Ecological Economics and the Food System

With another round of spring planting underway, we thought it might be helpful to bring back and update slightly a post I did over a year ago.

Not included in the article below is a new paper by Weber and Mathews of Carnegie Mellon University on the energy intensity of the U.S. food system. For those of you wanting to get into the details of life cycle analysis and food, that is the article to read. Mike Bomford of Kentucky State University recently reviewed it on his blog too. A key graphic from that paper is shown below.

This is a post that combines theory and practice. The first part is like a typical Oil Drum post with numbers and graphics. The second part is more like a Campfire post, and encourages you to get busy planting food.

"Can we rely on it that a ‘turning around' will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but whatever answer is given to it will mislead. The answer "yes" would lead to complacency; the answer "no" to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work." E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Setting aside any prolonged discussion of whether or what about the modern world should be saved, this essay is primarily about what it means to "get down to work" as Schumacher puts it. But very quickly, to me saving the modern world means setting a goal for the human economy to be properly scaled relative to the global ecology, and maintaining a sufficiency of social stability necessary to manage a transition.

Before getting to work, I want to make sure the work I do is useful. This is where a clear understanding of the big picture helps.

Ecological Economics

The question of proper economic scale is examined by the field of ecological economics. In the ecological economics model, the human economy is a subset of the Earth system, and therefore the scale of the human economy is ultimately limited. The human economy depends upon the throughput or flow of materials from and back into the Earth system. Limits to the size of the human economy are imposed by the interactions among three related natural processes:

(1) The capacity of the Earth system to supply inputs to the human economy (Sources),

(2) The capacity of the Earth system to tolerate and process wastes from the human economy (Sinks), and

(3) The negative impacts on the human economy and the resources it relies on from various feedbacks caused by too much pollution.



Fig. 1. The ecological economics model of the relationship between the human economy and the Earth system highlighting the importance of sources, sinks, feedbacks and scale.[i]

For an expanded look at the relationship between our economy and the planet see the engaging on-line film "The Story of Stuff."[ii]

One measure of whether the human economy is too large is the ecological footprint (EF), which calculates on a nation-by-nation basis the consumption of resources and the build-up of wastes relative to resource regeneration rates and the waste-absorbing capacity of the environment. According to two independent EF analyses (which I will call EF 1 and EF 2) the human economy (population plus consumption and waste generation) is in a state of overshoot, meaning it is too large relative to the long-term capacity of the planet to cope.[iii] The Earth can provide for us beyond its means for a long time before the consequences become severe, just like a millionaire can, for a time, live high on the principal in a savings account instead of the interest. The degree to which we are drawing down principal as opposed to living on interest is called our "ecological debt."

Figure 2. Change in ecological footprint over time according to EF 1 with our cumulative ecological debt in blue.[iv]

Getting More Specific: Fossil-fuel Depletion and Climate Change

Indicators like the ecological footprint are important for understanding we have a problem and giving us a sense of the scale, but they aren't very specific. In order to do something about reducing our footprint, it would help to know what is causing the ecological footprint to be so large. A significant portion of the ecological footprint represents consumption of fossil fuels and the resulting waste, mainly greenhouse gases. The "carbon" footprint component is about 52% for EF 1 and the similar "energy land" is 88% for EF 2.[v] According to EF 2, "energy land" is 93% of the North American footprint. A priority on reducing fossil fuel consumption appears justified. The human ecological footprint can be lowered below "1 Earth" only by eliminating the pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

EF analysis uses the capacity of the environment to absorb greenhouse gas emissions, which, as seen in the model shown in Fig. 1, means EF measures "sink" capacity. The real picture is more complex and more disturbing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, fossil fuel extraction is reaching limits sooner than expected. Since we have not been weaning our economy off fossil fuels steadily for the past few decades, rapid energy price inflation will likely make it difficult to maintain the kind of economic vitality and stability needed for a smooth transition to renewable energy alternatives. Secondly, recent evidence suggests that climate change is happening faster than expected. Ice sheet destabilization is one major indicator that the Earth system is more sensitive to greenhouse emissions than most scientists and policy-makers have presumed. Recent articles by Kurt Cobb[vi] and Richard Heinberg[vii] review all these points, and the "Climate Code Red" report[viii] goes into truly excruciating detail so I won't elaborate further here.

The bottom line is that every measure must be taken to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel consumption and dependency in every component of our lives. The key word is "rapidly." Don't passively assume inexpensive alternative energy substitutes will arrive to replace fossil fuels-we may have waited too long to respond to have a smooth transition. Therefore, focus most attention on reducing energy demand rather than substituting a new energy supply. And finally, in the context of ecological economics, fossil fuel depletion and climate change, ask whether what you do in your life, vocation, hobbies, and habits, contributes to the long-term function (or dysfunction) of society.

The U.S. Food System and Fossil Fuels

It would be hard to argue against a claim that a secure and healthy food supply is indispensable to society. A widely known and troubling fact is that the current food system in the U.S. (and most highly industrialized nations) is very dependent upon fossil fuels.

As far as I am aware, the most comprehensive study on the topic of energy use in the U.S. food system is by Heller and Keoleian of the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems.[ix] The report is from 2000 and makes use of data from the mid-1990s. Although the data are about 10 years old, I don't believe the basic structure and function of the U.S. food system has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. In fact, current trends of increased industrial meat consumption[x] and biofuels[xi], which both rely on grains, make the following case even stronger.

We learn from the study that over 10% of the energy consumption in the U.S. can be attributed to the food system, and that about 20% of this occurs in the agricultural production sector. Home energy consumption (e.g., refrigeration and cooking) consume the largest share at about 30%. Between the farm and the home are everything else (transportation, processing, packaging and retail). Much of this middle portion is a function of the geographic disconnection between production and consumption. Eating food out of season either requires long-distance transportation or energy demanding processing. Both transportation and processing require investments in storage.

Sorting out the proper scale of operations for farms, processing and transportation systems is very difficult, however, because optimization for one factor (e.g., transportation), may be sub-optimal for another (e.g., heat intensive food processing). Within a category, such as transportation, the technologies analyzed may be limited too. A study comparing rail cars, large semi-trucks and small produce trucks may conclude that bigger is better, but what about hyper-local transportation systems using bikes, small electric vehicles and bipedal locomotion? Another complicating issue is that studies may assume the U.S. food system should be more or less similar in its mix of products while lowering energy consumption. For example, tomatoes can be processed using canning or drying. Canning lends itself to centralized operations and so does drying if fossil fuels are used as heat sources. But a naturally decentralized and fossil-fuel free technique such as passive solar dehydration may not even be considered. Large energy savings can be found everywhere in the food system, but especially so if assumptions about scale and consumer-level demand are allowed to change.

Fig. 3. The energy inputs to the U.S. food system are several times larger than the energy content of the food. A life-cycle analysis identifies how energy consumption is partitioned among economic sectors.[xii]

Another graphic from the Heller and Keoleian report clearly identifies a huge savings potential. Over 50% of U.S. grains are fed to domestic animals, and most export grains go to animal feed as well. Overall, only 26% of U.S. grain production in 1995 went to domestic human consumption.

Although poultry need grains, red meat and milk products dominate the feed market and grains are not a natural part of their diets. If red meat and dairy production were reduced to only what harvested hay and pasture could provide, perhaps half of annual U.S. grain production could be eliminated. The acreage out of food production could be used for green manure crops to build soil and fix nitrogen. A 2004 Congressional Research Service report showed that fertilizers are the largest part of farm energy use, and that natural gas to produce nitrogen comprised 75-90% of the fertilizer input (Fig. 5).[xiii] Fixing nitrogen naturally, therefore, saves significant energy. Some of the vast cropland area no longer producing grains could then be used for appropriately scaled biofuels to power farm equipment instead of fossil fuels.

Fig. 4. A reprint of Fig. 3 from the Heller and Keoleian report. (click to enlarge)

Fig. 5. A reprint of Fig. 2 from a 2004 Congressional Research Service report.


An older and less comprehensive on-line review paper[xiv] titled "Energy Use in the U.S. Food System: a summary of existing research and analysis" by John Hendrickson of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, UW-Madison concluded that:

"It appears that some of the greatest saving can be realized by:

  • reduced use of petroleum-based fertilizers and fuel on farms,
  • a decline in the consumption of highly processed foods, meat, and sugar,
  • a reduction in excessive and energy intensive packaging,
  • more efficient practices by consumers in shopping and cooking at home,
  • and a shift toward the production of some foods (such as fruits and vegetables) closer to their point of consumption."


Hendrickson's paper is helpful in republishing and comparing tables from many previous studies, including "Table 5" reprinted here on the energy consumption of home grown versus market-purchased fruit and vegetables.

Taking Responsibility: Brookside Farm Examples

With this extensive background I introduce the project I have been working on for over three years now, Brookside Farm. This is a 1-acre mini-farm in Willits, CA. It operates as a program of the non-profit corporation North Coast Opportunities, functions as a working farm with a community supported agricultural program serving 15 "shares" per year, exists at an elementary school and is therefore open to classes and tours, and conducts research and demonstrates aspects of a local food system.[xv]

Brookside Farm thinks about food from a "farm to fork" and back again perspective. Farmers create artificial ecosystems, and we therefore look to ecology to guide our practices. Highly productive and stable ecological systems are noted for a diversity of species both in kinds and functional forms. When these diverse species interact effectively, they maximize the rates of productivity and nutrient retention in the system using ambient energy sources. We view ourselves as human members of the farm ecosystem with our labor and wastes as parts of the whole.

To get by on ambient energy as much as possible, we have sought alternatives to fossil fuels in every aspect of the food system we participate in. Table 1 considers each type of work done on the farm, to the fork, and back again and contrasts how fossil fuels are commonly used with the technologies we have applied.

Type of Work

Common Fossil-Fuel Inputs

Alternatives Implemented

Soil cultivation

Gasoline or diesel powered rototiller or small tractor

Low-wheel cultivator, broadfork, adze or grub hoe, rake and human labor

Soil fertility

In-organic or imported organic fertilizer

Growing of highly productive, nitrogen and biomass crop (banner fava beans), making aerobic compost piles sufficient to build soil carbon and nitrogen fertility, re-introducing micro-nutrients by importing locally generated food waste and processing in a worm bin, and application of compost teas for microbiology enhancement.

Pest and weed management

Herbicide and pesticide applications, flame weeder, tractor cultivation

Companion planting, crop rotation, crop diversity and spatial heterogeneity, beneficial predator attraction through landscape plantings, emphasis on soil and plant health, and manual removal with efficient human-scaled tools

Seed sourcing

Bulk ordering of a few varieties through centralized seed development and distribution outlets

Sourcing seeds from local supplier, developing a seed saving and local production and distribution plan using open pollinated varieties

Food distribution

Produce trucks, refrigeration, long-distance transport, eating out of season

Produce only sold locally, direct from farm or hauled to local restaurants or grocers using bicycles or electric vehicles, produce grown with year-round consumption in mind with farm delivering large quantities of food in winter months

Storage and processing at production end

Preparation of food for long distance transport, storage and retailing requiring energy intensive cooling, drying, food grade wax and packaging

Passive evaporative cooling, solar dehydrating, root cellaring and re-usable storage baskets and bags

Home and institutional storage and cooking

Natural gas, propane or electric fired stoves and ovens, electric freezers and refrigerators

Solar ovens, promotion of eating fresh and seasonal foods, home-scale evaporative cooling for summer preservation and "root cellaring" techniques for winter storage

Table 1. Feeding people requires many kinds of work and all work entails energy. In most farm operations the main energy sources are fossil fuels. By contrast, Brookside Farm uses and develops renewable energy based alternatives.

Our use of food scraps to replace exported fertility also reduces energy by diverting mass from the municipal waste stream. Solid Waste of Willits has a transfer station in town but no local disposal site. Our garbage is trucked to Sonoma County about 100 miles to the south. From there it may be sent to a rail yard and taken several hundred miles away to an out of state land fill. We are also installing a rainwater catchment and storage system that will supply about half the annual water needs to offset use of treated municipal water. The associated irrigation system will be driven by a photovoltaic system instead of the usual diesel-driven pumps on many farms.

Image caption. Instead of a gas-powered weed wacker, I am shown here using a grass scythe. Honestly, I believe this is a much faster way to cut hay, although you must wait for it to get fairly tall before the tool is effective. The hay is used for mulch in the orchard or goes to the compost piles.

How much energy does Brookside Farm save?

The complexity of the food system makes it difficult to calculate how much energy Brookside Farm is saving. A research program at UC Davis now devoted to just this sort of question is recently underway, but with few results to share thus far.[xvi]

From previous studies we can find clues about the high energy inputs to fruit and vegetable cultivation. From Fig. 4. above, we can see that fruits and vegetables account for (102,370/921,590) 11% of crop production by weight. Table 3 (given below) of the Congressional Research Service report shows that energy invested in fruit and vegetable production is proportionally higher, accounting for (3759/18364) 20% of the energy for crops at the farm level.

Much of the savings at Brookside Farm occurs off the farm by replacing what would normally be imported, through passive solar preservation and storage techniques, and by shifting consumer habits towards seasonally fresh cuisine proportionally high in vegetables.

Does Brookside Farm Scale? Lawns to Food

Before it was Brookside Farm, it was a field of mostly grass at an elementary school. The school district watered and mowed it (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Brookside Farm in early spring, 2007. The image shows the farm site adjacent to the forest and bordered by grassy fields, school buildings and a residential neighborhood. Arrows from a home contrast distance and direction of food coming from the local Safeway supermarket and Brookside Farm. The 1 acre Brookside Farm occupies about a quarter of the available play field at Brookside Elementary School.

Using satellite imagery, the area of lawn in the United States has recently been estimated:

"Even conservatively," Milesi says, "I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn." This means lawns-including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc-could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering about 128,000 square kilometers in all.[xvii]


The same study identifies where and how much water these lawns require:

That means about 200 gallons of fresh, usually drinking-quality water per person per day would be required to keep up our nation's lawn surface area.

Let me put the area of lawn from this study into a food perspective. The 128,000 square kilometers of lawns is the same as 32 million acres. A generous portion of fruits and vegetables for a person per year is 700 lbs, or about half the total weight of food consumed in a year.[xviii] Modest yields in small farms and gardens would be in the range of about 20,000 lbs per acre.[xix] Even with half the area set aside to grow compost crops each year, simple math reveals that the entire U.S. population could be fed plenty of vegetables and fruits using two thirds of the area currently in lawns.

Number of people in U.S. 300,000,000
Pounds of fruits and vegetables per person per year 700
Yield per acre in pounds 20,000
People fed per acre in production 29
Fraction of area set aside for compost crops 0.5
Compost-adjusted people fed per acre 14
Number of acres to feed population 21,000,000
Acres in lawn 32,000,000
Percent of lawn area needed 66%

Labor Compared to Hours of T.V.

For its members Brookside Farm's role is to provide a substantial proportion of their yearly vegetable and fruit needs. Using our farming techniques, we estimate that one person working full time could grow enough produce for ten to twenty people. By contrast, an individual could grow their personal vegetable and fruit needs on a very part-time basis, probably half an hour per day, on average, working an area the size of a small home (700 sq ft in veggies and fruits plus 700 sq ft in cover crops). American's complain that they feel cramped for time and overworked. But is this really true or just a function of addiction to a fast-paced media culture? According to Nielsen Media Research:[xx]

The total average time a household watched television during the 2005-2006 television year was 8 hours and 14 minutes per day, a 3-minute increase from the 2004-2005 season and a record high. The average amount of television watched by an individual viewer increased 3 minutes per day to 4 hours and 35 minutes, also a record. (See Table 1.)

So if we imagine families having the discipline to cut out a single sitcom viewing per day, or one baseball or football game per weekend during the growing season, that would free-up sufficient time to become self-reliant in fruits and vegetables and likely improve overall health.[xxi] (A note of caution though, an article from The Onion warns "that viewing fewer than four hours of television a day severely inhibits a person's ability to ridicule popular culture.")[xxii]


For those wanting to contribute to a lower-energy food system, starting with fresh produce makes sense for several reasons:

(1) Significant production is possible in a small area, often what people already have,

(2) Tools and equipment are simple, inexpensive and readily available,

(3) Fruits and vegetables are heavy due to high water content, and therefore energy-intensive to transport and process either by canning or dehydrating,

(4) Growing vegetables and fruits is generally more energy intensive than other crops because of high fertilizer and irrigation inputs,

(5) Quality declines rapidly after harvest, so home or locally available food has higher nutritional value and usually tastes better,

(6) Labor, packaging and storage demands of fruits and vegetables are high in mechanized production systems, making the investment in home-grown produce financially competitive, and

(7) Gardening and small-scale fruit and vegetable farming lend themselves to physical and social activities across generation and income gaps that improve health and enhance a shared sense of purpose and fun.


[i] This graphic was developed based on the principles discussed in Chapter 2 of Daly and Farley "Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications" (2004, Island Press)


[iii] and; the original ecological footprint analysis (EF1) is at the first reference, and the second type (EF2) at the second. The major difference between the two is that the second attempts to incorporate aquatic systems (e.g., oceans), total terrestrial productivity, and biodiversity reserves.

[iv] Graphic from:

[v] For the 50% figure see:; for the greater than 90% and discussion of differences between methods see:





[x] See especially Table 2. in:


[xii] Graphic from:


[xiv] Although no date appears on this paper, it is clearly related to a 1994 conference and workshop:;





[xix] An acre is ca. 43,000 sq ft. Our experience at Brookside Farm suggests about 1 lb of produce per square foot of cultivated space is to be expected, with infrastructure and paths requiring significant area. Fruit orchards in Mendocino County yield about 20,000 lbs per acre:




This is a very interesting topic. I knew how resource intensive cattle can be, but I'm suprised by how low chicken and eggs are. How could chicken be more efficient than grain when we feed grain to chicken?

I believe the answer is that the graph is showing an average per household breakdown, not a per product one. People eat many more cereals than chicken, eggs and fish, but you are almost certainly correct that the energy intensity of producing those are higher. Look at the graphs in the original article to see the many ways these data can be viewed. It is a pretty short read.

Thanks, I figured that out too after looking at the graph again later. It's per household instead of per unit of product.

I get a cookie error on the link, though. It should be:
instead of :

I feed my chickens grain during winter and as supplement during warm months. They are amazing omnivores and will happily eat table scraps, grass & grass clippings, bugs, worms, etc. That's one of the wonderful things about chickens, they eat real low on the food chain and are our compost makers. You do need to be careful with them in the garden though, as they like to eat the plants too.

chickens, they eat real low on the food chain

Yes. Rabbits and fish are also good 'converters' of input into protein.

My questions are
1 what proportion of a modern society's energy is devoted to food production today vs 100 years ago
2 what proportion of the average family income is devoted to food purchase today vs 100 years ago

my point is, if energy gets a lot more expensive, it will have myriad effects. I read that in the UK in the 30's, people were spending 35% of income on food, and this was normal.
i think today we spend 10%

the food supply is similar to the energy supply - we take it for granted and it is based on just in time delivery, but i think food is more important than energy, as we will painfully discover

and we should have a web site called "the Food Bowl" to parallel the Oil Drum as a discussion forum

In the US of A if 1/3 of your cash goes to the government and 1/3 goes to housing what happens when food goes from 1/10th to 1/3?

The US obesity epidemic is solved!
Really, food production and transport is only using 3.3QUADS 3.3% of energy, people can buy less packaging, buy less meat, eat out on junk food less, and still only spend <10% on food.

What proportion of the average family income is devoted to food purchase today vs. 100 years ago?

It was common to spend a large portion of the family income on food 100 years ago. My favorite example is the cost of a 3 pound chicken, in hours worked:
Hours: minutes
1900 2:40
1910 3:05
1920 2:27
1930 2:01
1940 1:24
1950 1:11
1960 0:33
1970 0:22
1980 0:18
1990 0:14

In round numbers, we work (1/12)th as long to buy that chicken as in 1900, or a reduction of 92%.

From: Myths of Rich and Poor (Michael Cox and Richard Alm) Table 2.2. This books has numerous charts and tables of economic data and features over 40 pages of references.

This is the 20th Century productivity miracle. Factors include chemical fertilizers, agricultural mechanization, trucks and the highway system, refrigeration, electricity and better farm practices and industrial poultry management/processing (Conagra).

My grandfather's first job, working in an ice house, paid $0.10 per hour around 1912, about $2/hr today. Sawmills paid about $2/day ($40 today), which was from 10 to 12 hours. Ford Motor Co. was revolutionary for paying $5/day, which they could afford to because by using assembly lines and they were able to dramatically lower car prices.

Hello Jason,
Research to Restore the Fertility of Earth's Soils

BELLEVUE, Wash., May 20 (AScribe Newswire) -- In keynote addresses at the FAO Workshop on Sustainable Agriculture in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 28 and April 29, 2009, soil fertility experts from the Nutrition Security Institute, (NSI) a non-profit organization located in Bellevue, Washington, presented advances and understandings in biotic soil fertility as a proven solution to the serious problems facing global agriculture. Their dual keynote presentations urged the use of biotic fertility to provide sustainable agriculture over the entire range of agriculture from subsistence growers to the largest commercial farm operations.

Jeff Anderson, a biological growing expert and contributor to NSI, presented a paper he authored with Dr. Mike Amaranthus. He warned of an approaching crisis in the global food supply. Current and past global food supply is dependent upon topsoil, the most valuable part of Earth's arable soils. Destruction of over 50 percent of the Earth's arable topsoils has been accelerated by over-application of simple NPK formulation fertilizers based on synthetic inorganic nitrogen. The destruction from these fertilizers is compounded by their required co-components, pesticides and fungicides, which have increased toxicity levels in foods worldwide. Soil experts such as Dr. Jerry Hatfield of the USDA Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa have estimated the total loss of worldwide topsoil carbon to exceed 10 million gigatons of soil carbon components. This amount of carbon biomass is equal to a loss of living and stored organic nutrients that is over seven times the weight of the entire living human and whale populations of Earth. This represents a stunning loss of vital life forms critical to human existence...
Will we ramp O-NPK with SpiderWebRiding for Optimal Overshoot Decline? Or are we doomed to the decline pace of the Nuhautl Tlameme backpacking scheme back to Olduvai?

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Your statistics seem right to me. During the first half of the 20th century U.S. cropland lost 50% of its organic matter. Conventional agriculture is destroying the very assets it needs to protect: soil, water, and climate.

Another fine post from Dr. Bradford with plenty of food for thought.
128,000 square kilometers of grass! Everyone run out and buy a new lawn tractor.

My posting [from the bottom of today's DB seems] appropriate to 'cut & paste' here in response to all the land devoted to purely decorative grass:
Hello TODers,

My guess is that most paid lawn-cutters work too hard, and make too little income, to be informed of Peak Outreach. This is too bad as they could dramatically improve their working conditions if they understood the need for Kunstlerization and relocalized permaculture.

Let's examine my Asphaltistan as huge numbers of well-to-do homeowners, upscale shopping malls, and golf-properties, have grass year-round: a summer lawn that needs weekly cutting, then a seeded winter lawn that needs weekly cutting the rest of the year. Thus, these poor bastards are condemned to continually wreck their hearing, plus constantly inhale noxious fumes and particles, while pushing heavy lawnmowers and screaming weed-whackers, plus the common practice of using howling leaf-blowers to mostly just rearrange the dust on driveways and patios.

Compare to what could be possible if all these lawns were converted to veggie/fruit plots: The only time the workers would need to inhale fumes from ICE-tools is when they would be guiding [not pushing] a self-propelled roto-tiller to mix in I-NPK and/or O-NPK compost, thus preparing the soil for planting==>just 2-3-4 times a year versus year-round daily inhalation. The rest of the time would be hoeing weeds, and tending the crops, and other non-fume activities.

If we could somehow get Peak Outreach spread to those upscale elites so that they would be more concerned for the medical health of the poor peasants they hire to tend their properties: IMO, it would be a Win-Win for all to help the trend towards Optimal Overshoot Decline.

Perchance a PostPeak urban-version of Cesar Chavez will come to the rescue of those poor lawn-cutters?
IMO, wheelbarrows & compost pits are better than machete' moshpits.

if they understood the need for Kunstlerization

I wouldn't hold up Kunstler in this regard. In his latest podcast, he says that he does not see people growing food in their yards and he also made a really dumb comment about keeping chickens, namely that it results in roosters crowing day and night, so perhaps not a good idea. Everyone who lives in residential areas where chickens are kept legally knows that roosters are not allowed, nor or they necessary for hens to lay eggs. Kunstler is a theory guy; he does not grow food.

Hello Mamba,

Your Quote: "Kunstler is a theory guy; he does not grow food."

Please check your facts. I think this is pretty impressive for a guy who is constantly besieged with requests to travel away from home to give speeches:
photo of garden

Listen to the mp3:

It shows what I said is true. He is basically not advocating that people grow food in towns, but only outside towns (like him, apparently, from the photo you linked).

He didn't advocate anything. He was asked what form food production might take in the future and he responded with what he thought was might happen.

You are putting words in his mouth.

Earlier today president Obama called a special press conference in which he discussed his latest Presidential Decree making it illegal to have a cultivated grass lawn on any property public or private as of next June 30th 2010.
All areas where grass is artificially planted must be converted to native vegetation, xeriscaping or planting of food crops and fruit bearing trees.

The slogan "No more Grass" is being promoted in a nation wide multimedia campaign to raise public awareness

The president claimed the government would provide financial assistance for individual property owners and would be launching a massive hiring campaign to recruit workers for replanting areas under Federal jurisdiction. He reached out to State Governors across party lines and stated that funds would also be made available to assist at the state level.

He also said that active duty troops recalled early from Iraq and Afghanistan would be required to full fill their remaining tours of duty by being part of a massive mobilization for transforming lawns into food producing tracts.

It is estimated that if this unprecedented national transformation taps into the grass roots (Pun intended) organization that was instrumental in bringing Mr. Obama to power and and brings them out into the fields in droves to help grow food, the United states could practically eliminate its National Debt just by the exporting of food to the world, especially to the cash rich, food poor nations of the Middle East.

Ooops, I think I got a little carried away there, pulls fedora low over forehead as he strategically exits stage left...

"...making it illegal to have a cultivated grass lawn on any property public or private as of next June 30th 2010."

Sounds like Oregon is in for tough times (tougher times?);

"Oregon is the world's No. 1 grass seed producer, supplying nearly 60 percent of all commercial grass seed, according to William Young, an OSU Extension agronomist." The grass seed industry continues to grow every year as well. In 2006, the seed industry grew 789 million pounds of grass seed worth $454 million, according to William Young. Compare that to 720 million pounds worth $348 million in 2005."

Sounds like Oregon is in for tough times (tougher times?);

Maybe they could cash in on the medicinal grass once Obama legalizes it ;-)
They can grow that hydroponically.

Great post, Jason, once again.

Fruit and veggy cultivation is water-intensive. With anthropogenic global warming changing rainfall patterns, one has to find ways to grab whatever rain does fall.

I recommend these books (click images to buy at Amazon):

Rainwater Harvesting at Texas A&M

I attended a lecture by Brad Lancaster, and learned tons of stuff I never suspected, plus will never look at a landscape the same way again.

Even here in Colorado where cisterns are officially illegal, there is a lot of rainwater harvesting that can be done easily and legally. We have been wasting water to such a degree that I now feel deeply embarrassed that I could not see it before.

There is also apparently technology for processing graywater within the home (as graywater is also illegal even in many arid climates). Our local Center for Resource Conservation was promoting the Water Legacy WL-55 (, claiming that 30% of fresh water consumption of the average American home is used to flush toilets.

Much of Brad Lancaster's emphasis is on actually altering landscapes through construction of berms and ways to slow the flow of water. This paradoxically results in more water available to all, contrary to the sort of mentality that makes it illegal for me to store the water that falls on my roof. Another example is that of the farmer who cuts trees down on his farm to reduce competition for scarce water, and instead finds that water becomes more scarce, and his crops thirstier.

In ST 1-2.96.4, Thomas Aquinas argues that laws bind the conscience, i.e., obligate, when and only when they conform to the eternal law, particularly insofar as the eternal law is exhibited in the universal principles of practical reason (a.k.a. natural law). To be just, a law must be good as to:

(1) its end: it must be ordered to the common good;
(2) its author: it must not exceed the jurisdiction of the one who imposes it;
(3) its form: it must not place disproportionate burdens on any of the subjects involved.

A law, however, that is unjust in any of these ways does not impose any obligation. That is, a law ceases to have binding force if any of these is true:

(1) it is not ordered to the common good, but merely to the private good of those who impose it;
(2) it exceeds the authority of those who impose it;
(3) it places disproportionate burdens on any of the people in the community.

One cannot drink the water that falls from the sky? When will it be, that one is not owner to the sun that shines on ones head or the wind that blows thru ones trees.

Time to ignore the unjust laws in this land. Time for real change.

If it involves "virtual water" or water footprint concept, the gravity of the situation will be understood better.Almost all interactions of human beings involve water. Water vapor is the worst greenhouse gas. It stores huge amount of energy. Even though agriculture absorbs some carbondioxide, it gives off huge amounts of water vapor(more than 7000 billion tons of water vapor). All power plant operations emit several times more water vapor when compared to carbondioxide emissions.

When we talk about energy, we must talk about water also together. Otherwise we will be solving wrong problems in the wrong direction. Our ecological debt of water is too worse and it is not given adequate importance. As water is so essential for living, we deny other organisms by looting their water with our technologies and provide them only burdens through climate change.

In my opinion,
1. We have to reduce energy use (water requirement will come down)
2. We have to reduce abuse of solar energy (white roofs,agriculture with micro forests,water bodies) and it will reduce evaporation loss of water from the surroundings)
3. Promote trees, ponds and othe water bodies on land (improve heat balance of surroundings and reduces water evaporation)

It's good to have in context the energy use for food production, transport, processing and home use.
If I am reading the graphs correctly transportation of all food accounts for 1.3QUADS out of the 100QUADS used in US each year, ie 1.3% of US energy use, while food production uses about 2 QUADS.

In comparison, Obama's changes in CAFE are going to save about 15% of oil use, or 5 QUADS per year of energy use. Coal generated electricity uses 25QUADS and contributes ten times more CO2 than food production and transport.

Clearly if we drive to the supermarket or work and the type of vehicle we use, and how our electricity is produced is much more important in energy use and CO2 emissions than the transport of food across the country or even around the world.

The statistics are confusing because different boundary conditions are used in the various analyses and because sometimes the discussion is about energy use and sometimes it is about GHG emissions and they overlap but are non-identical.

For example, if you count as "agriculture" the system that grows food and gets it to processors, distributors and finally the retail or restaurant outlets then ca. 16% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are attributed. This figure does include the land-use and cow fart aspects of agriculture. This figure doesn't include home storage and cooking, which we see from other studies is a big part of food system energy use.

Your numbers looks about right to me. I would say three things about the relative importance of food vs. CAFE. First, I don't tend to rank them in importance very carefully because I believe we have to do ALL OF THEM as fast as we can. Second, as far as I can tell a huge proportion of driving is discretionary and so I can envision cutting back on driving and seeing a huge improvement in health and quality of life by driving much, much less--far beyond CAFE reductions. Third, the food system does include a lot of discretionary use also, especially meat and highly processed products, but it is also such a basic need that we better figure out how to maintain it using only renewable energy or it's game over for society.

Speaking of potentially confusion stat.s on food and energy, it has recently been brought to my attention that the term 'calory' means one thing in physics--the energy it takes to raise one milliliter of water one degree centigrade (thermo-calory); and another thing in diet--the "calories" recorded on the backs of food containers are actually kilocalories, equal to one thousand thermo-calories.

I know that in this study none of the claims were made using calories, but I have often heard claims about how many calories it took to grow, process and transport on calory of food we eat. Can we be sure that these studies are using the same definition for calory? Does anyone have a source where this is discussed outright?

Thanks ahead of time.

Very interesting. Everything you say appears to fit in with my own experiences when younger. I do have one question and one comment. The question is about your "garbage." You say you truck this to some landfill. I wonder what sort of garbage this is and why it has to be trucked out rather than kept and used.

The comment is about a statement you made, namely, "The human ecological footprint can be lowered below "1 Earth" only by eliminating the pollution from fossil fuel combustion. "

This may be true, but it is far from sufficient. It gives the impression that if we eliminate the pollution from combustion our job will be finished. But I sure hope not because there is such a vast amount of waste that we have just thrown into landfills or dumped into the oceans--or absorbed into our bodies--that also need to be eliminated. I'd hate to think that we would be burning no oil, but would leave all our toxic wastes lying around.

I am talking about the standard garbage that people put on their curbsides in the U.S. and have picked up by garbage trucks. In my house that tends to be the non-recyclable plastic bits and pieces that creep into my life via things like junk mail wrappers.

You are right about no-fossil fuel use not being the whole story. It is over 90% of the story for the ecological footprint of industrial nations, however! Amazing.

Hello TODers,

Recall TopTODer Heading Out's keypost, 'The ERoI of Supplying Fuel':
Many societies don’t have the luxury of the internal combustion engine to provide their supplies. R.B. Gill in his book on the Great Mayan Drought quotes Robert Drennan and Ross Hassig on the amount of food that a person can productively carry, over that which is consumed to provide the energy for the travel.

He estimated that a single human porter or tlameme as they were known in Nahuatl, could carry a load of about 25 kg (55 lb) of maize. He calculated, however, that the per day overburden of a porter, taking into account the nutritional needs of the porter and his family, was about 30% of the value of the load, based on a round trip for the porter. This places an absolute limit on the transportation of corn of 3.3 days or 100 km (60 miles). In other words, if a porter carried a load of corn 100 km, he would have used it all to feed himself and his family. The effective limit for a commercial distribution system, of course, would have been considerably less, say 50% of the absolute limit, or 50 km. During the Aztec dominance in the Mexican highlands, basic foodstuffs, other than gourmet items, were normally drawn from within a restricted radius of one day’s journey or approximately 30 km.

He goes on to quote Johann von Thunen on German economics, with a horse:

He determined that the absolute trasportation limit for cereials carried by a horse and wagon was about 80 km. At that point, the horses and drivers would have eaten all the grain during the round trip.

It makes you appreciate the benefits of the coming of power, and the tremendous benefit in terms of food portability that it brings. But as that fuel availability diminishes, it also underscores the need to find alternative sources, since I am not sure that there is that much food grown within 30 km of any major U.S. city to feed its population.

Now, if you go to the 'calculator weblink' below and plug in the Nuhautl Tlameme transport numbers:
How Much Weight Can A Bike and Trailer or Cargo Trike Carry?

Enter the speed at which you'd like to ride: [3mph-a walking pace]

Enter your weight [160-my guess at what an average Tlameme weighs]

Enter the Total weight of your equipment (bike + trailer, trike, etc.) [15 lbs for basket backpack to haul the foodstuffs]

Select the grade you will have to climb no grade (flat) slight grade (2%) moderate grade (4%) steep grade (6%) very steep grade (9%) steep boat ramp (30%) [I selected Flat--the Mayan landscape is quite level]

Choose how much power you can produce 0.1 HP (steady output) 0.2 HP (some exertion) 0.3 HP (significant exertion) 0.4 HP (maximum, short-term exertion) [I selected 0.2 hp for backpacking the load along]

This is the heaviest cargo you could carry = ***[3,203 lbs]****
So if the ancient Mayans had cargo-bikes back then, IMO they would have not collapsed at whatever their population numbers were at the time. If they had gone to the next step of SpiderWebRiding: the distance would have been even further because you could save energy by coasting on downhill runs, and you would not have been slowed by thorns, sand, mud, snow, ice, potholes, etc.

If you had to get fresh eggs quickly to market: a smooth rail track is a better bet than a bicycle weaving around and/or slogging through road obstacles and hazards.

I have posted much more in the archives on gearset efficiency to leverage human power. Consider this link:
Sights set on speed standard

..Georgiev’s Varna Diablo 3, the world’s most efficient bicycle, is the rocket and Whittingham, 36, fueled by a diet mostly of garden vegetables, is the engine.

Their goal is to inch further past an invisible barrier called deciMach, or one-tenth the speed of sound, which is 132 kilometres per hour.

It’s a goal the pair surpassed last year while winning the seventh annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge with a speed of 132.5 km/h.

..A new surface will benefit the bicycle, which uses ultra-high pressure tires to reduce friction, though they are prone to shredding at inconsistencies in the road surface. If that happens, the enclosed bicycle and rider quickly become dangerously airborne at top speed.
The bicycle is carrying a lot of extra weight to help shield the rider in case something goes terribly wrong at 82.3 MPH or faster.

Recall that the authors of 'Bicycle Science' believe that they need to move to rail track for more advancement. The 'capsule' can be much lighter and the rider doesn't have to worry about dangerous sidewinds.
Sam Whittingham's 82.33 MPH run at Battle Mountain 2008 [0:57]

Fascinating post. I have a bike with a cargo trailer. It is rated for 400 lbs but could probably handle twice that. The real trouble is going up even the slightest grade with that kind of weight. I invested in an electric bike and it will triple my leg output and make it possible to cruise uphill at a few miles per hour with heavy loads.

I have been thinking for a while that electric bikes would turn out to be one of the really "doable" solutions to motor fuel shortages,as there will hopefully be very few taxes,fees,and insurance costs associated with using them on public roads.That should really help justify the purchase to someone who will still need or want a car.

So far the price of one that looks like it might last seems outrageously high to me in relation to what you get.Hopefully prices will come down soon as production increases.

You might want to be careful at least at first about towing with yours,as there is a distinct possibility that it might overheat and self destruct.It might not have any overload protection builtin.

You will know that the electric bike is truly here when replacement parts are in stock at local stores.

He determined that the absolute trasportation limit for cereials carried by a horse and wagon was about 80 km. At that point, the horses and drivers would have eaten all the grain during the round trip.

But did he take into account that the horses and drivers would have to eat anyway even if they were just sitting around? In which case the result could be hugely different. Also clearly different foods would have different zero-energy-value mileages.

The horses and drivers eat whether sitting or walking, however, they need to carry their food. So you either subtract this from the total they deliver to destination, or you posit a lower transport capacity in the first place. You can tweak this trying to figure out whether the horses and drivers can forage on wild food, but you have to account (for practical purposes) for what they will be eating. In addition, you have to think through what kind of horse you have - a wild horse of course subsists on wild food, but may not be suitable for pulling a heavy load. What comes to mind for me is the way Holstein cows are bred to produce so much milk they cannot be kept on pasture alone.

Interesting also how different foods, as Robin says, have different zero-energy-value mileages. The bottled water industry would take a hit if you had to deliver those on a bicycle, or horse-drawn wagon. You might carry a load of fresh tomatoes down the road a couple of miles... I remember summers spent on a Greek island when the man with the donkey would travel door to door with watermelons. I wish I could reconstruct the price of one of those, and the distance traveled using that arrangement on a hot Greek summer day. Certainly, folks without a car (and this included us!!) would think twice before buying a watermelon at the grocery store half a mile away (and downhill from the house).

Paranoid,as you point out,it is hard to get a good grip on just how far food can be transported by human porter or animal powered transport such as wagons.There are too many variables by a long shot to generalize.

My maternal grandfather used to haul produce to town when he was a very young man with a wagon and two horse team.The round trip is 25 to 28 or so miles,depending on the exact destination,but he made it in a day.The roads were rough and steep in places,and he never started if the roads were muddy or it looked like rain. We still have the old wagon and it will carry up to a ton or so,if loaded with corn or apples,which agrees well with his recollections.

His personal food consumption for the day would have been negligible,but the horses would have gotten a peck or so of corn about noon and maybe half as much in the evening,plus either pasture or hay at will.I believe that if prices were high,he could have profitably hauled corn or other grain perhaps as far as 75 miles,which would have been a three day trip.The horses would have been worn "to a frazzle"at the end of such a trip ,and would get a few days off-just like a professional base ball pitcher.

One thing is for sure in his case.The rest of the family most assuredly was not living the
Ozzie and Harriet style one wage earner,housewife,two kid suburban model.Every body else continued to work.

He's been out on the hill next to his own parents for a good many years now and I can't say for sure just how far he and his contemporaries traveled to make thier longest deliveries,but I am pretty sure at least a few forty to fifty mile trips were made.Most likely such long trips would have involved a backhaul of tools ,wire fencing,salt ,sugar or other product not made locally- for home use or for the owner of the local store. Small farmers still work this way;if one hauls a load of soybeans to market,he often hauls home a load of fertilizer for his own or a friends use.

If it becomes necessary,it will be possible to haul considerably larger net loads these days with horses, because the wagons will be lighter in relation to the payload and they will be much easier to pull on pavement-at least as long as the pavement lasts.Supposing of course that you could afford a horse.

What I found interesting about the horse calculation was how important it makes water transport and why so many cities are on the convergence of water ways--it increases the area from which grain can be efficiently transported many, many times: from the immediate circle around the city to all the land within the transportable distance along those waterways and their navigable tributaries up stream.

It makes me feel a tiny bit more secure living in a Minneapolis, a city at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota (and near the St. Croix) Rivers, which go through rich agricultural and forest areas.

I'm not sure if the 80 km was the distance of the round trip or just the of the one way where the grain is transported.

Check out the reference for figures 3 & 4 in the article.

Thank you Jason,looks like you have put a lot of work into gathering this info together.It rings true as a silver bell.

This article does a great job of pointing out the many opportunites to do more with less in regard to the way we produce our food,and should help convince folks interested in becoming more self sufficient that the time to get started is NOW.Each and every new gardener is an example to her nieghbors,and if the cards fall right,the general public may actually come to the conclusion that gardening is the next big band wagon and climb aboard.I see some indications(sales of seeds and gardening tools,etc) that this may be happening,but I will venture a guess that right now the primary driving force in the rapid growth of gardening is the sorry state of the economy.I hope I am wrong about this, because it looks like the writing is on the wall as far as peak oil and big agriculture are concerned,even though the day of reckoning may yet be a few years off.

The great thing about programs such as Brookside Farms is that they not only demonstrate the techniques but also bring interested people together, so that friendly little competitions develop to see who can grow the earliest tomato or the biggest cantaloupe.Once things reach this stage,the chances of continued growth are excellent.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out that while the pluses of gardening and small scale community farming vastly outwiegh the minuses,the pitfalls are many and new gardener/farmers are inevitably going to suffer some discouraging reverses.You can learn the more important rules of the game of baseball in just a little while, but becoming an accomplished player takes some considerable amount of time and effort.Ditto gardening/farming.

If you are new to this wonderful hobby or avocation, I would suggest that you begin with only a few -maybe three or four-old standby vegetables cuch as tomatoes,cucumbers,squash,or green beans,the first year,depending on your personal preferences and your location and soil.Such crops ARE the standbys because they are relatively easy to grow and are bountiful producers.Nothing succeeds like success.Expand every year as space and time allow.

When you are ready to plant fruit trees and perennials such as blueberries,DO NOT select varieties without consulting with other local growers and or your local ag extension service.A mistake with green beans is a three or four month mistake,and you can probably replant the ground and still get a crop of kale as the weather cools off.An unsatifactory apple tree is a five or ten year mistake,minimum,and unless you are willing to use at least some chemicals,peaches and some other fruits simply can't be grown in many areas due to various rots,borers,etc.

Organic farming and gardening worked for our forebearers, and it will work for you,if you are willing to work a little harder and accept the loss of a crop now and the that could have been saved with a little Sevin dust perhaps.Sometimes the only practical way to get rid of rats is rat poison.What I saying here is that it is a lot better to move 80 or 90 percent of the way towards sustainability and succeed than 100 per cent of the way and fail.

If it should become necessary,any reasonably accomplished gardener living in the more temperate parts of the US where the soil is decent and rainfall is adequate can produce most or all of the food necessary for herself and her immediate family,given enough land and sufficient time.The amount of land needed might be as little as one quarter to one half acre per person in the deep south where double cropping and even triple cropping may be practical,but such high yields are very much the exception rather than the rule,and can only be accomplished by very proficient farmers devoting very long hours to very small acreages.Chinese and Korean subsistence farmers in thier best farming areas are known to obtain even higher yields on a regular basis,but they are the 6 under par pros and work more or less continually at feeding themselves.You will need several times as much land in less favored areas.Our personal rough last ditch plan on our place here in the Blue Ridge mountians is two acres or so per person in field crops and fruit trees,which will provide us a little excess production for use as chicken feed and for sale,as well as a stored carry over safety cushion.

The more land you have, the more options you have in terms of varieties,crop rotations, fallow periods,cover crops, field manures,etc.More land also means that you can use less labor intensive techniques and get the same yields with fewer hours of labor.This will probably be a critical consideration for most people.In our case we will need to spend considerable amounts of time gathering firewood and other chores not directly related to food production.

If you live in a major urban area,or even a small town,in my personal estimation it may be very difficult or impossible for you to secure an adequate amount of land close enough to your residence to achieve food self sufficiency in the event that self sufficiency becomes necessary.An ungaurded garden in such circumstances would make about as much sense as an unlocked supermarket.If you believe that conditions are going to deteriorate to this extent,you should contemplate moving while the moving is still good.If you can get hold of a house on a small tract of land,say four or five acres you should be in reasonable shape,especially if there are lots of small farmers around.At least one of them will be more than happy to share his LOCAL expertise and help you get up to speed.A working relationship with such a farmer will also enable you to get plowing,disking,bushhogging,etc taken care of at very reasonable rates.

You can download virtually everything there is to know about agriculture for free if you are willing to spend the time.The best places to start are the various state extension services.

The one thing that you must remember at all times in planning for small scale farming for food sufficiency working by hand is that you will have little or no time left for other work.Failure to keep this fact in mind will most likely result in an unworkable plan.

you will have little or no time left for other work

That directly contradicts Jason's post, which you said "rings true like a silver bell". Jason said:

By contrast, an individual could grow their personal vegetable and fruit needs on a very part-time basis, probably half an hour per day, on average, working an area the size of a small home (700 sq ft in veggies and fruits plus 700 sq ft in cover crops).

Not necessarily. Vegetables require about 5-10% of the area needed to grow a complete diet. So, 0.5 hours per day for veggies can readily scale to several hours per day for the whole enchillada. I personally hope we can keep mechanized ag going for the grains and legumes! Need major investments in re-establishing living soils and renewable electricity and biofuels for the farm work.

So which is it? We constantly hear these competing revelations that (a) you have to spend all your time, and (b) you only need a few hours a week. And of course when the weather or pest-plague plays a trick card, then all calculations are off.

pest-plague plays a trick card

Why the Americans of old were able to wipe out the American Locust. Yup - in days gone by, Americans were able to stop one of the plagues of the bible.

Now, the elected officials in Washing DC complain about fed research dollars for crickets. Sure, they are Mormon Crickets - but still a cricket. How the mighty have fallen.

Thank you Mamba for pointing out this error on my part.I should have said "except for the time factor"right after silver bell.This is what you get for doing this kind of thing when you should be taking a nap.I really meant to say that I agree with the author that self sufficiency is possible and that we need not starve if the industrial ag system crashes.
Now the time required to look after a garden can actually be zero for days at a stretch,and then all at once you need to can a hundred half gallon jars of tomatoes, if you want enough tomatoes in your pantry to last ten or twelve months and have a carry over in case next years crop fails.Just picking these tomatoes is going to take several hours,and canning them will be an all day job for an accomplished cook working her xxx off when all is said and done-especially if she is doing so in a big tub over a wood fire.Green beans are cheaper to buy at a dollar a pound than they are to PICK if the choice is working at 10 or 12 bucks an hour or picking a sparse crop of beans.Working up the ground from scratch from a grass sod for a two thousand square foot garden with hand tools is coolie work and the average suburbanite probably would need weeks to finish this job alone the first time around using only hand tools.
So perhaps what I should have said is that even under an optimistic scenario, it may be impossible to hold a regularly scheduled job.
Most of the time a crop "comes in" and is gone over the course of a few days or weeks.You must can,dry or freeze it pdq.Then if you have only a very small plot of land ,you've also got to get your second crop in on the double-assuming you live someplace double cropping is possible.

If you are counting on applying homemade composts as soil amendments,which will certainly be necessary in the absence of commercial fertilizers,you will find that the quantity of leaves,grass clippings and so forth available for composting within wheelbarrow distance is more than likely to be grossly inadequate,if your nieghbors are also gardening in an urban environment. I could go on.

We are accomplished(read not bankrupt) farmers from way on back and we still grow quite a bit of our own food.We used to grow nearly all of it as well as producing for the wholesale market.I have been around a long time and been on many an organized tour arranged for the express purpose of demonstrating various new strategies and techniques.
I have never yet met any body who has grown his own food working less than an hour a day.If you were willing to live exclusively on a few staples and you average the time over the year,it could be done,under certain ideal but highly unusual circumstances-if you do not include canning,drying etc.Most of us,however, don't live on flood plains or in a semitropical environment, and most of us are not going to be satisfied or healthy on a diet consisting mostly of potatoes, such as my ancestors consumed in Ireland before the famine drove them over here.

So long as I am rambling along let me get in one more lick.Mr Murphy's favorite field of operations is probably the battle field,but any farmer will tell you his all time second choice is the farm.We lost 99 percent of our peaches and 80 percent of our apples one frosty night last month.

I am as serious as a heart attack when I say that subsistence gardening/farming with hand tools is a full time job, and that if you expect to survive on what you raise for the first few years you will probably find that it is an overtime job.It gets easier once you have some experience under your belt and you have gotten your soil in shape, your toolshed stocked, your fences up, your root cellar dug,and a hundred other jobs out of the way-but there is always something else that must be taken care of.
This is not to say that if you have a small well organized up and running homestead with good and ample land that you will never have any free time.In that case,there will be plenty of days at odd intervals when you may have to work only a few minutes, but you will pay for each of them by working a coolie day later.

These remarks are intended to describe the situation the reader will face if we suffer a hard crash.The outlook would be much much better if the electricity and the city water are still on,which is more akin to the original authors scenario.I apologize for not spending more time better organizing and qualifying what I am trying to get across,but this is just a blog comment and not an article as such.We just got our high speed internet a few weeks ago, and I am still relearning written communication as opposed to conversational communication.I haven't really written anything more than a thank you note for the last thirty years.I won't post anything again until I look it over after a good nights sleep.


Your estimates of land required (2acres+ per person) do not match what's possible with other methods:

This is a great subject to bring up. A human needs, on average, 800,000 to 1,000,000 food calories per year. Vegetables yield about 1 lb per square foot of growing space and have about 150 calories per pound. Therefore, about 6000 sq ft (900,000/150) is needed to feed somebody a year's supply of food with veggies.

However, veggies contain a lot of water weight and the human stomach is space limited and prefers to process only so many lbs of food per day. Therefore, we like to get most of our calories from foods that have higher caloric density. Oils, meats, dairy, grains and legumes are the bulk of our caloric intake for this reason.

When grains and legumes are dry they store about 1600 calories per pound, but we tend to eat them with water added, so the density is more like 600 calories per pound, still much higher than vegetables. Let's look at yields. Very high grain yields would be 0.1 lb per square feet, or ca. 160 calories per sq ft, which means grains yield the same calories per area as vegetables. But since we eat many more grains than vegetables in our diet the area needed to grow our grains is several times greater.

So, a person can take care of their veggie needs on several hundred sq ft, but their other needs would require several thousand sq ft. As soon as you add meat products you add areas in huge increments, e.g., an egg per day per person needs about 1000 sq ft of grains alone, or nearly twice the veggie requirements.

And these numbers are for the best of the best ag land. Most land is not of that quality so the actual areas span a huge range and 2 acres is pretty typical for a high quality omnivorous diet given the range of soils available. Naturally, this 2 acre number doesn't apply to people in Rwanda who must have high yields on great soils for a nearly pure vegetarian diet.

So, a person can take care of their veggie needs on several hundred sq ft, but their other needs would require several thousand sq ft. As soon as you add meat products you add areas in huge increments, e.g., an egg per day per person needs about 1000 sq ft of grains alone, or nearly twice the veggie requirements.

If we could just get past the yuk factor we should seriously consider raising edible insects to supplement our protein intake

Americans have no idea how wasteful these large mammals are,” Gracer says. “If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.” Insects, he claims, are nutritious. Although they typically contain less protein by weight than beef or chicken—100 grams of giant water bugs or small grasshoppers, for example, have about 20 grams of protein, compared with 27 grams in the same amount of lean ground beef—they do have other benefits. For instance, grasshoppers contain just one-third of the fat found in beef, and water bugs offer almost four times as much iron. A 100-gram portion of the cooked caterpillar Usata terpsichore has about 28 grams of protein. In their dried form, as they are commonly sold in Africa, insects such as grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein.

Raising insects has a low impact on the environment. They require little water, perhaps because they obtain much of their moisture from their food. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, about enough for a large hamburger. By contrast, to supply water to a quarter pound of crickets, Gracer simply places­ a moist paper towel at the bottom of their tank and refreshes it weekly. Insects, he says, also need less food and space than vertebrate sources of protein and therefore could replace or supplement food resources that may become scarce in the future, such as fish stocks, which a recent study indicates may collapse by 2048.

I recall seeing films of chimps eating insects and have heard about many human cultures that do, but I certainly hesitate and resist the thought. Does anybody know how to break food taboos?

I certainly hesitate and resist the thought. Does anybody know how to break food taboos?

Do you eat shrimp, crabs or lobster? There's a reason lobster are called bugs around here where I live.
They look like bugs and happened to be arthropods so are somewhat distantly related. The point however is that it is purely a culturally acquired distaste without any rational reason behind it. Further more it is a question of preparation and presentation. Would you be willing to eat crabcakes (they don't look like crabs) and substitute the protein in them with processed insect protein instead?

Have you ever eaten a soyburger and it didn't taste all that bad? Again why not substitute insect protein in a burger. Do a marketing campaign (we sure know how to do those to sell all kinds of useless crap), to sell tasty Melanoplus confusus Scudder The Pasture grasshopper,

Not saying it isn't hard to change things, you of all people already know that, think about it rationally from an environmental impact point of view and see if doesn't make sense. I think it does and would be happy to eat insects. Hey think if 128,000 square kilometers of lawn were used to raise insects, just think that if instead of dumping toxic pesticides on our lawns and gardens we harvested them for protein.

You can watch David Gracer eat bugs on national TV

Best hopes for a sustainable future and much more out of the cricket cage kind of thinking.


Rats are very easy to grow and produce proper meat in handy sizes. Now where can I get some good breeding stock from..

New York Subways! You can probably buy them in China Town


"Now where can I get some good breeding stock..."

If yer a girl, here I am.
If yer a boy, rats aren't kosher. Locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets are.

Rodney DangerRat

Do you eat shrimp, crabs or lobster? There's a reason lobster are called bugs around here where I live.

The similarity is more than appearance. Bugs (or asian grasshopper and scorpion, at least) taste a lot like shrimp or prawn.

There's a fair number of first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western nations who don't find it icky to eat insects, and a fair number of Westerners who are cosmopolitan enough and open-minded enough to give it a try (or who already eat things like escargot). If the prices of traditional western meats shot way up, I strongly suspect that nontraditional meats - including some insects - would start becoming trendy. I'd eat 'em.

Funny you should mentioned scorpions. I recently have begun finding crushed scorpions in the parking lot next to the dunes by the beach where I live. Some of them are the size of medium sized prawns and I really wanted to try to eat them. I'm guessing they are well cooked by being in the Florida sun on the hot asphalt. However I would still like to catch them alive and without the tar. Maybe prepare them hot and spicy a la Louisiana style.

I ate some Ant Larva in Mexico once.. wrapped into a tortila- very fast food, that was.

Time to rent 'Papillon' again.. you can watch Dustin Hoffman (??) eating beetles..

It is not well known to the public, but we are already eating significant but tiny quantities of insects and rats.
All processed foods,as well as any you produce at home,contain a certain amount of contaminants.Most of the time the quantity is very small,and therefore invisible.

When you buy a bag of flour or a loaf of bread,there is a purity standard that specifies just how many rat hairs and beetle shell fragments,etc,may be present per unit measure.It has been a long time since I last read about this,and I can't recall any details,but a little searching at the USDA and FDA to start should turn up the details easily.

Jason you are right on about the upper limits of production,and if I had written your post the only differences would have been to add caps to the words THE BEST OF THE BEST AG LAND and to add when worked by world class experts.Even then things often go wrong.

A couple of acres in the uppersouth is, as you note above and I noted in my last post,not any more than "just about enough"land to support one person long term with a reasonable safety cushion and an egg and a chicken leg every once in a while.

If you want to stay warm during the occasional spell of zero to ten degrees farenheit weather, and cook,you will also need a fair sized woodlot.

There are way too many people out there in cyberland and publishing houses much more interested in seeing thier stuff on the screen or the shelf at Barnes and Noble than in a balanced and sober presentation of the facts as encountered in the real world.Thier stuffall too often reads like a sales brochure put out by a hot stock broker with the disclaimers left off,or a Conan the Barbarian novel.

I want to do what I can to help anyone reading what I post to develop a realistic idea of what they will be up against if tshtf.Anyone interested in growing thier own food should get started right away with learning the basics by reading real ag literature published by real farmers and getting thier hands dirty under the guidance of the most experienced mentor they can find LOCALLY.

Thanks for backing me up with your experience.

Few realize anymore that great ag land is FIVE FT THICK of high quality soil. If you buy an inexpensive and readily available lot somewhere in the hills it is highly unlikely that it will be much good for growing food. Now, you can likely afford to import topsoil and manure to build outstanding garden beds, but these will need frequent replenishment for keeping up the high yields and a great deal of work getting the soil to be decent after many years. Few people will have the resources to import an acre of topsoil 5 ft thick to replicate what nature has provide in the finest valleys.

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree with your advice to keep it simple. I am in my 5th year of taking the growing of food "seriously" and am only now starting to feel like I am time efficient with the tools and other tasks.

In terms of area needed per person, my rough guide is 1/10th of an acre if you have perfect conditions and are a super-star and nothing goes wrong, to 1 acre for not so great soils and less labor and skills and some mishaps.

The energy required for red meat is the big looser as expected. Honestly, that's one of the big reasons I hunt. Venison & elk are much more in balance with the environment and are sustainable to boot. Hunting is one of the real pieces of sustainability but it is not PC within most of the "green movement". Stewardship of land, plants & animals always involved harvesting and transfer of life from one species to another.

I think hunting for meat is likely the best way to go ecologically as long as it is properly regulated. Think about the acres of rainforest cut down for the "great tofu herds" and the number of midwest farmers who shoot deer in soybean fields. As humans takeover habitat for food, whole ecosystems are wiped out, whereas some hunting promotes the stewardship of natural habitat.

I'm not against harvesting wildlife for food, where I live my option is to lobster and spearfish. I do it with relish!
However I don't see how you can possibly suggest that hunting deer and elk is sustainable. Have you figured how much forest would be necessary to sustain the current human population if everyone were to live off wild game? Do you think that would have some impact on let's say wild wolf populations or other large predators such as mountain lions? I'm not sure I see it as being viable. I don't think we can all go back to living off the land as hunter gatherers.

It's not about being PC I think the numbers don't add up.

Deer and elk hunting has been sustainable in the US for decades due to careful herd management. Actually, the intrinsic die off due to weather and other predators like mountain lions is factored into the equation. I think our Colorado Division of Wildlife does a great job of it. Regarding Mt. Lions, we are in the thick of them here. It seems their favorite prey is domestic pets. Many more head of elk could be harvested still, and last year (2007/2008) the winter die off was huge. Thousands upon thousands of animals that didn't make it due to overpopulation and bad weather. I'd rather have them spend the winter in my freezer than in a coyote belly. But that's my perspective.

I never suggested that there is enough wild game to feed all people at our current rate of red meat consumption. Like riding a bicycle, I am doing my personal part to live more in balance and I do think individual choices matter.

I don't think we can go back to all be being hunter gatherers but I do think we could live with much-much-less red meat, more poultry, and the rest with locally grown grains & produce. Lastly, when people harvest their own meat, or butcher their own backyard chickens, there tends to be more respect for the precious animal protein.

Thousands upon thousands of animals that didn't make it due to overpopulation and bad weather.

Ok, that sounds like a wasted resource for sure and I'm sure the coyotes didn't eat all of them, a lot of that probably just rotted away. I couldn't agree more that hunting your dinner gives you a very different perspective and respect for your prey and the environment in which they live.


Odysseus,we drag out our welloiled guns and spend a few hours every fall thinning out the oversized rats (white tail deer) that have over run our nieghborhood recently.I must say that properly prepared they are pretty good eating.

If you live in the real boonies,where people are few and far away you will probably be able to stock your larder indefinitely.If unemployment doubles again around here, I expect deer will be pretty scarce locally in a couple of years.

Jason, you seemed to be deploying the standard anti-meat arguments in there. I have to wonder whether vegetarianism could be reasonably characterised as a sort of monoculture in which humans are the only mammals, all the others being considered a waste of space and energy.
And arguably the animals play their part not only in the ecosystem, but also in nutrition. It's reckoned that 80% of (Asian) Indians have b12 deficiency. Many people have a nutritional type which cannot well tolerate high veggy intake. I myself had an unhealing tendon for 3 years before it cured within 3 days of high-protein diet.

I am an omnivore but I don't eat feedlot meat. I like Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) methods for efficient meat production using long-lived pasture. It would be fantastic if we were to cut the grain production in the US in half, restore pasture/prairie on former cropland, and then do some combination of MIRG and bison and elk reintroduction, including their carnivores. Since about half of US grains are fed to ruminants this is doable without leading to any starvation. Only 10% of world grain production is traded so it is not like the US farmer "feeds the world."

It would be great to compare the ecological footprint of a MIRG steer slaughtered and consumed locally vs. a tofu burger made from Brazilian-used-to-be rainforest ingredients. My point is that a lot of the recommendations given about what to eat or not are in the context of "We have this very energy intensive and destructive food system. From this basket of evils, here are the lesser evils." Rather than, "Here's what is possible in your food system if done right. Eat it all with pleasure."

That's interesting - I have always advocated to my patients to focus on protein for a few days, especially when faced with a poorly healing problem (usually a leg ulceration). I am wondering how much protein would be needed, and how difficult it would be to obtain it from cheese, eggs, beans, and balancing complementary foods (amino-acid-wise).

Certainly a lot of elderly folks lose health and vitality through poor diets. However, there is simply no good evidence that a vegetarian diet is a liability, in our society, at this time, day-in, day-out, for the average person. On the contrary - and factory farmed beef may have something to do with it - but who knows.

I know that for practical purposes, meat provides a blast of protein, and when I was pregnant (and vegetarian), even my lay midwife insisted I rack up 50 grams or so of protein per day, and doing it without fish or chicken was not going to happen (for me). Also trying to get by on three meals a day, without substantial amounts of protein (and fat), given what I think is a reasonable feeling of satiety, is difficult.

A comment on eating insects: I find myself hesitating to eat dandelions. I am just getting used to pea shoots. I enjoy purslane from my CSA box, but I compost it when I am weeding my garden. However, I think if I were hungry enough, and could add some spices and fry up a grub burger, that I could eat a small piece or two, wrinkling my nose in disgust all along.

What if it tasted really good and was artistically presented?


Compared to the enormous amounts of meat that Americans eat, most humans eat essentially a vegetarian diet supplented by occasionaly meat when available. Pure vegetarianism is not as important as returning to a diet where meat is the rare treat (chicken on Sunday...) rather than a requirement of every meal (and many snacks).

The idea of using meat occasionally as an essentially medical supplement seems reasonable to me.

Somewhere I read a reckoning that it would be more efficient to let the central US revert to wild (abandoning all farming) and just hunt the wild bison/buffawatsits. Any thoughts of this idea?

Or open the dams so we can have the salmon. I've been wanting to do an energy analysis on that for a while. Too much to do in the garden.

Is (was) it too difficult to have stair-jumps (or whatever they're called) for the salmon to leap up and down?
Edit: Allegedly would cost £6M each:

I'm working with the folks doing the Dam openings on the Penobscot, and there are complementary species that need access up the river, so the 'fishladders' and other techniques don't always work for enough of them.

I'm hoping we can try out a couple of non-blocking/non-rotational approaches on our rivers and coasts..

grrr! Couldn't track down the Oscillating one I've seen before, but these are a fun collection of wave-power experiments..The PELAMIS is in there, and by no means the weirdest of the lot!


So you have a ton of lawns in the US which could grow tons of food instead. How much would it cost (cash, energy, time) to enclose them with security fencing?, and would the houses get turned into "concentration camps" in the process?

How much would it cost (cash, energy, time) to enclose them with security fencing?

Security against what? Marauding chipmunks?

A couple of terriers would take care of that.

Oh, you mean all those lazy bankers who don't want to work and would invade your garden and steal your crops? I think the terriers could handle those as well. That and a group of concerned citizen farmers with shotguns.

would the houses get turned into "concentration camps" in the process?

Sorry, but you really lost me there.

Robin, are you having a bad day? This is like a rant or something.

One of the great things about putting a garden into your yard, is that it actually gives you a reason to be out there. One of the first side-effects becomes the way you can start getting more quality time with your neighbors. Conversations, Tips, Seeds and Extra tomatoes start to become a kind of shadow-currency in the neighborhood.

'Concentration camp?' No more TV. Go outside and play!

Having a bad day? Been having a bad lifetime more like! My reasoning is indeed security against lazy bankers/todbloggers.

As for dogs, others elsewhere have explained that they can be disarmed rather easily with poison if not with guns/arrows.

My point about "concentration camps" is that most people have their house inside their garden and would thus have to live inside a sort of locked compound under this concept.

As for quality time with neighbours, great if you have great neighbours, not so great if you can't even get your own family to take seriously about food supply preparations.

Good fences make for good neighbors.

Jason, another substantive article. I'm completely on-board, though note that the government figures tend to clump to many subcategories under one category. For example, I could find nuts. And they buried fruits in with vegetables, which are grown quite differently (my fruit trees are mulched and on drip irrigation, which is only used during extended droughts, so my water requirement is very low).

Fruits and vegetables are heavy due to high water content, and therefore energy-intensive to transport and process either by canning or dehydrating

I'm also building a solar dehydrator out of salvage material (and it will be a solar windowbox heater in winter), so energy costs will be next to nothing.

I hear you. Aggregated data are difficult to work with and they don't promote any alternatives. I too have a passive solar drier and it is fantastic to have tomatoes, sweet peppers and dried onions all winter long to go with meals. I discuss this a bit in a response to RobinPC.

Commercial fruit production is amazingly intensive. Here are some rough numbers. Pear orchards in CA can yield 20 tons per acre when managed vigorously. This takes loads of water, fertilizer and mechanized pruning. The growers get about $0.13 per lb (sold by boxes that weigh ca. 25 lbs) so only gross $5200 per acre and the net is pathetic when inputs are subtracted. Pruning costs themselves, mostly labor, can be a few thousand per acre.

It would be curious to see inputs when a permaculture approach is used. We add nitrogen via sheep manure from spring cleaning the barn. All pruning is manual, and falls into the hobby category. In VA, water is not that much of an issue, and irrigation is rare (though during the first planting year it was frequent to keep them moist and alive).

Above, I meant to say I didn't see information on nuts in the government information, which take even less care than tree fruit, especially those having sufficient disease resistance.

As a scholar in biology, your discussion of the connection between food production and environmental impact is crucial to educating the community on this aspect of climate change; this piece was a thorough supplement to your piece on ‘energy-conscious food’ last month. Based on your obvious interest in reducing your carbon footprint and role as a farmer-community organizer, I think you should check out Meatless Monday, where I am interning this summer; it is a nonprofit initiative that encourages cutting back meat consumption one day a week, to reduce our carbon footprint and the risk of preventable diseases. As a project of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday is also a great source for statistics, articles, and other information pertaining to physical and environmental health. The Meatless Monday Youtube video outlines some of the facts and figures behind the history and science behind the campaign And for more ‘energy conscious recipes:

That looks like a nice, comprehensive site about nutrition and health. Thanks for letting me know about it.

I live in a bit of a bubble in that my friends and immediate family eat pretty healthy foods. I see them at the farmer's market and when we have potlucks the dishes are outstanding.

By contrast I am sometimes struck by how most people likely eat when I interact with the broader community. Every time I go to my kids school for an event, for example, it is a prediabetic buffet. The primary ingredients that supposedly responsible adults give their kids are: high fructose corn syrup, refined flour, and hydrogenated vegetable oil.

My wife is a physician so I joke with her that this is great: Schools and most parents are raising a whole generation of kids who will soon have lifetime chronic illness for which her services as a provider of prescription pharmaceuticals is required! What job security.

Yes, actually, if Obama et al want to decrease medical expenditures, they would not do so badly to start at the department of Agriculture. Oh, and also have the FDA point out that salt in all but minute quantities is toxic. Apparently this was blocked by the soft drink lobby. I wonder whether BIg Pharma lobbies in favor of our Ag policies as they stand. They most certainly have a vested interest in the corn crop. Our abundant diabetic patients are on 5-6 medications each - high glucose, hypertension, high cholesterol, back pain and depression seem to affect people simultaneously. Go figure! (I kid you not! But maybe you all already knew this.)

In that vein of course the Garden to Table project and other school lunch reform initiatives may have some impact. I think outlawing all high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors would be a more direct approach. What would be the point of clear tasteless sugar water Gatorade? Or somewhat less sweet Vitamin Water? Or godawful gray tasteless "candy"? It sure would make my parent's job easier.

I just found out yellow no 5 has been linked to hyperactivity, and banned in Europe. The same companies that feed it to us here have eliminated it from food they sell in Europe! If the department of Education ran school lunches, don't you think they might consider banning yellow no 5 in cafeteria food?

We can just bail out the junk manufacturers with money saved from Medicaid and from prisons. I also just found out that they base predictions of prison populations on the literacy rate of fourth graders. And might the latter be related to the crap they get for lunch??....

/rant off

The socialized medicine system in much of Europe is doing a better job of preventive medicine and dealing with holistic health from environment. Apparently CA is trying to regulate pesticides and other chemicals and they had to get all their data from Europe as we just don't want to know the impacts of these products in the U.S. and so don't fund much research.

The head of the local hospital told me over lunch yesterday that a heart surgery clinic had a re-admission rate of 1 in 6 patients. They spent a bunch of money to reduce that rate and succeeded spectacularly, saving Medicare $5 million.

However, they had no way to bill for services on prevention and ended up (the hospital clinic) losing money. In our system there's no profit in prevention and plenty of profit in sickness. It would make sense for the food, pesticide and pharmaceutical companies to merge. That way they can more efficiently pair sickening foods and counteracting drugs.

Jason, This is a great post. Is there a pdf available? If it is on the website, I apologize....can't find it. Thanks in advance, js

If Jason doesn't have one and if he allows it I can easily create PDF files of just about any online content.

Drop me a line at fred underscore magyar at yahoo dot com to let me know.

The file is ready just give me permission and place to upload it.