Thunderstorm Asthma Inquest

The thunderstorm asthma event of November 2016, that took the lives of 10 people around Melbourne, is currently in the Coroners Court of Victoria. So far, some of the testimonies have been confronting. This article is a short follow-up to the story published on 17 May 2017:  

Thunderstorm Asthma? Is the Killer Storm avoidable?

More information recently came to light. According to Melbourne respiratory physician Dr Nick Antoniades, thunderstorm asthma events have been far more common. More common than the four thunderstorm episodes generally recognised:  1987, 1989, 2010 and 2016. According to this article Dr Nick said: “These have all occurred in November, including in 1984, 1987, 1989, 2003, 2010, 2011. The numbers of people

presenting to the emergency department have ranged between 30 to 532.” Nick also said that during the 2016 episode the numbers spiked significantly to 3,270 patients. He is the director of Melbourne Respiratory and Sleep Services and consultant respiratory/sleep physician at Austin Health. The same article also mentions other reported Australian episodes, including Wagga Wagga in 1997, Newcastle in 1998, and Canberra in 2014. 


This article questions if the coroner's inquest will be able to identify the real problems and deliver the real solutions to the problems we face.

Australia is a country where people can get caught up in a lot of details, miss a few simple truths, and then over-regulate to create safety. 

It is possible that some easy solutions and understandings have not come to the attention of the relevant people yet... keep reading...

Turn up the volume to watch this recent video published by the media:


Identifying the problem and the solution

The growing of vast amounts of perennial ryegrass in Victoria is setting dairy farmers up for failure, because they are losing soil fertility with the growing of that grass as a monoculture. It is also setting the stage for another thunderstorm asthma event, which Professor Cenk Suphioglu said is inevitable.

Image: Lolium perenne click to enlarge, image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is uncertain if the coroner’s inquest into the event, and the media, will mention regulated raw milk as a dairy solution, as mentioned in the previous article. Let us hope they will be able to address the actual problem: there is too much ryegrass grown in Victoria.

Dairy farmers have been encouraged by the dairy industry to grow heaps of it as a monoculture. As a mitigating practise, it will be better if farmers grew multi-species pastures instead, which may eliminate the occurrence of another thunderstorm asthma event. Farmers will also increase soil fertility and a better economic return, because diverse plant species in agrochemical-free pastures grow larger amounts of nutrient-dense forage for animals. A large variety of plant species in the paddocks will also sequester more carbon, and increase nutrient cycling, which results in increased mineral and trace element availability in the plants, which will deliver robust health to grazing animals.

Farmers can be the superheroes in this case…

but will the inquest be able to consider this? Will they be able to understand the significance of these solutions? Will they be able to understand the science? Will they be able to grasp how elementary the solution can be, and how it can solve problems for many people?


Perennial ryegrass Lolium perenne

Lolium perenne is an introduced species of perennial ryegrass from the colonial days. Today it is over-abundant in Victoria because the dairy industry has encouraged farmers to grow it;  to supposedly increase milk production. This is a sad reality because in the process many farmers have neglected the abundant diversity of native grasses and other grassland species... On many farms they simply don't exist anymore.

The Jena Experiment is one of the longest-running biodiversity experiments in Europe. They have been studying biodiversity effects in experimental grassland communities since 2002, that is 15 years. It shows how the loss of species destroys ecosystems. The experiment found that more plant species results in more soil carbon via the nutrient cycling between soil microbes and plants. One particular experiment found plant diversity is even more important to grow a large biomass than fertiliser, learn more here

The experiment also found soil carbon declined over time in monocultures. When soil carbon declines, soil fertility and the ability of the land to produce an economic return diminishes. In a 2013 TEDTalk Allen Savory said that we are turning the world's grasslands into a desert, accelerating climate change and causing traditional grazing societies to descend into social chaos. This is already in progress on many Australian farms. Science show that farmers are not more successful than nature.

In addition, ryegrass leaves have a limited lifespan regardless of grazing. According to this article, ryegrass is termed a ‘three leaf plant’ because each tiller generally sustains a maximum of three live leaves. Grazing too low can reduce regrowth as less leaf material is left to help regrowth and stem material is reduced. This plant is problematic, because if grazed too early, it doesn’t allow the plant reserves to restore fully; it reduces yield and regrowth. When grazed too late there is a variety of problems. If a pasture grows too long (>3500 kg DM/ha) it produces new leaves and the old leaves die, these dying leave accumulate in the base of the pasture leading to:

  • Reduced pasture ME – dead material

  • Increased disease (favourable environment for pests, diseases, fungal spores)

  • Decreased pasture utilisation

  • Reduced clover content due to shading.

It doesn’t seem to be an efficient plant to grow as a single crop species and then expect livestock to thrive on it… Rather, it may set dairy farmers up for failure in a variety of ways…


The Thunderstorm Asthma Solution: Grassland Diversity?

Australian grassland has to return to a diversity of plant species, to sequester more carbon, and produce more quality forage for grazing animals. This will produce abundant mycorrhizal fungal networks. Green plants in fertile topsoil have a massive effect on how the entire ecosystem on the farm functions. In this video, soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones shows that one Australian farmer was able to restore 78 different native grasses and about 30 native legumes to his grassland, resulting in about 100 species in total.

Dr. Christine also shows how multi-species cover crops with companion plants, and high-diversity pastures linked in underground superhighways of mycorrhizal fungi, can fast-track restoration on the farm because carbon, water and nutrients exchange. She also describes the quality of Australian farmland as European colonialists found it in the 1800s. The grass was described as luxuriant, with carpets of colourful wildflowers. In those days the soil was deep and soft, and one could easily push a stick 2 feet down into the ground. Those original grasslands had 300 - 400 different species in them. George Augustus Robinson described in his diaries in the 1840s, that it was still green after 90 days with no rain and temperatures of 37 degrees celsius. This is testimony to the good stewardship of the land by aboriginal communities for thousands of years.

Today's grazing farmlands are in crisis due to overgrazing, loss of plant diversity, questionable farming practices and the application of chemicals that can harm soil microbiome. Our landscapes are simplified with the use of monocultures, which have lead to reduced soil fertility. If the farmland is no longer profitable, it forces farmers into debt and eventually the land may be repossessed by the bank. Agriculture has to change... and regenerative farming and grassland diversity have to be adopted Victoria-wide to mitigate the risks perennial ryegrass pose to both rural communities and to populations in the cities. This is a viable a long-term solution.

For more science-backed information and examples of how other farmers are mitigating risks on their farms with great results, see the Farm and Land Conditions, Cow Health and Feed categories of the Risk Identification & Risk Reduction Program.