Recycling – what is that?

May 13, 2013

When it concerns plant nutrients too often “recycling” is interpreted as “apply it to the soil”. The optimistic thought is that it should sooner or later be used by the soil – plant system. However, there are several complications:

Nitrogen and phosphorus are plant nutrients but they are also potential pollutants. When applied to soils, to what extent do they cause losses to the environment? To what extent do they deliver nutrients to the crops?

How does the recycling material interfere with the normal agricultural functions and management? The crop production of today is a precision enterprise both concerning amounts and timing. Uncertainties and complications have a cost, in resource use, yields or money.

“Rrcycling” sometimes is close to deposition. Enriched soils are used in situations where enrichment is not necessary. In that case the “recycling” is of no use. The pollution aspect may be more important, Examples are enriched soil material  for building golf courses etc or for covering waste deposits.

In short – waste materials said to be “a valuable nutrient source for agriculture” need a thorough  evaluation in several respects.

But then, of course, there may be overriding aspects. Even if agricultural use should cause some problems  it might be the least problematic compared to other alternatives.The “marketing” should be adapted accordingly.

Stagnating yields?

April 13, 2013

Maybe. In several countries the yield trends have flattened. The raising yields from the 1990s are history. It should not be so. Plant breeding has made progress. There is scope for increase. So – why this development?

In Sweden we have started a project to find out the reasons for this lack of development ant if possible suggest improvements. Several reasons are discussed: soil structure, soil compaction, declining organic matter, lack of good break crops, more stress on reducing costs than increase income, neglected drainage …..

The experiments on farmers fields show a better development, 2-3 tons or so above the statistical yields for winter wheat. 11-12 tons is not uncommon. So there is scope. It may be so that our shorter vegetation season compared to teh Continent to some extent is compensated by longer summer days and cooler weather reducing respriration losses.

Are higher yields important? At least 3 reasons can be put forward:

Global food requirement. Land is a scarce resource. Raising demands must be met to a great extent by higher yields.

High yields are essential for the competitiveness of Swedish agriculture.

High yields are advantageous for the soil and the environment, provided inputs etc are correctly adapted

Collapse, climate and more

March 5, 2013

A new Swedish book:  Collapse (Swedish Kollaps) , subtitle Life at the end of Civilization) by David Jonstad. The author is very pessimistic, to that extent that he has established a selfsustained refuge expecting the coming catastrophe. I wrote a book two years ago “Food-Climate-Environment, a book of possibilities” . Well ,,,

The trends in present day society are not sustainable. Every economy is striving for growth on a planet with ecological limits. Clearly that can t work. However, there are glimpses of hope. One glimpse is a book like Collapse. Jonstad offers no solutions on the political or practical level. Neither do I, but I think it is important to point to directions.

Work for ecological efficiency in both production and consumption.

Save energy, but not abandon energy inputs. There are resources to develop. For instance nuclear. I cannot see Fukushima showed that nuclear energy must be abandoned. It showed that the present technique was too vulnerable. There are other more resilient techniques to develop.

And so on. Our society changes fast (IT communication etc). The future gives new possibilitties, but also threats.

On climate. British Met Office cannot see any warming the passed decade. Do we have a climate problem or not? Obviously 10 years is a short period in this context. Reports on climate change (China, South Africa, Australia) tell another story.  What to do?  There is only one practical way: to work on alternatives which reduce climate gases without causing troublesome disturbances. Many measures are profitable, others give only slight inconvenience. In additon work for system changes reducing need for fossil energy.

Information and knowledge

January 30, 2013

Agressive information based on insufficient knowledge or limited perspectives is worse than weeds in a garden. Two actual examples  in Sweden:

“There are poisonous heavy metals in child food”.  How terrible and whose fault is it?

The truth is that all basic elements are present in almost everything. Cadmium, mercury and arsenic are found also in the most virgin and pure of vegetable products. It is all about content.

“Heavy metals in sludge are not taken up by the crop, according to 30 years experiments”. Consequently sludge can safely be used.

This is not untrue, but a very limited truth. Small additions during a limited time (decades) may drown in the variation of analytical values and no significant differences are found. But it does not mean that the practice is sustainable and should continue. Of course, a question is: shall we care about our grandchildren. It is their fault to be born so late. We have no problems (but we have some slight economic advantages).

My view is that the conditions we used in Hydro/Yara during the 1990s still is a good model:

1. Is the element or substance harmful for health och soil life?

2. Is it accumulated in the soil so that the soil content continually will increase?

3. Is the applied amount high enough to increase the soil content by more than 10% in 100 years?

If the answer is “yes” for all 3 points we have a problem to solve.

30 years is not enough for general propaganda. Those results say that during this time not much happens. But for grandchildren and sustainability we need to consider the mechanisms and widen the time perspectives and make conclusions from that base.


Jobs, resources, competition, agricultural development

January 9, 2013

Some questions for 2013 and beyond.

Society function. Increasing number of jobless around the world. There should be a vision about the functioning of a society. How to find tasks for everybody? Is it possible in the industrial world of today? Some example or scenario to show. Just to create jobs nationally by competitive strength is not helping the whole. A world model for a supercomputer?

Resources help – but is it enough for creating jobs and welfare for all?  Norway has both resources and good will. Ranks high – but problems persist.

The paradox of competition. Competition is behind all our development. It is called evolution. It is hard to see alternatives. Totalitarian command? Existing examples are frightening. But unrestricted competition leads to unsustainable exploitation at least in the “green sector”. Restrictions and a framework for the competition is needed. And we have that – partially.

Research and development. In the green sector the result seldom is products which can be patented and exported, with the exeption of chemicals and technology (outside the green production sector). New knowledge may lead to more efficient production, but the technology will be spread and gives no competitive advantage. A more efficient production will ultimately through competition  lead to lower consumer prices and will only slightly benefit the production sector. So – agricultural R&D should be financed by the society.

This may sound pessimistic, but a realistic background is a good base for optimism. We need development. And there are important niches of motivation:

For the individual farmer increased and more efficient production is important

Many farmers have a motivation for soil fertility, sustainability and environment.

An exciting year – Sustainable Intensification in practice

January 3, 2013

Today I have been out controling and mending fences. 4 horses are about to arrive. Nice day, 8 degrees, also a January winter day. There are some possibilities for grazing, although the main thing is to provide space and exercise.

Sustainable Intensification – big words from important organizations. Nevertheless, for anything to happen we have to rely on the farmers. Can we get response?  (An English translation of  Framtidsodling will come shortly).

But there is a discussion. “Intensification” is an ugly word for some people. “More “industrial agriculture”, is that the way? It should be smallscale and organic. We don´t need more production really, we could waste less and distribute better to those wanting”. However,we need both ways. With the current economical paradigm, economic efficiency through competition, we will continue developing the so called “industrial agriculture”.  What we can do is to include the factors  “sustainability” and “environment”


Sustainable Intensification

December 27, 2012

Sustainable Intensification, is there something more there than an emergency solution coined by the Royal Commisssion when nothing else was at hand: more production is needed (caused by increased consumption), further land resources are scarce, water is scarce, the environment cannot take further loads, on the contrary – that should be reduced. Increased production on the land we use seems a necessity.

So – there is substance. It is clear that we can improve the present agricultural production in different ways. Let us just focus on it.

A Swedish project “FramtidsOdling” will work on that focus.

“Framtidsodling” means literally Future Farming, or rather Future Crop Production. Ideas of an English name will be welcome. Future Farming seems a bit over-used.

Recycling is another general topic which has engaged me a lot in 2012. A project within the Royal Academy of Agriculture and Forestry will end up in a seminar in Febr 2013. We need recycling, but not at any price. It should have a positive net effect at least on long term basis. There are many aspects to consider and often an unambiguous solution is not evident. But at least might be possible to find a system for evaluation of different alternatives.

Sausage, biochar and recycling.

December 19, 2012

I fancied a sausage. There is fire in the fire-place, I can grill there. Place it in a metal folie container, then I can do other things. But the heat and fire was more intense than expected, and when I looked the whole sausage was on fire. Black as coal. But I could extinguish. And – underneath the coal layer  it was quite fine. But smaller.

It made me think about biochar. That is a kind of burning (ok – pyrolysis), preferably of biomass, some gases are collected and there is a rest, biochar. Applied on soil it is stable for a long time. The carbon dioxide captured by the biomass will then be permanently withdrawn and stored as carbon in the soil. It is a way to store carbon and reduce climate gases.

But I have a sceptical thought: You have let us say one kilo biochar. You could burn it in an energy production unit and in that way save one kilo fossil carbon otherwise needed. Or you could store it in the soil. Is the difference important? Some say so, also scientists and professors, but I am not totally convinced.

Biochar should make the soil more fertile. It has a large active surface (but not as large as clays, it absorbs water and improves soil structure (but what amounts are needed to make practical impact?). There is a nutrient content, but that factor is not much mentioned. The P and K present in the biomass should end up in biochar.

Wonder products make me sceptical, maybe too much.

Maybe sewage sludge could be used for biochar?  That should give a product combining carbon, P and K for agriculture.  The metals will also be there, I am afraid.

An important environmental problem is organic substances (hormones, medicins, the chemical palette used in our society) which pass the sewage work and end up in waters. Promising attempts have been made to absorb at least some of them by means of active carbon. That sounds expensive. Is biochar active?

Then you could imagine a nice combination: Biochar is added in the sewage treatment, it absorbs harmful organic substances and ends up in the sludge. The sludge is incinerated, the biochar gives extra energy, all organic substances are eliminated, the ash is extracted and a pure P fertilizer results. Especially advantageous would be if the biochar is produced by another sewage work where burning and extraction is not feasible. Biochar production could be more smallscale. You get a more transportable product and the P from both works are taken care of.

If someone will use this idea, kindly refer to this blog.

Matens pris (The price of food) a book

December 16, 2012

Matens pris (The price of food) a book by  Malin Olofsson och Daniel Öhman. Reporto 2011.

Two well informed and ambitious journalists make a journey round the world: Fish farms in Vietnam, soybean in Brazil, pigs and poultry in Europe, greenhouse vegetables in The Netherlands.

The main conclusion is the same as in my book (Mat, klimat , miljö): The global market of today can not consider environmental aspects if this has a cost. The economy, costs and prices, is driving.

In the food chain the primary producer will always be squeezed. He cannot pass the costs.

This is a major problem for our world. Much could be done by international guidelines giving more priority to environment and sustainability than price competition. But there are political obstacles.

In the book it is hoped that small scale production and organic farming can help the world. Sure, they have a role to play, but, as is stated in the book, in spite of all efforts to promote organic products their market share is only 4%. The world has large and growing cities needing food, and for that more production is needed, not less. (But of course better food management can help somewhat).

But the usual popular ideas are aired:

“Nitrogen fertilizer costs energy” (but the fact that 5-10 times more solar energy is captured is neglected)

“Organic production is climate smart” (per hectare, yes, but the lower production changes the picture and the total sum can be plus or minus).

In these issues the critical journalistic ambition takes a holiday,

My own reflection:

There is a way or at least a path to pursue: help the farmers to find better ways within the system (rotations, soil fertility measures, adaptation of inputs etc). Use available knowledge to explore win-win situations improving both economy and environment. Yes – we will do that.


Nitrogen benefits and environmental costs,

December 12, 2012

More from IFS in Cambridge (se below)

In an introductory lecture prof Tim Benton mentioned that the European Nitrogen Assessment has made the estimate that the costs for the nitrogen losses from agriculture outweighs the value of the nitrogen fertilizer.

How can that be? Imagine that half the agricultural production suddenly disappeared.

I have to confess that I have not scrutinized the source, but I make an example of my own.

We have a cereal production giving 6 tons per hectare, today worth about  SEK 9000 , of which half is caused by the 100 kg nitrogen  (N) given as fertilizer.  The leaching of nitrate is 25 kg N.

What is the value? The cost for the nitrogen is 1000, it has produced 4500 in added value.

What is the environmental cost? The Swedish society has programs for reduced leaching, costs 50 to  100 per kg leaching reduced (artificial wetlands or catch crops). If the value 50 is used the cost for leaching is 1250.

Some comparisons:

The market value of the fertilizer is 1000, the cost for the leaching is 1250 or more.

With lower yields and prices an added value of the fertilizer use could be 2500. If we assume the leaching costs 100 per kg N this value will also be 2500.

We see that there are different ways to arrive att the introductory statement. It should be observed that the fertilization itself has caused an additional leaching of around 5-10 kg N.

It is the prices that are decisive for the outcome. Food prices are low, environmental work expensive. If fertilizer use and agricultural production are reduced the value of food increases and the relations will be different.