More Thoughts on Relocalization

Over the past week, Stuart Staniford and Sharon Astyk have written thought-provoking essays on the nexus of Peak Oil and relocalization, with Staniford suggesting that peak oil will not result in relocalization of agriculture because the industrialization of agriculture is not practicably reversible, and Astyk rebutting that idea. I think that both essays make important points, but I would like to offer a third perspective: that we have insufficient information to reach a conclusion about when energy scarcity will result in relocalization of agriculture, but that we will likely cross this threshold in the not-too-distant future and should prepare accordingly.

Astyk’s main critique of Staniford’s essay is, while important, focused primarily on the somewhat dismissive and partisan language of “reversalism.” I agree with this critique, and will not rehash it here. This critique does not, however, address the core of Staniford’s argument that centralization and hierarchal organization in agriculture will stabilize or intensify in the face of rising energy prices.

In my view, the primary weakness of Staniford’s analysis is the hidden substitution of causation for correlation in the body of his argument. My own writings have often been criticized as lacking in scientific analysis of hard data, and I accept that as the price of trying to approach causation directly. Graphs of data points, such as those dominating Staniford’s analysis, can clearly convey correlation with some causal mechanism—say an increasing linear function—but do nothing to establish that causal relationship itself. These graphs do nothing to establish a causal relationship between, to use Staniford’s examples, labor per acre or profit margin per acre and oil price. It could be pure coincidence that they appear positively correlated, much like the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast. As importantly, such correlations provide no insight as to whether the current correlative relationship will continue as oil prices increase—a small segment of a linear function, an exponential function, or a parabolic function may all fit this correlation, yet diverge wildly at later points. Here's an example: a graph showing the driving fatalities by age for 13 to 17 year olds will show a remarkable positive correlation between higher deaths at higher ages. The implied causality in such a graph is that aging causes driving fatalities. Of course, with the benefit of a much broader perspective, additional data showing that driving fatalities begin to decline significantly after roughly the age of 25, and the knowledge that (in the U.S.) one can get a license to drive at age 16, an alternate likely causality arises. This is, essentially, my critique of Standiford's argument--that while correlation may suggest causation on the very limited data set available to us, we really don't gain any insight into what will happen--or what form of agriculture will be most efficient--at oil prices equivalent to $200, $300, or more dollars per barrel. At risk of pushing too far into the philosophical, Staniford's analysis places us in the equivalent of Plato's cave where all we can see is the 13-17 year segment of the driving fatality graph. I won’t belabor this point any further—Scottish philosopher David Hume said this far better than I could if anyone cares to delve deeper into this line of thought.

Suffice it to say that, if we reject this substitution of causation for correlation, we’re left with Staniford’s rather bald conclusion that “industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one” based solely on the presumptive correlation between various agricultural data in very recent history with historical oil prices. I don’t find that convincing, but Staniford must be given his due—he presents a plausible case, and certainly one that doesn’t disprove itself.

I think that the best way to approach this problem is to try to locate actual causal relationships that either A) make centralization and hierarchy more efficient means of organizing agriculture in the face of rising energy prices, or B) make decentralization a more efficient means of organizing agriculture in the face of rising energy prices:

A. Why would centralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Economy of place: It is more efficient to grow oranges in Florida than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York (or, to use the classic example, wine in Portugal than in England).
2. Economy of scale: It is more efficient for one man to grow ten orange trees than ten men to each grow one for a variety of reasons.
3. Specialization of knowledge processes: A contributor to #2 above, but particularly important in the era of increasingly scientific and knowledge intensive farming—farmers can afford to specialize in farming, whereas people who are only part-time farmers cannot to the same degree.
4. Justification for intensive capital expenditure: An industrial farmer can justify the expense of a complex combine harvester that automates processes, whereas a small holder may not be able to.

B. Why would decentralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Transportation & operation cost: decentralized farming has the potential to require transportation over shorter distances to market than centralized farming, and therefore less embodied energy cost. Likewise, tractors and combines use oil, whereas hoeing and hand weeding do not.
2. Superior suitability for sustainable operation: for now, decentralized agriculture seems more capable of maintaining topsoil and is more adaptable to varying water regimes.
3. Greater resiliency to black swan & gray sway events: decentralized agriculture is less susceptible to terrorism, is more likely to incorporate the biodiversity necessary to overcome disease, and may be more adaptable in the face of global warming.
4. Less exposure to capital cost creep: decentralized agriculture is less dependent on expensive machinery that is subject to increasing cost as the cost of manufacture and raw materials increase.

There are undoubtedly many more reasons on both sides—the intent here is to set up the following balancing problem, not to present an exhaustive list.

It becomes apparent that resolving the centralization vs. decentralization of agriculture dispute requires balancing these factors—more specifically, balancing these factors at a given cost of energy. I don’t think that it can be reasonably disputed that, at some cost of energy, it is more efficient to centralize agriculture.* As a hypothetical, if energy is free, there is no substantive barrier to total centralization of all agriculture. Likewise, I don’t think it can be reasonably disputed that, at some cost of energy, it is more efficient to decentralize agricultural production. As a hypothetical, if energy is so expensive as to be totally use-prohibitive to all parties (e.g. nothing but human labor is available), then centralization that requires food transportation of a greater distance than a human can walk before the food spoils, or that requires more calories for a human to transport to market than the cargo contains, is infeasible. Obviously, we are faced with the challenge of balancing centralization vs. decentralization for some real cost of energy between free and use-prohibitive.

This analysis also confronts some significant knowledge gaps. Centralized agriculture is currently engaged in practices that are widely considered non-sustainable. Industrial farming practices are rapidly depleting topsoil and rely on non-renewable chemical inputs. Conversely, methods of decentralized agriculture exist that are widely considered fully sustainable—permaculture, Fukuoka method, and John Jeavon’s biointensive method, just to name a few. It may well be possible to adopt industrial-scale methods that are equally sustainable, but the efficiency loss in doing so is unknown. It seems unfair to compare an unsustainable method with a sustainable one, but no data currently exists sufficient to bridge this gap. Another factor to be addressed is the opportunity cost of time spent in decentralized agriculture/horticulture. If there are abundant opportunities to earn high wages relative to food costs—something true in today’s Western economies, but uncertain at best in a future scenario of $300/barrel oil—then the opportunity cost of spending personal time laboring in a garden weighs heavily against decentralized agriculture. However, if there is massive unemployment and it isn’t possible for most to earn enough to buy necessary food due to the embodied cost of energy inputs, then it is more rational to spend time gardening no matter how efficient centralized agriculture is.

Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the sunk cost and subsidies supporting centralized agriculture. Just two examples:

- The trillion dollar infrastructure of highways necessary to support our centralized system has already been paid for (well, is still being paid for in many respects) whereas decentralized agriculture has no trillion dollar head start. This infrastructure is supported by ongoing maintenance paid for via distributed taxes, not by tax attached to the price of food or collected from individual farmers. At some cost of energy, maintaining such a system is no longer practicable, erasing this current advantage for centralized agriculture.

- The existing urbanization of America (just to cite one example) makes gardening impracticable for many, and is a relic of cheap food and the inexpensive transportation network capable of supporting urbanization. There is a great reluctance to relocate for the purpose of making gardening affordable now, but at some theoretical cost of food there is a tipping point where people would stream to small holdings, dramatically erasing this current advantage for centralized agriculture.

Hopefully I have highlighted the methodological difficulties in determining whether centralized or decentralized agriculture is more efficient at a given price of oil we have not yet reached—and therefore whether this historical process is likely to be “reversible” at some price. I’d love to tell you that, at $254/barrel, society will tip from centralized to decentralized agriculture. Clearly I can’t do that, and I submit that there is insufficient data for anyone to do so at this time (or, to demonstrate that the same won’t happen). What I will suggest is that it seems clear to me that, at some price of oil, decentralized agriculture will be more efficient. Price may actually be misleading on this point—if one accepts a general energy descent future (which I realize is a big *IF* for many), then demand destruction may prevent prices of energy from continuing forever upward. In such a scenario it will actually be “at some availability of surplus energy” where decentralization becomes more efficient. If one extrapolates any of the various gloomier future scenarios for world energy production often presented it seems very possible that this threshold may be crossed within a generation or two. And, when we reach this threshold, those who have prepared or transitioned early will be better situated. There are, without doubt, vast uncertainties here, but the precautionary principle suggests that we prepare for the possibility that this point comes sooner rather than later. Finally, I would suggest that there are benefits of decentralized agriculture that reach beyond mere calculations of price, profit, and meeting minimal nutrition requirements (see notes below). There are, after all, reasons why people go on vacation to Tuscany instead of Kansas.**

* What are our goals—is it merely to meet our minimal nutritional requirements, or to amass the most material possessions? Who benefits from centralized processes vs. decentralized, and what political structures to they tend to support and accrete? Are we seeking to maximize the mean or median fulfillment of human ontogeny? These are ultimately moral and philosophical questions, and ones that I will not attempt to answer here. I do, however, wish to draw the reader’s attention to the complexities raised by trying to address this dilemma while simultaneously balancing the benefits of centralization and decentralization. For more on centralization vs. decentralization, consider my essay “A Theory of Power.”

** For a discussion of Tuscan hill towns as a mode of decentralized coordination, consider my essay “The Hamlet Economy.”

Nice, clearly reasoned argument, thanks. I'm already in the process of "streaming to a smallholding", so you can guess how I feel about it. :)

Agree completely with Jeff's analysis. Stuart has an interesting start to a position, though there is still quite a way to go. And causality in this situation is most certainly highly multivariate, so simple explanations will not capture a full understanding of the data trends.

Certainly both large and small farms can exist in the future, as every nation may choose different ways to incentivize one over the other (or choose not to incentivize at all, though it would be hard to imagine such a situation in a high-consuming nation). So the answer may be that neither large agriculture nor small holdings will dominate the other overall.

Certainly the suburbanization that has been taking place in the last 50 years can contribute to the ability of those homeowners to respond to high food prices with home gardens; indeed, quite a bit of food can be produced in an intensive gardening approach on a 1/4 acre. See the this Chicago suburbanite who is growing 97 apples trees on his 1/4 acre lawn.

See Garden Girl explain Urban Sustainable Gardening in this video.

And raised beds provide many times the output in the same amount of space that traditional gardens do.

This suburban apple farmer is a great example that, while it may remain impracticable for many people to achieve true food self-sufficiency at their present property, it is certainly possible for most people to take significant steps in that direction. Just a few more examples of people who are working on this transition as we speak: Farmlet (of Cryptogon fame), Mossback Farm, and Lichenology. I've also written about The Self-Sufficient Gourmand.

These examples don't specifically address the economic efficiency issue per se, but I think they do highlight that the ultimate goal of economic efficiency is to fulfill human needs--these people are all very bright and could easily be making six figures elsewhere if that was their sole desire. Instead, they seem to have realized that small-scale farming, while perhaps earning less money, fulfills their true needs far better than pure monetary analysis would suggest.

And while these gardens can absorb a bit of time, clever gardening practices (i.e., mulching, companion planting, etc) can greatly reduce the amount of time spent weeding, which is arguably the most time spent in the traditional home garden. And you'll be surprised how much you can squeeze in a yard;

I have a full time high tech job, though have a flock of 20 sheep, 45 fruit and nut trees in an edible landscape, and 18 raised beds (3'x12') in my home garden. While I obviously have more than a 1/4 acre, it shows that this does not have to be a full time job by any stretch of the imagination. It does get busy at spring planting time (or lambing time) but it is a fulfilling busy-ness that gives one a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. And the grocery bills are much, much lower than they used to be.

Even people living in apartments (with somewhat south-facing balconies) can grow some of their own food;

Looks like I'm a little late to the party, but thanks for the kind words, Jeff. Being mentioned in the same sentence as Kevin (farmlet) and Zane (lichenology)...I just hope I can live up to the expectations.

Keep up the good work

Thanks Will, nice to see someone enjoying his place like that, now if his neighbour to the left would grow carrots ,the neighbour to the right cabbage and the one behind beets they could invite Dmitry Orlov over for a bowl of Russian bostch and a slice of American apple pie. A bit of dill growing on the front drive would not go amiss.

one thing overlooked is the suburbs have a lot of basement space to grow food year round. my grandfather had a huge basement under his ranch home.

Rare basements, if any, in Texas.

What are going to grow? Mushrooms?

No silly, something financially remunerative. A brownie additive!

It's great to see people converting their properties to local food production. Certainly the skills and knowledge that these folks have developed will be increasingly important as the oil age peters out.

I have written the following policy paper on agricultural and related resources. Would like to "hear" your comments.

Policy Paper #7 – Energy, Agriculture, and Waste Issues
Mike Morin

Are they proceeding with tar sands removal and processing? Such would be unfortunate in "light" of the gluttony of our times and relative to future needs, and to other concerns of the "natural" environment, public health (such as water and air quality and availability), wildlife (which does not threaten domestic life), and recreation.

Similar concerns have of course been stated for coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, water, and other resources.

Among the many problems associated with the agricultural sector are those regarding runoff from manures, pesticides, herbicides, and of soil. It is my considered opinion that Americans could consume much less meat. Shifting agricultural practices towards less meat and dairy production and consumption would help assuage the non-human animal manure problem. Some may argue that such manure could be a valuable fertilizer source though I would argue that I would not want such a job. Less meat, dairy, and egg consumption would also be healthier for people and would allow more people to realize healthy diets.

Currently blood meal from slaughterhouses is a source of nitrogen fertilizer. Again, such as the other jobs in that sectors would be very unpleasant and should be highly compensated.

We need to put more resources into composting efforts and other practices and technologies associated with ecological food systems.

I have previously addressed in other forums the opportunity costs associated with cropping for tobacco, alcohol, soft drinks, sugar in lieu of food crops, ethanol, and biofuels.

Also, the active encouragement and support of more localized food systems (i.e. going toward self-sufficiency in all regions) would go a long way towards improving the quality of life in our communities. We need to put in place development control policies which stop once and for all the loss of productive farmland (and stop the sprawl that engenders and perpetuates energy intensive lifestyles) and work with growers and other farm workers to develop a production system in which they control the means of production and distribution (In such a scheme, I would consider people who work in distribution and transport a "farm" worker). Packaging should be minimized, advertising (in all sectors) eliminated and concurrently restaurant establishments should be scaled back considerably, if not minimized. Doing these things would greatly help the trash disposal problems that are with us now. Additionally, we need to actively support the reinstitution of source separation of wastes.

To the extent that sewer systems exist, humanure can and is captured. The production of algae for energy production may very well be an endeavor worthy of pursuit. Biosolids are a major problem and perhaps the construction of tankers and barges to haul and dump such to the deep ocean could mitigate this problem and create many high skilled jobs and community economic development and ownership opportunities.

However, like a national highway program (the so-called free freeways of the so-called free market system), the notion that these could be developed as a marketable products strikes me as absurd, but not nearly absurd as the plethora of extraneous and ill-conceived products that currently sit on shelves or the mountains of trash which plague our hinterlands.

Education is key to any hopes of success.

This is a far superior rebuttal/critique of Stuart's essay than the previous effort which, while passionate, was distinctly lacking in analysis.

With apologies for my lack of substantive additions, I loved your essay! I appreciated the clarity of the examples, and I am convinced that we cannot conclude from present data how the future of agriculture WILL evolve (in detail).

This argues, I think, against the Shell CEO"s "blueprint" approach if taken to be a centralized plan that specifies a single strategy (e.g., ethanol, nuclear) for the world as climate change approaches the irreversible point and oil grows far more costly. That's may not be the only kind of "blueprint," though. Set goals and constraints and allow alternative approaches, vaguely analogous to the evolution of the ICE motorcar from the efforts of thousands of tinkerers 100 years ago.

Personally (a retired physicist), I have embarked on sustainable, diversified, relatively diesel fuel independent farming with wind energy and some solar. I am planting trees that will be harvested after I'm dead but remove CO2 now. I am improving pasture productivity and sustainability organically, and they will remove CO2, too, with the help of the grazing cattle's poop.

Thanks to Mr. Vail for a terrific contribution to this topic.

I do think that we need to discuss this as a multi-faceted topic. It is not about what will happen to agriculture simply as a result of Peak Oil, but in the context of Global Climate Change, geopolitics, already ongoing resource war, and so forth.

Additionally, we might want to include the possibility that many people might well die off as a result of all the above factors, and this will affect our future.

Finally, there are those who push research in areas such as growing fungi in vats -- products like Quorn. This reminds me of Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake."

Forgive the intrusion of someone with a humble BA in history and a wide background from a "liberal arts" perspective. I've taken Chemistry and Biology and Calculus in college, but did not focus on these fields.

I do see the perspectives of those who make art -- whether literature, visual arts, or music -- as quite helpful and often prescient.

Maybe a separate key post on the future of agriculture could be done from an aesthetic perspective?

Watch the cattle industry.

13 to 1 is the grain to meat ratio.

7 to 1 pigs.

3 to 1 poultry.

1 to 1 fish.

""If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million," David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

"Pimentel noted. Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters.

In relationship to this, check out Monbiot's article here:

Monbiot points out that the consumption of the wealthy -- and he also chooses excessive meat-eating as an example -- is a greater threat to the world in many ways than the burgeoning population, which is also a very real problem.

It is precisely this which makes me say, once again, that it does little good to talk about the future of agriculture in with exclusive regard to peak oil, without also carrying on an extensive conversation about environmental ethics, consumption and population ethics, and geopolitics and resource war.

Resource War is, in my opinion, the biggest driving force in the politics of the USA right now. All other issues will be addressed only as crises which are used to concentrate power in order to better conduct the Resource War. (This includes the current economic crisis, IMHO.) Democrats are as enmeshed in this as Republicans, obviously.

Any remaining Future Farmers of America will live in chaotic times, to say the least.

The future of agriculture is no more stable or predictable than thew future of our species.

Agriculture is dominated by men (note: men!) with primitive (bellicose) emotions and strange medieval concepts of themselves as having the Divine Rights of Kings, and who mistake themselves for gods because of our temporary access to god-like technology.

By contrast, the demographics of young, small-scale farmers includes many women. Around here small farmers are about 50:50 female:male I'd guess.

Monbiot points out that the consumption of the wealthy -- and he also chooses excessive meat-eating as an example -- is a greater threat to the world in many ways than the burgeoning population, which is also a very real problem.

It is precisely this which makes me say, once again, that it does little good to talk about the future of agriculture in with exclusive regard to peak oil, without also carrying on an extensive conversation about environmental ethics, consumption and population ethics, and geopolitics and resource war.

I wrote this on another site regarding a different topic (I think the numbers are correct... at least, I hope they are.):

A typical American uses the energy equivalent of almost 16 times that of, say, an African. Extrapolate that out with some simple math:

310,00,000 Americans x 16 (third world equivalents) = 4,960,000,000 people.

That's right. 4,960,000,000 Africans could live on what America lives on. Add in Europe? Japan? Korea? You're looking at another 8 or 9 billion.

Africa is not the problem. Developed nations are the problem. That, and that others, quite naturally, want to live how we live. This is impossible. Let us do the numbers.

6.6 billion divided by 310 million = 21.29. 20,000,000 (US daily consumption of oil) x 21.29 = 425,806,000 mb/d.

Putting aside for the moment that not all crops can be grown in all places, my guess is that centeralized vs decentralized will revolve around yields. For example, I doubt that many people will grow wheat in their back yards or even on a mini-farm given a yield of far less than a pound per square foot. FWIW, I've been developing my own strain of winter wheat for a number of years because I find it interesting but I doubt I would try to grow my own if it could still be purchased.

On the other hand, I can see people growing potatoes in barrels since they yield is extremely high per SF. I can also see mini-farms providing some crops where transportation is an issue.

My best guess is that much locally or individually produced food will use hydroponic methods because energy, water and nutritional elements are minimized. And, further because the yields per square foot are astounding. I mentioned a product called the Hydrostacker ( in Sharon's thread. In an article in Farm and Ranch Living one farm family was able to reduce their crop land from 40 acres to 1 acre while that acre used no more water that a family of our.

So, all in all, I see grains produced via centralized Ag and much of everything else on a decentralized basis.


So, all in all, I see grains produced via centralized Ag and much of everything else on a decentralized basis.

I tend to agree. I also think we will see the resurrection of rail freight for grain rather than trucks as is done now. Canola may only be grown for the purpose of producing bio-diesel for Ag related production.

Further down the food chain, we will see local small scale flour mills come back, alongside locally scaled commercial bakeries. It is much more efficent to truck grain or even flour than it is to transport very light but bulky bread.

This also raises the prospect of local breweries coming back. Ditto for milk and cheese production.

Meat may be a little harder to work through as transport costs actuallty become more efficient when meat is killed and packed in boxes close to where it is grown. Rail freight of livestock may return and butchers may even resort to slaughtering out the back of the shop, a practice which is still pretty common in the third world. (Ox liver anyone?). Of course decentralizing meat processing, limits the collection of tallow for bio-diesel industry.

Chicken, duck and foul will become more common in urban areas both for eggs and meat. This will have some effect on the large scale poultry producers who won't be able to compete on transport costs( you can't herd chooks like you can cattle).

The really interesting tipping point, and IMHO, the first canary to croak, will be the vegetable industry. The cost of production on farm or in garden is only separated by a small margin with labour and mostly FF inputs on farm, virtually eliminated in the home garden.

A loosely organised suburban co-op of home gardeners could produce a very large percentage of that localites vegetable needs, given a reasonable climate and moderatley good soil conditions. Ditto for fruit. The cost of vegies in the supermarket is very sensitive to the cost of transport and vegies are the easiest things to replace. There is much more to explore here in realtion to urban community gardens but I'll save that for another post.

Meat grain and dairy are harder but again there can be a form of relocalization of processing these commodites where the savings in transport outweighs the efficiency of large scale processing plants.

Good luck with growing your own grain Todd. If you ever grow enough I have a wicked scone recipe which you could blow your whole crop on! :)

"Putting aside for the moment that not all crops can be grown in all places, my guess is that centeralized vs decentralized will revolve around yields. For example, I doubt that many people will grow wheat in their back yards or even on a mini-farm given a yield of far less than a pound per square foot. FWIW, I've been developing my own strain of winter wheat for a number of years because I find it interesting but I doubt I would try to grow my own if it could still be purchased.

On the other hand, I can see people growing potatoes in barrels since they yield is extremely high per SF. I can also see mini-farms providing some crops where transportation is an issue."

Exactly the prelude to the Irish Famine.

Even at the Famine's paek, wheat was being exported to England's
Cattle Industry.

Mcgowanmc -

I amused by just how far adrift from the reality here your abstract grain-to-meat ratios are.

I should explain that I farm land between 850 & about 2,000 ft at about 52 degrees N here in Wales.

A fortnight ago we shot a steer that I expect to dress out this weekend at about 150kgs of meat.

Since the grass is both scarce and rather poor up here in January, during his last fortnight of life we gave him two 25kgs bags of organic mixed feed to fill him out a bit - which can make a very positive difference to the quality of the meat.

So, over his 29 months of life he ate 50 kgs of grains, and gave us 150 kgs of meat; i.e. a ratio of 0.33 to 1.0.

This is quite a bit different to your claimed ratio of 13.0 to 1.0 - that is, 39 times better than your ratio;
indeed the very roundness of your numbers would immediately warn any farmer of the extent of their reliability.

Maybe US factory beef rearing is just grossly inefficient and does only get one unit of meat for every 13 units of grain, but the ratio over here for similarly abused animals is just over 8 to 1.

With regard to water consumption, I've no records, since we have 8 streams coming down to the valley's brook from across the land out of the mountains north & south, of which 4 kept going right through the 200-year drought we had in 06.

The best measure I can put on the farm's thruput of water is that the brook flows at about 40 cubic feet per second when it's in full spate.

So please don't be fooled into believing that the questionable numbers you post for intensive industrial livestock production
are anything to do with real farming,
for farming is actually about a symbiosis with the land and its many inhabitants that yields a generally sustainable output of good food,
of which most is eaten by the inhabitant species, but some can be sent out to feed others at a distance.



The World Food Outlook for November 2007 from the FAO tells us,

In 2006/7, there were produced 2,009.4 million tonnes of grains of all types.

Of those, 735.9 million tonnes were feed for livestock. In 2007, this gave us 278.3 million tonnes of meat of all kinds. And so we find that it took 735.9/278.3 = 2.64kg grain to produce 1kg of meat, worldwide.

So if there are people like you putting 0.33kg of grain into 1kg of meat, there is probably someone putting 4.95kg grain into 1kg of meat.

And of course, much livestock feed goes to animals which aren't bred for their meat, like dairy cattle and wool sheep. So we get more than just meat from them. Milk products were 678.2 million tonnes in 2007.

It's also the case that developing countries use little or no grain for their livestock, while developed countries use rather a lot. So the ratio might be 1:1 in Ghana, but 13:1 in the US, I don't know.

You can't generalise from your personal experience, unfortunately. You just have to look at the figures, while bearing in mind that they're the truth, but not the whole truth - like I said, we should remember that the West feeds more grain to livestock than the Third World, that we get dairy products as well as meat from livestock, and so on.


maybe you should read my post more carefully - I'm not the poster generalizing about feed rates, but rather I pointed out the folly of doing so to a previous poster.

You are for instance mistaken to claim the generalization that "it took 2.64kgs of grain to produce 1kg of meat" -
it did not since (as you later remark) much of our domesticated livestock does not get access to grain.
What you have posted is the production ratio. It is not a causal relationship.



It depends on the meat. The figures I've seen suggest that beef is much worse than pork or poultry for example:

1 beef cow eats 2600 pounds of grain in its lifetime which requires about 0.4 acres of arable land to grow. It weighs 1200 pounds when taken to slaughter and only half is usable as food.

So 1 pound of beef requires 0.017 acres of arable land to feed it. The equivalent calculation for pork or poultry is 0.0009 acres - 1/20th of the footprint! (Source:

Martyn -

which, of umpteen million "beef cows" worldwide, are you talking about ?

At what age was it killed, and for what reason ?

And which 0.4 acres of arable land was needed, and for how long, to yield the 2,600 lbs of which grain to feed her ?

And what, if anything, did she eat besides that grain ?

As I hope you can see, your generalized cow-feed-data is so lacking in detail as to be just about meaningless.



That's why I posted the link for anyone who wanted to read further although I realise now that that link is broken. Here is the new link to the original article : It's by A. R. (Pete) Palmer from the Institute for Cambrian Studies, Colorado

To try and answer the specific question(s), the article reports the grain is consumed in a feedlot where the cow is fattened for between 120 and 150 days before being taken to slaughter. Before this it is in pasture for an unspecified time (so not sure on the age of the cow) but this is not included in the cost. Source data is taken from the U. S. Departments of Agriculture (DOA) and Commerce (DOC) between 1992 and 1996, based on farming practices in Nebraska, Texas and Colorado.

I think the important table is table 3 which i've reproduced below:

Table 3
U. S. Food footprint - summary of components
Commodity footprint*
1. Grain 0.074
2. Vegetables 0.017
3. Fruit 0.010
4. Dairy Products 0.059
5. Eggs 0.017
6. Beef (minimum) 1.070
7. Pork 0.048
8. Chicken 0.044
9. Turkey 0.016
10. Lamb/mutton 0.002
Total 1.357

*U. S. national figures in acres/capita

What you have posted is the production ratio. It is not a causal relationship

Presumably 735.9 million tonnes of grain were not fed to livestock just for the hell of it. Someone thought it was necessary, or at least beneficial. That is, they thought that grain as a cause would have an effect of growing meat.

That does not mean that every farmer everywhere must or even will pump their beasts full of grain; but it does mean that on average, some grain is given to livestock. And "some" is quite a lot, with the 735.9Mt fed to livestock compared to the 997.5Mt consumed directly by people.

Let's return to your earlier comment,

for farming is actually about a symbiosis with the land and its many inhabitants that yields a generally sustainable output of good food

Or rather, good farming is this. Bad farming is more like,


- things like keeping the beasts in stalls, as in the Bloomfield, Nebraska picture above, for almost their entire lives doing nothing but eat and get hosed down, pumped full of antibiotics to make up for their atrocious conditions.

Those pigs are not out in the fields rooting about and cleaning up old garden beds. They are not in symbiosis with anything. They are machines for converting grain to meat. They simply would not last a day without massive inputs of grain and other feed. That's where a good part - not all, but a good part - of the 735.9 million tonnes goes.

In the West we eat around 100kg (220lbs) of meat each a year on average. It's simply impossible for us to eat that much without most of the beasts living like those pictures.

It does not have to be like this. But that's the way it is in the West. The grain-to-meat ratios are not "abstract", they are part of the unpleasant reality. We do not need large amounts of grain for meat, but we do need large amounts of grain for large amounts of meat.

I eat a lot less meat than I used to but I started getting my pork from our local farmers market. He created a niche for himself by raising 'english forest pigs' and the meat is very flavorful. The pigs are kept at a density of 2-3 per acre.

Babes in the woods

More Photos of what seem to be happy pigs

Kiashu -

The ratio you posted was of worldwide productions, including meat from all feed sources.

It was not a causal relationship - that amount of grain did not produce that amount of meat.

It was merely one, optional, contributory factor to the production of some of that meat.

I hope you can get that.

As a farmer, I'm telling you the animal-abuse images you posted are not bad farming -

they are not farming at all - they are industrial meat manufacturing,

which is actively suppressing farming by externalizing every single cost it can,

and is thus continuing, quite intentionally, to undercut farming's viability.

As a farmer, I posted what seems to me the essential description of farming as an ecologically sustainable way of life.

I hope you'll either accept it, or get enough experience to write a better one.

Maybe I should clarify just what impacts are caused by the growing media-wide propagation of crude generalizations
boosting the supposed disbenefits of beef and other meats -

Far from encouraging people to be more discriminating in what meats they will buy,
that is, just what production-impacts they are sponsoring by their purchases,
it merely discourages meat consumption per se in wealthy nations,
which then leaves that amount of product at marginally cheaper rates on international markets
to be snapped up by dealers for the hundreds of millions of IIIW nouveau riche.

Far from reducing factory production systems with their issues of livestock abuse,
of wasteful application of grain stocks as intensive feeds,
and of drug contamination risks over antibiotics, growth hormones etc,
generalized anti-meat propaganda actively undermines their real competition:
namely the growth of discerning demand for grass-fed livestock from farms
where they have been well-cared for in their lives and where they have served a valuable role ecologically.

From the perspectives of animal welfare, of grain usage, and of food safety,
that generalized anti-meat propaganda ought to be focused specifically
on contrasting the malign factory-production systems with practical livestock farming,
and not onto dissing meat in general.

As it is, it is doing more harm than good.

And that's a farmer telling you so.




Dinopello -

We call the pigs you showed "Tamworths" and they are well regarded over here as hardy biddable friendly animals.

They're our oldest native breed but sadly they are also quite rare since they don't take to factory systems.

The new breed society should remedy their rarity with a bit of luck.

It's good to see that some of them are doing well in the states.

If you get a chance to try dry-cured oak-smoked streaky Tamworth bacon, I can strongly recommend it!



Backstop, thanks for the tip! Just so happens I had Tamworth Bratwurst with some Sauerkraut tonight for dinner. It would have been made with chops, but the guy had sold out of chops at the farmers market.

I also know a guy who is raising Finnsheep not too far from here. He is a friend of mines uncle and every year he gifts a whole lamb.

A Finnsheep

Back to the Tamworths - I can never eat factory farmed regular pork again, that stuff is so good and flavorful. And, I feel much better knowing that the little critters had a decent life rooting around in the forest.

Your steer did not get to 150 kg. on 50 kg. of feed. Most of that weight came off grass. You should have weighed your steer before adding feed to his diet, then the difference between that weight and his final weight could be ascribed to the feed.

In the U.S., most cattle are born on what we call cow-calf ranching operations. The calves get to about 300 to 350 kg. on grass and are sold to feed lots which fatten them to their slaughter weight of roughly 500 to 600 kg. The breeding cows are not sold and are fed over winter to produce another calf crop the next year. Cattle are born in one area and they die far away from home.

Feeding cattle grain marbles their meat, that is, it adds fat and makes it more tender. It takes 10 to 13 pounds of grain to add a pound of meat. We could go to grass-finished cattle that never eat grain and still meet at least half of the U.S. beef demand with the present quantity of cow-calf operations. With better range management, doing a better job of teaching ranchers how to be botanists, we could increase beef production without increasing acreage. As Gene Goven of Turtle Lake, North Dakota, said when he got the rancher of the year award, "My crop is grass. I use cows to harvest it."

Hi Fred,

Hearing firsthand experience and getting an informed picture of how things work is one thing I like about TOD. Thanks.

Can't the critters eat the DDGs from all the
corn ethanol plants ??? So we get food and fuel ...

Triff ..

They do, and it makes them sick and the meat more susceptible to e coli.

Since there is no centralized agricultural planning (and seeing what happened in the early Soviet Union maybe that's a good thing) the agricultural landscape will change to fit economic and human needs as conditions change over time. I agree with the article in that it is hard to predict because we don't know how these various and numerous factors will play out and interact.

IMHO, diverse information should be put out there. Growing (for example) carrots in sandy soils requires different care and prep than growing them in clay soils. Information (to support any type of sustainable farming) should be made available... suggestions should be served with a few grains of salt.

These articles have been interesting, but i always come away thinking that many of you live in a different world than I. And, then I realize that you do. Perhaps the essays are focussed on some 'average' measure of what they believe will occur. But that is a bit like asking about the 'average weather' to gauge what is happening on a given day. Over the course of a year we average 0.1 inches per day of rain. But in reality, it is either raining or not.

What I mean is that *clearly* there are some communities (large and small) right now paying attention to and moving towards relocalization. Different approaches, different aspects, but with that purpose/goal.

Other communities are actually moving in the opposite direction still - shutting down local economies, importing food and water from ever greater distances, paving over more local farms and sprawling ever more into completely unwalkable forms etc.

So, I guess the argument is over how many more communities will take the direction of becoming more locally-complete places and how many more will persue the direction of increasing their dependency on far away places. And, then you might ask which communities will be better off when the oil is no longer available.

Just checked my garden now--
Chard, Mustard Greens, Beets, Green Onion---
It has added food to our diet, and is enjoyable.
Will probably go mushroom hunting today.

Must be nice. The high here was -27C today, so my gardening is limited to planning what I'll be putting in come April/May. The last frost date here is some time around mid to late May (Zone 2a).

Guess I'll have to resign myself to a few more months of grains, legumes, root veggies and canned produce. Can't wait for the first greens of the season. :)

Thanks for your analysis which I find persuasive, and that there is indeed a price at which energy costs would lead to relocalisation.
As it stands, personally I do not think that relocalisation will occur because of energy shortages, for the simple reason that I think energy, although not fossil fuels, will remain cheap and abundant enough to not reach the kind of trigger point you refer to.
I think Stuart has also demonstrated that the agricultural industry is relatively tough and resilient to quite a high increase of fuel costs, so the trigger point is perhaps quite high.
However, that does not mean to me that re-localisation, or at least great alteration, to present agricultural practises will not occur.
The reason for that is not energy, but other inputs like water and phosphorus.
It is clear that present rates of depletion of water tables is unsustainable, that agricultural run-offs cause problems, and that phosphorus is in short supply.
You would therefore need much more controlled systems to regulate usage - vertical farms would be an example of this, and constitute relocalisation, although not perhaps in the sense that many of it's advocates might expect.
Soil-less gardening in containers or greenhouses might also impact, and because of it's compact nature might as well happen closer to the consumer.
If you are going to have to regulate input and output, perhaps root crops might be a better bet than corn and so on, as they use a smaller area, so that should (help required form those who know something about gardening? :-0 ) mean that this is easier.
The basic point that I am trying to make is that re-localisation may happen for reasons other than energy requirements, and that it may also be pretty high-tech in some of it's manifestations, although hopefully pretty organic:
Green roofs in cities, growing a lot of food and insulating the buildings whilst reducing heat island effects, with high density greenhouses on the outskirts producing food without need for pesticides, perhaps heated by ground pumps, with vast new areas designated as wilderness, perhaps sown to prairie grass and used for agrichar locking up carbon dioxide, sounds like a pretty cool prospect to me!

Don't forget worm composting,

Perhaps you would like to expand on that a bit, as a country boy I ain't! What advantages does that bring? All I know about it is that a lot of my angler friends are keen on it.

The resulting vemipost is well processed - if the worms managed to survive in the material, the material was aerobic. The vemipost ends up with many bacteria types from the worm gut that are symbiotic relationship with plants.
These days would be one of the better places to go.

Anaerobic compost systems are a no-no.

So how does one stay aerobic?
Management of the bin. One management scheme is the worm gin
This design keeps the 'food' in 6 inch layers. The worms would stay in an aerobic environment and keep turning the mix.

How good is a gin in practice? Hard to say. Florida correctons stopped using theirs. The pictures from terracycle look like an empty unit. used to sell worm gins - they no longer do. And with a 'rise vs run' angle of the beds of 1:2 - for a 8 foot 'bed' you need 40 inches of rise - so for a standard 'basement' you'd get 2 platforms. Hrmmm 2 platforms that cost a whole lotta cash to build, needs electrical energy to provide worm suppression via light VS 2 36 inch high OSCAR-style bins.

What one should do is pre-compost. One way is this:
If one pokes around Terracycle - they use this device.
Adding rock dust to your bins would also be a good plan.

You have 4 choices
Lub. Rubellus shows the use of these worms.
Enista Hortenis
Both of these like a more fungal environment it seems. Leaves, cardboard, et la. The fish I've interacted with like these worms more than the more common E. Foetia, with The LR's leading the taste test.

Peradoxis Evactus (Dies in cold temps like 45 deg F. Has the egg band far closer to mouth than most worms)
Enista Foetia The coloemic fluid of this worm really stinks vs other worms.

Want non-BS about worms - Clive Edwards is the man.

Oh, and due to scams like B&B Worms, the IRS does not treat worm wrangling well at all.

If you have waste to process might I suggest:
You can toss almost anything into that process - and you get critter-food as output. The sludge at the bottom - earthworms can further process. What can't be broken down by the BSF larvae and worms can be sent into a pyrolysis process and mill to powder.

Checked out that vertical farms thing! Haven't laughed so much for a long time.
One example was given of a 30 storey building covering one city block to feed 10,000 people @ 300 sqf per person. These will never get built. The cost would be astronomical and the price of the food would be sky high (pardon pun). Minimum cost to build, not including land acquisition would be $200/sqf. Unless you are growing drugs, thats gonna be one hell of a payback period for strawberries and alfalfa!

Never going to happen. The article says they could open their doors by 2010. I'll wager $1000 with you that they won't, and I'll give you a full 2-years on the spread, meaning I win if they aren't open and operational on January 1st, 2012. I'm sure the staff here at TOD would be happy to hold our money in escrow. I'm serious--what do you say?

I seriously doubt they'll ever even break ground, but it would be far more entertaining to watch them try to get this boondoggle to work once they've already sunk millions. And I won't even disqualify this lunacy on the basis of their business consisting largely of revenue from tourism, not actual harvest...

I think you are probably right!
I hadn't really thought very much about it, but allowed the idea to move into the realm of 'maybe' when I saw that they were actually supposedly going to build one.
Much more practical in my view would be some further intensification of agriculture on the city outskirts, and on greenroofs.
My basic point is that when it gets more important to control inputs and outputs of things like water and fertiliser, then intensive rather than extensive agriculture might have the edge, which could lead to a degree of relocalisation as if you are using less land you can afford to pay more for it, so you can get a bit closer to the centres of population.

I havne't followed the link, but would like to look at the base objection of your's with a question: what if the building was already extant, particularly if empty? Currently livin in the suburbs of a city of 11,000,000+, this seems like a possible solution for city-dwellers.


At the local farmer's market, I typically see sellers from slightly warmer climates 30 to 60 miles away, bringing usually less than 100 lb of produce, typically on a 3/4 ton pickup. Are they more efficient than a full semi truck brought in from 500 miles away? I'm not sure. Their selling point is higher quality vegies. If centralized agriculture becomes totally untenable, my community may well cease to exist. The Native Americans lived in this area in the summer, but not the winter. Good Analysis.

What may occur is that localized economies may be more efficient in some areas, while industrialized agriculture, if modified for sustainability, may be better in others. This may not be an either-or proposition as we have less energy to overcome regional differences in soil, climate and other factors. If we have both models extant, then it will be easier (not easy) to move between them.

Thank you for saying that. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who would suggest that there was a difference between wheat railed (or barged)in from Minnesota and asparagus flown from Chile.

I trust that even on the Oil Drum, I will forgiven for not including a graph when I agree with Stuart that thousand acre grain farms will be with us for a long time but also believe it won't be too many years before Sharon's tomatoes (in season) are cheaper (she's in NY state)than ones irrigated and shipped from California.

I think that's something that is often forgotten when people talk about relocalization. I try to get as much as possible from local sources and can do quite well with most things, but there are certain goods that will never be available locally. I can get lots of legumes (pulse crops are big around here) as well as wheat, barley, rye, flax, canola etc locally, but some things I really enjoy have to come from further away. Obvious ones are coffee and chocolate, but also staples like rice, which is not suited to my area.

These goods also make sense to ship around, as they have a higher energy content and are less prone to spoilage than fruits and veggies, and are easily handled in bulk.

The crazy thing is what I have heard while talking to some farmers I know locally. It seems a large amount of the pulse crops we get in the grocery store here come from the near east, Turkey in particular, while most of the pulses we grow here in Saskatchewan go overseas. To find local lentils, you either need to know a farmer or go to a small food co-op. It boggles the mind.

I just mentioned exclusivity clauses. I would wonder whether exclusivity clauses your local grocery store's supply contracts prohibit them from selling local crops.

One relatively unused, at least in the US, technology which could assist local growing of produce is geothermal power to heat greenhouses:
The great thing about this is that you don't need a high temperature heat source, so a lot of areas where electricity could not be generated cold still warm greenhouses.
If I were farming near an urban area in the US I would check the geological surveys to see what the heat resource was like in my area!
Geothermal heat pumps are also worth considering for greenhouses as a supplementary heat source, especially if you can reduce gas bills by having on-site windmills to draw some of your power from.

That's a great idea. I know there is at least one local company that installs geothermal for cooling indoor ice-skating rinks. I don't imagine it would be that hard to flip it around and heat a greenhouse. The bigger issue would be getting adequate light. In the winter it's dark from about 4:45 pm to 9:15 am, and grow lights use a lot of juice.

We do have good conditions for ground-source heat pumps here. At least a few farmhouses have been converted to use that rather than propane. If I wasn't living in a lousy condo I'd probably look at doing that as well, but I think my condo association would have a fit if I tried anything like that.

It's not hard at all - in Sweden they are used mainly for heating in the winter.
The economics work out a lot better if the farm has a lake or something nearby that it can use as a heat source.
There's a word of warning though - for the heat pump, as opposed to the geothermal energy route, you need to heavily supplement the heat pump with another heat source for greenhouse use if gas is way cheaper in your area than electric.
You can cut that down if you have windmills or something.

"grow lights use a lot of juice."

we can use LED lights.

we can use LED lights.

Have you ever grown anything with LEDs? I just picked up an LED work light on an impulse buy from my local auto parts store. It is rated at 3.5 watts and seems incredibly bright and I actually wondered how well plants might do under it. Does anyone else have information on this subject?

Nice suggestion John. As a former hydroponics grower I’ve used HPS and Metal halide lamps which were very power hungry. I’m in the process of starting all of my plants for spring planting and was going to buy some full spectrum fluorescents to augment natural light because using my HPS fixtures would be cost prohibitive. I don’t know if LED lights are intense enough for growing plants for the entire duration of the plant’s growth, but for my purposes seems to fit the bill. LEDs also look interesting because using red and blue lights give a full spectrum, unlike either metal halide or HPS. I’m going to have to dig more information these lights.

Update: Did a little more searching amongst some “hardcore” hydroponics sites and it appears most are not convinced the current offerings of LED lights are worth it. Too many cheap Chinese products out there. Maybe with more product development? I’m going to keep researching this.

We have a lot of room for growth (of greenhouse and other waste heat applications) in the technology known as co-generation (the use of waste heat from power plants and other industrial heat sources).

Workin' for peace and cooperation,

Mike Morin

If you're able to get local wheat, barley, and rye, you've got no real need for rice. Losing access to rice would mean a bit more monotonous diet, but it isn't going to be something which does you any great harm.

"I agree with Stuart that thousand acre grain farms will be with us for a long time...but it won't be too many years before Sharon's tomatoes (in season) are cheaper (she's in NY state) than ones irrigated and shipped from California."

Well, I might go a bit further, as "in season" is the rub, isn't it? Local tomatoes in season are already plenty cheap enough. But for many months of the year, nothing is "in season" in places like New York. Even the delicious but ferociously expensive hoop-house spinach gives out once winter really sets in. As long as they can do otherwise, people are not going to eat only roots and starches for eight months of the year. And the Bubble Wrap Generations are not going to appreciate being re-introduced to the hazards of home canning. (You insist that it is murder? But it seems to me of the most natural that he should have died from the canned food. I'm quite sure the fictional Hercule Poirot said something roughly like that.) A lot of the home-canned food from my grandparents' generation wasn't really all that palatable, and the much higher temps and longer times in today's guidelines only make it far worse.

By the time rail shipment of California vegs would become so cost-prohibitive as to virtually cease, so much else would have gone pear-shaped as to invalidate any scenario that Jeff, Sharon, Stuart, you, or I could possibly cook up today - any survivalist farmettes might well be burnt-out cinders. In the meantime, people will be wanting shipped-in food even with some drift towards localization. Wintertime demand for Californa vegs will remain in any scenario that it makes sense to address.

There is another interesting issue on the other side. Check with your local supermarket, and if someone is willing to talk, you may well discover that as a pre-condition to receive any California produce in winter, they must agree NOT to sell local or other produce. A change in Federal regs that voided those exclusivity clauses might have a very substantial effect, but, since California seems to have special powers to dictate laws to the whole country, I don't know that it could ever happen.

Finally, there is the pesky little matter of the immense variability of the weather combined with a now staggering population. People who fail - for whatever reason - to maintain the capability to ship considerable quantities of food (and energy too) over considerable distances will end up prematurely dead. That threat, especially after a few actual 'incidents', might well concentrate minds onto otherwise despised 'techo-fixes' rather more wonderfully than hard-core doomers might like.

Check with your local supermarket, and if someone is willing to talk, you may well discover that as a pre-condition to receive any California produce in winter, they must agree NOT to sell local or other produce.

Interesting. Here, the local Whole Foods has started hosted local farmers in it's parking lot on certain days in order to attract customers. It pisses off people that drive to the Whole Foods since the lot was already so small, but they get most of their traffic from walkers I guess and they were losing their produce sales to the twice weekly farmers market.

A lot of the home-canned food from my grandparents' generation wasn't really all that palatable, and the much higher temps and longer times in today's guidelines only make it far worse.

I'm willing to bet that you haven't had any real canned homegrown tomatoes or applesauce recently.

Check with your local supermarket, and if someone is willing to talk, you may well discover that as a pre-condition to receive any California produce in winter, they must agree NOT to sell local or other produce. A change in Federal regs that voided those exclusivity clauses might have a very substantial effect, but, since California seems to have special powers to dictate laws to the whole country, I don't know that it could ever happen.

I'm amazed at such statements; where do you get this kind of 'information'?

Giant has been selling local produce at its 193 stores during the summer months since 1994—but with little revelry. The move to brand the Roadside Stand program came in response to other grocery chains that were starting to market their own local produce.

"Where do you get...?"

By actually asking business people, as it always seemed strange, say, to see nothing but California cauliflower in any of the stores when the farmers' market was awash in the local kind. And having no reason to disbelieve, as exclusivity clauses are as common as dirt in many businesses, even when they drive up costs. Patents, copyrights, and market power are the usual culprits. In this case it would clearly be market power - come December and you're planning to sell...what? Keep arguing or sign here, your choice. I found it utterly believable that growers capable of operating year round would certainly never allow their costly capital to sit underutilized in the summer, to whatever extent they were able to reduce seasonality by using such clauses. Any other behavior would be actionable dereliction of fiduciary duty. Oh, and yes, believe it or not, this world contains information that is not publicly posted on the web.

So if Giant can get away with it, good on them, and good for their customers. Maybe they have sharper negotiators. Maybe market power is finally shifting (Giant's program is fairly new, after all) and the shift just hasn't made it to the cold north yet. The District's short not-quite-winter might help (when they get a whiff of real winter, they shut down tight.) Up here with many long months when nothing is in season, it may be a bit harder to say "no" to the clauses.

Meanwhile, I'm not yet seeing seasonal local produce for sale outside the farmers' markets, except in very expensive boutique and "whole paycheck" store. If you can get it for a decent price on the same trip as the rest of your groceries, by all means go for it.

So you are simply speculating about grocery 'exclusivity' programs.

Giant's program is fairly new, after all

14 year old program is hardly 'new'. If you're not seeing it where you live, you might not be paying attention. Otherwise, share the names of the grocery chains that refuse to offer local produce.

When we asked around here a few years ago, Safeway wasn't interested in local produce, but Rays was. Those are the two big ones in my town, with Safeway accounting for about 56% of the grocery share. So local produce is locked out of at least half the customer base. I have sold through a locally owned store called Mariposa Market without trouble. They label it if it is grown locally, even will say it came from my farm. In other cities nearby I know that Harvest Market promotes local produce.

Hannaford Bros. has not signed such a deal. They carry local produce in season, local potatos and mushrooms 365 days a year. At least for now, if California tries for that kind of exclusivity, Florida and Mexico are happy to take our money.

Interesting, as I was just speculating that Giant's fairly new program might owe its existence in part to shifting market power. Maybe the dreaded international trade that we should be shutting down in order to beat a retreat into the "community" oriented wonders of the 18th century is actually having a beneficial effect by providing competition and opening up the market. What a thought.

What sort of a dolt dies from home canned food? I can recall having to clear a layer of mold from the top of a wax sealed jar of jam a couple of times, but even then what is underneath is fine. I've never had nor heard of any other troubles ... or maybe mom is just a pressure cooker ninja?


My understanding is that there are no outward signs of contamination, and the food does not taste different...(that's based on the only case I know of...semi-firsthand).

The info at CDC is worth a read:

An excerpt:

Botulism can be prevented. Foodborne botulism has often been from home-canned foods with low acid content, such as asparagus, green beans, beets and corn. However, outbreaks of botulism from more unusual sources such as chopped garlic in oil, chile peppers, tomatoes, improperly handled baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, and home-canned or fermented fish. Persons who do home canning should follow strict hygienic procedures to reduce contamination of foods. Oils infused with garlic or herbs should be refrigerated. Potatoes which have been baked while wrapped in aluminum foil should be kept hot until served or refrigerated. Because the botulism toxin is destroyed by high temperatures, persons who eat home-canned foods should consider boiling the food for 10 minutes before eating it to ensure safety. Instructions on safe home canning can be obtained from county extension services or from the US Department of Agriculture. Because honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum and this has been a source of infection for infants, children less than 12 months old should not be fed honey. Honey is safe for persons 1 year of age and older. Wound botulism can be prevented by promptly seeking medical care for infected wounds and by not using injectable street drugs.

"usually less than 100 lb of produce, typically on a 3/4 ton pickup."

An excellent point. If it becomes unlikely for centralized ag to function, then these same factors will derail other ag. I really don't forsee 5 mile donkey cart transport of vegetables for quite some time in the US.

In today's smorgasboard of farmer's markets, you run the gamut of techniques and technologies to produce, prepare, package and transport the offering. Commercial fertilizers and pesticides, an array of garden tools and machines, styrofoam coolers, plastic bags, some stalls/displays seemingly out-doing large commercial chains.

I was impressed in the past with Seattle's Pike Street Market(not really a model or example anymore, I know), years ago mainly a fish monger's stall, with not more than ice, newspaper, and a fillet knife. But even with the fish mongers that are left there, the catch is industrial, from the seven seas.

When the oil supply/demand ratio becomes really tight, it will be much easier to haul produce to market if one is a local farmer;

How amusing, but I could not fail to notice that this little train is on a dead flat paved surface in perfect weather.

Many people will need to be moving heavy loads under far less perfect conditions. The domain of applicability of this thing may therefore approach zero. In any world that has no choice but to resort to this sort of thing, there will be few dead flat paved surfaces. Ordinary guys like him or us will have access to none of them. Run this contraption up the slightest grade, and you'll be gearing it so far down that the produce will liquefy long before it has crept anywhere near its destination. Run it along a wet dirt road and it won't budge, the rear wheel of the bicycle will just dig itself ever deeper for as long as he can pedal it.

Consider that there might just have been reasons why people resorted to using beasts of burden until small engines were invented.

Speaking of small engines, it might well require less net land - even now, much less if we ever get cellulosic anything - to grow something, convert it to biofuel, and run the right size engine, than to grow the extra food to feed that guy. He's not going to be hauling that thing cost-free just on his basal metabolism. And it goes without saying that if he injures himself trying to ease the contraption down a slight grade, the medical bills might easily exceed all that he could ever earn that in such a manner even in five lifetimes.

I could not fail to notice that this little train is on a dead flat paved surface in perfect weather.

You want cold, snowy, wet, non-flat surfaces? No problem;

Speaking of small engines, it might well require less net land - even now, much less if we ever get cellulosic anything - to grow something, convert it to biofuel, and run the right size engine, than to grow the extra food to feed that guy. He's not going to be hauling that thing cost-free just on his basal metabolism.

Utter speculation, as usual, on your part. First, you need to subtract out all the calories that most citizens of developed countries such as the US, UK, etc eat far in excess of their requirements. And as you may not be aware, people who exercise regularly burn calories much more efficiently. On top of that, exercise can moderate the appetite. If you didn't know any of the above, we can supply you references.

Clever change of subject on your part, relative to the original picture. Congratulations.

At least the guys in these new pix are sensible, unlike the folks who made the original one. The thousand-pound train is gone (a big change of subject), and in both cases there is just a single trailer. And the load distribution is much more sensible - the guy with the bigger load has some of the load riding on the same wheelbase as he is. He'll have a much better chance of getting going than the guy with the thousand-pound train. The downside is that the gross exaggeration of productivity in the original picture is utterly gone. Look at how much one guy can do!!! Well, no, in the real world he can't and in your pix he doesn't.

As to snow, there is no snow on those road surfaces and, as the puddles look to be liquid, no ice. Those streets are merely damp. Now, that might serve as an excuse for winter in Texas or coastal California, but it simply is not winter. It does not even resemble winter. Winter is when there is an inch or three of rutted hard packed snow and glare ice on streets like that, the temperature is 5F, and the wind is 25mph. Under such conditions, there will be issues with erratic wind load on those crates, and the original 1000-pound train will be going nowhere.

Now, there is normally no great difficulty with bicycles and trailers on damp but well-paved surfaces, nor did I ever indicate otherwise. However, in a world so far gone as to require folks to do stuff in that manner, they're not going to be doing it on those nice paved streets. In wet weather, they're going to be doing it in rutted mud. Your two guys may be able to do it in mud if they gear down far enough. The original guy with the thousand pound train is going nowhere at all in mud, except possibly downhill and out of control until he flips and the wagons roll over him and grind to a stop. The train is just too heavy compared to the locomotive.

"Eat far in excess of their requirements..." Nope. In a world so far gone as to require folks to do stuff in that manner, there will not be a whole lot of obesity. That horizon will recede. Most people will be near their lean weight, and they will need to eat extra in order to do this sort of thing, just as highly fit athletes must do today. All the wishful thinking in the world will not even begin to disconserve energy. At 30% efficiency and given that humans are limited in the kinds of plant materials they can digest, there may very readily be better means than this to get sheer haulage done. Until a century ago, the usual means was beasts of burden - and in crowded regions especially, ruminants, as they could digest cellulose and so competed less directly with people for plant material. But a century ago, good small engines did not yet exist, nor did small, efficient electric motors. So however romantic the past might seem, in artworks with stout strong men and oxen and horses and hay wains (and the misery omitted), the future just might not retrace it.

The downside is that the gross exaggeration of productivity in the original picture is utterly gone. Look at how much one guy can do!!! Well, no, in the real world he can't and in your pix he doesn't.

Granted that people living in mountainous areas are going to find themselves needing more energy than others for transportation, the photos provided are real life photos of people performing work using bike trailers. The company that produces the bike trailers started out as a bike-powered delivery business. Electric motor hubs are easy to add to bikes. I realize you claim that bike delivery can't be done in every possible set of weather conditions, but reality shows otherwise for the vast majority of the time, especially for the small farmer scenario mentioned above.

Those streets are merely damp. Now, that might serve as an excuse for winter in Texas or coastal California, but it simply is not winter.

The second set of pictures I provided is from a house-moving in Ottawa and the one above is from Iowa, so your claim to bike delivery only being viable in Texas or California doesn't hold water. And don't assume small holding farmers (the subject of this subthread) would need to be taking 1000 lbs of produce to market weekly during the depths of winter in the North.

To add to the list of 'On the one hand...On the other hand'

OTOH As one poster points out, local weather variations can cause problems for local gardens. Though regional droughts can cause problems with large-scale farming, the large-scale paradigm may do better with quirky weather.

OTOH The dangers of mono-cropping are pretty well documented. A destructive wheat blight (I've read of one returning in Africa) could be devastating, especially along with regional droughts.

Ideally, in my mind, as others have suggested, a mix of industrial and localized would be the most resilient and provide the best possible quality.

To PaulS: I have eaten home canned vegetables, meats and fruits for years and found them consistently far and away better than commercially canned foods. Your forbears must not have known what they were doing with the canning. And pressure canning properly done is quite efficient.

Perhaps they didn't, I had heard remarks hinting in that direction. OTOH, it wouldn't be the first time a homemande item was not as good as a reasonably well-made commercial item.

You must not get to sample much in the way of home-grown, home-canned produce. Next time you are in Virginia, let me know and I'll give you a jar of applesauce.

OTOH, it wouldn't be the first time a homemande item was not as good as a reasonably well-made commercial item.

Serious ? There certainly are things where commercially massed produced items tend to be better than homemade. Circuit boards for example. But food ?

Well, there are a lot of good "all organic" brands out there.

What has held back the re-localization of food production has been the lack of a viable business model. But now a growing corps of first generation farmers around the U.S. and Canada are growing commercially in their backyards and front lawns using SPIN-Farming. SPIN is a non-technical, easy-to-learn, inexpensive-to-implement farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land under an acre in size. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the 2 big barriers to entry for new farmers – they don’t need a lot of land or money, and it makes farming compatible with densely populated areas. SPIN is as close to a franchise-ready farming system as you can get while still respecting the creative and place-based nature of farming. Start-up investment ranges from $5,350 for a 5,000 square foot hobby farm to $15,700 for a full acre full-time farm, with gross revenue ranging from $16,900 for the hobby farm to $60,000+ for the acre model. As this trend continues, thousands of small plots will be competing successfully with thousands of acres of monocrops. It won't be an either/or scenario.

I'll be checking out your info. Sounds like something useful for getting my family off the grid, but keeping them well-fed.

As for the topic, I think the entire conversation can start and end with watching the video about Cuba's Peak Oil experience.


No, the conversation cannot begin and end with that Cuba film. I really wish people would think more critically about it.

— Cuba mobilized its state resources to bring about the results depicted in that film. That will never happen in the US, and probably not in most industrialized geographies. Here in the US, the federal government governs the populace on behalf of industry. It is not going to suddenly switch gears; it will continue milking Main Street for every dollar it can, on behalf of its industrial backers, regardless of who suffers. And in fact, there are laws and regulations in place that make it difficult to implement the Cuba solutions here legally -- for example, it is illegal to keep chickens or other farm animals within the city limits of most towns and cities; doing anything that smells bad will bring fines and possibly litigation; having a yard that looks like its overgrown with shrubs and weeds will also bring fines and possibly litigation.

— Cuba's climate is exceedingly different than most climates in the world. Most of their methods cannot be simply transferred to cold and/or dry climates with any but seasonal success.

— Cuba's population is ethnically homogenous, with a rather unified culture and worldview, and lacking in massive wealth gaps between the rich and poor. I seriously doubt whether the methods depicted in the film can be successfully adopted by (or imposed upon) any community in the US except for a small number of white, rich, and overwhelmingly leftist communities on the west coast.

— In the US, and in most industrialized nations, petroleum availability is not going to simply drop off the face of the earth as it did in Cuba. The crisis will not be immediately evident as it was there, leaving much room for continued oil dependency even as that dependency kills us. Cuba went cold turkey; that won't happen elsewhere, and as such, it will be far more difficult to get people on board with Cuban solutions.

— A great many people in the US at least will simply refuse to do something that came from Cuba. Because, you know, they're the commie terrorist enemy and all.

— Finally, how much of the original footage, interviews and such got cut? Like all films, the Cuba film was edited. What got left out? And why? How much of the bigger picture have we been shielded from?

There is no panacea for peak oil, no silver bullet. It is a grave mistake to think that Cuba film presents one, and especially one that can be universally applied with such success everywhere.

I really wish people would think more critically about it.

I should have been more explicit. I was referring only to the specific question of large farms vs. localization/re-localization. The Cuban model relies on both (with the local being more productive according to the video). I have already posted on whether the Cuban model works elsewhere, but you would be unlikely to know those views. Sorry for the ambiguity. Your little jab is forgiven you. ;)

This is, to me, a common sense issue. Both have pretty much always existed, both exist now, both will exist in the future. While an interesting mental exercise, the debate is only that.

The real question to be asked is where and in what conditions should we consider one over the other, or, one in greater proportion to the other?


I'd like to throw one other thought in here again.

Efficiency and optimisation in the centralisation vs decentralisation debate is all very well. However its important to recognise that decisions will be made against the backdrop of deaths resulting from reliance on supplies from long distances drying up.

In that I expect most regions will seek to be self sufficient in at least the essentials of everyday life. "Never again" will be the cry to the idea that the population of one area should be dependent on others for their very existence.

Essentials will localise to reduce risk, not necessarily because of efficiency concerns.

This makes me think of the Chacoan sysystem. Chaco Canyon, in modern day New Mexico, was (according to what most anthropologists now think) a center for the collection and distribution of food surpluses to its peripheral settlements, all of which were periodically prone to devastating droughts. The problem encountered at Chaco was this: when each of these peripheral settlements had to provide for their own food, there was a tight limit imposed on how large they could grow because of the effects of periodic drought/crop failure. However, when Chaco Canyon took on the role of taking surplus in good years and providing emergency relief in bad years, it allowed these peripheral civilizations to grow to population levels that could not be sustained on their own--they depended on the redistribution function of the central site. A prolonged and widespread drought that affected most of the periphery at once caused the system to collapse--with individual settlements facing a larger population than they could reliably support on their own. This seems similar to the relocalization of agriculture problem--many areas are simply too densely populated to realistically sustain themselves from local agricultural production. So, in this sense, I think that Stuart is right that the process won't be smoothly reversible--it will require some steps sufficiently jolting (e.g. a form of collapse) to facilitate relocalization. People will say "never again," but until we solve the issues of growth and population we'll just collapse back and begin to re-centralize. Avoiding this would take careful and widespread conscious action by individuals without central direction--something at which humans have a very poor history of succeeding.

Jeff - although I'm by no means certain, my intuition aligns strongly with the analogy to Chaco Canyon that you lay out here - we are in a situation where we (collectively) have no good choice other than to figure out how to fix up our global civilization so it isn't so hard on the planet, but instead becomes more sustainable over time. I like the analogy a lot.

I share the sense of many here that this in enormous challenge, but I strongly feel that we should not accept defeat just because the barbarians are now clearly visible on the horizon. It's not the case that all societies facing massive challenges buckle and collapse (FDR and the depression, Churchill and WWII, etc). And this is the main message of Jared Diamond's book - societies facing a crisis have choices: dumb choices will cause a collapse, good choices will lead to the society surviving after a lean time and prospering again. And that's why I think our main work as a society is analyzing all the available options as thoroughly as possible so that we understand the possibilities and the tradeoffs and can make a wise decision.

I admit it's discouraging that the mainstream of society is having this conversation in a very disjointed and surreal manner. However, I find in private conversations that smart educated people everywhere are far more knowledgeble than one might think from reading the newspaper. My wife said this morning that ecological collapse had become one of those topics like sex and religion that everyone thinks about a lot, but it's not discussed in polite company, and I think she has an interesting insight.

I agree--I think that we definitely have a choice here, and that it is not impossible to reform civilization to make it truly sustainable and compatible with human needs. I do worry that this may not be practicable, but my pessimism on that point waxes and wanes. I like your wife's analogy, but it raises one of my own: we can end war everywhere, permanently, and tomorrow--all it takes is everyone agreeing not to fight. Of course, that won't happen. It's possible, but not practicable or reasonable. I think we're faced with a similar--though less hopeless--situation for civilization. In my opinion, the sine qua non of solving our problem is a solution to the problem of growth. If we can't figure out a way to move beyond a need to continually grow--in population, in consumption, in economic production--then I feel that any measure merely pushes the "reckoning" onto later generations, which I consider morally problematic to say the least. I think that there are very real ways to "solve" the growth problem, but I have serious doubts about the realism of thinking that humanity will elect that path voluntarily, rather than have it forced upon us via collapse in one form or another. I think that the work that you and Nate Hagens have done on the discount rate of the future is very important here--I don't see a realistic solution to our problems that doesn't include significant short term sacrifice for long term good, and significant individual sacrifice for collective good, things that we have a very spotty history of as humans. I fundamentally agree that we shouldn't give up the hope for a solution, but I find myself increasingly pessimistic about the willingness of the collective to make the tough choices to implement any solution that we do find...

It's worth noting that the conclusions of your essay and Stuart's are not incompatible.

Your position is that at some point (in terms of cost or availability of energy) local agriculture will supplant centralized ag.

Stuart's analysis suggests that as energy costs increase modestly relative to current costs, this will favor centralized industrial agriculture.

These positions do not contradict each other. If we accept both of them as true, then it's obvious that we will go through a period which favors greater centralization of agriculture before we reach the point where centralized agriculture is no longer favorable and it is replaced (slowly or quickly) with distributed agriculture.

And this is the main message of Jared Diamond's book - societies facing a crisis have choices: dumb choices will cause a collapse, good choices will lead to the society surviving after a lean time and prospering again.

I fully agree with this statement, though I also share Jeff's concerns about the likelihood of people being willing to accept (additional -- above and beyond what is imposed by immediate scarcity) sacrifice in the short term for the sake of long-term benefits. We're not well wired for such choices, and we are particularly bad a choosing to embrace change that is not forced upon us.

My fear is that we (as a species) will make dumb choices but in a clever fashion. That is, we will try very hard to maintain the status quo -- ultimately investing far more effort than would be required to transition to a sustainable society -- and we will succeed in that we will stretch out the failure so that it happens slowly, over a course of decades. If energy/resource costs increase slowly for the next 30-50 years, and then finally we hit the point where centralized agriculture no longer is possible, people will "stream to smallholdings" only to discover that ALL of the land is now owned by a few corporations and powerful individuals, the legacy of a long period of consolidation and shrinking profit margins.

Every system incurs losses. So how far out do we map this thing before we are allowed to call it "truly sustainable"? 100 years? 1000 years? 10,000? A million? A billion? Oh wait a minute, I've reached the range where the sun becomes bright enough to cause a runaway greenhouse. So where to stop? At a zero discount rate? So we always 'save' every last scrap for the 'future' - which would be, after all, just another name for death? What, then, to choose? Who decides? The usual array of self-righteous moralizers with their well-worn social and religious agendas?

What are those human "needs"? Is any sort of art or culture a "need"? Or is the goal merely to pack in as many people as possible, barely surviving in ever more miserable poverty, knowing nothing save for mindless toil? What would be the point? But, again, who decides? Conversely, should "civilization" decide on population control - which is where this must eventually lead no matter how much 'conservation' and 'efficiency' might be brought into play - and even one group refuses, then what? And as to "civilization"? if that grand unified governing collective ever were brought into being, how long before that other modern shibboleth, "diversity", tore it to shreds again? Ten minutes?

Grand projects tend to incur exponentially growing mission creep and corruption which, together, cause them to collapse of their own weight. So is there any manageable way to go about this? Anything short of hallucinating a neat mathematical impracticality pretending to solve, at one blow, everything for everyone who will ever live in all of eternity? That seems to be what "sustainability" is coming to denote, but what use is it amidst the messiness of the real world?

Stewart's wife seems to be onto something - as with sex and religion (especially when they interact...), the domain of the problem as it is now being posed is simply too much to cope with.

And perhaps the normal human way of thinking about problems is not so daft, and you usually get better results by behaving in the fairly pragmatic way that most societies typically do, rather than forming a hypothesis, which is usually held to be beneficial for some generation removed from the present, as the results at the moment are so self-evidently poor.
The reason Plato's philosopher kings are not usually allowed anywhere near the levers of power, and when they do make a monumental hash of it, is because they tend to disappear up their own theories.
Give me a practical, moderately venal politician anytime! - they live in the same world as the rest of us.
The reason self-interest works so often and so effectively in politics is the same as that given by Adam Smith in 'The Wealth of Nations' for economics - people know their own interests far better than any politician, or self appointed elite, and the action of the many often leads to the greatest progress, certainly when compared to any conceivable 'Grand Plan'
It is simply impossible in the real world to think of everything, so you can't make an 'answer to everything'
As an exercise, try imagining what a 'Grand Plan' would have looked like 40 years ago - what would have been it's policy in relation to the internet, for instance?
Most people will only react, and policy will only be formed, after shortages are apparent, and when the cost of the present way of doing things gets expensive.
Some may say that that is folly, but in the real world uncertainties are too great, and you would incur too many costs to do anything effective if you followed the would-be-wise 'precautionary principle'
To take one example relevant to this blog, supposing we successfully build plug-in hybrids within the next few years, and then full electric cars powered by nuclear or solar energy- this would certainly greatly moderate the effects of not having so much oil, and had you diverted resources excessively to conservation it might have been both costly and futile.
We are none of us wise enough to do much more than muddle through, and those who think they can provide proscriptive plans are the biggest fools of all.

I share the sense of many here that this in enormous challenge, but I strongly feel that we should not accept defeat just because the barbarians are now clearly visible on the horizon.

But just what would you regard as "defeat", Stuart? Your apparent dislike of powerdown and relocalisation makes me wonder if, by defeat, you mean transitioning to a different societal organisation, with an economy that is not recognisable, by today's standards. I wouldn't regard this as defeat. Not only do we need to move to a "more sustainable" society, we need to move to a "sustainable" society (or as close as we can get). That would be a fantastic achievement.


Partnership to help and support over difficult times is one thing - but reliance is another step entirely. If you cast your mind to a point post the inevitable turmoil that will be associated with an energy decline I think those that survive will view their personal sustainability as a key decision factor.

There is an idea that centralised command and control is necessary - usually by those that currently hold the reins. However there is a world of difference between partnership of equals and C&C. I expect that distributed partnership will be much more of a model for the future - rewriting the basics of how we put together civilisation by hard learnt lessons. Lessons learnt in blood take centuries to fade.

Reversion is largely a red herring. I won't happen because of the experiences we've had have taught us different, and can't happen because the progress of civilisation is not supportive of replaying exactly the same path (it gets worn out).

Emperors will try to rise, but I doubt they will find the traction they need in a world that will above all blame those in power for the fall.

I think addressing the philosophical issues at hand are important. When looking at sustainable agriculture/permaculture methods, I think we are likely to find a particular attitude towards food growth that comes in conflict with monocropped/centralized agriculture. Masanobu Fukuoka, for example, tends to think that most modern scientific advancements in agriculture are overly complex ways to solve problems and end up causing more problems. Let's say we have centralized agriculture, which relies heavily on chemical inputs and high energy use (transportation, big combines, etc), and now we realize that the things that allowed us to do that (formerly slaves, now fossil fuels) are no longer looking as viable. It seems a fool's errand to try to make that work, when it is a simple thing that we are trying to do: Take a seed, put it in the ground. I can do this in a few minutes with the wrens and robins calling out from their perches in the early morning sun. What a delight!

One of Fukuoka's other important points is this: We cannot improve upon the Natural Way. Earth is very good at producing healthy, vibrant living systems. Humans came out of that, but then seemed to get this notion that we could do things better and more efficiently (hubris, the cause of the the fall from grace). This has led to ruin. How does Nature create her systems so that they are resilient, so that they are strong and stable? Diversity in each region, and diversity across regions. A society which relies on food that is monocropped and exists in the hands of a few, centralized powers (Big Ag) is not a resilient system and takes a great deal of human effort to keep going because it is ecologically weak.

If I may add a comment...and this may just be another way of saying the same thing you're saying, but here goes.

Stuart Staniford's analysis of the future trends of industrial agriculture is rather like climatologists trying to predict the future of global climate change. If I may run with the analogy:
We know that human produced carbon dioxide has become a significant forcing factor in the global climate system.
But to try and predict exactly what the effect of that forcing factor will be is simply futile. The Earth may warm, it may cool, the weather may simply become more chaotic and violent. But these are all just educated guesses.

The global climate system is rather like our human social systems. They are complex dynamical systems (i.e., chaotic) and it is really impossible to predict what will happen. You can only say what will happen if current trends continue the way they've been going. But it only takes one butterfly in China to disturb the equilibrium of the dynamical system and by analogy, the same goes for human society. Stuart Staniford claiming (by his analysis) that industrial agriculture will strengthen in the face of energy scarcity is like a climatologist saying that the world's oceans will have risen by at least 20 ft by the end of the century. It's a wild guess based on things keeping on going as they are now. It is simply impossible to factor in everything that matters.

Except that the climatologists have many, many orders of magnitudes more BPHr (brainpower-hrs) devoted to their research, and hence have gone through many, many more iterations of data collection, peer-review correction, and comparison of early models to actual climate trends over decades.

I have no doubt Stuart can reinforce his thesis given enough time, though I would not be surprised if it evolved over time. When he obtains this level of agreement, then we can talk about comparisons to climatological research.

Quoting from the wikipedia article you cited:

The world's leading climate scientists said global warming has begun, is very likely caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries, ... . The phrase very likely translates to a more than 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused by man's burning of fossil fuels. That was the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.
The report said that an increase in hurricane and tropical cyclone strength since 1970 more likely than not can be attributed to man-made global warming. The scientists said global warming's connection varies with storms in different parts of the world, but that the storms that strike the Americas are global warming-influenced.

I probably should never have used climatology as an analogy. As it seems to have done to you, it makes people upset so that they miss the point of the analogy. I'm trying to explain the futility of making specific predictions in chaotic systems, not questioning the science of climatology. For what it's worth, I'm not a climatologist, but I do study complex dynamical systems. The above quotation makes my point perfectly. The scientific consensus is that human-made greenhouse gases have had an effect on the global climate. Please note however, the quoted statements are postdictions, not predictions. With hindsight, scientists are comfortable attributing changes in temperature and storm strength to the increase in greenhouse gases (coming from human activity). You should note, they don't have and predictions in the scientific consensus. Maybe this is a little strong, but the scientific consensus prediction in climatology is that we're in for big changes. It is much harder to predict what those changes will be because, as I was trying to make my point, the climate is chaotic and therefore inherently unpredictable.

We have a better understanding of your analogy, thanks for the clarification.

Climatologist do make predictions wrt global warming, i.e. the American Geophysical Union (among others)

The observed rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice is expected to continue and lead to the disappearance of summertime ice within this century.

In his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery expands on several historical, failed conversions from decentralized to centralized agriculture.

The main lesson seems to be that most decentralized forms of agriculture are attemping to wrest maximum financial return from the soil rather than sustainable yields of food.

Integrated farming methods such as Joel Salatin (of Polyface farms) and Wes Jackson (The Land Institute) practice are a way to provide more food per acre than large industrial farming as well as providing meat in a way that improves the soil and productivity.

PO or no PO decentralized integrated farming may have to be our future

Learning from historical anecdotes? How quaint. Where are your speadsheets, your graphs ? /sarcasm

Sounds like an interesting book!


I completely agree that correlation does not prove causation - I simply presented the past history as one piece of evidence that that industrial agriculture is not close to being in trouble yet.

My main near-term causal argument was biofuels arbitrage - you did not address this.

Finally, I completely agree that there is some price of energy (not necessarily oil) at which decentralization would be more efficient than centralization. However, to turn this into an argument that decentalization of agriculture is inevitable, you'd need to establish that the various possible substitute forms of energy cannot come to the rescue in time. In particular, in your introduction you said "but that we will likely cross this threshold in the not-too-distant future and should prepare accordingly" but the argument in your piece for the "not-too-distant" part is extremely weak (a general allusion with neither links nor details that if one accepts gloomy energy scenarios, then decentralization of agriculture can be anticipated "within a generation or two". A generation or two is plenty of time to lose one's shirt, and you would need to address why agriculture cannot be run without oil, given that oil is not the only energy source available to our descendants.

"plenty of time to lose one's shirt..."

That is an important point. The government subsidizes the big ag, and has many policies that discourage small ag near population centers (though this is changing in some places).

I don't think food security should be primarily placed in the realm of profit-making. Stuart's essay on discounting the future--"Net present value of grandchildren"--is a good argument why not. Do we ask that the military our our school system make profits? Is having a safe food supply as important to our national security as the military and good, universal education?

In a for-profit system short-term goals make sustainable practices nigh impossible, especially if one is in debt. This is why small-scale farmers are also turning to CSA models and land-trusts to help them pay up-front for capital investments and secure land tenure without debt, and then negotiate a long-term lease for their land with a fair wage. It is a form of socialized agriculture without any government assistance.

Most farmers are happy to do good work and have some kind of economic sufficiency and stability--not getting rich. I think this is true for most people though you wouldn't guess that from our casino economy.

But where is the data-driven case to show that the food supply is insecure?

Given the truly massive surplus of food calories currently produced in the US, we really do need to see it.

In addition, the idea that the unemployed as individuals will be allowed to starve in hard economic times doesn't hold water either based on the past century of US history. In fact, it's hard to find grounds for it even going far beyond the US.

For instance, post WWII British citizens submitted to tight rationing so that their vanquished enemies in Germany could be fed. My relatives told me once that the immediate post-war rationing was worse than war-time.

Actually wikipedia backs it up:

Rationing continued after the end of the war. In fact, it became stricter after the end of the war than it had been during it. Bread, which was not rationed during the war, was rationed beginning in 1946. This was largely due to the necessity of feeding the population of European areas coming under Allied control, whose economies had been devastated by the fighting. Sweet rationing ended in February 1953, and sugar rationing ended in September of that year. The final end of all rationing did not come until 1954 with bananas.

So, even if one wants to play with disaster scenarios, it seems highly unlikely that anybody in the US is going to starve.

It seems as if the real drive behind what you are doing is not security, it's self-sufficiency. (Two very different things)

My thoughts on the food security situation are here:

We currently face primarily an ability to pay problem for a good chunk of the U.S. population (and a bigger chunk of the poorer parts of the world). They are likely to find adequate calories overall, but go through periods of spot shortages and consume low quality food that worsens their health. The social cohesion brought on by war and Churchillian leadership is not so evident right now in the U.S., but could happen again.

But you seem not to know about or agree with other food security issues that I consider more medium-long-term, and I don't think I have the time to go into those right now.

Hi George,

Interesting point.

re: "But where is the data-driven case to show that the food supply is insecure?"

I suppose it depends on how one defines insecurity.

My first reaction to this is to say "you mean insecure under scenarios of FF shortages and/or electricity shortages/blackouts" - ?

I believe it's possible to show that under conditions of shrinking energy inputs in general, there are predictable breakdowns in what we might call the continuing supply chain. This would apply to agricultural "products" in a similar fashion as with any other outputs.

A few points for discussion;

1. Natural gas feedstocks for fertilizer is indeed problematic in the US; in fact, 50% of fertilizer used in the US is now imported. Hence, continued industrial farming practices will increase dependence on foreign energy sources.

2. Distances to market for highly-centralized farming practices will eventually price their produce out of the market, given increasing petroleum prices.

3. Agriculture can indeed be run without oil as our ancestors showed, though that argues for decentralized farming practices, especially if the cost of oil is so high as to discourage its use in agriculture, most certainly it would discourage its use in transporting produce over long distances. Can't see JD's blog from here (blocked), but I'm assuming he may be referring to this or similar electric tractors, which are interesting, though no real analysis has been done to show how sustainable these could be on a highly-centralized farming scheme.

Of course, many factors may favor a well-mixed assortment of centralized and de-centralized agriculture efforts, so consider the possibility that the outcome may not be just one or the other.

Stuart- I think reasonableness of the causal inference in the near term is quite strong, so I really don't dispute what you're saying about near term trends. And, I agree, that my "not-too-distant future" hunch is just that. I think, however, that given the uncertainties and unknowns involved, the precautionary principle holds sway here--this is, however, necessarily a statement of opinion. I have no doubt that one could lose one's shirt quite quickly by trying to use small-scale farming to make a profit under the metrics of today's economic system--small-scale farming's value seems, to me, to lie in its resiliency in the ability to meet personal needs, of its compatibility with a simple and pleasing lifestyle, and other things that tend to fail to monetize well. I certainly wouldn't advocate taking up small-scale farming as a business decision--but I similarly wouldn't advocate making life decisions as though life was a business. I think that history clearly validates that centralized agriculture can be run very effectively without oil--the Romans did it in North Africa for centuries, for example--but there is a great distance between what can be done and what I think most people would like to see happen. So, while it is probably an unsatisfying answer, to me the efficiency of small-scale agriculture and relocalization must be measured by its ability to meet human needs (as defined by our genetic ontogeny, not the modern economy) consistently and resiliently in the face of a very uncertain future... defined by our genetic ontogeny

So, the claim is that small scale farming is in our genes. Hmmm......

Come on! Are you serious?

I don't think this is a reasonable reading of what I said. To clarify, human needs should be defined by our genetic ontogeny, not by the requirements of the modern market. Genetic ontogeny (course of development) doesn't refer to what's in our genes, but rather in what environment we evolved to function best. For an excellent treatment of this, try "The Original Affluent Society" by Marshal Sahlins, or my brief commentary.

I'm somewhat familiar with Sahlins work.

"The Original Affluent Society" is a reference to hunter-gatherer societies, not small scale farmers.

In fact, where ever the transition from H-G to farming has been documented, it has been observed to be quite wrenching. Nowhere in anthropology are agrarian tribes lumped with hunter-gatherers when considering lifestyle. They are very distinct ways of life.

Genetic ontogeny (course of development) doesn't refer to what's in our genes, but rather in what environment we evolved to function best.

You are implicitly saying that we have evolved to function better as small scale farmers. Believe it or not, "evolved" actually implies a genetic component. Is this news?

I believe he was referring to 'our human needs' defined by our ontogeny.

Well, the precautionary principle does not have clear implications. I would guess almost all of us in this discussion would agree that "Society cannot go on in the same way that it has been, something has to change or we will meet with disaster". The question is what changes would best meet the demands of our situation. And I wouldn't accept at all that the precautionary principle dictates relocalization as the right set of choices (for all the reasons I've articulated). Of course, I remain open to persuasion by someeone with a sufficiently compelling plan for how to go about it, and a sufficiently compelling refutation of the other possible courses of action.

...but there is a great distance between what can be done and what I think most people would like to see happen.

Yikes. Am I misunderstanding this? Are my eyes going? Do you really mean that you really think that "most people" yearn to throw their present lives over for a "simple", laborious, provincial existence being eaten alive by bugs as they watch plants grow on a working (not hobby) farmette? On what planet?

If so, then looking back not terribly many decades, when much of the population lived roughly in that manner, and then back further throughout all of history, why on earth did most people who ever had a real opportunity to move from the farm to the town or city grab it and run, even in eras when the city was a terribly, terribly dangerous and disease-ridden place?

Or is this "like to see" merely another idle wish "most people" in the lunatic humanities professoriate, in their capacity as would-be philosopher-kings, harbor not for their own comfortable, well-tenured selves, but for somebody else?

I mostly agree with Stuart's analysis. The future of agriculture is happening right now here in North Iowa if anyone cares to take the time to investigate actual evidence. Farms are in a sense being centralized in that large landowners are buying more land as small farmers die off or quit. Agriculture is being decentralized in the sense that the product no longer is shipped down the Mississippi for export but is consumed locally. Nearly all corn goes to the nearby ethanol plants which reduces dramatically the shipping costs compared to export. There is a large surplus of ethanol which is problematic to sell. Soybeans are crushed locally and the soy meal is fed to chickens and hogs in factories. The chicken manure from the company (named Golden Oval) is purchased by farmers for fertilizer since it is cheaper than conventional fertilizer. The hog manure from the hog factories is spread on the soybean fields in the fall making life miserable for me. The soy oil is sent to the local bio diesel plants for processing and blending with conventional diesel. I use it on my farm. There will be no limitation on North Iowa agriculture due to Peak Oil. Some farmers in fortuitous locations are able to lease crop land to wind farms and still farm the land under the wind turbines. The economy is humming right along with only Winnebago Industries showing understandable signs of stress.

Jeff's case rests on the idea that our energy sources will soon go into long term decline. There are at least two scenarios where this does not happen, where we have a major build up of nuclear power as well as Stuart's (in my view more far fetched) scenario for a dramatic PV buildup along with a world wide grid (Powering Civilization to 2050). In either case, with a reliable energy source, it will be possible to rebuild/maintain our transportation system and petrochemical system (for fertilizer, etc.) even without oil or gas, since the world has vast resources of low grade hydrocarbons that, with adequate energy, can be synthesized into what we need.

It is possible that the world will choose to abandon modern life and relocalize, even if we do not need to, but I doubt this will happen. It was interesting to recently consider the prospects for California's Mendocino county, a hotbed for that kind of sentiment, when it was pointed out how little agricultural land there actually is there. I do not think that model works with the world's current and projected population level and I do not think we will allow a big die off, if we do not need to, just because the end result might be what some think is a better world.

If I am right, all this relocalization nostalgia is kind of a waste of time, if our mission is really to think through our energy future. I think relocalization might seem more attractive to many people, and they are certainly welcome to pursue it personally, but I do not think it is a solution to the large scale system problem we face. If there is a way to build an alternative energy infrastructure, it is pretty likely that our capitalist system will make it happen. I do not think it is time to think about getting in the lifeboats when it is not clear the ship is likely to sink.

the world has vast resources of low grade hydrocarbons that, with adequate energy, can be synthesized into what we need.

You will find many here who consider this to be optimistic over-simplification. It completely ignores the infrastructure transitions that would need to occur. Robert Hirsch (we'll assume you've read his report to the US DoE) examined this and found that it would take 20 years to accomplish without serious economic impacts. It might take place in 10 years if government, industry, and the citizenry made a Grand Effort to put the necessary changes in place.

...we did what we think was the honest thing to do, namely, pose the problem, simplify it to the extent possible and reasonable, and then, see what the numbers tell you. And that's the way we approached the problem, and what we found out was very surprising. It was much worse than we anticipated. We had thought, for instance, that conservation could play a bigger role, much faster, than the numbers finally indicated. We knew it would take time to build substitute fuel plants, but we didn't really appreciate the magnitude of the challenge until we laid out the numbers and we laid out what could physically be done under the most optimistic conditions. And the conclusions were simply overwhelming. What we did was to assume three scenarios in order to illuminate a range of possibilities. One scenario was that definitive action would not be taken until the problem is evident. As we have said in this conversation, that's often times the way decisions are made on very large problems. Second scenario was one where we assumed that the world gets smart and anticipates the problem and begins definitive action 10 years before the problems strikes. And the third scenario is similar, but assumes that the world takes action 20 years before the problem strikes. Our purpose there was to get an idea of how the numbers fit with likely production decline after peak in order to see how big the problem really was. And our conclusion is that the world would have to take crash program action on a broad scale with basically everything that's available commercially or near commercially, and would have to start 20 years before the problem strikes in order to be able to avoid dire economic consequences for the world.

I have never said that there will not be a serious down turn as we transition to a new energy base. Just that we have the ability to pull out of it if we make the decision to try. I have advocated here many times for a World War II level mitigation effort on the order of 25% of GDP for a generation (the US spent 38% in 1944). More recently, I am beginning to believe it might not even require a big government intervention. We could double the world's nuclear power generation base for about $1 trillion, which is just 7% of US GDP for one year. We do not face an inevitable decline in energy use over the next 50 years, just a decline in most traditional sources (but not including nuclear, wind and solar).

Ah, a true cornucopian! Have you read the report I linked above? Could you provide some more substantial basis for your disagreement with Robert Hirsch? When do you foresee a peak in CO? Overall net liquid fuel energy? (note that 'net' takes into consideration natural gas feedstocks)

Not a cornucopian at all. I think oil is peaking in the next 5 years or so, gas in 5-10 and coal in 15-20. But we also have an essentially unlimited supply of fission fuel. I think we hit a carbon dioxide peak (is that what you meant?) in the 2020-2025 timeframe.

Liquid fuels peak with oil and transportation moves to an electrical base or one driven by electrical generation (e.g. hydrogen). Remaining fossil fuels are used for the hard to substitute like aviation fuels and as feedstocks for petrochemicals. Hundreds of years down the road we are down to oil shale and limestone as well as what we grow.

I have not read Hirsch but I do not think my ideas are at odds with his. I think it will take 20-40 years to mitigate peak fossil fuels completely. The downturn in between might be severe enough to wreck the world (with resource wars and the like) but it does not have to go that way and I do not think it will.

CO2 will not peak in 2025 or anywhere close to that. CO2 accumulates and takes centuries to come out of the atmosphere so the CO2 from last year and the year before and the decade before and the decade before that are all hanging around in the atmosphere. Minus certain small losses, the CO2 accumulation is purely additive so as long as we are burning fossil fuels, we will be adding to that total. The total CO2 in the atmosphere in 2100 will be roughly equal to all the CO2 emitted by fossil fuel sources since 1600 or so minus the loss factor.

However when Will Stewart said CO, I believe he was referring to crude oil.

I meant peak CO2 emission in that timeframe.

Peak crude oil would be between now and five years out.

What percentage more nuclear power do you believe would be needed to provide for our current growth in energy consumption while sunsetting our use of hydrocarbons?

I think we need about a 20 fold increase in nuclear power to rise to about 60% of all energy by 2050.

I did some calculations a while back and concluded that to replace all coal power with nukes within 20 years would require a new 1 gw nuke plant started every 12 days. That is 30 per year.

A linear rate of building (anything) is not a reasonable assumption. It is better to frame it in terms of what growth rate of the existing industry is required, and how reasonable that growth rate is compared to history (what would it take for the policy/economic environment to change in such a way as to make the industry grow faster).

A linear rate of building (anything) is not a reasonable assumption. It is better to frame it in terms of what growth rate of the existing industry is required, and how reasonable that growth rate is compared to history (what would it take for the policy/economic environment to change in such a way as to make the industry grow faster).

Here is what LevinK wrote in the comments for Stuart's PV Scenario from the other day: "Now let's look: the current value of all nuclear station in the world would be 380GW x 2.5bln/GW = 950bln.USD. These are providing 5.6% of all current primary energy or - 220x0.056 = 12.3 mln.boe/d". I am going to assume those number are correct.

So a 20 fold increase would require 7,600 GW, including replacement. Current generation reactors range from 1.0 to 1.6 GW so, over that period take an average of 1.5GW/reactor for 5,066 reactors or about 100/year worldwide for each of 50 years. They would provide 112% of current total primary energy. If this were 60% of total energy (plus 20% fossil fuels and 20% renewables), then the total would be 87% greater than today's total, which seems about right for 50 years from now.

So that would be about 25/year on average for the US which would cost $65.5 billion or .4% of current annual GDP. To me, that is an achievable number over that timeframe. That might seem like a lot but remember, I am not talking about business as usual. I am talking about what is understood as an existential crisis and a World War II level response.

So if you believe oil will peak in 5 years, what number of reactors would be needed to be built per year (don't assume linear) just to keep up with a 4% yearly decline? 8% yearly decline? Add onto that the number of reactors needed to replace coal by 2050, and then we'll have a projection closer to the replacement rate that makes sense.

Reactor programs aren't going to ramp up in 5 years. they would not really kick in full tilt for around 15 years.
So on the 4% scenario, you are looking at a drop of around 30% before the build really gets going.
On the 8% scenario you are looking at around a 55% drop.
I am not knowledgeable to give the figures you ask for for the world, but in the UK scenario I painted in reply involving conservation as well as build we would do rather well, as the conservation would kick in immediately, so within the first five years a lot of steps would be taken already, so overall energy use should be dropping.
There would be inconveniences due to lack of motor fuel, to be sure, but plans are already well advanced here to deliver goods by electric trucks to home addresses so not having a car would not be a show-stopper for most here until the nuclear component got going and electric cars were able to be easily fuelled.
The scenario I drew allowed for the phasing out of substantially all fossil fuels anyway not just coal over a period of around 35years so the build of about 3 per year would not be affected - in fact I have just realised that the costs I gave in my other post is too high per annum, as most of the insulation work would be done prior to heavy build of nuclear taking place.
You are therefore looking at a cost over 35years of perhaps £150 or £200 per person, with the advantage of much lower electric bills coming in starting at year 1 for those lucky enough to get the house upgraded first.

The 33GW nameplate off-shore wind program in Britain is going to cost around £45bn, I figure from British Government figures:

At the cost of the Finnish reactor looks like finishing up at, perhaps $6bn allowing for more overruns, we could build 7 and generate about the same power as would actually come from the 33GW nameplate capacity, around 10GW, again according to Government figures for off-shore wind,and this in reliable base load, not subject to intermittencies and requiring substantial back-up.

We would not have power from them for 10years at least, but fortunately that program would cost 'only' $42bn, £21bn, so we would have spare change of around £24bn.

I have outlined a few thoughts on how this might be spent in energy conservation to bridge the gap before the nuclear power can be built.

Such a vast amount could be done, and the savings on offer are so substantial both in terms of energy saved and carbon not emitted that I am confident that an energy shortfall could be avoided and carbon target reductions met.

Of course this is predicated on reasonable and rational policies, so we are probably stuffed, and they will go right ahead and spend our money on vastly expensive and ineffective wind projects, rather than doing what is sensible and obvious.

Too bad if someone blocks your uranium imports, or if it runs short.

"Oh no! A finite resource called "oil" which we have to import is running short. What should we do?"
"I know! Let's change to another finite resource which we have to import!"

What checking have you done on the idea that the UK would have to import anything?
The just retired Chief Scientist said recently that we could run our proposed new nuclear program for the life of the reactors, ie 60 years just on reprocessed waste from the weapons program.

So we would not have to import anything if we did not want to.

A lot of things are finite, the correct question is how big is the resource? Not, don't use it because it is finite.
Solar energy is also finite, the sun will go out sometime.

Peak oil is a very different thing to any idea of peak uranium, as oil was, so we are told, formed under very specific and limited conditions.

The only reason why we have not found any more uranium resources recently is because no one has looked for them as we had plenty.

The price of uranium is in any case a tiny fraction of running costs of a nuclear reactor, so that you could pay many times more for it without much altering prices for the energy if you had to, which means that you could mine lower grade ores.

It is reassuring to note in that respect that there is a positive return on energy for resources down to mining granite.

Coal waste is another rich source of uranium, as the waste issue has been dealt with by the coal industry by throwing it around the landscape.

You could also use thorium with small changes to reactors, which is four times as abundant as uranium.

The fast breeder reactor program in France was successful, it was just that uranium was so cheap it was not worth doing.

On the drawing boards are reactors which would burn up to 50% of fuel rather than the present 1%:

So there are multiple good answers to the issue you raise, as well as all the other bugaboos about nuclear energy, as a five minute google would have shown you.

It seems that many who are most convinced that we are all doomed because of lack of fuel, and we will go to hell in a handcart are peculiarly attached to that fate, and fight furiously against any reasonable try to avoid it, unless of course it involves some ludicrously expensive and entirely unfeasible attempt to use solar power for energy in the midwinter in the north, when the reason it is cold and it is needed is precisely because it isn't sunny.

If the outlook is so bleak, what do we have to loose?

DaveMart said "What checking have you done on the idea that the UK would have to import anything?"

I watched a programme at the weekend about the rise of nuclear energy. It stated that there were only 3 uranium exporting nations (I think they were Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan). Doesn't this imply that any increase in nuclear generation, for any country other than those three, would evntually require imports? This is also true for non-exporting countries with stable nuclear generating capacity.

I think what the previous poster was getting at was that having got to where we are now with fossil fuels - where we are realising, hopefully, that relying on finite resources is ultimately a fool's game - it would be silly to do exactly the same with another finite resource. Now, there are all sorts of estimates of how much uranium will be available in future, so it's a question of do you believe the optimistic ones (they always insist they are accurate) or simply accept that relying on finite resources is daft, since we don't know for certain when they will start to decline or how future generations will be able to cope with that decline?

I agree with Dave that we probably cannot avoid a down turn. It will still take a few years for the world to come to grips with the seriousness of the problem and resolve to do what it takes to address it. What is that quote about the US that we always do the right thing after we have first tried everything else? We are in the try everything else phase right now (e.g. ethanol, invading Iraq, relocalization).

Then it will take a few years for the construction program to build momentum and to clear away many of the obstacles that nuclear opponents have laid such as in plant licensing. The few reactor builders will have to build production facilities and hire and train a lot of people. Electric transportation technology needs to advance and then the entire world fleet and fueling infrastructure will need to be replaced. I agree with Hirsch that this will take at least 20 years.

A new Coal plants are currently made every 5 days. The size and scale of a coal plant is not that far from a nuclear plant. The newest and most popular nuclear plants are larger than 1GW. (1.1GW-1.7GW). These reactors can also be uprated after they are in operation.

So twenty to twenty-five 1.2 to 1.5GW reactors per year would do it and that is the build completion rate in middle of the 1980s worldwide.

I discuss and have pictures showing coal plant and nuclear plant scale and resource usage

MIT Annular fuel 50% uprate potential.

Standard uprates of 5-20%. Which can be applied to the old reactors, which accelerates when we get more power from nukes and lessens the ultimate build rate needed for any target.

Worldwide nuclear reactor completions
1980 16
1981 20
1982 14
1983 20
1984 29
1985 27
1986 22

1987 16
1988 14

The US peaked at 12 reactor completions in one year.

China is now scaling up to complete 10 reactors per year in the 2020's.

AP1000* Westinghouse 1117 PWR Certified

ABWR* GE et al 1371 BWR Certified

System 80+ Westinghouse 1300 PWR Certified

ESBWR* GE 1550 BWR Undergoing certification 2007

EPR* AREVA NP 1600 PWR Pre-certification 2009

US APWR Mitsubishi 1600-1700 PWR Undergoing certification 2011

The IRIS reactor is smaller but is intended for mass production.

Just to be clear of why our numbers differ, you apparently estimated replacing all existing coal plants. My estimate was for nuclear to rise in 2058 to 60% of all energy where fossil fuels and renewables each also provide an additional 20% and where total energy rises by 87% from 2008.

I think we need far less than that. The difference is made up by efficiency measures.
At the moment in the UK most people burn natural gas for heating.
Switch to nuclear and electric and you could use heat pumps, air in the UK and ground source in countries with harsher climates.
Insulate houses properly, cover them with green roofs to reduce heat island effects and aid insulation, and install already pretty economic solar thermal panels and electric needs would be way lower in the UK.
Electric cars would be powered up at night so that you would reduce peak demand.
In regions with more sunshine where peak load is for cooling, not heating, then solar really makes sense, and would cover peaking needs leaving nuclear for the base load.
The waste hot water from the cooling of the nuclear reactors which doesn't go near the core and is radioactive only in a theoretical sense could also be used to heat greenhouses, and in cold climes could provide much of the need for fresh produce.
Biomass etc would also play it's part - you just use every resource in its' natural role, rather than trying to force it into areas where it struggles, so most base load is nuclear, and you don't try to use solar PV for power in the winter in Northern latitudes.
The precise balance would vary according to progress in different technologies and costings at the time, but it is clear, to me at any rate, that half-way sensible choices mean that we have most of the means available to us already to live very comfortable lives without regressing to some form of primitivism - I still like locally produced organic produce though, not because the big farms are going bust, but because the food tastes better and the countryside looks more attractive.
So to directly answer your question in the UK I would guess that maybe 50 or so reactors might do the job, around the same number as in France, but bigger on average in the modern design of around 1.6GW and substituting for fossil fuels because of more efficient use.
So you might have to build 2 or 3 a year in the UK.
In hot climates you would need a slower build as solar will do a lot of the job - although I don't think we are certain of the massive reductions in solar costs that Stuart hypothesised, it seems pretty sure to me that within about 10 years solar will do fine for the use I envisage.
And BTW, for that kind of level of power production, after 50 years with reprocessing you might be talking about a similar bulk of waste as that in France - an area of about 3 basketball courts.
Likely improved nuclear technology would improve those waste figures substantially.
Cost? At perhaps $6billion a pop for the reactors, based on what seems to be happening in the Finnish build, which is though the first of a kind, $18billion for the fast build option, and perhaps the same for increased efficiency measures, so maybe $36 billion for an island of 60 million people, say around £300 per person per year.
The efficiency measures would mean increasing savings every year, and nuclear plants are pretty well amortised after 20years, so for the rest of their 60year life the power is more of less free bar maintenance and fuel.

after 50 years with reprocessing you might be talking about a similar bulk of waste as that in France - an area of about 3 basketball courts.

Reprocessing .. doesn't that allow the creation of plutonium, used in bombs? So if this "solution" is used all over the world, nuclear warfare becomes a certainty — a signifcant price to pay to keep living the high life, I would venture...

Anyone who thinks that we can long delay any nation which wishes to have nuclear weapons from having them is deluded and living in the past.
Denying ourselves an excellent fuel source for the sake of a wish to exercise power we no longer have would be folly.
In actual fact we should be able to do far, far better than I have indicated anyway- I used the information I did purely as a proof of feasibility with technology we are now using.
Here are some details on a new Fuji design:
This should be ready for roll-out around 2023, the delay being mainly due to licensing requirements, although some modest work needs doing on optimising materials.
'The MSR can generate 1000 times less uranium and plutonium waste and everything else that is left over has a halflife of less than 50 years.'
Bear in mind that the US had a molten salt reactor in the 1960's!

Anyone who thinks that we can long delay any nation which wishes to have nuclear weapons from having them is deluded and living in the past.

You meed to send a memo on that to the US Administration; I'm sure they'll see the light once you have a say.

I'm not as cavalier about this as you seem to be. The thought of every Robert Mugabe and Than Shwe armed with plutonium and nuclear weapons is appalling — a recipe for disaster on the grandest of scales.

So what do we do about it? We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Since current reactors produce mainly Pu240, which Alan estimated would enable a max 1 kiloton crude weapon and extracting that Pu240 would not be something that a terrorist organization could do, power reactor proliferation is really not a strategic threat compared to enrichment and stealing existing weapons or material. Maybe the answer to the small tactical threat is that no one builds reactors in unstable countries.

The Bush adminstration is not going to stop the Iranians in the next few months. Maybe the next administration will be able to buy them off. That has nothing to do with power reactors except that the treaty allows enrichment for that purpose. In any case, the world has repudiated that right to Iran.

I think that this is the problem with many arguments that try to convince that some other form of energy will be found. Yes, nuclear fission resources may last much longer than fossil fuels, but no one knows for sure (because we have to deal with estimates and because the environmental costs of going that way are also unknowable). Yes, solar energy could provide all our requirements but no-one knows if we have the resources to continue building that capacity indefinitely, or if there will not eventually be deleterious side-effects. But not only can we not be certain that a new energy regime that maintains a growth economy is even possible for an indefinite period, we can't be certain that it is only a supply of energy that would enable us to maintain something like the society and economy we have today. The earth is finite and has only a finite amount of resources that we can extract and make use of, and only a finite capacity to absorb our waste or maintain biodiversity. This is the central point that seems to be lost on those who focus on energy alone as the only problem we face.

Rather than hope for asteroid mining (for an example of how to extend earth's limits further) to become feasible in the medium term, why not accept earth's limits now and apply our considerable mental power to re-engineering the human project along sustainable lines? And better to do it now, whilst we have a decent amount of energy, that leave it for a time when energy may become scarce.

You've got to get from a to b, and I don't understand how you plan to get from the present growth scenario which at least provides some hope for the majority of the desperately poor population of earth to this stability many seem so fond of regardless of its level particularly if you intend doing so without the use of basic arithmetic, which is all that is needed to see that both fissionable and solar resources are very large, large enough in fact that we can plan to reach that state of stability when most people are comfortably off in maybe 100years time rather than now, when most people are so poor and 'stability now' advocates seem to imagine that socialist measures which have never worked before will somehow work this time.
Energy is never going to be scarce, and unless we follow the prescriptions of those who seek to bring technology to a grinding halt, or ignore obvious sources of energy like nuclear power in favour of pie-in-the-sky fantasies, never will be.

Energy is never going to be scarce, and unless we follow the prescriptions of those who seek to bring technology to a grinding halt, or ignore obvious sources of energy like nuclear power in favour of pie-in-the-sky fantasies, never will be.

Well, there are also those of us who think that 'technology' will end up bringing itself to a grinding halt, regardless of what we great unwashed want or need.

That's a telling reply - telling about your attitudes, that is.
The 'great unwashed' being those who fail to see your wisdom, I assume?
You are part of a self-appointed elite, better than the common man, superior in your judgement, and having contempt for their feelings, wants and needs it appears.
It must make you feel VERY important!

Considering myself part of the 'great unwashed' a suitable reply might be:

That's a telling reply - telling about your attitudes, that is.
The 'great unwashed' being those who fail to see your wisdom, I assume?
You are part of a self-appointed elite, better than the common man, superior in your judgement, and having contempt for their feelings, wants and needs it appears.
It must make you feel VERY important!

I apologize for that. There is just too much BS going into TOD these days in terms of posturing, pissing matches, strawmen, etc. etc. from all sides. Time for me to swear off TOD for a while except for keeping up with actual news.

Yo - no problem - loads of times I have expressed myself poorly - if that is not what you meant, don't worry.
Just the same dude, never forget, most people at the moment are not indulging themselves, but need for themselves and their families - hopefully we can check out ways to give them hope.

Dave, the mathematics of the energy problem is guaranteed not to translate exactly as calculated, in the real world. Whatever energy source you contemplate, it will take resources to harness and, in some cases, the raw fuel source has only estimates. Even oil production, gas production and coal production are not guaranteed not to crash at some point in the future, rather than a gentle decline (though the latter is what I expect). But do you really think it likely (we're talking probabilities here), that 9+ billion people are going to be comfortably off in maybe 100 years? Do you think we'll be able to then sustainably consume the earth's resources to maintain that stability indefinitely? Will people be happy then to live with what they have?

You also engage in pie-in-the-sky fantasies because none of what you think is achievable is guaranteed to be achieved. This is another failing of the optimists; that they calculate some solution for some part of the problem and then assume that it will all work out as smoothly as it was calculated. It is pie-in-the-sky to assume that, if only we can harness enough energy to keep the free market economy going for another 20, 50, 100 years, then we'll come out into some perfect world.

If you can see this growth and consumption-fest coming to an end eventually (though it may be that you don't), why not embrace that change now, when we know that we have a good level of technology, resources and energy available to perhaps, just possibly, start to reorganise along sustainable lines? Could it really be so bad that you'd rather be dead (hopefully) before the change is forced upon those left, perhaps in very different and adverse circumstances?

sofistek said:
'If you can see this growth and consumption-fest coming to an end eventually (though it may be that you don't), why not embrace that change now, when we know that we have a good level of technology, resources and energy available to perhaps, just possibly, start to reorganise along sustainable lines?'
As I argued previously, it in fact5 makes a huge difference whether we stop growing now, with the vast majority of the people in the world grindingly poor, or in a hundred years with most people well-to-do.
If someone wants to make the argument that we will stop now, then I ask them to be specific, and tell me what we are going to run out of - oil and gas, in conventional forms, I grant you, but it is remarkably difficult to make the case for much else that is critical.
I would further argue that it is up to those who say we have to stop now to make their case in detail, as it would lead to huge suffering and an unsatisfactory life style for so many, and thwart their aspirations for a better life.
In any case the whole argument is moot, as if you tried to make the argument just about anywhere in the third world they would just look at you thinking you were mad.
There is no way on God's earth that there is going to be stability at present levels, standstill would mean massive conflict.
So this is another area where many seem to be out of touch with reality in the more comfortable districts of the west, and a lot of truly silly policies are being actioned under entirely false premises at vast expence.
Aside from the biofuels scam, there is the insane idea in Germany that solar PV will be other than an expensive distraction, for the foreseeable future at least.
This is because you get hardly anything out of the panel when you really need it, in the winter, so what you are doing, assuming that you could make enough panels to make any difference to overall production at all, and at the moment they are too expensive to do so, is to concrete in the use of fossil fuels, as nuclear is expensive to be turned off in the summer and on in the winter as most costs are up front.
If you want to greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels at the moment in the colder areas, the only way we know how to do it now is with nuclear power.
Fantasies are leading to the miss-allocation of resources on a grand scale.
I don't know that we will adapt reasonably of course -we may screw up, but if we don't start dealing with the world as it really is instead of from cloud-cuckoo land, then we certainly will.
Nothing difficult is needed, we can just apply the things we already know how to do.

"With most people well to do"? Isn't that pie-in-the-sky?

The misallocation of resources is in trying to keep this ediface upright, in the hope that it will all come right eventually and we'll all live happily ever after.

I don't think we can get world agreement on how we all should live but it may just be possible on a more local scale.

If you want to make your case, then you have to provide argumentation.
You have to demonstrate that it is in fact 'pie in the sky',
and specify exactly what is going to make the ediface come crashing down.

I have sought to demonstrate in some detail how, at least for the energy input, it is quite possible to provide ample energy at reasonable cost for a very long time, given decisions which are a little rational and not based on wishful thinking.

If you have energy, then you have a fair chance of sorting other things out, such as water constraints, as essentially what we have to do for this resource is properly cost it, not waste is as is happening at the moment - our hope for many of these resources is precisely that they are at present used so inefficiently that huge savings are possible.

I don't guarantee that everything in the garden will be rosy, but I think we have a very fair chance, if we are clever enough to take it.

If you want to argue that we should at the present time move to some sort of no-growth world, then surely you need to at least sketch out how this is going to be achieved, which is pretty difficult since the developing world including China and India are certainly going to ignore your prescription.

I think that on the contrary what we should be doing is vigorously developing the technologies we need to give everyone in the world hope for a better life, and that giving up would be a failure of nerve on an epic scale.

Thanks for the tip on paragraphing!

If you want to argue that we should at the present time move to some sort of no-growth world, then surely you need to at least sketch out how this is going to be achieved, which is pretty difficult since the developing world including China and India are certainly going to ignore your prescription.

It will be achieved by doing nothing. After all, we live on a finite planet.

Let's assume that, in principle, "well to do" means an OECD level of affluence. According to the OECD web site, the OECD population was 1.167 billion in 2005. According to EIA energy statistics, OECD countries consumed 242.3 quads of energy in 2005. That gives a per capita energy use of 207 million BTUs. Energy use may be taken as a rough proxy for all resource use. So let's say that for the world to be "well to do", in 2100, at least 9 billion people would need to consume 200 million BTUs, each. This would amount to 1800 quads of energy (2000 quads, if population reaches 10 billion). That's four times today's global energy use, without any significant contribution from fossil fuels. This also assumes that no further increases in energy use from current OECD countries. How likely is it that OECD countries will be happy to stick at current levels of affluence (i.e. no economic growth), and how likely is it that, if they do, world energy supply can reach a sustainable 1800 quads without fossil fuel inputs? If this all works out seamlessly, then somehow the world's 9 or 10 billion people wil have to be persuade to stick where they are.

This is why I think it is wishful thinking and pie in the sky.

Since everyone being "well to do" and using heaps of energy is physically impossible, either eventually no-one will be "well to do", or else we will find some way of being "well to do" without heaps of energy.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that. Assuming that the West doesn't just decide to do a huge resource grab so we can orgy ourselves to death like the staff of Hitler's bunker as the Red Army approached, we will find ways of doing things so that we have a good quality of life without using heaps of energy.

And when you look into it, it turns out that lots of people do have an excellent quality of life without that huge energy use. A study by a guy at the UN found that Human Development Index (longevity, literacy and education, per capita GDP) maxes out at about 4,000kWh of electricity per person annually. Yet there are many countries using much more than that.

So you can't really judge things by looking at the 12,000kWh or so most of the West uses and assuming that it's absolutely necessary for a "well to do" quality of life. We in the West are like medieval nobles saying, "well, obviously not everyone can live in castles." They don't have to for a good quality of life - just not in a ditch. The amount of energy needed for that is huge, but it's not fucking huge, which is what "Western world times 6" would be.

I generally agree. I was responding to Dave Mart's notion that we have to continue economic growth, in other to eliminate extreme poverty and get everyone up to the 'well-to-do' level. Dave said, "As I argued previously, it in fact5 makes a huge difference whether we stop growing now, with the vast majority of the people in the world grindingly poor, or in a hundred years with most people well-to-do."

Even with the unlikely assumptions I used, it's unlikely that we'd eliminate extreme poverty by just continuing growth, and continuing growth would ensure that the bar got constantly raised (the developed nations would not accept no-growth at a time when the world was growing, economically, overall).

If Dave wants the world to be happy, then we need to come up with a different paradigm of what it means to be "well-to-do", because it is unlikely to happen just by, somehow, keeping the world economy growing for the next century, even if that were possible.


Why don't you put a blank line between each of your paragraphs. Just hit <enter> twice.

Like the above. It would make your posts much easier to read.


Rather than thinking in terms of a dichotomy (big centralized professional ag vs. small scale localized food growing), I think it would be more helpful if we started think of this in terms of a spectrum, with full-time, large-scale professional farmers on one extreme and the pure non-food-growing consumer on the other extreme. In between these two extremes are a wide range of intermediate possibilities, from the apartment dweller with a tomato plant growing in a container on the balcony, to the home gardener, to the home gardener with some small stock, to the more-or-less self sufficient small holder, to the small scale local market gardener, to small farmers raising crops or dairy or meat for local markets.

I would like to suggest that what we actually have now is a mix, and what we will likely have in the future is a mix. What is also likely is that the mix will change somewhat, but not to the point that there ceases to be a mix. I have no doubt that there will still be large farms in the future, especially in places where it makes sense to have little else. Stuart's arguments are relevant and pretty much on target as far as this goes. However, they have not eliminated the rest of the mix, and I don't believe that he has made a convincing case that anything in the future will change this. No matter how efficient it may be to raise large-acreage grains and transport them long distances by barge, it is doubtful that growing an apple in Chile and transporting it by air to the US is going to be as efficient as the apple grown in one's back yard and stored in a root celar. Even if it were, there are still going to be people with apple trees in their back yard, because they are there for reasons other than "efficiency". It is precisely those "other reasons" that largely constitute the real driving force behind "relocalization".

Thus, in a way I think that Stuart, and Sharon, and Jeff are all right, each in their own way. They are each looking at different parts of this spectrum, and each describing what they see. The reality is more than the sum of their individual visions, however.

Even if it were, there are still going to be people with apple trees in their back yard, because they are there for reasons other than "efficiency". It is precisely those "other reasons" that largely constitute the real driving force behind "relocalization".

Yes, and those reasons include annual cost savings and insulation from shocks due to food prices and/or availability.

The change in the mix you mention will likely be the number of producers in each of the categories. Just my opinion, but I expect to see the number (and productivity) of home gardens increase significantly over the next few years.

There is still another way to look at this. I believe we will still have to have industrialized farming in highly productive areas (great plains) because many localities in the US can not decentralize (grow locally) to scale. It will have to be brought in, in mass or the population will face attrition---or the people will migrate to more fertile areas. They simply can not grow their own food closely. These areas of massive populations have exceeded the carrying capacity of their given environments. This situation holds for all large cities no matter where they are, some worse off then others. Water issues will control this situation and global warming is marginalizing more of them every day. The idea that Los Vegas could localize their food production would be absurd. It will have to be brought in from mega farms the west and east. Of course, one could argue the Los Vegas is not viable in any scenario of the future in that it is, today, an absurdity that can hardly be imagined. Still, other cities, if not all, are in a similar situation. LA with its wildly expanding population, certainly, will have to have huge infusions of grains and goods from the great plains. I believe the country, if not world will demand massive distributions from industrial farms or they will simply perish. Collecting, organizing and moving the products from small localized, decentralized farms will be too burdensome to be affective.

I tend to see it as a sliding mix as well. Seen from an individual viewpoint, there is a large assymetry of consequences for having some food production versus none. There's also a large range of variation in the amount of effort required. I personally love to see bearing trees, because once they're well-planted, they provide food on an ongoing basis. My own house lot is heavily slanted and would be difficult to terrace and garden, and I'm not physically able to do it much, but it has be quite effective to plant it with food-bearing trees. Most of this planting was done between 10-20 years ago, and now it's just a matter of gathering the produce (and in fact for a lot of it we have the border collies gather it and put it into bins, they find it vastly entertaining). The only downside is that as far as I can tell, nobody else in the area is doing it, so in an actual 'famine' situation it wouldn't do any good. Still, what's the downside?

I live on the island of Oahu, which is jammed with a lot of people and minimal ag. My wife was recently talking with a Samoan who noted that food stamps were necessary here, but in Samoa if you don't have other food you just pick a breadfruit from the trees which are constantly over-producing. Of the two systems, the latter seems a lot more resilient. I'd love to see a program of breadfruit tree planting here.... they're even pretty trees, but the idea of planting for "food" seems quaint and archaic to most folks here.

"I don’t think that it can be reasonably disputed that, at some cost of energy, it is more efficient to centralize agriculture".

I think I could reasonably dispute this. Clearly, as you allude, it's not more efficient in terms of energy. If you're defining efficiency as producing the most product at the least $ cost, you are not factoring the long list of externalities associated with industrialized agriculture (pollution, greenhouse gasses, topsoil erosion, biodiversity destruction, water consumption, etc., etc.) While these have largely been overlooked in the US, and are often difficult to quantify, they are becoming increasingly apparent in terms of their environmental and financial impact. So, as I see it, an important reason for the price disparity between industrial farming and local organic agriculture is that we are deferring the huge real costs associated with industrial farming, while fully loading the costs of local organic farming. As with climate change, the public is becoming more aware of these issues, and it already seems to be affecting choices in local food consumption, particularly here in Vermont.

Regarding local organic agriculture, as a farmer I can say that the price of my organic vegetables have become more cost competitive with conventional vegetables over the past couple of years, and the trend seems to be continuing. I do use some fuel in my operation, but I use it very sparingly. In fact, I only use my larger machinery when there is a very clear advantage in doing so. For example, I utilize my large tractor (actually pretty small - 30hp) only to maintain my compost windrows, and to grade or haul when I need to. For all of my mechanized tilling needs I use a walk behind tractor with multiple attachments. I get a tremendous amount of work done using a fraction of the fuel that I would with a conventional tractor (5 gallons of diesel all last season). Everything else in my operation is manual, but the techniques and tools I utilize make things very manageable. I am not getting rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I am getting by, and I don't think that $300 a barrel oil changes this.

Is there a particular method or approach you are using? Is it captured somewhere in a book or online article series?

Eliot Coleman has been experimenting with innovative organic methods for over 30 years. He lives in Maine, so his techniques are particularly applicable to me in zone 5, however his methods would be valuable to any grower. A good primer is The New Organic Grower

Thanks for providing the reference, and I currently am perusing a copy of his book, Four Season Harvest, though I tend to add in companion plants according to Great Garden Companions. I haven't built a greenhouse yet, but have been experimenting with cold frames.

If you're defining efficiency as producing the most product at the least $ cost, you are not factoring the long list of externalities...

This is exactly what is being done. Also, not considering other market preference factors like quality or social and psychological factors. But it is hard to come up with a system of equations for all that. I model stuff all the time - every one involves gross, simplifying assumptions but they still can tell you useful stuff. But the complexity of this topic means that models and data points are not a sufficient basis for decision making.

There could be a similar series of articles about schooling. Is it more efficient to bus all the elementary school kids to one gigantic school with 10,000 students? Or is it more efficient for each neighborhood to have its own school ? Is the quality of educational experience affected ? Is one more fragile to an uncertain energy future ?

"As a hypothetical, if energy is so expensive as to be totally use-prohibitive to all parties (e.g. nothing but human labor is available)"

Human labor is one of the most wastefull forms of energy we have. If you burn the food those people would eat in a steam machine, you'd get orders of magnitude more work than you'd get from their labor.

Notice that I'm not saying that this is a good thing to do. But we are trying to see reality here, not to put rose-colored glasses.

Hmmm...most of the net energy analysis I have seen for food production systems show that human labor is most efficient. So I don't follow you.

Perhaps this relates to the application of energy? Machines are great for high power applications, but humans are more efficient when the power required matches the muscular-skeletal scale of the body. For example, it is more efficient for a young girl to water a garden than a big man because her baseline physiology is lower-energy and the task doesn't require high power output. By contrast, asking a young girl to use a broadfork to loosen and aerate the soil is inefficient because she lacks the body mass and power output needed for the job.

I think to get at this question requires a discussion of appropriate technology.

Still, machines are able to do much more mechanical work with our food than are we.

Your point may be that big scale things are bad at small scale tasks, and the other way around. That is true, but not all machines are big scale, it is still more efficient to water a garden using a sprinklers than the labor of the cited girl.

That is a disturbing fact, that machines can be more usefull than labor even at an energy (and food) constrained world. It also doesn't solve our puzzle, farms can go either big or small based on this fact. But we can't ignore it. is still more efficient to water a garden using a sprinklers than the labor of the cited girl.

I know this isn't true in terms of water with up to 50% of above ground irrigation lost to evaporation and misappropriation depending on air temperature and sprinkler type. Which brings up the point that all resources must be examined when discussing energy efficiency. Not doing that is in part what got us into this mess no?

Also how much embodied energy is in the metal and plastic sprinkler manufactured in China and assembled in Mexico?

We figured this out a few weeks ago for the corn->ethanol->internal combustion engine case, versus the corn->human->muscle case. Turned out the efficiencies were roughly comparable.

Peak Oil will not necessarily affect commercial farmers.
Go way back and they were using animals for farming. But animals have to eat 365 days a year whether they are working or not. Internal combustion equipment only consumes energy when working.
A commercial farm can produce all the energy (biodiesel fuel) needed to run all their equipment on about 10% of their producing acres.
Farming with horses or other livestock takes about 30% of producing acres to supply the energy for the animals (food).
It is a lot more efficient and easier for the 1000 acre farm to plant/harvest/process 100 acres of rape to make their fuel than it is for a 100 acre farm to plant/harvest/process 10 acres of rape due to the economies of scale both in time and in capital investment in equipment to do the planing/harvesting/processing to make the required amount of biodiesel to run the farm.
Here in Minnesota we like to eat 365 days a year, but can only grow stuff during about 60-70 days of the year. (It takes a significant amount of time from planting in spring to first harvest).
There are many crops that will just plain not grow up here. But we can grow some crops up here that don't grow worth a darn down south. I believe that even if trucking declines from high cost fuel that the railroads will still be hauling freight (food!) so the grocery stores will still have fresh produce up here in Minnesota year around.
Small scale gardening works great during the short harvest season but completely fails when it comes to year around food supply. Economies of scale in preserving (canning, freezing, etc...) will dictate that production will continue as a large scale mechanized operation.
And I think there is a lot of confusion concerning the term "Industrialization". Most farms in the USA are not industrialized, but are large scale Mechanized family farms.
Is it any less a "family farm" if the family uses modern mechanised equipment to farm 1000 acres than a family that works themselves into the ground running a 100 acre farm with little or no mechanization?
If you are like me and like to eat well 365 days a year, then say a little thanks to the farmers in every country that have taken great personal risk to invest in large scale mechanized equipment to produce the large amounts of food we require. Something like 90% of the food in this country is grown by the large scale mechanized family farmers.
There has been mention of a potential shortage of phosphorus for large scale agriculture, but this chemical is taken out of the soil by the plants, and if you can't get it for large scale agriculture then how are you going to get it for small scale agriculture to produce the same amount of food? Producing food on a small scale works just great until you get to trying to produce the same amount of food as the large scale mechanised farm produce - And then the small scale farms are going to have the same problems of input shortages.

About phosphorus (and other nutrients too)....

I think the only answer to that is to compost human waste (feces and urine) with agricultural straw. It might just work out that the combination of minerals in straw+humanure are nearly equal to what is needed to replenish the soil after the plants have done their microscopic mining routine. If anyone has further data on the nutrient content of human waste I'd like to see it.

I did some math on this here:

Tried to bring this topic up a few times before but it keeps getting ignored--cities importing food also need to consider the export of their wastes back to the land so it isn't depleted. I know sewage sludge is being used in places, but I don't think it is being shipped back to the grain belt?

Arlington treated waste is used in limited situations as fertilizer.

Arlington County's biosolids are land applied on permitted sites throughout rural Virginia and Maryland. Biosolids are transported and applied at approved farm sites by a contracted service. Arlington County's biosolids have been designated "Class B" which means that the biosolids contain small amounts of trace metals and organic compounds. Class B biosolids are very beneficial to land reclamation and provide valuable nutrients for secondary feed crops. Class B biosolids are not distributed for direct public use.


I took a look at your calcs and you simply left out the energy costs of what you propose.

1. Unless people go to honey buckets, the "waste" is dilute. How are you going to concentrate it? Sewage sludge has an enrgy cost and it's not all that great stuff from a nutrient point of view.

2. What are the energy costs of moving straw to another location where it is to be combined with the feces and urine "product" for composting? I would also argue that straw should stay on the field.

3. What is the energy cost of then trucking all this stuff back to the field for application?

4. Since these materials will not supply sufficient nutrients for crops, what is the energy cost of going back to the field to apply the necessary nutrients?

You probably know that UC Davis has done a lot of work over the years regarading compost vis-a-vis synthetic fertilizer. If not you should check their work. One report I heard about at a pesticide applicator continuing education seminar some years ago indicated that they applied up to 25 tons per acre. That is a shit load of compost. I also assume you have looked at the work the Rodale Research Institue has done on using compost on corn this past year. If not, check it out.

I also assume, but don't know, that you have spent a lot of time at regarding sustainable ag. I'd especially recommend reading The New American Farmer available at that site. The UC Davis site is

I have additional concerns regarding the usage of feces - disease. Any large city is going to have AIDS virus in the waste and Hep C in the waste. It is also going to have other STD's. It is going to have other blood products of unknown kind since tampons are flushed. The there are mycotoxins, various bacteria and fungi. I want to see a system that assures that 100% of the time 100% of these things are destroyed.

My guess is that if you include all the ancillery energy usage that it is hardly work it, if it would work at all. To me, it is sort of the ethanol of fertilizers.


Todd, please, you know not whereof you speak. Not only do you suffer from fecophobia, but you have not read the seminal book that explains the utility of human "waste" (see book ref to Humanure below, please get it and read it).


Perhaps if you had read what I wrote, I could have deleted this post. I've got no problem with poop. What I have a problem with is municipal poop and municipal treatment yielding stuff that is going to be spread on food I'm going to eat.

Maybe you have never worked with any kind of waste treament but I have, although it is mostly chemical waste (although I got umpteen restricted circulation magazines for years dealing with human waste, that is, to professional magazines). System upsets and failures occur and that is a fact of life. Perhaps you haven't read any of the mutitude of articles when people got sick from e coli contaminated produce and what the industry is doing to try to assure uncontminated produce.

Further, poop is pissing in the sea of required nutrients. And, as I mentioned, I rather doubt that it has a positive energy balance in even a mini-farm. If you want to use poop in your garden, fine.


Just get and read the book, Todd (sigh).

Hi Todd,
I have many of the same concerns you do. That is why I don't think sewage sludge and transporting waste from cities back to the land is feasible--it is one more argument for co-locating production and consumption.

Straw from fields could go to households for combining with humanure, which is then collected, processed safely, and spread back on fields. So, the straw does return to the field, plus the nutrients extruded from the bodies of the people.

I am aware of some of these web sites, but haven't spent enough time going through them all. I tend to find a lot of overlap among sources though, so don't think I need to read everything. There are usually jewels strewn out there so nice to hunt around from time to time.

Sorry if I don't always state everything on my mind or make all the connections plain. Sometimes I have learned it is best to set up a tension in the mind of someone and let them think it through, rather than blab on and on about my own views. This may come across as if I haven't thought about it further and some folks then assume I am naive. Well, we are all naive in some respects and I am sure I can learn a lot more from paying attention to you, given you have 30 years more lifetime experience than I do!

Hi Todd, Jason, and Mamba,

Thanks for the discussion.

Todd, after I read the book Mamba refers to, I had exactly the questions you have.

Do you know if anyone has done studies to see if these human-sourced contaminants can be broken down or eliminated?

Besides disease (and many of the STDs, since you mention them...have simply not been studied in anything like the depth required to have the answers, it seems to me. Chlamydia is turning out to be more pernicious that most people realize, both in its asymptomatic and symptomatic forms, for eg.) - In any case...besides disease, I was also wondering if medications are or *can be* fully broken down.

Otherwise, we get have problems of secondary drug ingestion effects. And there are a whole lot of prescription meds w. waste products and/or incomplete absorption in humans...that's my guess, anyway. Wouldn't want to be ingesting those, either.

An interesting aside about Hep C - last time I looked into it (though it's been a few years) - it turns out that for a significant percentage the transmission routes are simply "unknown". They just don't know. At all.

Small scale gardening works great during the short harvest season but completely fails when it comes to year around food supply. Economies of scale in preserving (canning, freezing, etc...) will dictate that production will continue as a large scale mechanized operation.

We have cold frames in our garden where we can produce food year-round. No, not all of our food, but this by no means "completely fails". We also save 'winter keeper' late autumn apples (i.e., Black Arkansas, Enterprise) in wine barrels in the garage that last for months.

We canned 54 quarts of tomatoes and 26 quarts of applesauce last year, though by your statement, we shouldn't have been able to do this. Our costs, after the initial purchase of the apple peeler, canner, and jars which we use every year, were only the lids and the propane. And if you have ever canned more than one batch at a time, you'll understand "micro" economies of scale and efficiency.

Great post! I second many of the points - especially the climatic considerations. (I composed my post further down before I saw this one - that's why it is somewhat redundant.)

We need to consider the relationships between production SCALES and food TYPES. Grain farming is obviously very different from small fruits and pasture-based dairy, so the logical scales of centralization/localization will differ as well.

Then there is the labor factor, plus the raising of our children. I consider small farms - with plenty of wholesome outdoor PHYSICAL labor - the ideal environment for rearing children. Think how much better off our kids would be if they knew they had real, useful jobs to do - if they knew their families and community honest-to-God NEEDED them. No wonder so many young people go astray - we prefer to need gasoline and automation (the lowest price) rather than other human beings (honorable work).

Hans Noeldner

I liked your analysis.

I might add that agriculture is embedded in our very complex economic system. If it changes to a very different form-- one for example, where long term loans are not available and imports of all types are very uncertain - then the current type of agriculture will have a difficult time continuing. This may not happen immediately, but it certainly could happen within, say, 10 years. Look at some of my economic posts.

I would also add that it takes a long time to change over to a more decentralized method. There are a lot of new (to us) skills to be learned. There is also equipment needed, and an adequate seed supply. In some place, the foods that will grow are not even familiar ones. People will need to become acquainted with the new (old) crops. They will need to learn to grow them, fix palatable meals, store the food, rotate crops, deal with insects and weeds, and store the seeds. It will take time to build up a knowledge base, and to get enough people involved so that the change is not a total disaster. Common sense would suggest that it is better to start sooner rather than later in making preparations for the possible transition.

it is very good to see such plain common sense as in your post and, too, in your response to the reversionary essay.

I suspect that the skills issue that you raise above is a key component of the contrasting opinions as to when relocalization will become the dominant trend, as opposed to the ever-more noxious centralization that we've endured so long.

Unless people are or have been farmers, they tend to have little or no conception of farming life, specifically in terms of :

1/. the range, and sophistication, of inner and outer skills that being even a half-decent farmer requires, which are a matter not of years but of decades of experience and, with luck, some inherited tuition by a master;

2/. the necessity of a propensity for long hard work without getting downhearted, often including Sundays (in fact mostly doing so round here) in whatever weather happens to be arriving, just in order to get by;

3/. the political bias that has at least for most of a century undercut the market-viability of small farms and robbed them of labour so that the shareholders of distant favoured corporations could gain still-fatter unearned profits.
[In 1907 the farmer had 60% of lamb's retail value - in 2007 we get less that 15%].

People who haven't internalized these facts will tend massively to underestimate the time required for a transition to a large agricultural labour force, and thus diminish the relevance of the precautionary principle in getting started.

In addition, I think there is litte comprehension thus far of the range and degree of destabilization of society that is already occuring, which is plainly going to be fatal for the JIT industrial enterprise business model.

For these reasons, it seems to me that even if we pour resources into training for would-be farmers, (as we aim to do here) as society is increasingly destabilized by energy shortages, by weather extremes, and by radical impoverishment, it will be very lucky to get nearly enough trained in time to remedy the prospect of major famines.

My interest is not primarily for the welfare of the USA, which I felt (perhaps wrongly) was the unspoken parameter of Stuart's article.
Rather I acknowledge a global responsibility simply from living in a really wealthy nation. Thus the news according to the IPCC AR4 that, due to climate destabilization, some African nations are likely to lose 50% of their food production by 2020, seems to me a cogent measure of just how rapidly unprecedented change is looming up.

The idea that under such destabilization centralized industrial agribusiness will gain acreage and market share globally seems to me bizarre.

On the contrary, the very practical fact is that I know of few farmers here in mid-Wales who will continue to buy in feed if prices stay high through 08, (as they will):
they will instead return to growing their own feed & fodder on their own little plots of the best arable land they've got.

Which is 'involuntary' Localization in action, by next winter.

Similarly, I expect that the global price of foods will push many people in many countries to follow Cuba's example of undertaking a "Rural Drift" from the cities in order to become involved in agriculture.
For the most part I doubt it will be a migration of choice unless we are blessed with some decent political leadership.

Up here in the mountains oats and barley were commonly grown even 50 years ago, together with some roots - we've about 8 acres that have been plowed before, and we aim to put it down to a rotation including oats, swedes, barley, jerusalem artichokes, and Tamworth pigs.

Most of the really old farmers are gone now, but we've found a few that can still teach the working of horses, and one old boy who reared, trained and worked Welsh Black Oxen in the '70s.

So, if and when you ever come to Britain, I hope we'll have a couple of dozen students working here whom we might perhaps persuade you to come and inspire with a talk !




Thanks for the comment. I hadn't really thought about the rural drift beginning right away, but it is logical it would begin as soon as there are food shortages. I appreciate, too, your comments on the many skills required.

Relocalization will be a challenge here in Atlanta. The surrounding areas is mostly trees. It is really too hilly to grow things with mechanized production. The ground is mostly heavy clay, which is not the best soil. There are also a lot of rocks mixed in.

It is not clear to me exactly what will grow, besides trees. I tried to have a small garden, but didn't have much luck. We now have a watering ban because of drought. Gardens are exempted, but I doubt the water supply is great enough that gardens could be exempted if very many took up gardening.

The fruit trees you see most commonly sold here are fig trees. I understand amaranth works as a grain. Sweet potatoes may grow here, but I think the soil may be too heavy. Okra and collard green seem to do well here. I think beans of some type grow here, also sorghum. There are probably other things as well, if one knows how to garden in the spring and fall, rather than the heat of summer. Kudzu clearly grows well here, but it is not used much as a people-food.

These foods are not really very familiar today. If we could figure out how to grow them, there would be other obstacles as well. We would need to develop recipes to use them, and educate people on the "new foods". This would be another task on the long list of what needs to be done.

Clay is good, it has a lot of nutrients, only problem is they're bound up in the clay. So you need to break it up.

What you can do is to grow beans on the land and dig them in. The roots break up the soil a bit, and the digging-in adds organic material. The process takes a few seasons but you can end up with good loam after that. If you're in a hurry you just have to import the materials, bringing in gypsum to break up the clay, and straw and compost to mix in.

That's quite some sweat, though, digging through that stuff. Australia where I am, the southeastern corner has a lot of it. Hard work, but after a few years you get good soil you can grow anything in.

For the sake of argument suppose that agriculture has to become 10 times more labor intensive due to inadequate energy. Does mean that 10 times more people need to become skilled at making all the decisions that farmers make? NO.

If agriculture becomes more labor intensive we will just have a lot more workers per farm and the people at the top will make the major decisions about seeds, planting times, fertilizer, etc.

That is how it works with row crops. There are huge row crop farms that have hundreds of people working them. That is specialization of labor. We had large amounts of specialization of labor before the car was invented. We will continue to have even larger amounts of specialization of labor once the oil is gone.

Thanks Jeff for a very solid analysis. The simple expedient of making two lists - one with factors that favor centralization and the other with factors that work against it - cuts right to the chase. I would suggest that recycling of human waste back to the soil is another consideration which belongs at the top of these lists - and it strongly favors localization.

Yet the most energetically wasteful link in the US food chain at present may be something that is seldom mentioned in these considerations of agricultural sustainability - i.e. the amount of energy that Suzy Gruenfahrer burns in her 3,330 lb Outback* to haul a few grass-fed steaks, 12-pack of Ethos water, and bag of fresh organic lettuce from the grocery store to her home.

Which is to say, perhaps the last few miles of the long food journey from farm to home are the most unsustainable of all.

Anyone have some solid data or ballpark estimates on this?

A wild-ass-guess here: I suspect that our current technology for producing staple FOOD grains, albeit on somewhat smaller scales - may be quite sustainable IF we can figure out how to recycle human wastes economically (which argues for more localization). While the notion of producing enough biofuels to sustain the Happy Motoring Life is delusional, producing enough biodiesel to run tractors and harvesters and locomotives pulling railcars of nutrient-dense wheat a thousand miles or more may be very realistic. And don't forget movement via water! After all, people were moving A LOT of grain over fairly long distances 150 and 200 years ago, when per-capita energy consumption was far lower.

What's the alternative - horses and oxen for the production of staple food grains? I would guess they require more farmland and other inputs per net ton of delivered grain than existing diesel-powered equipment. And what about all the embedded energy in our industrial-sized farm machinery? If we stopped converting most of our grain into animal manure and car food (ethanol) - i.e. stopped producing such an obscene surplus of grain - our existing fleet of agricultural equipment would probably last for three decades or more. (Of course my neighbors in Racine (Case International) and Iowa (Deere) don't want to hear THAT!!)

Hans Noeldner

* Subaru Outback - you know, those cute little station wagons that come with a COEXIST bumper sticker as standard equipment.

"Civilization is the presence of enlightened self-restraint."

Home energy use is largest chunk of the pie the way it is sliced in the study referenced here:

spunkedevil said:
'Yet the most energetically wasteful link in the US food chain at present may be something that is seldom mentioned in these considerations of agricultural sustainability - i.e. the amount of energy that Suzy Gruenfahrer burns in her 3,330 lb Outback* to haul a few grass-fed steaks, 12-pack of Ethos water, and bag of fresh organic lettuce from the grocery store to her home.
Which is to say, perhaps the last few miles of the long food journey from farm to home are the most unsustainable of all.
Anyone have some solid data or ballpark estimates on this?'

This problem is in fact easily solved in the energy-short situation we are postulating.
Here in the UK many do not have cars, and shopping for bulk items is inconvenient.
Most areas have delivery services, so that the store drops the groceries off, and the fleets for these are converting to electric at a great rate, as the short distances travelled are ideal.
It would be a bit more difficult in the US with the larger distances, but surely workable.

I suspect that our current technology for producing staple FOOD grains, albeit on somewhat smaller scales - may be quite sustainable IF we can figure out how to recycle human wastes economically

I presume you have read the excellent book Humanure?

The one question I have after reading it (and having my mind blown away!) was how to lay my hands on sufficient sawdust in an area where there is none to be easily had (Perth, Australia)? The alternatives are peat moss (not available), rice hulls (ditto) and leaf mold (ditto).

How about straw? Shredded if possible. Old newspaper?

Another interesting thing to consider is that even in ancient, "primitive" civilizations (Greek, Roman, etc) there was a fair amount of agricultural specialization, and a fair amount of transportation of agricultural products across fairly large distances, usually by sea. Not to even mention 17th century Europe, which was shipping food all over the world using wind powered sailing ships primarily.

So, even moderately advanced pre industrial civilizations did not practice anywhere near the amount of relocalization that some people seem to think is likely to occur in the future.

One of the main reasons I think was what you are calling "Economy of Place" another is to avoid everyone dying in the event of a local drought or famine.

People seem to think that preindustrial societies equate to low levels of organization, trade, and specialization and that is simply not true.

I think the primary question become more of a "how practical will it be to transport large amounts of food OVER LAND as energy prices rise" as sea transport is surely feasible under almost any energy constraint imaginable.

I still find the idea of each urban area trying to become self sufficient from a food perspective to be far fetched. It's much more likely population will be redistributed then it is that agriculture will be redistributed. You can put the people anywhere, but the crops can only grow in certain places. Perhaps we will see a migration toward the coasts (where most of the population already is located) and continue to practice large scale agriculture, ship food around, etc.

There is also rail transport to take into consideration, you don't have to ship everything over highways, we do so primarily because highways are subsidized. Rail transport can be far cheaper from an energy standpoint.

Up here in the black soil zone of the Canadian prairies, when there is urban development, the first step is to strip all of the topsoil. When the houses etc are all built, maybe an inch of topsoil is put back, just enough for a lawn. My old man took his tiller into the city to put in a garden for my sister, oops nothing here... now I know why the spruce trues were so runty for their age. No soil.

Never seen this mentioned on the site, is this standard practise? Looking around in Edmonton only the very oldest neighborhoods have their original soil. Not sure where the topsoil goes, have seen some stupendous large mounds of it in recent developments.

Sure soil can be rebuilt over time, but 'victory gardens' for many urban areas, if this stripping is common practise, will require skill and inputs, and will not yield much initially.

Just returned from a successful Mushroom hunting trip (hedgehogs- yum!)
Will probably stop at the farmers market today, after a walk through the redwoods.
Small farms using polyfarming techniques are the most productive.
The Omnivores Delima is a excellent read on these issues.
But to be honest, there will not be 6.5 billion people living on this planet after the free energy ride is over. Anyone who has their hands in the soil, or is a hunter gathers knows this intimately.

That's awful! Germany leads the way here - so many houses have greenroofs, so you don't even loose that area of greenery to urbanisation, and many roads in cities are now built by cut and cover methods - I think it should be a condition of new development that no growing area is lost, and hopefully new developments should pay for the gradual 'greening' of our urban areas as a condition of planning permission.

Jeff and Stuart are to some degree talking past each other.

Jeff is discussing the energetics of relocalising vegetable and fruit production to the urban periphery. This has been the model pre-cheap fossil fuel, and will be the model again. No contest, no argument, close it down.

Stuart is to large extent discussing the very specific case of large scale highly technically developed grain production on the deep soils and flat plains of North America.

As numerous have observed:

1. modern chemical and no-till agriculture BUILD soil carbon. These systems are really a carbon sink. Glyphosate and no till 'auto-mulches' the soil. No one appears to recognise this.

2. A portion of the land wasted on CRAP food can be used for rape seed or flax seed or soybean seed production to fuel the big rigs. Some may perhaps to go to chemical companies that produce the incredibly energy-saving and soil-conserving herbicides (not a red rag, a demonstrable fact - I have NO association with the chem co.s)

Example -
2005-6 corn in IOWA use by bushel
Feed/Residual 54.5%
Exports 18.8%
Ethanol 14.3%
Corn Syrup 4.7%
Corn Starch 2.5%
Corn Sweeteners 2.0%
Cereal/Other 1.7%
Beverage Alcohol 1.2%
Total 11.2 billion bushels

Yep, thats right, Americans ate about 1.7% of the Iowa corn crop as cereal food.

When the USA no longer spends a lot of time and money 'finishing' cattle on grains so the meat is marbled and USA people don't have to chew, there will be a lot of land freed up to grow biodiesel.

The future of the prararies is in biodiesel for Ag, direct human food, and ag chems.

Maybe cities will install composting toilets, and grain cars will back-haul dryed crap. Nitrogen can come from legumes (soybean), phosphates cant.


Example -
2005-6 corn in IOWA use by bushel
Feed/Residual 54.5%
Exports 18.8%
Ethanol 14.3%
Corn Syrup 4.7%
Corn Starch 2.5%
Corn Sweeteners 2.0%
Cereal/Other 1.7%
Beverage Alcohol 1.2%
Total 11.2 billion bushels

Yep, thats right, Americans ate about 1.7% of the Iowa corn crop as cereal food.

LOL! They ate almost all of it as food! The ethanol was used as fuel to transport and farm the food, the syrups and starches were added to the food chain, the "feed" was used to grow cattle and poultry that ended up in human stomachs, the alcohol was imbibed. And the exported corn was probably eaten too!

Perhaps I wasn't clear.

Much of what the plains of North America produce under the economies of scale of diesel based agriculture is not essential.

In a time of extreme resource constraint, massive unemployment, very expensive /unaffordable (= same thing) gasoline and diesel, will governments allow diesel ration go to produce 'non-essential'item? I argue no, government will not (control of ag production implicit).

Easy agreement first?

Bushels produced are proxy for land used.

Agreement to waste 1.2% of the land producing alcohol? No way.

Allow farmers to waste nearly 7% of the land area in sugars, mostly for CRAP food, partly responsible for USA's diabetes epidemic? I don't think so.

Ethanol we can leave as is for the moment if you want.

Will USA grow corn for export (knowing it has a fuel value) to other countries. Not in much quantity, and I guess as a quid pro quo for oil and essential minerals. So cut exports by half (an arbitrary figure), saving fully 9% of the land for growing human food and biodiesel.

Feed is a bit more contentious.

Lets say roughly 50% of the land area is devoted to feed. This is for conversion to pig, chicken, turkey, and beef meat. The portion used for beef feed (I don't have the figures) could be dramatically slashed. Lets be conservative and say that is 5%.

Chicken houses have to be heated with natural gas in winter in some areas. This plus increased feed costs will seee a good portion 'go south' when tshtf. Consumption of pork and chicken will fall somewhat with falling incomes. The roughly 1,000,000 tonnes of pork exported from Canada (subsidised) will be regarded as a traversty when the land used to grow the pork could grow biofuels, or human food. So again, being conservative, lets take 10% off the feed currently used for pork and poultry.

A total of not too far off a third of the corn producing land (in Iowa, as a proxy for the NA pararies)is producing non-essentials.

So, convert a third of Iowas corn production area into biodiesel.

Not bad.

Stuart's analysis deflates the 'we're all gonna starve' reaction based on remaining oil reserves being rationed.

A cursory consideration of WHAT the corn crop is currently frittered away suggests the 'wasted' corn acreage once converted to biodiesel production may well be self supporting.

The 'downstream' arguments about steel used for combines, rubber, for trucks etc etc are true, but in relation to a command and control of a natural monopoly ('biodiesel land'), only trivially true.

There will almost certainly be tight govt. integration of the SINGLE provider of ag machinery and the control of the crop land.

This is 'mission critical' territory, and a hundred excellent technocratic minds will be fingering up and down the supply and production chain to find and eliminate the tiniest impediment to the annual harvest. Standardised. Overbuilt. Better than Soviet.


I don't undrestand how all forms of transportation have disappeared from the localized world. Canals are over 4 thousand years old, but we seem to have no canals to transport foods to distant markets. The Grand Canal of China was 1300 miles long 1300 miles long. Canals were a preindustrial means of transportin food. Why no canals?

My Grandfather whose working career spanned the much of the first half of the 20th century, spent most of his working life shoveling coal into the boiler of a railroad locomotive. I wonder why there are no railroads in the post peak oil world? After all you can run the trains on Coal if you don't have oil, and wood if there is no coal . You can even run trains with electricity from dams or nuclear power plants. Trains are 8 times as energy efficient as trucks and buses. Trains are the standard means of moving goods and people in peasant societies. How come they disappear from the United States along with oil? Another thing that seems to disappear is rivers. In the 19th century, farmers in East Tennessee built flat boats and floted corn, wheat, ham, and bacon down the Tennessee river, sometimes as far as the Ohio River. What happened to rivers?

In Texas we call farmers who raise food for their own consumption, subsistence farmers. The term subsistence farmer means dirt poor. People whose market horizon is less than 100 miles are more likely to starve. People who use long distance trade to obtain food are less likely to die from hunger. Your typical green is more interested in what drought does to nuclear power plants than what it does to crops. If food comes from no further than 100 miles away, in a drought people will starve, I wonder how many greens "localizers" know what it is to starve?

Perhaps someone can explain what happened to all the trains.

Why no canals?

Water shortage + evaporation potential + roads + cheap oil + speed.

Easy. Trains and canals don't jibe with a romanticized primitivist views of how things "should" be, with the full force of government applied to frog-marching a hundred million people onto semi-communal farmettes, or whatever. Surely, everybody knows that the Great Leap Backwards worked stunningly well for China.

Views like that seem to be promoted by starry-eyed idealists lacking all grounding in reality, as well as by frustrated individuals who imagine their own failure to be unjust, and assume, most likely in vain, that if only they could throw over the world that is, in favor of a new and "simpler" world, then the personal issues that caused them to fail where so many others succeeded will magically go away. In the latter sense, it's simply an adult version of schoolchildren who wish for a snowstorm to solve their homework-procrastination issues - and how many who grew up where it snows can honestly say they never did that as children, not even once?

Views like that seem to be promoted by starry-eyed idealists lacking all grounding in reality, as well as by frustrated individuals who imagine their own failure to be unjust...

Question for Leanan and the other TOD editors: is there an "ignore" facility on this comments blog that I can use? I'd like to filter out bilious and trolling comments from the misanthropic and perennially angry, axe-grinding posters if possible.

And is there no way to see only new comments when re-visiting the page? If not, have you thought about using a better software for the comments section?

If not, have you thought about using a better software for the comments section?

It is open source. You can always provide patches.

Eric - with regard to adding patches, many readers will not be sufficiently skilled to do so, meaning that structural advances would best be provided by the administrators.

When trolling gets to the point of claiming that those supporting relocalization are actually closet Pol Potists, some changes are needed if the site is not to fall into disrepute.
The increasingly insane control-freakery over at Peak Oil N&MBs has, by its reactionary incompetence, largely discredited that site's fora, so plainly less intrusive and more efficient measures are needed here as public interest, and thus participation, grows apace.

Thus I'd second the call for an ignore option as I find the blather of those with no interest in discussion really tedious.

I'd also second a 'New Posts Only' page, with the proviso that it should include the particular old posts that have generated new ones.

Hoping that Admin will consider these ideas carefully,



I second those requests. If the rest of the readership had seen this post, I daresay most of them would agree.

Grease Monkey!

I don't understand how all forms of transportation have disappeared from the localized world.

Easy. Trains and canals don't jibe with a romanticized primitivist views of how things "should" be . . .

I’m sorry to be rude, but have you read any of the books which advocate/predict relocalization? Or for that matter, did you read Stuart’s original post:

I am calling the Fallacy of Reversibility. It is most pronounced in Kunstler, who in addition to believing we need a much higher level of involvement in agriculture also wants railways, canals, and sailing ships back, and is a strong proponent of nineteenth century urban forms.

If you have ever heard an interview with Kunslter, he repeatedly says that priority number one in the United States is to rebuild our rail system. Heinberg has advocated similar mitigation strategies. For you to suggest that “all forms of transportation have disappeared from the localized world” indicates that neither of you know nothing whatsoever about the literature.

Here are reasons I do not expect as much localization as some here foresee:

1) Long distance bulk transportation will remain cheap along rail lines because the rails will get electrified and the electricity will remain affordable from nuclear and wind sources.

2) Any farm operation that can be electrified will remain functional because, again, electricity from nuclear and wind will remain plentiful.

3) Genetic engineering will increase crop yields and raise the ratio of energy output to energy input.

4) Fruits and vegetables engineered to ripen slowly will be transportable by highly energy efficient ships (with sail assists even) and hence fruit and vegetable shipping will remain viable for any fruits and vegetables which can be genetically engineered to ripen slowly.

5) People who want to make the case against long distance shipment of food ought to show data on the energy cost of this long distance shipping. Once we know how many BTUs to takes to ship a crate of apples or oranges then we can examine future likely prices of energy to see if this long distance shipping will really stop.

6) Grains will remain highly transportable by water because, again, ships are very energy efficient ways of moving bulk. The point that rail is more energy efficient than trucks gets made here quite often. But the point that shipping is the most energy efficient means of transportation does not get the attention it deserves.

Oranges were shipped from Florida to London by sailing ship in 1776. In the 19th century citrus fruit got transported all over the place by sailing ships. So much for energy requirements and shipping fruit. The advocates of relocalization all seem to be totally ignorant of the history of agriculture and transportation. This post appears to be all about ignorance and stupidity. I have said it before, relocalization is nothing more than Pot Polism, a way to kill off millions of people.

Yeah, and my mother got an orange in her stocking every christmas.

Long distance bulk transportation will remain cheap along rail lines because the rails will get electrified .... Any farm operation that can be electrified will remain functional ....

There is not nearly enough copper in the world to electrify farming globally. Only about 60 years of copper left at current levels of usage.

We are doomed! I think I will commit suicide!

HOW ABOUT LOOKING AT Age of substitutability: or what do we do when the mercury runs out, by Alvin Weinberg?

I love the way you relocalization idiots always find an excuse for dispare, and always smile whiler you do it.

The document you link states that

But electrical copper is, in the long run, almost entirely replaceable by aluminum

If that's true, they'd better find a GW-friendly way of smelting vast quantities of aluminium, because currently it's a huge source of CO2.

Try nuclear.

Nuclear? Look at the graph above. Uranium will be in short supply soon, so I presume you mean Thorium?

The uranium data is even worse. you get a positive energy return by just using rocks with average crustal abundance.
All they have done here is look at the declared reserves and put a figure on when they expire if we don't look for anymore.
They have not been looking at all, as present reserves were ample for their needs.
It is not like oil and gas, with specialist conditions for their formation.
The reason that the fast breeder reactor in France was stopped was because uranium was so cheap it was not worth bothering, not because it did not work.
Fuel costs are anyway such a minor part of nuclear costs that you can pay many times the present figure and have minimal effects on energy prices.
Ad you say, thorium is anyway 4 times as abundant, and it needs not a a lot of change to burn that.
On top of that new reactors will use only a fraction of current fuel - and a fraction of current waste:
The US had a molten salt reactor in the 60's!
More generally, the data for alleged resource shortage you provided is really made by folk with an agenda - to prove that we are running out, so they cut the data to suit their case.
There are genuine concerns about some resources, notably helium, and things like indium if we used it extensively in massive arrays of solar cells, but they are hardly something beyond the wit of man to solve, and can be worked around if you are short of one thing.
To give you another answer to your question of how you would smelt the aluminium, you could also use solar power, and thermally concentrated it might do a very good job.
It is tougher to keep your expensive plant running day and night, that is why nuclear is likely better for this use, but in common with most of these concerns there are multiple answers, and half an hours thought and a bit of googling usually provides them.
Some of these folk, like the ones who made your list presumably, remind me of the fat boy in 'Pickwick Tales' who 'loikes to make yer flesh creep!

There's Antimony, Arsenic, Aluminum, Selenium / And Iron, Gadolinium and Rhodium and Rhenium...

This sort of thing is an apples-to-oranges comparison, because most all these things can be, and will be, and are being, recycled and reused.

Oil is transformed more or less permanently by being used. It becomes greenhouse gases and a temporary bit of useful energy.

How does this tie in to the announcement from Saudi Arabia reported elsewhere on this board that they are abandoning local agriculture and plan to import 100% of their food by 2016? The logical answer would be that people will move to where they can grow food yet already about 25000 people die every day from starvation rather than move so it's not quite that simple.

Also, does anyone have any idea how much land would be required per person if they were self-sufficient, what that works out to multiplied by the 9B expected population by the middle of the century and how that compares to the land that it is possible to cultivate realistically?

Such calculations aren't necessary. We don't have to think about what the world could produce, we can just look at what it does produce. Turns out, that's enough for twice as many people as we have now.

Consider the most recent World Food Outlook from the FAO (Nov 2007).

In 2006/7, there were produced
+2,009.4Mt (million tonnes) of grains of all kinds
-997.5Mt was consumed directly
-735.9Mt was fed to livestock, yielding 275.7Mt of meat and 662.7Mt of dairy products
-329.0Mt went to "other uses" - almost all biofuels, yielding 109.7Mlt, or 0.69Mbbl of fuel (about 12 minutes of world consumption of oil)
which leaves us with a 53Mt deficit, supplied by world grain stocks declining from 471.4 to 428.0Mt.

In addition, we produced about 860Mt of vegetables and 316Mt of fruit; figures for how much of these went to animals are not available. We also produced 161Mt of sugar.

We had in mid-2007 about 6,530 million people in the world. By dividing available food by the population evenly, we can see if we can feed people now or in the future.

A moderately-active (susbsistence farmer, Western middle-class who jogs at lunch and walks to work) healthy adult requires 2,000kcal and 50g of protein daily.

The grain directly consumed comes to 153kg each if divided evenly, which would grant about 1,470kcal and 39g protein. Add in the 130kg of vegetables and 48g of fruit per person, plus the 24kg of sugar, and people should be alright.

113kg of grain per person goes to make 42kg of meat and 101kg of dairy products. This adds another 1,680kcal and 84g of protein to that of the grain, leaving us with 3,140kcal and 123g of protein per person daily. Again, ignoring vegetables, fruit and sugar.

If we had 9 billion people and produced the same amount of grain, it'd be 111kg of grain and 104kg of meat and dairy each granting us 2,197kcal and 85g protein daily. Plenty.

We can probably say that at below 1,500kcal and 35g protein the fruit, vegetables and sugar aren't always enough. Well, if we had the same food production but 13,200 million people, we'd have 1,500kcal and 58g protein daily.

So, if food production does not change at all, we can sustain 13,200 million people. We can sustain a few billion more if we do away with biofuels, and take some grain away from livestock.

Now, there is some reason to think that this food production may not get a lot greater. Climate change and aquifer depletion are going to hit some areas hard, and depletion of fossil fuels will make some agricultural areas untenable. In addition, a growing population in a Business As Usual scenario means a growing urban population, and urban areas tend to expand into agricultural areas, meaning food must be grown somewhere else. But really we've no reason to think that we cannot sustain any population likely in the next century.

However, if we divert more and more of our grain to biofuels and livestock, then some of us could be in trouble. Some people could starve while others are driving their SUVs and eating their burgers. To fill an SUV tank with ethanol takes grain which is about the amount needed to feed a person for a year.

And of course, however much or little food there is, it being divided unevenly is a problem. Someone may say that in my block of units there's an average income of $60,000, which sounds good until you realise that there's one guy on $200k, another on $30k, and two more on $5,000.

Likewise, what we see in the world of nutrition is that the average American has 3,500kcal daily, and the average sub-Saharan African about 1,800kcal. The number of overweight people now is greater than the number of hungry people, apparently - 1,100 million overweight people, 300 million of them obese, and 800 million hungry people. Mere coincidence?

No-one in the world need go hungry because there's not enough land to feed them. People go hungry because we choose for them to go hungry. The corn ethanol I put into my SUV is the tortilla a Mexican couldn't afford to buy for his son's dinner.

On the news the other day there was an item about the poor in Haiti eating mud, as they couldn't afford food.
I don't know if it is causative that the price of food has risen so much, but I think that it should be required viewing for the nuts in politics who support ethanol form corn, particularly the lunatic in Brussels who wants us to go to 10% or whatever, and also for those who benefit from this pork-barrelling.
I am pretty sure that us Oil drum folk, though we may differ on whether we should go for more growth or go for nil growth, and though we may differ on energy provision, all find this disgusting.
Some days you just want to give up.

It would be a lot easier to deal with billions of poor hungry people in the Third World by providing them with free contraceptive technologies (devices, pills, free sterilization), launch advertising campaigns discouraging reproduction, and similar policies than to try to figure out ways to distribute food to more people.

As for this line:

People go hungry because we choose for them to go hungry.

I would provide another: People go hungry because they choose to have too many babies.

As for sustaining 13.2 billion people: Well good bye big cats, bears, chimps, orangutans, elephants, and thousands of other species.

Wow, so in Haiti none of the single people are hungry? Awesome.

The world has more than enough food to feed everyone. But the prosperous areas choose for the poor areas to starve. The number of babies they have has nothing to do with it. Especially not in Haiti; their hunger has to do with degradation of their environment - they cut down all the trees, and had unsustainable farming practices. Go to google maps and look at the Haiti - Dominican Republic border. The side without trees is the hungry side.

Hey, I didn't say that feeding 13.2 billion people would be good for the world's environment, I said that we could feed that many people just on the food we produce now, if it were distributed evenly. Nobody is starving because the world as a whole doesn't produce enough food. Saying that people are going hungry because (say) Australia can't produce more wheat is like saying that the town wino is homeless because Paris Hilton had to go to rehab and so missed her next party appointment she was going to get paid for.

What does being single have to do with it? You link marriage to reproduction? There are plenty of single pregnancies and childless married people.

The prosperous areas do not make the poor areas poor. The prosperous areas do not make the people in the poor areas have lots of babies.

Okay, I'll rephrase for the benefit of the deliberately obtuse and pointlessly nitpicky.

If you're CHILDLESS in Haiti, you won't starve?

The prosperous areas most certainly do help to make the poor areas poor. They're not the only cause, but they help. You might want to look up about US agricultural subsidies, Mexico, NAFTA and corn. Or perhaps you could look up about Western support for brutal dictators in the Third World. Or there's a certain country that was doing alright until we invaded it, now a good chunk of its population has become refugees and a significant chunk are killed while another chunk is jobless.

Obtuse: Kettle, meet pot.

1) Childless hungry people are hungry because their parents chose to have too many kids and other parents did as well.

2) Many populations in undeveloped countries doubled several times because people like Norman Borlaug created the grain strains that allowed even poor countries to grow many times more crops.

3) The economic development of China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore was not prevented by Western food production subsidies.

4) Subsistence farmers who are hungry do not have surplus food to sell.

5) Exploding populations in Third World cities are now more numerous than those who farm and those populations benefit from lower food prices.

6) Poor countries in Africa that had little or no US involvement are just as messed up as the ones which were closer to the US. Hanging the poverty of Africa on US support for dictators is just plain incorrect.

7) Parents in Haiti have less food for themselves than the childless do unless the kids can produce more than they eat. That seems unlikely.

Thanks for chiming in on this topic, Jeff. I am a fan of your work.

Using evolution as an analogy, I think it's fair to say that, while the reptile kingdom progressed from smaller to larger sizes, there was not a smooth regression to produce mice. Some sort of catastrophe had to occur.

Also, there's a distinct evolutionary tendency for stressed ecosystems to produce smaller organisms and for well-endowed ecosystems to produce larger organisms. We see that in more recent evolutionary history in the isolated populations of hippos and such on Mediterranean islands. But even in these cases, the regresson was probably not an easy path for the critters to take.

For human organizations, the ideal structure would have centralization for high level policies, such as environmental management (like the central policies of internet protocols), but a distribution of power such that the policy-making body cannot grant favors to one local entity over another. I think the US Constitution is an admirable attempt to codify such an organization. Actually implementing it is a matter for another venue and discussion.

It is one thing to grow food, and another to prepare it for consumption (transport, treated in the top post, elsewhere), cooking, and yet a third to manage the ‘waste’.

No doubt quoted already, Britons throw out a third of their food. just one link

I suppose that most people here would say that many, if not all, industrial food preparations are unhealthy (think frozen pizza, with leftover pork fat turned into cheese; and tomato need to go on, dinner time is coming up) and wasteful, mostly because of transport, refrigeration, conditioning in packages, re-treating (e.g. microwave), resultant garbage, etc.

That last point relates to the ‘efficiency, bulk, specialization’ argument well brought out in the various posts, so it isn’t, in ‘dollar’ terms, necessarily so for all products, or imagined future products / their distribution. Obviously even the most rigorous green would agree that it is a good idea to pickle pickles when they are ripe, for consumption - exchange later on.

Britons throw out a third of their food for various reasons that are impossible to chart (sorry, no nice correlational graphs. And I only picked the Brits as an ex. because of recent studies/articles.) The critical might call it over-consumption or delirious shopping mania, and many other nasty things. Others might scream about the power of advertising, attack commercial TV. Social scientists might burble about the destruction of the family and traditional roles (Mom in the kitchen, the epitome of the local, and unpaid, worker in the food chain); anti-capitalist third worlders might point to the sucking away of resources abroad, call it new colonialism; anthropologists would write about a culture of waste, ugly thrash; professional cooks might say that the food bought is so disgusting it is no wonder it is thrown out.

My point: the growing, harvesting of food should, ideally, be linked to its preparation, the >> to the plate. So linked to culture, and so embedded in global circuits is has become impossible to tease out the various factors, and we don’t know how much energy is used (wasted?) after it comes out of, or off, the ground, the farm, the stable, etc., but that counts tremendously.... (Not to mention, political organization.)

Whatever energy efficiencies are currently being made by growing crops in volume at optimal locations such as Mexico and shipping them to US markets seem likely to increase --not decrease-- as oil costs continue to rise. Ditto for making products in China and shipping them to the US. However, the energy advantages will probably depend upon the crop and the products. The cost of transporting watermelons and baby strollers, for example, will obviously be much higher than for blackberries and wrenches. But don't be surprised if rising energy costs work to the advantage of agribusinesses, efficient offshore producers, and big box stores in the US.