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Thursday, 26 August 2021 09:55

Being holistic is not wholesome

Written by  Doug Edmeades
Doug-Edmeades Doug-Edmeades

OPINION: There is one word that greenies love to use - 'holistic.'

I was provoked to think about this when the Climate Change Commission report was released. The commission is recommending to the Government that New Zealand must reduce stock numbers by 15% by 2030 as part of the plan to reduce GHG emissions, at last bringing farming into the GHG net. Very holistic, yes?

A predictable consequence is that the remaining 85% of animals will be better fed. Given that animal methane emissions are proportional to feed intake, then total emissions will stay the same!

Alternatively, farmers could retire 15% of their land and maybe plant it in trees. If they choose this option, animal production in New Zealand will decline by 15%. If this occurs, New Zealand will be in breach of the intention of the Paris Accord, which at Clause 1b requires that policies should be directed to: "Increasing the ability to adapt to adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development in a manner that does not threaten food production."

There are many other examples which demonstrate that holism is not always whole.

The greenies understand the importance of zero tillage. They, I am sure, accept the scientific position that disturbing soils is not good for soil quality.

Historically, this was unavoidable because farmers had no option - ploughing and cultivation was necesxsary to control weeds and pests. That was the situation until glyphosate arrived. It enabled a revolution; zero tillage was now possible, with all its benefits.

You would think that greenies would totally embrace this wonder chemical, glyphosate. No, they say: glyphosate is a product of the industrial-chemical and by implication it must be carcinogenic. While they embrace zero tillage, they reject the very technology which makes it possible!

Another perversion inherent in green holism appears in their attitude towards fertiliser nitrogen.

They want it banned because it results in intensification and hence declining water quality. That's holistic, is it not, with no collateral downside?

Sorry. One likely consequence is that in the absence of fertiliser N, more clover will grow, replacing fertiliser N with 'natural' N and furthermore animal production will increase - you get more animal production per kg of clover eaten.

The net effect is that reducing fertiliser N will do little to reduce intensification and hence improve water quality.

This 'holier-than-thou' so-called holistic thinking, fails the first muster. It fails because those who preach its message, those who claim its righteousness, do not understand the biological system that they are trying to change.

Holism, it seems to me, as a philosophical theme, is a failure because no one can predict the future.

History is littered with examples of scientists who explored and studied things at a reductionist level, which in turn gave rise to technologies with far reaching beneficial consequences.

Humans are clever. We develop, via reductionist thinking, new science and hence new technologies which greatly benefit society. But we find, given time, that this progress sometimes brings with it unintended and unpredictable down sides.

What do we do?

Throw away science and technology and go back to a ‘safe haven’ of the past – organic or regenerative agriculture? Or do we press on to develop the new science and technologies to solve these emerging problems?

Doug Edmeades has more than 40 years' experience as a soil scientist. He established his own science consulting business in 1997, which has evolved into agKnowledge.

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