Organic Agriculture Is Better Than Industrial Agriculture

Today is World Food Day. To celebrate the day, we are publishing an excerpt from Aaron Newton's and Sharon Astyk's forthcoming book, A Nation of Farmers. We are publishing two sections from this book:

• Industrial Agriculture: Stealing from the Future

• Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World Better

A longer excerpt from the book is available on Hen and Harvest. A Nation of Farmers is being published by New Society Publishers, and is expected to appear in the Spring of 2009. The excerpt begins below the fold.

Industrial Agriculture: Stealing from the Future

Whenever people say, “We mustn’t be sentimental,” you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, “We must be realistic,” they mean they are going to make money out of it. —Brigid Brophy

The price of industrial agriculture is uncalculated quantities of food that future generations will not have to eat. How is this so? Well, for example, though cities grew up in good spots for trade, they also by necessity grew in areas surrounded by fertile, productive agricultural land that could support large populations. The displacement of large populations of agrarian people into cities has meant that all over the world, more and more land is transformed into city and suburb, paved over and no longer producing.

As the ability of soils to hold water decreases because of erosion and climate change, arable land becomes desert. As soils are depleted of nutrients and the price of natural-gas-based nitrogen fertilizers rises, untold people will find the cost of growing their own food in their depleted environment prohibitive. We are seeing this already.

As artificial fertilizers produce nitrous oxide and feedlot meat production warms the planet with methane, millions risk losing the sources of water that allow them to grow food. As we deplete aquifers by growing inappropriate crops in regions that cannot sustain them over the long term, we risk future hunger.

That said, however, we should not underestimate the resilience and power of local, indigenous, sustainable agriculture. For example, in Bringing the Food Economy Home, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield and Steven Gorelick cite several World Bank and FAO papers that indicate that as recently as the mid-1990s, 2 billion people—35 percent of the world’s population—were being fed by traditional agriculture with minimal or no fossil fuel inputs.1

Often these farmers do so on marginal land, because the best agricultural land in the Global South has been turned to non-food or luxury food items. Shrimp farms displace rice farms in coastal India; coffee displaces small polyculture farms or food providing forests in Latin America and Africa; flowers displace food in much of Latin America and Asia; cotton to feed our endless appetite for cheap clothing displaces food in many nations. It will be a non-trivial problem to return this land to sustainable food production, but it is possible.

These statistics, along with the others here should at least raise some significant questions in those who believe we know what the earth’s proper carrying capacity is. That does not make the issue of population irrelevant, but it does mean we may have time and choices that we did not know we had. And if 2 billion people can feed themselves on the poorest available land organically and with minimal inputs, how many could do it if sustainable agriculture received the same supports commercial agriculture now does?

Vandana Shiva describes (and we will quote this at some length, because it is very important) what the Green Revolution has done in the third world, but it is important to remember that the loss of calories that occurred there also happened to us. For us, the cost came in the form of our loss of nutrition. That is, though we had more calories than we needed, we replaced nutritious foods with non-nutritious ones, to our detriment. For the poor of the world, it came as a significant loss of food value, as well as nutrition.

Industrial agriculture has not produced more food. It has destroyed diverse sources of food, and it has stolen food from other species to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.

It is often said that the so-called miracle varieties of the Green Revolution in modern industrial agriculture prevented famine because they had higher yields. However, these higher yields disappear in the context of total yields of crops on farms.

Green Revolution varieties produced more grain by diverting production away from straw. This “partitioning” was achieved through dwarfing the plants, which also enabled them to withstand high doses of chemical fertilizer. However, less straw means less fodder for cattle and less organic matter for the soil to feed the millions of soil organisms that make and rejuvenate soil.

The higher yields of wheat or maize were thus achieved by stealing food from farm animals and soil organisms. Since cattle and earthworms are our partners in food production, stealing food from them makes it impossible to maintain food production over time, and means that the partial yield increases were not sustainable. The increase of yields in wheat and maize under industrial agriculture were also achieved at the cost of yields of other foods a small farm provides. Beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables all disappeared both from farms and from the calculus of yields. More grain from two or three commodities arrived on national and international markets, but less food was eaten by farm families in the Third World.

The gain in “yields” of industrially produced crops is thus based on a theft of food from other species and the rural poor in the Third World. That is why, as more grain is produced and traded globally, more people go hungry in the Third World. Global Markets record more commodities for trading because food has been stolen from nature and the poor.2

This may be the most important point we can make—drawing down future food, and starving our children and grandchildren should not be an option in an agricultural system. High yields for us now and hunger for them later is not a viable choice in a growing world—period.

There is, in truth, no way to be certain what we gained and what we lost in the Green Revolution. What is virtually certain is that its gains were overstated, and that allocation of resources, whether from future generations or from poor to rich were inequitable. When someone makes the statement that grain yields rose by so much, that looks impressive. But the practical realities of that are very different. We have to ask whether those yield increases actually made it from field to the mouths of the hungry, and whether it was possible to duplicate them through any other method.

Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World Better

It’s really very simple, Governor. When people are hungry they die. So spare me your politics and tell me what you need and how you’re going to get it to these people. —Bob Geldof

To discover whether we can feed the world, first we need to ask whether increased yields have actually meant more available food and nutrition. In fact, this question has been answered—even the World Bank admitted in 1986 that more food does not mean less hunger. Access to food is the primary issue—if it were not, the US would have no hungry people instead of 35 million food-insecure people. Food access is the most important issue in feeding the world, as economist Amartya Sen, among other people, has discussed at length. In Donald Freebairn’s analysis of more than 300 research reports on Green Revolution results, he found that 80 percent of them showed that inequity increased with the adoption of Green Revolution techniques.3

If the Green Revolution had responded to real material shortages of food worldwide, the environmental costs might be worth it. But it did not. As Freebairn documents, the food supply was sufficient to feed the world’s population in 1950, just as it is now. Claims that Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution saved “a billion lives” are almost certainly wildly overstated—there was sufficient food to go around before the Green Revolution, had equitable distribution been in place, just as there is now. In fact some analysts have suggested, whether rightly or wrongly, that population growth itself is a product of that growth. (That last is a subject we’ll return to shortly.)

And, as we’ve noted, industrial agriculture actually undermines our ability to continue to feed the world, by contaminating soil, increasing global warming, depleting water stocks and promoting erosion.

Dissecting figures about hunger in World Hunger: 12 Myths, Lappé, Collins, et al. note that though figures at first seem to suggest that the Green Revolution made real gains in hunger reduction because total food available between 1970 and 1990 rose by 11 percent and the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942 million to 786 million, this is not really true. If you take China out of this discussion, the figures look very different. Removing China from the equation, the number of hungry people in the developing world rose from 536 to 597 million. And,

In South America, while food supplies rose almost 8 percent, the number of hungry people also went up, by 19 percent.… In South Asia there was 9 percent more food per person by 1990, but there were also 9 percent more hungry people. The remarkable difference in China, where the number of hungry dropped from 406 million to 189 million almost begs the question: which has been more effective at reducing hunger, the Green Revolution or the Chinese Revolution?4

This suggests that first of all, though absolute food availability is relevant, it is not as relevant as distribution and economic justice. And because China was a comparatively late adopter of Green Revolution seeds and techniques, it also suggests that the Green Revolution itself may be less important than improved agricultural techniques that apply just as much to organic agriculture as to chemical agriculture.

It is commonplace to assume that organic agriculture yields less than conventional agriculture and that we would have to endure enormous losses in yield were we to give up chemical inputs. The yield increases of the Green Revolution are commonly articulated in isolation, without discussion of comparisons with organic yields. To determine how important the Green Revolution was, then, we need to go through the outputs of the Green Revolution and ask whether increased agricultural yields depend upon Green Revolution techniques. If, for example, agricultural yields depended on mechanization, we would expect mechanized agriculture to consistently out-yield hand labor. If they depend upon chemical inputs, we would expect organic agriculture to be heavily out-yielded by conventional industrial agriculture. And if they depend on plant breeding, we would expect older varieties to be out-yielded by newer ones.

Are these things true? Well, not in absolute terms. That is, small farms, which generally speaking use much less mechanization, fewer inputs and are more likely to use older plant varieties and save seed than large ones, actually are more productive per acre in total output than large farms. At the extreme ends of this, we can see this disparity in Ecology Action’s biointensive gardening methods, which offer yields per acre much, much higher than industrial agriculture can achieve—without fossil fuel inputs, using open-pollinated seeds.

But on a larger scale this is true as well. In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben argues that the 2002 Agricultural Census confirms this greater productivity of small farms using more hand labor—small farms produce more food per acre by every measure, whether calories, tons or dollars.5 What mechanization does do is reduce the amount of human labor required. However, in a world with 6.6 billion humans and growing, human labor is a widely available resource.

It is also true that organic agriculture as a whole can consistently match yields with conventional agriculture, suggesting that we do not depend on artificial fertilizers or pesticides. In a 2007 paper, “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” the authors demonstrated that organic methods would offer a substantial net increase in yields in the Global South, while continuing comparable yields in the Global North. In a world-wide organic only policy “farms could produce between 2,641 and 4,381 calories per person per day compared to the current world equivalent of 2,786 calories per person per day.”

In other studies, agronomist Jules Pretty studied 200 sustainable agricultural projects in 52 countries and observed that, per hectare, sustainable practices led to a 93 percent average increase in food production. Grain yields, as discussed in his volume Agri-Culture, had average yield increase of 73 percent over studies including 4.5 million farmers.6

The Rodale Institute has been running test plots of conventionally farmed corn and soybean rotations (the practice of most Midwestern farms) against organically grown plots, where soil is maintained wholly by cover crops, and another where a fodder crop is grown and fed to cows whose manures are returned to the soil. The difference in total yields between the three plots is less than 1 percent. And during drought years, the organic plots dramatically out-yielded conventional ones because of higher organic matter in the soil. The cover-crop-fed plots produced twice as many soybeans as the conventionally farmed ones.7

As we go into increasingly difficult times, one of the great strengths of organic agriculture is its resilience in the face of less-than-optimal conditions; when fertilizer prices spike, in drought or flooding years, organics can continue to produce successfully. In times of stress, organic agriculture tends to out-yield conventional—and what is coming is many more stressful years.8

Even the much touted problem of lowered yields as fields stripped by conventional agriculture are converted to organics can be overcome, as a German study found. Making the first crop a nitrogen-fixing legume can prevent an initial drop in yield.9

Moreover, most of those assuming that industrial agriculture must "feed the world" are assuming that a few grain exporting nations—the US, Canada, Brazil—must feed the poor world. But yields could be doubled in poor nations. Not with commercial fertilizers, already out of the reach of many poor farmers, but organic cover crops, composting and new techniques could have dramatic results in enabling poorer nations to feed themselves and also in creating an agriculture of richer soil, higher in humus, that can withstand difficult weather. For example, in Benin in the 1990s, the government experimented with subsidizing seed for cover cropping, and found that eroding soils could be repaired with a comparatively small investment in velvet beans, which also reduced weeding. Maize production tripled, without the importation of expensive commercial fertilizers.10

So although, seen in isolation, the Green Revolution did increase yield of grain, organic and sustainable agriculture have kept pace and in some cases exceeded the results of Green Revolution techniques. We need not depend on chemical agriculture, mechanization or any other fossil (or eventually renewable) fueled technology to feed ourselves.


1Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Merrifield and Todd Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home, Zed Books, 2002p. 4.
2Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, South End Press, 2000, pp. 12–13.
3Donald Freebairn, Did the Green Revolution Concentrate Incomes? A Quantitative Study of Research Reports, World Development, 23 No 2, 1995, pp. 164-175.
4Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, Peter Rossett and Luis Esparza, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Grove Press, 1998, p. 61.
5McKibben, Bill, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Henry Holt, 2007, p. 67.
6Jules Pretty, Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land, and Nature, Earthscan Publications, 2002, pp. 63-66.
7Donella Meadows, “Our Food, Our Future,” Organic Gardening, Vol. 47 No. 5 September/October 2000, p. 54.
8Ibid., p. 55.
9Ibid., p. 56.
10Ibid., p. 54.

My personal observations of organic versus commercial fertilizer and pesticide using have not been nearly as favorable as this posting shows.

I see three problems with organic systems I have observed.

1) Organic systems I have seen require tillage to control weeds. This generally leads to higher erosion rates. No till systems using pesticides control weeds with less erosion and have higher soil organic matter versus conventional tillage.

2) Cover crops will not replace phosphorus and potash sent exported from the farm as produce or animal products. You must have a source of these nutrients on a very large scale if we are to convert all farms to organic to be viable for the long term. Recycling phosphorus and potash from human waste will require a mindboggling costly change in infrastructure.

3) Organic requires more labor and labor of a kind rare in the developed world. A major change will be required to get people to do the physical and dirty work of manual agriculture at least in my opinion. I do not have any estimate of numbers but my best really quick and dirty estimate would be at least 10 million additional farm workers in the United States.

It is nice to talk about going all organic but in my opinion there are major problems with going all organic which are often glossed over.

1. There are several studies, including some here:, that suggest that organic no-till is as effective than conventional pesticide based no-till. SRI rice techniques have also suggested that little or no tillage is probably necessary for rice, one of the primary grain staples worldwide. No-till vs. till in organic agriculture is, IMHO, a false dichotomy.

2. Nothing will replace potash and phosphorous except manures, including human manures, from the farm, if the cost of fertilizer continues to rise as it has, to the point that most farmers can't afford to plant their fields. This is already happening the poor world, and we are very close to it happening here. We are going to have no choice on this matter than to adapt our infrastructure to use these things - and the infrastructure adaptations are far cheaper than maintaining the infrastructure that was built for cheap energy. Having a food system at all requires that we deal with the problem of rising costs and tightening supplies for NPK - we have no choice. The advantage is that we can transform an energy suck and environmental threat (excessive human and animal manures contaminating waterways, groundwater, etc...) into a solution. This will not be magically easy - nor do we make the claim that it will be. It is, however, easier than continuing to deal badly with human manures in an economy and ecology unable to maintain or replace aging infrastructure, while also importing fossil fuel intensive artificial fertilizers.

3. Yes, it will. Our own estimate is that in the US (and note, this essay is speaking of world adaptation, not US alone) 50-100 million people newly involved in the food and agricultural system. That means probably 50 million new home gardeners and tens of millions of new farmers and farmworkers. It means dealing with the problems of low agricultural pay and the treatment of farmworkers. It will mean a host of major structural adaptations. These would be incredibly difficult, except that we are facing massive economic dislocation, widespread unemployment, a great deal of poverty and probably endemic hunger. It is possible to imagine even without these things that some of these shifts would occur - for example, US victory gardens produced as many vegetables as all commercial farms during WWII in a period where most people were fully employed and doing additional war work, and when most healthy younger men were off at war. But the fact that this will be necessary in order to keep people fed is a powerful additional motivator.


We will undoubtedly have to agree to disagree on the potential viability of "organic" no-till. My personal observations strongly incline me to believe that non use of pesticides in no till farming is doomed to fail. Your source is the Rodale institute. My personal observation over the years has been that they are not an unbiased source. If I quoted Monsanto research as a source you would quite rightly object but I consider Monsanto and Rodale as equally biased just on opposite sides.

Eliminating pesticides is a good goal but until someone comes up with a workable economical substitute they will be required for many uses. If post petroleum economics changes enough that people have to manually control weeds the world will not be pleasant for the weeders.

There are alternatives to controlling weeds other than tilling or spraying chemicals. A soil improvement plan that includes mulching will significantly decrease the number of weeds. It'll help hold moisture in the soil as well.

A professor of mine used to say that a weed is just a plant for which humans have yet to discover a use. It is possible to pick which "weed" grows in your garden or farm field under the agriculturally useful plants. This green mulch will discourage other weeds.


Mulching will work well for your garden or mine but to feed large numbers of people we must engage in field agriculture and mulching on a scale of multiple acres has a lot of problems.

Questions that occur to me are:

Where does on obtain mulch in quantities measured in tons per acre multiplied by many acres? (Say for a million acres)

How do you move that many tons of mulch?

How do you evenly spread that much mulch?

How much fuel is required for these operations?

Mulch has its uses and no till residue often acts like a thin mulch but I forsee a lot of scaleup problems.

Stanford experiments use black plastic sheeting for mulch, which is thin, transportable, and reusable.

and made of oil...

You cannot reuse plastic sheeting. That's a ridiculous idea. Do you have any idea what it looks like when it comes off the field? How do you store it? Do you hire someone to re-roll it onto cardboard rolls, or do you hang it from trees?

Plastic sheeting is an absolute necessity on the farm I'm employed at, sorry to say, due to weed pressures and lack of labor for CONTINUOUS weeding and for maintaining soil temperatures.

But it get thrown away in October.

[edit: incorrectly placed as reply to TonyP]

Agreed. I've reused black landscape fabric for multiple years, but black plastic mulch isn't reusable.

Weeding is going to be a big deal - and it is going to be a big deal no matter what for most people, because as weeds become herbicide resistant, and the cost of pesticides and pesticide resistant varieties rises out of the reach of many - including many American farmers, we're going to have to deal with the weeds. There are ways to cut back on them, but not a lot of ways to avoid them entirely. Which means that we're going to have to reallocate some of the money we now pay for nearly pointless things to paying for people to use hoes. Giant plastic baggies as mulch, tractors, tillers, etc... all of these were cheaper than people. But in a massive financial dislocation in a world with almost 7 billion people, but not nearly as much energy as we'd like, that's going to start to shift. The unemployed will need work - and useful work is better than pointless work.

That's one of the reasons I think that the majority of our coming farmer will be small scale home farmers on land they own, in families where agriculture is not a primary income source - because the cost of labor means that growing your own is actually more feasible that buying in many cases in a world without a lot of cheap energy.

Nor do I anticipate an instant transition - the giant plastic baggies will be around for a while, and there are worse things than black plastic mulch or old carpet - more expensive ones, too.


I guess I'm not in the same category with you farmers - I'm a gardener, and my mulch sheeting lasts a long, long time. The fabric type is permeable, so it doesn't hold moisture, but it's a lot easier to roll back up than film. Still, for my lil' half-acre, reuse isn't a problem for either type.

We're going to have more than enough oil to make mulch film and fabric for generations, especially when the car market crashes! Seriously, plastic is a minor player in our profligate petrorgy.

OK, I see your point. And actually, here at home I DO reuse my plastic. I'm cheap, and this is a smaller scale than the farm I work at, so I carefully fold up my sheets and stack them in the shed. They get thrown out only after they start deteriorating.

The stuff I refer to above is the filmy stuff that comes off the back of the tractor. It's impossible not to damage upon removal, and there's really no way to store it. I still cringe every time I go to the dump with it, though.

"We're going to have more than enough oil to make mulch film and fabric for generations"

Oh, that's OK, then. At least the next n generations will be fine.

What mechanization does do is reduce the amount of human labor required. However, in a world with 6.6 billion humans and growing, human labor is a widely available resource.


Which means that we're going to have to reallocate some of the money we now pay for nearly pointless things to paying for people to use hoes.

I wonder how many of the people cavilierly tossing out such statements have actually spent a summer with a hoe in a ten acre cornfield, or cutting down thistles in a fifty acre pasture? I have, as a child on a farm in the 'fifties, and believe me, the city folk I now know will prefer to die after the second day. Literally.

Even now, I would never do that job for wages, not even for the wages I now make as an IT professional. I did it as a kid because I wanted to contribute to the family. But having a supervisor punch-clocking you in and out for breaks and lunch, criticising every time you accidentally cut off a good plant? For minimum wage? What you're advocating is a return to a slavery system, pure and simple. What criteria would be used to select for the most efficient crew supervisors? Obviously, intelligence not required so likely meanness and insensitivity.

You guys had better go back and take another crack at this problem.

There are a lot of jobs that people do that I don't particularly want to do - I've done a bunch of them. I've stood in one place doing retail sales, unable to move more than step, unable to stretch a muscle and felt my back seize up. I've lifted elderly people onto toilets and back to bed all day long, often lifting people much heavier than I was, because there was no one free to help me and their needs had to be met. I've unloaded shipping crates and lifted their contents onto shelves above my head for 6 straight hours. A lot of people do physical labor in the US, and worse jobs than farming. I've done several of them, and I find the time I spend cutting thistles pleasant compared to my memories of nursing home work.

It isn't always fun - especially when you get paid badly and work in terrible conditions, but those are your additions to the narrative, not mine, and they aren't inevitable. We're going to be using what resources we do have for something - yes, we'll have less money to go around, but we'll be spending what we do have on some things. I suppose it is possible to imagine that we'll give up food and go on buying other stuff, but me, I'd bet we'll be looking for food. That is, agriculture is the wildly underpaid sector it is in part because of fossil fuels. Take them out, and food (and its production) become more valuable.

The problem, of course, is making such a shift sooner, rather than later - Cuba's agricultural shift, for example, happened after everyone was already hungry and lost 20lbs - Russia's happened in crisis. In that case, you have several options. One is to subsidize and enable small farms - large gardens and small farms using existing housing on large lots (often very good farmland) and larger plots. That makes it possible for people to do this work for the same reasons you were willing - to contribute to the well-being of their family. Another possibility would be to artificially subsidize agricultural wages, turning agriculture into a decent job. You might not take it, but millions of people doing McJobs and heavy physical work with repetetive strain injuries might not find decently managed agricultural work intolerable. There are other options - it is hard to condense nearly 400 pages into 5 or so ;-). But I don't think one of the choices we're recommending is slavery.


"There are a lot of jobs that people do that I don't particularly want to do " and you've made a good list of them. But for me farm worker definitely ranks among them and it didn't take me very long doing that to conclude (1) it's not a way I want to live and (2) it doesn't seem to sensible to live off of other people living that way. So, small farms - yes, small down to the size of gardens, I say. But we need to bring up the issue of social security. Without some form of centralized social security it's every family for itself and the larger the family, the better the chance of making it in old age. I've read of and figured out many versions of Utopia but without addressing the population question they all crash. To those who claim that unfair distribution is the real problem, the reply is (1) fairer distribution is not about to happen and (2) if it did it would be a temporary solution.

My daughter lives on a commune/farm in W Va. They have goats, various fowl, a few cows, horses, and a large garden with plenty of room to expand. Recently they've taken up canning. The live very comfortably, but use a teeny fraction of the resources the same number of people in suburbia would use. Although, they are not self-sufficient, they are positioned to get a lot closer to it.

When I think of farm labor, I think of the way they live on this commune. One doesn't have to be simply a low-wage farm hand. I think it's far better, far more fun to a member of some kind of collective where farming is but one of your labors, and where you participate in deciding how to make it work.

As far hard work, I was a truck driver for 11 years, til I was 36, long, long ago. Hard, hard work loading and unloading box cars, loading my truck, running around three states delivering office furniture, carrying desks up flights of stairs, duking it out with other drivers who jumped the line at the packing houses on the waterfront in NYC, and so forth. Some of the best years of working life. Hard physical work is not to be afraid of, especially if you have some control of it and if you can lighten it up as you get older.

None of this matters, however. There's not going to be any choice about it. It's the future. It doesn't matter how much anyone hates it. The adjustment is going to have to be made. The era when everyone could sell real estate, process claims, design web pages or just walk around a warehouse guarding against "terrorists" is rapidly coming to a close. And its not a matter of re-industrializing either. That too cannot happen on a major scale. One way or another it's back to the land and small industry connected with it. People don't like biking or walking too much either. SO SORRY!

BTW, I'm a total city-slicker (although I walk everywhere, except to get out of the city to go hiking). But I know this ain't future. I used to hate visiting my grandfather's farm as a kid, getting up in the middle of the nite, like 5 or whatever, listening to some idiot fowl howling. But my daughter's commune/farm plus the recognition of necessity has changed my mind. Trouble is, I'm at the age now where all I'll be able to contribute is fertilizer, one way or another.

Ah yes, upthread there was talk of night-soil. What about buckets? Carry it out to the fields. That's what they used to do in China, probably still do.

Sorry for not being clearer. I was talking about earning money along side the farm workers that harvest so much of the food we all eat. Has your daughter tried to earn a living in that way? If you or she tried it, I think neither you would be so rhapsodical about it.

Doom and Gloom, you don't get it. As soon as you say "tried to earn a living" I know you don't get it. You're living in the unreal world where everything you do and everything you consume has a price. What is the price of being off the economy? Priceless!

Two of us have lived for a decade on about $12,000 to $14,000 a year. The IRS keeps hounding us, because they don't understand how people can live that way. How do we do it? For starters, we don't buy plastic crap from China, we don't pay rent -- to a landlord or a bank (if you have a mortgage, you're just a renter), we produce 2/3rds of our own energy, and close to half our food.

If your goal is to live a good life with as little money as possible, it's amazing how easy it is. You just have to kick your addiction to money.

One doesn't have to be simply a low-wage farm hand.

Well, of course that was the main point of my post above. Before you guys go getting all utopia dreaming of everyone outstanding in their fields, you'd better address the present tendency for concentrated wealth to capture every activity with any potential to increase it, and agriculture tops the list. My point was that there will be some social engineering required before I'll get back to anywhere near participating in anything like a majority of working society employed full time in manual labour agriculture.

I don't understand why it needs to be an all or nothing proposition. My philosophy as an organic vegetable producer is to use fossil fuels/mechanization only when there is a compelling advantage in doing so. For example, I use my tractor/loader primarily to turn compost piles. In this case, five minutes with the tractor offsets a couple of days of backbreaking manual labor. I use a walk behind tractor for most of my mechanized tilling, but my primary tillage tool is a manual wheel hoe. Does it go as quickly as my mechanical tiller? No, it takes three times longer, but it is much more precise, so I do less pulling by hand when I use this tool. In this case, I don't feel that the motorized tiller provides enough of an advantage to justify its use under most circumstances. The bottom line is that I used about ten gallons of diesel this season, but got a huge bang for the buck of each gallon consumed.

There is no doubt that organic farming is very labor intensive, but I don't find it to be the drudgery that you describe lengould (although I might feel differently if I had to manually hoe ten acres of corn as a kid). Equally daunting is how "knowledge intensive" organic growing is. As a former conventional grower who converted to organic, I understand this first hand. However, the more I learn, and the better I apply this knowledge, the less physical labor I have to do. I cannot emphasize enough how important this knowledge/labor tradeoff is in organic farming.

With respect to the intelligence required for good food growing practices, it is interesting to note that Adam Smith, who wrote in a time when all farming was organic, was extremely impressed with the intelligence and skill of farmers and farm laborers:

After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions, however, there is perhaps no trade which requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience. The innumerable volumes which have been written upon it in all languages, may satisfy us, that among the wisest and most learned nations, it has never been regarded as a matter very easily understood. And from all those volumes we shall in vain attempt to collect that knowledge of its various and complicated operations, which is commonly possessed even by the common farmer;

Not only the art of the farmer, the general direction of the operations of husbandry, but many inferior branches of country labour, require much more skill and experience than the greater part of mechanic trades.

The common ploughman, though generally regarded as the pattern of stupidity and ignorance, is seldom defective in this judgment and discretion. He is less accustomed, indeed, to social intercourse than the mechanic who lives in a town. His voice and language are more uncouth and more difficult to be understood by those who are not used to them. His understanding, however, being accustomed to consider a greater variety of objects, is generally much superior to that of the other, whose whole attention from morning till night is commonly occupied in performing one or two very simple operations. How much the lower ranks of people in the country are really superior to those of the town, is well known to every man whom either business or curiosity has led to converse much with both.

Which is why food production is best left to the experts. Also I see no reason why diesel powered machinery couldn't be used by organic farmers. On average only 1 acre in six needs to be devoted to soy beans for biodiesel which is half as much land that would be needed to support draft animals.

Unfortuntely we probably have an inadequate supply of the expertise needed for producing food in a post fossil fuel world. Farming is going to have to become a growth profession.

Soybeans are an inappropriate feedstock for biodiesel. The only reason they're being used for commercial biodiesel is because of huge subsidies for factory farming, and because the by-product is fed to cattle, which should not be eating such stuff anyway. Google for "Joe Salatin" or read Michael Pollen's latest book to learn more.

Canola has double the yield, and the seedcake makes an organic pesticide.

But we should not be making biodiesel at all -- at least not for warm-weather use. If engine manufacturers spent 1/100th the R&D on what I call "flex-fuel diesel" as they do on hybrids, we'd have engines that you could pour pure vegetable oil into, without modification. Rudolph Diesel did it in 1899; it isn't rocket science. But modern diesel engines have been optimized for petro-diesel, which is just infuriating.

"This leads to the further reflection, that no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture. I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable -- nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery. The mind, already trained to thought, in the country school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there an exhaustless source of profitable enjoyment."
Abraham Lincoln, Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, September 30, 1859

I would never do that job for wages, not even for the wages I now make as an IT professional.

Yes, but would you do it for food when your IT job goes away?

Hungry people find they are capable of more and different kinds of work than they were when their belly was easily and cheaply filled.

It's hard to say when IT jobs will go away. The "doomers" say "any day now." John Michael Greer thinks it might take decades. That's a large range, and prudence might dictate developing some other skills.

since embarking on my horti/agro journey, I've come to see things the same way.
It's not doable, it's broken.
Can you imagine mulching 3,000 acres with black plastic?

The yields from my market garden are off the charts, my fuel usage per acre is off the charts squared.

I think what’s being discussed here is greater than a debate about whether or not it makes sense to sheet mulch 3000 acres. The coming agricultural transition will require flexibility. Rather than limiting ourselves to a handful of tools and techniques we should be stocking out toolboxes with all manners and methods of growing food. Sheet mulching, black plastic, fabric mulch, green mulch, till, no-till, cats and dogs living together…

I think what we find, when we get down and dirty about the business of growing more of our own food, is that the diversity of situation calls for as many useful tools and techniques as we can possibly share with each other.


"Mulching will work well for your garden or mine but to feed large numbers of people we must engage in field agriculture and mulching on a scale of multiple acres has a lot of problems."

If it will work well in your garden or mine, then we can feed large numbers of people. If your garden feeds some people, and my garden feeds some people, why can't billions of gardens feed many billions of people?

A soil improvement plan that includes mulching will significantly decrease the number of weeds. It'll help hold moisture in the soil as well.

I invite you to purchase and apply the mulch to, say, an acre of greens. I've seen it done. It is not pretty (although I wouldn't do it any other way).

Mulch hay in Maine now starts at $4.00/ bale. A bale disappears before your very eyes when you begin laying it.

Mulching is also no guarantee against weeds. Weeds grow up next to plants, and weeds push up through mulch. Heavy applications of mulch make Fall rototilling a nightmare.

I'm an organic farmer and plan to continue being one, but I am under no illusions about its "superiority" to conventional farming. I do it for myself, not the world. The world is not mine to save anyway.

I think it is hard for many westerners to imagine that they might not have much choice but to rely on organic methods, but that's an ongoing problem in much of the world. The idea that we might be poor enough or have enough unemployment to think a job weeding crops was better than the alternative is very hard to wrap our minds around from the perspective of energy insulation that we're working on.

I agree that field scale mulching is problematic - I find it more useful to use undercropping as a natural mulch - white clover is one possibility, but others work better in other places and climates. I've been using squash an understory crop to corn, for example, and find that the two together shade out most of the weeds with greater net productivity. It is traditional to add beans to this mix, which I've also done.

I think it is hard to imagine that we might have a food crisis that made it worth doing this hard work, or figuring these problems out from where we are. I wish I thought the depths of difficulty we have imagining it were equal to the unlikelihood of it happening.


Your source is the Rodale institute. My personal observation over the years has been that they are not an unbiased source.

I totally agree with this. Rodale is very biased.

My own assessments of "organic" farming comes from experience, not Rodale's propaganda.

The writers of this piece obvious haven't read this:

Skeptical view of organic farming.

It's an eye-opener. Call it "food for thought."

No, I hadn't seen that, but I'm not particularly impressed - they are using John Stossel, who famously lies on this subject - ABC actually had to force him to apologize because many of the tests he cited were never conducted - he flat out made them up. Stossel is hardly a reliable source.

There is probably a credible case to be made against our arguments, but this isn't even remotely in the same ballpark as credible.


You're nit-picking his sources.

The site's author, Bob Carroll, is a very, very smart guy. The Skeptic's Dictionary puts "organic" farming in its place, where it belongs. I think Norman Borlaug is a genius. I think Rodale and Steiner are cranks.

The "conventional farming--bad, organic farming--good" thing is tired, untrue, and beside the point. What if everything Bob says about "organic" farming turns out to be true, then why practice "organic" farming?

There are many reasons for practicing non-conventional farming that have nothing to do with the messianic reasons stated by the "organic" farming cult.

--You can do it at home with native materials

--You can build the soil instead of relying on chemical inputs

--You can eat your way through the crash with minimal dollars spent

In which case it's worth practicing even if "studies showed" "organic" produce to be inferior to conventional produce.

"--You can eat your way through the crash with minimal dollars spent"
And just what do you expect on the other side of this crash? Just what do you think is crashing?

Just what do you think is crashing?


And just what do you expect on the other side of this crash?

Who knows?

No, I don't think I'm merely nit-picking his sources - a large part of his central argument relies on studies that don't exist, that were falsified. That's not a nit, that's a giant wart - and it undermines his basic argument. I don't know the gentleman - he may be smart, but he's not making a particularly smart argument here.

I'm not really sure what yours is - I'm fascinated, of course, to learn who you think is smart, but since you don't come up with any analysis or rationale for it, I'm not sure how useful that is to any discussion. For the record, while I cite the Rodale Institute here, I don't think anything I've ever written relies on Robert Rodale personally, or Steiner (who I don't think particularly highly of either). I do think that the Rodale Institute, which has an agenda (so does everyone) but has also been doing studies no one else could bother to undertake in the rush to industrialize has value - although I do think that it is helpful that much of their research is backed up elsewhere, as noted in the article.

That said, we agree on your latter points - the primary argument in favor of organic agriculture is simply that it doesn't rely heavily on expensive fossil fuels, and provides equivalent total food in a society facing a crisis. The premise of our analysis is simply that all things are not equal - that we have to produce the most food with the fewest inputs where people need food to avoid maximum human death and suffering.


I'm not really sure what yours is - I'm fascinated, of course, to learn who you think is smart, but since you don't come up with any analysis or rationale for it, I'm not sure how useful that is to any discussion.

The title of this article is "Organic Agriculture Is Better Than Industrial Agriculture," which is tendentious and moralistic. If it turns out to be false, do we give up our mulch and compost?

I don't describe myself as an "organic" farmer to most people because of the moralizing baggage. You can just hear their eyes a-rolling.

Here's a thought experiment that reveals my point of view:

Imagine that the Rodale Institute, Monsanto, the USDA, etc., all got together and did an integrated study comparing food grown conventionally with food grown "organically." The results come back, and all agree unambiguously that:

1. "Organic" produce is actually nutritionally inferior to conventionally grown produce.

2. "Organic" techniques require much more land per calorie than conventional techniques.

3. "Organic" farming actually requires much more energy (labor or otherwise) per calorie unit than conventional.

Oh no! What to do? Let the mulch rot and buy pesticides? Hardly.

Because for me, this has nothing to do with the SUPERIORITY of "organic" practices, it has to do with their NECESSITY if things get as bad as some think.

I fail to understand the distinction between necessity and superiority. If it is necessary then it is obviously superior because, by logical default, the alternative is not viable and therefore not superior.

But my thought experiment just explained it to you!

People pay exorbitant prices for the "organics" food because they think they're getting superior, "sustainable" product. And I'm saying there are other reasons for using mulch and compost. I'd wager that in blind experiments people couldn't tell an organic carrot from one grown with chemicals. Also, the claims of the organic farmers usually have nothing to do with peak oil but with the "betterness" of their food. To which I say PFFT.

My preference for buying organic is mostly due to my concern for the soil. If you can't taste the difference, that's not an argument since a lot of our troubles come from the fact that we've introduced pollutants and deficiencies that our sense have not evolved to detect.

I'll take that wager. There is no comparison between supermarket carrots and those grown organically.

Actually, most people I know who buy organic do it for one reason - they want to reduce their pesticide exposure. I'm sure there are some who do it because it is trendy or for the reasons you describe, but having sold (non-certified) organic food for some time, the overwhelming issue is pesticide exposure, particularly for children. No, this doesn't have anything to do with peak oil, but it isn't stupid, either. Not wanting very small bodies (or large ones for that matter) to have more pesticides in them than they already do is pretty rational.

Increasingly, I see consumers concerned also about soil, farming practices, etc... and again, in these cases, non-indsustrial organic is clearly the winner. That doesn't mean that they always understand why industrial organic is bad, but more and more do, thanks to people like Michael Pollan and others exploring the issues. It doesn't mean they always take into account the labor situations of farm workers - teaching people about food is a process. But I think your contempt for the people who eat the food is based on some mistaken assumptions.


I don't use pesticides or herbicides or biocides of any sort. I do use commercial I-NPK and micronutrient supplementation to a limited extent. Hence my produce isn't "organic" and doesn't command as high a price at the Farmers' Market. If your contention that most people buy organic produce because they seek to limit their exposure to pesticides was true, my produce would sell for the same high prices organic produce sells for.

I contend that paying the high price for organic produce is a form of conspicuous consumption, or ego gratification, or status posturing. It's a way of people saying 'I can afford this... and you can't.' Or of saying 'Look how "green" I am.' Organic certification - or the mere assertion that one's produce is grown organically - is a marketing ploy on behalf of the grower, pandering to base human predjudices, nothing more.

Another thing: In the original article the contention is made that the biosphere can feed 9 - 10 billion people. Already at 6.7 billion Homo appropriates >40% of global primary productivity to its own ends. This leaves only a little more than half primary productivity to the maintenance of ecosystems and the vital services they provide. Even if it is technically possible to feed an additional 2 - 3 billion people, doing so would involve the appropriation of well over half of global primary productivity. At what point of energy depletion do ecosystems begin to collapse and biogeochemical cycling dynamics break down? Do we really want to live in a world so overcrowded, where nature has everywhere been subverted to the wants & needs of our own species? Remember: "Feed them and they will breed."

If your product isn't organic, how do they know it has no pesticides? A lot of people who want to avoid pesticides are just going to buy organic food, rather than look for a farmer who isn't organic but who doesn't use pesticides... We don't have that kind of time.

Actually, most people I know who buy organic do it for one reason - they want to reduce their pesticide exposure.

Well, I know I'm not "most people," but I buy organic -- what little food we do buy -- so that our humanure will be organic. :-)

[edit: by the way, if you go back to Bob's site and click on "readers comments" under the organics article, you'll find that he and I engage in a pretty spirited disagreement about the role of organic farming in a post-peak world. It's "charming," for obviously I've changed my mind a lot since writing him. Two years of working at a commercial farm has stripped away a lot of romantic illusions I once held.]

1. "Organic" produce is actually nutritionally inferior to conventionally grown produce.

2. "Organic" techniques require much more land per calorie than conventional techniques.

3. "Organic" farming actually requires much more energy (labor or otherwise) per calorie unit than conventional.

Conventionally grown produce has lost about half its nutritional value since the 40s. [Dr. Arden, quoting USDA and equivalent UK agency]. Conventionally grown in US is 10 calories of fossil fuel per 1 calorie of food - up from 1 to 2 ratio just prior to 1940s. Conventional farming clearly takes more energy than labor intensive methods simply because the energy in fossil fuels is so much cheaper than human energy it makes economic sense.

You conflate "conventional" farming with "industrial" farming. And organic farming at the "industrial" level is every bit as bad as the conventional farming at that level. What your thought experiment poses as choice are not logically distinct. Does that make sense? It's been a long day here at the end of the future.

cfm in Gray, ME

I'm really not sure I understand your distinction between supreriority and necessity - if something is necessary, it is by definition superior to the alternative that can't work, no?

As for the points 1, 2, and 3 they are unlikely - there are a number of studies that suggest that locally produced organic food has more nutrients - if only because it comes from better soil and because it comes from local farms - the longer your produce sits on the shipping dock, the fewer nutrients - even ignoring the difference between an industrial farmer that has to pick the food before the nutrients are fully developed in the plant. Most of the studies and a host more not cited in this article for lack of space disprove 2. #3 is sort of true - but all energy is not created equal. We have almost 7 billion humans who need to eat and do work. We do not have as large a supply of fossil fuels - comparing the scarcity of human effort to the potential cost and scarcity of fossil fuels is a false comparison. Thought experiments that begin "let's assume the opposite of the facts we know are true" end up not being very useful.

I didn't pick the title of this essay - that's hardly the title of our book. We submitted 5 segments of one chapter that explores the question of whether we have to anticipate a die-off or not, or whether we can feed the world's population long enough to actually manage a decline. Our focus isn't primarily on industrial or any other of "organic" agriculture, but on low-input agriculture - the section where we discuss the distinction was left out. We spend a lot of time exploring why industrial organic agriculture is not a solution either.

Again, I think we agree - the best argument for small scale, local, organic agriculture is that people get to keep eating.


Building the soil is probably the key fundamental principle of organic farming that was advocated by the activists who dwere influened by Franklin King who wrote "Farmers of Forty Centuries" and Sir Albert Howard. The Rodale's are not scientists, but that did popularize organic agiculture in the US. Steiner, the founder of homeopathic medicine and biodynamic farming is in a class by himself.

See Heckman, J. 2006. A history of organic farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard's War in the soil to USDA National Organic Program. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 21:143-150.

"The organic farming concept developed in the period prior to 1940 and was pioneered by Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947). Howard, born and educated in England, directed agricultural research centers in India (1905–1931) before permanently returning to England. His years of agricultural research experiences and observations gradually evolved into a philosophy and concept of organic farming that he espoused in several books. Howard’s thinking on soil fertility and the need to effectively recycle waste materials, including sewage sludge, onto farmland was reinforced by F.H. King’s book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. Howard developed a system of composting that became widely adopted. Howard’s concept of soil fertility centered on building soil humus with an emphasis on how soil life was connected to the health of crops, livestock, and mankind. Howard argued that crop and animal health was a birthright and that the correct method of dealing with a pathogen was not to destroy the pathogen but to see what could be learned from it or to ‘make use of it for tuning up agricultural practice’. The system of agriculture advocated by Howard was coined ‘organic’ by Walter Northbourne to refer to a system ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’. Lady Eve Balfour compared organic and non-organic farming and helped to popularize organic farming with the publication of The Living Soil. Jerome Rodale, a publisher and an early convert to organic farming, was instrumental in the diffusion and popularization of organic concepts in the US. Both Howard and Rodale saw organic and non-organic agriculture as a conflict between two different visions of what agriculture should become as they engaged in a war of words with the agricultural establishment. A productive dialogue failed to occur between the organic community and traditionalagricultural scientists for several decades. Organic agriculture gained significant recognition and attention in 1980, marked by the USDA publication Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. The passage of the Federal Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 began the era of accommodation for organic farming in the USA, followed by another milestone with official labeling as USDA Certified Organic in 2002. Organic agriculture will likely continue to evolve in response to ongoing social, environmental, and philosophical concerns of the organic movement."

Somehow, I am skeptical of an opinion piece on organic farming that begins with an ad for "Endless shoes and handbags." :-)

There is no erosion on soils if you mulch. Or leave a lot of residue on the ground. You do not want to cultivate land with a lot of slope.

Land that is gently sloping or flat will not erode by rainfall.

Here we do a lot of no-till and HEL(highly erodable land) will erode.

I made far more money sowing my fields down in hay and sell that versus row cropping. This was back in the 90's.

Last year was a very good one for farmers. This year is not looking as prosperous to them. The future is definitely being to cloud up.

How is physical work dirty? To me the worse dirt is continually crawling under a combine , truck or tractor. I rarely see a clean farm hand.

River bottom lands need no chemical inputs. Yes they spray the hell out of them for weeds. Yet it was once controlled with conventional equipment instead of this continual spray coupe spraying.

A more diversified cropping system would eliminate a lot of the insect infestation. Perhaps more of the weed understory that is immense and growing worse. Animal husbandry and working less acres but more productively and with better management via organic methods would have benefits that most farmers can't understand currently because they have pretty much forgotten how their grandfathers did it.

Airdale-forgotten the faces of their fathers....The Gunslinger by King


1) See The Rodale Institute's work on a method for organic no-till. Also, Google for "rolling stalk chopper" for mechanisms that predate Rodale's relatively recent work.

2) True and untrue. Yes, you must return these nutrients to the fields. No, this isn't necessarily mindbogglingly costly. A household with enough yard-space for a garden (ie. mine) can build such a system for about $50 (see Such a system also reduces a household's water requirements by about 30%. Low energy systems that can reduce a year's worth of an adult's waste to about a gallon of volume are commercially available. So this is even possible in areas of fairly dense population. (Systems sized for a single person are a bit bigger than a beer-fridge. Family sized systems are a bit bigger than a standard refrigerator.)

3) True. But it looks like we're going to have a lot more labour available in the future. Might as well make use of it.

I my experience, many people think saw dust toilettes are "gross" until they use them regularly(NPI). Then they usually like them. I always feel I am "wasting" perfectly good poop when I am forced by circumstances to use a flush toilette; others report the same feelings.

I am regularly uncomfortable for the last hour of the work-day because of the same feelings.

And I've encountered the same horror many times when broaching the idea of a composting toilet in conversation. But if I invite someone over, and they have to use one, I get the exact opposite reaction (ie. "What a great idea!").

Recycling phosphorus and potash from human waste will require a mindboggling costly change in infrastructure.

If the idea of nutrient recycling 'boggles our minds', then there is really not much point in discussing the future of humanity. We will maintain industrial farming for as long as we can and then we will starve to death by the billions. Unfortunately, we live in an insane culture where any action that slows down the rate at which we are producing and consuming useless toys and unnecessary luxuries is viewed as producing economic 'ill health'. If this mental illness cannot be cured then disaster is inevitable, but at least let's not wander about talking about the mind boggling costs of admitting that two plus two equals four. The long term costs of ignoring the biophysical limits of our finite world will be a lot higher than the short term benefits of pretending that those limits do not exist.

I got as far as this portion:
"Dwarfing the plants...."

This is very true. I see it in the corn.

I raise open pollen corn. Two somewhat old varieties. Truckers Favorite and White Hickory. These stalks grow to the same size as they always did...up to 14 feet!!..The diameter is also very large. The ears are very large and the kernels are large.

Contrast that with todays hybrid and gmo corn and you get stalks that you can touch the top of easily. Small diameter stalks.Small ears and very small kernels.

What is different then? The seeding 'population'. Meaning row width is greatly reduced as well as planting distance. Very much reduced.

They do not produce any more ears per plant neither. Its all in the seed population. This can give yields that right now are running about 140 bu/acre. Sometimes on very good land , very good you can get 200 or more bu/acre...but usually it varies considerably across the whole field. Some will brag, like a farmer told me yesterday that he was getting 270 yield. He was stretching the truth..his yield monitor on the combine perhaps topped out at 270 in a few areas of the field.

I knew the field he spoke of for I had cut and rolled hay there in the past.It was a converted cow pasture and extremely rich due to the cow manure over the years.

Local farmers here are getting close to 150 and thats about what it always is and this is not a bad year for corn.

I appreciate this key post. Its extremely important to our livelhood in the future. Someone is going to have to stop this runaway train of intensive agriculture. How and who I have no idea but I assume that Nature itself will kill it off along with much of the population.

Our citizens expect BAU and that is what they will get until it becomes unviable and it starts to collapse completely with many farmers going bankrupt. Then the real food crisis will have arrived.

Perhaps it will have arrived far far too late.

We are right now stripping our woodlands. No one is signing up for the USDA crop supports due to the current grain prices. AFAIK corn and soybeans are still supported by not wheat...yet they 'wildcat' new ground since they do not have the 'basis' on USDA's books, nor do they need it if prices are beyond support levels.
Thats my understanding BTW and may not be totally correct but I did have 'bases' on my farm when I brought it. I let them go when I put it in hay crops but somehow the guys who were putting in my grain crops stole my 'bases' by nefarious means. Thats how important they used to be.

IMO the USDA can exert enormous control over what the farmers do....WHEN the prices fall and they need the supports,as in the past.


I'm not buying this article either. I am especially skeptical of the first footnoted claim, that 2 billion people are living today on agricultural land with little to no input (how do they define "little"?)

Even with organic inputs like manure, how much chemical fertilizer was used to grow the corn to feed the cows?

I have seen no examples anywhere of zero-input sustainable farming. Even John Jeavons, who, incidentally, doesn't eat any of the food grown on his sample plots, but composts it all back in. There are a lot people selling ideals to idealists. This is as bad as the uncritical optimism for high-tech solutions. We need to be realistic if we're going to manage this mess.


Norberg-Hodge, Gorelick et al are quoting the UN FAO study. 85% of the world's farmers are small farmers, farming no more than 5 hectares, and a large percentage of them simply can't afford inputs including things like expensive seed. Most of them don't own cows - they are far too poor - and if they did have corn, they wouldn't feed it to a cow, they'd eat it themselves. I think it is a mistake to view US style industrial agriculture as the worldwide norm.


Even with organic inputs like manure, how much chemical fertilizer was used to grow the corn to feed the cows?

On a third world subsistence farm, even one with a cow, none. Which is pretty much the amount of corn fed to the cow. Feeding corn to cattle is a 20th century western bad idea. Feeding them subsidized corn bought for less than the cost of production is America's special insanity.

Why then are you replying to MY comment?

I agree with you that there is no such thing as "zero-input sustainable farming." As roots mine the soil and concentrate minerals into their tissues the soil is depleted. If those plants die in place then those nutrients go back and it generally balances out. Rain and wind may take away nutrients, but rain and wind can also bring them. If we are going to eat the plants then we have to put the straw and mulch and our manure back on the land it came from. First Law of Thermodynamics says so.

The "inputs" of a farm need to be the "outputs" of those living off that land.

Ecology Action (John Jeavons and friends) is in my area. They do eat what they grow, and I have even known a few of his apprentices who have tried to live a year on just what they grow. I am not sure how well they have stuck to it! What you may be referring to is the fact that a huge portion of what they grow are compost crops. This is absolutely necessary for soil maintenance and entails a lot of work. The labor inputs to full hand methods are very high, and that is the rub. We just aren't up for that as a society right now.

Given that land left alone generally shows a rising fertility, there must be some level of output removal that will allow steady state fertility. Remember, we have solar input to get around the first law.

The classic example is the multi-thousand year old rice paddies of Indonesia. The Peruvian potato fields are well into their second millenium as well.

People have been growing sustainably for thousands of years without any "external" input. It has already been pointed out above that this involves using manures (human and animal) from their own farm. And thinking that you have to use corn to grow healthy, productive cows is ludicrous. On Vancouver Island our neighbour had a fine herd of Jersy milk cows fed by grazing and with silage in winter. Those cows never saw corn in their diet.

It's all a matter of numbers of people. People were growing sustainably for thousands of years because there were a LOT LESS people back then.

It's all a matter of numbers of people. People were growing sustainably for thousands of years because there were a LOT LESS people back then.

There is no question about that. In fact over-population is what will bring things crashing down. I am a retired organic farmer and am well aware that it will be impossible to feed the world with organically grown food. To do so would require a massive reversal of population migration into cities. This reverse migration would almost certainly require socialization, authoritarianism, and re-division of land all of which would be unacceptable to westerners. The western world(and increasingly non-western cultures) have become totally dependent on industrialization brought about by cheap energy. A large portion of the people in the west could be fed by small, intensive farms but people are used to their spoiled wasteful life styles and would rather fight than switch. Therefore, the more likely scenario will be chaos and social disorder as prices for food keep rising and eating into family incomes.

However, that aside, I think there will be an increasing use of organic agriculture as oil prices restart their inevitable climb. A trend in that direction is taking place in the EU. For example, in 2005 Europe's organically farmed land was 3.9 percent of total agriculture while the United States' had risen to 0.6 percent. There are several reasons for the higher percentage in Europe. One is that the collective farms and intensive industrial agriculture in eastern (Communist) Europe nearly destroyed the crop carrying capacity of the soils. After the wall came down a number of eastern European countries started massive organic farming programs to salvage the devastated lands. Secondarily, the EU is for the first time shifting subsidies to organic agriculture in its recognition of the beneficial effects to soil quality and productivity. What is little recognized by the non-farming public is that the wonderful, miraculous, industrial agriculture is massively subsidized by governments. Up to recently, there were no subsidies for organic agriculture. These subsidies plus dirt-cheap oil made it impossible for organic agriculture to compete with the industrial cartel.

Corn? Cows eat grass, man.

In fact many farmers grow corn at close spacing for silage which they feed the cows in winter. Many dairy farmers use silage almost exclusively, year around - by doing this they can keep them in barns without bothering to bring them in and back for milking. In large operations, fields may not be conveniently close to graze cows. Also, corn is used a lot to fatten animals before slaughtering.

I am going to add one more comment to the previous and it is an assertion I have made more than once on TOD.

I was raised mostly on a farm by my grandparents on my fathers side. This was a 100 acre farm and a lot of that was woodland. When I became more aware as a youth there my uncles had already started leaving for WWII and most of my aunts were married. There was one aunt and one uncle left out of 14 children they raised. My brother and I lived with them and there was zero fertilizer and all non-hybrid plants both in the fields and the large garden we grew.

They had NEVER owned their own land but always share-cropped yet managed to raise 12 very healthy children doing so. Doing so and using mules as draft animals. They also raised sheep and herd of cattle and hogs plus various poultry. Geese and ducks and chickens.

We ate extremely well and very healthful food. There was no scarcity either. Yes the work was not trivial but it was better than obtain by weight lifting or running on a treadmill. The fresh air,clean water,healthy food all has enabled me to live and be healthy.

Never hospitalized until this year. Take no drugs. Still have excellent health. Compare this to my wife,raised in a town and later in a city. 12 major operations. Two strokes. Hip operations. Early onset of alzheimers and 6 years younger than me. This year a triple heart bypass operation. Takes massive amounts of pills. Near $400 a months worth. Has allergies. Can't stand a chigger or tick bite but must go to the Dr as a result. On and on. Raised on junk food by her parents. Neck meat and noodles on occasion and never any milk. Has soft bone structure as a result.

The penalty for todays bad food and lazy lifestyle is far more heinous than one would suspect.

Its stated by many that 'We in America have the best food in the world."

I say hogwash.We have cheap food and thats all. Its sometimes contaminated, is tasteless, spoils easily, and not very nutritious. We have been told lies. The packaging makes it expensive too even though it once was consider cheap. The middle men become rich and we eat garbage.

So my grandparents did what they did but my farmer friend farms 3,000 acres and has all the equipment yet has raised only one son and he refuses to work on the farm. Yet my friend is not exactly rich or well off. My grandfather never worked as hard as my friend does. He is a nervous wreck as a result. He won't remarry neither since most women would not want his lifestyle.

So of what value is modern ag to those who are in it?
Nothing IMO of much value. They destroy the land. They produce questionable products. They aren't very healthy judging by the ones I know and live around. They do not eat what they produce. They eat mostly what their city cousins eat.

Yes a few raise a garden but most do not. Some have fruit trees but most do not. No more poultry except big ugly smelly polluting chicken confinement houses and same for hogs whioh you do NOT want to be very close to for the stench is unbearable.

Like I are stripping the land to grow more acres of grain. Thats what the market demands. Thats what they get. While overall our lifes grow worse as a result and we are not achieving any better lifestyle.

Deep down I think many farmers might realize this but they certainly do not admit of it. They are on a treadmill and they can't seem to jump off.

Twould be far better perhaps if they lived in an area of worse soil.Like the ozarks where creek bottoms are fertile but the land is basically not amenable to industrial ag. One can live sustainable lifestyles in the Ozarks or the Smokies.Many did it in the past but you are not going to be a soccer mom there or put $100 tennis shoes on you children. You will be healthy and live better by a different standard. One more like was dreamed of by the youth in the '60s. Which somehow went awry..drugs perhaps.


I am reading a book by Micheal Pollan, "In Defense of Food," that confirms everything you have said Airdale. Or perhaps I should say Airdale is confirming Pollan's book--which is a continuation of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Pollan cites several studies that show that non Western diets--even milk and beef eating Masai in Kenya-- produce people mostly free of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, tooth decay etc. I'm half finished but so far Pollan doesn't address the role of exercise as a health factor.

Would anyone here prefer the junk food blubber infested easy-motoring life of the modern world for their children and grandchildren to the one Airdale grew up in? We are a civilization that is out of whack.

"We ate extremely well and very healthful food. There was no scarcity either. Yes the work was not trivial but it was better than obtain by weight lifting or running on a treadmill. The fresh air,clean water,healthy food all has enabled me to live and be healthy.

Never hospitalized until this year. Take no drugs. Still have excellent health. Compare this to my wife,raised in a town and later in a city. 12 major operations. Two strokes. Hip operations. Early onset of alzheimers and 6 years younger than me. This year a triple heart bypass operation. Takes massive amounts of pills. Near $400 a months worth. Has allergies. Can't stand a chigger or tick bite but must go to the Dr as a result. On and on. Raised on junk food by her parents. Neck meat and noodles on occasion and never any milk. Has soft bone structure as a result."

Airdale, I too, was raised on a farm. My father was a farmer as was his father and I was also a farmer for a number of years. That being said your example of your health vs. your wife's health is hardly scientific test with which to draw conclusions.

My father was pretty much like you, only problem was he died shortly after his 67th birthday. My mother lives in the city, takes more pills than you can shake a stick at and has had 12 major surgeries, has allergies and is 92 and seems to have some more quality time left in her. All the healthy living in the world isn't nearly as good as good genes. Sorry about your wife. One example dose not make a case or prove a point.

My casual observation is that everybody lives longer nowadays.

Allow me to refine a bit my exposition/observations.

We had no medicine or drugs to speak of on the farms at that time.
I remember running barefoot and stepping on a board with a nail projecting upward. Went right thru my foot. I ran to the house and my grandmother stuck it in a bucket of coal oil(kerosene I guess but maybe different)...that was all.It healed.

If we got sick we just stuck it out or got a sock smeared with Vicks Salve tied around our neck. A tonic in the spring.This was it.

We drank cistern water. It had stuff in it down near the bottom. We caught rain water off the tin roof and channeled it to the cistern. No filters.!

So to explain.In my opinion we were somehow immunized by exposure.
The healthy lived and thrived. The weak and sickly died. This increase d the viability and strength of our gene pool, to put it in modern terms. In other words, no allergies due to lots of exposure.

We were in dust and pollen quite often. Around animals and hair. Lots of stuff that might kill todays children who sometimes are even allergic to peanuts!

This may sound crude and heartless but was not meant to be. We buried our dead with full emotions and regret but then went on with life.

Country rural life then was demanding and it weaned you out. You naturally grew strong due to the work and food and environment.

Diseases did come. I had chicken pox,small pox and the rest but survived easily as I recall.

Men back then prided themselves on their strength and ability to work hard all day. They attracted good mates. A good wife was essential for having children was absolutely necessary.

Ok. Thats my thoughts on it. Its just observations. Perhaps not too scientific but I don't always trust science in many areas.
Ag Science has taken us to where we are today. In a mess.

One example? I saw many examples. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. All those around us.

My grandparents died what today might be called early in life. I think they were in their early 60's. They lived a full life I believe and went fast. Didn't linger on.

My dad lingered on. In a nursing home , zoned out on tranqualizers and strapped in his wheel chair. I decided I would prefer the 'early out' when my time came.


Someone is going to have to stop this runaway train of intensive agriculture. How and who I have no idea but I assume that Nature itself will kill it off along with much of the population.

Our citizens expect BAU and that is what they will get until it becomes unviable and it starts to collapse completely with many farmers going bankrupt. Then the real food crisis will have arrived.

Perhaps it will have arrived far far too late.

You've nailed it here. This is why I do not advocate "organics" as a world-saving method. With population increasing the way it is, you need magic farming, not "organic" farming, to feed the world.

Non-conventional farming might save me, but not the world.

I'm in favor of organic farming. The only major drawback I see is how do we ensure there is enough fixed nitrogen (as fertilizer) available? There is a solution, of sorts, but has been created by a problem. Without the haber-bosh process--it fixes nitrogen from the air--2 billion humans would starve. In the last 70 years humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen available as fertilizer in the biosphere. Half of that nitrogen fertilizer used in industrial agriculture either ends up in the water or in the air, the other half ends up in food. This runoff is responsible for 130 ocean dead zones around the world.

Since there is now so much nitrogen in the biosphere fueling not just our modern agriculture and algae blooms, we may have enough to feed the world. I don't know. We do have to be much more judicious about our application of nitrogen fertilizer. I honestly don't see how the two natural ways of getting nitrogen from bacteria fixation and lightning is going to produce enough.

I saw Thomas Hager on CSPAN2 talking about the history of nitrogen fixation and what a problem it has become. He was pimping his new book The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler. I haven't read it yet, but he was so captivating I plan to read it very soon. See his web page about the problems nitrogen has caused and is causing.

This is an excerpt from a much longer (like 350 pages longer ;-)) book - and this is a subject we do to address. The thing is, all that nitrogen doesn't have to come directly from the atmosphere - our own research suggests that nitrogen in human urine is remarkably persistent, and can be fairly easily and rapidly recycled. So while of course we believe that fixing nitrogen will be necessary, it is probably even more necessary that we start making good use of nitrogen we've already fixed using Haber-Bosch, and instead of using that nitrogen just once (ie, we take the energy used by Haber-Bosch to fix nitrogen, and then piss it into our toilets creating an ecological problem - and requiring a new round of fossil fuels) we can reuse that nitrogen through the cycle over and over again for quite some time, long enough for a managed decline in population, rather than a die off.

Ultimately, nearly all the constraints on fertilizer come down to the fact that we're not making much use of the largest quantity of mammal manures available to us - our own. We're going to have to start recycling those nutrients - no choice whatsoever. Nitrogen is actually one of the easier issues to deal with - the losses as nitrogen gets cycled through fields and into bodies aren't that huge, and urine presents minimal health hazards when used in agriculture. Dealing with feces will be a bigger structural project - but it is an inevitable one. Either we deal with it when we have to, or we set up the infrastructure to deal with it before there's a crisis and a die off. I know which option I prefer.


What about clover as a cover crop? Surely you all know of Fukuoka's work? Two of his books, The One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming can be downloaded here:

An example: Fukuoka grew a rice/barley rotation while using a clover cover crop two or three times a year. He returned the straw to the fields and added chicken manure.

What about Bill Mollison's work? His Global Gardener series is fairly impressive in some of the models that exist around the world (though light on details.) Emelia Hazelip? Sepp Holzer?


I recently wrote a bit about current and potential future ammonia fertilizer synthesis methods - I just attended the Ammonia Fuel Network's fifth annual conference and there was much talk about Haber Bosch, Solid State Ammonia Synthesis, batch ammonia production with salt absorbtion, and so forth ...

he Rodale Institute has some interesting expirements with hairy vetch , a short season legume. There was one trial which I can't find at the moment in which narrow strips were cut through the vetch and the corn rows were planted in those rows. Vetch dies off early in the summer (its a winter annual) so there was a window of time where the corn had to compete with the vetch, but the yields didn't drop that much.

I have some growing wild on my property, its interesting stuff. Grows fast early forming thick mats, by July its gone. It credits 60 lbs N/acre as a cover crop, up to 120 if grown to maturity.

Hairy Vetch,

I have commented on this species way way back on TOD.

When I got my farm the 'setaside' was massively overgrown with hairy vetch. You could not run a haybine or sicklebar mower over it.

I found it to be an extremely valuable plant once I discovered that it was used by the oldtimers to put nitrogen in the soil.

To this day it still grows on my farm in some areas but appears to be slowly dying out. It was started by farmers sowing it on their tobacco beds since tobacco needed huge amounts of nitrogen.It escaped and became wild all over.

Now I rarely see it , even on my own land. Where I do I leave it alone and try to gather the seeds for future use.

Yes it mats down heavily and then dies and can be easily incorporated into the soil. It bears little purple flowers and it will smother out other weeds but clinging and climbing on them.

I hope to bring it back in the future with the seeds I gather.

There is Crown Vetch which the road depts used to sow along right of ways.I see it has now also receded in many areas for some reason.

I see hairy vetch as a Godsend for farmers and for myself.
If it does die out we will be poorer for it. Cattle love to eat it I hear but I never had mine penned up where it grew.

Cutting pasture for hay I believe slowly decimates it to the point where it recedes.


I can't speak for vetch, but the clover to grass ratio in our pastures depends heavily on the amount of nitrogen present. If N is low, the legumes are favored. As the N level rises the grass does better and crowds out the clover. (We deliberately buy seed with white clover because we keep bees.)

Frank, what you are observing about clover is analogous to the reversibility of chemical reactions. Nitrites (and then nitrates) are byproducts of the nitrogen fixing bacteria living in the nodules attached to the clover's roots. When you apply soluble nitrogen fertilizers the bacteria die off as the applied fertilizer is the same as that produced by the bacteria as waste and therefore kills off the bacteria (ie. reversing the reaction). Kind of like swimming in swimming pool full of human waste.

With out the symbiotic bacteria the clover does not thrive.

Fukuoka suggested Chinese Milk Vetch as a variation on using clover. Below is a study of the use of CMV as a cover crop.

Here's a study showing Hairy Vetch in comparison with other cover crops/mulching. (Hairy wins!)


Airdale farmers have been planting soybeans, cow peas, and various clovers as green manure for years and still do. In fact in my part of the world soybeans are often double cropped with sugar cane. You get the economic return of today's bean prices, loose the value of the rotting vegetation but still get the full value of soybeans nitrogen fixing. Worth 45-60 lbs. N, I believe.

You would get far more N if you didn't harvest the beans.

With vetch you take nothing away. Sam as with clover.

Yes I understand about soybeans and that is why we always follow beans with corn. The cycle is corn,wheat and then soybeans.

I must add though that unless wheat is bringing a good price that its just a break even crop here in the area I live in. In fact many are not sowing winter wheat this year so far as I can see. No planters following the corn.

I think more often that not a lot of farmers are going corn followed by corn. The prices were there. Now its not looking so good.


The only major drawback I see is how do we ensure there is enough fixed nitrogen (as fertilizer) available? There is a solution, of sorts, but has been created by a problem. Without the haber-bosh process--it fixes nitrogen from the air--2 billion humans would starve.

Utter poppycock, did you even read the excerpt? There is a perfectly natural way of fixing nitrogen in the soil. It's called "planting a legume" and "rotating crops." That's how we (humans) did it before the Haber-Bosch process and that's how we'll do it some time in the distant future, I hope.

"though absolute food availability is relevant, it is not as relevant as distribution and economic justice." Not a comment on which is most relevant, but this year Ukraine had the biggest harvest in many years up 70% on last year. Unfortunately because of limits in the transport and storage a significant quantity will be lost. Russia's grain harvest was the best in 15 years but again infrastrucure problems mean that the surplus cannot easily be sold on the world markets.

Be very, very careful!! This is truly a pig in a poke because it omits much of the rest of the story, more resembling current US presidential campaign ads than a broad, reasoned analysis. Both poles have both their benefits and their sustainability issues but the ultimate driver of both producer and consumer choice is economics. In the end, both approaches are embedded in natural systems operating under irrevocable natural laws with strict biophysical limits and requirements for producing calories of energy and grams of protein for human consumption. Mother Nature bats last, no matter what, and no matter what we most desire, how mistaken our thinking or how we misbehave otherwise we are only fooling ourselves in the face of inevitable consequences.

One book that I highly recommend for people interested in sustainable agriculture is The New American Farmer published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project They have a new edition out that I haven't seen but my old copy has some amazing reviews of real-life farms.

Initially, the book was available free on SARE's web site but I don't know if that's still true. I simply bought my copy. I think most extension agents can order the book.

Finally, a good site for sustainable ag is


And I would add to Todd's comment that back in the 40's , 50,s 60s and thereabout the USDA and government produced large quantities of very well written books on the subject of agriculture. I have some of those books and we were on the correct paths but something went awry.

I suspect much was people like Earl Butz who stated "Get big or get out."

There was a seachange shift suddenly in farming. As early as the 60s when I married and visited my folks and friends back here in KY they were following a lot of those concepts put forth and doing quite well as a matter of fact.
(meaning prior to BIG ag and what we now have)
Somewhere the wheels on this wagon of ag become an industry and ruled then by big companies who saw profit as their only motive and stubborned
many or most of the ag students and profs in collegs and universities that they started preaching these new ideas. It went to the extension agents in each county and thus it became the way to then farm.

Big huge tractors, $250,000 dollar combines, buying up or renting large tracts and the advent of chemicals on a massive scale.

There once was a lot of cattle,hogs and small chicken operations around this area. People lived a less hectic life. Now thats all changed. The huge 16 wheelers hauling grain,like I sometimes drive, wheel down the backroad two land blacktop roads.Huge equpipment meets you on a curve. Some get killed. The fields are highly compacted by all this.

Nothing seems to matter except get that crop out and to market and see if you can make it thru this year to the next. Some don't.

The price of land has skyrocketed. In Illinois some just went for slightly over $9,000/acre. Rent has skyrocketed as well. Equipment ditto.

Where does it all end then? In the dumper finally. Circling the drain.

City folks may argue otherwise. They don't live here and see it. They just want the status quo.

The status quo is fast disappearing. Thank God the world might survive if is doesn't take too long. The birds here are about gone.The bees as well. All that trives seems to be Bambi who loves to eat grain crops and brings those idiots with thousand dollar GoreTex clothing outfits,noisy ATVs and big expensive guns to try to relive the old west and pioneer bullshit of the great deer killer.

Once they are gone we are left with piles of stinking guts and body parts littering the countryside. They only wanted the racks anyway to put on their den walls.

Airdale-knowing I have pissed off some deer hunters..too bad,get a real life

Airdale Ol' Buddy,

Hey good .gov books go back further. I found a copy of the Yearbook of Agriculture from 1936 (plus 1940 and 1943-1947) at a used book store some years ago. Lots of good practical stuff.

Plus reprints of even older books have good stuff. One I particularly like is Traditional American Farming Techniques from 1917.

Well, I'm off to shred corn stalks.


SARE's Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably are also quite good. Those two books inspired me to use a mix of rye and hairy vetch as a cover crop. Worked great. The vetch keeps the rye from growing too thick to control (ie. kill) by pre-planting cultivation. Based on knowledge from those books, I've also been seeding frost-seeding our pastures with white clover. Again, it has worked wonderfully. The clover grows great, especially in the second year, grass picks up along with the clover, and both the cattle and the sheep closely crop the grass-clover mix (which further encourages the clover).

I recently wrote a piece called Global Human Protein Deficit - a tale of declining wheat protein and the drivers behind it. Seems like it might be interesting to those reading this thread.

I want to thank Aaron (nulinegvgv) and Sharon (jewishfarmer) for sharing this with us. There is a longer excerpt of the book available at their website, Hen and Harvest, which may answer some questions.

One thing I have noticed in talking to various people using what they call "organic" methods is how high tech they are, and how much they depend on modern technology. Around here, organic gardens are regularly watered. Fruit crops are sprayed, using some kind of organic oil, rather than a conventional pesticide. Soil amendments may be brought from a distance, using diesel powered trucks. I have seen electric fences put up to keep deer out.

When doing all of these studies, how do authors differentiate between the many flavors of organic? It seems like if we were truly to go back to manual methods, we would lose quite a bit of the advantages that "modern" organic agriculture provides.


Like $300 per bag of hybridized , GMOed seed corn?

Like quarter million combines?
$50,000 pickups?

Its a rat-race. Thats all it is and the farmers are riding it to death.

We are riding it with them in respect to destroying nature.

I could show you enormous piles, covering many many many acres of land with piles of logs a hundred feet high all to feed the maw of just one paper mill so that someone can keep printing useless trivial data on white paper. A veritable carnage of our woodlands.

No one cares. We would apparently perish if the supply of toilet paper ran out.

Who btw is doing all this printing if the 'paperless' office came about years and years ago?

I digress. Excuse me. Its all part and parcel of the sham of modern life and the downwardly spiraling deathride we are on. Not anyone's fault I guess...just all of us. We simply do not give a shit anymore.


Gail, this is a good point, and the potential of organic systems does depend on what's available for local inputs. I think this is why dealing with the problem of human manures will be so central - because that's one thing every farmer has - and something that every eater can provide. Historically there has been an ongoing, direct relationship between cities and rural areas that will have to be reconstituted.

I also would note that we originally sent TOD a much longer piece, and Gail kindly and rightly edited down to an appropriate length for this site - the edit is an improvement for the web, but it also does give the impression that our focus is primarily on an absolutist approach to organic agriculture. The larger segement at Hen and Harvest focuses on the larger question of whether we can feed the world with minimal fossil inputs, something we're going to have to do, sooner or later. It explores the question of how we might do that, and what feeding the world might mean in a low energy world. While we do argue in the book that we have no choice but to increase soil humus levels to control climate change and reduce fossil fuel dependence in agriculture, our primary analysis is not so much a Rah Rah organic analysis, as the recognition that already many of the inputs we rely on are too costly to be sustained - and that feeding the world depends on food being accessible, farmers being able to afford what is needed, and on proximate food systems that are likely to be smaller and have access to less energy. We do think organic agriculture is a good and important thing - but more importantly, we believe that we need robust and reslilient world wide and national food systems that can enable to deal with the coming food crisis - and that those systems will be primarily, if not totally - organic by necessity.


I didn't want to get into the whole "organic" thing in my post above but I guess I have to.

I believe the emphasis upon the word "organic" has been a huge mistake. What is important is the sustainability of the production system rather then it's "purity" vis-a-vis a certain growing philosophy, i.e. permaculture, biodynamic, biointensive, Now I say this as someone who was once a small-scale certified organic farmer. I also did certification inspections and chaired the certification committee of our chapter of CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Clearly, I'm not anti-organic.

But, I'm also practical which puts me in the company of Gene Logsdon and many others. As Gene notes in his book, The Contrary Farmer he sometimes puts down a little bit of chemical fertilizer if necessary and so do I now that I'm not selling produce.

I think people interested in sustainable Ag should take the time to check the links in my post above and not get hung-up on the organic part.


I'd like to echo Todd's comments.

I would like to agree organic and sustainable are not the same thing. A system may be organic and not sustainable. I am reminded of an operation I encountered which while organic was mining nutrients from the soil on one area of the farm and moving them to the crop ground. Over the long term this is not sustainable.

Nothing we do is "sustainable." It's as crappy a term as "organic." And I'm someone who has gardened for twenty years using only mulch and compost.

We humans disperse ores and degrade energy sources. It will happen sooner or later. I practice non-conventional farming as a survival method. I just laugh at the idea that we're going to fill supermarkets with "sustainable" "organic" goods.

Of course we won't 'fill supermarket shelves'. Supermarkets came into being around the late 50's and early ,very early,60's.

I remember seeing them arrive on the scene. Prior to that in the area that was later to become suburbs,a small town 12 miles outside St. Louis, I would jump on my bike and ride down to the small corner grocery store for a loaf of bread. There were very small stories all over.

In my hometown in KY we would hitch the team on Saturday and go to town to 'TRADE' cream and butter and maybe eggs for flour,salt and sugar and perhaps some coffee. It was all weighted and traded and you could even charge it and it was written down on a pad,no interest either. You paid when the crop came in or you brought more tradeable items next time.

This was how it worked back then. All the alleys were lined with teams and wagons. We only did this on Saturday.Sunday was church or a day or rest. Rest of the week you farmed.

It will have to revert to this. Women took in wash in town or ironed clothes for pin money. What we traded at the store was what the townies brought and ate.

Simple? It sure worked well back then.

Airdale-you don't want to work? Tough,,no handouts back then. You had to hire yourself out as a hired hand.

Black Flag (TM) Wasp and Hornet Spray. I've also been known to spray bagworms when cut and burn would damage the tree too much.

This is an article posted yesterday on Drumbeat, emphasizing the irrigation issue--from Pakistan.

Loadshedding hits agriculture sector

LAHORE - Unannounced loadshedding is badly affecting the country’s agriculture sector particularly at the time when the sowing season of wheat, canola and other crops is beginning throughout the country, agriculturists said on Tuesday.

They said that the country is facing severe water shortage following India stopped Pakistan’s water at River Chenab to fill the controversial Baglihar dam. Now loadshedding is adding fuel to fire and destroying the agriculture sector because there are 200,000 electric tubewells in the country to irrigate the land, which could not be run due to electricity shortage, said Ibrahim Mughal Chairman Agri-Forum Pakistan.

He further said that the farmers are also unable to afford diesel due to its skyrocketing prices to run diesel engines to irrigate the land.

70% of the world's malnourished are "Subsistence" farmers. There are at least, according to the Stanford Study, 1 Billion acres of abandoned, fertile farmland. Since 1980 Corn yields are up 67%, and fertilizer use on cornland is Down 10%. Yesterday, the elevators in the Midwest were paying $3.50 bu ($0.06/lb) for corn.

Totoneila has identified the "Real" problem. We are a "certain number" of years away from hitting a wall in Phosphate supplies. We need to be thinking ahead a bit on that one.

One thing I have noticed in talking to various people using what they call "organic" methods is how high tech they are, and how much they depend on modern technology.

Excellent observation, Gail.

Just from my own experience at the 4-acre farm where I work, we use:

--rolls and rolls of poly (and no, it is not reuseable. It would cost you more in labor to try to recover it than to just buy more rolls. Peak oil might change that, however.)

--a Kubota tractor, with tiller and plastic mulch layer (unless you want to hand-dig all the beds)

--thousands of feet of aluminum irrigation pipe (the soil is extremely sandy and requires constant irrigation, even with mulch).

--hundreds of bags of lime, greensand, dried blood, kelp meal, and fish meal for the fields, plus tons of bagged potting soil for the greenhouse seedlings.

--backpack sprayers of BT, Diatech, Entrust, Pyganic for pests, and you wouldn't believe the cost! A quart of Pyganic costs $175.00. That is not a misprint. It's expensive to be a hippy.

And yet this is a pretty low-tech farm. We use a lot of volunteers and students, and we're still overwhelmed out by weeds, woodchucks, and deer.

We use inputs as well - including charcoal, greensand, seed, kelp meal, and we used to use a lawn mower during our CSA period (although it broke and we went to the push mower and the scythe when we shrank so I could write more, and shifted to more pasture farming), drainage tile and a backhoe to dig it (g-d willing we won't have to do that again - our problem is more water than we can use), etc...

One of the things we've been doing, though, is experimenting with how much we can do without these things. Some things we can't do - for example, I can and do use dilute human urine from the humans on the farm, but not on crops - but I can see how much of my purchased fertilizer it can replace. The best estimate I've seen is that a person's yearly output can fertilize between 1/2 and 1/4 acre - it isn't everything you need, but it is a step, and since the risks of using human urine are extremely small in my area (since none of the few urine-transmitted diseases are endemic to upstate NY), were I not worried about being sued, and my neighbors more hungry than squeamish I could do considerably more. We are saving more of our seed, and trying to make our inputs go further by using more of our own products, trying to make better use of land by optimizing how we use both animals and plants.

Is it a perfect closed agricultural system? Heck no. But my chickens went to the butcher this week a little smaller than I liked - but all of them were born on the farm to our hens, and they used about 1/2 as much commercial feed as the comparative minimum I managed when we were using Cornish broilers - the feed to meat ratio is getting better every year, and the need for inputs gets smaller. After years of permanent mulch on our land, weed pressure is declining in areas.

Nobody suggested any of this is easy - it isn't. But figuring out whether it is doable is going to be central to avoiding a lot of death in the coming years.


I used to just pour my pee into my compost pile, but I got tired of taking the chamber pot out behind the barn all the time. Also, we have cows and chickens, plenty of N there.

Good point Gail. I had occasion to spend a week touring organic farms in Holland with a bunch of agricultural (organic) students. We visited mostly smaller organic farms on open fields. However, one farm was almost entirely under glass greenhouses. Everything met requirements for organic agriculture but was computer mediated. Water and amendments were always there in just the right amounts and with the high temperatures the plants grew fast and produced huge amounts of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

However, we tried bell peppers just off the vine and they had virtually no taste at all. Isn't that interesting! Well it adds some credence to an earlier writer who challenged any one to show any difference in organic and conventional produce. Essentially, they were using a system of forced feeding yielding a watery, tasteless product. I have been proposing an "industrial organic label" to differentiate these products from those produced under normal conditions.

By the way, I would like to take this opportunity to put to rest the myth about using straw for animal feed and/or amendments for the soil. Straw derived from wheat and many other grains is nearly pure cellulose with virtually no protein content. Cows and other animals have extreme difficulty digesting straw and can have problems with digestive system blockage. They can obtain a certain amount of energy from straw but will not thrive and produce meat of milk on it. Straw is kind of an agricultural Twinkie. There are many stories about communist leaders visiting communes and telling the peasant to feed straw to their animals and quit complaining about lack of fodder. Well, these illustrious leaders had absolutely no farming background and like so many bureaucrats felt qualified to give guidance with no knowledge about they were talking about.

As far as spreading straw on the land goes there are problems too. Being essentially pure cellulose, the soil microbes (assuming organic farming because many industrial farms have virtually no significant amount of microbes for these purposes)happily munch on the straw and tie up all of the nitrogen in the soil making the soil nearly sterile for growing crops. For this reason many farmers used to burn the straw residues on their fields. However, the straw can be used for animal bedding and when mixed with their droppings can be placed in piles where it will compost nicely using the nitrogen from the manure. This compost may then be used to fertilize fields.

Gail: "When doing all of these studies, how do authors differentiate between the many flavors of organic? It seems like if we were truly to go back to manual methods, we would lose quite a bit of the advantages that "modern" organic agriculture provides."

We usually compare agricultural systems using concepts from two related areas: 1) Ecology--characteristics such as net primary productivity, species diversity, nutrient and energy flows, environmental characteristics which are fixed (i.e. climate, topology soil etc), many other ecological aspects can be measured, depending on questions we are asking 2) Industrial ecology--this should be familiar to energy people-- includes things such as life cycle analysis, material and energy flows, resource use. The two overlap of course.

I thought this peak oil site was interested in alternatives that are not based on fossil fuel. FF has replaced human labor in all areas where it is deployed, including ag. The difference is that there are many things we could be doing in farming that are less energy intensive. If we increase our dependance on ecological processes, it does not mean we go back to pre-industrial farming. For example, I know of a farm that uses cover crops in ways that reduce hand labor significantly. Also, the fact is, that many crops still require a lot of human labor, particularly fruits and veggies.

Our agricultual system is the same as other FF intensive systems that have emerged due to cheap FF. Like transportation, our housing infrastructure and others it is extremely wasteful of resources and as a result has many negative consequences beyond resouce depletion.

I think we need to add our own eating habits into this equation. How much food do we as a society waste? In the past few years, I've taken to buying food as I need it (fresh fruit, etc) and it's substantially cut down my food bill. More planning in my diet has saved me money & been a contributing factor to much better health. You're less likely to splurge on junk when you're only picking up a few things.

What percentage of food is wasted? Business always talks about efficiency, but how efficient is our food system? I've seen what some restaurants & grocery stores throw out because it's not sale-able. If I multiply that across Western civilization, I'm sure we probably waste upwards of 20% of our food. If we cut out that waste, farming production could fall 20% and we'd still be on the same playing field.

Not to mention we could all eat a little less ourselves.

Food efficiency lies in a diet free of farmed meat.

Food efficiency? Meat free? Who cares. We've got pigs in our barn and we're gradually working at growing our own feed (pumpkins, beets, etc.).

This isn't about ideology, mike, so let's stick to arithmetic. Unless you're using animal feed sources that do not compete for resources with human food sources, you're taking something like a 10:1 hit in nutrient utilization. Those pumpkins and beets would feed a lot more folks than the hogs will. And I care about that.

Those pumpkins and beets would feed a lot more folks than the hogs will. And I care about that.

I bow to your moral superiority, for, truly, I don't care.

I do the back-breaking work, I reap the reward. Farming hogs isn't about mathematics, it's about enjoying pork chops and lard-baked crusts.

Farm labor is hard to find.

Even in Vermont there are now approximately 2,000 Mexican and Central America farm workers. Given the few remaining farms in Vermont compared to 40 years ago this is a tremendous percentage of farm workers.

It is easy to think about organic agriculture from a remote perspective. But spend some time on a Vermont farm of a few hundred acres and it will become obvious just how labor intensive it is. Farmers who own farms, on average, make a modest wage per hour. Immigrant laborers obviously makes far less per hour. Farming is not a 9 to 5, 5 day a week job. Any increased labor requirement due to a move to organic farming will take money out of the farmer's pocket.

The good news is that when Mexico's Cantrell oil field can no longer supply enough oil to export and Mexico becomes an oil importer we will have all the cheap farm labor we need:(

Priority -- and hopefully the money you save in labor will make up for the higher fuel costs you'll pay when such a big chunk of imported sweet crude to the Gulf Coast refineries disappears with Cantarell Fld

Might I point out we need to not only get rid of Big Ag farming, but also need to do away with profit and interest? Many things are more doable if there is no need to profit or repay interest.


Communism failed.

The democratic Greek city states and the Roman republic failed. Obviously democracy had no future.

It is easy to think about organic agriculture from a remote perspective. But spend some time on a Vermont farm of a few hundred acres and it will become obvious just how labor intensive it is. Farmers who own farms, on average, make a modest wage per hour. Immigrant laborers obviously makes far less per hour. Farming is not a 9 to 5, 5 day a week job. Any increased labor requirement due to a move to organic farming will take money out of the farmer's pocket.

Good going, Priority X, you just ruined it for the "organics" romantics.

Our little town has a large conventional orchard. Every apple picker is Jamaican.

I choose to work at a local organic farm because I like it and want to be around FOOD during the collapse of society. I'm a 48-year-old adjunct professor in real life and agree to do farm work in the summer for 8.50/hour. This week I spread stinky cow shit and turned stinky compost.

How may of you 'Mericans want to join me?

This is one of the reasons we spend so much time in our book talking about land allocation. There are people who are willing to do this - most of them are not farmhands, so much as farmers - ie, people who own their land and have a sustained attachment to it. They either need help (probably available in the coming crisis among the unemployed), or the size of their farms must be quite small, so that the family (however is is generated) can manage the farm on their own. That's the case in many countries - for example, Russian farms are getting smaller, rather than larger, in part because of a strong preference among Russians towards smaller farms, since that's what fed them during the collapse. 1/3 of all food grains eaten by people in the world are grown on farms of fewer than 5 acres - proof positive that large farms aren't the only way to grow grain. My own feeling is that having cut up American land into smaller units, and put housing on it, we will probably have industrial agriculture, much of it for export and perhaps subsidized basic feeding in the US - or perhaps not - and very small farms from which one's actual food comes. Some of these farms will be garden sized - in fact, worldwide is very hard to tell farms from gardens.

As I mentioned, I've run a CSA of 20+ people almost entirely using hand labor, including while extremely pregnant (the 9th month is not one of my happiest memories ;-)). There are is a surprisingly large number of people out there who want to be farmers, given the labor involved and how unprofitable it is. But it is also the case that they rarely want to be farmhands - they want to own land and pass it down. I think a distributist model of small farms and large gardens is probably more sustainable for most vegetable, milk and meat production than a farmhand model. It is amazing what people will do for their land, their home.

But it is also the case that agricultural wages will have to rise in proportion to costs - this, historically speaking, was the norm. I heard Pat Murphy, talking about making the movie _The Power of Community_ note that he asked a farmer how much less he made than an engineer while they were filming in Cuba, and the farmer asked him why he thought farmers would make less than engineers. The wealthiest Russian people I knew had parents who, through the collapse, were growing dill and other herbs on the outskirts of Moscow, and bringing them into the city. I think it is a mistake to assume that farm labor and agricultural value will always be assessed as it is now.

Now the transition will most likely be extremely difficult - one of the reasons I talk about gardens so much, because people who are already paying for their land, and already unemployed might at least grow food on it. Some of these gardens will become farms, most won't. But the shift of our income towards food is inevitable - as we're seeing in rising prices.

Sharon, 'Merican and off to milk and shovel goat poop.

I spent last week spreading compost, and today removing soaker hoses from summer beds. Because I am my own boss it is pleasant usually. I might bring a book and when I feel tired decide to read for 15 minutes and drink some water. I get very tired sometimes but my body is fit so this is okay by me.

This is going to seem terribly unsatisfying to those here who are committed to a vision of a collapse of industrial farming but electric farm equipment run eventually on renewably generated electricity will allow for a high degree of mechanization of farm tasks as great or greater than we currently have. It is true that in the beginning this will be more expensive per unit work than is now or was the case with cheap fossil fuels but eventually the higher efficiency of electric motors and machine tools will allow the price per unit labor to become acceptably low.

Also, and I am not typically a techno-optimist in my vision of the world, electric farm equipment, as with drive by wire vehicles, etc, will eventually be increasingly automated with sensors that will allow the equipment to do some of the repetitive mechanical work on a finer scale than diesel-engine driven farm equipment. I can imagine chemo-sensors, for instance, that allow a weeding machine to recognize weeds vs. crops... This capacity to do repetitive work will allow organic farmers to weed and micro-manage a larger area of crops while needing to employ fewer farm laborers.

An electric farm does not obviate the need to recycle nutrients, etc. but this concept exposes the attractive (to me) but perhaps slightly sentimentalized views of the re-ruralization of the world that we are encountering here. Smarter farm machinery driven by electricity will allow individual farmers and farm workers to support more non-farm workers doing other useful tasks for farmers and for society as a whole.

I think mechanized farming will be around long after fertilizer-centric farming. As for the electric aspects, as in many areas like the great plains a single wind tower could provide enough power for many nearby farms. Any significant increase in cost or decrease in efficiency will cost enough productivity that pain will be felt, but surely some solutions better than human or animal power will arise?

Of course effective electric tractors are required, but that it least is merely innovation, not wholesale change like doing without I-NPK. As with so many aspects of PO though, a shift needs to start NOW to have any hope of hitting the scale points required in time.

I wonder if anybody has yet invented the equivalent of a Roomba weeder robot -- a small roving robot that identified weeds and plucks them out. I can foresee a future farmer cursing Bill Gates when a Windows virus infests his farm 'bot and it weeds out all his carrots!

Biogas powered tractors should be perfectly feasible for farmwork, without using an excessive proportion of agricultural land.
The numbers are pretty tough to crunch for electric use for high powered farm equipment.
The energy situation for America's agriculture would seem to be very favourable, with localised production from wind, sun and biogas running in conjunction, as the German's recently demonstrated:

Italy aims for carbon-neutral farm

A range of new technologies is being installed at the farm in the central region of Umbria as part of an experiment to cut its CO2 emissions to zero over the course of the next year.
They include everything from electric farm vehicles to sun-reflecting paint on storage buildings.

One of the key investments is in a unique solar powered battery re-charging centre.
Built by the Austrian company Cellstrom, the centre is a shed-sized box with 24 solar panels on it that houses a revolutionary liquid-based battery.

I checked on the Cellstrom website, and they are using Vanadium redox batteries.
This is one to keep an eye on, as it will demonstrate how effectively we can deal with many of the difficulties we face.

Farm labor is easy to find.

Cheap farm labor is hard to find - hence the illegal immigrants.

Yes, organic agriculture is "better" than conventional agroindustrial practices - better for the soil microbial community, better for human & ecosystem health. Those who have the luxury of practicing organic agriculture are well advised to do so. The problem is that, unfortunately, 6.7 billion people simply can't be fed without Haber-Bosch fixed nitrogen and mined phosphate & potash inputs. These inputs require fossil fuel energy. Even organic agriculture requires fossil fuel inputs. I know because I burn considerable amounts hauling biomass for composting into O-NPK. Another issue is that here in New Mexico, one can obtain organic certification from the state despite the fact that the irrigation ditches are sprayed with herbicide. How "organic" is that? The ditches must be sprayed or else mechanically cleared with a trackhoe. Expecting people to clear the ditches by hand is unrealistic. Perhaps in the 19th century people were willing & able to keep the ditches cleared using human & animal labor, but not today. I'm all for organic agriculture but when peak oil makes diesel fuel and I-NPK prohibitively expensive, hundreds of millions of people are going to starve. This is just the reality of the situation.

I was trying to find a way to say this very thing. Thanks. Now, back to the garden. I don't want to die. That's the reason I practice "organic" gardening. I'm not interested in keeping food pantries full, just my own larder.

How to calculate the size of the die-off when oil production declines?

Current estimates for population out to 2050 are toast, as they assume BAU.
They give a peak of around 9.5 billion, and a fairly smooth fall-off inn rates of population increase as living conditions improve.
I have made a very tentative first estimate of the possible implications of peak oil on demography here:

Broadly, this gives a population of around current levels, but a lot hungrier and under severe stress.
The scenario which seems to me very improbable is one in which populations transit fairly smoothly to a kind of green, steady state future, as there is little evidence of this happening in the historical record - people are far too conflictual, and fight for resources when they are short.

The counter example which is usually quoted is Japan in the Edo period, but the differences in that and our current situation are huge.
They had already had a long period of increasingly ferocious fighting, leaving last man standing, where a centralised power was able to impose severe constraints.
No such unified power exists in the world today, nor are individual powers likely to be left in peace to go their own way.

Accordingly if war does break out I would envisage populations falling to very low levels indeed, so the link is an optimistic projection.

Organic methods are sustainable to the extent that chemical elements lost by harvesting are returned to the soil by local recycling or by extraction from the atmosphere.

However, if non-local nutrient inputs are used, synthetic fertilizers are the “greener” option compared to organic ones. Due to their greater mass and volume, dilute nutrient organic fertilizers require more fossil fuels for processing, shipping, and handling than a chemical equivalent of a mineral fertilizer.

Relative costs reflect energy differences. Urea is a much better buy than blood meal.

I agree with this, and with those who argue against organic absolutism. Generally speaking, organic and sustainable methods are preferrable, but the typical rich world organic model doesn't always use less energy than conventional methods. Relying heavily on bonemeal and bloodmeal from industrial farming is hugely problematic, and unlikely to last into an extended economic and energy crisis.

But using charcoals, the bones of sustainably raised livestock, human and animal manures from polyculture farms, even human bones, as well as cover crops, compost crops, composts made from currently disposed of items (waste food, suburban leaves, various food processing extracts, cast up seaweed and other sources) can make, if not a completely closed circle, one that requires vastly fewer inputs than the current model - making it feasible for the billions of poor people all over the world who can't afford to farm, who can't buy enough fertilizer to produce food, who can't afford decent seed, ro can't afford food in the stores - have better access to food.

The truth is that the world is full of people who simply can't afford fossil fueled fertilizers and pesticides - and some of them are here. American farmers are very close to not breaking even - and they are likely to struggle to get credit. We can't afford to have another generation of farmers throw in the towels because of lost income - they had one good year last year.

Again, this is an excerpt of an excerpt, and I think gives the slightly mistaken impression that we're primarily organic purists, rather than working under the assumption that most of the fossil fueled inputs we've relied on will not be available to many of us, and just resigning ourselves to starvation is not our only or best choice.


But using charcoals, the bones of sustainably raised livestock, human and animal manures from polyculture farms, even human bones, as well as cover crops, compost crops, composts made from currently disposed of items (waste food, suburban leaves, various food processing extracts, cast up seaweed and other sources) can make, if not a completely closed circle, one that requires vastly fewer inputs than the current model -

How do you gather it, and how to you spread it?

I'm hired to do this very thing -- for a puny 4-acre farm. Have you ever seen how small a compost heap gets after a few weeks?

I agree with the guy above who says those who have the luxury of practicing "organics" should do it. It might save you during the die-off.

I ran a CSA for four years, using all hand labor, and mostly my own hand labor, including when I was 9 months pregnant. So yeah, I've got some familiarity with compost piles, spreading and all that other stuff.

It is true that composting reduces volume dramatically - and it is also true that if you are exporting fertility in the form of food, you'll have to get it back. That means re-establishing the historic relationships between city and countryside, town and surrounding farmlands. That is, we're going to have to use what energy we do have in part to move fertility around - to take composted human wastes from cities back to the land nearest them. In some areas, this might be too energy intensive to attempt - say in New York City where the nearest large quantities of farmland are fairly distant. In other places, farmland isn't so terribly far away, and the reduction in volume can be done before transportation.

Again, most organic agriculture in the world is practiced by the world's poor, and many of us are rapidly going to find we have the same set of choices they do.


Like you Mike, I don't think we will get through this without at least a "die back." Theoretically I see how enough people could be fed without O-NPK, but the practical and social issues are just mind boggling and we have so little time.

I personally go to a couple of downtown organic restaurants a few days a week and haul food scraps back to my farm or to my home (where they feed hens). I ride my bike when making this trip. I compost these in a worm bin so I can add a little at a time, and not be forced to make a huge pile or add heaps to a growing pile that might attract pests.

Ideally, I am replacing the fresh food harvested with the scrap food. Now, that scrap food is trucked in. I know this is not a perfect system. In a perfect world I'd have outhouses next to the farm and a great set of magazines inside to attract more of the locals than the next farm who has lousy magazines.

It's indeed a very nice life, a great way to live, but we're surrounded by suburbanites and TV-watchers (at least here in the Northeast) so at times it's like living in an isolation tank. It's why I stay home, or spend time at the farm where I work, for then I'm at least under the illusion of living in the country surrounded by like-minded people.

The only difference here is that I don't dare take a bike out on these roads, or I'd be compost.

Then can I be absolved from heinous sin? Though formerly an organic purist, in order to kick start my sustainability project now that I've moved to Hawaii, I (shudder) am using industrial NPK along with dolomite and gypsum. The land here in Upper Puna subdivisions is cheap, but soil is too thin and rain fall too high for the quick establishment of a food garden. Got recommendations as to quantites from Hawaii Ag Extension. Every try to convert pounds per acre to cups per barrel? Sort of trippy.

Relative cost is also a reflection of hubris in our certitude about what the soil "needs." With all props to Totonella, it takes more than three elements to grow crops, and urea is a poor substitute for the rich diversity of elements in blood meal.


You want to explain the contradiction between this statement and the one you posted above:

Food efficiency lies in a diet free of farmed meat.

Perhaps you mean you don't like confinement growing of livestock. If that's the case you should have said so.

The reality is that livestock is part of many sustainable farms and often included as part of normal crop rotations. In fact, Dick Thompson of Boone, IA says his operation couldn't exist without cattle. If you don't know who he is you don't know much about sustainable farming.

Further, animal stock (cattle, sheep, hogs) is often the only way to raise a crop on many lands.


The reality is that commercially farmed meat is not raised on marginal lands in the US; half the weight of a steer is added at the feedlots where they're stuffed with corn.

Sure, it's a great idea, the way you raise your animals on your farm; goats and sheep are great at ekeing out their diet from sparse lands. But that's not the practice of the producers of the overwhelming majority of the meat for sale in the US.

Until we change the short-term profit motivation that externalizes damage to the environment, we won't reverse the continuing global-scale declines in soil and water.

Sustainability may be a mirage and organic farming nothing more than yuppie balm, but there are still changes that need to be undertaken if we are to avert a food crisis.

If the phosphorus shortage hits as hard as some predict then more people are going to need to live near farms so that their sewage can travel back to farms to keep the nutrient cycle working.

Either that or we'll need some cheap energy source that processes sewage to remove and concentrate the phosphorus and other minerals to send back to farms.

Why is it that we humans don't have to fertilize an old growth forest? Who or what does it?

Microbes: bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, ciliates, micro arthropods, etc. and their interwoven metabolic activities.

If you just focus on Nitrogen (or Phosphate, Potassium, Calcium, or any element) in the soil IN THE ABSENCE of microbiology, you miss the entire point. I encourage everyone to learn about what's called the Soil Food Web. Look here for an intro:

The woman who pioneered this, Dr. Elaine Ingham, (Microbiologist) works globally with some of the largest farms on the planet (and also with small, med). She's been able to reduce fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide, herbicide use to zero. Yes zero. Increase production rates by 20%. Yes 20%. And decrease water usage by 40-50% (in some cases higher). Yes 40-50%. Use no till without weed infestation. (In fact, tilling kills the beneficial soil microbes - BTW, so does inorganic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, herbicides!) And, the nutrient density of the grown food is much higher than conventional.

Since the 20th century introduced the two conventional farming techniques of tilling deeply and often through the season and adding all the "-cides" and NKP fertilizers the earth has had a reduction in top soil levels. We've been killing the microbial soil makers.

Think for a moment about the evolution of a wild landscape from a distressed arid weedy grassland to a mature coniferous old growth forest. It may take several hundred years but this evolution will happen. No one fertilizes the landscape and yet it evolves from barren to producing incredible biomass. How does this happen? Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, ciliates, micro arthropods, and up through the Soil Food Web. Take a look at the website. If you want to learn more, buy Teaming With Microbes. If you really want to jump in, go work with Dr. Ingham as I have.

"If you just focus on Nitrogen (or Phosphate, Potassium, Calcium, or any element) in the soil IN THE ABSENCE of microbiology, you miss the entire point."

Not quite. Regardless of the microbial loop in soil, productive land MUST contain the essential chemical elements for life. To the extent that element quantities are diminished, plant and microbial abundance necessarily diminish.

Microbes are great for element retention and cycling, but must be subject to chemical mass balance.

YES, quite. The land produces what it needs to fertilize itself - and it always has. In extreme cases where no nitrogen is present, plants appear that trap insects to fertilize themselves!
There is life everywhere - everywhere except maybe the dry valleys of Antarctica. Given water and sunlight, soil will grow.

I will reiterate once in the hope that you may grasp the concept by repitition. Of course, land takes care of itself and life is tenacious and fruitful. However, we are talking about farming here, which means elements are being removed from the land by harvesting. Beliefs notwithstanding, natural processes by and large do not return element quantities to a plot of land (by insects, microbes, or any other means) as fast as farmers remove them. Even if little beasties were so capable, they would have to get the elements from somewhere, they are not capable of creating chemical elements.

Absolutely correct absitively. In my previous post I spoke with too much haste and exuberance. But by killing beneficial microbes in the soil we dramatically diminish the cycling and fixing of the soluble chemicals we pour on conventional farm lands. Pouring soluble, as opposed to mineralized, N or K on a microbial dead soil means severe leaching of the chemicals down into water tables. Sure, the saline solution of NKP force feeds some into the plant roots. But, we lose mass tons of mined and transported soluble elements on conventional farm lands. We need to recalculate, given a healthy Soil Food Web and its ability to fix and cycle and bind into biomass, the reduced inputs we add to farm soils to offset our harvest outputs. Again, pardon my exuberance. I just hate to see the dualism of conventional vs organic as discussed above. One could argue that because of conventional farmings' killing of the microbial life in the soil, we actually use much greater elemental inputs than are warranted.


can we still do farming in the u.s. ? outside of grain I see mostly imports. hope the almond crop was good this year.
a company should get carbon credit for solid carbon and create a soil that this company will own and lend lease to farmer and this company will charge the farmer for use of the soil .

There was a record harvest for the almond crop this year

The reason China has less hungry people is because they have killed off over 50 million female babies and fetuses. What country wouldnt have less hungry people if they killed off 50 million baby girls?

Let's break down that 50 million and see how it relates to the 200+ million decrease in starving chinese. Right off the bat you're going to have 50 million less hungry, obviously, because they're dead. Add to that the fact that you also will have 50 million "less distracted" males, and that means you will have an accompanying increase in productivity on farms. No doubt the men can get a lot more farming done when there are fewer girls around. Then, as the years tick by those 50 million girls that were killed wont have the chance to breed even more hungry chinese. That brings you the rest of that 200+ million drop.

The question is, is this the model that the world should follow? One child policies and forced abortions? May as well add forced sterilization to the list.

It's a valid question, because it isnt any less humane than feeding the population a bunch of GMO foods that are equivalent to rat poison, and then shoving a constant barrage of ads down their throats telling them to eat so much sugar, even from birth, that the rate of diabetes skyrockets. Then add cell phones and a dozen other ubiquitous electromagnetic sources of cancer. That is the model that the US is following. It only appears more humane than the chinese alternative, but it is also infinitely more costly in terms of lifetime health care. And we wonder why our kids cant learn anything and why the economy is collapsing...

The ethical difference is in who determines those who will die. Any American can choose to partake or not. The Chinese baby girls cannot.

1973 744,600 615,831
1974 898,600 763,476
1975 1,034,200 854,853
1976 1,179,300 988,267
1977 1,316,700 1,079,430
1978 1,409,600 1,157,776
1979 1,497,700 1,251,921
1980 1,553,900 1,297,606
1981 1,577,300 1,300,760
1982 1,573,900 1,303,980
1983 1,575,000 1,268,987
1984 1,577,200 1,333,521
1985 1,588,600 1,328,570
1986 1,574,000 1,328,112
1987 1,559,100 1,353,671
1988 1,590,800 1,371,285
1989 1,566,900 1,396,658
1990 1,608,600 1,429,577
1991 1,556,500 1,388,937
1992 1,528,900 1.359,145
1993 1,500,000 1,330,414
1994 1,431,000 1,267,415
1995 1,363,690 1,210,883
1996 1,365,730 1,221,585
1997 1,365,730 1,186,039
1998 1,365,730 884,273*
1999 1,365,730 861,789*
2000 1,312,990 857,475**
2001 1,303,000& 853,485**
2002 1,293,000&
2003 1,293,000&&
2004 1,293,000&&

&AGI estimate
&&NRLC base figure
*excludes NH, CA, AK, OK
**excludes NH, CA, AK

4,000 each day

AGI - Alan Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood)
CDC - Centers for Disease Control
NRLC - National Right To Life Committee
CIRTL - Central Illinois Right To Life
AGI - Alan Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood)
CDC - Centers for Disease Control
NRLC - National Right To Life Committee
CIRTL - Central Illinois Right To Life

Why pick on china???????

The ethical difference is in who determines...

That's fundamental. Who decides. fascism and authoritarianism or some sort of community based little-d democracy?

cfm in Gray, ME

Is who decides really more important than what they decide?

To put it another way: If the masses want to wreck the environment is it okay to wreck the environment?

To put it another way: If the masses make lots of babies that lead to wrecking the environment is that okay?

When sex ratios become skewed, an automatic fitness advantage accrues to the sex in short supply. This is why 1:1 sex ratios evolved in the first place. Hence, from the perspective of biology, the skewing of the sex ratio in China due to preferential abortion of female embryos & fetuses, is a non-issue. China simply had to limit population growth in order to avert famine. So, YES, the rest of the world needs to adopt China's one-child-per-family model.

DD -- This may sound like a semantics debate by I see the issue from a different angle. Hunger in China is not so much a result of being over populated but by being underdeveloped agriculturally. Much of the US (and the rest of the world) would be starving had it not been for the industrialization of agriculture. And even better example is Africa. Despite popular belief, most African nations are not over populated. Population densities of most African nations are far smaller then most states in the US. If agricultural productivity were increased to just a small fraction of what it is in the US there would be no hunger there. A more specific example: last year I worked in Equatorial Guinea, a small (500,000 pop) country off the west coast. Most of the population is starving...especially for protein. You might think that's odd given they are an island nation sitting in the S. Atlantic. But they have almost no sea food resources. Why? Because about 5 years ago the local dictator had the commercial fishing fleet destroyed because he feared it might be used to transport fighters into the country to stag a coup. Such a failed coup occurred in 2002. The people of EG are starving because of politics, as most of Africa, and not over population. I’m not as familiar with the specifics with China but I suspect they are similar.

You are correct. A quick look at where there are shortages of food and hungry people is a showcase of autocrats,dictators, and in some cases no government. North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Haiti, and Cuba to name some are good examples of politics interfering with a peoples ability to feed themselves.

The cell phone to cancer business is total, complete bullshit. I've sat on top of a skyscraper in an urban area with a spectrum analyzer - there are lots and lots of electromagnetic energy sources out there, they've been around since the 1940s, and the wave of cancer concerns is based on junk science favored by ambulance chaser attorneys.

A cell phone puts out 50mw and the only effect of that band is warming, and only then in body structures that are the right size to resonate.

It's total, complete, utter bullshit that should be left to newspapers that cover Elvis sightings and alien abduction.

What part of your argument caused people to give you negative votes? I do not like the voting because I can't always figure out what people object to in a longer rant.

One disadvantage that hasn't been adressed here is that OF is typically more extensive and therefore for the same output more land is needed. This can limit the application of OF, especially considering that worldwide the area of fertile soil is decreasing.

Not really OT:
My well is being finished as I write this: Ninety feet down into the rich soil of the Tualatin Valley, two hundred feet above sea level and ten miles from Portland.

Roy hit black sand at about seventy feet, which extends all the way down to 85 feet. He says it's the deposits from the Missoula Floods, which date to 13,000-15,000 years ago.

So apparently the soil grew here at an impressive rate of an inch every 16-17 years, through a combination of forest cover and alluvial accretion. This is what happens if we leave ag land alone to do its magic. We can help or hurt the soils through our actions, but the Sun and rains give us that boost we need to keep on producing indefinitely, even without perfect recycling of the nutrients.

The First Law is dead - Long live the First Law!

The most encouraging work I've come across on the farming scene comes out of (of all places!) the Virgin Islands! Google aquaculture virgin islands and/or aquaponics. There's a very enthusiastic young couple (well young by my standards) working to adapt that to Hawaii. You think it requires a warmer climate than you have? Be patient, thermal BTUs are on the way. Second great hope for the future (and always will be?) is algae. But all this would take a rational approach to the problem. Besides all the problems mentioned in the postings, there's the economic one. Our economics and the idea of farming are incompatible. A slogan I've taken up is: “The price of good food is too high to buy it and too low to sell it.” That's why I'm a gardener rather than a farmer. An old slogan from the '70s among some taking these issues seriously was: “Energy from the Sun, that's where it comes from, material from the Sea, that's where it goes.” So try to locate your garden not too far from the ocean so you can get seaweed but not to low in altitude because once the methane clathrates blow there's going to be lots of extra heat and water around.

According to Heinberg, sounds like it's time to hole up with your seeds, shovel and compost:

we will be leaving our food system to the vagaries of the market, as we are doing with our energy system ... The consequences are likely to be similar: less food to go around, extremely volatile prices, and farmers dropping out just when we need more of them.

Food Crisis on the Way.

Is the clock running out on convertin shoppin, suburban Amerika to a hippy organics paradise?

You betcha!

Many thanks for a fine article.
As a purely uninformed question on the topic, what contribution could hydroponics make?
As discussed in this thread the main difficulty seems to be weed growth, using mulches and plastic coverings etc.
Although the capital costs would be higher, presumably much of this could be avoided by the use of hydroponics.

Whilst it could not be used for corn etc, it would also have the advantage of enabling much closer control of inputs and outputs, and make farming in arid regions or colder areas more viable, whilst presumably greatly restricting the need for pesticides.

As I posted above, Google aquaculture virgin islands and/or aquaponics. Goes against my grain as a vegetarian. After all, fish have faces.

I must admit I was being rather selfish, and mainly thinking of the problems of growing food in the cold UK, with it's high population, but in warmer climates as well as aquaculture the Seawater greenhouse also seems to have merit:

I'd guess we get a lot of our daily calorific needs from wheat products like bread and pasta. Wheat is grown in large fields way out town using vast amounts of diesel, NPK and herbicide. Each of those inputs is getting expensive. Herbicides used in lieu of plowing in no-till systems may be heading towards 'peak resistance' and replacement formulations may have greater toxicity.

Given that people can barely afford groceries as it is I don't think paying more for wheat products is the answer. Nor is carting truckloads of urban night soil out to the country. I think the answer might be getting more of our carbohydrates from the humble spud. Bread will become a special treat like cake. Instead of a sandwich have a cold baked potato with cheese. Instead of pasta pour the sauce over mashed potato. Then recycle those nutrients locally in the manner described.

Wheat is for feeding armies, paying taxes and shipping out of the country. Pull your potatoes out from under the mulch as you need them.


I just wanted to thank you for sticking around to answer all of us! I have to say it must be a labor of love for you.

You're off to the poop; I'm going back to shredding corn stalks.


This is slightly off topic but for those near Minneapolis there will be an all day seminar on food issues.

The world is facing a new food economy. Globalization and rapid income growth in more than half of the world's population suggest that current food price spikes portend a long term upward shift in the cost of food.

Thanks for the heads up. If I can get out of work I will go.

Trouble with articles like this is The author has N.F.I.

I purchased a farm about 5 years ago 1500 acres. Mainly grazing but I do grow some grain.. Here's the thing...

This year alone..

I had some bugs damaging my 100 acre oat crop It required about 5l of chemical the rest water.. For very little cost and effort I doubled my yield.. If I was organic how would I have dealt with this problem, bad language and garlic?

Live stock need worming if you don't they eat more put on far less weight and suffer. Your holding per acre is greatly reduced therefor less food per acre..

Lice, fly stike, pinkeye, etc,etc,etc organic treatment would be ineffective and cruel.. Next time you have a medical condition try the organic method. Good luck with that.

The article mentions "less straw means less fodder for cattle" Straw has no real feed value its the grain that fattens them up even with the new grain varieties there is still an excess of straw (used for its fiber value for a more efficient gut).

Chemicals and sprays are efficient and fast. Shore we can have organic farming we just need about 5 billion less people to feed. B.T.W. for balance you should have put a photo of a non organic farm next to the Indian lady.. Farmer leaning on his header over looking hundreds of acres of crop..

You are most welcome to come and run trial plots at my place. One of us would be in for humble pie but due to a bug infestation the pie component will have to be removed...

I don't know the type of land you have but 1500 acres is a very important number. It used to be the size of a typical manor in mideival europe and even then it was able to comfortably support 300 people. Remember that in mideival europe human and animal manure was not used as fertilizer and yield/acre/year was 4 to 8 times less than average indian and chinese form growing the same crops (that is for example wheat compare to wheat).

I have 5 acres of my own and I have grown in first half of this year 1.13 tons wheat/acre using artificial fertilizers but the point is I have also grown 1.13 tons/acre straw along with wheat. Straw is the basic food item of my cows and they consume it 8 times their body mass per year. Your statement that straw is not animal's food and is useless make me doubt about the claims of being a farmer you are making.

I think that Pakistani straw must be very special!

Straw in the by product after grain is harvested. There is almost zero nutritional feed value in straw. However ruminant animals need fiber = straw for efficient use of other feeds such as fresh new grass, grain etc. Reread my initial post (using straw men in a straw debate is out of line) straw is not useless but it is not the be all and end all I would always trade less straw for more grain...

Do not confuse straw with hay 2 very different yet similar looking items.....

B.T.W. my place is South western Vic Oz. Yes it still rains here.

As a retired farmer, among professions, I grew sugar cane, rice, soybeans, a little corn and rotated with cattle & crawfish. On occasions I dabbled in some other crops. Because all this was in South Louisiana plantations at one time or another there were a handful of milk cows, hogs, and assorted other animals. (Actually had a couple of mules into the 60's.) Most of these people don't have a clue and don't know the difference between an overgrown hobby garden and a farm. I hear you and understand what you are saying.

Once more then,

We had no commercial fertilizers,no chemicals,we used draft animals,we had stock as well as pastures and corn,and tobacco.

My grandparents raised 14 children doing it this way. I lived with them when we heated and cooked with wood and drew water out of a cistern.

This was on a 100 acre sharecropped farm. Maybe 30 percent of it was woodlands.

I then ask you. How was this possible? It happened and I lived it. It was the same with other farming families in the same county and nearby counties.We had ZERO industry. All the towns were small.

How then? Huh?

Now your talking intensive farming. No chicken flocks. No sheep. No milk cows,etc....and perhaps lazy children and wife who likes to shop and run the malls.

There was a 'way' and it worked. Todays 'way' WON'T work.
People have 'moved on' and regressed as modern communications and bullshit forced it on them and they eagerly accepted it.

Well too bad but the way we did it back then worked and will work again. It has to because thats the ONLY way it will work.As I ancestors did it. Period. End of subject. I was there. I saw and lived it and it worked.

Forget the TV. Get some mules. Regress,regress, regress..learn to live in a pair of bib overalls. Quilt you on bedcovers. Stuff pillows with goose down.Get down on your knees and work in the dirt. Pray for rain when needed. Lose the modernist attitudes. Burn the shopping malls.
Quit importing garbage. Learn to walk to church or ride a wagon to town to trade. The list can go on and on but either we will learn this or die out.

Tell me it can work any other way than how our ancestors made it work.

Of course good tillable reproductive land has been slowly killed and the woods are being decimated and won't come back for a long time but there is still enough for a remnant and I think thats all that will be left. I won't be here much longer so I don't worry too much.

Folks my age who came up this way remember how it was done but we are dying out now. You all had better start storing knowledge away or your going to be F**KED.

Airdale-yeah I got a clue, a hobby garden? Don't think there is such an animal. Flower gardens,yes. Either you will raise food or perish. Simple.


Well too bad but the way we did it back then worked and will work again. It has to because thats the ONLY way it will work.As I ancestors did it. Period. End of subject. I was there. I saw and lived it and it worked.

But Airdale, here's the rub: what was the population "back then"?

And: some of us ARE attempting to regress, but that's not going to save anything but maybe ourselves.

I could close my farm gate and be fat warm and happy. I could eat 3 sheep a day wheat until I explode. I have under ground water plus high rain fall = unlimited size vegy patch. If I do what happens to everyone else? Farms have to be more efficient to give us a controlled decent going organic is simply stupid anyone advocating it has No F%^%$ idea..

You will be surprised I think, as to the large number of "visitors" to your place when things take the turn for the worse. And they will.

That is "what happens to everyone else". Unless you have the weapons to prevent it, your food will be taken from you rather quickly. You will not be "fat, warm and happy", you will be dead.

On an organic farm, will only swords and bows & arrows be allowed for defense of the vegetables? Seems like using firearms would kinduv be like spraying herbicide...

Well, we worm our animals using herbal wormers, and so far they've been extremely effective. We also mix animals in together, and my poultry have a grand old time eating the worms out of animal poop. We rotate pastures to allow the cold weather to reduce worm load - that is, we do the stuff that organic livestock farmers do, with fair success. Organic agriculture doesn't eschew all medicine, although it does delay the marketing of the animals. We've been fortunate - we've been able to treat flystrike with iodine, but we've never let it go far. We can do this because we have a small farm, and comparatively few animals - this is much harder when dealing with large rangelands, of course. Our lambs have gained more weight than we anticipated this year - we hadn't expected to go to butcher until November, but all of them are larger than anticipated, because of our copious late rains, so off we go, and not too much worry about the worms.

One of the interesting observations of the Cuban model was that large farms were much less successful in adapting to the necessary shifts than smaller ones - the same was seen in Russia. The question then becomes, what happens if large range farmers can't get all these things you depend on? Because while you may not run out of things to eat, you will probably want tools and clothes and other products of urban life at some point.

The problem with pesticides is that resistance happens faster than the pesticides can manage - we used to lose 9% of our crops to pest loss, now it is up to 16% - since the widespread use of chemicals. In isolation, they work - overall - not so much.

As I've said, this is a short excerpt of a much longer piece - and it wasn't the excerpt we chose, but Gail's edit. Our larger point is that if we have to do without fossil fuels, to a large degree we could - if we were willing to do what is necessary. Like others, I think it is unlikely we will equitably allocate resources or do what is necessary in the short term - but rather than sit on my farm while others starve and imagine that they won't mind if I eat, I tend to think that the more resilience we can build in the food system, the better.


The title raised the flag on an undefined question (for what, what conditions, when, whose judge) that only produces arguments and sore feelings. Polarizing different areas. I don't think it was your intent. It seemed rather that of fostering a personal food involvement (ala Pollan) and guiding the direction of ag in a resource constrained, post peak world. Too much of "my ideas are better than yours" and not enough "this is what I tried or heard and here's how it worked."

It's 2008, with a huge, bloated world human population. The idea of increasing population is patently absurd. We can neither continue BAU, nor deny the pain and suffering of others. IIRC, it was 1988 when the first study was published in Nature demonstrating commercial viability of paired, large scale conventional vs organic grain production. Not long ago. Not nearly long enough to "get the bugs out". Certainly none of the organic farm's neighbors have rushed to emulate that success. If for no other reason than the long transition time required for adequate yields.

We run a small hay and livestock operation on about 150 acres, with another 200 in timber. It's our third place, as finances, health and plain old life take their toll. We're really just grass farmers, livestock only being a way to market grass. We produce most of what we eat, organically, in part for taste, in part for cost, and there are other parts. But it's not an ideology, and that will only screw us up. We must be able to adapt. When a weed patch breaks out that the sheep, cattle or rotational grazing won't fix, I hit it with 2,4D. And go stronger if need be. A big case in point is our orchard, about 2 acres and ~150 trees. Started as a hobby, then expanded with the idea of direct fruit sale. Organic gets the best price, so that's what it was. For 7 years. Till a disease outbreak this spring that baffled the extension agent. I knew what it was, but he thought another because fireblight hadn't been seen around here for over 25 years. It was a tough infestation, brought on by a climatically ridiculous spring. The only remedy is organic-cut out the infected tissue. And cut water, you want to minimize any new growth. Stress those trees even more. By midsummer, every pathogen, it seemed, knew where an easy meal was. So much for an organic orchard. It hurts to watch 7 years of effort go down the tube.

I'll replant new whips next year. Lost about 15 apple and pear so far, another 25-30 that are cut back to scaffold limbs, it will be a good while till they produce. The blight enters through the blossom, so many were spared blight, but they got hit and treated none the less for the other pests. On the bright side, got my first taste of a Belle de Boskops this fall, for any apple growers out there. What an amazing apple. Almost tropical in taste, like you ate an orange.

A lot of data in the article and comments but I think without a systematic way to deliver the knowledge it is all confusing for a lay man so I will try to clear some fundamental principals.

Food is eaten to get energy. We need energy for vital body function (breath, blood circulation, brain work etc), to work, to keep us warm and to grow. SI unit of energy is joule, one joule is the energy that is enough to do the amount of work of moving one kg mass to a distance of one meter. In food energy calculations we use a different unit of energy called Calorie. One Calorie = 1000 calories (calories with a small 'c') = 4200 joules. Since heat is a form of energy therefore one Calorie can be defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one kg mass of water to one degree celsius.

Next thing to know is how much energy we need per day. Amount of energy needed by a person depends on two simple things: (a) mass of that person (b) kind of activities that person perform in a given day. We can broadly classify per kg energy needs into three parts:

(1) Energy needed for vital body functions, that is just to stay alive if you are doing no work that is the amount of energy needed by a person in comma is 20 Calories (with a capital 'c') per kg mass. Its the minimum amount of energy you need to survive.

(2) Energy needed for an office worker that do walk to work but spend his day sitting on a chair and his evenings may be taking a little walk is 40 Calories per kg mass. If that person do some hard work like loading etc then its 40 Calories per kg mass.

(3) Energy needed by athletes, that is the maximum energy you need per kg mass is 60 Calories per day.

I take the number 40 Calories/day because even a healthy office worker is expected to do some exercises, spend evenings in some healthy activities etc. The number 40 is also the middle number between the minimum 20 and maximum 60 Calories/day needed per kg mass.

Energy need to grow (that is gain mass) is separate from above numbers. Typically you need 7.5 Calories to gain one gram mass. If you want to lose one gram mass you have to do extra work to consume 7.5 extra Calories or you eat 7.5 Calories less than what you need that day.

Second thing to understand is that diet need to be balanced. There are seven basic elements of diet. Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Vitamins, Minerals, Fiber and Water. Water is used for cooling and cleaning, it not provide any energy. Fiber also not contain any energy, it is needed to lower the intensity of energy in food to rest stomach and intestines. We need 23 different types of minerals in their elemental (non-compound) form, its study is complex and lengthy so we skip it here. Minerals are needed in milli grams or micro grams per day and in a balanced diet they are usually present, its study is also complex because of many types of minerals so we skip it here. We will only focus on the other three mega parts of diet, all three of these are taken in grams.

In a balanced diet we need:

55%-60% energy coming from Carbohydrates.
12%-15% energy coming from Proteins.
25%-33% energy coming from Fats.

For example children need more proteins than adults because their bodies are growing. In colder climates fats need to be a larger part of diet than hot climates etc.

Since each gram of both Carbohydrates and Proteins contains 4 Calories and each gram of Fats contains 9.2 Calories and we on average need 40 Calories/kg/day and average human mass (including adults and children) is 50 kg therefore we need 2000 Calories/day/person and in a balanced diet we need these amounts of the above three mega parts of diet:

Carbohydrates 60% Calories 1200 Calories 300 grams
Proteins 12% Calories 240 Calories 60 grams
Fats 28% Calories 540 Calories 60 grams

Following is a list of different items of food containing different amounts of C,P and F.

Item Carbohydrates Proteins Fats

Wheat 67% 12% 0%
Rice 70% 10% 0%
Pulses 50% 25% 0%

Poultry Meat 0% 25% 0%
Beef 0% 80% 0%
Goat Meat 0% 25% 0%
Fish 0% 16% 0%

Cow Milk 4.88% 3.32% 3.64%

Apple 12% 0% 0%
Mango 25% 0% 0%
Banana 25% 0% 0%
Oranges 2.5%

Veg General 6.25% 0% 0%

Sugar 100% 0% 0%

Honey 80% 0% 0%

Oil 0% 0% 100%
Butter 0% 0% 80%
Cream 0% 0% 60%

Dry Fruits 20% 50%

I had made this balanced diet plan that not only provide balanced amounts of Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats for a 2000 Calories diet but also provide balanced amount of vitamins and minerals and the needed fiber. For convenience in planning I provide figures for a 400-day diets, that is 365 days in a solar year plus extra food eaten on feasts.

Item Amount (kg)

Wheat 40
Rice 30
Oats 20
Barley 15
Pulses 6.25

Milk 100

Fruits 100

Vegetables 25

Beef/Mutton 25 Needed specially for vitamin b-12
Poultry/Fish 25

Oil 12.5
Dry Fruits 12.5
Spices 12.5
Honey 12.5 This amount of natural (honey-bee) honey provides all minerals need.

Before green revolution world average per acre yields of these are as follows:

Item Yield/Acre/Year (kg)

Wheat 400
Rice 1200
Oats 800
Barley 600
Pulses 250

Fruits 1000

Vegetables 1000

Oil 250
Sugar/Honey 500
Spices 250
Dry Fruits 250

Hay/Straw 1500

We need 3 kg straw (2 Calories/gm, 80% dry matter) to have 1 liter milk. We need 4 kg grains to get 1 kg poultry/fish meat. We need 12 kg straw to get 1 kg beef/mutton.

100 kg milk means 300 kg straw needed
12.5 kg beef/mutton means 150 kg straw needed
12.5 kg poultry/fish means 50 kg grains needed

The amount of grains in diet totalled 111.25 kg but we need 100 kg grains/year/person only for direct eating, rest is used to feed poultry and fish. We grow another 40 kg oats for food of poultry and fish too.

From these 150 kg grains grown we get 150 kg straw but assuming that 25% of it get destroyed or lose its nutrition value during storage we get only 111.25 kg straw.

With 100 kg fruit also grow leaves and grass that can be fed to animals. This is equivalent of 37.5 kg straw.

To get the rest we grow 300 kg straw/hay.

In non-food items we calculate human needs of cotton and tea. So following is what we need to grow per person per year and its yield per acre per year before green revolution and amount of land dedicated to each:

Item Need/Person/Year Yield/Acre/Year Land Dedicated Straw
(kg) (kg) (acres)

Wheat 40 400 0.1 30
Rice 30 1200 0.025 22.5
Oats 60 800 0.075 45
Barley 15 600 0.025 11.25
Pulses 6.25 250 0.025 4.68

Fruits 100 1000 0.1 37.50

Hay 300 1500 0.2 300.00

Vegetables 25 1000 0.025
Oil 12.5 250 0.05
Honey/Sugar 12.5 500 0.025
Spices 12.5 250 0.05
Dry Fruits 12.5 250 0.05

Cotton 6.25 250 0.025
Tea 12.5 500 0.025

Milk 100 -300.00
Mutton/Beef 12.5 -150.00

Grand Total 0.80

Add 0.1 acre/person to grow hay to support a little amounts of bull to pull the pillow for tilling and cart for transportation and 0.1 acre/person for forest to have herbs for medicines, wood for burning and extra food for animals and a little hunting fun, we reach the critical amount of land needed per person, one acre of arable land.

World area is 150 million square kilometers which means 37.5 billion acres, 40% of it is arable which means 15 billion acres. Minus all wild life world can support 15 billion people IF population is distributed according to arable land availability which its not. Given the world's population distribution it can support by traditional agriculture at maximum 3.75 billion people.

Subcontinent is a large area consisting of countries Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, its total arable land is 450 million acres. In 1700 at peak of mughal empire its population was 150 million. Now subcontinent has a population of 1500 millions that is ten times. Egypt in pharoah's time never had population over 6 million, it used to fluctuate between 3 million and 6 million, now its 60 million and growing.

In short world is ten times more populated today than it used to be prior to 1800s.

In 1700 at peak of mughal empire its population was 150 million. Now subcontinent has a population of 1500 millions that is ten times.

What is the average family size in this region? Is it declining over time? China went to a semi-enforced "one child policy" (but is now moving away from it) - any talk by the government or other leaders that maybe population growth should be stopped in that region?

That does not make the issue of population irrelevant, but it does mean we may have time and choices that we did not know we had.

Since virtually no one talks about human population or at the best, gives it a low priority, (astonishingly even in environmental, resource depletion, and planet-in-crisis groups) it is good that we can defer talking about it until it becomes a more severe problem or until such time as it becomes less taboo.

Actually, the largest part of what we sent was about population, not about organic agriculture. It was shortened because Gail told us you readers couldn't be expected to read that much ;-).

The truth is that population can't be rapidly altered, except by massive scale die offs - that doesn't mean we don't need to address population policy - and we discuss that at some length - but it does mean that the first priority has to be resource allocation - that is, even if we imagined that all the world's poor were to be allowed to die off (and that's how it would work) that doesn't resolve the problem since those who remain consume the majority of resources - we'd be back in the same situation in a generation. Population matters - and we have real doubts about whether we're going to be able to feed our population in the long term. But there's no way to get at the question of creating even a functionally sustainable society without going first at the question of resource allocation and justice - period. We can't depopulate our way out of our present difficulty ;-).


Even if we imagined that all the world's poor were to be allowed to die off (and that's how it would work)

God or mother nature depending on your beliefs, is engaged in "massive scale die offs" all the time. There are 2.4 million people a year who "die-off" in just the United States each year.

The longer people such as yourself push population control onto the deep back burner or into the closet by using terms like "die-off" to dismiss it as unthinkable, the more certain it becomes that at some point there will be a "die-off to top all die-offs".

Population matters - and we have real doubts about whether we're going to be able to feed our population in the long term. But there's no way to get at the question of creating even a functionally sustainable society without going first at the question of resource allocation and justice - period. We can't depopulate our way out of our present difficulty ;-).

There is population growth, there is population stabilization, and there is depopulation. Right now we have the worst of the three. For some reason you decided to pretend that there is only one other alternative - depopulation. I would be happy just to see population stabilization at this point. And the US doesn't need a massive die-off to stop population growth - they just need to stop immigration (well, that would have worked for the last 30 years or so - but now, with immigrants pushing the birth rate up over 2.1 per mother they also would need to encourage birth control). The world doesn't need a massive die-off to stop population growth - they just need to encourage and facilitate birth control.

Effective birth control should be one of the top goals of the planet. Changing from a mode where fertility is the norm and prevention requires effort to a situation where infertility (in both sexes) is the norm and fertility requires specific action by both parties would be a massive accomplishment.

Industrial agriculture is all about CONTROL, the industrial farmer is nothing but a slave to the chemical companies, GMO seed swindlers, and agri-business commodity giants.

Sustainable, organic production is free enterprise, people producing products that are good for you, food worth seeking out. The attitude difference between the customers and workers in a conventional grocery store and a food co-op featuring organic foods has to be seen to be appreciated. All of that chemical laden food gives off a tremendous negative energy, can't be escaped. Spend time on some organic acres, you can feel the difference, the positive energy is unmistakeable.

btu, your comment is full of the good and the bad:

Industrial agriculture is all about CONTROL, {YES!} the industrial farmer is nothing but a slave to the chemical companies, GMO seed swindlers, and agri-business commodity giants.{YES!}

Sustainable, organic production {NO: organic is not "sustainable," not at 6.7 billion} is free enterprise, {NO: you have to be inspected and pay a fee. Part of the reason for high organic prices is that the market is purposely manipulated and rationed} people producing products that are good for you, {NO: there's no evidence "organic" food is any better than conventional foods.} food worth seeking out. The attitude difference between the customers and workers in a conventional grocery store and a food co-op featuring organic foods has to be seen to be appreciated. All of that chemical laden food gives off a tremendous negative energy, can't be escaped.{This is an example of the utter BS in the "organics" movement that puts me off and why I don't adopt the word "organic" for myself. This is patently superstitious.} Spend time on some organic acres, you can feel the difference, the positive energy is unmistakeable.{Puh-leeze.}

I stand by all of my comments, I have been organic for over 10 years and the energy from organic acres is real. Once you become in touch with the land, eliminate chemical use, these same observations will become apparent. There is a tale of a woman who found herself wandering from the house to an organic orchard on a fairly regular basis, this is where she found herself, without explanation, the energy from the orchard was that great.

Fine, stand by your superstitions. I've been "organic" for twenty years, and have no illusions of being some kind of magician.

The losses sometimes are as great as the gains. It's an art to coax plants to do what you want.

Oh, by the way: "chemicals" are everywhere, even in an "organic" orchard. I suspect you don't really know what you're saying.

Likewise, you use the word "energy" like some paperback book on the New Age shelves. Bunk.

I know what I see and feel on my organic farm and in my bank account, the proof is in the results, it's all about attitude, you might consider some anger management sessions.

Right on. The old way was the organic way. We just called it living on a farm, orgainic was not a word we had. We knew that the animal manure was valuable.Chickens roaming free provided a lot of that.

We never really had 'weeds' that I recall.Certainlhy not Johnson Grass.

We hoed and ran a mule drawn cultivator to keep the row crops cleaned out. But I don't remember a huge amount of weeds. We only had weed hooks. Why this was I have no idea but I think intensive AG and the chemcials started it all. Down in the river bottoms there were more like horse canes and such but that was due to it coming down the river with the spring and fall 'rise'.

Upland sprouts would grow in your fields if left alone but not the weed growth like we have today. Today weeds can take a field in one season.

I also think a lot of this was imported somehow. I know Johnson Grass was supposed to have came here from Texas. I never saw it in my youth.

In fact wild grass grew in our hayfields and we cut it for hay. Can't recall the name of it but it grew profusely...ohhhh Redtop is what we called it. Not the same as the Redtop today as my father told me.

I now rarely see any redtop growing. You either sow down Ky 31 Fescue or you get a lot of noxious weedy growth. Creepers and Broom Sage. Read bad news.

Airdale-as I remember it and the way I see it now...believe me modern ag has caused a shitload of bad..

Gail, I respect you, but this one is a miss. Consider:

The US, mechanized farming, world's largest exporter of food, 0.6% of the population employed in "farming, forestry, and fishing".

India: primarily organic farming, 60% of the workforce engaged in farming, 0 food exports.

It looks that way pretty much every time, whenever organic farming is attempted as a method to feed large populations, that nation imports most of its food. At least at these population levels. The examples that show the good results for organic farming are almost without exception very small-scale intensely labor intensive efforts that really do not scale.

Now, here we come into the portion where I am a simple doomer, I agree that industrial farming is approaching its limits, and I do not believe that this large a population base can be fed organically. That means that the results = death. Lots and lots of death.

The subsistence farmers in India are not practicing organic farming.

Actually, India's farmers are very much part of the green revolution, and to a degree, victims of it. They aren't organic farmers.

As Twain said, it isn't what you don't know that gets you, it is what you know for sure that ain't true. It is possible doom is upon us, but it isn't inevitable - it wasn't in Russia, or Cuba or most of the places that saw a collapse. People grew food, and mostly, it got allocated. Now it is true that people are more removed from food now than they have been - but that doesn't imply that there's no hope, only that this is hard. Hard doesn't equal impossible.

I am unsure of what our future is - but I'm quite sure of what it is if we don't make some effort on this front.


It took a book to mislead you and it'd take a book to refute all of this.

The short version: Organic isn't all it's promoted to be.

I find it amusing that people won't eat food because a chemical was used to grow it and then eat ibuprophen at the first sign of pain. (then eat antiacids, take pills for diabetes, to maintain an erection, so they can sleep, so they can stay alert, to fight depression. Others stuff Ritalin into their kids. Smoke joints, snort lines...)

E-coli, salmonella, botulin, amoebas, and coccidia are organic.

Some chemicals are terribly dangerous and can and are improperly used, others are benign and even beneficial when properly used.

Which would you rather drink?

Water that is full of the deadly contagions listed above or that same water treated with a few drops of poisonous chlorine bleach?


See the Skeptic's Dictionary link above. He excoriates organic farming for the very reasons you cite. I agree with him.

But the claims of the "organics" movement are NOT the reasons I farm that way. This is a difficult point to get across.

I enjoy the independence and cheapness of recycling nutrients and building soil. I don't care one bit if my produce is "better" than conventional produce. I don't care if it's "sustainable."

I feel much more prepared to face food shortages (should they occur) by continuing my local, recycling practices (compost and mulch and seed saving). It works. It's not magic, and it's no guarantee against crisis, but, as I said, it sure feels like I'm prepared for something.

For whatever it's worth, I too garden and grow organic food when and where possible.

That means I eat blemised and bug eaten stuff a good bit of the time.

But I'm under no illusion. Were it not for industrial agriculture, half the people on this planet would starve to death in a year.

Well researched and written. I think one important oversight in this article was the omission of the social interaction benefits derived from organic, sustainable polycultures. The deep connection that we feel between each other in a common purpose, caring for all, organic and inorganic, cannot be understated. This, together with the connection with the Earth-something that the Australian Aborigines call 'Spirit of Place', gives us wholeness as human beings. You could say these things help to give us our 'humanity'. The agro-business has been one of the things that has eroded our humanity, but that is another story.

This, together with the connection with the Earth-something that the Australian Aborigines call 'Spirit of Place', gives us wholeness as human beings.

Aboriginals' food sources

Before white settlement, Aboriginal people survived off the native plants and animals of the Australian environment for thousands of years. Across the many different environments of Australia, they knew how to find food and water.

Native mammals and birds such as kangaroo, wallaby and emu were regularly hunted and killed. Although animals were sometimes thrown straight onto the fire for cooking, there were a variety of preparation and cooking techniques.

Other foods that seem less palatable to modern urban Australians - such as witchetty grubs, lizards, snakes and moths - were greatly valued.

Bush foods such as berries, roots and nectars were a vital part of the aboriginal diet in many areas. Often these required advanced preparation techniques to neutralise toxins and to make them palatable and nutritious.

In certain coastal areas, shellfish were plentiful and easily harvested. Aboriginals also caught fish in the oceans and rivers using hooks, spears and fish traps.

Aboriginal groups would often travel from season to season; moving to where they knew various food sources would be available. One such source was the annual Bogong moth migrations to New South Wales.

The more bountiful the area a tribe lived in, the less nomadic they were forced to be. Desert dwellers may have been on the move constantly searching for food, while coastal tribes may have remained reasonably static.

Certain Aboriginal groups did more than just survive - they thrived. Some white explorers reported meeting groups of aboriginals from time to time that appeared especially healthy and well fed.

But living off the land also meant that from area-to-area and season-to-season there were also times of hardship.

Feed the World?

When world population has died back to 2bn the survivors will roam around abandoned farms looking for well fallowed land. After setting up their yurts/trailers they will then set fire to the weed infested fields and seed it using their steam powered machines. Saving a precious bag of seed for the following year they move on. Plus the occasional deer or wallaby for meat.

Didn't read every comment, but I didn't see this excellent organic no-till reference posted;

I'm testing variants of Fukuoka methods with small plots of winter wheat and clover; the Bonfils approach, among others, is rather intriguing.

I'm with mikeB on this issue. I'm using organic methods myself , but I don't think for one minute that it will feed the World. And for arguments sake, say it could, then it certainly wouldn't support the World's cities or civilisation as it currently stands. An economy consisting of 70% services (as is the UK) certainly wouldn't be possible.

I think the problem people have with this debate is that many city dwellers believe that the World can switch to Organic farming and life can more-or-less continue as is. These people should be disabused of the idea, it just isn't feasible.

I'm using organic methods to survive. I would encourage others to do the same. As for saving the World, it's not the answer, there is possibly no answer.

I don't think that there's any doubt whatsoever that organic farming can't support the current social structures - we don't assume that. What we assume is that organic or near-organic low input agriculture will probably *HAVE* to support us sooner or later, for whatever "support" means, and that it is better to make the necessary cultural shifts than to starve to death en masse. It might even be a lot better ;-).

I find it interesting that even here, so many people are assuming that the only choice is "go on as we have been" or "massive die off." We spend a lot of time talking about the idea that there is something in between those two poles - but why it is so very hard to get there. I find it really fascinating that it is so hard even at this site, where most people grasp what we're facing.

I'm not criticizing anyone here - this is useful to me.


The reason why its so very hard to get people to consider that there may be something between the two poles of "go on as we have been" and "massive die off," is because many of us feel that there is no such middle ground. Certainly Homo can't "go on as we have been" with a population inflated an order and a half above the sustainable carrying capacity (K) of the biosphere and in the face of peak oil. Many of us consider "massive die off" to be inevitable, and any and all efforts to avert die off to be futile. I'm a professional biologist and I know that populations that overshoot K collapse. Sometimes they crash all the way down to the "absorbing boundary" of extinction. There is nothing special about Homo in this regard.

People often use the logical fallacy of the "false dilemma" when they, for moral or religious reasons, or maybe because they have a large family of their own, do not want to consider or discuss any need for or attempts to halt population growth. Their spin is that it's either the status quo or a lot of people have to be killed. "No one wants to go first" they will say with a wry smile.

In this thread it was mentioned that population cannot be changed rapidly except via a mass "die-off". Thus the topic was changed from "population control" to "rapid population control" and a case made for the hopelessness of the latter allowing the former to be ignored for a later date.

Sharon, "What we assume is that organic or near-organic low input agriculture will probably *HAVE* to support us sooner or later". I'm with you on that one and I certainly don't believe BAU is an option. I also believe those using organic techniques will be those most likely to survive the collapse.

My point is that those who are not involved in Organic Farming are candidates for die-off as any surpluses will be used to support services needed to sustain Organic Farming. Whereas there will be times of the year when city dwellers can be used as farm labour, but for the most part their labour wouldn't be worth a year's supply of food (and that doesn't include their dependants). Organic farming can and will support many, but not all. 50% of the World's population live in cities.

Taking the long term view, sooner or later we are going to have to transition to a sustainable economy. The non-renewable resources will run out, and we are going to have to live solely on renewable resources. This is not a matter of anyone's preferences, nature will impose this reality upon us.

Organic agriculture (broadly defined), or something along those lines, is the only form of agriculture that is premised upon "closing the circle" and thus farming in a sustainable manner.

There may still be problems to solve and challenges to overcome, to be sure. We know from Farmers for Forty Centuries that organic methods can support sustainable agriculture for thousands of years, but we do not yet know with certainty that they can sustain agriculture for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Future generations may need to work out further refinements to address problems that we now only dimly perceive, or still haven't even anticipated.

Much of the debate between organic and industrial agriculture advocates has focused on yields per acre, but that isn't really the issue. The issue is really yield per person. The really substantial changes wrought by industrial agriculture have not been in yield per acre (which have been real, but marginal), but rather in productivity per farm worker. We have substituted fossil-fuel energy and chemicals, irrigation water and mechanization inputs for human labor inputs. Of course, we all know that the fossil fuel are depleting, along with them will go the agrichemicals derived from fossil fuel feedstocks, fossil reservoirs of aqufers are also depleting and surface waters are becoming over-allocated and evaporating away with climate change, and we are probably at a point where diminishing returns have already set in wrt mechanization. It thus doesn't really matter if industrial agriculture is "better" or not; the reality is that it is now bumping up against limits, and must inevitably back down. In other words, we are presently seeing peak industrial agriculture.

What this means, though, is that the future for agriculture really must be to become more labor intensive. Sharon is right: we are going to have to become a Nation of Farmers. That doesn't mean that we have to go all the way back to the pre-industrial age, or to the East Asian model of Farmers of Forty Centuries. It might be more correct, though, to say that we are going to have to become a Nation of Gardeners. The problem remains that it has always been very difficult to support oneself and one's family solely by farming. Most people that have tried it have always lived on the edge of financial disaster, in most places, and for most of human history. Even large industrial farmers running multi-million dollar operations often live on the very edge of bankruptcy. On the other hand, a very substantial percentage of food production throughout settled human history has always been raised by households as one sideline, rather than as their sole means of sustenance. Even if "amateur" production of food at home produces lower yields than can be achieved by professionals using either organic or industrial methods, bringing into production the large mass of land that is presently being wasted on non-agricultural use (i.e., lawns) will surely be enough to offset any reduction in yields that might result from the transition from industrial to organic agriculture, if indeed there is any reduction at all.


Your right on the money my man. Right on.

I am familiar with where you live. I have made that longggg pull over Black Mtn many times.

Always stopped at the Farmers Market west of Asheville and brought some good ole sourwood honey and spent time jawing with the farmers there.

They were the kind of folks I remember when I first moved to N. Raleigh back in the mid 80's.