Climate Change GR Impacts

Who crippled the Murray Darling Basin?

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.

If I see another fruit tree, I’ll throw up!

I guess that most people have seen information about the eco-footprint of different foods. It takes so many litres of water to produce a kilo of this or that food. Or figures about how much energy is consumed in the production of meat, coffee, chocolate or rice. But there are much bigger aspects to the environmental footprints of animal product that are rarely considered in such studies. This blog piece will end up at a great piece of Australian scientific research from the University of Queensland (with software from CSIRO) on the big picture impacts, the regional impacts of choosing to eat large amounts of animal products.

Placing that research in context will take some time, but before we get started on these big issues, let’s have a quick quiz.

  1. How many news reports have you seen about the water shortages in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) without fruit trees being the dominant image? Rows of citrus fill the frame like Matt Preston’s gourmet gut. I guess it’s more convenient for TV film crews than battling the high seas of manure at a dairy.
  2. How many of the 13,700 billion litres of water extracted from the waters of the Murray Darling Basin go to fruit trees?

The fruit industry, according to a 2004 CSIRO report used 2.6 percent of water extracted in the basin. The vegetable industry is even smaller at about half that … 1.3 percent. The four biggest users were, in order, dairy (34 percent), cotton (24 percent) and rice (16 percent) and beef (7 percent).

You could cynically argue that it is quite accurate to feature fruit trees in the MDB stories. The fruit growers may be the smallest in the list of people causing the problems in the MDB, but they will, individually, be paying a major price.

Now let’s slow down, take a step back and look at the bigger picture behind the MDB problems.

Global warming “gone” … but the Murray crisis continues

Global warming has largely vanished from center stage in Australian political life. The old Prime Minister was too poll-driven to take tough decisions and the new one is transparently disinterested in such matters.  The boredom in her voice even overwhelms the dry monotone delivery and becomes palpable as she goes through the motions of feigning Government commitment to de-carbonising our lifestyles.

So concern over global warming has cooled precisely as its impacts in the Murray Darling Basin conspire with greed and stupidity to cause a problem that will be evident in foreclosures, suicide and despair in coming years. But we have a new report. There is always another report. This one is 260 pages of detail called “Guide to the Basin Plan”. It is floating a reduction of about 4,000 billion litres in water extractions from the basin. This would roll back total water use to about 1995 levels (as estimated on page 73 of this 2004 CSIRO report … pdf).

Post 1995 expansion … placing the straw on the camel’s back

It won’t take much longer before we get to the science that shows that land clearing impacted the regional climate and prepared the MDB system of water allocations for failure. But in the short term, it was expansion of the dairy industry in the late 1990s that made the current retraction in water use in the Murray Darling Basin inevitable.

Between 1995 and 2000, there was a huge expansion in water extraction in the basin starting at a baseline of 9,300 billion litres and rising to 12,000 billion litres. The current figure is a little higher at 13,700 billion. Some 1,700 of that 2,700 billion litre increase was for the dairy industry, and about 700 billion extra for cotton with rice and grapes picking up a couple of hundred billion each. By 2000/1 the dairy industry was using about 9 times more water than fruit and vegetables combined.

Let me repeat. The dairy industry got a 1,700 billion litre increase, bringing its total water use to 4,200 billion litres, while the fruit industry got a 67 billion litre increase to bring its total to just 310 billion litres.

Now everybody pays

Now that the excrement is flying off the fan, everybody in the Basin will be paying a penalty for that unsustainable expansion of the dairy and cotton industries during the late 1990s. Keep in mind that when the dry times hit, the cotton and rice farmers stopped planting, but dairy farmers continued sucking at the rivers with giant pipes until more than a few sold up or went broke. The Guide report talks of increased [dairy] farmer debt, but the national dairy herd has declined by about 10 percent since the heady days of 2000/1.

I remember seeing an Advertiser story about the Murray with a dairy farmer standing next to his water sucking pipe and looked down at the river far below. The picture was taken to drive your focus to the low level of the river, but all I could think about was what a huge mother of a pipe!

The bigger picture behind the regional climate shift

It is now 2010 and the end of the hottest decade on record in Australia. But the wet winter, the floods and media talk of breaking droughts should lead everybody to ask whether the weather has returned to “normal” or whether we have moved to a new drier climate normal in which this winter is actually abnormally wet. The Guide to the Basin report lists the maximum inflow to the basin’s rivers as 117,907 billion litres in 1956 and the minimum of just 6,740 billion litres in 2006. The last 15 years have seen the lowest flows in over 100 years of record keeping at Wentworth near Mildura with an average during the past decade well below that of the long term average.

The change in climate in Australia, particularly in the regions we care about, is well documented. Droughts aren’t so much drier as hotter with both maximum and minimum temperatures rising by a full degree over the past 60 years. So while the droughts of 1982, 1994 and 2002 have had similar rainfall in total, the evaporation has been increasing so that less water runs into the rivers of the basin.

Global causes and local causes

So we know what is happening … the climate is changing. The important questions are why and what can we do about it.

There are two kinds of contributing causes that we know about.

  1. The long range causes relate to the extra heat that has been warming the oceans and reducing sea ice. The sea ice is important because it reflects large amounts of heat. Lose the ice and that heat warms up the ocean. You can estimate some critical climate variables by thinking of the earth as a huge sphere and just count the proportion of the sphere that is ice covered and therefore highly reflective. The estimates using this crude modelling can be quite close to highly complex modern methods done with supercomputers.
  2. A more imediate influence on the climate is how humans change the landscape. This is a boomerang that returns to wallop us twice. Deforestation not only puts carbon dioxide and trace gases like methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, it also has more immediate impacts.Appreciating the difference being in full sun and under a shady tree takes us all some way to an appreciation of deforestation’s impacts. Climate change sceptics are fond of trying to use the urban heat island effect to support claims that the climate isn’t really changing. They say that the apparent rise in temperature is because too many thermometers are too close to big built up areas. There is indeed such an effect. It has been understood for a long time. In Australia there are less that 2 million hectares of urban areas dotted in a land mass of 770 million hectares. The urban heat island impact is modest and localised. What isn’t at all modest or localised is the impact of massive deforestation during the last hundred or so years.

A number of Australian scientists have looked at the impact of deforestation on climate. The mechanisms by which deforestation changes things have been understood quite well understood at a qualitative level for decades but measuring the crucial variables properly has had to wait for good satellite data which has recently enabled solid results.

How does land clearing change the regional climate?

When you shine the sun’s rays on something with a mirror, it heats up. When you shine the sun’s rays on water it not only heats up, but some of it evaporates. Now what happens when you perspire? Perspiration is just evaporating sweat and it makes you feel cooler. This is because it takes a little extra energy to turn the water into a gas and that extra heat comes from your body. When plants sweat, it is called transpiration and it cools the plant, just like us. The details are different, but the impacts are similar. When you change the amount and type of vegetation cover in an area you have an impact on both evaporation and transpiration.

Here’s a little experiment you can do at home to drive home how big an impact that vegetation changes can have. Fill two containers with soil and then wet them both with the same amount of water. Get them good and soggy. Cover one container with 30-50 cm of mulch. It doesn’t matter exactly how much you add, but the more you add, the bigger impact you’ll see. Now, place the containers out in the sun. Weigh them from time to time and watch the weight change during the day as the soil dries out. When a friend of mine did this during a soil science course, the mulched container lost 4.5 grams per hour of water and the unmulched container lost 28.2 grams per hour. Wow!

Vegetation works like mulch in shading an area, but if it is growing, it will transpire water. Transpiration and evaporation are often talked about together and called evapotranspiration. The two mechanisms add together to determine water loss in an area. A related mechanism occurs when there is plenty of water in an area. More of the sun’s energy ends up evaporating that water rather than making the area hotter.

So how can you measure and accurately calculate vegetation and water cover in an area? Drive around in a ute counting leaves and measuring puddles? That would be impossible. But satellites can now measure green-ness and other necessary details accurately enough to do the job and determine the impacts which vegetation change is having on the regional climate.

Quantifying the changes

So at last we come to the remarkable study published last year in a top scientific journal by Ravinesh Deo and colleagues at the University of Queensland (UQ) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the US. They looked at the satellite data, worked out the details and, were able to put some tentative numbers to all this. Sometimes with modelling like this, you may qualitatively have a strong idea of what is happening but when you put numbers on things you find that the result is negligable. This shows your intuition is deficient. In this case, the modelling gave numbers that are close to those that are being actually measured on the ground so we can be fairly sure that the modelling is reasonable. The paper didn’t look at the South West in Western Australia, but I’d be guessing the results would have been similar.

Here’s a rough explanation of what they did. They used a CSIRO climate model (Mark 3) (link is pdf download). The input was the sea surface temperature and sea ice history between 1951 and 2003. The output from the model is the climate. Their use of the model allowed them to see what would have happened if Australia had been surrounded by the same ocean temperatures but with the land cover still as it was 200 years ago.

Put simply, we wouldn’t have had as much warming with the forest cover of 200 years ago. It isn’t only global warming that is changing our climate, it is the removal of our forests and woodlands.

How much land have we cleared, and why?

A fuller account of this deforestation will need another blog piece, but for now a simple table of land use data will reveal the deforestation drivers. Here’s some official figures from the Bureau of Rural Sciences

Land Use Category Million Hectares
Urban Intensive 1.4
Rural residential 0.9
Cropping 23.0
Irrigated pastures and crops 2.5
Grazing native vegetation 419.4
Mining 0.1
Plantation Forestry 1.6
Forestry 13.3

Australian have cleared about 100 million hectares since white arrival. This is a net clearing figure. Add up the urban areas and the cropping and we come to 25.3 million hectares. Almost all other land clearing has been to run sheep and cattle.

So the causes of the Murray Darling Basin predicament are 3 fold:

  1. In the long term, climate change is the ultimate driver and we all have a responsibility here.
  2. In the medium term, deforestation has been and will continue to be a major driver and this is down to meat and wool consumers.
  3. In the short term, the main driver has been dairy with a little assistance from cotton.

Note that the drivers of the MDB problems are, for the most part, the extensive livestock industries. They are not, in particular, the factory farm industries. Factory farms drive land clearing for feed cropping but this is relatively small compared to land clearing for extensive livestock production. The muddle headed romantics who think there is some kind of environmentally benign meat production system only have to look at the results of our extensive livestock industries in Australia. They have driven the majority of species extinctions, and underly the regional climate shifts causing so much of the pain and suffering (human and non-human) in rural Australia.


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

85 replies on “Who crippled the Murray Darling Basin?”

Thanks for the numbers. I still think that attempts to associate warming with drying are counterproductive. If we argue that warming implies drying then the public are entitled to deduce that not drying means not warming. The key question for Aus is whether warming will increase El Ninos or La Ninas, and I don’t think we know that. In a general way the warmer the planet the wetter.


The figures for land clearing suggest to me that a program to develop high quality artificial meat tissue from stem cells or something similar for mass consumption may well be the most effective amelioration strategy.


The article raises some valid issues in spite of the author belonging to a rather extreme organization like Animal Liberation.

Until recently land clearing has been virtually uncontrolled.The result is soil erosion and degradation,salination,silting of watercourses,extinction of species and the climatic effects described in the article.There is still irresponsible land clearing going on because existing laws are inadequate or not policed.

There is a critical need to take many thousands of square kilometres of grazing land out of production and embark on restoration.This will be expensive and a political minefield which will make the current MDB furure seem like a tiff in a church ladies auxiliary.

This is not to say that grass fed meat production should be abolished.If it is done with consideration for the land it is a clean and green way to produce food.
Feedlotting of cattle is an abomination,being both cruel, and wasteful of grain which would be better used to directly feed humans.

The present controlled shooting of kangaroos is a sustainable source of meat production and the irrational prejudice against it in certain quarters is just one measure of how far Australians are from grasping reality.

The treatment of animals in industrial scale agriculture is a disgrace.This is largely big business territory so there is the usual political influence problem.

The use of precious water to grow pasture for cattle,dairy or beef,is also wasteful.This sort of water use needs to be phased out of the MDB.Rice can be grown as an opportunity crop when there is plenty of water even when allowing for the necessary flood flows for stream litorals.I’m not sure whether cotton can be grown economically this way however cotton can be grown as a dryland crop.

200 years of white settlement in Australia has done an enormous amount of damage.It is essential that we stop further damage now and begin to undertake restoration.This is a big ask but it is eminently possible and we will see immediate good effects as well as the prospect of much better down the line.That is,at least,a good selling point when compared to trying to convince people about the potential of climate change for disaster.


With the return of good rainfall in most of the catchment the ‘desperation factor’ has passed. That is we can no longer use drought as an excuse for BAU and we can take stock of the situation, at least for water supply. I fear the next desperation factor for food production will be high fuel and fertiliser prices, noting the energy return for food-as-human-fuel is about 0.1. Most likely farmers will get increased diesel rebates to keep grocery bills cheap.

A decade from now someone will notice that not just some but most inputs to the food system are unsustainable… irrigation water, tractor fuel, fertiliser, transport, refrigeration. This realisation has only just started.


That sounds just like the vat grown Christmas Turkeys of Rudy Rucker’s “Wetware” trilogy. Hmmmm, vaaaaat growwwwn.

And in other news, here is how the Chinese make fake eggs.

Personally, I’m torn over the whole meat issue. If tofu burgers didn’t taste so foul, I might switch to a weekday vegetarian diet and save steaks and sausages for the weekend. But another part of me worries that when we start talking about limiting food choices, the average Aussie is just going to turn off. Is it better to concentrate on solving the fossil fuel issue first?

No, because species, indeed, entire ecosystems are dying.

It’s a complicated world. I guess I’m just burnt out.


Partly hidden in this article is the high environmental impact of milk, cheese and butter production, all of them vegetarian foods. i.e. on both water consumption and climate change impact.

I expect the author would agree that cutting back on excessive cheese consumption is perhaps as beneficial for the planet as is cutting back on excessive red meat production – perhaps even more so in the Australian context.


Yes it is a complicated world Eclipse Now. Great post Geoff Russell and Podargus you’ve made some excellent points as well. Personally I’ve been arguing for ten years now the Murray/ Darling Basin issue. Summing up all of thepoints raised by Geoff, Podargus etc it’s clear that over the last hundred years or so, we’ve ALL of us, allowed the basin lands to be over cleared and the waters to be over committed to irrigation. I use WE, ALL IN THE SENSE THAT STATE GOVTS AND IRRIGATORS /DEVELOPERS HAVE DONE ALL THE WORK AND THE REST OF US, ME INCLUDED, HAVE STOOD BY AND LET IT ALL HAPPEN. So let’s all accept the blame and lets ALL start doing something about it. First, the 27-37% buyback suggested is too little. The late Prof. Peter Cullen suggested that the irrigation effort be reduced by 60% but we all know that even the 27% figure is too much for most, especially the irrigators. As briefly as I can, here’s what has to happen.
1 The Feds take REAL FAIR DINKUM control of the entire river system [by referendum or if necessary, compulsory acquisition- won’t the states squeal? ] and initiate a phased- in buyback of at least 40% of the currently used water.All water saved, stays in the system for environmental flows, wetland rehab etc. It is not to be diverted to any other uses [urban or other irrigation areas outside of the basin as is currently happening].
2. The irrigators are bought out generously and are redeployed in a massive revegetation scheme throughout the basin. They stay in their communities, and they grow appropriate native veg. instead of food or fibre crops. They begin the restoration of the land to something like it was before we stuffed it up. They get paid a wage to do it. Over a couple of decades the number of irrigators will have halved or thereabouts, there will still be plenty of food crops etc produced probably still allowing exports. And the Murray etc will gradually return to health.
3. How do we finance this programme? We develop one international high level nuclear waste dump in the Officer Basin of SA which according to Access Economics, 1998 figures would generate $5 billion per year including $2.5 billion in taxes and royalties from user countries. That’s what we use to buy the irrigators out and pay them in their new job as land rehabilitators.
4. I know it’s big, it’s radical, it’s expensive, it’s long term but if we don’t do something like it then the entire system will eventually die and no one will derive a living from it. Our grandchildren will rightly condemn us for our ignorance and inaction.
5. I first floated this idea on Phillip Adams Late Night Live in March 2003[ 7 years ago for heavens sake]. It was also printed in a letter to the editor of the Australian in May 2007. James Lovelock thought it an idea with merit when I quizzed him and Peter Cullen at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in 2007. Peter Cullen displayed extreme frustration at the time with the pathetic amount of water which after 2 years had been returned to the system. How much water?? Yes, you guessed it, Not one lousy extra litre. Since that time we’ve been piddling around with tiny incremental improvements when clearly something major and radical needs to be started, like the scheme above. The current report suggesting a 27-37% reduction is a step in the right direction.
6. Here are the benefits of my plan.
[a] The Murray/ Darling system is saved and the rivers reach the sea without our help.
[b] The basin continues to produce a large portion of our food and for export although with fewer irrigators.
[c] Former irrigators are employed ,after a generous buy out, in a major revegetation scheme throughout the basin. No communities are destroyed and communities become part of a national land rehabilitation scheme.The billions of trees etc planted will become carbon sinks and help us address climate change They remain viable as communities and provide a vital service in returning the land to health.
[d] The nuclear waste dump is Australia’s first step in the development of the full nuclear fuel cycle here in Australia including nuclear power. This leads ultimately to a whole range of new industries, tens of thousands of jobs, huge infrastructure growth, mostly based on our incredibly fortuitous mineral, energy [uranium] supplies.
7. Australia will become a show piece for the world in river rescue, sustainable agriculture and a/the leader in world future energy supply and use.
That’s my vision folks for the next 25-30 years and I’ve been pushing it now for 10 years. If any of you others have a vision for our future, I’d like to hear it. because we need to do something radical and soon.
Great post Geoff Russell. Thanks


Great article, as usual, Geoff Russell.

The only way I can see people reducing their red-meat & dairy consumption is if it costs more – and that can only really be achieved if a tax (or some pricing mechanism) is introduced to at least partially include the negative externalities of the livestock industry. Problem is, no government could do this without a large backlash at the next election – and probable abolition of the tax after that. And I doubt any government would risk doing that in the first place. I’m not at all filled with optimisim on this issue. It’s a shite state of affairs.



“If tofu burgers didn’t taste so foul, I might switch to a weekday vegetarian diet”

Try Tempeh burgers instead – still made from soy, but much, much tastier!


Terry there is no rule that says rivers have to make it to the sea. If there is then Cooper Ck and Diamantina R break that rule. I wouldn’t be too upset if the Murray R effectively ended at Wellington SA. After all if it wasn’t for help from the lower barrages the sea may have already met the river unassisted in recent years, just many more kilometres upstream.

I suspect that when Peak Oil really bites then legions of urban unemployed will be growing veg in bulldozed suburbs, not the MDB. Instead of NPK fertiliser we’ll be shovelling sewage sludge on the soil and the drip irrigation water will be recycled pee. Food production will move to where the people are to conserve energy and nutrients. Water supply will be the secondary problem.


Hi John,
I think the Murray does need to get to the sea mainly for the Koorong. There’s umpteen different bird species under threat down that way. They need it.

However I have a lot of empathy for what you’re saying about post oil agriculture. It could come to that.

Richard Register illustrates how Denver’s sprawl could be converted into clusters of ecocities. The grey of sprawl and concrete becomes the green of parks and pastures!


eclipsenow: Well spotted … evapotranspiration is complex and tough
to simplify. I was trying to convey to people just how
big the impacts on the water cycle can be
from landscape changes and I wanted a simple example. Google “Water footprint of Nations” if you want actual equations (Volume 1). As for vegan burgers, you need to visit Adelaide and go to “Vego&Luvin it” in Rundle St … or make your own mix with beans/onion/veg/… etc.
Terry: let me digest your comments first.
Chris Harries: When I joined Animal Liberation back in the early 1980s, vegetarian was the norm and there were a few vegans.
Now vegan is the norm. If your concern is animal suffering, then the
vegan/vegetarian distinction seems reasonable until you understand how
the dairy industry operates. From an environmental view point, dairy is
a bigger issue in a dry country than many forms of meat. When I was vegetarian, with a Swiss partner, cheese fondues were a common meal. It took us a while
to decide to cut dairy, but was nowhere near as hard as we thought. Numbers of vegan cook books have exploded during the past 5 years and cater for all sorts of tastes.


I guess I’m wondering if Aussie trees tip the balance in terms of increased rainfall, or are our weather patterns independent of the rainforest phenomenon.

Willie Smits rebuilt a rainforest. If you’re feeling down, this is truly one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen on the net.

At about 15 minutes 30 seconds he explains tropical rainfall is not due to ice crystal formation but mikists (mychists? Not sure of spelling) that come out of the trees. Replanting boosted local rainfall by 30%!

But I’m not sure of the chemical he mentioned. It reminded me of DMS that oceans produce, which also increases rainfall.


podargus: Whether grass fed meat is clean and green is moot. On a global scale it produces very little food. I’m working on a blog on kangaroos which will
be on the SA Animal Lib site on Saturday (, but as a source of food, they are irrelevant. The interest in kangaroos flows regularly from Flannery … and lately from George Wilson and in a New Scientist piece this
week. It’s been overhyped for 20 years and going nowhere. Never will. It’s hard to find a more unproductive source of food than marsupials. I’m interested in how
you feed 22 million Australians with minimal appropriation of natural resources. Ditto 6.7 billion globally. This is quite a different problem than the usual one … how to maximise our appropriation of resources from other species. That problem leads to statements like: “Hell, I can’t grow anything in the top paddock, I’ll shoot the roos/corellas/wombats/koalas/ducks in it, otherwise it would be wasted”. I’m into maximising wasted land!


Geoff,I don’t quite get where you are going with this comment.I realize that you are a committed vegetarian/vegan and that is your right.However I don’t give you much chance of converting any significant % of Australians to that lifestyle.It is hard enough trying to get people to eat healthy foods in moderation without tilting at windmills like that.

Regarding roos as a food source,I’m not suggesting that it is a major industry or ever will be.But because of the human caused changes in arid lands,mainly more water points,roos reach plague proportions in good seasons and need to be culled as much for their own good as anything else.It would be a waste of good meat and skins not to utilize this resource.And it does provide useful employment in areas which don’t have too many jobs going.I don’t eat a lot of meat but when I do at home it is always roo meat.It is deliciously tender when cooked right and virtually fat free.

As far as feeding 22 million Australians that is about 12 million too many in sustainability terms,whether they are carnivores or herbivores.If you want to help address this issue then join Sustainable Population Australia and one of the 2 political parties recently formed to push this issue.There is one based in SA.

I’m not sure what you mean by wasted land.We sure have wasted a lot of Australia as in destroyed it.However I don’t consider conservation areas of any type as wasted.Nor is it waste to take grossly abused country out of production,however little that production may be now,and restoring it to some semblance of health and balance.

We have so many big problems in Australia but most of them are solveable with realistic thinking and a hell of a lot of hard work.Wishful thinking,ideology and religion are not even starters in this race.


John Newland,
I think you’re wrong on rivers reaching the sea. Exoreic ones do and endoreic ones don’t. We’ve got some doozies of endoreic streams, the Cooper and the Diamantina for example. They’re internally draining rivers. The Murray was, and still should be externally draining. Well that’s what I reckon.
Eclipse, funny you should want to vote for me. On speaking to a Probus club last year on the issue, they all wanted me to take charge as well. At 72, I’m a bit old but i’m still getting stuck into the pollies. Some of them reply but universally they think only about the next election instead of the next generation. Oh well, we keep trying.
Cheers everyone


podargus: I should have been more explicit. Naturally grazed meat is about
8% of the world’s meat supply … but a much bigger proportion of its environmental and biodiversity woes. If we get rid of factory farms, there won’t
be much meat left for anybody anyway … so we may as well get used to it. People used to say we could never stop smoking … but it has “only” taken a couple of
decades to make big cuts in smoking rates. Similarly, drink driving was normal
when I was growing up … now its frowned upon. Huge changes can take
place in a single generation.


What about Cam McKellar’s ‘crop and cow’ rotation?

What about the book “The omnivore’s dilemma?” which, from various podcasts, seems to cover the same thing?

What about Polyface farm which manufactures incredible amounts of meat and *soil*, in permaculture sensitive systems analysis manners that maximise returns on a number of products?


eclipsenow: Polyface uses good land to get 45 tonnes of food from 60 hectares … an average potato
farmer can get 2160 tonnes from 60 hectares. Wheat gives from 2 tonnes to perhaps 8 tonnes per hectare. Polyfaces food output is dismal. Almonds would
give double the protein per hectare. Rice typically gives 10 tonnes per
hectare and most of Polyface’s output causes bowel cancer. Flannery raved about
Polyfaces output in his Quarterly Essay because he doesn’t know anything
about food production or nutrition.


The idea that there are “too many people” in Aust. is just plain crazy, IMHO.

I’m not from there, but really, people eat “too much” meat? Really? So you want to mirco-nanny people’s diet by making poor people pay even more? Remove choice from their diet? Has it really come to this?

Australia has a lot of water, just in the wrong places. Is there not a way to develop water projects that can shift the water from the north to the south where it’s need? Shift more agricultural developmnet north and buyout water rights in the south?

Water does NOT have t o flow to the sea. Some, yet, to maintain local delta salinity levels and the local ecology, but not even most of it.. Cannot more water projects, like the Snowy Mountain project be duplicated in a grander scale? Cannot water dealination be used via nucelar energy to provide at least potable residential water?



I don’t know the numbers.

It is possible that even though beef uses so much water compared to plant crops, that the proportion of the cost of water to the total costs (land, buildings, feed, vet costs, etc) the farmer pays to produce a unit of beef is smaller than that of plant crops. This would mean that raising the price of water for beef farmers would result in a proportionally smaller increase in the beef farmers’ total costs compared to a vegetable farmer. So an increase in water water costs could make vegetable makers proportionally less competitive in the world market place. (Perverse outcome!)

Perhaps a scheme were the government promised increases in the pay rates for water usage only by beef farmers, and offered special government loans, could work to decrease water use in the beef industry (remember, since water is a small component of the cost of beef, beef farmers have a lessened incentive to conserve it compared to vegetable farmers, so they’ll likely need sweetening).


David: It doesn’t require compulsion for people to change, just understanding. A friend of mine recently changed to a vegan diet … he was a self confessed 7kg
a week PETA hating meat junkie with diabetes. But smart enough to understand
what he was doing. A month in and he’s finding the new foods exciting and fascinating and feeling heaps better … Oh yes, he did read my book :)
crf: Beef farmers don’t necessarily pay for their water. There are lots of ways of
raising cattle, some use irrigated fodder, some use grain, some use straight
grazing and that comes in various forms. E.g., cattle were trucked up to various areas of central Australia after
big rains this year to make sure all that “free” feed wasn’t “wasted” nourishing
wildlife in fairly pristine ecosystems. When those cattle are shipped out, a whole bunch of embodied nutrients will go with them. Beef can be highly
profitable because of a mystique built with excellent marketing based on repeating lies over and over again. Think about Wagyu beef. On any health
grounds an absolute disaster … selling huge slabs of
saturated fat for a premium price as “marbling” … you
have to admire their balls!


Geoff – I was a vegetarian for six years. I went back to meet about six years ago. The main factors in going back were health and convenience and the interplay between the two. To be sure you can find good healthy vegetarian restaurants and you can do vegetarian home cooking but if you are on the go a lot and you eat socially a lot a vegetarian diet is restrictive. I found that I ended up eating too much pasta and high carb food because it is so readily available. I went back to meat because I figure a steak and vegetables is healthier than a cheesy lasagna. I probably still don’t eat as much meat as the average but now that I do eat it again I sure appreciate the taste.


Hi Geoff, I haven’t read your book so perhpas I’m at a disadvantage. I have read Omnivore’s Dilema and absolutely loved it. It actually made me feel more confortable wth my own consumption of red meat, which is probably slightly below average of most North Americans.

Perhaps a controversly: Wagyu beef, or, perhaps, more pecisefly, the amazing Kobe beef from which it was bred from, is not saturated but unsaturaged fat. Small point since who can really afford either?

If it doesn’t require compulsion to change habits (I fully agree, BTW) then why raise taxes? That’s the issue: increasing taxes on something to move people’s personal habits this way or that. I”m against it and it will not fly. It is done to a certain extent in the U.S. with cigaretters, but there is simply universal understanding about the ill effects of cigarettes and no benefits. Not so with beef and lamb and, especially pork, which so much a part of whole national cultures, I don’t see it changing.



David Walters sounds like climate Denialist Jenifer Marohasy on Q&A last night. She was raving about how letting the sea back into the Koorong would solve the wetlands problems locally so that the river water did not have to reach the sea. She kept saying rivers didn’t have to reach the sea. So much for Marohasy.

The Coorong wiki says:

[quote]The park was formed in 1966 as a sanctuary for many species of birds, animals and fish. It attracts many migratory species. It provides refuge for these animals during some of Australia’s regular droughts. The 467 km² also supports coastal dune systems, lagoons and coastal vegetation.[2] One of the unique things about the Coorong is the interaction of water along its length, with sea water and Murray River water meeting rainfall and groundwater. The freshwater supports the fauna of the area while the sea water is the habitat for much of the birdlife.[3][/quote]

Professor Richard Kingsford has studied the Murray Darling and Coorong system for decades. He says he has already watched 9 species of bird go extinct around Adelaide and the Coorong. It would be a travesty to lose any more.

Anyone thinking we can just let these systems die should spend a little time watching all these Catalyst interviews with local professors and scientists studying these complex ecosystems.


TerjeP, my partner has been a vegetarian for some 30 years and is a picture of health. She likes the smell of cooked bacon or chops but this does not tempt her to eat them. We do need to check out suitable eating places, some still do not cater for vegetarians but most now do.

From experience it’s hard to be a ‘flexitarian’ – i.e. eating meat when it’s not convenient to be vegetarian. This is because meat meals on offer tend to be just that, slabs of meat with a bit of salad on the side. So that’s what you tend to get. The menu items in restaurants are actually titled by their meat content, the rest is seen as a side dish.

A natural human diet (those that tribal societies mostly ate) comprises a mix of plant foods, including seeds and nuts, along with whatever live protein was available or able to be caught at any time. For most tribal societies this included small protein sources including grubs and insects. (Interestingly, the Australian environment is rather unique – historical Aboriginal diets necessarily having to adapt to an environment generally poor in lush vegetation.)

I am not suggesting that we go back to eating likewise, but it is relevant to our evolved health and planetary health that a high meat protein diet, a la modern Australia’s, is not the evolved diet of the human species. Nor is it true to say that we evolved as vegetarians, meat is enjoyed throughout the world and we’ve been eating it for generations.

Rather than advocate strict vegetarianism as the solution to all this we ought to be trying hard to change unhealthy attitudes to meat and meat production. There’s a good treatise on it here:


Geoff Russell’s article is a real treat.
A few months ago, just before the La Nina rains set in I travelled a couple of times to the Koondrook Forest on the Murray near Barham. My purpose was to prepare a tender for the construction of a levee and regulation structures intended to periodically flood around 80,000 hectares of the forest. I had never actually laid eyes on the massive damage done to the River Red Gum forests and the shear scale of the devastation. I urge any of you to take such a trip. It was also good for a change to be using my civil engineering to benefit our environment and I could feel good again.

On the way back we drove through places like Deniliquin and saw the now idle rice growing areas. Now I work in Vietnam quite a bit and I know what a rice growing are should look like and the Riverina certainly isn’t for rice. Its a very crazy idea.

On the issue of rivers discharging to the sea I also suggest people actually visit a tidal estuary and look at the teaming life in these places. Look at the mangroves which grow the king of fish – the mullet.
Our fisheries would be devastated if nutrients couldn’t flow to the sea – think about oysters and prawns and rock lobsters and all the life near river outlets.

Geoff Russell really gets the issue and thanks for the article


@ Geoff Russell,

“When those cattle are shipped out, a whole bunch of embodied nutrients will go with them.”

Yeah, nutrient flows is something that I find particularly concerning, especially with peak phosphorus looming. Are you aware of any good podcasts on how we’re going to cope with peak phosphorus? Are departments of sewerage & waste collection going to have to merge with departments of agriculture? Are the city dwelling non-gardeners amongst us going to get biodegradable plastic bags we can use to put all our kitchen scraps in? This next ABC podcast suggests we’ll just dispose of these bags in our green bins for local council collection, where they’ll be separated out for local mega-composting systems, and sold back to farmers.

How are we going to freight all of this processed sewerage nutrient and compost fertiliser back out to our farmers after peak oil hits? We’ll need rationing for sure: and that’s going to hurt the broader economy.

Some experts are so alarmed by peak phosphorus they are designing whole rural township systems around enabling natural phosphorus flows to occur locally.

Summary: The present situation of possible oil depletion forces us to find ways to avoid dependency of fossil fuels in order to attain sustainability. Such methods can be:

* Shortening distance to food production sites
* Recycling nutrients to food production sites
* Successively transforming cities to attain structures of a similar kind as the discussed

Ruralisation should not be confused with urban sprawl, which is almost the contrary. With a different settlement structure, also a lot of lifestyle changes would be expected. Here is a list with a comparison of ‘Urban’ an extreme urban dweller with ‘Rurik’, his opposite that is thought living in a ruralised settlement.

Thus, there is not only a spatial dimension of settlements in a sustainability perspective, but also a lifestyle dimension. The change into sustainability could be described as a change in these dimensions. Please look at the pictures below

“selling huge slabs of saturated fat for a premium price as “marbling” … you
have to admire their balls!”

A local gourmet prize-winning butcher ran a men’s BBQ secrets night. I asked about the feedstock for his beef. He said grass-fed only and all the way! The main reason for grain-fed marbling is that it enables a faster return. Grass fed has to be aged longer. But it tastes better!

All these years and I thought there was some special flavour advantage to grain fed, but it’s mainly about a quicker buck for those in the industry. And it is worse for our health.


I’ve actually eaten extremely well marbled free-range beef. I suspect there is a lot more to it than finishing the meat with grain. Some cuts of meat, like hanger steak, flank, and even sirloin (some of the cuts) are way better with NO marbling at all. So we are talking about rib-eye, porterhouse, etc.

The Kobe I had was a cut of sirloin that was well marbled. Truly amazing and it is eaten almost raw. I didn’t have to pay for it (which probably accounted for part of the pleasure).


@elcipse…I don’t and didn’t advocate for ALL rivers not to flow into the sea. It quite depends on a lot of factor, including what *percentage* is drawn off.We’re battling southern California agri. interests right now to keep MORE water in the San Joaquin Delta flowing into the sea because of the huge increase in salinity that is messing up the Delta right now.

I’m not talking about damming the Copper River in Alaska and sending the water to Arizona (we couldn’t eat the best salmon in the world that way, and who would want that!). One could take, say, 15% of the water from the Canadian McKenzie river *with no appreciable effect on it’s small delta* and send it to the great lakes (the cost of doing this is another issue). The ecological impact for the positive of this would far outweigh any negatives. The same is true with other rivers including even more water from the Columbia if done right (also with limited effect on the the Astoria region of Oregon.

Not all delta and wetland regions are the same. But I’m against the idea that it should be forbidden to examine this as a way of increasing the use of water that otherwise WOULD be wasted in the ocean.



From my experience as a dam builder I am yet to see any structure which reduces river flows that does not harm species migration or viability.
Rivers enable nutient flows and their discharge into the sea creates habitat for much of our most valuable sea food.
I really think we need to review our industrialisation of our environment with all manner of structures from wind turbines to dams.
Would it not be more sensible to rely upon nuclear power to desalinate water for intensive crop growing and potable supplies.
As climate change progresses our rivers will come under increasing stress and I suggest we should stop diverting or modifying their flows.


Thanks for sending me this link. I guess there is a brine disposal issue though when diluted in the adjacent sea water it would be of little consequence.
It looks like a very fine concept and Im wondering about drawing on artesian waters at inland towns and cities. Brine disposal there may be a problem though all things need to be quantified.
I’m pleased you saw Jenifer Marohasy on Q&A last night.
I thought aspergers was more a male affliction being an abnormality of social interaction and communication that pervades the individual’s functioning by restricted and repetitive interests and behavior.
It was unfair to Flannery and the ABC need a good touch up for pulling such a stunt.
It added nothing to this vital issue.


Surely you’re not suggesting Marohasy has aspergers? ;-)

I know and know of some aspies that are self-aware about their aspies, and are quite hardworking, caring, wonderful people.

One of my favourite webzines is authored and illustrated by an aspergers bloke who has only just been diagnosed.

He’s funny — before being diagnosed he joked about the weather being so nice he was almost tempted to go dance around outside. “But there’s people out there.” Typical slashdot geek joke, but it works. :-)

However, I also know some guys that are *probably* aspies but are not at all aware of it, or if they are don’t care enough to do anything about it. Now they’re the scary ones!


I think there’s plenty of evidence to show that by diverting water from one system to another, you finish up stuffing both. remember the Snowy River. That short, voluminous waterway which was ultimately reduced to 1% of its flow so that there could be more water for HEP and irigation along the Murray. A few years ago, someone decided that the Snowy had to be made to flow again. In goes 28% of the original flow, water which by now had been committed to the Murray and was therefore a significant amount out of the Murray with obvious reductions to the amount available for irrigation. Damn stupid overall I reckon. If a river flows to the sea naturally, then whatever we do by way of using the water, we should ensure first that it continues to flow to the sea. That;’s what the Murray did before we came along. We now know that we’ve taken too much water from it and so need to reduce that amount. Now the irrigators and communituies are squealing. Let’s face it. The MDB Authority is right to ignore state borders. This is everyone’s river and we have to work out, together, the best and fairest way to achieve sustainable agriculture for some while others are taken out of the system, fairly and with the promise of staying in their communities and with a productive job. Refer to my vision statement above and tell me how to improve it because something like what I’ve proposed is what will have to happen if we’re to save the system.
I reckon both Marohasy and Flannery should have been sent out to have their fight out of earshot last night. Mike Kelly and Greg Hunt were the stars and deep down, Hunt supports nuclear power. He’ll get my vote when he starts going public with it. Did you read in the OZ today that a lobby group has said that Melbourne will need to develop nuclear power for the future. Music to my ears.


Well I for one agree with Marohasy even though I think her dismissal of AGW is simplistic. I think your attitude to her is condescending. For all I know she may support nuclear. The Coorong was created as seas receded in the last Ice Age and now the process has reversed. The eastern end of the Coorong has long been too shallow and salty for most fish species. Why interfere with geological destiny? It would be like repairing the ‘Apostle’ sea stack that fell into the sea on the Victorian coast.

I actually have sailed and camped on the Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert a number of times. The vessel types ranged from canoes to sailing dinghies and a flat bottomed cruiser. When I bred horses I named a mare ‘Tauwitchere’ after the low island joining the barrages. Yet despite all that I think the barrages should be opened to allow the sea to invade.
Not only lakes A&A but also Menindee lakes near Broken Hill should have a narrow channel dredged and marked. The channel should be for navigation and to focus irregular flood surges.

Since I haven’t read the full MDBA report I don’t know how much evaporation this would save. Probably not enough. However I agree we should preserve the red gum forests (I’ve also been around Chowilla). In my opinion these large expanses of water are not that special and can be sacrificed .


I find your ready acceptance of Marohasy rather disturbing. Not only is she a Denialist, pushing the looney end of the sceptics camp, her blog links to DVD’s like “Not evil just wrong”. She’s on a crusade against the IPCC and climate science Barry writes about. Patronise her? I haven’t started!

10 thousand years ago water may well have receded to create this spot, but are you saying the ecosystems that depend on it have anywhere else to go? One may as well write-off climate concern because ecosystems adapted in the past. “Ecosystems moved before, they can move again!” the sceptics cry. Let’s just ignore the fact that many ecosystems are now trapped, tiny islands of wild in a sea of human agriculture and sprawl. Many of them have nowhere else to go. Who knows what adaptation the migratory birds have already tried? Is the Coorong one of their last refuges? What other habitats of theirs have we wiped out?

You seem defensive for Marohasy, who as far as I am aware has no expertise in the wildlife systems of the Murray, and yet just ignore these professors with a lifetime studying the Coorong. Now that’s worrying!


I thought Marohasy came across as an ignorant, rude, simplistic bore. Tony Jones should have told her to stop interrupting other people and pull her horns in. It must have been frustrating for Tim Flannery not to be given the opportunity to rebut her nonsense – he tried several times and was talked over time and again by the objectionable Marohasy. Mike Kelly was impressive and Greg Hunt is in the wrong party:)


@ Ms Perps: How many twitter comments were there about Kelly’s moustache?! EG: “Kelly makes sense and scores points, even through that incredible moustache!” Poor Greg Hunt got crucified over his previous thesis! Yeah, seems like a nice enough guy stuck with the wrong crowd. Agreed.



“I find your ready acceptance of Marohasy rather disturbing”

And so do I. She was awful, but probably no more awful than her fellow travelers in the willful distortion of the truth.

* Same old nonsense about Trenberth saying it was a “travesty” that CO2 can’t account for the warming or lack thereof or some such garbled nonsense. What Trenberth’s “travesty” was has been pointed out so frequently and in so many places, that public repeating the misrepresentation can only be called willful lying.
For those interested:

* Some other gabled nonsense about atmospheric humidity decreasing.

There was more too which I can’t recall at the moment. I have it recorded but I’d rather not watch it a second time.

People like Marohasy have no respect for the science or the truth, just their ideological obsessions. They deserve no respect.

Strong words – but accurate.


Without the barges in place, the Murray would be a saline estuary all the way up to Blanchetown, some 275km up stream from the mouth, and the salinity gradient would change seasonally.

Problem now is, the Murray has declined in average volume to about 35% of what it was before European people invaded Australia. Opening the barges without allowing more flow from upstream would be the end of the Lower Lakes and the beginning of the end for the Coorong. The sea water would flow in and never be flushed out.

We need much greater environmental allocations. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with taxing the consumption of meat to include the environmental costs. And suggesting we simply “shift it all north to where the water is” is a total band-aid solution, and would result in the clearing of much of what’s left of Australia’s non-arid remnant ecosystems. All for an incredibly inefficient food source.


David: I’ve not seen an analysis of the 40 or so fats that are normally measured in an analysis of the fatty acid profile of meat for Kobe/Wagyu beef, but the fact that
the fat is solid at room temperature is an indication that a significant amount (probably most) is saturated. I’ve seen this analysis
of pasture fed Vs grain fed US
beef from one of the most hyped grass fed producers (TallGrass Beef) and
the percentage of saturated fat was 47 percent for grass fed and 41 percent
for grain fed. They hype the increase in omega-3 … it soars from 0.5 of a percent to 0.7 of a percent! Anyway, if you have a Kobe analysis, I’d be


Re TV panels I’d have to say that Flannery is not as cool under pressure as the late Stephen Schneider. It’s possible to agree with people on some issues and not others. I happen to think Marohasy is right about the lower lakes and wrong on global non-warming.

I sense the lakes issue touches a nerve with many Saf Strines, possibly due to their vulnerability. Reality check; the MDB is thousands of kilometres long, not just the last 50km. Why the hell do so many people depend on such a precarious water supply anyway? I’m not sure if meat consumption is the bogey since we are talking about upstream fruit, fibre and rice, a grain not normally fed to cows. It’s hard to shed a tear for the pelicans either since millions of them starve to death by misjudging the food supply when Lake Eyre floods.

My challenge for SA people is to get all their water from rainfall and coastlines within the State boundary.



what sort of meat production is ecologically sustainable?

scale. type of meat. relations between these two.

I like meat. I would give it up and advocate giving it up if it were not ecologically sustainable. but this is all a matter of scale, thus my question.

I don’t care much about animal rights, beyond the animals I myself like for totally narcissistic, unjustifiable reasons. I’m open to being convinced on animal rights sometime in the future. but ecological sustainability is much more important and that is compatible with some meat eating and egg eating and cheese eating.

the question is how much.


Greg: Every kind of meat production can be ecologically sustainable … its simply a matter of how much you want to produce. Hunting blue whales is sustainable with an appropriate annual quota … which will be zero some years.

No form of meat production that I know of is ecologically sustainable and
can produce the kinds of quantities of
meat that is eaten in Australia and produce it for 6.7 billion people.

Okay that takes care of the two ends of the spectrum … the tough
part is in between :) …

As I think I’ve already mentioned, I’m doing a blog piece on eating kangaroos which
I’ll release shortly on the new
I’m not sure how suitable it will be for BNC. Barry can judge if
he wants to post it here also.

Tom: Your assessment of lower lakes/barges sounds about right but I don’t
claim to have studied the issue in any depth,


@Geoff, it’s this absolutist position that turns so many people off. “No amount..” Please, get real. If the world *went to the Poly Farms* method of meat production, it would be VERY sustainable and, probably even a good thing ecologically speaking. Greg is correct, it’s how much, how and where that counts far more in the real world that the militant anti-meat crusading will ever have in terms of impact on how humans consume their food.

No *society* has ever given up meat until absolutely forced to do. I so ‘forcing’ in the offing. People who eat meat are not going to allow themselves to be taxed, either. It IS possible, and I think even likely, that since a good case can be made on the true costs of raising meat that actual *real* subsidies should end. I’m for that in the US (where subsidized corn is used to feed beef cattle).

I don’t see China, for example, giving up their pork (or Italians, Germans and Poles to name a few). They are not even *moving* in that direction.

On water diversion. Again, when we are talking about managed diversions there isn’t really a problem IF ecological considerations are used. What doesn’t fly in most people’s opinion, that NO water can EVER betaken out of a river system. It is a silly proposition as if over decades whole systems on their own change, over millenia, massive droughts occur, etc. It *never* stays the same and the local ecologies adapt. Completely cutting of the majority of any river system, as we’ve done in the US, IS stupid. However, I’m not proposing or supporting that. But that *some* water in the low double digits *does* make a lot of sense even with massive deployment of nuclear desal (which I’m also for).



I’d like both David and Geoff to check out this.

The *only* energy these things require is the energy to actually pump the water, which is minimal. Sun and the prevailing wind do the rest of the desal. And as the discovery channel shows, they can be beautiful architectural features as well.

If much of our fruit and veg were supplied in this method, wouldn’t that free up water for the rest of the system? Remember, these greenhouses produce 5 times the water they consume for growing the fruit and veg inside. That water can either grow trees, or grass for cattle.


Don’t forget the Aussie concept of the “Water highway” by Max Whisson.

Dr Max Whisson, an inventor from Perth, Western Australia, believes that he has discovered a way to produce 200,000 litres of fresh water a day in a dry land. Max’s idea is to build a 1,000 km long 10 metre wide water producing freeway running a long distance inland from the sea then returning back to the sea again.
Max explained on the ABC’s Australian Story Program that the ocean contained an endless supply of fresh water that could easily be extracted by using thermal solar energy. Max’s scheme is to run a number of large parallel black pipes carrying sea water along this large scale water producing freeway. The 10 metre wide series of pipes would be covered by a transparent perspex cover. Daytime solar heat will cause the water in the pipes to heat up and 70% to 80% of the fresh water will evaporate off in a series of hot ponds in the circuit. Max Whisson said that hot air from the pond surfaces will be ducted up to condensation sheds where cooler atmospheric air causes distillation of the fresh water. At the end of the water road, the salty brine is returned to the sea or it could be used to produce sea salt, Dr Whisson said.


David Walters,I was not going to reply to your comment but I think that more good than harm can result from doing so.
I quote – “The idea that there are ‘too many people’ in Aust. is just plain crazy”.
Perhaps you should,if possible,step back from your obvious growth at any cost mindset and examine the historical and present costs of population overshoot.Then try and cast an eye to the future in that context.
Population overshoot has,is and will be the main basic cause of famine,epidemic disease,environmental destruction and resource wars.
All of this hardly promotes the wellbeing of humans in any number let alone all the other passengers on spaceship Earth.

Australia is the most arid continent apart from Antarctica.It may not appear that way to a casual visitor to the East coast,Tasmania or the capital cities apart from Canberra.Over a large part of the continent the rainfall,such as it is,is erratic and unreliable.In most of the tropical North the rainfall is more reliable but relies on the NW monsoon which lasts for about 3 months.The rest of the year little to no rain falls and the evaporation rate is extreme.

Geologically,Australia is an ancient land,with few volcanic events and nil glaciation for millions of years.So the soils,in the main, are infertile from an agricultural perspective without massive doses of fertilizer.

It has been estimated by various scientists that Australia has a sustainable population of about 10 million.We have already overshot that by 100%+ through crazy immigration policies and more recently, a baby bonus scheme.And all this has been the work of people like you who are off with the fairies as far as reality goes and who think that quantity is far more important than quality.You no doubt have a vested interest in that mindset.

Again,I quote – “Australia has a lot of water just in the wrong places” – really? Unlike you I have worked and travelled in Australia for upwards of 40 years.I was,after all,born here.I have yet to see,outside of sporadic floods,anywhere in Australia that has a lot of water.

As for diverting water from coastal streams to the inland, this is not a new idea.John Bradfield (1867 – 1943),a civil engineer responsible for several well know bridges,proposed doing just that with some of the coastal rivers of North Queensland.He advocated this in the 30s but the idea has been dismissed ever since as nonsense by engineers,hydrologists,agronomists,soil scientists and last but not least,environmentalists.Every now and then it gets a rerun from the boosters.

I will mention just a few of the concerns of the environmentalists.Large dam sites have to be found on the upper reaches of the coastal rivers.These will almost certainly be in heavily forested areas of great environmental value,especially in Australia which doesn’t have much of that sort of ecosystem left relative to it’s size.
The disruption to the flow of these rivers will cause damage along their course but especially in the estuary at their mouths and in the ocean habitat off shore.

Vast resouces will have to be devoted to the building of the dams, pumping stations,pipelines and tunnels to get the product over the watershed.By the time this water gets downstream to areas suitable for agriculture most of it will have soaked into the soil or evaporated.

After some years of irrigation there will very likely arise a salinty problem so rendering the land unuseable for just about anything.

So what would the expenditure of all this effort,plus the collateral damage caused,have acheived,David?
The ability to feed a few more useless and superfluous mouths,that’s what.


Terry: About your many pointed plan. I don’t know about the funding side, but the idea of turning river communities into land managers rather than food producers deserves consideration. We need to revegetate, true. But we and others need
food. We used to produce huge amounts of grain in Australia which was exported after we’d had our fill … now about 5 times more than we eat goes to feed livestock and we export that … after taking our fill. The net result is that we
have moved from being a breadbasket to the poor into supplying luxury and
harmful foods for the rich. This trend is mirrored elsewhere and is a part of
the reason for the ongoing global food crisis. Brazil’s food production has soared
over the past 20 years, but more has gone to livestock and undernutrition hasn’t vanished … its reduced, but with Brazil swimming in food, it should
be zero and isn’t. So my thinking is that whereever we can efficiently
produce plant foods for human use, we should do so. Then reveg the
rest. The tricky word in the preceeding sentence is “efficiently”. We have
to decide how much irrigation we can use and where. Currently we are
trapped in a society which has eschewed planning in favour of
“the market” and we have a reduced Governmental
capacity for large managed reforms.

David: Read Jared Diamond’s chapter in “Collapse” on Tikopia (or
wikipedia … for a pale imitation!). They stopped eating pigs
400 years ago because they understood the consequences for their
island if they didn’t.


The capacity of the Kurnell (Sydney) Desalination Plant is max 500 million litres per day = 182.5 billion litres/year. So you would need to build 22 of those plants to make up the shortfall of 4000 billion litres per year as mentioned in the report. How many NPPs would it take to desalinate and pump that much water? It may be that this would be less costly than what is currently proposed and certainly there would be less social disrutpion . Also, the supply of the top up water could be guaranteed.


Desalinated water via reverse osmosis and pipe network (not tanker truck) seems to be priced at $2-$4 per kilolitre around Australia. That’s what tomato growers for example will pay per megalitre. Thus desalinated water is three orders of magnitude too expensive for agriculture.

I’ll say again the cost of water is only just one aspect of food production costs. Other price shocks will include phosphate (perhaps 75% depleted in useful form), nitrogen fertiliser made with the same natural gas which the govt wants to replace coal, diesel fuel for tractors and delivery trucks and electricity for pumping, refrigeration and processing. I believe the sledgehammer blow will come when we get high water, diesel, gas and electricity prices all in the one year. Who knows it could be 2011 or 2012.


The greenhouse then release 5 times the water it actually consumes to grow its own food into the surrounding environment. As in all things, Industrialisation 2.0 will involve careful synergies.

Waste = food

Cradle to Cradle, and all that.


Hi John N,

Most prognoses are pinpointing 2012 when prices go ballistic, consequent to oil demand not being able to be met. But 2013 if the global economy is slower to recover from the recent recession. Food prices rises will probably outpace oil prices hikes.

Robert Hirsch is one of many high level pundits making such predictions:

The problem for planners & decision makers is that this does not allow time for major infrastructure change that would be needed to avert such calamity – most of which requires some 10 years or longer to implement. So, supporting John N, we are all in for an interesting decade ahead.


Hirsch is the man! Did you know he was once a fusion reactor designer?

My favourite Hirsch quote is on Saudi Arabia:

“Basically what they are asking us to do is to trust them. And frankly on something that’s the lifeblood of our civilization and the way we live, to trust somebody who won’t allow any audits is extremely risky. I personally don’t believe the numbers that are out there.”

That sums up the Western world.


Yes, Hirsch has a lot of good advice on the impending global oil situation, albeit he believes it’s impact will be so problematic for the West that climate change will have to take a back row seat.

Well, he may be correct on that but I would prefer it not to be the case. For the most part the two problems share the same solutions, but on things like aggressively exploiting tar sands the price for ameliorating peak oil is an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.


Thanks Geoff for your comments.I’m not sure if the suggested 27-37%will necessarily take out a lot of export grain crops. I’ve never been able to justify irrigation for broad scale farming.Most Australian grain production relies on rainfall. That’s been reduced in recent years because of the drought. With new varieties, efficiencies in water use, improved irrigation techniques etc I reckon that total production will still allow plenty of export . And better to have some export from fewer farmers/irrigators than no exports or production for that matter from a virtually dead system. That’s where we’re heading without a radical raonalization of the total irrigation effort. One crop we can do without is cotton and probably rice as well but i’d like to think that the govt and the farmers together would conclude that once together, they start the rationalization process. Lots more to say later. Cheers Geoff


Terry: What is it with Australians and rice? Almost every time I pick up a
newspaper (not often!) I see some irate letter writer complaining about using
water to grow rice … the latest was one Dr Simon Brealey in the Independent
Weekly today. Per megalitre of water, rice is extremely efficient. A litre of
milk or a litre of rice both need a similar quantity of water to produce (UN
Water figure is about 1000L/kg for both), but a kilo of rice has over 5 times the
calories as a litre of milk … and that’s full cream before you throw the
artery clogging rubbish out. As already noted by podargus, rice is
an opportunity crop .. you stop when you don’t have the water. Dairy in the
MDB have most of the “high security allocations” … they keep sucking when
everybody else is cutting.


Terry Krieg

By a curious coincidence I’ve been independently advocating almost exactly one of the policies you propose above @ Point 2. I’ve called them land stewards. Oddly, I posted this over at the rooted blog at CRIKEY on the same day I read your post. How spooky is that?

I hadn’t thought about selling waste management as a financing vehicle though. I prefer the idea of simply reducing allocations to what is required and then buying the properties at market value.

I also quite like the idea of running nuclear plants to supply the necessary top up water from the ocean at somewhwere like Ballina (as suggested some while back by Ewen) . I note that people say that this isn’t cost feasible, but I wonder about that. We really ought to be running nuclear power to replace coal anyway, and once you build a plant of that size you might as well use the spare capacity for something. At the margins it is not going to cost a lot to do RO or even MSF if you build the load around what else the plant is doing. So far most cost estimates for desal are based on likely demand for water from consumers. To my knowledge, nobody had ever tried to build desal to restock a river system with water. At that scale, the per litre costs are surely going to fall and on the way through ffrom Ballina to the waters of the Dumaresq people are going to want to buy some of the water. If they don’t want recycled, we then dump that into the river.

Geoff: Great article. Thanks

As a vegetarian (ovo-lacto) I found the Polyface Farm think exciting. Apparently the land was not always good land — quite the reverse, 50+ years ago apparently. His fa,ily’s land managent approach took very poor land and returned it to health. That alone I find inspiring. The fact that he apparently produces high quality food on it with methods that would qualify as organic and low footprint is fabulous, even if he does it for reasons I wouldn’t endorse. In terms of animal cruelty as well, he’d be flying closer to the angels, as far as I can tell.

It’s very probably the case that if all the world’s meat and dairy and eggs was done this way, that the world would probably not consume 10% of the quantity of meat, dairy and eggs it now does and it would pay at least five to six times as much for what they did eat. In a sense, they are paying for not “eating” the topsoil. I’d be OK with that. Minimal footprint and minimal cruelty. Sounds good.



You can’t compare rice and milk simply on the basis of calries. Milk is completely bioavailable protein. Rice is not, and must be consumed with some other methionine-rich protein source (e.g brazil nuts, eggs, legumes such as lentils) to ensure that all of the body’s essential amino acids are available.


Hi Fran,
thanks for providing your personal reaction to Polyface, that was very interesting, especially from a vegetarian.

I pretty much agree with your position that maybe if the world produced all our meat this way, we’d pay more, eat less, but still enjoy it when we had it. I appreciate the approach… it smacks less of being a ‘food nazi’ and sounds more reasonable.



Well as an ovo-lacto, I am going to want access to eggs and dairy … If the world went totally vegan I’d not protest in the streets of course. There are adequate work arounds. One thing is certain, if that happened — we’d have less obesity and less risk of avian influenza.

I’m concerned about 2 things:

1. The eco footprint
2. Cruelty to animals

Polyface seems to do brilliantly on the first (IIRC they refuse to ship their food 50 miles) and arguably, adequately on the second.

On their policy not many are going to be eating meat all that often.


Geoff, I’m not violently opposed to rice per se, but it seems that despite no growing when there’s no water it could be included in part at least in the rationalization. Gee Fran, great to hear that we’re on the same wave length. Under ALL of my rantings is the need for Australia to get into nuclear power. Then all of the other things in my plan can follow. I’ve been pushing a nuclear Australia since 1982 after returning from Canada where My family depended on nuclear power for the whole year. I’ll keep writing letters etc to the media and pollies. They’ll get the message eventually. Cheers Fran. Terry


Fran and Terry: Polyface … woeful productivity and Peter Singer has
written carefully about the welfare problems in “The ethics of what we eat”
(not sure if any of this is online).

As for amino acids, Try this experiment. 1) Do a google search for
“lysine deficiency vegetarians” (or methionine) and you’ll find plenty of
websites warning of the risks to vegetarians … I hassled the BBC
for a week a couple of years back after some Professor in a documentary
said that “only animal products contain lysine”! …

Now for Part 2). Do a pubmed search for “lysine deficiency vegetarians” or
“methionine deficiency vegetarians” … for lysine you will find 3 entries. From all
the clinical research and case studies in all the journals on the planet … just
3 studies … and none are actually relevant. I haven’t checked all
the methionine results, but I’ll bet the same is true. If you dig into the
research on this stuff … mostly in the 50s and 60s … plenty of
early work was redone for the space program, you find all manner of
inconsistencies. e.g., results with foods having a particular amino acid
ratio are different from eating that ratio of prepared amino acids. Noone
knows why (as of the late 90s). This isn’t a hot research area these
days and the theoretical deficiencies remain … but that doesn’t stop
people warning about combining foods properly.

People with direct experience (which isn’t me) tell me that in developing
countries with the most basic staple diets there are two things which
count: getting enough food and having clean water.

Bottom line. It is perfectly reasonable to compare rice and milk based
on calories. Here’s a nice little anecdote from research on the
maasai in the 80s (there is new research on the Maasai which
looks interesting and I’m waiting for the papers). The maasai women think
milk is natures best food. When milk is short they buy maize and make
a porridge … the kids grow. When milk is “plentiful”, meaning their cows
aren’t dead … they give under a litre per day … then they stop with the maize
and their kids can even lose weight … but you can’t persuade them that
milk isn’t the world’s best food. Of course if you have enough milk, then
there isn’t a problem. I’m not suggesting anything is wrong with
milk … except causing prostate cancer :), but if people don’t get enough
calories they are in deep trouble.


And if they get too many calories they’re in big trouble.

Over the last few years I’ve been hearing about (but not actually reading) lots of studies that confirm a high protein diet can stop various kinds of over-eating. I’m not talking about extremes like Atkins, but similar food philosophies such as the Bodytrim system or CSIRO diet.

Milk has lots of carbs in it.

For overeating comfort eaters like myself, carbs are dangerous.

I need protein, tasty, satisfying protein, or I start to put on weight. Fast. Really fast.


eclipesnow: You are suffering from a common disease bought on by consuming too much advertising … carbophobia

Michael Greger wrote the book on it (2005) … mainly aimed at Atkins,
but plenty of the research he cites is more general. The book is now on-line in full.

And my book is about the CSIRO diet ( Did you
know, for example, that in the study whose results are in the back of the
CSIRO diet book (book 1), that the people on the high protein diet and the
low protein control diet lost exactly the same amount of weight? It doesn’t
say that in Book 1, but it does say that in the published journal article. i.e.,
Book 1 has mislead about a million people by telling them results
that didn’t happen. … but wait there’s more … CSIRO had long term
followup data that showed that people started stacking the weight back
on once the 12 week intensive control period finished … but they didn’t
publish that data until years AFTER they’d sold a million copies and publised
it with no press release. Does
the word scam spring to mind? it should.

I have a whole chapter on the protein myth in “CSIRO Perfidy”.


As I understand it there are certain ‘satiation buttons’ with protein that there may not be with carbs. I understand your basic point about needing the right amount of calories: but where food is so abundant and cheap, we too easily over eat.

Protein is about feeling full and satisfied. And that’s not just one CSIRO study you’ve taken issue with: I’ve seen it on multiple podcasts and reports.

But you’re a nutritional author and expert, and so I’m left hearing yet another sciency-nutritional expert telling me what’s what, contradicting everything the other experts told me.

Where’s the consensus? Where’s the “IPCC” of food? You’re out there on the fringes recommending the vegan way, so a lay person such as myself could be tempted to just put you in the ‘issue driven’ category. I don’t want to do that, but I just don’t have the *time* to go off investigating everything I read online… from the ‘raw milk’ fad through to does Tofu give you Alzheimer’s, it’s all too much.

All I know is how I feel. Bodytrim has helped me lose some weight in the past, without really feeling like I was dieting.

And if you knew me, you’d know what a miracle that is!


Eclipse now, I have a T shirt with a large block of Tofu inside a square nicely crossed out with a heavy red line. the caption? Tofu, it’s still not chicken. Gets lots of stares and giggles. Cheers.


If it can work in the Gobi desert, why not do it in the MDB? _

“Pumping Power calculator – what power is needed to pump seawater to the middle of the Gobi Desert for desalination in the SeaWater Greenhouse? – answer – not a lot

The spread sheet for calculating this, kindly provided by Wessex Water, one of the UK’s leading water supply companies, is available here:
This spread sheet enables you to calculate power needed to pump water any distance through any height:
You can see that in fact, compared to national energy consumptions, power consumed is only a very low fraction of national demand.
For example, according to the spread sheet, the energy needed to pump the entire water consumption of Wessex Water, one of the UK’s regional water companies, with approximately 2m population, (out of UK’s population of approx 60 million), assuming a lift of 100m, a distance of 300 miles, would require about 7.3 MW and cost about $10m dollars/y – which are quite small numbers in the total context when compared to the total average power consumption of the UK which is about 37,000 MW
This shows it would be perfectly feasible to pump sea water large distances into China’s deserts, and desalinate it using cheap solar greenhouses, where the water can be used for agriculture and to stabilise the ever growing Chinese deserts.”


Way late and all but on the Red Meat and cancer thing, and this may not be the best source but

“According to the recommendations, red meat should be consumed in modest amounts, and salami and ham should almost always be avoided.”

That’s becuase its the nitrates more than the meat that cause the problem.

“The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Oxford (EPIC-Oxford), which followed 65,000 people during the 1990s, found that far from being protected from bowel cancer as anticipated, vegetarians in fact displayed a slightly higher incidence of this form of the disease”

“The WCRF says the Oxford findings on vegetarians could be explained by chance, noting there were only 28,000 non-meat eaters in the study. Vegetarians, it said, may consume fewer dairy products – “and our report found that milk probably reduces risk of bowel cancer”.

So its not as clear cut as you stated.


In ALL the real issue is OVER consumption.
~+100g/day of good quality protein (from whatever source) are needed for your average healthy adult.
As we all know, you need to carefully select which vegetables/nuts/fruit you consume to ensure the right balance.


The EPIC-Oxford study has a bunch of vegetarians and a bunch of almost-vegetarians which people
keep calling meat eaters … these people had a
red meat intake averaging 7.5 g/day for men
and just 2.7 g/day for women. Total meat was 21g/day
for men and 15g/day for women.

But the actual WCRF 2007 report doesn’t just stop
at correlation … the mechanisms linking red meat
and cancer are fairly well understood … the research is summarised in my book ( … plug!).


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