Twenty minutes later I was scarfing up the tea and iced-dainties which delegates think they deserve at conferences and said hello to another old bloke carefully filling his plate like he hadn't had any lunch. I more efficiently skipped the plate and was eating straight from the tray. Turned out that he works with the fellow whose one-dimensional view I had just publicly criticised, so I apologised for being a bit full of myown gas. He knew rather a lot about dairy-farming and subsidies and we agreed that there was more to agricultural grants than making more butter and cheese as cheaply as possible so it could be exported to England. As well as the butter, the grants allowed thousands of people to have fulfilling lives on family farms embedded in a unique and enduring community. Without the subsidies, the whole family would have to up-stakes and head for the city where they would finish up living in a shed in a favela on the outskirts of Dublin - there is insufficient housing stock to shelter the present population of the city without adding 130,000 families from Irish farms all of which depend upon Brussels to avoid going bust.

I asked him if he'd seen the poster presentation by the young-feller who had multi-species pastures. He had . . . and I was suddenly able to articulate the thought [primed by my earlier half idea] that feeding cows a variety of species might affect the microbiome of their rumens . . . quite apart from being a low-nitrate solution to increased biomass. What if a grass&forbs mix could be found that would make uncomfortable the methanogens down in the dark. Imagine a rumen that could still deliver energy from cellulose but without burping up a load of methane - which is >25% more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 . . .  and that win-win could be achieved simply by modifying the diet. The microbiome is coming into focus, from obscurity, for a wide range of problems which cannot be solved with traditional medicine. This might be another example. We generate a fantastical amount of excess carbon in this country, we are obliged by treaty, by law and by common sense to reduce this adverse CO2ntribution to a sustainable future: we can't allow agriculture to be scored only by its potential to earn export income.

The wider issue is the danger and uselessness of reductionist thinking in science [recent-rant] . . . and in politics. We have a persistent and shameful trolley crisis in the Irish health system. Hundreds of sick people are parked on makeshift beds each day in corners and corridors of Irish hospitals. They are waiting for a bed in a ward. Upstairs the aged Mrs Doohickey, in for observation after her latest trip&fall, wants to go home, the ward-sister wants her bed but it's not going to happen because Mrs D can no longer look after herself at home - she needs a couple of hours help each day to get out of bed, and get breakfast. That help comes from the Dept Social Welfare whose minister has been unable to wrestle the money for sufficient home-help from the common purse . . . because the Minister of Health has corralled another €billion from the budget. IF MiniWelf and MiniHelf would talk to each other rather than fighting their respective corners at the cabinet table THEN Mrs.D. would be sleeping in her own bed tonight and one trolley would be empty in the trolley-shed.

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