Agriculture Meets Peak Oil: Soil Association Conference

The Soil Association is a 60 year old UK organisation responsible for setting standards in organic farming. They describe themselves as "UK's leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health." Their logo is the UK's most recognisable trademark for organic produce. It is found on more than 70% of all UK organic produce.

Last summer they launched a major peak oil initiative going by the name of Food and Farming – Post Peak Oil. This theme was the focus of their 26-27th Jan 2007 annual conference, subtitled “Preparing for a post-peak oil food and farming future”.

With over 800 delegates and the peak oil educator stalwarts of Campbell, Heinberg and Leggett amongst the speakers this was the largest and potentially most significant peak oil communication event yet.

I’ve been to many peak oil conferences over the years, they all had one thing in common. They were organised by people interested in peak oil, for people interested in peak oil. It’s a small community with virtually the same few hundred people at each one! Okay, I exaggerate a little but it is true to say the core messages from these conferences have, for the most part remained within the peak oil “community”.

This was different. A step change. This conference wasn’t organised by or for the peak oil community. It was the first time (that I’m aware of) the peak oil message – as delivered by Campbell and Heinberg et al – was core to the annual conference of a major organisation.

The event kicked off on the Thursday night with a discussion between the Soil Association’s president, Jonathan Dimbleby and director Patrick Holden. From this I got the impression the peak oil focus was Holden’s rather than Dimbleby’s doing. Holden described the subject of this conference as making it the most important conference in the Association’s 60 years history. Justifying this by explaining that to date the Soil Association had been focused on:

Development, defining, of a prescription for the application for sustainable agriculture.
And that this was now doubly important as things are changing, due to climate change, decline of fossil fuels and food security meaning the Association needs to consider the wider issues. Holden mentioned he “argued very hard” for the peak oil theme so presumably someone was arguing almost as hard against.

Dimbleby did say he was sympathetic to the direction Holden was taking the conference but suggested there were other problems, today’s problems, prices, DEFRA, standards, attracting more people to organic farming etc. and that perhaps they should be the focus, that peak oil is a case of biting off more than one can chew? Holden’s defence was to say that was the day job but peak oil was:

...far far bigger than that, it’s going to completely threaten all the systems that we take for granted.
Having described his own farm as quite radically sustainable he went on to say:
…but then I realised that when my food gets to the farm gate it goes into a centralised distribution system which is entirely dependent on the existing fossil fuel driven national distribution infrastructure. And if this scenario of progressive decent of fossil fuel energy which could halve it or maybe even reduce it to a quarter or less than that by the late 2020s happens I’m going to have to rethink all that. Which means maybe I’m going to have to rethink how the food is sold which begs the question, can I get loyalty of the citizens around me because at the moment they are buying food on price or they are buying a commodity food...
The following day covered the meat of the conference in a series of plenary sessions where the following spoke:

Jonathon Porritt, One Planet Agriculture
Dr Colin Campbell, Energy Shortages: How soon and how serious?
Dr Jeremy Leggett, Climate change and peak oil: The two great oversights of our time
Rob Hopkins, Energy descent plans: The Kinsale and Totnes projects
Carwyn Jones, Minister's address
Richard Heinberg, Implications of peak oil for agriculture
André Viljoen, Agriculture without external inputs: The Cuban experience
Peter Melchett, Organic farming and food distribution: Present strengths and weaknesses

To their credit the Soil Association have made MP3 audio recordings of each speech available on their conference page here.

I won’t describe the content in detail however I will especially recommend Porritt’s, for a well articulated, intelligent, linking of a broad range of difficulties, Hopkins’ for a humours and inspirational account of his response to peak oil, Melchett’s for discussion of climate change impacts of farming, land use, nitrous oxide and carbon loss from soil and Leggett's for bringing together climate change and peak oil in his authoritative manner.

Jeremy Leggett has also recorded his thoughts on the conference at his blog hosted by the Guardian newspaper in an article titled Take to the fields:

If the peak-oil proposition is correct, the tipping point of global oil production will happen - largely unexpectedly - in this decade or early in the next, accompanied by a dire energy shock. The people in the room will be in the front rank of those first affected. They can also be in the vanguard of those who can offer a proactive vision of what a survivable post-shock future could look like.

Click image for .pdf

A 13 page booklet containing contributions from the speakers was given to the delegates and is available to download as a pdf from Rob Hopkin's Transition Culture site here or by clicking the above picture. This will be expanded upon over the coming weeks based on output from the conference workshops.

The closing address was given by Dr Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, and author of many books. In India she has established Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers' rights. She directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy (blurb lifted from here). Her speech on "how to get the oil out of food" is also available to download from the link above - probably worth the 36 minutes of your time. Impressive lady.

Whist the core peak oil message was not new to me, I left the conference enthused. Agriculture and food security is a vital aspect of peak oil, climate change and our future. The organic farmers at the conference I met and who contributed to the workshops came across as incredibly smart and well informed people. These people know what’s going on, know what is important and seemed to accept peak oil without batting an eyelid. As the unsustainabilities of industrialised farming come home to roost, organic farmers represent the future of agriculture and by extension our very civilisation itself.

Unfortunately the mainstream media have not widely reported on the conference. The BBC's Environment Correspondent Sarah Mukerjee reports on the conference here, however she seems to have missed the point. She doesn't mention peak oil itself with her only mention of oil being quoted from Holden "...when oil demand outstrips supply, and it becomes too expensive to import food from around the world, we will have to think fairly radically about how we use the land to support ourselves." Instead Mukerjee focuses on the growing popularity of the organic movement:

Within a few years, the organic movement has found itself swept from tree-hugging hippy obscurity to the mainstream. And for an organisation that has spent most of its existence shouting angrily from the sidelines, this entry into the establishment takes quite a bit of getting used to. They face a question that many other environmental charities are asking themselves: Now we have won many of the arguments, what do we do next? And what do we say to all the people who are finally listening?
Well, Sarah, the Soil Association had a very powerful message this conference, they know exactly what they are saying. It would seem however you still aren't listening!

Excellent report Chris.
I was there and like you was impressed by how much the organic movement now rates the low energy, sustainable agriculture part of their message relative to the health benefits of organic food. I am sure they have been talking about the former for a long time but I suspect, at least until recently, the general public buying organic food have mainly thought of the latter.

This emphasis on energy and sustainability is underlined by the Soil Association considering removing certification of food that has been air freighted. A fair part of American organic food production is now carried out on almost the same huge industrial scale at conventional agriculture. In may not use pesticides and oil derived fertiliser but it has massive energy inputs for machinery, processing and transport. The Soil Association is certainly fighting to ensure that the organic movement here does not go the same way.

I was also impressed by how many of the large number of growers there, so often caricatured as romantic rustics up to their knees in manure, were vitally aware of energy matters and had detailed figures of how much they used and were making great efforts to reduce it. Still there must be something that marks them apart. I do not wear a cast mark on my forehead like Dr. Vandana Shiva but when I stood up in the question time session, Anna Ford who chaired it, immediately asked "Are you an engineer?"

I also found widespread knowledge and concern about the use of biofuels as it is now being implemented, both from the point of view of removal of agricultural land and wild life habitat and the input of fossil fuel. Several growers were carefully considering how much of the material grown could be used locally for energy and how much this would detract from the return of nutrients and fibre to the soil.

The energy and sustainability theme was further emphasised by the organic fashion show and the session on low energy architecture. I had thought that that organic clothes were a pushing the organic theme a bit too far. However on learning about the damage done by industrial scale cotton farming I see the point of it. Besides the fashion show allowed us to see the food writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall racing across the catwalk clad only in organic underpants. The architectural session made clear that in new buildings you can get far greater fossil energy savings for your money by concentrating on lowering the energy consumption of the building than you can by adding renewable energy generators to the outside of a less energy efficient building. Unfortunately the very low rate of replacement of the housing stock in the UK, due to the widespread use of very durable materials like brick and stone, mean that a lot of the savings that can be made starting from scratch cannot be obtained here in the short term.

The sessions on transition towns brought me the news that Lewes in Sussex very near were I live was about to try and emulate Kinsale in Ireland, Totnes in England and a number of American towns in a local community effort to lower energy use. I shall be involving myself in these efforts.

In all, a welcome positive note in a world with too many negative ones.
In Dr. Vandana Shiva's words "The uncertainty of our times is no reason to be certain about hopelessness”.

Sure organic farming is a good thing. Mainly here in Switzerland and also in Germany it is considerable growing market.

But keep in mind: organic broad acre cropping is delivering just 50% of the yield as traditional cropping does. Many people talking about this seemingly perfect picture - organic farming- don't know this very important issue. I'm sorry, but organic farming cannot feed the world.

So is that "organic farming" or "organic broad acre cropping" that can't feed the world. My (limited) understanding is that organic farming can match "traditional" (thought that was an interesting use of the word traditional) faming in terms of productivity per unit area but a lot more variables had to be controlled and more labor was needed, i.e. it was harder.

That figure of 50%, is it rising or falling? My complete guess is that it is rising as organic practices tend to increase productivity over time through soil improvement and farmer experience. Where under "traditional" things go downhill as soils are degraded and those artificial inputs deplete.

I'm sorry, but organic farming cannot feed the world.

When pesticide and fertilizer and diesel fuel inputs become too expensive, it will have to do. World oil depletion will result in world population depletion.

Its hardly demonstrable that pesticide, fertilizer and diesel fuel will become too expensive.

It is a fact unless you can demonstrate that the rate of petroleum production will increase in the future.

The law of supply and demand is not a theory.

You misunderstand; All these inputs aren't solely dependant on petroleum. Pesticides and fertilizer can easily be manufactured with nuclear process heat and electricity, and diesel fuel can also at a high price.

Second, fuel demands for agriculture are relatively low while food demands are relatively high. There are plenty of surplus industries that will die first, from airlines to large commuter cars.

Just a couple of points.

The bulk of the human diet for the last few thousand years consists of grains. These days wheat, corn and rice are it. They run the world. They are not optional.

Since ancient times grains were often consumed a long way from the fields that produced them. Rome, for instance, imported enormous quantities (for the time) from Egypt. The far east has had centralized rice markets for millenia.

Historically, when times were tough, *more* of the diet consisted of grain as meat became a luxury and imported fruits and vegetables became expensive and scarce. Instead of fattening the pig on corn and oats, we ate the corn and oats.

There was massive transnational trade in grain (and other commodities) in the age of sail, long before coal and steam, before gunpowder and printing presses and the English language.... before oil.

I would love to see somebody savvy in economics build a scenario where the global grain market ceases on account of peak oil. I want to see numbers crunched.

The difference with historical times is the scale of many grain-growing enterprises. Look this up in google earth: 50.8156,5.5292. It is a region historically specialized in growing wheat and oats (population was roughly 3/8 of today). Compare the size and quantity of the settlements with those in, for example, a farming area in on of the corn states of the USA. There is much more need for fossil fuels to just produce the grain.
Additionally, grain trade was conducted largely via water transport. Producing it is one thing, moving it to market is another.

Yes, agriculture is fossil fuel intensive. But it uses only a small fraction of total consumption and it is an absolutely necessary activity. It's hard for me to envision a scenario where peak oil consistently chokes off fuel to the most important uses. Makes no economic sense.

Similarly with bulk transportation of grains and beans. Very oil intensive. But only a tiny tiny fraction of total consumption. And history proves you don't need oil at all.

I sympathize with folks who hate globalization. But world markets for food and other commodities existed for centuries, even millenia, before that buzzword emerged.

Our extravagant automobile cultures are dependent on cheap oil, but I seriously doubt our basic food supply is.

It's hard for me to envision a scenario where peak oil consistently chokes off fuel to the most important uses. Makes no economic sense.

But it's happening already. Agricultural output is down in some poor parts of the world due to high oil and gas prices reducing the amount of fertilizer, pesticide, mechanisation and pumped irrigation that can be afforded. For every dollar a barrel of oil rises, a poor farmer somewhere in the world finds he can afford less of the industrialised inputs his productivity relies on.

For every dollar a barrel of oil rises, a poor farmer somewhere in the world finds he can afford less of the industrialised inputs his productivity relies on.

Marginal farmers can definitely find themselves in trouble.

The Question is: Why doesn't the price of his crop rise to offset the increasing costs of his inputs?

Here's what you often find:

(1) There is a grain surplus in his home nation. Essentially his services, as a marginal farmer, are not required. Awful, but true.

(2) He is denied access to world markets. Or, at least, denied anything like fair access. Subsidies that other rich countries use to pad their farmers' wallets keep the price too low. This is a biggie. And the developing world complains about it all the time, as they should.

(3) He faces outright price controls for his produce.

That said, my comments in previous posts apply to nations where fossil fuel use in agriculture is only a tiny fraction of total use: the developed world.

If a country uses fossil fuels mainly for agriculture, they could be in real trouble post peak. No argument there. Unless, they have completely unimpeded access to global markets (fat chance!), they would have to begin the wrenching transition to another form of agriculture, a transition that may well be a century distant for developed nations.

Another way of putting it would be: We have seen the end of cheap oil. But the age of cheap food continues (at least for now. But observe Mexico). And that's what's killing the marginal farmer.

It's also happening due to ethanol. In essence, we are diverting oil and other fossil fuels away from food to a substitute for oil. We are clearly making the judgement that our cars are more important than our food or those who would otherwise be importing our food.

"The bulk of the human diet for the last few thousand years consists of grains. These days wheat, corn and rice are it. They run the world. They are not optional."

An excellent point. And why grains? Cheap, easy storage of a calorific food. Economically air dry on the stalk and they are good for the winter, or for transport.

I have great hopes for organic foods, but post peak must address grains. So much of the calories of our diet is grain,whether you agree with the diet or not. Bread, cereal, pasta, noodles, junk food, “pork and beans”-all of three beans, rest corn syrup-, the barrels of soft drinks and beer. Check the products in the 3 or 4 aisles of the grocery store selling food. Primary ingredient is grain.

“Grain, the currency of currencies”

“Grain, the currency of currencies”

That sums it up wonderfully.

In a post-peak scenario, where production is falling rapidly, I expect it would become an almost sacred obligation to keep the fossil fuels flowing into grain production.

And, as a percentage of total consumption, they don't use much at all.

Grain is the foundation of civilization.

The quote is from Dan Morgan's "The Merchants of Grain". It's an older work on Cargill, Bunge, Dreyfus, and the history of grain and trading. He uses it as a chapter title, and attributes it to Lenin, if I recall correctly.

Indeed, let us compare Rome with our current society. I shall go for a zeroth order estimation of energy available per capita and what that meant to agricultural production, since it fits into the discussion.

The Roman empire had, at its height, probably some 65 million people. I quote

here... I can not guarantee that the source is any good, but the author who does not claim to be a professional scholar seems to have done a good job summerizing the data. And from what I remember about Roman history, the numbers are probably in the right ballpark. You can slap me for being too lazy to find professional sources, if you like.

The author elaborates:

"10 to 30% or 6 million to 19 million people lived in the cities, leaving the vast majority of some 46 to 59 million people to live in the country as independent and mostly tenant farmers"

Assuming that there was little farming done in the cities (they did have vegetable and herb gardens, of course), the Romans had managed to achieve a ratio of three to four famers per city-dweller, a remarkable achievement that would not be replicated for many centuries, essentially not until the the industrial revolution.

I will be conservative and assume a ratio of 4:1 between people who produce agricultural goods and consumers.

We know that besides manpower the Romans used horses, mules and oxen to pull carts, the plow etc.. So that probably multiplies the total manpower available to the agricultural part of the society by a considerable amount. Shall we say, fivefold? In other words, the effective manpower (and by that I mean raw mechanical power generation capcity) per Roman city dweller (the people most of us resemble most) was roughly 20:1.

Now, in other posts we did discuss that a single human being is not capable of producing more than 100W continuous for eight hours and probably no more than one third of that averaged over 24 hours. Effectively, this is hardly more than 20W on average over the population because children, old people and most women will fall far short of the peak power output of a well fed and thoroughly whipped slave or a farmer who ows taxes and rent and wants to keep his family happy. Also keep in mind that the Romans were kind of short people... :-)

Given all of these constraints, we can probably say that the average Roman city dweller had access to no more than 20*20W = 400W of average power generation capacity. And even that might be an overestimate, by far.

It follows that if we wanted to recreate a Roman citizen's lifestyle (which was quite good, actually), we need no more 400W per capita. That was before the invention of pesticides, high yield grain species and fertilizer, mind you. Obviously, we can do much better than they can!

So, now let me come to the cost end of the equation. If all I need is 400W for myself, how much will it cost me? Well, if I bought solar panels, it would be around 6 times $5/W or $12,000 amortized over 25 years. That is $480/year at current cost. Wind power probably comes in a little bit cheaper. Does anybody doubt that solar and wind will be cheaper by at least another factor of two or three by the time we actually ramp them up to the 400W/capita level? If not, we are now talking less than $250 per year in generation investment cost for ALL renewables.

What about driving, you will ask? Well, the Roman citizen usually either lived in the same house where he worked or could walk there. I don't remember Fiat being around at the time to produce cars.

And what about transportation? I believe our civil engineering skills are a lot better than those of the Romans and we could easily engineer a system of canals and railroads that can compete with their transportation cost. Can you imagine the increase of towing capacity for an oxen that pulls a railway car in comparison with with a Roman cart running on a road like this?

Just kidding. But I guess you know what I am getting at...

"Given all of these constraints, we can probably say that the average Roman city dweller had access to no more than 20*20W = 400W of average power generation capacity. And even that might be an overestimate, by far."

O.K. taken as given...

"So, now let me come to the cost end of the equation. If all I need is 400W for myself, how much will it cost me? Well, if I bought solar panels, it would be around 6 times $5/W or $12,000 amortized over 25 years. That is $480/year at current cost. Wind power probably comes in a little bit cheaper. Does anybody doubt that solar and wind will be cheaper by at least another factor of two or three by the time we actually ramp them up to the 400W/capita level? If not, we are now talking less than $250 per year in generation investment cost for ALL renewables."

Sorry, you loose me here; PV panels or windmills, and their associated bits and pieces (Insulated copper wire, storage batteries, solid state inverters and charge controllers, etc etc) as well as the equipment they are capable of powering (electric motors, and other electrical devices) are the products of our culture, not that of ancient rome

For instance a PV factory needs ultra-pure chemicals, in quantity to do mass PV, clean rooms, exotic solvents, energy intensive metals like aluminium in quantity, skilled engineers and workers etc etc in other words it sits close to the top of our cultures "technology pyramid" the rest of which is all supported by energy intensive activity.

I'm not saying that 400W per capita is not do-able, or that it's not "enough" for a decent life, but i think you will be doing it with Roman level technology (i.e. wind water draft animals and human sweat), and getting Roman level products from it i.e. don't be expecting a gas turbine, telephone, or PV panel

"Sorry, you loose me here; PV panels or windmills, and their associated bits and pieces (Insulated copper wire, storage batteries, solid state inverters and charge controllers, etc etc) as well as the equipment they are capable of powering (electric motors, and other electrical devices) are the products of our culture, not that of ancient rome"

Both (thinfilm) solar panels and wind tubines have EROEIs on the order of 10:1 or better. They can easily replicate themselves in terms of energy cost. That includes the raw materials, which are not nearly as expensive as you seem to think they are. And none of the elements used in the production of these things are rare, either. We will most likely be running out of catalytic converters for our cars soon but we will never run out of silicon and glass substrates for PV.

"For instance a PV factory needs ultra-pure chemicals, in quantity to do mass PV, clean rooms, exotic solvents, energy intensive metals like aluminium in quantity, skilled engineers and workers etc etc in other words it sits close to the top of our cultures "technology pyramid" the rest of which is all supported by energy intensive activity."

And yet, none of these material need anything else for their production than energy from solar cells... and the correct recipe, of course. What seperates us from the Romans is that we have the recipes.

"I'm not saying that 400W per capita is not do-able, or that it's not "enough" for a decent life, but i think you will be doing it with Roman level technology (i.e. wind water draft animals and human sweat), and getting Roman level products from it i.e. don't be expecting a gas turbine, telephone, or PV panel"

I did not say 400W were enough to support our lifestyle. That's why I pointed out that the Romans did not live far from work and that their transportation networks were based on stone covered roads which require enormous amounts of energy to transport heavy loads in comparison with paved roads and especially rails. That is why rails were invented: they save energy! Trust me, OUR efficiency to get things done beats the crapp out of anything the Romans have ever been able to do. Yet, they lived and conquered the known world. We usually just bitch.

What I am saying is that the Romans can give us proof that one can live very well for 400W. Actually, if you do my analysis right, you will probably find that they had less than 200W because I might have overestimated the horses and oxen power by far.

The point is this: one slave equals 20W of power generation capacity. That is the same as one square meter of solar panels. If you really want to be serious about comparing Roman economy with ours on an energetic level, that is what you get. 1 slave = 1 medium size solar panel. I could have the equivalent of 25 Roman slaves work for me on my own roof and another 50 could be slaving away on my employer's roof for each and every one of our employees. A 5MW wind turbine equals 250,000 slaves peak. Six of them would equal the manpower of ALL of the slaves in Rome (the city) on average.

One can only imagine what the Romans would have done with this much power! One thing is for sure: they wouldn't have bitched about how little it is.

And I hope you realize that I am not the one who makes this comparison for real. I had six years of Latin in school, that is plenty to know that Roman society worked nothing like ours on any level. But many people on TOD like to bring up the past to convince themselves that mankind is on its way out because the black gold is running out. They like to compare us with the middle ages or antiquity, not realizing how ridiculous that comparison is. What I am trying to show is how ridiculous that comparison really turns out once you dress up the naked thought with numbers.

What seperates us from the Romans is that we have the recipes.

Great line, Infinite!

Your analysis might be aggressively reductionistic but your main point is very secure, in my view.

Unless we start think quantitatively, we risk getting the order of magnitudes all wrong and getting stuck in our fantasies and nightmares.

There are enough real things to worry about without those bugaboos.

I like your reasoning, IP, but there's one hitch...

Your analysis sort of assumes that the Roman citizen's way of life and standard of living was sustainable.

It wasn't. It's been demonstrated that the fall of the empire can be explained in terms of ecological degradation and running out of cheap energy (deforestation = lack of firewood...)

Its been asserted, but in no way demonstrated.

How ironic that Cuba is showing the rest of the world about low FF farming after decades of blockade...'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. Of course Chavez is helping out for now. However when global depletion hits 75% or so Cuba's detractors might wonder if it is a better place to live.

With reference to the above comment regarding a huge transnational bulk grain trading system existing pre oil.

You're absoloutely right!

Its unlikely we'll ever go back to sail, as the worlds bulk carrier fleet could probably run from CTL fuel derived from 1 medium sized coal mine and the total environmental impact would be minor especially compared to the net benefit to society. Which would be food security.

There is also another point worth noting.

The bulk of the farming industry works on price. Not organic standards.

In the future, if it turns out that it is cheaper to use biomass derived hydrogen to produce nitrate fertiliser to permit current high yeild practice farming then I'd expect it to continue this way.
Sure it'll be slighty more expensive than NG nitrate fertiliser, but it may provide essential volumes of necessary grains, and crucially may be cheaper than organic.

Also there is another point. If oil becomes scarce the absoloute last thing we stop using it for will be food production.
This means that pretty much every other use for hydrocarbons will have had to cease before it gets to the stage that the farming industry ceases to use it.
This is based simply on the need for food, which is completely essential.

Who was it that said a nation is just two square meals away from anarchy?

So ironically the very last thing I'm worried about is the impact of oil shortages on the farming industry. I'd imagine that the entire hydrocarbon requirement for the entire US farming industry could be provided from what remains of the old West Texas Fields. And its been 30 years since that went into terminal decline.
The UK's farming industry is a fraction of the size of the US's.

Several months ago Leanan and Odogragh, if I recall correctly, debated the portion of global natural gas supply that went to fertilizer. The conclusion was somewhere between 2-4%.

As you note, this is probably the highest priority use of natural gas. It does seem almost impossible for oil/gas supply to plummet far enough to seriously impact the availability of fertilizer, at least in our lifetimes.

Yes, we can continue to feed ourselves, but that is predicated on spending a much greater proportion of income on food, because agricultural costs will go through the roof. If gas-based fertilizers cost five times more, then it is important that the farmer be able to pass on the cost by getting a better price for his production. If not, farmers will not be able to afford the fertilizer, and productivity will drop, until a paradigm shift occurs to non-fossil-based fertilizers i.e. truly sustainable agriculture.

There is an interesting historical precedent : the exhaustion of the cheap guano-based phosphate fertilisers a couple of decades ago led to radical changes in agriculture, in Australia and New Zealand at least.

True. But does anyone have any information on how much of the final cost of most agriculture comes from the cost of fertilizer? If it is a small portion, then the impact on the end price would be reduced considerably.

I doubt that it is likely that fertilizer prices could go up five times, but am just guessing. From what i have read, there are other alternatives that would be cost effective far below that level.

It also seems that there are other ways to adjust. If fertilizer prices went up 10% and beef consumption went down 20%, would that be a net plus? Maybe vegatarianism is a better objective than organic farming.

So I see this:

Yes, we can continue to feed ourselves, but that is predicated on spending a much greater proportion of income on food, because agricultural costs will go through the roof.

as possible and maybe a huge threat to our future. But haven't seen adequate documentation to help me understand the probability of it happening. As noted below, I also haven't seen a good comparative assessment of the various options for coping with it.

My guess is that "organic beef" is far worse for the planet than conventional beans and rice.

Agriculture has so many hidden costs, no direct analysis could do justice. You could start by looking at the costs for fertilizer, but it can't end there. The whole issue gets drowned in semantics when we don't even have any definitive answer to what we should be eating in the first place. Every word carries different meaning, depending upon whether you talk to a scientist, an economist, or a philosopher.

There are contentions that "Sustainable Agriculture" is an Oxymoron:

Unfortunately, most "scientific" study puts people at the center of the universe. Sure agriculture provides these huge surpluses of food ... for people. Fertilizers can be used to grow crops in sky scrapers under grow lights. However, these discussions forget that humanity isn't at the center of the universe and we can't stack people in iron towers out into space. At some point, we will depend on all those other species we crowded out and extinguished to make room for more food for humanity.

There is no perpetual motion to maintain any level of perpetual growth. We may say the growth slows, but how can we live without it? Our whole economic paradigm comes from these delusions of humanity's ascent, forgetting the cheap labor sources, required new land, and infinite energy and resources to keep the growth going. The whole cultural paradigm of "civilization" is flawed and inherently unfair to the majority of the human population.

These are the root issues and they can't be solved by humanity as the ultimate species:

Tilling - Short term fertility, requires fertilizer and crop rotation long
term. Since this is very energy intensive, this is where many
hidden costs can be found. There are many quotes pointing to
how much labor is eliminated, but there is no accounting done
tracing the factory jobs, oil refinery, mechanics, iron foundry,
ore mining, etc. There is no tractor without these other jobs,
so it isn't fair to merely count how many farmers the tractor
directly replaces. How much infrastructure is required to
support the use of tractors? Please include waste "disposal".

Fertilizers - All interfere with soil food web (creates unhealthy soil)
Nitrogen: Haber process (also used to pump the oil faster, called gas injection)
Excess nitrates wash into water supplies, cause algae blooms, and pigweed loves it
Phosphorus: What we do with twice as much radioactive waste
than we get useful phosphorus when mining? Google it.
Potassium: From dead lakes and former inland seas, or night soil and burning trees

Herbicides - Since most "weeds" are edible and nutritious to people,
I'll take this as food preference and crop rotation issues.
However, this also entails a discussion regarding ecological
succession and pioneer species.

Pesticides - Required after soil food web becomes unhealthy,
or file under Food == Population discussions (Malthus)

Continuing the use of these practices means humanity must perform the work previously done by the species he destroys by doing them in the first place. Object all you want, but that doesn't change the reality we face. Too bad this takes thousands of years to play out and so many demand "proof" of such outlandish allegations. If you need proof, try it for yourself. Since there are no "wild" places left, this is easier said than done. The proof is in the proverbial paper shredder.

How do we tell the global economy to stop growing? We don't need to. The only real questions are how many of us will there be? and how many can stay? In this context, conservation means there will be that many more people at the end of growth with the same or less that can stay. Fixing agriculture is tantamount to handing out band-aid's in a slaughter house.

Its unlikely we'll ever go back to sail

Don't count on it.

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Energy inputs to industrial agriculture are a lot more than
nitrogen fertilisers.

Energy inputs to industrial agriculture are a lot more than
nitrogen fertilisers.

That's true, but the situation is very complex and without a quantitative look at it, we are all speculating.

The Economist magazine recently did a three page section on some of the fallacies in organic and localization concepts. They claim that it uses less energy to raise a sheep in New Zealand and ship it to England than it does to raise it in England. This is based on their assertion that the energy required to raise the same animal in England is a lot more energy intensive.

The same article criticized organic farming by saying that reduced yields required more land and so led to deforestation.

It has also been noted frequently that it takes more energy to move products the last few miles than to ship around the world.

I don't know if these assertions are right or wrong. However, there are interesting.

It does seem to me that if the organic movement wants to be able to get traction, it will have to document that what it is promoting is really better for people and the world.

Again, I am not taking a position, merely noting that much of the claims made here and elsewhere seem ideogical, rather than analytical.

This link leads to letters addressing the Economist article, including one by the Soil Association citing unspecified research that it claims thoroughly discredit the land use claim I mentioned above. It alos lead to the original article, which unfortunately is not free.

Does anyone know which studies they are referencing.

More generally, has anyone else rebutted the other claims made in the article. I am far from being expert in this area and don't have a dog in the fight. I did find the Economist article compelling both in its specific claims and, more importantly, in the broader approach to evaluating different method of producing food.

There was an article on Energy Bulletin that referenced various studies that show the yield of organic methods are a lot nearer industrial agriculture than some claim

This is based on their assertion that the energy required to raise the same animal in England is a lot more energy intensive.

This is certainly true, mainly for climate reasons : in NZ, the grass grows all year round, no supplements or stabling required. That is the competitive advantage that made NZ a relatively rich nation from an agricultural base, starting with the advent of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s.

The protectionist era, starting in the 1970s, nearly destroyed that prosperity (as it contributed to destroying the prosperity of, for example, Argentina and Chile). As an efficient agricultural producer, NZ's future ought to be bright, in an era when agricultural prices can only rise... on the condition that agriculture can adapt by eliminating the fossil fuel input without mining the topsoil.

The same article criticized organic farming by saying that reduced yields required more land and so led to deforestation.

The wider debate is intensive vs. extensive agriculture. For example, where I live in France, the alternatives for dairy and beef producers are :

* keep the cows outdoors as much as possible, feed them hay in the winter, or
* keep them in stables most of the time, feed them maize (grown by the farmer)

The first alternative is the one chosen by organic farmers. The second alternative requires higher fossil inputs; creates water resource problems (maize); and requires a protein supplement, generally imported soybean waste. On the other hand, it tends to liberate marginal pasture land which reverts to forest or is planted for forestry.

So, on balance, it is possible that organic farming will tend to constrain the rate of increase of forest (forest cover is advancing strongly in France and, I suspect, in the UK), but I suspect that this is outweighed in terms of CO2 balance by the lower inputs (though I would be interested in seeing numbers on this).

Alistair and Nick,

Thank you both for good replies to my comments, which I worried looked more negative than I had intended. For the record, I do agree that diminishing oil and gas supplies will extert cost pressures on agriculture and that the environmental impacts of business as usual are not acceptable.

My perception (and as I have admitted, it is not an expert one), however, is that the direct link to a number of the solutions proffered is not as clear as some made it out to be. Neither do I think the probability or magnitude of the impacts of rising energy costs have been well documented.

I do think some of these ideas may be crucial components of our future. For that reason, I think the discussion has to move from ideological to practical. I am glad to see that is already happening.

Organic farming isn't just about economics. It's about people not wanting to eat food that is contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, altered genes that cause God-knows-what changes in the plant, a deficit of trace nutrients, etc. The yields may be lower, but the energy savings from not using industrial chemicals for fertilizer/pesticides is important to consider. If we want to conserve farm land, it would be much more effective to go vegetarian, rather than continue the use of chemical fertilizers.

The Economist magazine recently did a three page section on some of the fallacies in organic and localization concepts. They claim that it uses less energy to raise a sheep in New Zealand and ship it to England than it does to raise it in England. This is based on their assertion that the energy required to raise the same animal in England is a lot more energy intensive.

This might hold true for food (or other commodities) shipped by ships, i.e. by ocean liner, because of the low energy price of shipping by water. I'll bet if they looked at inland areas greater than say 100 mi from the coast the picture would be far different. Even rail is more energy expensive than ship.

Also, as we go down the backside of the energy-availability curve, the shipping fleet is likely to suffer from lack of maintenance and the price of shipping by water will rise because of infrastructure expenses as much as or more than because of the price of fuel.

If oil becomes scarce the absoloute last thing we stop using it for will be food production.

This assertion makes logical sense to me, but it is predicated on the assumption that society does the rational thing to maximize the benefit for as many people as possible. If we have an economic crash, then there will be many who will lose ther livelihood. Without goverment intervention, we might have a reversion to feudalism where "he who has the gold, makes the rules." In this case, the resources will be spent in whatever manner those who have the economic might wish them to be spent.

Sorry for the distopian thought. I'm reading Kunstler.

The "we" in this quote implies either a unified planetary response or disregard for the wider world. In reality, at least initially, the oil will go to the highest bidder and the rich will have transport, food and other petroleum products and the poor will have none of these things. If the poor have been persuaded to abandon traditional low energy agricultural systems in favour of one tied to oil products and foreign seed and agrochemical interests they will starve.

Yeah, tell that to the military.

The other comment I'd make ties in generally - that if prices go up, something has to give. At least the typical 'merikan is more than he is saving already. Food prices in US are very cheap, only a quarter of what they were maybe 30 years ago. More expensive food will displace other items. Healthy food vs toxic food will have a long term payoff for public health, but that too will appear as a negative (less sick people, less disease care, less GDP).

Last night I was at a talk by Dr Humberto Ros Labrada, a Cuban plant breeder and agricultural expert who has been an important figure in helping Cuba move to a sustainable organic system after Cuba lost 2/3 of its oil, fertilizer and chemical supplies 15 years ago when the USSR crumbled.
It was a very interesting talk; especially in how farmers now evolve their own seed stock and share this at seed fairs. This has created a system that is bountiful and resilient. Cuba now produces as much food as it did before the crash, but using only 1/4 of the agrochemicals it did before.

He will be speaking tonight at the Soil Association, I highly recommend it.

Cuba also has a GDP of $3,500 per capita. It gets $2 billion per year from tourism and $500-800 million from remittances. Cut these external sources of income out and Cuba is dead.

If you want to see a "socialist paradise" that really works, go to Singapore. They have achieved everything economically that socialism ever dreamed of and more. Of course, they have done it by running the place as a closely held family business that operates very similar to Switzerland. Singapore has a GDP per capita of $28000, Malaysia is closer to $12000. The reason is probably mostly that there is way more money in technology and manifacturing than there is in agriculture.

Reality is that farming is simply a necessary by-product of industrial society these days. People have to eat, so they devote a smal portion of their income to buying food. That is where the world is headed in general. Nobody, and I mean literally, nobody who has a choice to be either a subsistence farmer or someone with a steady day job and multiple times the income will chose the subsistence lifestyle. Even Cubans don't. That is why we need all those patrol boats around Florida to keep them from entering the US. That is why we need that fence between us and Mexico.

Wow, does this bring back memories! :-)

Back in the days of the 1970's energy crisis, one of the most prolific and influentual promoters of organic gardening in the U.S. was Rodale Press. They even published the magazine by that name.

At the very height of the 1970's energy crisis, in 1978, Rodale's editors felt that a crucial moment was at hand, and they, being the "bully pulpit" of the Organic Gardening cause, should be the ones to act, and let the public know the catastrophic situation we were all facing.

Rodale Press launched a public relations campaign called the "Cornucopia Project". It is important to remember that their use of the word "Cornucopia" is in no way related to what are now called "Cornucopians", but instead, was speaking of a possible Cornucopia in the face of crisis. This organic sustainable Cornucopia would be provided by localized, widespread organic growing, and much more local consumption of the goods produced.

Rodale launched a promotional campaign, complete with editors and writers from Organic Gardening Magazine, and would send anyone interested free promotional material explaining the crisis at hand. I still have much of free material from this cause, plus my dusty vintage copy of "The Handbook Of Organic Gardening", "The Solar Greenhouse Book", and a copy of "Square Foot Gardening". These are some of the great educational resources you can find to this day on low impact, low consumption gardening. The printed material from Rodale was very involved, explaining agricultures dependence on long range transportation, refridgeration, packaging, and discussion of the energy cost of the way food is merchendised and retailed, and the impact of fertilizer and pest control chemicals on America's natural gas supply, water table, and public health. It was a very involved campaign, and showed the beginnings of victory, as schoolkids were raising the food for their lunches in greenhouse, learning and getting healthy food at the same time, square foot gardens and greenhouses were built at senior centers, providing activitiy and a sense of meaningful work and challenge to older people, and many other socially and environmentally advanced projects. The momentum was with this cause.

Then, it all ended in 1982. The stunning rise in oil prices that had set it all in motion reversed, and the fall in price was even more spectacular. I myself found it cheaper to buy canned peas and greenbeans by far than to try to grow them. Many who had taken up the environmental farming methods gradually moved more and more to the "hobby gardener" demographic, making for a retailing dream, as everything from speciality "upmarket" gardening tools and sheds to SUV's, "Troy Built" tillers and small status tractors with speciality implements were sold to the newly prosperous "hobby gardener". These were boom times, and the "gardens" once so frugal started to become more like small estates. Such it is to this day, as one can see in such fawning magazines as "Architectural Digest" or "Country Living". The day of the doom predicting "Cornucopia Project" of the 1970's faded away, for a new stylish rural living (complete with the long commutes now so hated by the fossil fuel and auto detesting types)

It is important to remember that, despite those who will now deny that anyone believed such a thing then, many, many people in the late 1970's were very certain that Peak was here then, that oil would only get more expensive, and that a catastrophic change was at hand. Ask some of the folks who recall those dark days.

By the 1980's, organic food was becoming "chic" again, and status foods were often organic, albeit expensive and hard to find in many markets. That is what made them upmarket. But the deeply "environmental" issues had somewhat lost it's appeal to the upmarket customer. When Al Gore wrote his book "Earth In The Balance" he considered one of the most important chapters in the book, and one of the great important issues of environmentalism to be "genetic diversity" of the seed and plant stock of the world. His concern was, (and one presumes, still is) that high tech post industrial era agriculture was being pushed by the giant agri-business firms to a "mono-source system", in which a very small number of genetically modified plants would be allowed. He and others have pointed out the European Union and the American Department of Agriculture's hand in this, as they assist agri business in narrowing the type of seeds allowed, and allowing them to patent life forms so as to be able to bring legal action against those with "pirate seed" which may have at one time been kin to the seed they are selling.

THIS IS A VERY DANGEROUS TREND. It will potentially take global warming at least the better part of a century to really begin to do the full magnitude of it's damage, and peak oil will mean that oil and gas will still be around for many more decades, albeit in more limited supply if the projections are correct.


But, right now, it is predictions of my Land Rover going dry on petrol that gets the media attention (although even if you accept Colin Campbell's dire projections, that won't happen for quite some time), and not boring discussion of "seed saving". Al Gore fount that out too. One of the most crucial issues in his book, the preservation of genetic diverstity in seed was all but ignored, while his remarks about a "carbon tax" and the future of the internal combustion engine grabbed the headlines.

Allow me to close by reminding all, as Al Gore did, that once a strain of seed which took nature MILLIONS of years to produce is allowed to die, to go extinct, it can NEVER be brought back. It would be far more possible to spin high grade petrol from straw with a spinning wheel than to ever duplicate a rare heirloom type of tomato or potato or onion once it is extinct forever. We have a very short time window (much shorter than global warming or the end of the fossil fuel age) to get in front of this crisis. Genetic diversity of plants is a truly crucial issue, at the VERY HEART OF THE SOIL ASSOCIATION'S CLAIMED TURF AND AT THE CORE OF IT'S KNOWLEDGE. For the moment, they can leave the oil to BP or Exxon, and deal with this critical issue first. I say this not to denigrate what they are doing, nor to deny they they have spoken on this issue in the past, but those of us who know the danger that seeds and crop plants face now, NEED THE HELP OFTHE SOIL ASSOCIATION.

I love the modern age, the motorcar, and the freedom it brings. Unlike many here at TOD or TOD Europe, I have never denied this. But I tell you now, that if the choice were to become between defending the motor car or defending the vast and beautiful variety of plants, vegetables, heirloom plants and seeds, I would have to teach myself to walk distances, because my heart would be taken by the variety and magnificant contribution of the crops/plants in the world, and all they have brought to civilization for many more centuries than oil or autos have been a part of the human beings everyday life.

Thank you. Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom.
Roger Conner Jr

Yes Roger, opposition to the seed monopolies (Monsanto and Co.) is at the top of the agenda of the organic movement in general. This probably doesn't get a very high public profile, because it has been in large part subsumed by the opposition to genetically-modified organisms. This opposition is obviously a turn-off to most "techno-fix" oriented people.

What has happened over the last decade or so, is that the big agribusiness companies have been developing and patenting genetically-modified seeds. The actual (and often highly debatable) objective improvements brought by GMOs pale into insignificance, from the companies' point of view, compared to the commercial advantage of capturing a market : you sell an entire cropping system, with its associated pesticides and herbicides, and you oblige the farmer to buy his seed from you every year (Monsanto in particular has been very aggressive in prosecuting farmers who have saved corn from a harvest of a patented seed and re-planted it the following year).

Thus, in practice, GMOs give the big companies the tools to build monopolies, which has the obvious corollary of wiping out the "competition" (open-source seeds).

Although the philosophical and technical dangers of GMOs are also, in my view, compelling reasons for severely restricting their use, the destruction of biological diversity that their widespread application brings is my main reason for opposing their deployment.

Have no fear, Roger, the Soil Association are onto this... It is my hope that, as they gain greater public prominence and mindshare (as being among the people who were "right all along" in terms of climate and peak resources), they will be better able to push for change in this respect.

The results of seed monopolies and the part they have played in the 150,000 suicides by Indian farmers was a major topic of Dr Vandana Shiva's impressive and moving address to the conference. She was prominent in the fight to stop GATT enforcing compliance of the developing world with the genetic colonialism being attempted by the likes of Monsanto.

Just a note that Rodale is still at the forefront of developing sustainable, commercially-oriented agriculture methods. They have conducted long term trials at the Rodale Research Institute for many, many years. One thing of importance is that the tests/trials are carried out using accepted research methods. It's not a bunch of hippies running around saying, "Wow, the corn looks better this year."

One of their big projects has been to develop an organic non-till system. Further information can be found at:

The Sustainable Agriculture Reasearch and Education Project (SARE) is also doing significant work. and


Todd speaks of organic non-till.

I read Ruth Stouts book on organic gardening way way way back.

Here method used large quantities of mulch. The mulch was rotted hay, kitchen refuse, anything but meat products, however bone meal and welll all the rest.

She maintained that the soil stayed moist and friable enough to not require tillage. She just lifted up some of the mulch and planted right in the soil

I used to square bale hay on 50 acres. The tree line bales were usually green and would rot easily so the buyers left them. Also if the cut hay was rained on enough then they became unusable.

My garden has a slight, very slight downhill slope which keeps it from getting soggy yet not enough to erode so I started placing the worthless bales along that boundary, the I started placing them all around the boundaries. To suppress grass which would invade for one thing. But as these bales deteriorated the soil grew enormously rich and friable. Earthworms were everywhere and abundant.

I quit baling hay later on and my gardens never again came back to the state they were in at that time(5 yrs of so in length). All the locked up nutrients from the hay fields were effectively transferred to the garden. That garden produced in unbelievable quantities. I later would just take flakes of the bales and lay all around my tomatoes.

Only problem I had was slugs.

Ruths methods were sound. Mulch is the way to go. A dust mulch is almost worthless except for keeping weeds and grass out of your garden. Otherwise you just turn it into the consistency of face powder.

If you increase the soil fertility via organic matter the results are just tremendous.

Another story. A local judge was telling me that he was in an adjoining state and happened upon a fella that lived alone. The older fella had a very productive and thriving garden. He asked him his secret. The guy showed him a chopping block and hatchet. Nearby were many different piles of what looked like chopped up branches and sticks. The guy started clearing the land around his house and dragging all the brush and cuttings to his garden. Sat down a slowly chopped the wood to small pieces, put them in a new pile and so on. All around his house and garden there no growth or bushes nearby. He kept going further out then as new growth came back he returned to the closer in areas.

His older piles turned into compost and he kept spreading it on his garden. He was able to feed hisself quite easily and sell some besides. He worked only at chopping brush and tending his garden.

A chip cutter/leaf shredder would be the tool used now. But this guy did it his way and was happy. A true story. The judge thought the oldster was mostly German. The judge is retired now and raises a huge orchard. Lots of us buy our fruit from him.


We used to do similiar with straw bales 2 high next to snofence for a garden windbreak. Over the seasons, that soil became very rich, but it harbored an unbelievable mass of tillered quack and other grasse roots. A labor intensive trade.

Only problem I had was slugs.

Bill Mollison has been known to say something to the tune of, "What you have here isn't a slug problem. What you have here is a duck deficiency."

Mulch is just the beginning. Looking for nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators help further. Add to this insects and animals with behaviors similar to the work you perform (picking slugs) and you go even further. There is a whole universe down this path of logic. What you get are so called "primitive" tribal practices that appear to the outsider as if you are a "forager" or something. It looks like a brutish life, but that is just myth bent on justifying civilization.

Well, I am a mere gadget-maker, but I have a wife who gardens year after year and produces way way more than we need to eat, and uses NO fossil fuel and NO store-bought fertilizer, and uses wood chips and hay and such stuff she drags in from here and there to make good soil for the garden, and she uses me and a lot of birds and other critters to get the bugs off- and is willing to pay maybe 20% of the crop to the bugs we can't get off.

Sure she works real hard at it- and she is the same weight she was in high school, and much better off otherwise than her many more "normal" friends.

I keep trying to sell her this great stirling engine that runs on weeds and would drive a weed digger-upper, but she prefers her goat that does the same- and reproduces itself and is good to eat when worn out, unlike stirling engines.

Your wife is to be treasured. Really. Not many wish to engage.

Using goats...yeah they are great for taking out brush.

But if you want your garden spot to really thrive? Turn some hogs on it..they will eat the noxious weed roots(root them up) , dump lots of good manure on the ground and till it up for you at the same time.Plus hogs are good garbage disposals. We fed them slop. Slop was a bucket you kept under the sink and threw all your leftovers and scraps into.

Of course you ate the hog and I mean all of it. We didn't have ballons on the farm but a hog bladder did quite nicely. You could make some pretty decent discourteous sounds with a hog bladder. Or blow them up and beat each other on the head.

Also if you feed cattle or horses over the winter? Feed them in your garden spot.

There are lots of ways my grandparents and kin used to garden and grow food. Things we have lost almost forever but you get out and really tend to your garden and it works itself out and you relearn in a short period of time.

Yep, did all that. But, truth to tell, when my father gave me the choice "Ya gotta choose mud, blood or grease" I took grease in a flash (fixing hardware), since I knew mud (plowing, etc) and blood (animals) were damn hard, hot work. Somehow my wife still thinks it's fun. But she still gives me the job of executioner.

I used to enjoy watching hogs as they tore into that slop-so like so many of my buddies- squeal, shove, trample, slide, gobble, grunt, cuss, slobber----.

Another thing that aint politically correct but still true. You can very easily employ real morons in farm work to everybody's benefit, since there are lots of really simple jobs that need doing. Maybe that's how come half of us are below normal in smarthood--there's that need.

It's late so I guess I can go a bit OT -please don't MOOOO me.

I've been messing around with high carbon/Terra Preta soils for a could of years coupled with Ruth Stout's mulch and I'm going to do a presentation at either a meeting at the local sustainable committee's next meeting or do a farm day at my place. Now, as a joke, I'm calling my growing method, hurumph, Todd's Solid Gold Growing Method. I mean, we've got biodynamics and permaculture so why not mine?

Anyway, here it is in a nutshell. I used to cover crop. That was a pain plus I'm old and tired of dealing with it. So, I mulch with alfafa hay after planting, pull the plants after they're done, and turn the mulch under, remulch with more alfalfa, add charcoal from our wood heater and from brush piles I burn (people in the bokndocks are always burning brush piles) all winter, turn it under in spring, till and start all over again.

Stuff has looked great! The best we've ever seen it. I'd love to do replicated plots and soil tests but unless someone here wants to give me the money, it ain't going to happen.


"Look for nitrogen fixers..."

perhaps a bit specific for this topic, but do you know anything about N-fixers such a Elaeagnus? And specifically, if you incorporated one into your system as an N-fixer, how do you get the N away from it and into the rest of the system?


You will get specific details on one of the Permaculture lists.

Russian Olive is a popular choice.

Roger is making his genetic diversity arguement in regard to plants we see, grow, and utilize. Exactly the same arguement may be applied to farm biota that we cannot see and do not directly grow although these same organisims are critical to soil health and fertility. Application of FF based soil amendments have reduced soils to the point they are judged to be "lifeless."

Thank you Chris! A lot to read and listen.

Like Bakhtiari told the Australian Congress, food will become a major problem in the next years. Who would expect such jump in grain prices already last Fall? Here at TOD we must keep our eyes and ears wide open to this subject.

the worlds bulk carrier fleet could probably run from CTL fuel derived from 1 medium sized coal mine

Surely it would be a hell of a lot more energy-efficient to just run them on coal?

Probably not.

Internal combustion engines are much more efficient than external combustion engines. Even with the inefficiencies of CTL, I'd still expect diesel power to break even with coal/steam.

Also don’t forget that shipping was one of the major early adopters of oil fuel, not for cost advantages, but for ease of handling (no more stokers) and for safety (no more coal dust explosions). Plus the distribution systems for shipping fuel will wish to preserve status quo.

On top of all that there is the fact that coal is a very dirty fuel when burnt directly. Individual ships are not going to want to have to deal with in exhaust desulphurisation, ash handling, particulate filtering and boiler maintenance. Far easier to pay a central facility to do all this for you and just use your nice clean synfuel in a high efficiency highly automated marine diesel engine.

Great article, Chris.

Just noticed that Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture has also been posting on the conference.

Across the globe, at about the same time as the Soil Association met, the Eco-Farm Conference in Asilomar Conference also chose peak oil as a theme, with Heinberg as keynote speaker. Eco-Farm has been going for many years, as a gathering for organic farmers.

I have seen very little coverage of the conference. A friend who went said:

The receptivity to Heinberg was good. I think that crowd “gets it.” I heard many comments about how we need to increase the number of farmers. (Heinberg stated that we need 50 million new farmers. Wow!)

I’m finding it hard to summarize the conference. Everybody is so friendly, yet I think there was also a general somber mood—the Zeitgeist of our situation as a species. However, it is always hard to gauge how much of this is me and how much if it is out there.

Energy Bulletin

Heinberg wants 50 million new farmers? The only solution is to open the borders to Mexico. Every farmer in the US can tell you that hiring an American who did not grow up on the farm will result in someone leaving the job after one day and a quarter ton of squashed veggies that have to be thrown on the compost.


You know what is really funny? I did not even have to make that up. That is exactly what California's farmers say about those unemployment projects that try to offer jobs on the farm. But invariable, the next day the farmer brings "Jose" back because "Jose" is a hard worker, knows how to pick veggies and fruit and does not complain that his back hurst even when his back hurst like hell. In other words: our Mexican friends, legal and illegal, know how to work the farm. Americans at best know hot to work the social security system. So I say: give those jobs to Mexican immigrants. They are good at it and they want it! Nobody else does.

50 million new farmers? Talk about pipe-dreams... but maybe Heinberg was thinking about farming "weed" rather than edibles?

I think we are now at the start of a long conflict over food and energy; early examples being the Mexican tortilla protest, smoke haze in SE Asian cities due to clearing for oil palm and the US exurbs taking up diminishing farmland. Sustainable or not, organic farming is low yield being too labour and water intensive. It has other problems such as excessive use of copper as a fungicide. Therefore I think we have no option but to use GMOs and input 'stretching' techniques. By that I mean small amounts of off-farm inputs combined with on-farm inputs; in the case of nitrogen that might be a tad of synthetic urea mixed with compost but in no way using energy intensive anhydrous ammonia. What I fear is that farm subsidies will stall the timing of change until a crisis.

BTW if you think you can produce even 50% of your calories in your backyard get ready to starve. Farming is a specialised business.

I'm sorry to say this Boof, but your remarks seem remarkably ignorant:

"Sustainable or not, organic farming is low yield being too labour and water intensive."
* Obviously, any form of agriculture, organic or not, becomes more labour intensive if you have to lower the energy inputs. This is a red herring. As for being more water intensive, I have no idea what you are talking about, would you care to explain?

"other problems such as excessive use of copper as a fungicide."
* Copper build-up in the soil can be a problem for newbies, but there are solutions, and it is addressed in all organic certification processes. i.e. if excessive copper is used, then it can't be certified organic.

"if you think you can produce even 50% of your calories in your backyard get ready to starve."
* In a temperate climate, potatoes and cabbage are easy to grow, and provide perfectly adequate subsistence food. Nobody ever died from lack of hamburgers (i.e. wheat and beef are not obligatory). But I'm puzzled as to who or what this remark is addressed at, since the discussion is about how agriculture, i.e. farming by professionals, is going to adapt to post-peak conditions.

Ah I seem to remember you're Australian, yes?
That might explain a couple of things... yes, if you're in the outback with no water resources, then subsistence agriculture is hard yakka alright...

One's world view often depends on where you're sitting. A friend is in favour of global warming, it will reduce problems with black ice and salt trucks. I tell him to explain this to the people of Bangladesh.

Alistair you seem to be agreeing with most of my points, but I'll elaborate with examples:

1) no till planting for soil moisture retention requires pre-emergent herbicides in low rainfall areas (the world's major wheatbelts). White vinegar doesn't do as good a job at this as Roundup.

2) broadacre farming is best done by machinery powered by diesel fuel from oil. Harvesting by scythe won't be making a comeback.

3) people could indeed live on potatoes and cabbage but they don't want to.

Does anybody else think organic farming with no fossil fuel inputs will feed 6.5 billion people?

people could indeed live on potatoes and cabbage but they don't want to.

Glad you backed off on that one... "they don't want to" is a far cry from "prepare to starve".

broadacre farming is best done by machinery powered by diesel fuel from oil

sure, but that's got nothing to do with organic vs. non-organic... which is why it's a red herring.

no till planting
The literature indicates, contrary to your implication, that that organic wheat beats no-till planting : (Montana State University)
Over three years, organic winter wheat averaged 95% of the winter wheat yields from the conventional no-till winter crop rotation and 119% of the winter wheat yield in the highly diversified no-till rotation. In dry 2002, the organic winter wheat yielded 57 bushels per acre compared with 46 for the conventional no-till winter wheat and 40 bushels for the highly diversified no-till rotation.

""if you think you can produce even 50% of your calories in your backyard get ready to starve."
* In a temperate climate, potatoes and cabbage are easy to grow, and provide perfectly adequate subsistence food."

How big is your back yard? A quarter acre per person in your family? So if you are a family of four, do you own two acres of fertile land in the city?

What do you do if there is a hail storm that destroys half your crop? Where do you get the water from for your plants if the summer happens to be very dry and hot? The tap? Are you going to water your plants at the cost of tap water and expect to make a profit???? Or do you install giant rain water collectors? Since you own 2 acres of land, you also must have another acre of roof area....

Just wondering... it always strikes me as amazing how little people can judge the effort that goes into even a small vegetable garden, let alone how hard it is to support yourself without using a tractor. Or how weather dependent a single farmer and even whole regions are. We just had frost destroying half of the CA fruits. I am sure the orange farmers in Florida loved to hear the news...

Industrial methods were invented for agricultural production because the populations of Europe and the Americas were starving. They were invented because millions died in the 19th century. The business part was not important back then. It was all about survival.

You might want to read up a little bit on the history of agriculture and what drove the chemists and biologists to make the improvements some of our eco-freaks despise so much. It was the one thing you have never experienced: hunger and desperation.

IP :

Firstly, I'd just like to point out that neither I, nor anyone in this thread, has suggested that it would be a good idea, or even necessary, for individuals or families to grow their own food for subsistence. That was actually a strawman originated by Boof, in the first post of this thread. It was foolish of me to respond to it.

Having said that, I must qualify my remarks about subsistence. One's world view does indeed depend on where you're sitting. I'm sitting in an old farmhouse, and most of the neighbouring families have been around here since Julius Caesar passed through... they have basically emerged out of subsistence agriculture in the last fifty years. I am confident that, if I really really had to, I could grow enough food to support my family, with a little help from my friends, and pretty elementary technology. But it's true that I've got four acres. There is no way to do that with urban population densities.

By the way... The chemists and biologists were not hungry, desperate peasants... they were bourgeois or nobles of the Enlightenment. It was the intellectual and economic climate which led to those useful inventions. If it were hunger and desperation, they would have been invented ages ago. They say necessity is the mother of invention. But often she is sterile.

Hi, I heard an interview last Friday on the radio with someone who was described as the leader of the Soil Association. I was listening on longwave and the static kept interfering with reception, but I know I wasn't dreaming when I heard him begin talking about the arrival of Peak Oil and that we were facing a probable plunge of 75% in oil production by 2020, and this would have dire consequences for agriculture in the UK and elswhere! So it was high time we began moving away from oil based agriculture and towards more sustainable methods.

I rushed out of the kitchen and told my wife about what I just heard. I was shocked. Shocked first by his tone of almost religious certainty that what he was saying made sense, and shocked by the journaist who let him get away with such alarmist statements, and who didn't press him to come up with sources and evidence for his wild claims.

I don't think there is evidence that we've peaked or that we're heading for a truly momentous decline in oil production. The timesecale is too short and the downside curve way too steep in my humble opinion.

Forget agriculture for a moment. If this guy from the Soil Association is correct and his views are based on solid information other people just don't have access to, then we're facing the end of civilization. We cannot adjust to oil supplies falling by anywhere near 75% in only fifteen years! Society as we know it would just fall apart.

Then another guy popped up. This time a young professor of economics who started to blather about how much we could learn from Cuba about how to cope with the trials of the post fossil fuel world! He seemed so sanguine about the prospect. He went on about urban argiculture and how Cuba had coped after oil supplies from Russia had fallen away. But Cuba is a special case in so many ways, and whilst it is interesting to see how they survived a dramatic drop in their oil consumption, I don't think Cuba is a model for how we will deal with Peak Oil. Such an idea is romantic rubbish. Do we really think the United States is going to model itself on Cuba in it's response to Peak Oil?

Now, I really think both of these guys are basically nuts! What kind of an organisation is the Soil Association that let's people with such patently alarmist and clearly unsubstantiated views speak to the press? What do such absurd comments do for the credibility of the Soil Association, or for that matter the whole Peak Oil debate? Are we really supposed to take such people seriously, when they make statements that have such little foundation in the real world?

Writer, there's a problem with quoting something you heard on the radio. There's no way for us to know if you heard correctly, are reporting correctly, or understood the context.

If he indeed talked about "a probable plunge of 75% in oil production by 2020", then it seems likely to me that he was talking about ... UK oil production. What do you think?

For the UK to see a 75% downturn in its domestic output by 2020 means that for the next 13 years we need a consistent 10% year on year decline in output.

I don’t think that the UK’s average decline is running at anywhere near that, and I certainly don’t think that it would average that over the next 13 years.

I’d have to go and check Euan (Mearns) excellent analysis of the situation and I don’t have time just now. I don’t even think he was forecasting such a crashtastic scenario.

My bet is that we’ll be between 50 and 60% of todays (this months average) production in 2020.

I’m assuming that we can hold our economy together to be able to outbid every other poor sod for oil in 2020, so imports/conservation will make up the difference.

The UK has quite a strong case for this. At $50 barrel petrol costs about 23.9p/litre before tax. At $200 barrel, petrol would cost about 95.6p/litre which is about £1.69/litre after tax. This is only twice the current pump price (85p/litre) and a great many people could easily double their fuel economy. Plus I think most folk might moan a lot, but it wouldn’t be the end of life as we know it. I’d wager that $200 barrel oil wouldn’t kill the UK economy. I’d just be uncomfortable.

However in the States, $200 barrel oil would quadruple the pump price and really force a lot of conservation. Thus freeing us loads for the rest of us.

For the UK to see a 75% downturn in its domestic output by 2020 means that for the next 13 years we need a consistent 10% year on year decline in output.I don’t think that the UK’s average decline is running at anywhere near that,

Here is the latest DTI graph. UK oil production in August 2006 halve what it was in January 2003

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Andy - the UK actual decline rate has been running at an average of 7.6% per annum since 1999. The underlying decline rate (that which would occur without new field developments) is running at 13%. However, we do have a cupboard full of small fields waiting to be developed, so my best guess is that we will continue at 7 to 8% average decline for the next 5 years or so.

Hello Euan,

the UK actual decline rate has been running at an average of 7.6% per annum since 1999.

It's a fair bit worse than that recently
Taking quarterly UK crude oil only production figures from DTI statistics DUKES et10-3

Quarter Fall from year before
2003 Q2 13.5%
2003 Q3 5.6%
2003 Q4 12.4%
2004 Q1 11.7%;
2004 Q2 6.2%
2004 Q3 12.0%
2004 Q4 12.2%
2005 Q1 11.9%
2005 Q2 10.1
2005 Q3 13.3%
2005 Q4 12.1%
2006 Q1 7.4%
2006 Q2 13.4%
2006 Q3 10.4%

It looks slightly better if you include natural gas liquids but not much.

Dear Alister,

It's right to be sceptical. I was listening on longwave and cooking at the same time, but I did hear what I heard. He sounded so definite and sure of himself and his numbers - which surprised me, as I don't recal reading anything on TOD where anyone is so specific about decline rates and dates. What he said is very controversial and needs some kind of review.

I know what I heard. Though of course I could have heard incorrectly, but I don't think I did. I know that I am reporting correctly what I recal hearing. I'm not sure what the context really was though. I didn't get the impression he was just talking about the UK, rather the world, which is why I became so animated and rushed out to my wife to tell her the bad news, that the world as we know it is coming to an end!

He could well be right. If Simmons' theory that Saudi Arabia has perhaps damanged its major fields, and has been producing too much oil, too quickly, for too long; and is about to go into a deep and profound decline, then we're in trouble. Unfortunately we know far too little about Saudi Arabia to be sure. Even the recent and apparent sharp drop in Mexican oil production is complicated and difficult to fathom.

I wish things were clearer and more transparent. It seems we're basing the future of our civilization on pretty flimsy data. But this would appear to be par for the course in relation to oil extraction and reserve data. It's our lack of knowledge about something so important that concerns me profoundly. Luckily there are places like TOD where are doing their best to bring some light into the darkness.

Your problem has nothing to do with what you heard. It has anything to do with YOUR inability to process that information, run background and consistency checks and to get a solid idea of what is really going on. You are obviously unaware of how many people have been working on these problems for decades, how many people are working on solutions right now. Or did you really think the guys who make solar cells, wind generators and, yes, do fusion research do it because they are bored?

Your rant was nothing but a pretty weird mix of bad information, the-end-is-near folklore and childish conspiracy theories shooting at anything that moves.

Get a grip AND get an education about energy, economics and ecology.

"I wish things were clearer and more transparent."

Aren't they? The glass is half empty and we are sucking on it with six straws at the same time. How hard is that to understand?

"It's our lack of knowledge..."

Nope. It is only YOUR lack of knowledge. Other people understand these problems perfectly well.

but I know I wasn't dreaming when I heard him begin talking about the arrival of Peak Oil and that we were facing a probable plunge of 75% in oil production by 2020...

This is what he said on the Thursday night:

And if this scenario of progressive decent of fossil fuel energy which could halve it or maybe even reduce it to a quarter or less than that by the late 2020s happens...

There's a world of difference between "a probable plunge of 75% in oil production by 2020" you mentioned and "if", "could", "halve or maybe even" and "late 2020s" he said on Thursday.

Half by 2030 is a reasonably modest decline from an imminent peak.

Dear Chris, Thanks for helping to clear things up in relation to the Soil Association's spokesman, and what he said at the conference as opposed to what I heard him say on the radio. I'm not sure that I give his statements any more creedence though. Where does he get his dire numbers from exactly?

In relation to fossil fuels you qoute him as saying "Halve it or maybe even reduce it to a quarter or less than that by the late 2020s..."

I don't think that qualifies as a modest decline from an imminent peak. I think it sounds awful and like doomsday. A reduction in fossil fuels by a half, or quarter, or less in only thirteen years! That's a pretty bold statement and what is it based on exactly? To be fair he did qualify his statement with "if" and "could". But it's still pretty darned dramatic as far as I'm concerned. I didn't get the impression when I heard him on the radio that he was refering to UK oil supplies alone, but world old supplies in general, but he wasn't specific about this "detail" which I also find a bit disturbing.

I'm not sure there really is a world of diffence between what you heard him say and what I heard him say. Was he refering to the UK or the world?

In a way, given the seriousness and scale of the problem, and the enormous consequences for society, a few % here and a few years one way or another, really don't make that much difference do they? We appear to be up shit creek without a paddle, if the peak is now and the downside decline is going to be that steep.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not against the Soil Association. I think they do a great job in many respects. I don't really think he's nuts, just rather irresponsible. On the other hand, if he's only half way correct, he's been very responsible by warning us in time. Or is it really "in time" if these numbers are correct? I'm not sure about that either. I do wish I knew where his numbers come from though.

If you know what time you were listening to the radio at, you should still be able to find the programme on the internet. BBC radio remains available for one week after transmission.

How about getting some real knowledge first before judging what PO is about?

All the data is available for free on TOD. If you like, you can do all the analysis people do here yourself. There is not one law which would prevent you from taking a look a the basic data and doing the calculations. Contrary to popular belief you don't have to have a PhD to get a piece of paper and a pencil and fit a function to a table full of prodcution data. If you have a computer (which you do) and OpenOffice (which is free), you can use the spreadsheet program to replicate most of what has been done on this site.

Moreover, your library will be glad to order a bunch of textbooks on oil drilling technology and the geological facts of oil deposits for you. Everything you need to know about what people do out in the field is documented in textbooks and engineering publications. The only access limits are set by your local library. The FBI will not come after you if you get yourself those books and you start reading.

Alternatively, you can simply trust what the practitioners on this site have to say. That is what I do and I have to say that they have not dissapointed my trust, yet. But then, trusting is not for everyone. And if you don't trust, you have to do the hard work yourself.

Just a suggestion... maybe it will help you to get a grip and conquer your fears?

The speaker was Colin Campbell. He released his new Outlook a couple of days ago and he is forecasting 2020 Supply of 75-mbd.

Of course my fav line, that i mentioned last friday on tod was Heinberg's hopes for 333,333 new UK farmers each every year for the next thirty years. idiot.

I haven't read the papers but just the subjects as posted in the leadin and conjecture here.

This is my opinion.

If we are talking about sustainable ag here in the US then I am not sure their proposals would work. They may work in Europe and the other countries but in the US we have this immense huge interlocking infrastructure. Dedicated to delivering all that is needed as it is needed and then distributing the resulting products in a very highly integrated manner.

If some of the linch pins falter then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

We used to simply milk the cows in a bucket, strain it and drink it shortly thereafter. Save the cream and make butter. Barter the butter once a week. Even that one simplistic picture was fraught with complexities even though it was primitive compared to now.

Now there are a myriad of infrastructure entities that must all operate together harmoniously to get a plastic gallon jug of milk to the place where it can be purchased by people driving to obtain it. Take away too much on one piece of the jigsaw and it all falters.

I purchased 15 lbs. of grits from a mill 3 weeks ago in N. Carolina. It was waterground and the best and cheapest I have ever consumed. But even though primitive it relied on many many factors which had to come into play. Imagine the complexity to buy a box of Quaker Oats Grits in the supermarket. All the way from the seed manufactures to the supermarket shelve. I could walk and carry a gunny sack of corn to an old timey grist mill and walk back with enough to last thru the winter. A very different paradigm then as now.

I submit that unless all the current entities stay in place after the coming energy crisis develops that the sheer distribution, raising, growing and so forth will not work. Its just too far gone beyond reason. It has grown that way and cannot be easily altered.

How would the suburban household with almost no fuel or extremely expensive fuel be able to cruise around buying this here and that there and hauling it all back to their suburban beehive?

If you just seriously think about the enormous infrastructure to bring food or anything else to the point of sell then you realize that just like talking about organic gardening or ag will work?

It will once all the missing pieces are overcome in some unknown manner so that people can obtain the necesseties of life. I dont' see that happening. Who is going to put all this together under a crisis?

The goverment will be useless. Unless the money comes into the treasury they can't operate. With an economy reduced to pre-war (WWII) style there will not be those billions of dollars there. It will more likely be a barter economy and that means ZERO income taxes collected.

All this huge structure is a house of cards. It will surely tumble down raining havoc on all enterprises and government and especially upon the common people. The rich folks? Worthless pieces of paper they will hold in their hands. They will be just as poor as the rest.

The center cannot hold.

I see it no other way. This internet is stuck together with spit and baling wire. Without constant neverending tweaking and housekeeping it will go down rather rapidly. All the rest ditto including the grid.

Yet we will be back to digging in the ground. It will have to be orgainic or it will not work.

We had no chemical fertilizer on the farm I grew up on. Wasnt' invented yet. We used animal manure. We fallowed some ground. We hunted. We worked hard in the garden or else we didn't have food in the winter. I lived it and it worked. It can be done again but NOT by those who inhabit the world today. Not one suburbanite is able to do this I would wager. They wouldn't last. They wouldn't want to .

There are still those about who remember the 70's and saw how it would work. There are no visionaries amoungst our populace now days in the USA. There is just endless consumers as far as the eye can see. They have no clue whatsoever. They are not capable of hard hard work in the dirt. What else can they do then. No skills they have will be worth anything then.

airdale- I could be wrong, been wrong before, hope I am this time too
but I have this real bad feeling in the pit of my stomach
I look about this 'fruited plain' and I just don't see much
to get excited about. We are not our fore-fathers(excluding
myself and I don't hold out too much for that either).
English, and other europeans maybe different. Thats what I
see here.

P.S. This association is a good start. Needs to be done. Doing something is better than nothing.

"We had no chemical fertilizer on the farm I grew up on. Wasnt' invented yet."

Just how old are you? You must be mighty old if you grew up BEFORE fertilizers were invented!

Much of the understanding of what fertilizers do came from Justus von Liebig (1803-1873)

Here is a little bit about the history of Guano:

and the Haber-Bosch process was patented in 1908 and commercialized in 1910:

So from all of this my best guesses are that you are between 100 and 150 years old or you just do not have the slightest clue of what you are talking about.

Which one is it?

Look dickhead.....there was no way to transport it if it did exist. There was no way to spread it if it did exist. There was none that I knew of and we couldn't have used it if it were.

We drove mules and hitched to wagons. There was a war on. Very simple not very effecient tractors were just starting to come on the scene in the mid 40s.

We didn't farm that way either.

Go away brainiac. Your constant spewing of such worldly knowledge is getting to be a big PITA. A few posts upthread you were advising someone how to farm. You don't know squat about even the basics.

Guano??? Guano?? What a shitheel, you are truly amazing. Get a ****ing life turdhammer.

Your are really starting to piss me off and I suggest you *** off.

And stay ****ed off weaseldick.

editted to remove obscenities..

Thank you Airdale, that was very eloquent!

Hi, I just popped in for another look at the Soil Association website and looked up what they had to say about Peak Oil. Under the heading "What is Peak Oil?" there was a brief primer, which contained the following, "By 2021 it has been estimated that we will have to adjust to a supply of just 50% of todays volumes." This was a reference not only relevant for the UK, but the world, as they went on to mention how such a scenario would affect world trade, transport and cheap agricultural imports. Now, personally I think this is probably alarmist "doomer" rhetoric, and if one is going to produce numbers like this I think one needs to show where they came from.

Or... YOU could show us some work that proves that we will have plenty of MORE oil in 2020 than we have today. And please, make ALL your sources available to us.


Organic farming cannot feed the worlds population.
The current population is dependent on agriculture running on fossil fuels.

CUBA was never self sufficient or sustainable. They continued to import their calories in the form of grains. Look it up

Organic Farmer Jim

Calm down. No one is suggesting that there will be more oil in 2020.

I for one am quite sure that there will be less. However the figure of 50% less in 15-16 years seems to be an outlier on the negative side.

I agree with the original comment that the use of this figure does put the Soil Association deep into the doomer camp. I appreciate that he/she pointed it out as it does provide insight into the approach the association is taking to the issue.

I am curious about what method they are depending on for this estimate. I expect that their readers and members would be too.

Is anyone here knowledgeable about algal aquaculture for food purposes? It seems as though climate change will create a serious problem even for otherwise sustainable practices, as warming causes plants to flower out of season, dry up, etc. One can only design permaculture relative to a particular climate. I'm thinking, then, that aquaculture should be the way to good, and algal (and possibly seaweed, though I know less about its suitability) is way more efficient than fish.

Currently, however, algal foods are sold as supplements and are quite expensive. Since spirulina and such are pretty open entry, the markets should be sufficiently competitive to drive prices down, so the high prices must reflect genuine expense, not some kind of rent. As I understand it, the process of breaking the cell wall down so that the algae is digestable is quite expensive, though this sounds to my layman ear like a fixable problem (the cell wall is mostly cellulose, that is to say, insoluble fiber). Perhaps not enough serious engineering talent has been thrown at it recently (back in the 60's and 70's, NASA did considerable research on Chlorella as a food that could be grown in space stations. Expense was not a primary concern, however). Anyone know what specifically is up with this?

P.S. I'm aware that there's a lot of hype and distortion around the nutritional properties of algal foods. I think there is some genuine nutrition there, though, and food that can generate a lot of biomass, protein, and good fatty acids very quickly and under a broad array of conditions (I'm picturing something like sealed-off doughboy swimming pools) will be quite useful.

I can't find it now, but this site had some discussion for feeding algal culture to tilapia:

I used to work/mess around with this a bit 20+ yrs ago, and I don't think too much has changed. Some thoughts are 1. You need a warm climate, or a lot of sun for greenhouses. Heating costs will only get worse. There was a bunch in, I believe, Falwell Ma with a guy named Todd. Believe they called their place the Ark. Could try googling that for alot of early work in this area 2.Unicelluar or just plain algal cultures get, in my mind, too hi tech for "backyard" stuff. Problems I think include nutrient source,(best was bacti media) combatting competition, and esp undesireable predation. Least those were my problems, both in lab and "backyard." I've always been interested in copepod culture-please let me know if you get any breakthrough here.

Tilapia culture has waxed and waned for many years. It was the thing in the US in the 80's, there was alot of interest and money spent. One group went so far as to buy and convert old grain silos in North Dakota. Tilapia is tropical! Anyway, alot of ventures went under when SE Asian tilapia arrived in LA at .05/lb. There was a guy by the name of Mike Sipe I think who did alot of work trying to breed thicker bodied tilapia in FL, one of the problems of small bony fish. He was chastized alot by commercial aquaculture, but I think he did some good work and he knew the fish.

As for volume culture "aquaria", I like the 500 and 1000 gal plastic stock tanks. Tough and cheap per gal, but I bet their costs soon skyrocket. Also had luck with metal stock tanks after two or three coats of fiberglass rosin. The metal is toxic.

Dr. John Todd:

He wrote the introduction to Toby Hemenway's book, "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture"

Aquaponics is being tried all over, even here in NYC (Bronx). I was hearing a question about raising algae for feeding the fish. Since most operations just buy fish food, I forwarded the one link claiming to approach this with the assumption they might not have access to buy fish food.

In the end, you end up looking at this as energy stacking up in a high rise, or as a pond with no human energy inputs. I sure hope we have time (energy) for a graceful landing, but I won't bet on it in my life time. Aquaponics is certainly easier than Hydroponics. If we keep following this path, we find ourselves out in the woods.

Fundamentally I still think agriculture has legs.

Most parts of the world still have the practice or fairly recent memory of subsistence agriculture. Most of Africa, for example, is in unstable equilibrium between peasant farming and urban slums. The main reason people migrate in the direction of the slums is that you can't make a reasonable living in agriculture... because food prices are too low. That problem won't be around much longer. I would expect that population movements will reverse at some point.

A certain amount of small scale modern technology, even without high levels of energy inputs, can make small-scale farming a lot more efficient. Clever associations of plants, and humus-building techniques, can help a lot. Genetic engineering is a non-starter, it's too high-tech, and relies on the profit motive : there is no profit for corporations in servicing subsistence agriculture.

The question remains :Can we feed 6 billion or so with a fraction of the energy input? This, I suspect, relies on the continued existence of large-scale industrial grain farming, to feed the urban populations. With scarcity and high price of fossil fuels, will this break down? It seems likely that we'll give up a lot of other stuff first... like personal mobility.

What we will undoubtedly see is a great deal more agricultural protectionism. Forget about the Doha round.

Just a note:

Most parts of the world still have the practice or fairly recent memory of subsistence agriculture.

The subsistence farmer does not grow for the market and has almost no surplus to sell. Upthread Chris Vernon was talking about poor farmers getting squeezed by high oil prices. Subsistence farmers, on the other hand, don't get squeezed because those guys don't use oil and commercial fertilizer.

So, peak oil is more or less a wash for them unless perchance they are getting squeezed off their land for biofuel crops.

So, one would think, but the reality is probably much more complicated. Many subsistence farmers are getting better health care these days and are buffered against famine by aid in various forms. They have much to lose if the world gets stingier.

On another thread in another topic I spoke of crop uptake and if all the ones talking about how much nitrogen corn required. No one responded so I got out my UofK pamphlet that I used when involved in soil sampling and I am going to post the 'crop nutrient removal values' below. At least those who almost scream about corn and nitrogen will then have to treat it some reality.

Fact is that done right corn takes away less nutrients than other crops and is close to a wash with the rest. Here then are the values.
NOTE: Crop uptake values are not to be mistaken for crop nutrient removal values. In the first the update counts ALL the harvested plants, stalks,leaves etc. Since that is usually not how row crop farming is performed most use the latter. Because with the exception of corn harvested for sileage all the rest less the corn kernels are left on the ground and therefore offset much of the nitrogen that would be required in the case of silage.

Crop yield unit n p2o5 k2o
lb/yield unit

Corn for grain bu 0.70 0.40 0.35
Silage corn ton 7.50 3.50 8.00
Wheat grain bu 1.20 0.50 0.30
Sorghum grain(milo) bu 0.95 0.41 0.30
Soybean grain bu 3.00 0.70 1.10
Rye grain bu 1.16 0.33 0.32
Oats grain bu 0.62 0.25 0.19

Note that soybean fix nitrogen enough that if well-nodulated do not
usually require nitrogen applications.

If corn is preceded by a winter legume crop then less nitrogen is required before planting. Even less is required depending on when applied. Soil slopes and other factors can come into play.

Since corn yields higher bu/acre than soybeans or wheat then more nitrogen is required but relative to the bu the values are correct.
Corn produces copiously. Well managed land can yield 200 bu/ac if a good growing season. Nitrogen taken by the crop must be replaced or legumes sown. Still the ground must be fertile for corn to make a good yield.

Hand waving and anecdotal comments are useless and mislead many into
repeating the same statements over and over until it seems to become accepted as fact.

The data entered is from the Univ of Ky,,College of Agriculture
Published 2005

Just posting these snips and links for everyone's consideration:

Br. Paul's Organic Cotton and Vegetable Farm

Jesuit brother breaks all the rules he learned in agricultural college, and shows how to bring food security to the world

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Organic cotton is possible and highly profitable

Brother Paul Desmarais of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre of Lusaka in Zambia is a happy man. He has just demonstrated that cotton can be grown organically, and furthermore, at yields up to more than twice the national average. That is quite an achievement as cotton is notorious for consuming the most agrochemicals of any crop, some 21 percent of that consumed worldwide; and most people have been led to believe that cotton cannot be grown without chemical sprays.

“I am confident that anyone can grow cotton organically in Zambia”, says Br. Paul, beaming from ear to ear. You need to do only two things: increase the fertility of the soil with organic matter, and put extra local plant species into the cotton fields to control insect pests.”

Plants that are sick or doing poorly will be the first to succumb to insect pests; so keeping a crop healthy with fertile soil reduces insect attacks.

The species inter-planted with the cotton crop are those that attract pests away from the cotton crop or beneficial predators, or provide home for beneficial predators; many species serving both purposes. For example, munsale (sweet sorghum) attracts bollworm and aphids as well as a host of beneficial insects; nyemba (cowpeas) provides a habitat and food source for ants and predatory wasps, and also attracts the pests leafhoppers, aphids and bollworms; sanyembe (sunhemp) is highly attractive to beneficial insects as a border crop and controls nematodes as well. Delele (okra) attracts bollworms, caterpillars and leaf eaters; milisi (maize) traps aphids on tassels and bollworms; mupilu (mustard) attracts beneficial hover flies and parasitic wasps as well as aphids on which they feed. Malanga (sunflower) attracts bollworm moths to lay eggs, and the beneficial lacewings that feed on aphids. A horizontal row containing a mixture of all these were planted for every 20 rows of cotton in the field bordered by sunnhemp on two sides. A host of other species can be planted, adding to the diversity of the farm. A variety of trees, such as Sesbania , Leucaena , and other indigenous species can act as windbreaks and provide habitat for farmers' friends and provide material for composting and making teas.


Br. Paul majored in plant pathology while studying for his agricultural degree, his studies were focussed on the Green Revolution. He confesses, “When I came to Zambia, I naively thought that I would change things here. During the first 15 years, I promoted the use of fertiliser, chemical spraying in the vegetable gardens and using hybrid seed. It finally dawned on me that we were not going anywhere. Every year farmers were asking for loans to buy seed and fertiliser. Farmers made some money on maize production in only two years out of those 15 years.”


In the 1980s, someone suggested to Br. Paul that he should look at organic agriculture, but he thought it was strictly for a small left-wing group who had enough money to pay for this type of farming. Nevertheless when he returned for home leave in Canada in 1988, he visited organic farmers, and found them to be successful. He studied the principles of organic agriculture in Ontario and adapted them to the situation in Zambia, and has never looked back.

Dream Farm

Abundantly productive farms with zero input and zero emission powered by waste-gobbling bugs and human ingenuity

Sustainable development is possible
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Environmental engineer meets Chinese peasant farmers

Doesn’t it sound like a dream to be able to produce a super-abundance of food with no fertilizers or pesticides and with little or no greenhouse gas emission? Not if you treat your farm wastes properly to mine the rich nutrients that can support the production of fish, crops livestock and more, get biogas energy as by-product, and perhaps most importantly, conserve and release pure potable water back to the aquifers.

That is what Professor George Chan has spent years perfecting; and he refers to it as the Integrated Food and Waste Management System (IFWMS).

Chan was born in Mauritius and educated at Imperial College, London University in the United Kingdom, specializing in environmental engineering. He was appointed director of two important US federal programmes of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy in the US Commonweath of the Northern Mariana Islands of the North Pacific. On his retirement, Chan spent 5 years in China among the Chinese peasants, and confessed he learned just as much there as he did in University.

What he learned was a system of farming and living that inspired him and many others including Gunter Pauli, the founder and director of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) (

Chan left China in 1989, and continued to work with Gunter and others in ZERI through consultancy services. This work has taken him to nearly 80 countries and territories, and contributed to evolving IFWMS into a compelling alternative to conventional farming.

The integrated farm typically consists of crops, livestock and fishponds. But the nutrients from farm wastes often spill over into supporting extra production of algae, chickens, earthworms, silkworms, mushrooms, and other valuables that bring additional income and benefits for the farmers and the local communities.

Edited to add
For more articles on sustainable/organic farming practices from around the world posted at the Institute of Science in Society's web site, see