[Retrospective] Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

Today’s retro episode is all about policy, and the Australian experience.

Our guests are former Governor General of Australia and Advocate for Soil Health, Major General Michael Jeffery, and co-founder of Ylad Living Soils Rhonda Daly. In this episode we discover the crucial elements needed to build a comprehensive policy framework that will protect not only our soils but our landscapes. We look at the current Australian system, soil health, incentives for compost production, farm management practices, and the need to change our systems in order to better reward and support our land managers – the stewards of the earth. We then link this back to the current recommendations made in the FAO’s report Status of the World’s Soil Resources.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


Episode 2: Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, Technical Summary. FAO Report.


International Compost Awareness Week Australia. May 2nd – 8th. New South Wales, Australia. Organised by the Centre for Organic Research & Education (CORE).

International Composting Awareness Week Australia (ICAW), is a week of activities, events and publicity to improve awareness of the importance of compost, a valuable organic resource and to promote compost use, knowledge and products. We can compost to help scrap carbon pollution by avoiding landfilling organic materials and helping to build healthier soils.

Photo by suburbanbloke / CC BY


When it comes to drought, it seems that up until now, the drought relief packages were based on Exceptional Circumstances programs and included mostly financial support for farmers already in dire circumstances, with very little attention given to actual prevention of drought or preparing for drought before hand. However, there are some changes occurring now with the National Drought Program Reform that is starting in July, which recognises that drought no longer fits in the exceptional circumstances category, and will focus more on drought preparedness through providing training programs for land managers on risk assessment and financial planning and so on. But General Jeffery and Rhonda Daly, you both agree that a lot more has to be done. So General Jeffery, maybe you can tell us what you think is necessary for the public sector to do in order to actually prepare for drought and minimise the effects of drought on the Australian landscape?

General Jeffery: Well I think the first thing to do is recognise that at the present time, Australia doesn’t have a real national policy in terms of how it wants to look after the Australian landscape as a totality; that is, its river systems, its flood plains, its wetlands, its riparian zones; agriculture areas, grazing areas, mining areas and so on. And I think until we get a policy that spells out the need to have, perhaps as a light on the hill, to restore and maintain an Australian landscape that is fit for purpose – that is fit for all the things I just mentioned – we’re all going to be stuck doing itty, bitty things (and some of them quite important and quite good), but until we get an over-arching aim of what we want to do, with total state and local people all singing from the same sheet of music, I think we will be struggling, particularly when it comes to drought.

It’s getting that policy agreed to restore and maintain an Australian landscape fit for purpose; it has been knocked around a bit. And you can’t blame people, that’s the way people were taught and trained at the time, but –

Rhonda Daly: Don’t you think also that because they’re using water as a commodity – as an economic commodity – and so we’ve got this false economy coming in where we think we’re a rich country, but we’re actually deteriorating the landscape really badly. Short-term it appears that we’re not doing so much damage because economically we’re doing so well, but ultimately, the wheels are going to fall off that analogy for sure.

So Rhonda you’re saying that people involved have a very myopic view of the situation and focus only on the short term economic results, rather than the bigger picture, which I think is definitely the case in many other countries as well. And General Jeffery, you’re saying that we need to get all levels of public sector – local, national and state, to come together and agree on a national policy for restoring and maintaining the landscape. How would you propose we start?

GJ: Well part of the issue has got to be that, if we want to restore and maintain this landscape so that it is fit for various purposes, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What are the three key ingredients that will enable us to do that?” And it’s really about the integrated management of your soil, your water (that is, the hydrology), and the biodiversity – the plants and so on that you’re growing, whether crops or grasses, or what have you. So, good farming practice and land management practice, mining practice and everything else, depends on the stakeholders having a very clear understanding of the need for that integration, and understanding the art and science of doing it properly. And that’s where good farming practices and land management practices come into play.

My next question here was to ask you if you think soil is the most important factor for healing the landscape and therefore protecting against drought, but what you’re saying is that all three aspects, soil, water and vegetation, are all important?

GJ: Yes, I think we’ve got to talk about landscape rather than soil. Although I’m the National Soil Advocate, I think that’s a misnomer to a degree because it gets everybody focused on just looking at soil, when we should be looking at water and biodiversity. And Rhonda raised a very good point specifically on the water, where I think our focus in this country for many years has been in the wrong direction. We’ve always looked at how much water we’ve got in our rivers and streams and dams, and we then issued licenses, and so on, to users of that water. But the total amount of water falling on our landscape every year, if you take it as a hundred drops: only ten drops end up in the rivers, two drops end up in the dams, and another two drops end up as run-off off the roads and roofs – that’s only fourteen percent.

But that’s what we all look at – we focus on that because that’s what we can see. Where we’re missing is the other eighty-six percent that falls on the landscape, of which only about thirty-six actually gets into the soil where you want it, and the other fifty percent evaporates into the atmosphere because it can’t infiltrate.

And holding water in soils is a very important of drought management as well, which we’ve mentioned quite a few times in previous episodes. Rhonda, would you agree with that?

RD: I would agree. I would agree that there’s a huge amount of land that, as you say, needs hydrating – the wetlands and… But you know, truly and really I think that it’s quite sad that I don’t know whether they see that as the most important thing that they have to do at the moment. I think so much energy is going in other places. I truly don’t believe they know the workings of our environment and landscape, and what is the best way of getting it back – and spending the dollars to get it back into a healthy condition again.

GJ: I think that you really need political decisions at the senior level of federal and state to ensure a proper implementation of an appropriate process. So, I think it gets back again to this lack of an over-arching policy where we need to look after the landscape, and then the various ingredients that’ll make it work, and we discussed two or three of them earlier on.

Indeed. And what you’re saying is that it really is important for senior levels in government to take an active role in this, because there are big decisions to be made, and they need to steer the ship. But in terms of getting the research right, there are already wheels in motion, because just recently the Australian Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry recently launched the National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy, which aims to secure Australia’s soil for profitable industries and healthy landscapes, and among its many goals, it aims to “improve communication and sharing of soil knowledge”, and “to adopt a national approach to building future skills and capacities”. SO this is definitely a step in the right direction and perhaps it will achieve some of what you are calling for?

GJ: Yes, I think that is a good step in the right direction, and as the National Soil Advocate, we were able to bring together an expert advisory panel of four of the nation’s top land management scientists, backed by another twenty or so scientists who support them, and we were able to input into that strategy, which was really about doing four things: quantifying our soil asset in respect to data and mapping, and what are our soil types, and how healthy is it. And then, how do we go about securing our soil by identifying and evaluating best practice by looking at soil structure improvement, soil biology, carbon and so on. And the third bit was to look at understanding our soils, which is the technical level: the training of our ag scientists, soil carbon sampling, understanding the hydrology of our soils, understanding the soil biology and so on. Then there was soil at the interface, which was really looking at the search on environmental impacts: understanding water capture and storage in soil. So I think that the RD&E (the Research Development and Extension policy) that was launched by the minister a couple of weeks ago is very much a step in the right direction and I’m pleased that we were able to have at least a little bit of an input into it.

That’s a pretty comprehensive strategy focusing on soils, and I daresay one of the first of its kind. And it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the future. But in the past, has soil and soil health has featured in Australian drought policy in any big way before now, or has it been side-lined?

RD: From y perspective I would think that in all of the drought policies that they’re putting into place, soil health is definitely featured, and not only soil health but the management practices as well. So, yes they are incorporating and recognising that soil health is a major player in ensuring that we hold more water in our landscape for plants in these drier times. So, I think they’re recognising that, but there just seems such a huge part, and chunk, that still needs converting. Because, I would say that there’s really only maybe two or three percent of Australian farmers who are actually really practicing regeneration of the landscape, and the rest is going as business as usual. And how do we get the business as usual people to understand the importance of their soil, not just for today’s farming and their productivity and profitability, but for future generations to come?

So, I think Australia’s got a really short term view of their soil health, and we tend to – and that’s because of economic restraints – but we tend to look at just the now. “What do we do now to make us a profit this year that will keep us on the farm next year?” And I think economics, with one in seven farmers owing more than half a million dollars, plays a huge role in farmers up taking these different methods of rebuilding our landscapes back to being healthy again. It’s very much on just paying the bills.

GJ: One of our policy drives in restoring and maintaining this landscape fit for purpose is to reward farmers fairly not just for their product, which is another subject in itself, but also as primary carers of the agricultural landscape, because they look after about sixty percent of the continent. And I believe that we need to reward farmers for looking after the landscape on behalf of twenty-two million urban Australians. Now as to what sort of thing you might do to do that, it can be varied: it might be designating part of the new land army that the Government is going to establish to plant trees on the ridges where a farmer wants it, or to get a cheaper bank loan if he’s going to fix his riparian zone, or a whole range of measures that are not hand-outs, but are provided with a definite outcome in view, which relates to restoring and maintaining that landscape so that it’s in the best possible condition. And I think if we’re clever we’ll be able to do that, and in part overcome the problem that Rhonda’s just raised, that so many of our farmers are in very, very heavy debt.

Right, which definitely won’t help. And on that note, would you say, General Jeffery, that if the new carbon sequestration methodology gets approved, that this would encourage farmers to change their practices? And for our audience, this new methodology is part of the Carbon Farming Initiative, which is a Federal Government initiative to enable people in the land sector to generate revenue through the reduction of carbon emissions by using approved methodologies. So, would this be a potential help for them?

GJ: Yes, I think that if we’ve got a climate change problem – and I believe we have – that’s going to exacerbate our ability to produce more food, and the only way we can help to adjust to that is by sequestering carbon into the soils. The big issue for Australia is going to be in the complexity of the legislation – all the criteria upon which farmers can gain access to that money. And I think we really have to have measuring systems for carbon that are set to business standards, not to scientific standards, so your means of measuring don’t have to be quite so accurate when you’re talking about commercial operations, and therefore can be a bit simpler in terms of a farmer then being able to access what could be a very important source of revenue; and also a very, very important source of helping to adjust to climate change, and perhaps to control it to a degree.

And touching on what you said before, about support payments not being hand-outs: I wonder about citizens in general, particularly urban dwellers, are they sympathetic towards farmers and their situation, or is there work to be done there to get them on board?

GJ: Yes, well another of our policy drivers, and I think it may almost be the most important, is to reconnect urban Australia with its rural roots. That is, reconnect twenty-two and a half million people living in cities and towns with a hundred and thirty thousand farmers and perhaps a hundred thousand miners, or something like that. Now, unless we do that we’re going to find an even greater gap and lack of understanding between the two. And of course, you’ll never get the political support that’s needed to look after our farmers and landscapes properly unless you’ve got voter support. So we have to have that reconnection.

And to do that I think there are several ways. The first is that we’ve got to get to the young people, and I would do this by setting up, for example, a school garden in every school in the country. Something that can  show a six year old, and then a ten year old, and then a thirteen year old, just exactly what the soil does, and how it’s composed, and how photosynthesis and transpiration works; and how you produce healthy food from healthy soil that leads to healthier animals and healthier people. So I think that is one simple way in which we can get urban Australia over time connected; and hopefully the kids will take these messages home to mum and dad, and that would help us get through to the adults at the same time.

But getting the adults on side, I think we’re going to have to use a little bit of stick and a little bit of carrot. The stick is going to be the global food imperative, because in my view we’re going to be pushing it, and I think we’re going to see a lot of social disruption and probably conflict impacting on hundreds of millions of people – and Australia will not be isolated from that. So what we have to say to our own people is that there are going to be big, big problems overseas, and whilst we have some problems in how we’re looking after our landscape here, we’ve also got the answers. And if we’re clever enough and fast enough, we’ll get those answers implemented pretty quickly. And not only will it ensure our own food-water security, but we’ll also be able to export some more food – but even more importantly, export knowledge, because even if we double food export, we’d only feed a hundred million, but if we exported knowledge we might be able to feed a billion.

I’d really like to stress the school garden idea myself as one of the best ways to get the urban population interested in nature. There are also things like community gardens and urban farms that can really help forge a connection. School compost schemes and education can play a huge part too, and I’d like to speak more about compost now, because we’ve heard a lot in previous episodes about the benefits of compost for soil health and drought protection. And Rhonda, you have a wealth of experience in the industry, and as a compost producer yourself, can you tell me what type of incentives exist for you that encourage compost production and use?

RD: That’s a really good question, and I’ve had to search my mind. On a smaller level, the council is starting to introduce green bins to collect compostable waste, and there’s recycling bins and things like that. But from a primary producer’s perspective, I don’t really know of too many incentives or initiatives where people will come – unless there’s a trial being done by Landcare or CSIRO, where they want to get the compost – for them to get into using compost or other biological fertilisers that are a little bit softer on the land and create healthier plants at the same time.

AORA is an industry body – the Australian Organics Recycling Association, which used to be the old Compost Australia – they are promoting it as much as they can, but I do feel as though there’s got to be more policy in there that is going to give farmers the incentive – and possibly there’s going to be a dollar incentive. However, I do believe that there’s going to be people who want to do it because they know intuitively that that’s what they need to do while they’re here on earth. However, the ones who still haven’t reached that calling yet, that maybe the Soil Carbon Methodology, or policies, will see them change over to something new.

So there may need to be financial incentives for some farmers to get them to start composting. And often compost producers will tell us about roadblocks or regulations that actually hinder their ability to run their businesses. Can you tell me about the situation regarding this where you are?

RD: Yeah, sure. It appears that our government supports recycling organic waste – so, reducing landfill, rebuilding soils and… However, the cost of complying with many of these regulations make it not worthwhile for a lot of companies to pursue. And I actually phoned Paul Coffey from AORA  today and asked him what’s going on, because he’s right on the ground level: and the EPA are at present trying to impose a new regulation that is going to put a huge financial burden on compost operations, where they have to have a bank guarantee, and it has to be supplied to the EPA saying that if the operation for some reason goes insolvent, then the money [is used] to cover the clean up of the site. Inevitably this is one situation where this happened. It’s going to cost some operations as much as one-point-five million dollars to have a bank guarantee sitting there, and, as Paul was saying, it will close down many, many operations. And the thing that they’re forgetting to see is that levies are paid to the EPA that could be used for these clean-ups.

So, this is just one of those regulations made in their ivory tower, they’re not really in touch with what’s out there, and it could cost the industry very, very dearly because less people will be wanting to go into composting and recycling these seventeen million tonnes of organic waste that we have.

I guess it just comes back again to having a clear and coordinated strategy so these things won’t happen.

RD: Yes. Well, it’s fortunate that we do have AORA there, and Paul spends a lot of time doing policies, and going to the EPA and working it out for members such as myself. So, definitely, these bodies are very, very important for the ordinary person like myself, because they’re there to ensure we don’t get so many restrictions and conditions on us that it makes it basically impossible do composting.

It’s definitely is an issue I’ve heard before, which once again seems to show that more coordination across different interests could really help. And what I’d like to focus on now is farmers and land management strategies. Because one of the key ways to make change happen is to demonstrate how it can be done, and General Jeffery, you’re Chairman of the non-profit organisation Soils For Life, which is doing great work to support farmers in changing to better practices and advocate for a change in how land is managed generally. And you have been researching case studies of farms that are using sustainable practices in order to spread the word, and the case studies are available online. But through your work with Soils for Life, could you see ways in which incentives and policies could encourage farm managers to change their practices and adopt more drought-resisting practices?

GJ: Well, thanks for those comments on Soils For Life, and of course, Bill and Rhonda are a very important component of the nineteen case studies. We just did nineteen initially because that’s what we were able to raise the money for, and we wanted to actually prove the concept, and well I think we’ve done that, and now we want to roll-out another forty or fifty – and then hopefully hundreds and then some in clusters. I suspect the encouragement to do that will be in showing those who are looking to make a change that, first of all, it’s economically viable. They’re not going to commit unless they can see a dollar in it. And to get that dollar I think we certainly have to do things in terms of how we’re looking at food in terms of pricing, and how we’re looking at rewarding farmers in how they’re rewarding the land.

But, maybe we’ve also got to look at a new definition of productivity, because so often, I’ll think you’ll find the bank saying to a farmer, “Well, to meet your debt obligation, you’re going to have to lift your productivity [muffled] by five percent next year, or whatever. And therefore the farmer then either has to put in a bit more superphosphate, or clear a bit more land, or put a bit more land under crop when he probably hasn’t even got it. And so, false pressure is put on him to lift his productivity, and the same might be true of pressures that may be imposed or implied by the two big chain stores that buy sixty or seventy percent of the produce.

So perhaps we’ve got to look at productivity again nationally in a different way. And if a farmer operating to ninety percent of what he saw as the traditional productivity, which was also degrading his landscape, but ninety percent productivity by his old measure keeps him in permanently good health and good shape, it is far better to look at a system that relates that sort of equation than a farmer whose been striving to do one hundred and two or one hundred and three percent – which he might do for twelve months or two years, and then his soils collapse on him and he goes broke, and the bank has to foreclose, and doesn’t get anything out of it either. Perhaps you see where I’m coming from – that we have to look at productivity in a slightly different way?

Yes, I think I get you, that the notion of productivity should also look at if the land is better managed and can sustain at the same level of productivity for a long period of time, rather than purely looking at the percentage of crop yield. But then, how would you envision we tackle situation with productivity, or protect our farmers from bank pressures and supermarket pressures and the likes?

GJ: Well again, I think it gets back to the policy, and about the rewards.  You see, unless we have these policy parameters in place, we’re going to have the same arguments – they’ll just continue. And the same problems will continue. So you’ve really got to get the aim right for what you want to do: you’ve got to get the soil -water strategic assets declared as such and managed as such; you’ve got to get farmers properly rewarded (and we’ve been through that); you’ve got to get urban Australia really understanding the importance of soil, water and biodiversity, and therefore the importance of farmers, so that if, for example, we might have to pay another half a cent for a kilo of carrots, or another two cents for a litre of milk to ensure that a farmer is properly rewarded for his product, then we pay it gladly. And if there are people that are disadvantaged, then there’s a welfare net to deal with that. But we cannot have farmers being knocked over with unfair prices simply because companies are competing to reduce, reduce, reduce; which is fair enough in principle, but why should the poor old farmer have to deal with that?

And then, we’ve got to refocus the science, so that the science properly supports the farmer in terms of measuring soil fertility, carbon sequestration…if we get all these things in place, then I think we will solve the problem very quickly. But until we do, along with our soils program, which is the practical and proven application on the ground, we won’t maximise the benefit.

I think that sums it up very nicely. And then, final question to both of you: how long do you think it will take for this coordinated approach and solid policy to come about and transform the landscape? Is there much more to be done?

GJ: I think in terms of what I’m trying to do and what Rhonda’s trying to do, I think we’re looking at about a ten to fifteen year programme. There is no magic light switch – you can’t just transform the whole of the agricultural society overnight, because you’re dealing with a hundred and thirty thousand very independent people with their own ideas, et cetera. But the big thing is that we do have the answers, and I think the global imperative…in terms of the opportunities that it provides for our farmers for, perhaps the first time in many, many years, to become sustainably profitable and environmentally sound is going to be there for us to take advantage of – if we can get the proper policy, and fixing the paddock policies in place.

RD: I totally agree with what Michael just said. And in particular, influential people like General Jeffery, who has so many doors he can open – we need people like that to open many more doors, and in time there will be more doors that will open, and people will be coming to us, and far more farmers will be wanting to change.


[Retrospective] Soil Crisis #2: Soil & The Circular Economy: Building A Movement



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

Today’s retro episode is about the circular economy, and how it can benefit our soils. Our guest is industrial and environmental economist Robin Murray. As a zero waste pioneer and a leader in the fair trade and environmental movements for many years, Robin Murray had an excellent perspective to give on our current efforts in making soil health a priority and the circular economy a reality. We discuss the opportunities we have for building a movement to change our current economic model to a more sustainable one, including existing models that we can learn from, the importance of education and centers of learning for the movement, and the roadblocks we might face along the way.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


Episode 1: Soil Crisis #1: A Need For Economic and Political Change.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, FAO Report

Photo by Joe Mabel / CC BY.


We talked in part one about the importance of soil health in human economies, and also about the potential for a shift to a more circular, distributed economy, and you were listing a few ways people have started to reconnect themselves with the soil with the slow food movement, community gardens and farms being opened up to the urban population and so on. But in relation to forming a different system, a different model of production and distribution, how important is education and knowledge sharing for fostering or encouraging these kinds of changes?

Robin Murray: What I would say is that the movements – both of people pressing on policy, but also the people who are actually doing it – tend to be global. So we established a Zero Waste movement here more than a decade ago, but it was part of an international Zero Waste International movement, and it was established in a number of different countries. And the internet has allowed a wide sharing of practices. And in the arguments in this country, the experiences of Canada and Australia – let alone elsewhere – have been very influential in saying “Look, this actually happens. This isn’t just a utopia, this is a different model”. And particularly as it develops, you then have new technologies coming in; light technologies, small distributed technologies, not great big centralised ones. These can be imported and then developed on your own here.

So, I think there’s a continuous process of self education, but one which is within a collective. If you look at organic farming, it is social knowledge, and people are not privatising this knowledge. They are sharing, and of course, this is what happened when we grew up; people would discuss particular problems. We had, believe it or not, an actual farmer’s discussion group, which my father used to go to, where people would come once a month from these hill farms to discuss common problems. Well now with the modern internet, you go much further and you can share. Having said that, I think there is a great need, and a role, for some formal structure of specialist education. Many countries have inherited this on the agricultural side, and in America that’s very important: those colleges have been absolutely central, and changing the approaches in those colleges, or opening up these colleges to these new systems is an important part.

There’s been nothing similar on waste. Waste is being treated as part of a technical college, but it’s done in a very old fashioned way and it needs a quite different approach. And I think now we must look to make it global, because many of the ways of looking at the thing are global, [even though] every place has it’s own specificity. But, I think this is where this new extraordinary development of Massive Online Open Courses, which are free, but you can also link into local discussion groups all taking these courses – and there are five million students on them. If one replicated that in terms of soils and in terms of nutrient management (in relation to biowaste)…knowledge is absolutely central – distributed knowledge is absolutely central, and I think probably this is going to be the key to a major change in the way in which we both think about our agriculture, and think about reconnecting it up.

I’m very glad you say that because that’s the whole idea being Compostory.org, and I agree that in the areas of waste or nutrient management,  we really need to start working together and finding connections between groups of people all around the world. And from the work that we’re doing, we’ve come across so many different stories of people and groups doing unique and very interesting work…

RM: One of the examples which I found particularly inspiring in our work has been in Japan which, starting in the nineteen-sixties but really gathered in the nineteen-seventies, was a movement led almost entirely by women. And they had become concerned after a range of food scares, particularly around milk and the quality of milk, and its impact on their children – it was children who led the concern. And so what they did is they said, “Look, we’re not going to buy our milk from the supermarkets; we will go out and we will find farmers who we can talk to about how they produce their milk, and we can ask them to produce organic milk and we will then find a way of bringing it directly to us.

Well, they started with milk and then they expanded to other food items to begin with. And they were one of the very early developers of box schemes; and because quite a few of them, I suspect, before they were married worked in these Japanese factories, which were all electronic – not perhaps in the late sixties, but certainly in the late seventies and eighties – and were very well managed; they established this box scheme whereby the producers who they picked out and who they partnered with would bring what had been ordered to the central collection point. They’d all work – as mums – they’d go in there and they would sort the boxes out, and then they would distribute them to their own houses. They organised themselves in groups of six to ten households, which were called Han. Now, I’ve been involved in some box schemes, but my word, this is brilliantly done.

And they now – in the Seikatsu co-ops – have three hundred and thirty thousand households in their schemes. Three hundred and thirty thousand. And they’ve reached right back to the farmers, so that they completely side-step the supermarkets. And they’re doing it much more cheaply, so some of the supermarkets are going out of business. And what they do is, they take one product after another, they study it and do the testing, and they then work with the farmers on standards, and they jointly discuss why some standards are more difficult than others. And then they open it out and say “does anyone have any ideas about this farmer’s problems?” etc. So they act as almost crowd intelligence on this. Their aim is explicitly to show that these higher standards are possible, and then press politically for these to be adopted nationally. And so, they’ve formed local political parties, and they have a large number of local councillors who then press for these things within their local council, to change the standards. And then they combine, and press it nationally. This has changed the food economy, in terms of farming and its quality, but it has also changed the way food is thought about and then used and cooked in the home. And I think this is a model of how soil economy and the human economy have been brought back together.

That is fascinating, so essentially these communities have bypassed the middleman and gone straight to the source, taking control of the distribution and being directly involved with the producers. And do you think this model, this co-op model should be replicated, or would be the main way to go forward in the future?

RM: Well, I think that is one way. We should all say to ourselves, “Right, what can we do about this?” You quickly find that there are other people doing something about it, and some are better at it than others. But what is amazing is that the Seikatsu started in 1972, so that’s forty-two years, and they are still enormously strong. They’ve kept the principles very much to the centre. Whenever they have problems, they discuss it openly, and in terms of cooperatives – this is a very important point – what they’ve tried to do is always to retain a sense that you’re in control of the thing, and you’re not just voting for people to do it for you. So they’ve purposefully broken up some of their bigger organisations so that people feel that it is close to them. And if you don’t do that, very quickly you get experts and they start running it, and it becomes more like the old system.

Now this model: recently in South Korea, they’ve been copying the Japanese one. And they, within fifteen years have got four major food cooperative systems linking farmers and consumers. They’ve now got over half a million people involved, almost from a standing start. Now, it’s led in – as the Japanese put it: it’s not just “how to get nice food”, it is “how to live a different life.” How not to be what I think they call “the robotic consumer”. The role of the human being is not to be a robot or to be the prey of advertising and so on; it is to take this under your own control, and think about it, and participate in it, because that is actually what creating life is about. That’s their approach, so it’s not just the co-op – the co-op is an aspect of this. It is about a whole approach to the way we live our lives, in whatever we’re doing.

Yes, that’s incredible, and I can easily imagine that such a co-op system, since there is such a link between households and farms, could work to ensure that household organic materials like food scraps and so on, be properly disposed of and brought back to the farm for composting, because the consumers then understand the need for having a clean stream of organic materials for composters.

RM: Yes.

But then as a larger social movement, and we talked about the ways governments are sometimes slow to react to this kind of thing in part one, but when it comes to transitioning our current paradigm or economy into a circular economy – do you see any other opportunities, or ways to build the movement so that it can move up to the government level and make a real impact perhaps?

RM: Well, the political issue: I was referring to it in the way new paradigms are introduced, and I think the first thing is that it’s not done just from the top – it’s usually top-down and bottom-up going on at the same time. And in our cultures, you have to have people who have some kind of connection to this, and some experience of it, which is why I mentioned gardening and getting people involved. It means that they become interested in the new way of thinking. It’s almost like speaking a language.

One of the things we found in recycling is that if you introduce a scheme of boxes for recycling, that the interest in the environment – which in one borough in London was at about twenty-three percent before the scheme started – after people started recycling, within a year it had gone up to something like sixty-eight percent. What that taught me is that then people have a reason not to screen out difficult things. If there’s nothing you can do about something…like these terrible events in Sudan, for example: if you had a brother or sister working there you would be extremely worried, but otherwise it’s somewhere far away, and there are so many of these things going on, you’ve got to live a life. Now, in the environment, if you can be actively involved in a way which fits in with life, then you become more open to this, and then you are interested in it; and if someone stands up and says “I believe x, y and z”, you think, “Yes!”. I think the same is true of soil: the more people are involved (either in gardening, or community gardens, or whatever it would be), the more open they would be.

And then You’ve got to have the social movements, who are barefoot experts: people whose lives are this – thinking about it and explaining it, being the people to animate the movement. So you’ve got that. And out of that, incidentally (if we look at it in the long-term, and we have to), some people will say “Well, why don’t I go for the local council?” And some might even say, “Why don’t I go for Parliament?” You’re growing the crop like that.

At the same time, any social movement will then link-in with universities and link in with specialists, who themselves may be worried. I don’t personally know people who spend their lives on soils, but I am sure that many of them have real worries, they’re thinking: “How am I going to influence this?” So they become part of it, and you then can reach out to ministers – particularly if we have this wider sense of representation, and if there are events or constituencies which mean that people have to listen, and this is what politicians have to do. Then the politician is open to these different expertise – because there’s always contesting expertise. So, it’s partly a question of expertise and it’s party a question of what the political punch is behind it, and you can never do it with just one or the other.

Part of the great battles we’ve had in waste is actually in public enquiries. What I would call the old interests, they fund so-called science and consultants purely negatively in order to try and destroy the new arguments. And I spend a lot of my life in University, and coming from the University we were amazed that people are so instrumental about science; that they’re actually only looking for something which will argue a particular case – lead is a very good example; it took forty years to get lead finally banned from petrol. But, you know, what was then revealed (and it happens with drug companies as well), which is people who are financed don’t have to prove anything, just disprove whatever the argument is that they’re opposing.

So there is that part of the battle, and therefore people who are informed and who are able to relate to the new movement and the new paradigm (but also with the expertise necessary for that), they are part of the important mixture.

Yes, that is definitely true because there are a lot of interests at play here and as you say, not all of them fight fairly. That is definitely a challenge and leads into my last question, which is about the challenges that might crop up. We’ve talked a lot about campaigning and policies, and with your wealth of experience, I’m sure you’re well aware of the roadblocks that can crop up along the way. Can you tell me what kind of roadblocks are in our way, and is it something we can overcome easily, or is there still a way to go?

RM: I think there are many roadblocks along the way. One of them, if you work at all levels of government, will be financial. Mainly the Treasurer comes along and says, “Oh no, we’re not going to have that because we’ve got no money.” That is a constant, and particularly when you’re early on in the new disruptive technology. How to deal with this fact? Even if you say, “Look, in the long run it’s going to be better”, and so on, he or she is interested in the actual pound signs at the end – immediate, and during this years budget. So that will always be a factor. Very often, once things are established, then suddenly it actually becomes….And the same with waste – when we started off, it was more expensive to do our systems, but once we’d adopted the Italian system (which was based on food waste collection first, and then followed by the others and you needn’t have so much residual waste collection), suddenly we were able to save money and the finance officers became your friends, not your enemies.

Then the second lot are the lawyers, because laws will have been constructed and regulated around the old way of doing things, and then they may get worried. And there is also an issue, for example, the question of how you treat organic food waste – whether it’s heated to seventy degrees, or whether we need to put it up to eighty-four degrees. What are we losing through this? Can we think through that so that we don’t lose some of the micro-organisms as a result of this? what is going to be the effect? How does that come about? Well, the regulators just say, “Well that’s what it is”. So those negative forces come it, and you have to think through them positively, you know: “That is an issue, how do we deal with that issue?”

Then you have the interests, which may be both professional interests (that’s how we’ve always done it and how we’ve always organised it as well), and then you have the commercial interests, which are also strong. The organisational interests, I find, has been one of the big ones – which is government, and in this area in particular it’s local government – because they don’t want to have complexity. Simplicity – particularly now with contracting out, they don’t want to have to deal with a hundred different small contracts, they would love a simple contract, and then they monitor it.

So, how to actually have the interface between the government at any level, and those who are doing the work, in such a way that allows for that complexity – this is one of the very interesting aspects of modern public administration. But without it, what has happened in waste is that the big waste companies have effectively side-lined the community sector. In Canada, USA, Germany, I believe, and certainly in the UK it’s dominated by I think only four major companies now. They say they’re doing recycling, but they are certainly not upcyclers. They are profit maximisers who are used to dealing with residual waste, and who want large facilities the equivalent of the nuclear power plant (though not quite as dangerous as that). But that’s what they’re used to dealing with, and that’s what their large organisations can handle, whereas we want a much more complex ecology in order to do that.

So, those are some of the roadblocks, and I never like to think of them as barriers, because any creative process always finds a block or problem. The question is how to get round it – and in this case – what kind of alliances and coalitions you can build to get in between them, or to win some of them over and get them on your side? How do we do this? That, I think, is the art of what we might call transition – the politics of transition.

The art of transition – that’s a really nice way of putting it. And yes as you say, we need to be creative and open minded in order to succeed in what we’re doing. And I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of this topic now, but unfortunately Robin, that’s all we have time for today. Thanks a million for coming on, it was wonderful to have you on the show.