The Thermodynamics of Local Foods

"No phosphorus, no thought."
Frederick Soddy

Books, blogs, and articles about local foods have been popping up with high frequency recently. I am not going to get into who’s involved or even what they are discussing in any detail, but instead refer readers here, here, and here for background. Or if you want to stick to The Oil Drum, similar discussions occurred here a couple years ago.

I am going to make an argument I don’t see much. Reading the pros and cons on this subject is a bit like watching a pea roll around on a plate. My goal is to stick a fork in that pea and focus on something very fundamental. The point I will make is that one can say with high confidence bordering on certainty that only a predominantly local food system will ever be sustainable.

What I mean by sustainable is the ability to endure. Quite simply and irrefutably I conclude that the current globalized food system is a flash in the frying pan because it doesn’t respect the first law of thermodynamics. Whatever other argument you might want to make against the global and for the local (and several legitimate ones come to mind) this fatal flaw is insurmountable. No quibbles, qualification or value judgments need to get in the way of this basic fact.

The Linearity Problem

The first law of thermodynamics is that matter and energy are never created nor destroyed, they only change form. The forms of matter and energy in the human body come from food, which primarily comes from soils. When plants and fungi occupy soil and grow, they ingest atoms in simple or mineralized forms and incorporate them into organic forms. This process essentially mines soils at an atomic scale.

The concentration of people into urban centers requires shipment of food far away from agricultural lands. Soils, therefore, are constantly depleted of nutrients. Currently, these nutrients are replaced by adding soil amendments and fertilizers that themselves derive from mining operations. In the same way that oil fields deplete, so do the mines that support current agricultural practices, whether based on man-made chemicals or imported organics, such as bat guano from Chile. In essence, the food system is predominantly a linear chain from mine to soil to food to plate to bodies and excretions to the treatment plants to the water ways and land fills and to the oceans.

Fig. 1. The linear flow of minerals from mines to farms and then dense human settlements leads to depletion at one end, and the concentration of wastes or dispersion into water at the other. Graphic from Folke Günther.

Because we can’t create matter out of thin air to replace these depleting resources (First Law) the system is unsustainable. To make it potentially sustainable we’d have to take the waste outputs and make them inputs again to yield a cyclical food system.

Transportation Constraints

A sustainable system must be primarily local because of energetic and logistical constraints. What is removed from a plot of land needs to be returned. Okay, not the exact atoms, but roughly the same kinds atoms in the original quantities and proportions.

This line of thinking has led me to a very important question: What is the average mineral composition of human urine and feces? My search has not been exhaustive, but I did come across two fairly recent publications that both reference a 1956 study by the World Health Organization. One of these, The Humanure Handbook is available online or in many bookstores. The other is a booklet published by Ecology Action titled affirmatively, “Future Fertility: Transforming Human Waste in Human Wealth.” Here’s a table from those sources, which are really one.

Table. 1. Mineral composition of human waste in pounds per year.

A classic composting method is to combine animal manure and urine with mature crop residues, usually straw. When mixed appropriately, this combination has an ideal ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) leading to the formation of quality finished compost. Straw also includes various transformed soil nutrients, so the final product is nearly a perfectly balanced source of soil replenishment, which is what you’d expect given the First Law.

Let’s put our mind in the toilet for a moment. What is going to be the best strategy for taking the contents of that porcelain bowl and mixing them with straw? Should the straw be brought to every home? Should it go to the municipal treatment plant? Or perhaps the straw should stay on the farm with the “precious cargo” shipped from city to country?

Fig. 2. Some of Fido's best ideas arise during moments like this. Right now he is thinking about all the plastic baggies that pick up his "deposits" in the neighborhood. Shouldn't that stuff get back to the farm, somehow? Would life be better as a country dog?

Folke Günther

These questions may amuse and be largely ignored, but they are completely fundamental. One of the few people I know of who studies this issue is the systems ecologist, Folke Günther. His website provides more up to date calculations for human waste, and he even uses the metric system!

To simplify the subject a bit, he focuses on phosphorus. The reasoning is straightforward--it is ten times more concentrated in the human body than in the Earth’s crust and therefore the most limiting nutrient in most locations. Essentially, if phosphorus can be reclaimed effectively so can everything else.

Fig. 3. Günther’s model of the phosphorus cycle in a balanced agricultural system with exports of food being returned to the land in the form of processed human waste.

In Günther’s writings and presentations on the requirements for sustainable cycling of nutrients, he suggests that the population of rural areas needs to be about twelve times larger than urban areas. He gives a scenario where ruralisation occurs in a region over 50 years based on the normal turnover rate of infrastructure—essentially as urban centers decay they are not rebuilt and investments in housing and other infrastructure are made instead in the adjacent hinterlands. Furthermore, assuming a rise in transportation costs, he also shows that a rural economy based on local food and energy weathers oil depletion well, in contrast to a city that must import basic needs.

I find these concepts obvious. I think a child can understand the basic premise operating here: If you take and don’t give back, it runs out. The implications, on the other hand, are stunning. Will the migration to the cities, a demographic phenomenon that has gone on for so many decades, be necessarily reversed in the 21st century? If so, is it even remotely possible that this might happen in a thoughtful way as envisioned by Günther? And of course ruralisation in a region like Las Vegas is impossible.

Historic Model: China and Village Ecosystems

This topic has not gone unexplored on The Oil Drum. Phil Harris described the essentially local and long-term persistence of agrarian village ecosystems, especially in China. I have heard stories about farmers in China competing for humanure by building comfortable and decorative outhouses along roadside borders of their land. Please send pictures of these if you come across any of them. I am looking for some design ideas for the future.

"The human mind...burns by the power of a leaf."
Loren Eisley

What is the average mineral composition of human urine and feces? My search has not been exhaustive.

I do not know whether a pun was intended but it did make me laugh.

What is going to be the best strategy for taking the contents of that porcelain bowl and mixing them with straw? Should the straw be brought to every home? Should it go to the municipal treatment plant?

Sawdust or grass clippings could be substituted for straw, as is mentioned in the Humanure Handbook. I use 'enriched' straw harvested from our sheep barn every spring in the garden, and the results are impressive.

dry leaves work well for those of us in areas with deciduous forests.

I have about three years of experience composting the last thing most people think to compost, using Jenkins' method pretty closely. (Except for getting the contents of the buckets into the compost bin, there's very little to object to.) Combined with the output of a tiny flock of urban ducks and a lot of coffee grounds from the local caffeine pushers, I've turned out about a dozen cubic yards of compost. It ain't hard.

Using Jenkins' method, sawdust is great for use in the bucket, but dried and crushed leaves, shredded paper, or chopped straw work nearly as well. After a few days of sun, it is relatively easy to gather leaves and bust them up on a parking pad or piece of plywood, in a big bucket, with a (reel) lawnmower, or even by hand. Chopping straw isn't easy to do without a hammer-mill. If your yard gets covered with leaves each fall, they're probably the best option.

Whatever your cover material, moisture is the key. Dry cover material yields stink and a strained marriage. Moist (as opposed to wet) cover material is amazingly effective at eliminating any objectionable odours.

Grass clippings, at least the ones from your average North American lawn, don't work well in the bucket or in the compost bin. Even on their own, they contain too much nitrogen and, without careful management, will make for some pretty strong ammonia fumes around the compost bin. My conclusion has been that grass clippings are best left where they fall while mowing.

My conclusion has been that grass clippings are best left where they fall..

Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) & "Buffalo" (I hate refering to Bison as "buffalo") grass (Buchloe dactyloides) make a fine lawn or pasture mix. Their dried clippings are excellent for mixing with human shit in the bucket, to be transferred to the compost heap.

It's hard to fault this reasoning -- except that clever humans have found ways to convince themselves that the laws of thermodynamics don't really apply to them, or at least, not now. As long as mineable phosphorus remains (not forever-- the Nauru story is instructive here) and some form of cheap transportation exists, then food can come from all over and centralized corporations will be able to arbitrage labor costs around the world.

I deal with these issues on a nearly daily basis at my local food Co-op, which I try to push in the direction of encouraging local producers by buying their produce. But the national distributors are "cheaper" and "more reliable" -- and anyway, "we" are "competing" with Safeway, Kroger, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and the like. Arggh! It's just impossible. Human stupidity is far more profound than human brilliance, and the overall sum is bound to be less than zero.

Believe me the problem looks even worse from the pov of a small farmer-your employment opportunities are probably less limited!

The article lays it out in terms that are not open to much argument insofar as the technical facts are concerned.

Personally my guess is that it will be a LOT EASIER -but still very hard-to leave the city dwellers where they are and capture and concentrate the waste nutrient stream and transport it back to the farms for quite some time.

It also seems to me that it will be easier and probably cheaper to continue to grow staples such as wgeat ,soy,corn,rice more or less the way we do now for quite a while -at least for about as long as it is possible to continue to supply the huge amounts of energy to run essential city systems such as water/sewer/lights/ heat /distribution ,etc.

So maybe we have some breatheing space-but not a whole lot.

The technical aspects-daunting as they are- of solving the food and energy crisis in my opinion are pretty small potatos compared to the political and bau aspects-I don't think the public will go along until either literally at either the point of a gun or at the point of starvation.

But unless there is some huge positive Black Swan in our future I expect that Mr Bradford has made his case.

The time frame seems to be the biggest question mark in his analysis as I see it.

Hi Mac--

On a personal level, you are quite correct. My employment opportunities are essentially limitless because I personally can operate pretty effectively in either a very low tech or very high tech environment-- I have consciously arranged things that way. However, my personal limitations are health and age -- and once again, we are back to the immutable laws of thermodynamics. Very few people have had my opportunities, and way fewer have taken advantage of the opportunities presented. Most people go for the money, not experience or generalized skills. But my skills die with me-- and no one wants my job, so I have no one to pass those skills on to.

Small farmers around here are no different from small farmers anywhere -- they go out of business unless they find some boutique niche, and in any case, it is a really hard life. No wonder they go to work for ConAgra or Kroger! My idea (stupid idea, it seems) is that food Co-ops ("progressive" organizations that put "community" before "profit") could be the nucleus for an increasingly localized, partially self-feeding, locally owned and controlled food network. But it is uphill all the way, and even the people who claim to want to "shop locally" go to Wal-mart because the prices are better. In fact, they drive 50 miles to get there -- gas is so cheap.

I agree that Bradford has made his case for the ultimate concordance of thermodynamical laws and human culture, and with you that the time factor is unknowable, but almost certainly likely to exceed any of our lifespans.

BTW, my wife has become very intrigued with "humanure" and has tried to work out systems here in our small town, following the guidleines and plans from the Humanure Handbook -- but on a practical level it is tough, and just so much easier to flush the toilet.

Your point about co-ops reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday.

I think for every 1 nutcase that spends the extra money or puts in the effort to grow/eat a diet composed mainly of local food, there are 10 who would do it if they really understood the implications of commodity cheapness.

My son's piano teacher, a very progressive woman, and well-educated, was complaining to me that the prices at the farmers' market in Boulder are unaffordable. She is right, by and large. I reminded her that produce from California is often picked by "exploited" agricultural workers (we now have the movie Food, Inc, that has made this observation seep into the mainstream consciousness). I also pointed out that nutritive value is not equivalent, between produce grown by small local farms and that sold at King Soopers. She knows this, and cares, and understands, and though she may not eat all her food from the farmers' market, she may buy some a little more joyfully in the future. Besides, both of us are a little overweight, so we can joke about this being a diet strategy: to pay the same, get more nutrients and fewer calories.

By the way, I have been paying for piano lessons using "farmers' market bucks" (cash equivalents that work only at the market in Boulder) - just because I am usually short on real cash - using them effectively as a local currency!

What you write about fighting to get local food into the co-op is disheartening. I am wondering whether a clear "mission statement" for the co-op - where it may have to split into two different organizations, because some people remember co-ops as a way to save money on food through putting in some volunteer work - could take some of the frustration out of the situation.

Reminds me of this quote by Wendell Berry:
"We thought we were getting something for nothing, but we were getting nothing for everything".

I find myself more and more interested in your pov and the info you bring to our attention.

Do you have a blog of your own?

My son's piano teacher, a very progressive woman, and well-educated, was complaining to me that the prices at the farmers' market in Boulder are unaffordable. She is right, by and large.

In the immediate term we can feel full, nourished, and energized more than we can feel nourished . It takes weeks and months, and probably some very hefty hospital bills before we realize we are actually malnourished. Feeling full does not mean we have satisfied our bodies requirements.

This is another fundamental flaw in our thinking that the piano teacher might also be forgetting. The idea that food should be cheap is laughable. If it's not expensive then someone is not being paid a fair price to produce it or forage for it. If she wants food to be cheap (in dollars) then she should grow it. Maybe then, when people like her realize how much knowledge and work is required to efficiently produce this fundamental necessity to life, we won't complain about how much real food actually costs.

Our food system makes quick calories cheap, rewards those that can produce them the fastest, places high prices on food that is good for us and penalizes those who produce it.

Your example is another example of how our basic thinking and perceptions are flawed.

I send 10 dozen eggs per week to the local co-op, and get a fair price, but my small scale agricultural system is not industrial and I must do full time work navigating the imaginary world of perceived sustainability in our land development and "green" building methods. So rather than putting more food in my neighbor's stomach, I have to support a fantasy industry that will actually pay the bills. Paying your local up and coming small scale farmer/engineer/banker/biologist/whatever to transition to producing good food full time is not an overnight effort. It's a three to five year process at best, and if at all.

A very interesting world we live in.

Yes, and I can see how a generation or two of cheap calories (and cheap toys, cheap clothes, cheap transportation) has warped our sense of what is valuable, and what the true cost of something is. In that setting, our "common sense" will tell us that the farmer who charges $6/basket of strawberries, when they are obviously less than a quarter the price at Safeway, must be trying to get rich at the expense of Boulder food snobs.

We constantly need to be reminded, through growing some of our own food, through really getting to know one or two farmers, through being thoroughly familiar with statistics about farm families needing a non-farm income to survive, that farmers' market prices are somewhere between fair and a little dicey (too low!).

My blog is Thanks for the kind words OFM.

Or perhaps our common sense will be telling us something less histrionic, that maybe it's not really worth paying four times as much for strawberries that are only a little better...

That right there is the problem.

What is the true cost of strawberries?

Factory farmed with slave labor costs less in dollars. No question.

I mentioned the "taking advantage" angle because that was what I was hearing from our music teacher. She specifically said: "Why are they charging so much? Haven't we removed the middleman?"

As to how much strawberries are "worth", that all depends what you are getting, how it affects your health, pleasure, and well-being.

Simply put, there is more flavor in one $6/pint strawberry (the size of a marble - a small marble), than in 5 large, walnut-sized, $1.50/pint Safeway strawberries. Whenever I've made the mistake of buying grocery store strawberries (Whole Foods is hit and miss in that regard), I've considered spitting them out.

At this point, I am suspecting that flavor is the best proxy we have for "quality", defined in human body terms (not shelf life, you know...) If anyone knows how this might be done, I have considered paying for nutritional analysis (if cost is at all reasonable).

Also, in the "cost", we have to factor in yield, shelf life and other transportability issues, ease of picking, ease of growing, water cost to the environment, how much you pay the workers and what conditions you set up for them, and I'm sure I have left some out. These are minimized at the expense of the nutritional value of the fruit.

Now to tie back to the post, imagine factoring in something like long-term sustainability, whether, like toxic dumps, food grown without attention to sustainability represents an insult to the Earth we are entirely dependent on. Can you open your refrigerator and point to the items that have enhanced the place they came from?

Here's a thought from Gary Paul Nabhan:

Know where your food has come from by ascertaining the health and wealth of those who picked and processed it, by the fertility of the soil that is left in the patch where it once grew, by the traces of pesticides found in the birds and the bees there.

W/r/t Quality p. taste is a determiner of quality. Have you ever tasted sweet celery?
Quality produce dehydrates. Chemical fertilizer grown produce rots, and doesn't keep as long.
Brix is the measure of sweetness that Carey Reams the agronomist discovered applied to any fruit or vegetable that you could extract some juice. He discovered the positive co-relation between brix (sweetness) and nutritional density by doing assays. Furthermore he contributed the fact that one of the main keys to getting that better taste was determined by how phosphorous was working in the soil. 95% of all nutrients have to enter the plant in phosphate form.

Commercial phosphorous or the middle number on the bag of fertilizer is derived from taking apatite rock and soaking it in sulfuric acid. According to Dan Skow (Intl Ag labs -and )this gives the plant an energy release but in fact kills off microbes in the soil that are required in order to make phosphorous bio-available to the plants and the fungal organisms necessary to produce quality.

You can buy refractometers for about $75. and score your produce against a high brix scale.
I have tasted high brix celery and I can't go back :(

Imagine being a chef and knowing the superior brix of the vegetables and fruit that you were serving!

I believe that were we to find the right diet and to make that diet of superior nutritional quality that we would find that we haven't been living. As is stated in so many words by Franco Caveleri author of "Potential Within" he is a nutritional biochemist.

P. (I shortened it -just to scare you :)) I think you would find the organic consumers association fight with Whole Foods interesting

Never saw anything about Brix before. Google turns up more noise than signal unfortunately, sites that do have information aren't very comprehensive. Do you have any further sources of info?

A downside to produce is that it isn't very calorie dense without drenching it with oils or sugars, would produce higher on the Brix scale have more calories?

If you go to You can source copies (cd's) of acres conference presenters. Dan Skow (who I referenced routinely presents production information on how to increase brix)
There are others (whose names escape me at the moment promoting high brix foods. Try searching on Dr. Reams)who are keenly pursuing higher brix but they seem to be mostly producers. I guess the public just hasn't learned that there is such a thing as quality produce (those that know of it probably take it for granted) and if you don't know about it then you probably haven't had it. Like that celery I mentioned. I have met many men that have told me that they don't like vegetables. I'd be willing to bet that they've never had high brix produce.

Dan Skow talks about being able to finally source some quality peaches. Not those things that are hard and then are ripe for about 2 hours and then go bad. (They are sold out before you can say: 'boo')
He has a sheet that lists the brix scores that can be attained. So you can compare what celery with a brix of 3 versus 0 (which is what the stuff at the store scores)tastes like.

I've never had high brix turnips, I'm working on the principle that I might like turnips, just that I have yet to try them.

I predict that what will surpass local, organic food and form the next food movement is: local, organic and high brix food. Though it could do perhaps with a better name. I know, how about: 'real food'

When organic produce tastes way better like p.'s strawberries -that is higher brix. It turns out that phosphorous works better in a organic model. This increases the calcium in the plant replacing the potassium. This greatly increases shelf life.

If t.s.h.t.f. and we all had root cellars but weren't growing our own organic food. And for arguments sake the stores had ample food so that we all could stock up the cellars. We would be surely disappointed to find that it would all rot within a month.

Thanks. There appears to be a good bit of mumbo jumbo from various online sources wrt to brix, but I think there's something to it. I've noticed at big differences between the calorie content of say kale and cabbage, but they are from the same plant just a few centuries back. Considering only the non-water portions of the plants, the calorie content is about the same, and one site I saw at a University suggested an inverse relationship between the water content and the brix scale. As for higher brix produce being disease resistant, a couple of studies claim secondary metabolites are higher for organic produce (they serve the purpose of making the plant undesirable for pests). Hobbyists on various forums report a high brix value for their organically grown stuff.

As for strawberries, raise some wild ones, taste is incredible. There is a reason novelty restaurants pay $25 a pound for them. Small and delicate though, rarely larger than a marble. Not to be confused with a related invasive weed from India with a yellow blossom and nearly identical foilage.

As for higher brix produce being disease resistant, a couple of studies claim secondary metabolites are higher for organic produce (they serve the purpose of making the plant undesirable for pests).

Good day!
One story that Mr. Skow reports (if memory serves) was of a farmer standing in his corn field talking to his neighbor who was standing in his field of corn. While talking the one neighbor who was doing things organically versus the neighbor who wasn't.
What they observed was that the grasshoppers were all over in the one field so many that they were landing on the farmer. When he crossed into the other neighbors field they left. Why? Grasshoppers don't have livers. If they ate the high brix corn they would die.

Brix is not like adding sugar. It is a reflection of increased sweetness conveyed by increased minerals in the plant or fruit.

So our mouths can tell us what tastes good and what is good for us. Sweet eh?

It doesn't seem to always be the minerals, here is some info from Kentucky State University. Kale at day 0 from Farm A has a brix value more than twice that of produce from Farm B, yet the ash content is slightly lower for Farm A.

Thanks for the link. Barrett I'm not trying to be difficult but I would reject the results of that study as telling me anything relevant. (What actually do you think it tells us?)

I know several facts. 1. High brix food tastes better. 2. It has been assayed by others (Carey Reams) showing higher levels of nutrients (Do we need more scientific data? I'm satisfied). 3. Nutrients and proteins are best derived from high organic matter levels (5%+)from balanced minerals (high c.e.c.) and amino acids in the soil.
The test doesn't compare apples with apples, it doesn't test organic versus conventional. And ash values for our purposes are useless. Sugars (as I understand)don't leave ash values (toxic heavy metals would). This study might best tell us what foods to avoid. Increased brix is not achieved by spraying molasses on to plants. On the surface the study appears to be an attempt to find a cheap way of getting increased brix. The lesson of our time is that we are getting what we pay for and we are reaping what we have sown.
I guess the answer to the question I posed above is no, you have never tried sweet celery.

Perhaps you will find this instructive:
Charles Walters wrote a very good book called the Eco-Farm, he says this:"The summary stacks up like any college syllogism. NPK formulas as legislated (and enforced by state departments of agriculture) mean malnutrition, insect, bacterial and fungal attack, toxic rescue chemistry, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity--plus degenerative metabolic disease--among the population, all when people use thus fertilized and protected food crops. Therefore the answer to pest crop destroyers is sound fertility management in terms of exchange capacity, pH modification, and scientific farming principles that USDA, Extension and Land Grant colleges have refused to teach ever since the great discovery was made that fossil fuel companies have land grant money."


It has been assayed by others (Carey Reams) showing higher levels of nutrients (Do we need more scientific data? I'm satisfied).

I'm having a hard time locating his numbers. Presumably his assays produced datapoints like IU of beta carotene, mg of tryptophan, mg of ascorbic acid, etcetera. Lots of sites out there are repeating the assertion that his assays showed higher levels of nutrients, none that I've found yet are showing his numbers. That would make the answer to the question "Do we need more scientific data" a yes.

And ash values for our purposes are useless. Sugars (as I understand)don't leave ash values (toxic heavy metals would).

When you bake something at 550 deg C for 48 hours its the P, K, Ca and trace minerals that are left behind as ash. Ash content is correlated with the mineral content of the living plant/vegetable. Heavy metals even at toxic levels are a negligible fraction of the ash. What the experiment shows is that higher brix value does not necessarily mean higher mineral content. Other non-mineral based nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants may be guaranteed to be higher if the brix is higher, but their experiment demonstrates that it is definitely not always the case with minerals.

All in all it seems a worthy pursuit for a gardener to measure brix values. I haven't tasted high brix celery, but would like too.

Never saw anything about Brix before

I know I've mentioned Brix here more than once.
I usually point to journey to forever
as a starting point.

A downside....would produce higher on the Brix scale have more calories?

How is that a downside? Ever try to get ehough food calories from eating just raw veggies - no seeds?

A downside....would produce higher on the Brix scale have more calories?

How is that a downside? Ever try to get ehough food calories from eating just raw veggies - no seeds?

I'll replace the "...." with the original text and it should be clear.

"A downside to produce is that it isn't very calorie dense without drenching it with oils or sugars, would produce higher on the Brix scale have more calories?"

It's difficult to get your whole calorie budget with produce because it doesn't have many calories is what I was saying.

I agree that Bradford has made his case for the ultimate concordance of thermodynamical laws and human culture, and with you that the time factor is unknowable, but almost certainly likely to exceed any of our lifespans.

And here in lies the problem. Our nature seems to be to determine how long we've got before we really have to adapt or change direction. We fail to make the connection that the longer we delay the more energy it will take to regenerate/repair what is damaged. How long we've got is not important. The majority of us agree we are not respecting the basic law that Jason has indicated. In fact discussing it leads to making the problem worse, because the discussion detracts from the real work to be done.

Instead of asking 'how long?' we need to change our basic values, and then ask 'how can we place these elements in relation to each other to minimize energy losses and increase the health and productivity of the system?'

I think the proof that will determine whether this civilization can earn the privilege to continue (whether for another year or a hundred), will be if we can change our human nature to avoid procrastination regardless of the perceived sacrifice, and instead get to work in a proactive way on the order of decades instead of tomorrow or next week.

Part of the problem as I see it is that we can no more change our human nature than a fish can decide to breathe air. Since that is not in the cards what it seems to me that we might do instead is use the knowledge that we already posses about our nature and subvert it for our own benefit and survival.

We have become quite successful for example in using technology to manipulate the desires of the masses of consumers to keep them buying things they hardly need.

I think first we need to define very clearly what our basic values need to be in the new paradigm.
Of course therein may lie the rub, how do we arrive at that metric?

Assuming we can do that and once it is done we then need to roll up our sleeves and relentlessly "Market" those new values to the population at large.

People from the old paradigm need to be ostracized and given as little chance as possible to remain comfortable in it.

In simplistic terms, we must find a way, to make the normal instinct to seek power and status compatible with preserving the commons. Perhaps the image of the CEO of the company on a bicycle needs to be portrayed and heavily marketed as much more desirable and sexy than that of a CEO in a luxury sedan.

I think we may already have the knowledge and the tools to start changing from BAU to a new order.
The question is will we do it, or are we cursed by our very nature to wait until it is too late?

Part of the problem as I see it is that we can no more change our human nature than a fish can decide to breathe air.

Tell that to my Senegalese bichir, or my ornate bichir, or my 110 cm Lepidosiren lungfish, or my Protopterus annectens lungfish, or any of my neotropical catfishes that gulp air & extract O2 from their gas bladder, or loricariid catfish that swallow air & exchange gasses thru a highly vascularized portion of the gut! Many fishes breathe air, especially those from warm tropical freshwaters that become hypoxic during the day.

Yo DD, I assume your reply is tongue in cheek, yes?

I happen to be somewhat familiar with biological evolution theory in general and Ichtyology is something I have long had a personal interest in.

When you find me a member of say, the ole Condrichtyes clan, that suddenly looks over at his bretheren cruising the local reef and DECIDES to go catch some rays, (forgive the pun) up on the beach with the gulls, You let me know, OK, brother!

Yo DD, I assume your reply is tongue in cheek, yes?

Well, yes & no. I wanted to provide a little humor but I also did want to point out that there are a lot of air breathing fish. You're right tho, I can't think of any air gulping chondrichthyans.

As for "deciding," I dunno. When the bichir lurking at the bottom of the aquarium suddenly darts up for a gulp of air (which it must do periodically or it will drown), is it simply responding automatically to reduced intravascular pO2 stimulating receptors on neurons in its brainstem? Or does it feel hypoxic and accordingly decides to go up for a gulp? Wish I knew.

Tell you what, try this experiment on your self, take a few deep breaths then hold it. see if you can decide not to breathe. I used to teach a dive physiology course for skin divers and though I'm not going to get into it here I can assure you that there is *NO* decision making past a certain point when it comes to breathing for humans. I'm going to make a wild guess, because I'm not up to speed on the physiology of sarcopterygiians, but I'll bet they are not making decisions either.

For humans, when the breathing reflex kicks in, and you happen to be under water you will breathe water whether you decide to or not. BTW in humans it is the increase in PCO2 that triggers the breathing reflex the level of O2 can fall dangerously low before the level of CO2 rises sufficiently to trigger the need to breathe Google shallow water blackout,...Just sayin :-)

If a diver tries to extend their underwater time by hyperventilating, they'll lower their CO2 level. Will they raise their O2 level at all, or are they just hurting themselves by fooling the breathing reflex?

I hear you FMagyar. I'm a PADI certified diver and during my training we were doing the buddy share breathing thing in a swimming pool & when I felt hypoxic I hit the surface without even thinking about it. Just happened, & was embarrassing. So sometimes I decide to breathe & sometimes I don't. But I'm not privy to the cognitive process of any critter besides myself. I don't, and can't, know what anyone or anything else besides myself is thinking, or even if they are thinking. So I'm not going to bet on whether or not a fish makes a conscious decision to breathe. I simply don't know.

Btw, polypterids (bichirs & the reed or rope fish) aren't sarcopterygians. They breathe air like a sarcopterygian and they have bones in their pectoral fin lobes like a sarcopterygian (altho the bones aren't homologous) yet they aren't even remotely related. Conventional taxonomy places them as the sister group to all other actinopterygians but this is only done for convenience. Truth is, they aren't actinopterygians either. What are they then? No one knows. Their fossil record only goes back about a million years. They must have split from the common ancestor of sarcopterygians & actinopterygians in the Devonian, and we'd need fossil evidence from that far back in time to know what they truly are. They are truly "living fossils," that's for sure, and are the coolest fish, in my opinion. They truly deserve equal taxonomic status with sarcopterygians & actinopterygians; they are the third fundamental type of bony fish.

I have a koi pond and when it gets Texas hot here in the summer they suck air off the I guess you are right.
The temp has dropped now and they just swim around normal which makes me feel better.

"my guess is that it will be a LOT EASIER -but still very hard-to leave the city dwellers where they are and capture and concentrate the waste nutrient stream and transport it back to the farms for quite some time."

See below under "articles on sludge". It looks like there are serious health challenges to using this stuff safely on a large scale now. What we settle for remains to be seen.

But have we tried very hard?

Sludge is just what we happen to end up with after waste treatment, right? Have we really tried very hard to separate it into it's constituents, like Phosphorus?

It depends. Austin Texas has clean enough shit to sell their sludge for gardening.


My local co-op (conveniently located across the street from my home) has a program called Local Six, meaning a six county region they define as local.

I am talking to them now about growing for this program and soliciting info about what they currently buy, for how much, and what they'd be willing to pay to support a local farm. It takes a lot of work to establish these relationships, ramp up local capacity and knowledge and develop an educated population of eaters.

Commodity grains and legumes are absurdly cheap. But by selling direct to the consumer or retailers a shorter chain of possession and distribution results, which means the farmgate income is higher while still bringing a reasonable price at the checkout counter.

If you or anyone else can figure out a way to instill a sense of OWNERSHIP and therefore loyalty to local coops it would boost thier growth considerably-and I do not doubt that if food dollars become scarce coops can provide food cheaper than the current system-but not the same food and not in the same variety all the time of course.

We still have a few small markets around here that will buy and sell local produce and they can sell and do sell local apples,casbbage,potatos for much less than the chain stores right in the nieghborhood charge for shipped produce.

But hardly anyone shifts thier buying habits to take advantage of the bounty.The sale of apples does not go up much.

Some of the older women will buy a quantity and slice and freeze some and put the rest in the fridge and eat more apples for the next month.

But you can stand in line behind some obviously not so propperous woman who is very poorly dressed and who drove up in a very ratty old car and she will tell you how HER Momma used to buy in bulk and put up food-and she will buy a five pound bag of potatos for twice the per pound price of the fifty pound bag.

Now even if she can't afford the fifty pounds(and she can ,judging from the processed junk in her cart most times) she could divide the bag with her nieghbors or adult kids.

The local food movement has a LONG WAY to go.

Even mill hands and folks on unemployment don't seem to be in enough of a bind to really watch thier food dollars if watching requires a little thinking and planning.

You are SO right!

So, what motivates the locavores I know?
I think the issue of "health" is the most powerful motivator I have seen so far. A couple of bloggers come to mind ( and These folks (Lynnet and Nisa) are activists, and the trouble they go to in order to eat local food (sourcing, growing, preserving) is their political action. I'll include myself in there as well.

What might motivate less "activist" types?
Convenience (CSA: your shopping is essentially done for you);
Community - picking apples and making applesauce as an activity to do with friends, as opposed to going hiking, for example.
Quality of food for kids - linking local farmers with schools - this is subject to price, but seems more do-able than asking people to give up a vacation, new car, or updated wardrobe in order to eat local turnips and carrots, instead of far-flung pasta.
Charity - having a church buy food from a local farmer and prepare it for households in need
Food snobbery - the Slow Food chapters seem to oscillate between haute cuisine and local heritage old-timey values

I am looking forward to reading the new book on the topic from the Transition Town folks (

Which makes me think, if a "locavore" is a person who favors local food, what shall we call someone who prefers to eat food grown on, well, closed loop systems? A "scatovore"?

Food snobbery is a massive motivator for local eating in California, especially among the affluent.

I agree with you about food dollars. If you avoid the processed food isles at the natural food coop, where prices are exorbitant, and stick to the fresh fruits and vegetables, whole and minimally processed grains and legumes, fresh dairy and local meats, you can eat very well for not a whole lotta money, even with a lot of organic products in that mix.

I think the average family in the US spends 10% of their income on food, but about half of this is eating out and most is highly processed. So, it may seem like only wealthy foodies can afford this but I really don't believe that is the case. Knowing how to cook and store whole foods, avoid addictive processed, convenience foods is probably a major limiting factor right now.

I think if we put our mind to a transition from processed food back to wholesome ingredients, we could do it and it would seem acceptable, even life-affirming, full of creativity and joy. After all, people waste time on stuff they don't much care for.

However, people's lives seem almost set in stone. The stress level is too high to stop watching T.V. That leaves no time to cook and clean after a meal. The kids won't sit down and are picky as hell, so each prefers to microwave their favorite frozen dinner. That all is so amazingly expensive (add to it the cost of medications for blood pressure, sleep issues/depression, and diabetes or pre-diabetes), that both parents (if present) have to work at inconveniently located jobs they dislike. Which fuels stress levels and kids' attitudes.

Unraveling this takes years of determined work. I am still up to my eyeballs in it, trying to demonstrate that a piece of fruit (I mean one of those stupendous Colorado Rosa peaches, or a prized Honeycrisp apple) ought to be as acceptable as a bowl of Life cereal (the kids are 5, 7, 10 years old, but my (pre-diabetic) husband craves cereal the most!)

What I see, is that I have to devote more time to thinking about food than even I do. I think I am facing a more picky family than many other people do. But still, the chicken nugget, the store-bought pizza, the Vitamin Water "treat for doing your homework on time", are conveniences that free me to do some reading and writing (such as here!!), which in turn, keep me on my path.

So, sometimes, I think the only hope will be, painful as it seems, when the commercial processed food is blasted out of existence by high energy prices - or when our budgets demand that we think of a $3 loaf of bread as a luxury, when the flour for it costs a couple of dimes. I guess I'm saying as long as people can afford cake, they are not likely to be baking their own.

Maybe establishing a food snobbery trend is the path of least resistance.

Last year my son was selling produce at the local Farmers' Market. He made a little money, especially on dried herbs. He was planning on selling again this year and so attended the pre-season venders meeting. There was a guy from the state there, telling venders about all the regulations they must adhere to. There was paperwork that venders needed to fill out & submit. Some of the questions were quite intrusive. Live plants couldn't be sold unless one had a nursery permit. Processed foods couldn't be sold unless they were processed in a licensed & inspected kitchen. Selling eggs was risky because if someone contracted Salmonella from them, even if it was their own fault for not cooking the eggs properly, both the vender & the Farmers' Market could be sued. To make a long story short, my son & I decided that selling this year at the Farmers' Market wasn't worth the hassle & risk. Instead, we concluded that paranoia over "biosecurity" had forced the production & sale of local food into the underground economy and if we were going to sell food it would have to be done with the same stealth as tho we were growing & selling marijuana. This is what it's come down to around here.

DD,Your comments today resonate loud and clear with-believe it or not-most of the people on the far right end of the political spectrum.

I have several ecologically and ernvironmentally aware friends,very intelligent people, who believe that the government is a sort of semi alive cancerous organism that will grow until it totally consumes whatever is left of our individual freedoms and privacy if the trend towards cebtralization of money,power and information is not soon reversed..

This is not the time or place for that particular discussion but i want to point out that there is plenty of common ground that we can work together for the good of all of us if we lay off the cheap rhetoric and look for it.

Most of the poor people but proud and self supporting I am acquainted with are conservatives politically in no small pert because the govt is constantly closing off thier opportunities to run small local businesses.

A part time truck garden type farmer cannot comply with all thse regulations-compliance costs more than the business is worth in many cases.

Larger businesses can comply by passing on the costs,which are spread over a larger volume-crying crocodile tears all the time of course,knowing full well that the regs prevent much real competition from developing.

A retired friend who was servicing chainsaws,tillers,and other small machinery at his isolated country home was hauled into court recently for violating zoning and business liscense regulations-almost certainly after compliants were made by the shop on the highway that charges three times as much for work half the quality.

Of course the problem could have been a petty bueracrat who has a little authority and is eager to use it to destroy many decades worth of working community.

The right "wing nuts" have some things to say that truly need to be heard by those interested in community and sustainability.

It is inadvisable to allow oneself to be assigned to "left" or "right." That divide and conquer technique has been used since time immemorial by the ruling class to subjugate the other classes. They pay factions small amounts to fight each other, then walk off with the goodies.

Inadvisable, eh? What do you think you've just done by talking about "the ruling class"?

Ruling class is neither left nor right. They are "top"

They have the means to divide the ruled into left/right, Catholic/protestant, Christian/Muslim, then watch us fight, arm both sides and walk off with the profits.

Yes, inadvisable. I would guess, HFat, that you don't belong to the ruling class.

I do, though. Just a word to the wise.

Yes, inadvisable. I would guess, HFat, that you don't belong to the ruling class.

I do, though. Just a word to the wise.


As someone whose personal ancestry leads back to a ruling class currently no longer in power, I can attest to the fact that the wheel, sometimes it turns. So now, from here, at the "Bottom" I musk ask, you don't perchance happen to have a position open for butler or some such on your estate do you? I'd take gardener and in house energy efficiency maintenance expert as well.

Your humble servant,


dd -

It's that way 'most everywhere. But paranoia over biosecurity is not what's behind it - it's paranoia over the market share of big growers like Cargill & ADM and the big retailers like Kroger & Walmart. All that bureaucratic rigamarole is just part of doing business for those outfits; but, as you and your son have discovered, it can - and does - shut down the small players before they can even get started.

As for me, I'd a whole lot rather pay $5 a dozen for eggs from a guy with 25 hens running around in his back yard than pay $1.25 a dozen from some "vertically-integrated" conglomerate with 40,000 hens to each aluminum henhouse and a 3-week transport time. 'Round here, we just keep it to ourselves so that the USDA man never knows to come looking for us. That's just one of the great benefits of being part of a real community.

I know long term we need to line up alternative suppliers for grain, but it's tough short term. Farmers markets and small growers understandably prefer to deal in premium produce rather than cheap commodities. I've decided the next best thing is to purchase from the conglomerates as far down the value-added chain as possible. Bulk (Cargill) flour costs $.28/lb in the warehouse stores. Yeast and sugar are similarly cheap in bulk. The profits they make off those sales are minuscule compared to baked bread and processed food.

I found a mill that sells me 50lb sacks of hard red wheat, and I have begun to grind it - I'm with you. I have about 5 acres planted in grain, with a plan by Spring to have a total of 20 acres in various grains, especially grains that have some short to medium term re-seeding capabilities. While tonight I went out and hand scythed for the first time, I know that "long term" I have to find a way
to harvest potentially of 60 acres of grains without a combine, because the closest place I've seen grain growing is 100 miles away. Someone could do the world a service by creating a micro combine that could be pulled behind an atv/gator/whatever that would be fueled by alcohol or biodiesel.


I agree with you to the extent that ONE of the oprimary drivers of this foolishness is "paranoia over the market share of big growers"

But they also have many well meaning and generally well educated professionals on thier side from the public health authorities to the fire department.

The problem is of course that thier educations are incomplete and in reducing one risk to as near zero as possible in defiance of the law of diminishing returns they ignore other risks that are entirely off thier radar for the most part.

Then there are the tens of thousands of "useful idiots"(from Lenin And Stalin's little experiment)who jump in and write editorials and letters to the editors.This sort seems to jump on every convenient bandwagon that passes by in order to make themselves feel good by proclaiming thier dedication to the good of the public.

Since it's bad news that sells ,well,they must find some suited to the forum,regardless of how dubious it may be.We throw tons of perfectly good fruit away every year on our one horse farm alone because these idiots have been telling women (and men more recently ) not to buy it,thier message being essentially that fruit which is not cosmetically perfect is if not actually dangerous at least is not(by implication) as nutritious.

It has been my experience that the average teacher,dietitician, or nurse never reads a book about thier profession once they leave school.Whatever they were taught by a professor perhaps with her own misperceptions or axes to grind is irrevocably fixed as gospel in thier minds.This is not to say that they don't change somewhat as the result of inservice training -but if there IS no in service upon a given topic....

But they also have many well meaning and generally well educated professionals on thier side from the public health authorities to the fire department.

Give me an effing break. Virtually all of them, by the very fact that they are "professionals" is ill-educated and miseducated. Education from the latin root for "lead". Don't follow them. The system and the structure within which they swim is wrong and they will only make things worse.

Nor, as Ward Churchill pointed out in his recent trial, are there any "good intentions". $90k/year for a firefighter here in Gray, ME. Not including the off-the-books pensions and subsequent benefits. And they are out setting up "voluntary" roadblocks for more contributions.

That doesn't fit any definition of "well meaning and well educated" I can think of.

I'm not being cynical. YOU are being suckered.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

Ditto with this conservative, what you say resonates very strongly. Things appear so tortuous to comply to sell from my farm (bought in semi-retirement) that I decided my best short term scenario is to give it away to the neighbors. It may cost me some $'s and a lot of sweat, but I need the skills, the relationships, and the exercise enough that I don't care. It does mean that that I'm only using a fraction of the land, and going for variety of goods and experiences at what is a too small of scale (moving to 100 eggs/week is
an example) to make MONEY - today. But write a different world scenario, and i can up the scale (with neighbor hands) to make it work economically. Even today, a layed off neighbor, working a part time job asked to borrow 5 acres to do sweet corn to sell by the road,
which i agreed to, maybe the first step in upping the scale.

Is there any talk of "heirloom" wheat strains? It appears that the wheat that is grown on a large scale in 2009 has very poor quality compared to what we had in 1920. Have you looked into that at all? With diabetes rates skyrocketing, and also gluten sensitivity, this may be an area where the better quality strains need to be rescued.

If you look up sources for varieties such as Emmer and Kamut you will find people keeping these heirlooms alive. They are even sold for high premiums in health stores for reasons you mention.

Modern wheat heirlooms are also interesting. The "trouble" with them from a present day farming perspective is that they aren't the double dwarf varieties that make combining smooth. Instead, they are tall and prone to lodging (i.e., falling over). They can be harvested mechanically by treating them like a hay crop, where the first pass is a cut only, and the second pass scoops and threshes. Triticale needs this treatment too, so it is not terrifically difficult, just a bit more costly.

Interestingly, the same thing happened to our local farmers' market last year. I attended the pre-season meeting that laid out all the regulations, costs and bueaucracy needed to conduct the next season's market. The decision was made to abandon selling baked or processed goods entirely, as the hassle was too great. I'm wondering if there was not a national campaign on the part of big business to squelch the growth of independent food production.

Not all locations are trending this way. In Virginia last year the legislature DROPPED the legal requirement for kitchen inspections for those selling baked goods at farmers markets. There is some push back.

Work with your local county agriculture specialists and have them help explain to your legislators how such regulations inhibit small agriculture business and thus adversely impact tax revenues. Find a champion to push the bill and see what happens. By creating exceptions for farmers markets a niche can be created that helps support the small scale grower.

To make a long story short, my son & I decided that selling this year at the Farmers' Market wasn't worth the hassle & risk.

Yesterday, for lunch, mom, my friend, my sister and I thoroughly enjoyed the black market rabbit. The rules are what they are - for the benefit of Hannaford, Whole Toxics, and whatever other industrial food-entity that feeds the politicians. But those rules and that whole system is not sustainable. And the quicker people break those rules - because they are meant to screw you and have no legitimacy - the better.

There was another post above that hinted at opt-in. Anyone joining a real co-op needs to opt-in. No cherry picking. If you want the benefits of one system, you have to stop using the system that is screwing you. It's time for co-op structures that require members to purchase from co-op or other similar vendors. If Food Inc is running a loss leader on poison milk, at half the price of the co-op, members agree not to buy it. Never, ever.

Furthermore, while Jason's argument is fine as far as it goes, it remains grounded in our current world view. Or it wants to be. [Goddamn google won't give me clean links any more - they value my search ability I guess.] Here, read the Dark Mountain manifesto. And as KMO discussed yesterday on C-Realm - a civilization is an organization of society that requires importation of resources from away. It's guaranteed unsustainable. We need to pay attention to how we define terms and words. Is a village a civilization? Is a sustainable society something we might typically call "civilized"?

Fixing, patching up - I think less and less there is any room for compromise with the existing structures. They need to be destroyed. Perhaps it is too late and they have already seduced and destroyed us, but there is no compromise.

cfm, The Growlery, Gray, ME

For an in-depth discussion of humanure composting, see Joseph Jenkins' book, The Humanure Handbook. This makes much more sense than our current practice of using potable water to transport human waste products to processing facilities.

I concur, though it is mentioned and linked in the article above.

From thermodynamics point of view there is one important flaw in the humanure technique: the waste of energy of bacterial activity.
More economic is to use methane producing bacteria in digesters and yield the biogas. I have read on the Digestion mailing list (highly recommendable:
Beginner's Guide to Biogas
Biogas Wiki

that with composting about 60% of the original C content is used to transform the material into mature compost, finally ending up as CO2, leaving thus 40% for the soil. But with biogas digesters just 30% is used by the bacteria producing CO2, 20-30% is transformed into methane, ALSO leaving 40% in the form of residues for the soil!

Concerning the question of nitrogen: it seems better to apply directly the urine to the field, instead of everything to the compost heap. As long it is not directly sprayed on the vegetables it is a save fertiliser, directly profiting soil life instead of the compost bacteria (with risk of leaking to ground water, and transforming into nitrate).

Concerning phosphor: From a forestry professor of the university Laval in Canada I learned that phosphor is extremely well recycled within a good forest soil. The key issue for this nutrient therefor seems sufficient soil humus and returning most crop parts directly to the soil in a permanent cover (like in the forest).

That is interesting - our detailed knowledge of what really goes on and thinking in all-inclusive ways will turn out to be important.

Thanks for the numerical comparison.

Composting folks do make a distinction between the quality of aerobic and anaerobic decomposition. I know of practitioners who claim that the chemistry of the anaerobic process isn't so great for plants.

Any thoughts on that?

Reportedly, the traditional Chinese farmers composted both aerobically & anaerobically, and adjusted the inputs to their compost, according to the needs of the soil & of the crops. They didn't understand soil chemistry or plant physiology but could tell by examining the crop just how they needed to manipulate the compost to alleviate whatever the problem was, in order to maximize yield next year. I suppose that this traditional wisdom has been lost by now, but research on composting methods could conceivably restore some of it.

It seems logical: in anaerobic digestion just few organisms dominate, the methane producing bacteria, whilst with mature compost you bring an enormous biodiversity to your soil. Especially for soils that have been cultivated with lots of fungicides for a long time, compost is an efficient starter for bringing back life. Tradition does play a role. Science can only focus on a few organisms and its effects at the same time, under controlled conditions. It makes me think of the lacto-fermentation of camembert: a company, Lactalis, had found a bacteria that gave the typical camembert structure and taste to the cheese. Because people are afraid for the isteria bateria, this gave them the ability to kill of existing bacteria and make the cheese with their own one. In reality the taste is made by the combination of tens of varieties of fungi and bacteria, naturally present in Normandie. Only by co-incident and lots of trying and finally a set of beliefs and a code of practice (=tradition) the camembert became what it is. Lactalis wanted to change the code but they didnt manage...(after a strike of ofcourse :-) of the consumers)

anaerobic process isn't so great for plants

When some of the anerobic processes are things like alcohols - and alcohol is toxic to plant roots - then yes its not so great.

To keep things aerobic and low human-based energy one design is Paley's worm gin. Earthworms try to work material in 6 inches of space and thus airated. Downside - you have to monitor the moisture levels.

Jerry at jetcompost used to sell 'em (Ok now they are listed again) Yet 2 higher profiles sites no longer seem to use the worm gin design - one site in the Florida's penial system (2 years) and terracycle. If one follows terracycle's operation you'll note how they pre-process the to become worm food via a jetcompost unit and how the worm gin seems to no longer be in use based on photos. Not at all shocking given that Sir Howard noted brewery waste is not good for worms (rather high in Nitrogen) yet I can spread it thin on the ground and the local nightcrawlers will pick it up and drag it into their burrows. (course nightcrawlers will pick up condoms and fight over drag'n em to their burrows. They will also take cauk and try to make that food also.) Yet if the brewery waste is processed by something else 1st then the worms have no problem.

A mixed airation and worm process was done by a gent named Jay and talked about on the site - claimed he was getting great results. Bubbling the air through water 1st makes sense to me if one was to try it.

"the waste of energy of bacterial activity"

Watch out for the transportation energy cost if you have to transport further to a biodigester.

Only local food is sustainable


New Orleans has had regular deliveries of bananas for two centuries, back to the age of sail.

Wheat cannot be grown locally, but it has also been in our diet for centuries (local rice is much more prevalent and the staple). Before rail & steamboats, Abraham Lincoln was one of thousands that took flat boats down river, sold the cargo and lumber from the boat, and walked home. Wheat was one of the cargoes, although whiskey, deer skins and tobacco had better profits.


There are many reasons why steamboats don't go up the Mississippi any more, or that Abraham Lincoln would find it difficult to take a flatboat full of produce down the river and sell it (and the boat) and walk back home.

One of the main reasons is that the steamboats all ran on wood, and the forests within hauling distance of the river were depleted. And cheap wood to make Abe's flatboat has long disappeared in the upper Midwest -- they need the land for Genetically Modified corn and soybeans. More profit.

Of course, the ancient Romans fed their people with wheat from North Africa. But look where that got them in the long run!

I live within walking distance of the Intracoastal Water Way.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Intracoastal Waterway is a 4,800-km (3,000-mile) waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are man-made canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.

I'm quite sure that there will continue to be plenty of exchange of foods and other goods along this trade route. I'm down in the tropical southern end, we have citrus, banana, avocados, mangoes just to name a few. I'd be glad to trade some of that for things that we can't grow locally.

Hey, we have sugar cane too! We could produce some good rum...

We don't need wood burning steamboats either.

I wouldn't assume that wind-powered water vessels are viable on the majority ICW on a regular basis. So some form power would be required for transport in circumstances where there is not a sufficient downstream current (and in those situations, power would be required to return a vessel upstream).

(and in those situations, power would be required to return a vessel upstream).

Agreed! However I don't think steam produced by burning wood would be the only available option.

What power sources would you suggest?

I already posted this link
Of course I'm biased that way.

However I think we should still have enough oil to be able to provide our transport barges with diesel. We have diesel electric boats where I live. Bio Diesel for fueling transport barges should be doable if we don't have to fuel millions of automobiles.

I remember seeing some rather large open ocean canoes used for transporting cargo over some pretty big distances that were powered by human arms and paddles that might work if worse comes to worst.

Batteries (powered by a wind/solar/nuclear grid) and direct wind propulsion, mostly.


DD is going to jump all over me

In the Puget Sound area some people are developing sail networks for food transport:

Yes, though the wind resources there are far superior to conditions in much of the ICW. We have to be careful that we don't overgeneralize solutions that can result in unwarranted expectations.

Although I didn't discuss this because I like to keep things short and straight forward in the article, I did imagine that two regions could trade with each other in food stuff sustainably if transportation was very cheap (e.g., intracoastal water ways) AND they exchanged the same amounts of food so that composting the imports would yield the same returns as composting the traded local production.

Port locations have advantages, I concur. But you are arguing that because something has gone on for a long time it can continue to do so, which I know you don't actually believe.

Yeah, but how much does this need to bother us in practice? Even the universe itself can not continue forever, according to currently known physics. To exaggerate a little for clarity, you almost seem to be arguing that right now, you can't see a way for it (the port, the food supply, whatever) to go on absolutely unchanged for a million years, and right now, you decide somehow that the manner in which it now goes on can never change or adapt, and so it somehow follows that it urgently requires attention lest it stop or crash Real Soon Now.

In a more down-to-earth sense, it seems a bit like arguing that the food co-op down the street must close tonight because (like most retail stores) it's got far too little in the way of accounts-receivable dated tomorrow or later to sustain it. But in fact customers will arrive tomorrow, without the slightest need for a Soviet-style pre-planned roadmap-for-eternity to get them there; indeed many such businesses have operated that way for decades upon decades.

A discussion of forever may be an entertaining abstract meme to chew over, but to what extent is it a real problem for real people in any time-frame sanely of interest? To what extent does it merely reflect instead the perennial Soviet-style urge to plan what cannot be planned and compel what will not be compelled? And to what extent does it reflect extraneous philosophical quasi-religious attitudes and romantic maunderings of various sorts about food, farmers, agriculture, money, and perhaps a mythical past where everyone had abundant time to fritter away singing kumbayah around the campfire?

If peak oil and peak phosphorus are here or coming this century then it matters dearly I'd say. Nobody really knows when, exactly, but I don't find this a compelling reason not to bother. And I do much more than talk about this. My livelihood is in it.

Actually, I do see a way for it theoretically, but it is sociologically very daunting.

I agree with Alan that you will continue to see trading via our intracoastal waters, and I've posted before that here in Seattle, we're getting ready to wrap up the first year of operations for Sail Transport Company, a CSA that delivers produce petroleum-free and is informally partnered with the larger regional network of SCALLOPS (Sustainable Communities ALL Over Puget Sound). We've also had a couple business meetings with the Port of Seattle, and they've been supportive.

The crews are serious sailors and trips are done via sail, tidal currents, and home-crafted sculling oars only. No engines :-) Which did once lead to a near-cliffhanger situation when they docked at 9 AM on a Saturday morning and customer pick-up was due to start at 10 AM!

We also partner with local restaurants for their creative recipes based on some of the produce box's contents, and give them one side of the flyer to talk up their sustainability story: every single one sources their food from local farmers as much as possible. In an innovative example of what restaurants can do, when Jill Richardson, the author of Recipe for America: Why America's Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It, recently visited Seattle over Labor Day, we took her to the lovely French restaurant Bastille for brunch, which resulted in a nice write-up and pictures of their rooftop gardens (yes, they source their salads and herbs from here).

On The Other Coast note, when I went home for Christmas, I met with the Community and Government Affairs Manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for their critique of this program. They thought STC was viable (we had a great discussion about the rejuvenation of the Erie Canal) and in fact, they already have the Port Inland Distribution Network (PIDN) in place: " extensive network of rail and barge services at our terminals to efficiently facilitate the flow of international cargo to points beyond our port."

I think you will see a great rebirth of sail and our waterways for transport. :-)

One last comment: for people in the Seattle area, please come to Sustainable Ballard's Sixth Annual Sustainability Festival, the weekend of September 26th and 27th. We're expecting over 8,000 people this year! The Sail Transport booth will be located between the Eat Local Now and Transportation sections.

Just wanted to comment on the colorful logo at the top of this story... it is the North Dakota Department of Agriculture's local foods initiative and the people are interested in food systems can be found at We'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for your work! I was thrilled to find an example from North Dakota, and not just from a food activist group, but from a government agency.

You have hit very close to why I believe some Bio-fuels are bad ideas. Grass for hay/biofuels requires Phosphorus and Potassium to grow. The Potassium is depleted rapidly when the grass is harvested. And yields per acre drop dramitically if not replaced. The plant nutrients must be replaced some how and I have yet to see how it can be economically or pratically. I do have a question though are the major plant nutrients phosphorus and potassium usable after the grass or other plant residue is burned as a fuel.

You make a good point. It seems like biofuels should not be considered sustainable because of this.

With some biofuels it is possible to close the loop for nutrients, except for nitrogen.

But this raises another point. Can anything be considered "sustainable"? What's the use even of using "sustainable" in a sentence, when the only possible sensible sentence, for any x, is said to be "x is not sustainable"?

Natural forests have sustained themselves for millions of years. As have coral reefs, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, swamps, etc. Permaculture methods that mimic nature are sustainable.
The problem is that industrial economies and consumer culture are not sustainable. You are only looking at the X’s that seek to continue these inherently unsustainable ways of living.

Most plants can't use elemental phosphourus, there are parasitic fungi that can though and trade phosphate ions for carbohydrates.

Arbuscular mycorrhiza

Switchgrass is a perennial crop which tests have shown takes
30# per acre of phosphorous and 45# per acre of potassium to establish.
So annually you need to replace .83# per ton of biomass
of phosphorous and 18.9# per ton of biomass of potassium, so a 10 ton per acre crop (producing 800 gallons of ethanol) would require 8.3# of phosphorus and 189# of potasium per year plus
100# of ammonia.

Compare this that corn ethanol where 800 gallons would require
110# of phosphorous and 130# of potassium and 300# of ammonia.
So cellulosic ethanol would require 8% of the phosphorous of corn, 145% of the potassium and 33% of the ammonia.

A 100 billion gallons of ethanol energy crop of switchgrass would take 518,750 tons of phosphorous and 1,181,250 tons of potassium.

The world resource in potash is 250 billion tons(7 billion US resource) and annual world production is 26 million tons( US 1.2 million tons).

The world reserve base in phosphate rock is 47 billion tons(3.4 billion US) and world production is 167 million tons/yr(30.9 million tons/yr US).

When biomass is burnt or distilled into ethanol most of the minerals are removed as ash and are not lost but are recycled.

There is no looming shortage of potash whatsoever.

If you are worried about phosphate switch from corn to switchgrass for ethanol, reduce water runoff from fields and recycle ash back to the fields.

Stop worrying or at least give a quantitative reason why you are worrying.

When biomass is burnt or distilled into ethanol most of the minerals are removed as ash and are not lost but are recycled.

Unless the material is processed on the place where it is grown, the 'waste' will move with the same flow of money that shipped the switchgrass to the processing plant.

And even on a farm, the waste will end up in the farmers garden. (That is what a grazing animal does - move elements from the field to a more central location for processing) If they have a market garden, the S,P,K and other elements will be shipped off the farm to go into a sewer somewhere.

As an active gardner, composter and bird dog owner I never have and never will put dog**** in my compost pile.

Is this because of potentially harmful parasites?

And, as far as biosolids from wastewater treatment plants. They just started injecting that stuff into the soil around here, Mandan, ND. Someone suggested we use it at our new community garden site, but I said it was not considered safe for food crops because of the residual hormones, etc. from all the drugs people take? Anyone know anything about that aspect of this?

Critters with a flagellum may be more of a concern than drug residues. Antibiotics given to farm animals is an issue with methane digesters, the antibiotics kill the microbes that do the digestion.

This series of articles on sludge from last summer suggests you'd better watch out.

Farmers split over safety

Free biosolids tempting at a time when prices of commercial fertilizer are skyrocketing

Jul 13, 2008 04:30 AM

Carola Vyhnak
Urban Affairs Reporter
The price is right. With savings of more than $100 an acre for fertilizer, the offer of free stuff is tempting for farmers struggling to make a living in the face of rising costs and diminishing returns.

Video: Sludge plant tour

Slideshow: How sludge is made

Part I: Is sewage fertilizer safe?

Where your waste goes

Part II: Farmers split over safety

Ill when wells contaminated

Oakville family sues

Part III: When rules are broken

Sludge disease recognized

Part IV: Food firms shun sludge use

Keeping sewage off fields a burning issue

Parasites and other pathogens are a problem with poop that comes from a dog or cat (i.e. carnivores). The other reason is that a carnivore leaves almost no organic matter because their diet consits primarily of protein & fat/oil, whereas a herbivore leaves a useable amount of organic matter because their diet consits primarily of cellulose/carbohydrates.

I am not saying that's a good idea. In general though, dog waste being treated as a landfill product is not sustainable. The question I pose is what are the alternatives?

Thermophilic anaerobic digestion or thermophilic aerobic composting?

I'm all for fewer drugs and more healthy eating.... I'm still trying to convince my spouse to pee near the garden in an attempt to keep the deer at bay?????

never will put dog**** in my compost pile.

What if you had some kind of cooker that heated it to 160+ degrees?

A simple glass paneled solar 'oven' would hit those temps.

Here's an interesting research paper that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry a few weeks ago about the use of urine and wood ash as fertilizer:


That's great Todd, thanks for the reference.

I am a bit concerned about too much wood ash in soils where we live because K tends to be high already...everything in moderation. Otherwise, this seems generally a really simple and positive method.

Isn't the big issue how big a population can be sustained with only local inputs?

One of the big issues is the amount of irrigation. If you only permit what can be done with manual pumps, it seems like it drops pretty low.


It also matters how one defines "local" which in turn leads to the question of how food is transported from the fields to the people.

For example, perishable food transported by horse-drawn wagon will likely be produced no more that 20-60 miles away. Conversely food transported by train might be grown over a thousand miles away as was done in the early 20th century. Does this make it "local"?

I agree that irrigation is going to be a major issue, especially in the west and parts of the mid-west. On this basis alone, huge areas will find it impossible to grow food "locally" given current population densities.


Gail -

Manual pumps???

Good heavens, what sort of a scenario are you picturing? One where we can't even use oxen-powered pumps? Or even windmills, such as the Dutch have been doing for centuries to dewater the lowlands? Or to get a bit more 'high tech', pumps powered by steam engines fueled with wood and/or crop waste? Or to get really high-tech about it, pumps powered by internal combustion engines fueled with locally produced ethanol?

Irrigation is a very localized practice. Most of the agriculture in the US is not routinely dependent upon artificial irrigation. The big exceptions of course are the huge agricultural areas in California, such as the San Jaoquin Valley, plus a number of other areas mostly west of the Mississippi. No, I don't think that the ability to pump water is the problem, HAVING the water in the first place is the real killer.

Isn't the big issue how big a population can be sustained with only local inputs?

One of the points Jensen keeps hammering is how even 20 years ago a population on the banks of the Columbia River - or some salmon run here in Maine - could get much of its food from the salmon in the river. And how now, with the salmon gone - thank you hydropower - that same population will starve.

Everything we do to "fix" this predicament decreases our ultimate carrying capacity. A few decades back, maybe 2B was "sustainable". Now I'm starting to wonder if it's not more like .5B or maybe way less than that.

And the "we" is problematic. I don't consider FPL or the people in Connecticut sucking the power out of my bioregion part of my "we". I want the salmon back.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

The point I will make is that one can say with high confidence bordering on certainty that only a predominantly local food system will ever be sustainable.

If we take a long enough view - that is correct. I also have not found any good arguments against Günther's reasoning either.

In this regard the wastelands around city areas with high population, lots of food/agri-waste and bad water purification will be the fertile lands of tomorrow.

Those polluted and over-nitrogenized and phosphorized river deltas and so forth. Unless of course we pipe the waste to sea, which complicates things a two-fold: the resource is harder to get back into useful circulation for human cereal cultivation and P+N wreak havoc in the ocean by completely throwing the sea eco-system off-balance. This in turn usually reduces the fish stock.

In the future it's good to be accustomed to jellyfish porridge (eutrophic seas) and cereal shortages (no P).

Time horizon? That's anyone's guess. Haven't seen good estimates of this.

Then again, in long enough time horizon, even metals approximate actions of liquids.

The article makes a good case for closing the nutrient cycle and returning human waste and compost to the soil rather than dumping it in rivers and oceans.

But the case for local food production is not made at all. Rail and water transport of bulk materials is quite cheap in dollar and energy terms. Maybe the trains hauling wheat from Texas to NYC could haul biosolids on the return trip. Until the energy and economic costs of a non-local nutrient recycling system are defined, calling it impossible is just handwaving.

Current organic farmers also use nitrogen-fixing cover crops and other "green manures" to maintain soil health despite the material loss from crop exports. Agriculture has continued for tens of centuries in Europe using these systems, so unsustainability is not yet proven, although it may be sometime in the future.

Trade in food beyond local economies pre-dated fossil fuels by many centuries, so while increasing fossil costs will certainly change the balance between local and distant foodstuffs, I doubt local food will ever completely supplant trade anywhere.

Agricultural productivity in Europe was low and unstable over the long-term. I don't know how sustainable it really was but there's no historical evidence that anything like the current population could be sustained without external inputs. That doesn't mean it's impossible of course... just that our ancestors didn't figure it out.

Nitrogen is the easy one.

As far as it being done in Europe for a long time, this is true, but Europe also suffered from slowly degraded agricultural lands. This led to pressure for immigration and the resulting sailing industry brought back boat loads of mined guano to remineralize depleted soils. The potato also helped boost calories in impoverished soils.

Farmers adjacent to coasts have a history of heaping washed up seaweed onto their lands. They know this is necessary if they are exporting food.

For many centuries Europe had little emigration and no guano. But there was some long-distance food transportation, especially of sea products... which makes me wonder whether dried seaweed could have been used as fertilizer farther from the coast.

Human waste was a local but important trade, at least in The Netherlands, and humanure was regularly used as fertilizer. This came to an end after the Cholera and Typhoid epidemics of the late 19th century.
Hygiene is a major issue in working with humanure. I have some experience in handling large numbers. I've been co-responsible for hygiene in temporary setups (14 days) with over 3000 people in a space of about 1 sq mile. We did have running water but no sewage system. The key to getting this to work and to get effective composting is to separate urine from faeces. Most people can will comply with this, the 1-2% which can't is no big deal. Feaces if dry enough start to self compost when there's enough air and supporting material from the moment it is produced. We used sawdust and toilet paper in large wheely bins in this case. You could actually feel the temperature rising then touching the bins after a few days. Another approach I've been involved with is to use smaller compostable sacs (biodegradeable plastic) which makes cleaning the bins easier. According to the farmer who took the compost over a period of about a year all human bacteria will have disappeared. Urine was more difficult. In this example we use straw bales which were also used as fertilizer but they become very difficult and actually quite dangerous to handle (ammonia!) at a certain point. The ammonia does kill most germs. A septic tank and a friendly neighbour willing to take the contents helped in the other case. From a hygiene stand point all of this works rather well as long as people take care of their personal hygiene -> always wash you hands afterwards and again when preparing/eating food. And yes there are good-though-expensive organic cleaning products. BTW if you're ever at a festival or fair and you really have to use one of those chemical toilet things decontaminate every part of your body which has touched them. These things are really, really unsafe; nutrient/water/temperature conditions close to a petri dish and lots of chemical smells to mask the real dangers. According to a UK health and safety rep I spoke to some years ago this is the real reason major outdoor festivals like Glastonbury do not last much longer than a few days.

Tommyvee, you write:

But the case for local food production is not made at all.

Spot on -- in fact, the term 'local' has degenerated into a kind of shibboleth, as though 'local-ness' were something good in itself. Other things being equal, of course, it makes sense to buy something manufactured locally than the same product manufactured at the other end of the earth. That commonsense rule applies to ALL products, agricultural or otherwise. It's Econ 101, no more and no less.


Thank you for your fascinating contribution.

You write:

I have heard stories about farmers in China competing for humanure by building comfortable and decorative outhouses along roadside borders of their land.

I don't know about the situation in China but 'stories' of this kind are not myths but well-documented facts in the case of Japan. Alan MacFarlane's classic 'The Savage Wars of Peace' devotes an entire chapter to the disposal of human excrement in that country (comparing UK and Japan). Indeed, in Japan human manure was so valued in the past that you could rent accommodation in exchange for your urine and excrement.

FYI here is what Edward S. Morse (writing in 1889) had to say on the subject in his book entitled 'Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings':

I was told that in Hiroshima in the renting of
the poorer tenement houses, if three persons occupied a room
together the sewage paid the rent of one, and if five occupied
the same room no rent was charged ! Indeed, the immense
value and importance of this material is so great to the Ja-
panese farmer, who depends entirely upon it for the enrich-
ment of his soil, that in the country personal conveniences for
travellers are always arranged by the side of the road, in the
shape of buckets or half-barrels sunk in the ground.

Judging by our standards of modesty in regard to these
matters there would appear to be no evidence of delicacy among
the Japanese respecting them ; or, to be more just, perhaps I
should say that there is among them no affectation of false
modesty, — a feeling which seems to have developed among the
English-speaking people more exclusively, and among some of
them to such ridiculous heights of absurdity as often to be
fraught with grave consequences.


The secret of sewage disposal has been effectually solved by the
Japanese for centuries, so that nothing goes to waste. And of
equal importance, too, is it that of that class of diseases which
scourge our communities as a result of our ineffectual efforts
in disposing of sewage, the Japanese happily know but little.
In that country there are no deep vaults with long accumu-
lations contaminating the ground, or underground pipes con-
ducting sewage to shallow bays and inlets, there to fester and
vitiate the air and spread sickness and death.

On the other hand it must be admitted that their water
supply is very seriously affected by this sewage being washed
into rivers and wells from the rice-fields where it is deposited ;
and the scourge of cholera, which almost yearly spreads its
desolating shadow over many of their southern towns, is due
to the almost universal cultivation of the land by irrigation
methods ; and the consequent distribution of sewage through
these surface avenues renders it impossible to protect the water
supply from contamination.

Morse's book is available online at:


The disease issue is "deadly" serious, of course.

Until efficient local nutrient recycling becomes the norm and, it's premature to dismiss food transportation.
At that point it will make sense to wonder whether long-distance recycling can be made sustainable enough to meet whatever objective people will decide upon in the future. In the meantime, food as well as other commodities will flow upstream to power.

Mining is not the only nutrient source and it's unclear:
-what sustainable agricultural output is desired
-how efficient recycling can possibly be in practice (there's not only collecting to consider but application and the stuff being washed out downstream from the fields)
-how much nutrients could be collected by the cultivated plants as well as their ecosystem (I assume this will vary greatly from case to case)
-how much nutrients could be sustainably harvested from uncultivated areas by grazing, forestry and so on
-how much nutrients can be recovered from rivers, lakes and seas and at what cost
-and so on...
So I'd say bringing thermodynamics into this is premature. AFAIK, we have very little in the way of numbers.

Those are great questions. I fully understand what you are saying. When I use the term "sustainable" I am thinking on long time horizons, such as multiple decades at least.

We may have those numbers you are asking about. Dig around the Folke Gunther site a bit.

If we stick to P availability, it is really in great quantities in many soils but becomes depleted rapidly in its soluble form. One method developing to better supply P is to encourage the development of fungal biomass in association with long-lived and deeply rooted plants, e.g., trees and pasture. Essentially the volume of soil being farmed goes from the top 12 inches to the top 12 feet or more. This argues against frequent tillage because that breaks fungal hyphae, and for the establishment of diverse pasture, even in regions where annual crops are grown. If a section of your farm is in pasture for 15 years or so, then a lot of deep soil minerals will have been brought into the leaves and then deposited on the surface in soluble forms by manure. When the pasture is converted back into annual crops these minerals are now available without imports...theoretically.

HOWEVER, over the very long term, even this is NOT sustainable because P and other nutrients will still be removed.

You asked about the ocean and recovery from water, etc. Here's an example. This is done by nature by fish and eels that swim upstream to spawn. Keeping the salmon populations thriving is a great way to bring minerals lost to the sea back to the land.

Over geological time, however, continents become depleted of minerals until vulcanism puts them back.

Thank you for seeing past my brain fart in my opening sentence. I think I get what you're saying too but I'm not finding the numbers on Gunther's site. Are they behind a paywall?

As to the long term, I wonder if the same microbes or fungi which mobilize P from the deep soil could use some mixture based on locally-procured, artificially ground rock with relatively low P concentrations.
I guess I'm skeptical about the idea that there's a relatively small, finite stock of usable P. It seems that life has managed to mobilize huge amounts of P from low-concentration sources before the advent of agriculture and it seems plausible that the speed of the process could be greatly improved at relatively little expense by setting up favorable conditions.
This wouldn't work at geological time scales as you say but that isn't what we're concerned about.

That the current food systems will change is a given (everything is in flux) but, while I wouldn't bet on the continuation of the truly bizarre (long-distance transportation of fresh produce, yogurt and so on), it isn't clear to me that things like grain and dried meat will stop traveling great distances for lack of P on the farm.

While not a perfect solution, using "sea solids" from certain areas can return essential nutrients to depleted soils.

I see that the focus here seems to be on the 3 primary nutrients needed for plant growth and harvest - there are many many more which are needed in varying amounts.

Lots of soils are or have been depleted through agriculture and also due to the underlying bedrock.

There is an area in china geologically deficient in selenium, it wasn't until the chinese government started supplementing the diet that diseases such as Kaschin- Beck were brought under control.

While recycling available nutrients is the only realistic long term option we also need to keep an eye on Trace element levels in order to have optimum nutrition.

Seaweed is another full spectrum fertiliser which is really under-utilised. There's estimated to be 100-150 million tonnes washed up on the shores of England every year.

Rock dust is currently a waste product from quarries and one application can last 10 years

Of course one of the craziest things about exporting tons of vegetables and fruits that consist of 70% water from arid to temperate regions is the loss of all that water!

I heard Folke talk here in Stockholm a year ago and was dizzy when I quizzed him about the implications and realized that (large) cities were impossible in the long run because of the nutrient cycle requirements.

His suggestion for how to (in the long term) add nutrients to soil was to harvest organic materials from the sea.

Folke has formulated ideas about the "optimal" settlement size and the composition of an "ecovillage" and we have incorporated some of his ideas, including his "living wall" arrangement to locally recycle greywater in our farm-to-be-settlement/ecovillage.

Phosphorous can be recovered from waste treatment plants by adding magnesium to form struvite, which is relatively insoluble, making it recoverable.

Wood ashes are a low grade fertilizer and a fiarly good source of potash. Much of the virgin forests of the Americas were cut and burned for potash which was exported to Europe. Soils will not weather fast enough to continuously harvest timer without replacing the minerals removed.

The thermodynamics involved with extracting minerals or in refining or purification is sometimes called separation energy, not to be confused with a nuclear energy phenomenon by the same name. Generally the more dilute the solution or mixture the more energy required to perform a separation.

Strictly speaking thermodynamics is about heat and its relationship to work, and was discovered much in part due to experimentation with engines, primarily steam engines. The concept of latent heat was investigated by James Watt, who observed that steam had the capability to heat several times its weight in water. However, Watt’s friend Professor Joseph Black at the University of Glasgow where Watt was employed is credited with the discovery of latent heat and heat capacity. Watt’s scientific investigation of a model of Newcomen’s engine lead to a 75% reduction in coal consumption for a given work output.
Chemistry and thermodynamics are intricately related, particularly the branch known as physical chemistry.

One of the most senseless wastes it that of bones, which typically go to landfill. Bone is 10% or more phosphate.

Paul_the_engineer -

Coincidentally, it just so happens that about 10 years ago I did a brief investigation into the possibility of removing soluble phosphorus and ammonia from piggery waste via struvite precipitation. I didn't get into any actual lab work, but merely reviewed some of the literature on the subject. As best I can recall, there wasn't much to get enthused about because much of the test work indicated that it was very difficult to form settleable precipitates and that the removal rates were relatively poor (65 -70% as I recall).

Keep in mind that not all of the phosphorus in domestic sewage leaves the sewage treatment plant via the treated effluent. A significant fraction of the phosphorus content winds up in the sludge. While land application of digested sewage sludge has been practiced for many years, its use is problematic for a number of reasons, mainly, i) distance from source to point of use, ii) what to do with the sludge during the off-season, and iii) plain old poor economics.

As an unrelated comment, I don't know why this whole food subject is couched in terms of thermodynamics. It's really just a matter of encountering diminishing returns on a number of fronts, and while conservation energy always applies, I would hardly call this a thermodynamic consideration in anything but a trivial sense. Regarding Watt and the steam engine and early scientists, I think there is much truth to the statement that the science of thermodynamics owns more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to the science of thermodynamics.

There's indeed a fascination with thermodynamics and a tendency to abuse it among doomers and such.
I think "poor economics" are much more likely to bring about our society's downfall. But my impression is that people don't like to think about this messy business and prefer absolutes and scientific-looking explanations. Plus "poor economics" sounds like something that could be fixed. It doesn't have the ineffable tragic allure of the inevitable. :-)

I am using the first law in the conservation of matter sense. I don't think most people realize that this applies to farmland. Honestly, they really don't.

As thermodynamics evolved the efficiency of steam engines improved, with a doubling of efficiency approximately each 60 years. Watt’s quadrupling of efficiency was an aberration on the time series efficiency curve.

The publication of steam tables, or the properties (enthalpy, temperature, volume and pressure) of steam and water and the Mollier diagram (graphical steam table with entropy) went a long way towards making it easy for anyone trained in its use to analyze efficiency. Entropy is a key concept, not increasing if enthalpy is converted to work at 100% efficiency, which is of course not practically attainable.

Better steam valves helped engine efficiency, such as the Corliss engine.

A general rule is: the higher the pressure the more efficient the engine, and efficiency increased with the development of stronger materials for engines and higher pressure boiler designs.

The concept of expansion stages, such as triple expansion, improved efficiency, as did the point of discharge of the steam from the engine, with the uniflow steam engine being noteworthy. Uniflow engines were used commonly in ships during WWII.

There is increasing efficiency for engines with scale, both absolute and relative to other engine types. For applications like ships, advanced steam engines are more efficient than small steam turbines but less efficient than diesel engines.


Thanks for the link Jason to my earlier TOD piece.
I never did get a proper take though on nitrogen fertilizer from humans.
Info I had way back suggested we were pretty efficient at getting protein out of our ingested food - I remember figures of 80 - 90%.
In that case we must excrete something like that as N balance daily in urine. Figures might be more favorable than the ones you found?
Saving urine for vegetable growing can be relatively simple and hygienic.

Your overall point is well made.
The ratio of soil extraction to renewal is critical.
(I guess the ratio has always imposed a limit on cities, bureaucracies and military, and even on the scale of craft-industry that a region can carry.)
However soil nutrient nitrogen can be a renewable resource. A fast growing temperate grass clover sward can fix as much N as 200kg/ha in a year, which is about as much as a high-yielding modern cereal crop needs each year. The snag is that it needs land to be devoted to it, in the same way that horses, though they can do a reasonable job cultivating large areas, need significant areas producing their fuel. The USA never did really solve these twin problems and yields on the Great Plains drifted down until NPK and mechanization saved the day from the 1930s onwards. Phosphate is a longer term problem. There is often plenty in the soil but most of it is only slowly available to the crops. I have come across, though, practices presumed to help maintain long term soil P where river mud was dredged and composted with crop residues (China) and also where some valley bottom mud was carted using oxen back up to the top of hillside holdings in Italy.

A transition period is needed for the long term, and I hope we get the luxury of a lengthy transition. Food and farming is going to be an issue even in countries that have got the land and can still expect to command industrial resources for a good while yet.

readers might find useful, some of the simple ideas on

Thanks for this solid argument for localization of our food systems. I remember reading in "Gardening for the Future of the Earth" that some plots of land in China have been continuously farmed by peasants for 4,000 years and are still productive because they incorporate human manure back into the soils--don't know if you have that book, but I think it had some additional info and photos on this history.

Also, tangentially realted, my article on Fertilizer Mercantilism and Morocco. Not only are we running out of mined phosphorus, but to the extent that we don't localize we'll see the same kind of conflicts arising over phosphorus that we currently see over oil...

King's "Farmers of Forty Centuries" was published in 1911. Things ain't like they were in China a century ago no more..

My brother returned from China, and pointed out the sky was green when he was there.

Great article! But having little control over my municipality's sewage-disposal methods, and living on a postage-stamp size lot (something I am slowly working to remediate), I'm forced to 'start small':

One very simple step I've taken is to eliminate toilet paper. Imagine how many rolls you go through in a single year. Trees cut, shipped, shredded, injected with chemicals, rolled out, packaged, shipped again, and finally, used and flushed into the sewer system.

However, by cutting up a single large towel into 3x6inch (or thereabouts) pieces, purchasing an airtight container to store them after use in your bathroom, and doing 1 extra load of laundry per month (on 'sterilize' setting), you can completely eliminate the need for toilet paper!

Hi Jason,

While I agree with your conclusion, as per usual, I'm not sure that the First Law (FLOTD) has much to do with it. After all, this law pre- and post-dates 1945 and the mining model of agriculture.

Because we can’t create matter out of thin air to replace these depleting resources (First Law) the system is unsustainable. To make it potentially sustainable we’d have to take the waste outputs and make them inputs again to yield a cyclical food system.

Producing matter out of "thin air" is very nearly what trees, plants, bacteria and fungi do, converting sunlight and air, water and soil nutrients into complex biomass. While this does not change the First Law, it locally reverses the entropic tendencies of the Second Law by creating local order.

I believe the Law of Diminishing Returns, to the extent that it is a real Law, probably has more to say about Agriculture-as-mining than the FLOTD.

From a nutrient and mineral standpoint, the linearity problem is well taken. We need to close all the loops, as close to the source as possible. The dispersal of nutrients seems to make the system always a net loser (SLOTD). Yet, the fish are continually re-accumulating our mercury for us, if we could find a way to usefully condense it back out of them!

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A great little post, immensely relevant. Yes, what you say IS obvious. But the obvious is totally and completely in contradiction to the reigning paradigm and its biggest beneficiaries.

The process of taking energy, metals, and minerals from below ground and using them to restructure and subvert the above ground ecology is unidirectional, non-cyclical, and unsustainable but for a mere moment in history. It is precisely the food cycle and the soil that is the critical link and shows more graphically than anything else how impossible it all is.

Restoration and salvation lie in re-establishing sustainable cycles in the above ground ecology. Yours is a perfect illustration of that point.

I will say this, though. Local food without waste recycling only shortens supply chains. It is not sustainable either.


That's the beauty of the post. It's precisely these kind of cycles that we must become aware of and restore. This is but one, albeit a very important one, but there are innumerable other cycles we have broken or disrupted.

Thank you for your thoughtful article. I think you are correct with your suggestion but at the same time there are some odd circumstances which should be considered.

I remember when I was in third grade, a company called Bendix came and did an assembly for the kids and on the stage the man asked, "What is the fastest route between two points." All the kids raised their hands in a big hurry to say a straight line. As it turned out, he trapped us and demonstrated that a curved line, which was longer could be a faster way to travel, when he dropped a widget along the sloped and curved bar, compared to the same object traveling on a sloping straight bar.

We have learned now that "energy miles" which have an environmental impact may make less of a carbon footprint over longer distance. Gary Hirshberg, from Stonfield Farm, the organic yogurt company in Vermont learned this years ago that the impact on the environment of his product which was sold locally, because of the trucking equation and the rather complex issues involved in distribution. I don't "wish" this to be the case. My wife and I support local organic farming because we choose to eat that way. But of the 40,000 items which are sold in food retail, almost all of them come long distance and their journey from agricultural products to the point of consumption involves many processes, energy use and create a great deal of waste and resource depletion, not to mention creating vast sums of greenhouse gases in the deal.

I wouldn't suggest that we throw our hands up in the air and say, "we're screwed." Nor would I suggest that we boycott the food companies. I do think we should "vote with our forks" though as Michael Pollan suggests.

As much as I love Wendell Berry as a writer, thinker and natural agriculturalist, the fact remains that most of us don't want to suffer any inconvenience. Manufacturers have done some bad stuff, but the point we're at affords us a lifestyle which has enabled us to live longer and have more leisure time. There is some reversal of that now and families seem to be working more and having less time to enjoy each other, but this is relatively new.

Why don't we do both? Why don't we learn the sweet spot of technology and food safety, nutrition and ecology? As organizations and corporations start understanding the principles of Paul Hawken's Ecology of Commerce or what is now accepted as the triple bottom line, the people within those organizations are themselves "change agents." As that corporate beast learns to be a responsible steward, it can also discover more ways to make money. In fact by creating less waste and using resources more efficiently, they become more profitable and they will be seen as a sustainable company in the process.

I know this isn't the place for self promotion, but we are working very hard on these issues at EFMA (Ecological Food Manufacturers Association). We do this because we are committed to a safe planet for our children and our grandchildren. But also because we've always worked in the food industry and we want to see it be all that it can be.

If our grandparents could make food for the winter without one harmful process or one harmful ingredient, with simple culinary common sense--I'm quite certain our big food companies can learn or "relearn" how to do it too! and

Thanks again for your thoughtful observations!

The food miles thing is quite interesting. It is usually studied using various efficiencies of trucking, with large trucks being more efficient than small trucks, and hence able to move products over longer distances with the same or less carbon footprint.

This is a very limited perspective on food miles, however. I ran a CSA that only distributed in my small town. In many cases I was selling within the neighborhood and people walked or biked for their veggies. These kinds of situations are not even part of the boundary of analysis in the studies I've seen.

And while I didn't demand that my customers bring back their food scraps (and other wastes) to the farm for composting, I did use my bike to pick up food scraps from a local organic restaurant for composting so that my net nutrient budget was actually positive.

I applaud you for being willing to work with the big food companies. I don't think we should ever give up on any front. Myself, I am transitioning conventional farmland towards local, organic production and distribution systems. ( ) Finding like-minded buyers is going to be a big deal, and working with food processors who want to contact with growers at the right scale is necessary. I'll check out your links.

First off, I want to make it clear that I think localization of food supply is a worthwhile goal and should be strongly encouraged where possible.

But (and there's always a 'but', isn't there?) as I see it, we have an inherent conflict here. On the one hand many TODers are a big fan of urbanization in order to reduce energy consumption and to get away from the presumed unsustainability of car-dependent suburban sprawl. Then on the other hand, widespread localization of food supply inherently implies a lower population density. After all, how much usable farm land still exists within a 100-mile radius of the New York Metropolitan Area that would be capable of feeding even a small fraction of its some 12 million+ inhabitants? Ditto places like Philadelphia, Houston, or Los Angeles.

Sure, you can have a totally localized food supply in areas with a low population density, but doesn't it go against the pro-urbanization ideology to start having people 'going up the country'?

It seems to me that it gets down to the question of whether it is easier to move food to the people or the people to the food.

Then we also have to contend with issues having to do with the inherently regional nature of agriculture. You're not going to have much luck growing oranges in Nebraska or wheat in southern Florida. So, some trading of foodstuff by region is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. There has been regional trading of food stuffs since ancient times, and I don't think it's going to stop. It just has to revert to a more sensible scale. No more grapes from Chile or shrimp from Vietnam.

I am surprised it took somebody this long to point out this conflict!

Regarding urbanization/ruralization, I believe walkable downtowns and neighborhoods connected to retail and job centers is a great thing. But in reality, over the long run, I don't see how the huge urban centers can hold (unless we find free energy and can extract minerals cheaply from sea water and pipe it to farms). A huge sunk cost exists in big cities and it shouldn't (and won't) be thrown out lightly.

There may be ways to keep it together longer by capturing humanure before it goes into the sewer system. Apparently this is done in Japan. That and grey water systems that water urban gardens could go a long way to help.

You are correct that big cities have food sheds that are enormous. The state of New York can be food self-reliant IF New York City is removed. Otherwise they are extremely import dependent and will be until population declines by about half.

But you've started a good thread, and I'll let others discuss further. It's a big ball of wax.

"I am surprised it took somebody this long to point out this conflict!"

But in a way it's almost a bootless exercise to point it out. Mainly it just illustrates how discussions like this turn into Rorschach tests revealing the often bizarre idees fixes people hold about how they would re-arrange the world if only they were in charge - which, generally, they aren't, no doubt to their immense disappointment. It becomes very hard to discern how much the conflict in question (or any other) is connected with any interesting signal, and how much it is merely more noise.

The real world is not a blank slate for the convenience of mad-for-power social planners, who, if this page is any indication, have already stored up an infinite list of orders they stand ready to issue to micromanage everyone else's life virtually second-by-second. Instead, those sunk costs will ensure that people will muddle along in strange ways we may not even anticipate, much less plan for. And as Jim Kunstler is perhaps overly fond of pointing out, sunk costs occur in suburbs, not just huge urban centers. And even that's not the whole story - they're everywhere. So people will muddle along everywhere, as they have done from time immemorial.

I have raved until foaming at the mouth in the comments section of various earler artcles in regards to the realities of localized food production in urban areas.

I have directly contradicted the arguments and conclusions of many imo over optimistic authors and posters until I began to feel like DD must be feeling about us giving him a hard time viz his near term extinction hypothesis.

Except for the fact that I was the one mostly alone in argueing that moving most everybody out of New York to the Mississippi delta and installing them in tent cities and gettinthem srarted farming by hand is going to be an interesting job if industrial ag collapses in the hear term......

But just because I quit raving about it doesn't mean I was wrong.......

I also floated the idea that perhaps since we WILL CONTINUE to build cars perhaps we should mandate truly durable easily serviceable cars designed to be upgraded-industrial equipment is already built this way.

Such cars might go a long way toward enabling us to salvage some of the sunk costs of our suburban infrastructure and keeping the economy stumbling along..This might not be- certainly is not-the most energy efficient path but it might be the best available POLITICALLY WORKABLE PATH.

All I got was "It won't work because its contrary to bau"-no discussion of the possible upsides.

I would remind everybody that unless we all have our heads up our backsides that bau will soon be bauaiutb-as it used to be.

"unless we find free energy and can extract minerals cheaply from sea water and pipe it to farms"

I have also thought about foodsheds a fair bit. For example, Boulder county could not feed its 300,000 inhabitants. Poor soil quality, little water, short growing season, etc..

Nevertheless, it is crucial that we enhance the county's food security. Feeding ourselves to whatever degree can be done will pave the way for the changes that need to happen. With the understanding that the food of Boulder county is brassicas, root vegies, apples and dairy products, people who are not excited by this might consider moving elsewhere, little by little.

Besides, once we are better aware of how the land around us feeds us, we can care about it more. The mindset that allows us to base our survival on what is not only unsustainable, but downright actively destructive (bananas being the most popular fruit comes to mind, the daily burger, too), is one of the ends of the ball of wax we are trying to unravel.

The majority of folks are deeply affected, without their knowledge, by being completely separated from nature around them. Those of us that reawaken that connection to nature find out that we are in fact willing to sustain some inconvenience in order to preserve the land.

A friend who moved to a Hopi reservation used to say of the limited grocery store offerings: "Cook what you like, or like what you cook". On some fundamental level, we need to come home to where we live.

How local is local ?

Los Angeles could be easily feed off of the Imperial Valley plus some from the San Jacinto Valley.

The 2.x million in South Louisiana could be easily eat (and eat well !) off just what South Louisiana produces, although some imports from South & Central Mississippi would be welcome for variety. As would spices from afar, bananas, etc.

New England, New York ? More problematic.


It's obvious that the problem of phosphorus depletion can only be solved by reprocessing human waste. This is not a new idea; in the 1930's, when I was living in Elmira, New York, they built a new sewage treatment plant whose output was fertilizer. The sewage was dried and sterlized by heat from burning paper trash. It worked quire well until, after the war, plastics came into widespread use, and they got mixed into the trash, so the pollution from burning that made it unusable as a source of heat. Maybe when we don't use plastics anymore, it will be easier to use paper trash as fuel again to treat human waste for fertilizer. where there is plenty of water, maybe we can pipe treated sewage sludge out to the farms, if they aren't too far away. Of course, now we've got this problem with all kinds of medications (and their metabolic products) contaminating sewage, so . . . It's the old principle that, when you solve one problem, you create another.

Folke Gunther does talk about local sludge use. It does put off the day of reckoning, but is not a long term solution.

The reason is that sludge can't be used very far from the treatment centers. Therefore these nutrients accumulate on farmland adjacent to cities, but not on the vast acreage in the hinterlands where most food actually comes from.

If you look at the website I linked, search for the HEAP effect.

Fascinating changes you describe about sludge "purity." The challenges pile up as you learn more...ugh.

Isn't a corollary of this that after death, the bodies of human beings should somehow re-enter the cycle as well?

Sprinkling of ashes, as sometimes is done now would have this effect, but I wonder if it doesn't result in mercury fillings being distributed over the landscape, and possibly other substances that are best not ingested ("rods in legs", dental implants, pacemakers). Cremation is energy-intensive as well.

Probably simple burial would be best, without a fancy metal-lined casket.

Yes. I read some report a long time ago by some Dutch(?) scientists who looked at this question and concluded that the bodies needed cycling too.

There's actually a small movement in the burial industry regarding this. People are being placed in biodegradable cardboard caskets, but at least in the US, the laws require placement in cemetery.

See here:

Perhaps a farmer with a long term plan can register as a cemetery. Might they allow livestock operations on this sort of place...geez, what a great idea!

The powers that be will work against the local food movement. As non-local food production gets more difficult it will get help and subsidies. An early example I believe is the red diesel and green diesel system in the UK. Later I think a percentage of natural gas will be set aside for nitrogen fertiliser production. Of course that won't create any more phosphorous.

Various kinds of property taxes and zoning laws will make it difficult to make a living producing food in the suburbs or suburban fringe. You will need to have a wage job to pay the bills then farm part time. Part of the problem is that governments are addicted to cash flow like everyone else. They have a vested interest in high priced real estate, an echo of the 'old' economy. I don't see an easy transition to local food.

The powers that be will work against the local food movement

Look at the cheese of Wisconsin where there used to be 100's of cheesemakers. Or the cost to slaughter operation that would not operate 24/7. (you'd have to cover the cost of the inspector as an example)

Important points.

One attempt to work around this is Small Plot Intenstive Farming

Lubbock,Texas, a city of about 225,000 has been using sewage effluent in irrigation of 6,000 acres of alfalfa. There have been some reports of increased nitrogen levels in nearby ground water as well as some positive reports:
'The fields at Lubbock had been irrigated for 6, 19, or 38 years with treatment plant effluent. The results of the investigations at these locations show that crop production has been increased by the use of municipal effluents as opposed to use of fresh water and commercial fertilizers. There was no indication that crop quality or soil physical properties had been adversely affected by the long-term effluent irrigation practices.'

I am surprised nobody has brought up heavy metals and other toxins. There is nothing wrong with using digested human waste as fertilizer, however sewage is another issue. Modern sewage has lots more in it than just human wastes, and tends to accumulate toxins. Also, I understand that sewage will leach heavy metals out of pipes and the like. Thus, I would be hesitant to use sewage without putting in careful thought as to how it will be collected and processed. I have used composting toilets, and it would seem to me that the output of those should be safe for fertilizer.

This has been brought up a bit in the threads. If you look at what Gunther recommends it very much avoids the type of sewage systems we have and is more akin to the composting toilet system.

Spreading sewage sludge in farms next to cities DOESN'T solve the bigger issues. It just moves concentrated wastes from one place to another. To be sustainable the nutrients have to be redistributed to the fields they originated.

In Günther’s writings and presentations on the requirements for sustainable cycling of nutrients, he suggests that the population of rural areas needs to be about twelve times larger than urban areas.

Why? This seems to be the nut of the argument. Seems like OP should have focused on explaining this. Not sure what thermodynamics or the other points, as important as they may be, have to do with the issue. If we can mine nutrients to keep distant farmlands fertile then why can't a pipeline transporting human waste accomplish the same thing?

That would be a good follow up article. I will look into it.

I think you might get a feel for the answer by using google earth to study the area of farmland we are talking about relative to the locations of major urban centers.

Urban areas are worth many $trillions, and US urbanites spend probably on the order of $100 billion annually to live there (given that urban living is already much more expensive than exurban or rural living).

Could the cost of recycling urban waste or constituents like phosphorus possibly be in the same order of magnitude as that of relocating people?

Money is worthless without sufficient natural capital, e.g., P. See quote at top of article.

I'm puzzled by this response - it doesn't seem to respond to what I said.

As I understand it, you're suggesting that the P in our waste stream must be recycled, and that relocalization is necessary for recycling ("A sustainable system must be primarily local because of energetic and logistical constraints.").

I think you just agreed that you need to prove that assertion, and evaluate the feasibility of recycling of urban waste.

Isn't the cost of urban recycling a basic part of that feasibility analysis? It's highly unlikely that it's not possible - it's really a question of cost, in terms of labor, and resources. Chances are that money will be a pretty good proxy for all of that. Not a perfect one, of course, but an essential part of the analysis, I should think.

I don't really believe that any monetary analysis would work. If you include things like property value, for example. These things are a matter of people's wants, not a matter of engineering.

I asked Gunther to explain his analysis further. He concluded that it is A LOT cheaper to ruralise than to keep resources flowing into dense urban centers and try to move the waste back out. But his analysis also took the long view that the urban built environment has a natural decay rate of ca. 2% and so he wasn't saying take infrastructure of current utility and value and destroy it, he was saying as entropy does its thing don't replace it. Then, invest in the rural areas because you will more efficiently be able to close the nutrient loop by doing so.

Hope this helps a bit.

it is A LOT cheaper to ruralise than to keep resources flowing into dense urban centers and try to move the waste back out.

Sure. But, how much?

My point is, people are already paying a large premium to live in cities. If the cost of recycling P adds $1,000 per year per household to the cost of urban won't make much difference.

Costs matter.

given that urban living is already much more expensive than exurban or rural living)

I question that assumption.


It's not an assumption.

Look at any major city (I don't know to describe NOLA, but it's low density and idiosyncratic). NY, Chicago, LA, etc, etc.

You'll find that property near the city center is 2-4x as expensive as suburban. Near suburban is sharply more expensive than far suburban.

There's a reason lower-income folks tend to drive a long time to their jobs.

A lot of things would have to change for this cost comparison to shift significantly: oil-related commuting costs don't begin to bridge the gap. What's cheaper: $3K more for a Prius, or $150K more for a house?

Housing prices are just one component of the cost of living.


True. But food prices and taxes follow the same pattern.

Rural commuting costs are higher, as rural and exurban workers tend to have to drive a long time to get to their jobs. Rural energy expenses are higher, too. That doesn't begin to compensate for the higher cost of housing.

Can you think of any other major expense categories that doesn't follow the same pattern?

Talk to any big-city realtor: housing costs trump other costs. People with a lot of money can choose the city, but any realtor will tell you: when people say they are equally open to living in city or suburbs, they always choose suburbs due to overall living costs.

As far as housing, just go back to the norms of 1950 for sq ft.

Food ? More expensive in urban Areas ? Outside Manhattan, cheaper.

The massive warehouses and distribution centers for food are focused on the cities. There are four distributors of fruits & veggies here, see competition. Fresher as well due to shorter supply chain.

Even, Walmart. In semi-rural areas they will charge more than in cities (I have noticed this several times, something $1.09 back home is $1.29 in Georgetown KY, Gonzales, LA etc.).


As far as housing, just go back to the norms of 1950 for sq ft.

I'm not sure what you're suggesting. Are you suggesting that we could reduce the cost of urban living by reducing our sq feet?

I agree, it's easier to afford to live in an urban area if you accept fewer sq ft - that's what we've done, and most urban dwellers do the same.

I'm actually doing a little bit of a reverse of the argument I've often made in the past (where I argued that some people live in suburbs because they can't afford cities). I'm arguing here that other people are willing to pay a premium to live in urban areas, and that won't change much even if the premium becomes a bit higher due to Phosphorus recycling.

My argument: rising commuting costs won't send many suburbanites to the city, and rising P recycling costs won't send many urbanites to rural living. These marginal costs just aren't that large.

As far as food costs go: my observation is that very dense cities have higher food costs, such as Manhattan, and downtown Chicago, San Francisco & Boston. I can believe that low density rural areas are also relatively expensive, and that medium density suburbs (and medium density cities like NOLA) have the lowest costs of all.

I agree that the long term critical part that decides the locality of food production is the recycling and transportation of the plant nutrients in human and animal feces and urine.

But local can then be within the reach of the railway system or with less energy use for concentrationg the resource within tens of km of pipelines for the wet material from biogas digesters. There are already such pipelines being built but it is so far a small scale effort

The rub, of course, is that improving technology fosters any direction of development that the liberated resources get used for. That's what efficiency measures actually foster. We don't yet have even a public concept of using them for completing and perfecting our systems for using the earth. We only think of them as solutions for multiply solutions, using every crafty savings in one place to relieve bottlenecks and provide resources for building ever greater systems of consumption in others.

It's that difference, between using efficiencies to assist in starting more things or finishing things, from multiplying systems to completing and perfecting them, that turns up in every single kind and scale of "job well done". We just don't seem to "get" how it also applies to creating a comfortable home on earth for mankind.

The following article seems to suggest that phosphorus is a pretty long-term problem:

How Long Will Florida Phosphate Mining Go On?

For decades, it has been said that the phosphate in Florida could be mined for about another 25 years. Technological advances and market changes, however, have continually lengthened the expected life of phosphate mining, allowing mining of rock that wouldn’t have been mined in previous years.
The Hawthorne Formation, which contains much of the Florida phosphate deposits, covers much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. In the heart of the Central Florida phosphate district, the Bone Valley Formation overlays the Hawthorn Formation. The two are separated by a limestone layer of varying thickness. It is the Bone Valley Formation that has produced the majority of mining activity in central Florida to date. The Hawthorne Formation is being mined in North Florida. It is also the Hawthorne Formation that is being mined in the southern extension of the central Florida phosphate district.

Florida phosphate reserves alone contain about 10 billion tons of soluble phosphate rock. Based on the current mining rate in Florida, this would last more than 300 years if economic and technological conditions allow.

What do you think?

How Long Will Florida Phosphate Mining Go On?

I'd say up until Florida goes underwater from the rising sea.

Apparently that's not a big problem, per the USGS footnotes on the 2007 report :
"Large phosphate resources have been identified on the continental shelves and on seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. High phosphate rock prices have renewed interest in exploiting offshore resources of Mexico and Namibia."

We have plenty of oil too -if you include the hard to do stuff such as shale and tar sands.

Yeah, I guess that's a good example of why it's misleading to include shale and tar sands in what we count as oil.

OTOH, it's worth remembering when we talk about these things that tar sands (Canadian & Venezuelan) are going to last a long time: they could provide 5 or 10M b/day for 100 years.

That leaves a lot of resource for the residual uses, like jet fuel, that are hard to substitute.