The Food System and Public Policy

Note: This post is based on a portion of my presentations at the recent Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in Denver. Go to the ASPO web site for the complete slide deck. And thanks to Debbie Cook for inviting me to be on her panel.

As reported by the Des Moines Register, Colombia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs had some strong words for the food industry at the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue:

Sachs said agriculture is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and he also linked the industry to depletion of water supplies and fisheries and poor dietary habits.

What I'd like to do for this post is ask if government policies contribute to the troubles in the food system. I see ways in which we are we working against our own interests, akin to a giant tug of war game, where the work of one only serves to counter the work of another. Once we identify the policies that support current conditions, we can readily suggest adjustments that will align with broad measures of well being.

I also want to acknowledge that part of the reason we produce food the way we do is because it has been incredibly successful at yielding abundantly and at low initial costs. What is more troubling are the unintended consequences that Prof. Sachs identified and that I will discuss further. These are the long-term costs, or externalities, that need to be factored into the transition towards sustainability in food production.

Broad Social Goals

I am first going to identify some broad social goals that I believe are non-partisan. If you look at these and study the effects of the current food system it is clear that the way we are feeding ourselves is diametrically opposed to general notions of "public good."

I identify four social goals that most everybody can agree on: Environmental Protection, Healthy and Safe Food, Economic Vitality, and Peace and Security.


Many of us may be familiar with the environmental woes of agriculture, such as soil erosion, hazardous chemical runoff, and their impacts on air and water quality. Also, many people are waking up to the fact that our food supply is generally unhealthy and sometimes unsafe. Fewer people realize that from a monetary perspective, the U.S. is importing much of its food. We tend to export cheap commodities and import expensive fresh and processed foods. There are two ways to improve a trade balance: export more or import less. Our national balance of trade would improve and regional economies would revive if we focused more on replacing high value imports with local goods. An unintended consequence of subsidizing the over-production of certain crops, like corn, is that global prices were lowered to the point that farmers in poor nations were driven out of business. This has tremendous implications for global peace and security as nations with weak trade and financial power lose food sovereignty.

Feedlot System

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the conflicts between broad social goals and food policy is by explaining the feedlot system.

A typical meat or dairy feedlot does not place cows on pasture, but in pens where food is delivered in the form of hay and feed made primarily from corn and soy. Feedlots have tended to develop in regions far away from population centers where land costs are low and environmental regulations are weak. For example, in the U.S., some of the newest and largest dairy feedlots are in eastern New Mexico and western Texas. Some local hay is grown using center pivot irrigation by pumping fossil water using fossil fuels, but most feed is trucked in from more fertile regions. And the animals in these operations are given antibiotics to keep disease from spreading in the confined and unsanitary conditions. Of course a lot of energy goes into keeping the milk cold for the long distance it needs to go to reach store shelves.


These feedlots are only possible because a specific set of conditions exist: 1. Cheap energy (especially oil) allows food to be transported around the world, 2. Environmental regulations are ignored or under-enforced, and 3. Crop subsidies make feed (especially corn and soy) ridiculously cheap.

Much of the energy needed to support the current food system is liquid-fuel based, and the U.S. now imports 2/3 of its oil consumption. I am not going to delve into the details here, but given that domestic oil production peaked in 1970 and is now down by about half, this is not a situation that can be reversed by more drilling or exploitation of unconventional reserves like tar sands or shale oil. Suffice it to say that the era of cheap oil is behind us in the U.S., and the food system will need to adapt.

The U.S. has many great laws aimed at protecting public health and the environment, but enforcement is often tricky. A prime example is the feedlot industry, which has developed in poor rural areas in need of jobs and with relatively weak government oversight. Even when facilities are cited for hundreds of violations, it can be difficult to shut them down. The public backlash is growing stronger, however, and one wonders when this whole business model will be untenable.

Let's look at crop subsidies. Between 2003 and 2005, about half of all U.S. crop subsidies went just to corn, or about $17 billion. This is one reason why so much corn is grown in the U.S.--over a quarter of all cropland for just this species. Corn and soy breeding and seed sales are now controlled by just a few companies, and these companies now create huge corporate political interference when reforms are suggested. In the article cited at the top of the post, Jeffrey Sachs warns that these companies might just have the power to lobby themselves out of business.


Ugly Consequences

What are the results of growing all this corn and soy in terms of public health, the environment, economic vitality and peace and security?

The health and medical communities are dismayed by the poor diets in America, especially among the poor, who predominantly eat highly processed foods. Something like half of all minority children are expected to suffer from diabetes. And obesity is a slow motion national health catastrophe that is straining our already broken economy.


The pollution is tremendous: greenhouse gases, pesticide runoff, soil erosion, terrible air quality, antibiotic contamination, etc. Results can be seen from space as a dead zone develops each summer in the Gulf of Mexico, as the waters of the Mississippi River overwhelm even the absorption capacity of the ocean.


Farmers are not generally getting rich growing cheap commodity crops. A lot of money was made by some during the 2008 commodity boom, but input costs also rose sharply. We see over the long-term that many rural communities across the country suffer from depopulation and an aging demographic profile, and food policies have contributed to these trends.


Many sensational and heartbreaking news reports during 2008 discussed how rising food prices and a weakening economy were causing hunger and political instability around the world. Oddly, a number of the nations affected could grow plenty to feed themselves. But they weren't because of development programs initiated by the World Bank, the International Montetary Fund, and the U.S. government. The gist of the story is that countries wanting aid money needed to orient their economies towards export and open their ports for import. As cheap U.S. grain flooded the world, local farmers producing the essentials went out of business, and large agribusinesses were able to move in and produce the kinds of crops wanted in the wealthier world. This seemed to work fine until prices of the commodities imported rose, and the local currencies dropped in value.


Suggested Changes

Now I will turn to five policy recommendations that would drive the food system away from the status quo and towards the desired ends. These are:

  • Reduce subsidies for crops used mostly as animal feed, i.e., corn and soy.
  • Ensure carbon price reflect full costs to drive land use towards pasture systems and make long-distance trucking more expensive.
  • Increase funding for conservation reserve programs and habitat restoration on farmland.
  • Fund research and outreach into low-input farming systems, including public domain seeds.
  • Support wellness and acute health care for all citizens.

The logic behind these recommendations is as follows. Crop subsidies create an oversupply of corn and soy that drive down prices and enable unhealthy practices to persist, including feedlots and the kinds of processed foods leading to obesity and diabetes. By removing those subsidies and instead allowing farmers to earn credit for soil carbon sequestration, environmental gains will start to appear as land is placed into healthier rotation schedules, including pasture. A price on carbon would also make distance more expensive and local more affordable by comparison. To wean ourselves off of oil dependency and increase food security, locally produced foods need to steadily gain market share.

Greater funding of existing programs that discourage the use of marginal lands and encourage the creation of natural habitats, such as riparian buffers, would support an agroecological approach that reduces dependencies on pesticides and other inputs. Farmers that have been on the chemical cycle for decades will need information, living examples in their area, and new sources of products including non-patented seeds. The programs to make these changes already exist but need expansion, such as SARE, ATTRA, NRCS, other non-profit groups, and regional university and USDA extension offices.

And finally, one of the lessons we can draw from the farmer suicides in India is that the lack of a safety net can push people over the edge. By contrast, if we ask farmers to take a risk and change what they are doing, it behooves us to put a health care system in place for them and their family so they are less afraid to let go of the familiar. From the food eater perspective, reduced subsidies may mean higher food prices, but these could be handled by lowering health care costs. U.S. families tend to spend only 10% of their income on food, which is the lowest of any nation in the world. By contrast, we spend more on health care than any nation, which is partly due to spending so little on subsidized food.

Transition Possibilities

My current work is to establish agroecological farming systems that link into healthy local food systems. I see the liabilities of what exist now and know that our nation is literally and figuratively hungry for change.

Fortunately, there are signs that at the very highest level, people are seeing the systemic connections and necessary policy shifts. As a key example, I conclude with a quote by Barack Obama from Time magazine, Oct. 2008:

I was just reading an article in The New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

Thanks, Jason, for a very informative post on an issue many of us care about.

You suggest some changes, but it seems to me that making them stronger, and aimed directly at the feedlot industry is the way to go. I don't see that trying to piggy back on climate change legislation provides any particular benefit.

Or maybe there is a lot of basic education that needs to be done first to get changes. Somehow, we need to make the public aware of the fact that a change is needed. It seems like a lot of change will be needed in the next few years in agriculture. It is hard to see that very gradual changes, piggybacked on other programs, are going to be sufficient.

I don't see that trying to piggy back on climate change legislation provides any particular benefit.

Agriculture and forestry will be the key sectors of the economy which will get the task to extract CO2 from the atmosphere once people have understood what global warming really means: a different planet Earth. We are now at 387 ppm. In no warm period of the last 400 K years were CO2 concentrations higher than around 300 ppm. That's where we'll have to go back to if our civilisation wants to survive.

Participation of agriculture in an emissions trading scheme is a big issue in Australia.

Agriculture, forestry and emissions trading: how do we participate?

Unfortunately, the Rudd government was forced by negotiations with the Liberal opposition to drop this participation

Federal Government exempts agriculture from emissions trading

Sunday, 15/11/2009

The above web page from ABC Rural contains many more links on this topic.

At this point, I don't see the US climate legislation as having enough backing to pass.

If it did somehow squeak through, I cannot imagine that it would "do enough" to make any substantial difference to agriculture--the focus would be on certain industries viewed as "bad". There would be winners and losers, but I doubt that the food industry would be affected in the necessary way.

I don't have much insight into whether a co2 market or tax system will develop. It is certainly being discussed and as this was a policy talk it needed to connect with the interests of policy people.

Outside of forestry, most ag interests appear to be against climate change legislation because they fear costs will rise for inputs, such as fuel and fertilizer. Mostly I see this as a reactionary response reflecting the political base of associations such as the Farm Bureau, which leans Republican and generally looks at this issue through a partisan lens.

On the other hand, ag interests who see the writing on the wall with respect to peak oil and later natural gas would welcome having subsidies switch from growing certain crops to building soil carbon, which also may include incorporation of green manure to make fields nitrogen neutral.

I am sure some agricultural and resource economists could come up with an incentive program that would move X amount of land out of annual tillage and into perennial and short-rotation cover cropping each year. They may also be able to calculate avoided fertilizer use, avoided soil erosion, avoided water pollution, etc.

I see a carbon market or tax of some kind as a huge leverage point in changing agricultural practices, land use, and the food system.

Transferring wealth from the poor to the rich is not a very moral choice. If burning hydrocarbons is such a bad thing, then ban them outright and control their use, say for things like public transportation, and jet fuel for those who absoulutely must get to the next AGW conference. Its a shame that "sustainability" and "resource conservation" (speaking as a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk and the Mule Deer foundations) are conflated with the obscenity known as the carbon credit market.

Transferring wealth from the poor to the rich is not a very moral choice.

I am not sure I follow you on this regarding carbon "markets" but have an idea of what hot button I pushed.

There are many, many ways to structure such a system and I never gave specifics. Personally, I am not a big fan of granting large "pollution rights" to industry. Other systems include "tax and dividend" and "cap and dividend" that actually redistribute income.

Who pays the carbon tax?

A carbon tax is paid by anybody who uses or potentially produces carbon-based fuels.

This is why I threw in the terms "dividends" because those schemes also return revenue to offset increased cost to those most vulnerable to the rise in prices.

We could do a whole series of posts on ways to wean ourselves of dependency on certain fuels. Heinberg reviews these in The Oil Depletion Protocol. FEASTA is another good place to find discussion of methods.

Any scheme which channels money through a centralised system (ie. market) or accumulated by a centralised body (ie. taxation) will ultimately be hijacked and the money syphoned off. Any such schemes should be opposed as they will not succeed in their stated goal and will cause significant blowback, especially in terms of political interference by moneyed interests.

In fact there is probably no top down approach which will not be undermined and have the opposite effect than desired. Efforts should really go into a bottom up approach which is sufficiently diversified and decentralised enough to negate and remove the malign influence of a corrupt political system and the private interests that control it for monetary gain.

Both the ecological, economic and political elements have to be tackled in any proposed solution which must look to negate all harmful elements. No harmful element can be utilised to undertake a solution therefore no political, national or economic body can be trusted with the task.

Let me ask readers a question. We have the article Livestock and Climate Change, published by the World Watch Institute, in queue, that we could run. We have all of the necessary permissions, and the HTML is done. The article asserts that 51% (or more) of world CO2 emissions are due to livestock production, processing, shipping, refrigeration, and home cooking. The authors have very good credentials.

We have not run the article though, because I thought perhaps it would be too provocative prior to the Copenhagen meeting. Also, we don't generally run articles on CO2, per se, because this is not our expertise. The reason for the high CO2 emissions is very much tied to our current way of producing huge amounts of livestock in feedlots, and shipping meat products long distances. Is this an article we should be discussing?

"I thought perhaps it would be too provocative prior to the Copenhagen meeting."

Since when does TOD worry about being too provocative? It should be discussed in the context of how reliant the livestock industry is on fossil fuels and as to what effects PO will have on production/prices. $10/lb. hamburger will surely get McDonald's attention. Sometimes you have to use the back door.

Who cares. CO2 is GOOD. It helps plants to thrive. Plants give off oxygen which WE need to thrive. AGW is a dead theory. Proven wrong by the fraudsters that propagated it.

OK. Back it up...................still waiting...................

Actually O2 can be highly toxic, just depends on the partial pressure. Since it is considered bad form around here to call a spade a spade, I'll just call you ignorant, which you clearly are. Please go back to school and learn something.

Don't feed the trolls.

Oh, gee. I guess you're one of those that just bask in your own intelligence. How smart you are. Yes, even water is bad for you if you deionize it. I want you to try living without O2 caustic or not.

What a clown.

The problem with your initial comment is that you demonstrate such a simplistic and prejudiced grasp of the issue. Your comments "AGW is a dead theory" and that it is "proven wrong by the fraudsters that propagated it" are clearly intended to be provocative but instead just demonstrate your lack of knowledge. That's why you have been called ignorant and no-one will pay any attention to what you say. As a clue, look (thoroughly and objectively) into the basic physical properties of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - that is the key to everything. You can find much thorough information on the RealClimate website as a pointer.


I for one would like to read it. Please publish it.

I do expect that there will be a number of the nut cases jump up and make a mess, but one has to keep pushing data, data, data.


Same here, please publish it! Maybe something for campfire discussion if it doesn't fit the TOD theme as has been stated.


The authors have very good credentials.

Is this an article we should be discussing?

To the last question, yes. To the first statement, maybe, but it appears to me that someone who has a solid understanding of the biogeochemical carbon cycle and the proper accounting of all of its stocks and flows needs to vet this piece first.

When the authors combine tail pipe CO2 emissions from a fossil fuel source with livestock CO2 breath emissions from a plant source, they are combining apples and oranges. In their accounting they are confusing stocks and flows and transitions with steady-states. No, tropical forests should not be chopped down to grow crops or to graze cattle (my understanding is that crops are raised until the soils are depleted, which occurs quickly, and then direct grazing begins). But the accounting charge for that is essentially a one time transition of stocks; new forests rapidly accumulating carbon initially as the new biomass accumulates but then reach what is essentially a steady state as it matures and if all else remains constant (particularly climate). With respect to carbon, forest destruction reverses that transition. The effect on other ecosystem services, such as those involving the hydrologic cycle, are different and do effect flows as well as stocks long term.

Many arguments can be made against the present production of ‘meat’- from cruelty to animals to taking up too much space in the freezer. Methane emitted by cows, and so on.

Use of land or interior lots, death hangars, with all the agri / other inputs, huge processing costs, killing basically, packaging, sanitizing, then transport, and at the end of the chain, more energy used to fry, bake, broil, BBQ, freeze once more, etc. Not to mention all the stuff that ends up burnt or in a putrid landfill, more polluting horror...

How would one calculate the CO2 emitted by the sex trade? Includes feeding the live bodies, transporting the workers, housing them, accounting for selling them on an hourly tariff, production of condoms, the feathers used for sexy boas, etc.

To turn to one of the most lucrative trades in the world, ‘illegal’ drugs? What about that? Poppy fields?

Or, gasp? WAR?

What are the moral standards, the ethical principles, that humans should adhere to, enforce world wide, so that less Co2 (plus other greenhouse gases) is emitted?

How are the rubrics to be set up, the calculations done?

What principles can be applied? In theory, without turning to enforcement?

Who gets to decide?

hmm.... Sounds like we are already have the discussion without seeing the article.

Post the article (but, hope it is not just another pitch for increasing human population by decreasing livestock).

Don't feed the trolls.

I agree. I'd like to directly target feedlots, "factory farms," or CAFOs (whatever you call them). Specifically, we need to shut them down. The only way I see this happening in response to climate change legislation is if there is general acknowledgment of the role livestock play in global warming, see e. g. the article Livestock and Climate Change, which Gail also mentioned elsewhere.

Right now this is not even on the political radar screen (and neither is "peak oil" for that matter). As the situation develops, this could easily change.

There's another aspect of feedlot systems which Jason only alludes to briefly but which greatly strengthens his overall case, and that is the issue of infectious disease, particularly pandemic influenza. Factory farms promote these kinds of infectious diseases. The 1918 flu epidemic was an avian flu. The flu virus can evolve quite quickly and we could easily get a pandemic worse than the 1918 pandemic.


In addition to viral disease, there are also issues like antibiotic resistance. I discuss these in this blog post:

Using anti biotics on a routine basis in livestock farming rather than as necessary to control disesae and parasite outbreaks is one of the worst mistakes we have ever made and one that is not even profitable for the farmer.If the practice were outlawed they would all still have an identical cost structure, everything else equal, and the feed lot operators, who are industrialists rather than farmers in the usual sense, might even have to shut down.

Yup, lets put all those livestock out in the pastures.
What do you mean you don't want them wandering through town and eating your garden? Oh, you want them all fenced in on those pastures.
Well, very few pastures these days still have fences around them. Fences are something that have to be rebuilt very regularly. Wood rots and steel rusts!
And most pastures are poor ground that is rocky. Ever tried to dig post holes in rocky ground?
How many forests will have to be cut down (every 20-30 years) to put in (and replace) all those wood posts. And how many millions of pounds of steel will have to be produced to make the steel posts and steel wire for those fences. And how much will all these fences COST to put in and replace regularly?
And if you can't get livestock in those pastures the same year(s) you put in the fences you can't deduct the cost from your (farm) income taxes.
And this is just the start of your problems with moving livestock from feedlots to pastures.

I live on a farm and I can not put up fences on my unused pastures to put livestock out there as much as I would like to because of the cost and tax implications. This is why most farmers don't fence their (poor for farming) pasture ground and raise livestock. It doesn't cash flow. ie they can't make money at it because of the cost of fencing!
Give me a $50,000 grant and a ten year tax break like they give town businesses and I'll have my farm fenced and raising livestock within 10 months. I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for the grant.

You don't see portable electric fencing in your area? It is very common around here where fences have also largely disappeared.

Portable electric fences won't keep predators out and won't keep most livestock in consistently. It is great for dividing hard fenced pastures for rotational grazing, but not for secure perimeter fencing.

I beg to differ! I can show you many cattle farms in my area that use just 2 strands along major roads. Loose cattle are almost unheard of. I use 4 strand high-tensile for peremeter fences on metal and wood posts (20' O/C) because I always overbuild everything. Our coyotes hate the electric fences. They'll go through barbed wire like its not there.

Electric fences may be a good choice now, but long term, they are not sustainable (unless you have a 24/7 source of electricity, or a strong battery).

So this is one of the things people who are planning for the long term need to think about. One of the problems in need of a "solution," as I see it.

Over the very long term perhaps you are right. But the truth is that these fences are usually not charged. They are used mostly to train the animals. Once a herd gets zapped enough they just stay away.

I would like to see more hedgerows installed for the long-term issues we fret about. Hedgerows have many other benefits on a farm aside from keeping animals in and out of fields.

If we are right about the depletion of the nonrenewables the feedlots will take care of themselves by going broke-there will not be a market for thier product at the necessary price.My guess is that this part of big ag will be one of the first to go as incomes decline and fuel and fertilizer and electricity become more expensive.

Grass fed meat prices will rise substantially and fencing will be affordable except for maybe very small pastures-the area enclosed varies as the square of dimensions.Electric fencing is borderline effective as a light wieght primary fence in the opinion of most farmers around here but some use it successfully.

Electric fences draw very little power and are one of the few truly economical applications of solar pv.Seven hundred bucks will buy a complete system that will charge a couple of miles or wire for a week of cloudy weather.At that point you must change out the battery with a hot one but deep cycle marine lead acid batteries work great and are fairly cheap..

Its doesn't take much for an electric fence, a few watts. Cattle kind of get trained and you can leave it off some, hogs are another matter.

My Solatrol 12V Solar charger just had it's first battery change after 19 years. Wow! I know this because the guy that owns the feed store nearby really stands by his stuff. When you buy a fence charger from him he opens it up and uses an engraver to put your name and the date he sold it to you on the inside. He also uses a sharpie to put the date and serial no. on the battery. If you get a lightning strike he fixes it for free. If anyone else has touched "his" fence charger you get scolded and the deal is off. He sold me the new battery at his cost. Try to get that kind of service anywhere else these days. I guess that's why his business has trived for nearly 50 years. Anyway, 19 years is pretty "long term". Also, lead/acid batteries have a very long shelf-life if they are stored "dry". Not sure about the new gel cells.
Further, a solar fence charger will still work fine if the sun shines, even with a bad battery, as long as the PV panel works. We used to turn sections of fence off for days after the cows were trained to them. Only young bulls would push their luck and test them, and happy cows stay put. When we put in new cows we put the big PEL charger on the fences. Believe me, once a cow or bull tests that thing they won't try again. After a few days we put it back on the solar charger.
About your earlier comment about Atlanta and soil. I was born and raised there. The surrounding area was almost all in agriculture of some kind when I was a kid. My grandparents had a medium sized farm in Roswell, raising corn, veggies, cattle, apples, we even had a large family vineyard and many fig bushes. Of course, drive 50 miles in any direction from downtown now and its a parking lot. Three Chinese cheers for progress! It was such a great little city once. I still remember the electric busses.

While working in Lexington,Ky I had many horses pastured on the farm here that I reside on now(middle of state to end of state--couple hundred miles away).

I stretched 4 strands of New Zealland type HiTensile wire with tensioners and doubled up end posts to take the strain. I enclosed about 20 acres and installed a rather low end solar charged fence charger.

I used 5 inch treated pine for end posts and treated landscape timbers for intermediates. I also used floating spacers inbetween the 40 foot OC landscape timbers.

This was in 1986 and as of today that fence is still in good shape and holding cattle.

I never had a horse leave that pasture in over 3 years while not in daily attendance on that farm.

I left the bottom wire at 14" above ground as per the ag profs at Murray State and the horses grazed the fence line clean.

The electric creates a pyschological barrier and even with a section of wire collapsed they did NOT want to be led over that space.

It was cheap, easily taken down and moved or added to and extremely reliable.


"Electric fences may be a good choice now, but long term, they are not sustainable"
Just thought I would add to the list of people who pointed that this is doomer thinking gone awry. Perfectly good solar electric fence systems have been in use for decades. Many things are possible in the future, but humans not being able to make simple solar electric systems is way down in the low probability tail. There will always be some electricity. But I guess we are a bit off the topic.

In our area we have to show a $3000 gross, each 10 acres for three years and our property taxes are reduced significantly. After that we have to produce gross reciepts of $1000/year/10 acres. That's just 2-3 calves per year. We incorporate our timber as well. Electric fence is easy! Once you train the livestock they rarely even test it.

Lowes and Tractor Supply have electric fence supplys also.

$50k grant? To fence? You're kidding...right?

All-in (including a battery, energizer, and solar panel), I can perimeter-fence a quarter-section with 3-strand aluminum wire on fiberglass posts for about $3500 and three man-days of labour. That's two miles of fencing that will keep cattle in just fine. Unless a livestock farmer is in cougar country, there won't be much of a predator problem. And I'm not skimping either as I'm building this for my very dry and very northern climate (central Alberta). Throw in some two-strand steel wire on 3/8" fiber-glass posts for temporary fencing and a cattle farmer could start practicing rotational grazing.

On a sheep operation like mine, the perimeter fence should be upgraded to 5-wire and 10 rolls (165 feet of fence per roll) of electric netting would be preferable to the steel wire temporary electric fencing. That would be about $1500 for some really decent electric netting and $350 for the extra strands of aluminum wire and hardware to attach it to the posts.

As for Gail's sustainability worries regarding electric fencing, she might have something, but my sense is not. My current electric fence (a little over a half-mile of aluminum wire organized as three-strand, top & bottom hot, middle ground, and five rolls of electric netting) draws under 5 watts, probably well under. Even around this time of year, where we only see eight hours of daylight, my 20-watt solar panel and 160 amp-hour battery have no issues. My system has been running with no issues for three years (other than the occasional deer knocking out a wire, necessitating a 10-cent splice). I'm expecting at least another three years before needing to replace the battery, another seven before replacing the energizer, and another 17 before replacing the solar panel. I expect the aluminum wire to last until I am too old to farm (30 years).

The yearly cost, financial or environmental, of such a fencing system is pretty small given that a quarter section of land can fairly sustainably produce hundreds of lambs each year.

There are a few posts down about movies but your post reminded me of this movie coming out soon.

Looks pretty interesting, one of the trailers tells the story of how industrial hog farmer "got religion' (don't mean to start a ruckus - just thought this is an accurate way of saying "paradigm shift" - a term I dislike...) after being infected when he was struck by one of his boars and the staph infection was resistant to most anti-biotics - sounds like it was resistant because of all the anti-biotics (must not be spelling that right) that were a regular part of the pigs diet.


If you could find a way to eliminate agricultural price supports for corn and soybeans the forces of the market would eventually crush the CAFO operations. There would be a rebirth of diversified farming over time. Best of luck with that of course as you will be fighting the biggest and baddest.

CAFO's cannot exist without excess corn/soy production. They would not be profitable. Over the last 35 years much of the time it has cost more to grow corn than the market would pay for it. Thus price supports to the farmers and the crushing need to make the operations larger and larger while chasing an ever shrinking margin.

It is not a preference for meat eating that drives the creation of CAFO's it is the excess production of corn and soy. This gives rise to the CAFO's, the bio-fuel program, HFCS and the dozens of other corn products, etc. All to use up the excess corn.

Kill welfare for industrial ag and you fix lots of problems.

It would be great if it were that simple, but there is the little matter of the vast difference in labour costs between the first world and the third world. Take away all the subsidies in the first world and it would be like going back to the thirties - land would just go out of production because it would not be affordable to farm it. I'm speaking from a UK perspective here, but for illustration we have to pay our farm workers about £100/day whereas in the third world they get $1-$2/day. The subsidy we receive almost exactly pays the difference between the labour cost at the two different rates.

Hmmm . . . are you saying that we (developed world) will now be importing food from the third world because of the labour cost differential? (As long as something resembling BAU continues in other respects.)

Also, in any event, wouldn't taking land (now devoted to corn and whatnot) out of production still have the effect of hurting or shutting down CAFOs?

Of course - that is exactly what would happen if we were unable to afford to grow food in the developed world, with all the consequent effects in terms of energy consumption to ship the stuff around the world and the other distortions it would cause. Add to that the fact that the gap between supply and demand is well recognised to be pretty small at present, and if we stopped producing foodstuffs in the developed world things would become very dicey.

The likely outcome in the medium term would be that the cost of food globally would rise because of shortages until it stabilised at a rate that brought land in the developed world back into production. But that would probably take a while to work and in the meantime labour would leave the land and then subsequently have to be enticed back. Also food costs would be that much higher around the world which would mean that poor parts of the world would have even worse food shortages than they do now.

The only sensible way to handle this would be a very carefully managed gradual transition. Switching subsidies off overnight would be a disaster.

That's VERY interesting.

It would seem to me at first blush that this would just drive the cost of CAFOs up and thus the price of meat from CAFOs up. At a higher price, not as much meat would be sold, etc., and the price of CAFO meat would eventually reach an equilibrium at some higher point. There may be small producer efficiencies with livestock that would enable small livestock operators to undersell CAFOs, I don't know. But if not, it seems possible that CAFOs would continue to exist, just at a lesser level, thus reducing but not eliminating the problem.

I'd like to think, though, that eliminating these subsidies solves the problem. It seems easier to eliminate subsidies than to simply ban CAFOs (though still quite difficult under current politics).


There is a great documentary called 'King Corn' shown on PBS that is very good, and I do recommend watching it. Perhaps it is available on the web and someone could post a link ?

Another good step would be legislation to break the system that allows patents on genes and GMO crops and holds small farmers in a circle of servitude. But I do not know if that is possible in the USA without campaign finance reform.

I saw that King Corn was on Netflix and possibly for streaming view. I'd like to watch it.

You may notice that one of my recommendations was public funding for non-patented seeds. The near monopoly of major seed companies has led to large increases in seed costs. Most university and USDA seed programs that I am aware of give away a lot of their work and it eventually leads to patented seeds. I will have a post on resilience that goes into some of the reasons why this is a problem.

Food, inc. is another great movie that just came out on DVD.

Removing the subsidies from commodity grain production, and the whole thing will collapse quickly. The big ag companies are going to fight and have long been fighting any changes to ag policies that might disadvantage them.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is one of a number of groups that have been working in this are for a long time.

It would be nice if we could make it so that Monsanto couldn't put sue farmers right out of their farms when Monsanto's GMO pollen contaminates the farmers' crop, or when a farmer tries to save his own seed or help others do so.

The whole system has become bizarre and obscene.

Reducing meat consumption to what it used to be for most--a special treat for the Sunday meal on occasion at most--would greatly reduce the intolerable strain the meat industry currently exerts on soil, air, water and planet.

I saw Food,Inc yesterday (from Netflix). Highly recommend. Michael Pollan is featured.

They talk a lot about Stonyfield Farm Dairy (organic milk products). The debate is whether it is good, or not, to distribute organics through Walmart. On the one hand, more people have access to organics at a better price, on the other, you have all the issues associated with Walmart...poor wages, no benefits, large-scale, energy-intensive distribution model, etc etc.

Relevant to the quote by Obama is the talk Michael Pollan gave at the Bioneers conference, where he suggested that though Obama supports these ideas, he finds that the American Public still is not behind such efforts. At a dinner with an acquaintance of Pollan's, he suggests that healthy local food advocates need to make a lot more noise!

I live in Boulder, evidently the county in the nation with the lowest BMI (body-mass index). Yet, my middle class friends find my local food efforts out of the question for their budget.

It simply does not register for people that food is SO important, that they must find a way to afford local, seasonal, organic produce (and eggs, and grass-fed milk). To them, the food budget being small is what allows life to be just bearable - a little vacation, cars that run and beer on weekends (and the health insurance premiums, for those who even have insurance). And given that I don't have to make that choice, I can't blame them.

So it seems to me that to change eating habits quickly, we would manipulate mostly the price of food itself.

So indeed, corn and soy subsidies is the first thing that needs to change. Unhealthy food should be "taxed", and farmers' markets and CSAs should be heavily subsidized. This would change eating habits instantly. I believe food stamps are doubled at our farmers' markets, but still, the average person spends $20 at the market, which buys a bag of spinach, a bunch of carrots, a pint of strawberries and a dozen eggs...

Another scheme that has occurred to me is some way that the cost of the produce would drop the more you buy. So if you are buying enough to feed a family of four half their meals, it might cost you $100, but if you are buying enough for all the meals, it would cost you $150.

I am looking forward, Jason, to finding out how you are working to encourage healthy local food systems.

I live in Boulder, evidently the county in the nation with the lowest BMI (body-mass index). Yet, my middle class friends find my local food efforts out of the question for their budget.

This may be because your efforts are viewed as pushing your own political preferences on people, rather than introducing a practical way to solve problems based on facts and analysis.

I am convinced that our food system is as big an environmental problem as transportation and hope we as a society move to address it. However, I tend to view local and organic food movements as elitist and politically correct stamps that let people act as if they are doing something positive when they aren't. That these people then use this to act superior to others can be annoying and offensive.

I have a very close associate who loves to rant about how they use CSAs, buy local and use only organic everything. However, they eat huge amounts of sugary food and quite a bit of beef. As a near vegetarian, who doesn't eat any added sugar, I maintain that my consumption pattern is far better than theirs. However, since I don't follow the politically correct ritual and haven't collected my "local" stamp or my "organic" stamp, it doesn't count.

I do think that localization has a lot of other benefits, such as building communities, etc. But until you can put facts behind claims that it has significant environmental benefits vis-a-vis other dietary and lifestyle choices, I don't think it is a reasonable argument to make.

It is my opinion that removing subsidies to corn and soy (for example) and reducing the energy content in our food (less meat, less processing) are real and important steps towards reducing the environmental impact of our food system.

Organic production and localization may or may not have a positive impact (I've seen studies showing both). However, they seem tiny in comparison to others actions and the emphasis that is placed on them often seems to come from a desire to act superior and self-righteous without making any real sacrifice.

I suspect that if people really had to live a sustainable lifestyle based on local agriculture in Boulder, Colorado, they (and probably you) would opt to leave and live somewhere else.

I think that there is a reason why agriculture has grown up in particular areas, particularly the US Midwest, but there are similar areas throughout the world. These areas really are more hospitable to agriculture.

I live in Atlanta, and the soil here really isn't the best. We get so much rain that the nutrients are all washed down very deep very quickly. That "works" for trees (which are native to the area), but it doesn't for other crops. If one uses all kinds of soil amendments, and cuts down lots of trees for a clear space, one can get reasonable crops, but a person really has to work at it. With lots of fossil fuels, this approach works, but I can't see it working long-term. Crop yields here are likely to be pretty low.

When Europeans first came to Georgia, there was a foot or so of rich black dirt over the red clay below. Bad agricultural practices have allowed most of that to wash away.

I tend to view local and organic food movements as elitist and politically correct stamps that let people act as if they are doing something positive when they aren't. That these people then use this to act superior to others can be annoying and offensive....

However, since I don't follow the politically correct ritual and haven't collected my "local" stamp or my "organic" stamp, it doesn't count.

I do think that localization has a lot of other benefits, such as building communities, etc.

It's usually taken as axiomatic that "organic" is a proven "sustainable" method that produces "superior-quality, more nutritious, safer" food.

A great disillusionment in my recent experience has been learning that this is not supported by the evidence. "Organic" is actually an ideology.

An earlier commenter asserts definitively that "organic eggs and grass-fed milk" are to be preferred. Here at the home farm, we looked into that--and rejected it.

The shorthorn and devon heifers we hand-milk are raised primarily on pasture and hay, but they have to have some grain. We also raise our own layers and meat birds. We acquired a price sheet from our local feed store and found the organic grain fully 100% more expensive than the non-certified grain. No thanks! These cows and chickens are for personal use, and unless we planned on selling milk and eggs in large quantities and/or jacking the price up significantly, there's really no point.

It's galling for non-certified farmers to hear claims that "organic" milk is safer, etc. with the presumption that this justifies huge price disparities. Even the USDA organic certification standards cannot be taken as a "stamp" of superior quality:

from Quackwatch:

Many consumers who "fork over a little more" believe that the foods themselves are more nutritious, safer, and tastier. But the USDA proposal itself noted that, "No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety." In other words, no claim should be made that the foods themselves are better—or even different!

Then there's the veterinary issue. Our local organic group (PDF) issues the following statement:

The NOP Standards allow all non-synthetics, unless they are listed as prohibited and prohibits all synthetics, unless they are listed as accepted.

Yes, you just read a nonsensical statement. In essence, "non-synthetic" ("natural" stuff) is good, unless it's not, and all "synthetic" (human-made) is bad, unless it's not. This is the very definition of a double-standard.

But it gets better:

One goal of organic livestock agriculture is to maintain animal health through sound management, and to move away from the regular use of health products. ...This is not an exclusive list, nor have all products been tested or proven to work in all situations. It is the result of conversations with farmers and health care practitioners.

Once again, your eyes are not deceiving you: This is an open admission that some of the very standards they use to grant "certification" and thus justify higher prices are untested and anecdotal.

It gets even better:

activated charcoal
artificial flavorings and colorings
Bag Balm


ABRASIONS, HOOF---Homeopathic remedies (Hepar sulf or silica) for abcess Hoofmate [Hux, Inc] – for hairy heel warts Hairy Wart Away [Dr Paul’s] – for hairy heel warts Holistec Ringworm and Hairy Warts soaps [Paris Farmers Union}

MASTITIS----garlic internally 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice per day

-tea of 1oz/ qt water ginger, goldenseal, Echinacea, clove, grated garlic, juniper berries, celery seed, dandelion root, and leaves, thyme, pine needles cayenne pepper, cinnamon, allspice and clove, bring to boil then steep 3-4 hours

-Homeopathic remedies (Bryonia, Phytolacca, Hepar sulph, Aconite, mastitis nosode)

PARASITES----Homeopathic remedies
Garlic Barrier [Garlic Research Labs] 1tsp. Per lamb monthly preventative, more frequent with observed infection


No thanks. We prefer "conventional" veterinary medicine.

The final issue is one I would call "chemophobia." Like Leviticus priests avoiding contact with menstruating women, organic farmers shun any and all "synthetic" pesticides, no matter how well-tested, no matter in what doses. They're UNCLEAN. But "natural" remedies--poisons, basically, that plants make--are CLEAN (unless they're not: tobacco products are prohibited, as well as, more recently, rotenone, and, one assumes, ricin.)

A most enlightening read is the story of the career of toxicologist Bruce Ames, a man first hailed by environmentalists for his invention of the Ames test to determine carcinogenity of chemicals, and then vilified for his later discovery that "natural" chemicals found in plants could be just as carcinogenic. He also found that one cup of coffee contains more known carcinogens than what one would get consuming a year's worth of conventional produce.

The upshot of his research is that all "chemicals," "natural" and "synthetic," should be treated on a case-by-case basis instead of disallowed categorically on the basis of such meaningless concepts as "natural" and "synthetic."

Here on the farm, we shovel cow manure into windrows, add leaves, and turn frequently to create the perfect soil amendment. We hand-dig some beds, and mulch heavily with hay, cardboard, and pine needles to control weeds. We have an extensive trellising system to save space.

But that doesn't matter: we're UNCLEAN because we use judicious sprays of captan, malathion, and carbaryl to save time and preserve our crops.

As you say, Jack, we "don't count" among the organics people, even though we're about as low-scale and local as you can get.

We don't worry about this anymore because it's clear to us the organics movement is simply going to price itself out of existence. There will still be low-scale, local farmers like us, and we won't be called organic, but people will buy from us and they'll like it.



activated charcoal
You're kidding right?

Does that include naturally occurring molds? How about the specific peptides in living mammals with known anti-microbial properties, that act as natural antibiotics and just happen to be an integral part of the immune system.

artificial flavorings and colorings

I guess that means *NO BULL!*

Bag Balm
ROFLMAO! Now I guess I need some ;-)

What a bunch of finely refined Yak Dung!

In the question and answer session following one of Jason's presentations at the ASPO-USA meeting, I asked why, if organic foods cost a similar amount to produce to non-organic foods, do they cost so much more in the grocery store. His response was that a lot of the organic foods are flown in from overseas. Ouch!

I wonder what kind of standards are followed overseas, also. Are they the same as here, or is enforcement on the lax side?

Organic prices roughly follow the laws of supply and demand. In the US, about 4% of food dollars are spent on organics at the retail level, but only 0.5% of US farmland is certified organic. Organic demand growth has been about 20% per year since 1990, while growth in organic farmland has only averaged 8.5% of the same period. Hence, the need to increase organic imports.

You would think this price premium of organics would lead to a faster rate of conversion. However, many barriers exist that make conversion slow. These include:
1. the three year transition period for certification during which your production costs may rise slightly while you lack the price premium
2. social and demographic issues such as the average age of farmers being about 60 and the lack of a social support network for transition
3. extra work required on identifying your market, suppliers, etc.

I authored a white paper on these subjects.

All USDA certified organic products must meet US National Organic Standards even when produced in another country. Farms anywhere in the world are inspected annually and need to supply documentation of their inputs and practices. Accredited organic certifiers have different reputations for how strict they are in interpreting the rules. You can find the national organic standards and a list of accreditors here.

One of the hidden truths about organic production - and I don't know why this hasn't come out - is that if you take production of grain across the whole multi-year rotation (including the years of non-productive green crops that are needed for fertility building), the actual equivalent yield of an organic system is only around 30-35% of a conventional system. Yes, that's right - even though organic farmers regularly boast about the high(ish) yields they can achieve in comparison to conventional production this totally disingenuously fails to acknowledge that they are not able to produce a crop every year as you can with conventional production. This explains the vast difference in costs and hence the fact that there needs to be a significant premium for organic production.

I hasten to say that I am not totally defending every aspect of conventional production. We do, in my view, need to develop a sustainable system of production for the future that balances up yields, energy efficiency and wildlife conservation. However, at least here in the UK, this is the way that conventional agriculture is going. For example we have extensive stewardship schemes and cross-compliance requirements (in order to get subsidies) which are continually evolving through interaction between government, farmers and wildlife conservation bodies. And it is a total fallacy to say that nitrogen fertilisers can only be produced using fossil fuels.

But organic systems (with their blinkered and prescriptive approach) clearly do NOT have the answers.

Well and truly said Sir!

At some point way down the road we can and must go organic as a permanent solution to the sustainability problem.

But it ain't gonna be any time soon.

And at that time the definition of organic will be changed substantially ,maybe to the point of being unrecognizable, as practical matters of the sort you speak of determine the definitions of acceptable and unacceptable.

Organic farming on a scale even remotely capable of feeding even the current American population is for the forseeable future pretty much a pipe dream on the same level as projections of going over mostly to renewable energy within the next decade or two.

Such a thing might be -just barely- within the realm of technical feasibility but as a practical matter is politically utterly impossible.

I thought you all might like to see this image of an commercial 'organic' field near Salinas, California.


The term "organic" is practically meaningless since the USDA and the BigAg folks that run it co-opted the term earlier this decade.

There have been studies saying there's no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic, and counters to their conclusions. On many other scales (pesticide use and resistance, environmental impact, water quality, water use, soil quality, energy efficiency, etc.) organics come out on top.

I appreciate that farmers actually have to make a living in monopoly conditions. Tyson, Monsanto and Cargill set the terms which are non-negotiable. See Food, Inc., Pollan, etc. for more details.

Meat production is energy intensive. Beef in CAFOs are fed on corn which gives them acidosis (King Corn) and live in their own manure for a year before slaughter. Sewage disposal and runoff from CAFOs is a huge problem that dwarfs domestic human sewage problems.

Subsidies to commodity ag business include DOD and DOT in addition to healthcare costs associated with Diabetes 2, obesity, e. coli, etc. Unless and until all these externalities are included in the costs of the current production system, there is no basis for saying "organic is more expensive" and therefore elitist.

Yields, the one area where some conventional crops outperform organics, also need this sort of analysis (EROI, EROWI, hidden costs of all sorts) to accurately measure yield. Pimentel is probably the most advanced author here. Most vegetable crops conventionally grown are EROI losers, whereas corn is a winner.

Obama started his road to the Whitehouse by winning Iowa. Don't forget to kowtow to Chuck Grassley et. al. on the way out. Current Secretary of Ag is Tom Vilsack, from Iowa. He supports biotech and corn subsidies for ethanol.

My 2 cents.

This is an excellent article , exceptionally well written by a thinker of the first order.

I would like to make a few remarks that may touch on some of the roots of our current problems.
Once the original conservative philosophy of govt-SMALL govt that only looks after such things as the borders, the post office, and the defense of the country- was relegated to the dustbin of history to make room for interventionist govt the gates were left open and all the cows and horses and piggies were let loose.

All good intentioned govt programs are captured and subverted after a few years or decades by the very parties that they are supposed to regulate in the case of regulatory programs.Some good results may or may not be forthcoming but you can bet your last can of beans that the offenders will have a bueracracy of dedicated public servants at thier disposal who will work out ways to see that the status quo is set in concrete.

Witness the tobacco program for an example.everybody is hooked on the taxes while the industry is assured of monopoly profits for another thirty years at least.Modest crop subsidy programs grow like cancers and eventually are at the center of the web of congressional and senatorial seatsop for election, state and federal budgets,and deal cutting on a nationwide basis.

Once a congress critter has his constituents firmly corraled and ready for a willing milking ( Some cows are contented!!) and gets his name out thre as the upright supporter of farmers and free enterprise, or General Motors and free enterprise,or the local ripoff cable company and free enterprise, or our right to sue for getting our feelings hurt and free enterprise,then he is about as secure on his congressional throne as any prince of old-actually far more secure, given that assassination is so rare these days.

A program intended simply to help people in need such as the social security program is subject to the same effects plus the comngress critter can vote benefits for current constituents and charge them to grandchildren not yet born.

The entire food retailing industry is in large part a creature of advertising and govt intervention in the name of the public good.

So a few people were saved from food poisoning or tuberculosis by running the small operator with two cows or fifty chickens out of business.I find it rather ironic that so many advocates of govt regulation of everything now see the problems and want a return to the days of yore without stopping to think even for a minute about some of the reasons why we are in the current pickle.

As soon as the do goodis managed to pretty well destroy a large part of the fruit and vegetable industry in this country by effectively outlawing migrant farm labor they forgot about thier cause.

We lost a very large part of our local apple industry because there simply were not enough local people to harvest the crop-except for full time farm workers everybody else had to find a full time job-and you can't quit a full time job to pick apples for six weeks.

The former pickers are absolutely not one speck better off-they have lost an employment opportunity and gained nothing in exchange.They are back now as yard workers-the doogoodies need thier yards looked after cheap so they are safe this time.Until the dogoodies are busted at least.Most of them will still have thier yard boy right up until the day they are evicted.

A very large number of people in this country are absolutely dependent on the status quo in the food processing and marketing industry.They and thier employers and thier congressmen and thier local papers and tv and radio will scream bloody murder at any hint of serious change.

And the real priests of the present day world, the most powerful priests ever, will be called out by thier corporate masters.The advertising industry will bring its guns to bear on the puny forces of change and they will last about as long as the Polish horse calvary lasted against Hitler's mechanized blitz.

This situation will not change in any substantial way until change is forced by a crisis that cannot be defused or postponed-and at that point if will be too late for any thing other than emergency measures.

There is a lot of good work being done by people in the organic movement and the various self sufficiency and localization movements but in my estimation it is not reasonable t expect the general public to accept these initiatives as a whole-very few people will heed the warnings.
Too little too late sums it up.

Early adapters may save themselves if they are seriously dedicated.

As far as the public is concerned-a little tale told by a nurse educator I must not name will suffice to illustrate my point.

She teaches a little class on the management of diabetes directed towards both the diabetics and thier family members at a local hospital occasionally.This is scheduled in the late afternoon when most people are off from work and her clinical duty is over for the day..She very sheepishly admits that after a long day she is apt to stop for fast food for her own family-and that her students very often leave the hospital parking lot and drive directly to a burger joint a quarter mile away-the same one she patronizes.

I begin to see things ever more clearly thru the glass and it is not the glass which is s dark.It's the future on the other side.

I hope that the regulars here will remember that I am a realist conservative tather than a 'publican Neanderthal cave dweller-for instance I have posted in favor of single payer Euro style health care.My intention today is to emphasize just how deeply embedded the bloodsuckers are embedded in the body politic and how hard it is going to be to get rid of them- if it can be done.

My guess is that it cannot-until there is a very serious crash.

This is a response to OFM, but also Jack who responded to my post upthread, and mikeB.

Let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for the point of view of people who, unlike me, are in fact trying to make a living growing food for the rest of us. Personally, I am a family physician (and have seen far too much diabetes in my community health center practice), and a mom with 3 boys to raise - I feel responsible for choosing the most nutritious food we can afford. Also, we are well-off, which means that I can afford to "subsidize" what I consider to be a worthwhile farm, just as some people subsidize universities, the Arts, hospitals or the Red Cross, for being worthwhile institutions in our society.

So to OFM - I agree the system is a mess, and rife with embedded unplanned outcomes. The question is where do we start to make it better? I think by giving any extra money we have to people who we trust are trying to grow the healthiest food they know how. And if such people can be identified, then we might support our local government in making this food available to people who are struggling financially, and choose chips over carrots just to keep their stomachs from getting hunger cramps. Can this be done by conservatives? I hope so!

What OFM writes about migrant labor is interesting and reveals just how messed up the system is. I have provided medical care for migrant workers and "undocumented" immigrants. (Hell, my family has had a long history of immigration - legal only because we are college-educated, you know). Can we say that laws against undocumented are wrong because we can't find anyone else to pick the apples? If not, then what? Is it impossible to make a living as an apple grower without migrant workers? What is the solution to that? I sure don't know.

To mikeB - I appreciate the frustration of growing food the safest and most reasonable way you know how, yet not being able to get the "benefits" that come with this completely unreliable "organic" designation. We need to continue to educate people to simply talk to farmers and buy from who they trust. Then the farmers also need to know who to trust when they get advice on farming practices. The profit motive just does not lead to that much "quality" when it comes to farming. You probably know what I mean even better than I do.

Quackwatch, however, is written by one guy, a retired psychiatrist. He quotes all of two studies to support his contention that organic is no more nutritious than conventional. One is a Consumer Reports study, the other a 1990 study from Israel. I sure hope that psychiatrist did not treat his patients on the basis of one study done in Israel 20 years ago and a blurb in Consumer Reports. Then again, maybe he did.

How do you get reasonable, reliable research to underlie a set of useful guidelines for food that can then be certified "better"? You're the farmer, you tell me. I agree that too much of what we do is based on "untested and anecdotal" mumbo-jumbo.

Plants have carcinogens. Some synthetic chemicals are safe. True. Hormones in milk (rBST) and massive antibiotics fed to cattle are a pretty sure bet for being "a bad thing", though. Pretty straightforward exclusions for an "organic" designation, I would say.

Finally, to Jack - the question of whether a local food movement is the wrong thing to support (elitist, hypocritical, environmentally destructive in some way) is very important to me. I am now "retired" from medicine (to focus on raising my kids), and am very interested in supporting a worthwhile cause. I am not very good at political advocacy, and it doesn't fit well with the stay-at-home mom role. Promoting local, high quality food, however, does. I make it clear I think it should be subsidized, so my former patients could afford it (they can't afford the diabetic cornucopia of pills and tests, anyways, nor the complications of this terrible disease).

Boulder is a difficult place to grow food. Short growing season, wind, hail, no water, poor soil, you name it. The carrying capacity just isn't very high, and meat needs to be at the center, as well as ways to preserve the harvest from perennials. Trust me, I am highly distressed by the prospect of facing PO/CC in this location.

The point I make with my friends is not that they are stupid to buy conventional milk. I pay $8/gallon for my milk and I know families who also want a roof over their heads have a hard time with this. I am just saying I fear this is the right price for healthy milk/milk production. The right price for apples may involve picking them yourself. The right price for beef certainly involves eating a whole lot less of it. The right price for vegetables means many people must grow their own. The right price for strawberries involves not exploiting the labor of people in poverty.

Jason is certainly right. Corn and soy subsidies, paired with Monsanto monopoly over seeds, the lack of a way to assess carbon costs of food, etc... these are basic problems that must be addressed head on. The fact that it is not likely to happen can't prevent us from discussing the issues in clear-headed ways. Maybe we can find something that is likely to be done. It is going to involve individuals and government, law-changing and consciousness raising. It's a huge problem.

Hi Paranoid,

We pick our own apples these days.No choice.So we are limited to twenty percent of our former production max.

Of course that means that most of the apples around here are hauled in from across the country these days and cost twice as much.I've no real idea who picks them out in Washington these days but I hope they have year round work.

I don't know how to reform the system- I don't think any serious reform will take place until something smashes it.Peak oil might very well do the job but even that will take a long time if the decline is gradual over a decade or two.

If it is fast, as Westexas and his buddies expect, we could see real change in the next four or five years.

The various people working on sustainability in all it's incarnations are laying a good ground work but I fear they are overoptimistic in estimating thier progress under bau conditions.

One thing that would help enormously would be for the environmentalists and dogoodies to adopt more realistic attitudes about what is reasonable and possible.Your comments encourage me in this respect .

But we are constantly harangued by those who want perfection in envirnmental policy and result.This attitude shares too much with religious fundamentalism.This is a tricky topic and I don't have the time or the energy to compose decent comments right now.

I suggest that everybody should read JMG (ARCH DRUID) this week in particular.

Thanks for your response!

Actually it's funny. When I wrote about picking one's own apples, I kind of meant as consumers, we need to pick our own. I'm thinking that a crop that's ripe only 6 weeks out of the year makes it impossible to have a workforce that isn't migrating. This problem only comes up if one is growing a single kind of apple and one is trying to supply hundreds of families. For my own family, it is not so hard for us to spend two weekend days in September picking enough apples for however-long they'll last us.

However, it clearly becomes a whole different thing to run an apple-growing business on a pick-your-own model. Not to mention carbon emissions from all these people driving out to orchards.

Then of course, there's backyard apple trees, though they present challenges too.

Or this guest post of his:

The Next Agriculture?

which contains this quote:

Now this may well be true, but history teaches that when ideology collides with economics, it’s inevitably ideology that comes off worst.

Fundamentally, economics is about people's choices, be it what they eat or what they grow. Not what they say they are going to do but what they actually do, biases, irrationality and all. Politicians respond to a complex calculus of economics and the vote. Will Rogers is alleged to have said "We have the best politicians that money can buy" (although the quote does not appear in Will Rogers quote lists). To understand farm policy, follow the money flowing in political contributions.

Transitions have costs and risks for individual farmers, whether it is to farm more land, increase herd size or convert from conventional to organic. Many loose their farms in these transitions, hence the Western Risk Management Library to help farmers manage risk for one.

Recent evidence of the clash between ideology (organic) and economics (consumer choice) is this article Organic Dairy’s Dilemma.

According to USDA estimates of whole and reduced-fat organic milk volume, sales fell 27% in January and 12% in February compared to year-earlier sales. April was down 6%, May -8%. Through August, organic sales for these two categories are down some 70 million lb., or -6.4% compared to last year.

Sales of all categories of conventional fluid milk, however, are up 475 million lb, or 1.4%. Not only has conventional milk grabbed back market share, it has expanded sales as cheaper fluid prices have enticed shoppers back to the dairy case.

And then there’s the cost of organic production. The ERS study is based on data collected in 2005 from 352 organic dairy farms in 14 states. Even then, operating costs for organic dairies with fewer than 50 cows was $17.65/cwt and $18.25 for organic herds with 50 to 99 cows. But total economic costs for these herds were $38.50 and $33.36, reflecting huge inputs of unpaid family labor.

. . .

And that leaves the organic industry in a quandary. To be profitable, herds must grow. To be the most profitable, they must grow a lot. But if sales and market growth aren’t forth coming to support that expansion, organic farms will have to start cannibalizing their organic neighbors as they claw their way to black ink. Sound familiar?

+1 "fair, balanced and nuanced" Paranoid. Having worked for my brother growing row crops and hay for 15 years and talking to him and other farmers since the late 80's about organics, all I can say is the need for a balanced long-term gradual policy shift is the only way to make this possible. Remember how "Freedom to Farm" was going to remove subsidies? Why would the politicans remove the political support group that keeps them in office with a steady paycheck and more importantly - influence and the hope for a bigger future payday?. Corruption is as big a problem in the American system as it is in Afghanistan for example. Maybe this will pass with a generation or two, but I see it entrenched in the system right now and I do not see how it gets mitigated.

My strategy is evolving to get a circle of people you like, trust or can stomach, and build a system within/without the larger political/economic system as much as possible. Thanks for debunking Quickwatch.

I think the organic movement can be seen as elitist and too expensive, the local food movement usually seems to push less buttons for "normal" people.
I agree about quackwatch, if their info is looked into a bit more closely it's usually a bit sensationalist..
However there's a danger of becoming fundamentalist about either side, any plant is as good as the soil it grows in, and the soil depends on it's underlying geology.
With a closed system you can have tasteless organic carrots and 2 miles up the road delicious, nutrient rich conventional beetroot- luck of the draw sometimes. However with monitoring of nutrient levels with brix meters etc we can get ther highest quality produce to people.
I'v decided not to be certified organic, however I think all agriculture will be essentially organic in the coming years because hopefully people will see with the right plant nutrition there is no need for ff pesticides etc.
great article jason

Just thought I'd add here that alternatives exist to organic certification that are less costly. In some respects they are less stringent and in other respects more.

are two used around here.

If you can find a niche where people know you and trust you and you deliver consistently high quality food then that is better than any label. Labels exist because we have become distant from our food sources. They are useful tools but not the be all end all.

Sir If I may disagree with you? I dare say that you must make less noise, and instead generate a better image than that of a hectoring bully. Some years ago after the Senate refused their duty to remove Clinton the social conservatives had a meltdown, and the best thing said about it came from a moderate, Kathleen Parker who told them to suck it up, shut up, and instead try leading by example. Truer words cannot have been said. But I suppose the moral fanatacism that comes with the , "we must save everybody" mindset does not allow for gentle persuasion any more than Joseph Stalin's plan to collectivize their own ag sector allowed private initiative.

I don't know where your friends are with their eating habits, but the first step is cutting out processed food, fast food and the oversized restaurant meals. You can actually save a lot of money this way: bringing lunch instead of eating out, or cooking with basic ingredients like rice, flour, beans, fresh produce and less meat.

As for the next step of supporting local and/or organic food, that does take more time and money. When I see the high prices on organic milk and free range eggs at the supermarket, I just get confused and suspicious about who I'm actually supporting. Just another BigAg farm that certified organic? I really need to make time for Pollan's book.

A lot of mud-slinging out there so it can be hard to figure out what you are indeed supporting. The way I have come to see it is some farms actually refuse to cut corners when it comes to production, and then sell things as cheap as they can afford to, and others cheat and just piggy-back on the overpriced organic "trend".

One thing, though. The dairy I support ( says that when they switched the cows to 100% grass-fed, the milk production dropped by 2/3. That is why I start to wonder whether the "right" price for milk is $8/gallon (this is assuming grass-fed milk is better for you, which is supported by some rather flimsy evidence, I'll admit).

I am trying to maximize the benefit I get from milk (if I even drink any). It's not an exact science by any means, but there has to be a place for paying more for food produced in ways that save us money in the long run some other way (either health effects or environmental effects). The fact that this calculation is so difficult is one reason why the status quo is so secure.

One thing, though. The dairy I support ( says that when they switched the cows to 100% grass-fed, the milk production dropped by 2/3.

Before switching to grass fed did they grow or purchase their grain? I'm curious of the milk production per acre of grain fed vs grass fed.

On average, organic methods produce, in places like N. America, between 90-95% of conventional yields. In developing countries they tend to produce 180% or so of conventional yields. For milk production to drop by 2/3 is very odd.

Fig. 3. Yields of all kinds of foods from organic production systems are similar to chemical production systems. Organic yields are divided by chemical yields, so values above one means organic yields are higher and values below one lower. Graphic from Badley et al.

Grabbed that image from my blog:

On average, organic methods produce, in places like N. America, between 90-95% of conventional yields. In developing countries they tend to produce 180% or so of conventional yields. For milk production to drop by 2/3 is very odd.

I think it was a switch from grain fed to grass fed not a switch from convential to organic. Milk production can fall off a cliff for cows taken off energy dense high protein feed. Seven litres a day is achievable on grass though.




Jason, Re your suggested Changes:

Now I will turn to five policy recommendations that would drive the food system away from the status quo and towards the desired ends. These are:

* Reduce subsidies for crops used mostly as animal feed, i.e., corn and soy.
* Ensure carbon price reflect full costs to drive land use towards pasture systems and make long-distance trucking more expensive.
* Increase funding for conservation reserve programs and habitat restoration on farmland.
* Fund research and outreach into low-input farming systems, including public domain seeds.
* Support wellness and acute health care for all citizens.

I know of the great work that you personally are doing and I salute you for that!

However, to be honest, in my day to day encounters with my fellow citizens I find more and more that the vast majority of them are either unable or unwilling to make the changes that you and a few enlightened others so clearly see as necessary.

I wish I could be more hopeful and optimistic but I find your list of suggestions to be highly unlikely to be implemented because the forces against them by TPTB are still just too damn powerful.

Despite the fact that the iceberg has been sighted and the alarm sounded, the forward momentum of the ship makes the strike completely unavoidable. To make matters worse there aren't enough lifeboats for everyone, and the water is very very cold.

I don't think the Titanic analogy is very appropriate or helpful. If it were as simple as that - an iceberg clearly in site - then it would just be a case of alerting people to it and the steps would be taken. The problem is that the challenges of the future are like an iceberg that is almost totally submerged and so not visible to most people unless they look VERY closely - and even then there are people telling them authoritatively that what they see is nothing more than a small bit of wood, or not even there at all.

I don't think the Titanic analogy is very appropriate or helpful.

I don't think you read what I wrote very carefully or perhaps you chose to misinterpret what I said.

My point was that that despite the fact that we have been alerted, it is too late to avoid hitting the iceberg. By the way it is not the job of the passengers to look out for icebergs, it is the responsibility of the lookout who then reports what he sees to the captain on the bridge, its also the job of the captain to make sure that there are enough lifeboats for all in case the ship sinks.

My analogy was more along the lines of the captain not having done his job properly by failing to adequately prepare for disaster.

I find your list of suggestions to be highly unlikely to be implemented because the forces against them by TPTB are still just too damn powerful.

This seems rather defeatist. It seems to me that Jason's piece points out that agriculture is at least as important place to address energy use, climate impacts and environmental damage as transportation and manufacturing.

In that regard, removing farm subsidies doesn't seem any harder than the approaches proposed in the energy sector (carbon taxes, carbon trading). In fact, it seems easier.

Do you also think those are equally unlikely to be implemented?

One recommendation which is missing is to stop urban sprawl into agricultural land which surrounds cities. Unfortunately, there is a conflict with housing policies. If green field housing is to be avoided (a peak oil requirement anyway) then the alternative is more dense housing in existing residential areas (e.g. around rail stations) which means that many will lose their gardens for veggies and fruit trees which will be needed to supplement our food supply.

I have written this submission on a case in Sydney:

It seems to me that there are more than enough houses built already. We don't need any new houses--I expect the number of new houses built in the US this next year will be even less than last year, and less yet the following year.

So I think the issue of urban sprawl issue is mostly going to go away by itself. I expect maintaining cities will become increasingly difficult over time. We really don't want to encourage any more people to move to them.

The situation may be different in Australia.

I left out the protection of ag land from urban sprawl bit because I also didn't feel it was a significant threat given the market conditions, though in particular areas that may not be the case.

However, if we take sustainability seriously I do see the need to consider re-ruralization as a path. That may entail more farm housing, but this would be very different than sprawl in today's sense.

In Australia urban sprawl will continue to be a problem as long as the ruling oligarchy pursues an insane immigration policy.Growth at any cost is the ruling policy.

Australia has a housing bubble just like until recently in the USA.Just like the USA it will be deflated and that not too long in the future.Whether that results in a rethink on immigration is debateable given the cognitive dissonance apparent in the majority of the population.

Australia also has major problems with industrial agriculture as well as long standing problems in the pastoral industry due to overstocking,land clearing and feral animals causing land degradation.

Australia has an extemely fragile ecosystem due to chronic aridity and poor soils.Just like in the USA, for those of us who have some concept of reality it is an uphill battle trying to convince the wilfully blind.

Hi Gail,

I expect maintaining cities will become increasingly difficult over time. We really don't want to encourage any more people to move to them.

This seems like a good topic for a future essay. There are so many conflicting opinions about what type of residential dwelling organization will be more or less advantageous in the coming years. Could be very interesting to see TOD folks take a whack at this (or maybe I already missed such a discussion?)

As for getting rid of subsidies, a coalition of ag, environmental and social justice groups which includes some very well-established NGO's has been trying to modify the corn/soy susidies since the 1980's. Every time the farm bill comes up, it really seems like it is inevitable that they will be eliminated because the case for all the environmental and societal costs of these programs is so STRONG. With each passing decade, it becomes stronger.

HOwever, the ag. industrial complex has prevailed to the point where the perverse nature of these programs is mind-boggling!

We all have hopes for the next round. Sigh.

After 20 years of working on organic agriculture I am convinced that the grassroots changes that are taking place are essential. This network of knowledge and experience will become more important as the cost of energy rises, driving more farmers to look for alternatives. For example, in our area, the cost of N fertilizer is driving more farmers to diversify their rotations by adding N fixing plants. This is not possible for many farmers who are caught in the commodity treadmill which is why it is so important to get rid of the crop payments.

Thanks for doing your work for so long with apparently no sign of change in direction. I try to keep in mind that transitions often happen rapidly and unpredictably. The work you have done builds public awareness and as an untenable situation leads to some kind of collapse (could even be a collapse in public support) then the alternatives you've developed for 20 years step in the gap.

I found this article linked from Energy Bulletin interesting. At the bottom is some discussion about how the law requires businesses to act in the interests of their shareholders, rather than the interests of the general public.

This applies as much to Agribusiness as Tobacco companies and Oil companies.

"Corporate profits vs. corporate social responsibility
I'm sure I've left the impression that I disapprove of what the Manufactured Doubt industry is doing. On the contrary, I believe that for the most part, the corporations involved have little choice under the law but to protect their profits by pursuing Manufactured Doubt campaigns, as long as they are legal. The law in all 50 U.S. states has a provision similar to Maine's section 716, "The directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interest of the corporation and of the shareholders". There is no clause at the end that adds, "...but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety"

In order for any change in the food sector to be implemented, corporate charters will need to be changed to include some verbage about social responsibility.

"In order for any change in the food sector to be implemented, corporate charters will need to be changed to include some verbage about social responsibility."

I would change that to;

In order for any change in the (insert just about any societal ill here) to be implemented, corporate charters will need to be changed to include some verbage about social responsibility.

And of course changing just the verbiage is not enough. Corporations cannot be allowed to get above a very small size or to continue for more than a very few years, as otherwise, as we have seen, they accumulate so much power as to act in ways harmful to all. Many have been saying this for quite some time, but we've mostly been written off as wackos.

I think corporate "personhood" is a pretty poor idea too.

Yes, indeed. That is exactly what I was getting at, however befuddeledly,

Being a corn and soybean farmer I know there are basic reasons that these crops are grown and that will not be changed by legislation. The basic reason they are grown is storage. Grains keep if they are dried. They can be stored for several years and the drying normally is done mostly in the field at very low cost.

Farmers have to grow something to produce an income. Gardeners know that a very small plot will produce more than they can consume. The problem for farmers is how to preserve the abundance. Fruits and vegetables are in high demand but keeping them in saleable condition for the market is problematic.

Centain areas of the country and the world specialize in these because of climate and labor availability. Other parts do not have the labor, or the climate in some cases. So that is why the grains are grown and produce is imported. No amount of bitching or legislation will change this.

That being said the policy of the Federal Government subsidies and the Farm Program in general has been to get small farmers off the land. This is justified in the name of efficiency. Subsidies are paid based on production and the amount of land farmed. Thus the larger farmers reap most of the subsidies and are able to buy more land, bigger machinery and squeeze out small farmers over time.

This has been going on ever since I can remember which goes back to the late 1950's. It is the reason that the population of most counties in North Iowa is now lower than it was back then.

The system is now set up with mostly large operators who own a lot of land and rent the rest from smaller farmers/land owners who dropped out. These large operators have the political clout to influence the system such that it maintains the status quo. They also have the money to invest in my nemesis the hog factory and ethanol/biodiesel plants to consume the excess production of corn and soybeans.

The system is now so entrenched and the prices of corn and soybeans are high enough that it maintains itself on reduced subsidies due to the higher prices. No government official in their right mind is going to want to change it in such a way that corn/soybean prices fall because that means subsidies will rise.

There is no way to go back to the small farm model short of a socialist revolution where the land is confiscated and redistributed.
The chance of that happening in the foreseeable future is less than zero IMO.

There is no way to go back to the small farm model short of a socialist revolution where the land is confiscated and redistributed.
The chance of that happening in the foreseeable future is less than zero IMO.

LOL! And Jack up above is calling *ME* a defeatist. I just think that x and others who are on the same page are realists, believe it or not there is a difference.

This in no way means that would not like to find a way towards a more sustainable smaller scale local path to food production. I certainly think that Jason's list makes perfect sense. However as I said above my daily experience with *REAL* people just makes me very skeptical that it can, let alone will be done.

Maybe the people will prove me wrong and I can happily eat crow!

"There is no way to go back to the small farm model short of a socialist revolution..."

That's odd. I thought we had a small (-ish) farm model already. I remember flying from Minneapolis to Edmonton a while back. It turned out that although the plain was featureless, the Canadian border was blindingly obvious when we came to it, for two reasons:

(1) Lots more Canola growing on the Canadian side at the time, and it happened to be in bloom.

(2) The fields (or areas of uniform planting, anyway) appeared visually to be enormously larger on the Canadian side, something like two or three times larger in linear dimensions, or four to ten times the acreage.

So my broader question, for the incurable romantics ceaselessly pining for the dead past, is this: after we get past the American (i.e. US-ian) habit of self-flagellation for the sake of self-flagellation, what is it that drives farms outside the US to be even larger still?

After all, Canada is not run by Congress, or George Bush, or any of the other easy scapegoats for feckless dietary habits and much else. It would seem that strong forces must be in play, forces that are not entirely or uniquely US-ian, forces that might not be overcome - or even affected noticeably - by romantic poetic exhortation about romping joyfully in the garden, as if it were ever possible to be transported into the wholly imaginary setting of some sixteenth-century pastoral painting in a European museum...


Today I am proud of you.

At the rate you are going pretty soon you will see through the long term consequences of some other govt interventions intended on the surface to protect "the farmer" who in reality is giant agri biz.

If the foodies and "bioneers" would drop their "final truth" moral fanaticism and simply become more like the refuseniks they would garner more sympathy and understanding. Instead we get carbon taxes or "Water World" hijinx meant to force people into the collective.

The Bioneers could put their money where their mouths are, and follow Gene Logsdon's example he put forth in his book "All Flesh Is Grass, The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming" which is to outpay a landhog farmer for a small parcel and either farm it themselves or insist that it be treated right by a tenant. I understand that most here cannot afford that, but I'll bet not a few of the wealthy backers of the eco movement could be pursuaded to try something on that order. Its what I have done on my small parcel, as of now I rent it and my tenants are not going to abuse it, because I have let it be known I have a quick hook. It is not Ted Turner scale but it does matter.

I like the "leading by example" analogy. It's indeed very important.

When it comes to the particular couple of friends I was referring to, their response to industrial agriculture is to refuse to eat meat, a sort of boycott of the industry, due to the fact that it won't agree to label cloned meat and GMO-fed poultry. That approach is limited in its impact, but also self-limiting, where if they look closely, they also would have to boycott a host of other foods. Ultimately, if you have no money, the answer is grow your own.

Doing more involves paying more for "properly raised" food, and that's where I am not in a position to preach to others.

Yet, there must be something acceptable and useful that I can do, without others dismissing it because I have enough money to eat "properly raised" food without serious impact on my budget. Perhaps existentialtribalist's idea is indeed the best.

My line of thinking is similar to yours, but instead of individual farm ownership and management I helped devise an option that spreads the risk.

My company buys land using private equity, which ranges from wealthy individuals with cash to people with significant IRAs to large institutional investors, such as pension managers, trust managers, foundation endowments, etc. Many have stated goals to make sure their money is being used for environmental and social goods while generating a return. Such is the case with investing in sustainable agriculture.

"That being said the policy of the Federal Government subsidies and the Farm Program in general has been to get small farmers off the land."

I agree completely. One way they do it is through inheritance/estate taxes. In our area, when a farmer dies the children are often forced to sell because the taxes are far higher than they can hope to pay. These land rich, cash poor families have no clue until the land gets appraised at 20-30 thousand an acre (due to nearby development) and they have to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the farm. The ones that didn't have the benefit of careful estate planning have no choice but to sell. Many, if not most of the larger farms in my area have fallen to development because of this. 30 years ago our county had 12 thriving dairies. Today there are none, but you can buy a nice McMansion in a development bearing the farmer's name!

There is no way to go back to the small farm model short of a socialist revolution where the land is confiscated and redistributed.

Taxing of the land (big holders charged more, small holding charged less) and a lack of cheap oil may make it happen.

Get off the AGW ride. I would think the climategate revelations would help people understand that there is no science without agendas. Start to write your congressmen and senators to rescind and rebuke any and all cap and trade legislation. Global warming may be happening, just as it has over the history of the earth, but anthropomorphic global warming argument has been a scam all along. This scare mongering by the government (local, federal, and global) has got to STOP! STOP THE LIES!

but anthropomorphic global warming argument has been a scam all along.

LOL! The cold evil eyes of global warming are staring at you in bewilderment!

As I mentioned above you are really ignorant and need to get at least a basic high school education.
You might start with English.

No, what I am in "bewilderment" about is the number of people so eager to have some relevance to their lives that they will glom onto any theory, however idiotic, just to be able to say, "I did something about something". The only evidence I need to write about is for you to look at current events in the news. Data has been corrupted and altered by those whose political agenda includes trying to make money via the cap and trade legislation and carbon credits. Even highly intelligent people can be duped with flattery and money by those who do have darker political agendas (i.e. Al Gore!). I agree with the peak oil theory which is being proven out as we progress through time. I do not, however, believe in the AGW theory which has somehow hijacked this website. I think there are people with their own agendas trying to use AGW as another argument to reinforce the switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. It's a fool's argument because the ultimate resolution to any person creating too much carbon is.........are you ready for kill everyone off. It also goes against the beautiful symbiotic relationship animals and plants have on this planet. If there is more CO2 the plants will thrive and produce more O2 and O2 is good for animals and the upper atmospheric balance. So it's a little warmer......don't go building a house on the shoreline. The earth is constantly in motion. Is there going to be a big push to stop plate tectonics the next time an earthquake occurs and a house gets demolished leaving some people homeless? Where the hell does this lunacy end? Some things are controllable. But some things like trying to stop carbon based life forms from producing CO2 is idiotic! And more to the point, if you try to stop me from living my life by making me adhere to some unachievable carbon output, well I will have something to say, and more importantly, DO about anyone trying to sequester my liberties.

BTW, my English is fine. I have over 60 publications in industry journals related to everything from nanotechnology to electrical engineering and I also hold five US patents. Quit the condescending attitude and allow me to exercise my liberties and voice my opinion. To do otherwise would put you in the category of censor and that should be what the moderators exclude from this website.

Please do not feed....

NOrdqk need to be told that if he contributes naught but mindless rants and presents zero data or experience then his postings are just meant to sow dissension and cause anger.

We are not supposed to engage in name calling , instead debate the issues.

How does one debate an obvious troll? You don't. He will feel enlivened to post more and more trash of little value.

Moderators where are you?

I suggest he be chastised and warned.


Completely agree with Airdale on this. If I may be so bold I would add Conservationist and Aviator 202 to the list.

When, after two or three posts it appears obvious that someone is just a Troll, they should be banished without undue delay, as their continued presence just pollutes the site. Trolls like the above are akin to annoying static on TV or radio.

Antoinetta III

How does one debate an obvious troll? You don't. He will feel enlivened to post more and more trash of little value.

Kind of like wrestling with a pig in the mud, you both get muddy but the pig likes it.

Cap and trade is a fine idea (other than how the money is being collected and who's doing the collecting). Why should the waste product be dumped for free? And why should the oceans suffer with more acidification due to the no-penalty waste dumping?

Go ahead. Man up. Address both the waste-for-free and ocean acidifaction.

I would like to address the points that you listed as ways to drive the food system away from the status quo:
* Reduce subsidies for crops used mostly as animal feed, i.e., corn and soy. The problem with reducing the subsidies for these crops are manifold. The government mandates the use of ethanol as a fuel source. Without subsidies the cost would become prohibitive. And while on the subject of subsidies which ones are we referring to? Price supports? Crop insurance? Tax incentives for expenses? Government purchases for food programs, foreign or domestic? Tariffs on imported products? Tax write offs by local government for farming operations?
* Ensure carbon price reflect full costs to drive land use towards pasture systems and make long-distance trucking more expensive. Impossible to calculate and mainly a feel good excercise
* Increase funding for conservation reserve programs and habitat restoration on farmland.Conservation reserve programs are used by the government as a price support program. Take land out of production to decrease supply and reduce the amount of money required for price support programs. This results in Congress being able to tell their voters that this new farm bill spends less than last because price supports have dropped.
* Fund research and outreach into low-input farming systems, including public domain seeds.Admirable, however the government through the state land grant college system is the largest research organization for the multi-national Agri-Business firms. Who do you thing supports the Masters and Doctoral programs? Research conducted at the State Unis is mainly the property of ADM and their ilk.
* Support wellness and acute health care for all citizens. Good luck.
I agree that it is essential that food production be re-aligned to serve the people. However, after 25 years in the Agri-Gov business I can tell you it ain"t going to happen without a long and bitter fight.

"after 25 years in the Agri-Gov business I can tell you it ain"t going to happen without a long and bitter fight."

It's enough to throw up your hands and let them lobby and engineer their own collapse, isn't it? Are BigAg another Too Big To Fail like the banks?

They are definitely big enough to protect themselves.

Yeah, just like the auto industry did.

Well Jason I asked for that one and you landed it cleanly on my chin but now that my eyes have uncrossed and I have rested a bit I can respond.

Big ag is organized differently than big autos and is not burdened with serious competition-right now at least- or big labor at all.

As a political target I daresay most of the public is only dimly aware of it's very existence at this time.

I'm not sure if it has more political friends than Detroit once had but it is more geographically spread out and certainly has friends just about everywhere.

The top is a very slippery place.

But Davids have slain Goliaths before, with a little help from changing circumstances.

Canals displaced horses and wagons, railroads replaced canals, and trucks replaced railroads.

I don't have any problem envisioning the demise of big ag.I just think the odds are that it will survive for a long time.


I don't know if much will come of this, but cannibalism could set in. Dupont is going after Monsanto through the Justice Dept for antitrust.

How will big ag survive post-peak with declining fertilizer and fuel inputs? Lobby for a guaranteed slice of the oil pie instead of paying market price? With food being a necessity, I could easily see agriculture being prioritized.

I do agree big ag is in much better shape than the Detroit automakers were. It helped having disposable labor, better political support, and ready industries to absorb overcapacity (meat and biofuels).

With two senators per state, no matter how small the population, farmers and farm interests get near veto power over anything.

Mr Bradford,

I doubt very much you will get the entrenched system to reduce or eliminate crop subsidies.

My suggestion for a place to attack the current system in the U.S. which requires no new laws or regulations. It is a little esoteric and somewhat complex but over the long term I believe it would be effective. The Federal Government regulates lending by Banks and by the Farm Credit system. Were the Federal Regulators to require tough standards on soil erosion on agricultural land used as Mortgagde security to prevent diapation of Principal you might be suprised at the long term impact.

The Feds might have to come down hard on a few lenders and the lenders might have to hire some competent agricultural lending agents but the end result would be less erosion. Probably this would also slow the consolidation trend in many areas as with a sufficiently tough standard practices that are inconsistant with large operations would be required.

Current Federal Erosion standards incorporated into the Farm Programs are a joke for the most part. Also the rules when enforced are done so against smaller operators while the larger operators get a pass.

That is a fascinating and creative idea.

I have always wondered why banks would lend money to buy and operate land when the asset backing the loan is being depreciated by the very farming practices the loan makes possible!

My current business uses private equity markets to buy farmland and increase its value by weaning it off pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and building healthy soils. So I am very open to this suggestion you make. My talk was given as a policy talk. A presentation to bankers would be different.

About 20 years ago when my family was still fully in the cattle business, my mother took part in a federal program to subdivide pastures and improve fencing to keep cattle out of our many creeks and springs to reduce erosion and silting of downstream trout waters, etc.The Feds payed 60% of the cost to install erosion controlled watering systems and several miles of high-tensile electric fencing. The result was the return of creekside habitat to a more natural state and reduced erosion. We adopted a program of pasture rotation. All good things. The big problem was that the program would only allow pressure-treated fence posts. This ended or ultimate goal of producing organic beef (the program required us to maintain the fencing as installed so we couldn't change them even if we could afford to). We instead advertised our beef as grass fed and finished, getting pretty good results. In our experience, these Govt programs have been win/loose.

I think the development of portable electric fencing has been wonderful for pasture management. I wonder if the issues you ran into would be as relevant today?

Also, from the meat perspective, "local and grass fed" are probably just as strong from a marketing perspective than organic, and perhaps better ecologically. There are big controversies, for example, on organic feedlot production, whether for meat or dairy.

I will say that the erosion control program has had a net benefit over time, and that I have since attended several turf/pasture management classes. I wish that I knew 30 years ago what I know now. My parents have passed and the land was divided 6 ways, so my portion is much smaller than our original farm. I managed to buy some of the land back from my siblings and convince 3 of them to not sell, but 2 have sold out to developers. Fortunatly the developers have run out of money and it may be years before anything happens (if ever). I can't believe someone payed $22,000 an acre for land we payed under $400 for 40 years ago. Sombody took a whippin'!

You gave the figure of $17 billion as the amount of the corn subsidy. In 2006 corn production was about 10 billion bushels or $1.70 a bushel. I heard somewhere that a bushel of corn weighs 40 lbs. So the subsidy works out to be about 4.25 cents per pound. Since the overwhelming percentage of food costs are in the processing and distribution chain then the cost of eliminating the subsidy could be absorbed elsewhere in the chain's profit margins at nearly no price rise to the consumer. In effect the subsidy has close to no effect on prices in the supermarket and are not responsible for our cheap food. We have cheap food because of competition between those higher up on the value added chain.

The farmer suicides you mentioned seem to to be Indian way of a credit crisis:

"Farmers' suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death."

Obviously this is similar to western variant - but more bloody.

jason, this is an extremely well done analysis of our integrated, systemic problems resulting from the food industry, the resulting consequences, and potential solutions. i'm excited to share this! thank you.

My perspective is that of a farmer and retired biology professor with degrees in plant physiology and microbiology. I am a farm owner and in the 1950s I was a farm operator.

Modern agriculture in the USA is the most sustainable and efficient form of farming on the planet. It may seem counterintuitive that today’s large scale farms and farm equipment could be more fuel efficient than the farms of the 1950s or the smaller organic farms of today. Today less fuel is consumed per acre and much less fuel per bushel than in the 1950s.

Commercial fertilizer was not applied in the 1950s on most farms and chemicals weed control was just beginning. I cultivated my corn three times during the season and in the fall I plowed my fields with a moldboard plow. My corn yield of 40 bushels/acre was considered to be a good yield. Today my same farm produces 200 bushels/acre corn crops. No till and minimum till has replaced the plow. Monsanto’s Round-up and Round-up ready seeds have made possible the complete elimination of the corn cultivator. A sprayer with a long boom replaces the tiller. In the 1950s a net loss of soil was occurring. Today’s agricultural practices can boast of actually building of soil on much of the nation’s cultivated land.

Paul Ehrlich saw a pending population crash that didn’t happen. The crash didn’t happen because of the advances in agriculture. Commercial fertilizer, plant breeding, and genetically engineered crops have brought about abundant crops that are sufficient to feed our world’s human population of 6.8 billion. We can not go back to the organic farms of the 1950 without causing mass starvation. Our population has since doubled and it is unthinkable to cut it in half by starvation. To go back would also represent a reversal in soil conservation.

As a plant physiologist, I appreciate the great improvements in plant breeding and genetic engineering. Monsanto’s Round-up and genetically engineered Round-up ready seeds are a godsend. This completely safe, non-toxic technology has made possible a no till/minimum till agriculture which has greatly reduced and even reversed soil erosion. It has, as mentioned above, also reduced the amount fuel consumed to produce a crop. Genetically engineered (GE) crops are a lifesaving breakthrough for the developing world because plants have been created that has all the essential nutrients for human health. It is a tragedy that well meaning “greens” in Europe have poisoned the minds of Africans against the use of GE crops. This campaign has caused the starvation of untold numbers of Africans.

As a plant physiologist and microbiologist, I know that plants have evolved poisonous molecules to combat plant eating pests. Such crop plants may cause serious allergies in humans. In the 3.5 billion years that microorganisms have been around, they have likely invented every possible harmful chemical. There is really nothing to fear from GE crops. The molecular biologist can not create a “Franken food” that is new and unique. On the contrary, GE seeds are required to pass tests to show that no harmful molecules are present in newly engineered crop variety. They are much safer than varieties produced by conventional genetic breeding because they have undergone extensive testing to verify their safety. My hope is the organic farmers will look into this biology and adopt GE seeds as they are engineered to produce the most nutritious and non-allergenic food. As a microbiologist, I know that microbes infect crops and impart toxins and carcinogens. If you opt for organically grown crops you take your chances with the microbial toxins and carcinogens. If you opt of crops produced by modern farms you expose yourself to agro-industry chemicals that have been applied to crops to control the microbes. It is probably a tossup, and therefore a personal choice of which method of crop production that you prefer for the food you eat.

As fossil fuel wind down, nuclear power appears to be the only energy source fully capable of replacing fossil fuel for a source of energy and hydrogen to make nitrogen fertilizer. We should also use renewables as supplement. Biofuels are questionable as the net energy yield is small. Without government subsides neither renewables nor biofuels would be sustainable.

Modern agriculture in the USA is the most sustainable and efficient form of farming on the planet.

If that is true then we are truly screwed!

John, I'm not going to dispute your scientific knowledge but no offense you're living in the past.
BTW I majored in Biology myself back in the 70's and many in my extended family are heavily involved in many of the bioscience fields including microbiology, genetic research, plant physiology and also agronomy and earth science. They also have farms in Brazil. So I have to say that what you are saying comes across more as some kind of corporate propaganda than objective open minded scientific discussion.

Forgive me for being blunt but I think you have swallowed some party line in the past and are still robotically defending some ghost of an agenda. Please give it up. If you truly are a scientist then look at the data. It doesn't lie.

What he said! +100 upflags.

"corporate propaganda"

You nailed that one, Mag.

yep and thinly disguised if at all..

We probably have different definitions of sustainable. Another talk I gave at ASPO was on sustainable agriculture and food systems. Perhaps I'll get some of that material in this venue soon.

John T,

Do you have an understanding of what the spraying effects are on the insect life? The die off of honey bees? The bird life? In fact on all species?

Around the edges of fields that are sprayed I see the dead and dying leaves and scrub around the perimeters. The tress in the fence rows that are knocked down by trackhoes?

The ponds with dams busted and the fencing and posts scraped into the ponds bottom.

The ills of Big Ag are huge and unrelenting.

I hope you realize you are not a solution. You are PART of the problem.

I live in the midst of what you describe. I have witnessed the death of many forms of life.Bees,bats,birds,frogs,fleas,chiggers,ticks,lightening bugs,grasshoppers....on and on it goes.....The biodiversity is being eliminated just to put more and more tons of fat on the Amurkhan waistline.
Just as the Green Revolution negatively affected India so it is sowing the same seeds here and has for a long time.

Our soil is dying. Our wildlife are dying. We will die also unless this madness is stopped.

I have long expounded upon this issue here on TOD. Where have you been? Oh busy in your Spray Coupe.

Airdale--All hail and bow down to Mighty Monsanto!!!
As well as ADM for the HFCS that makes us obese.

Hi Airdale.

I 'm about in the middle between you and John the big ag guy.

You win the argument hands down in the long run.

But in the short run-before we run out of non renewable inputs-he has a very powerful case.

An overwhelmingly powerful case-if the use of pesticides is properly managed.

We have cut our use of pesticides by probably two thirds since the sixties on our farm because the state of the art has moved ahead.The specifics I do not have for bg ag corn and beans since we don't do that hereand I haven't looked the figures up.

There have been considerable advances in managing fertilizer runoff and that problem could be very substantially reduced if tptb really want to push the issue.It's simple-slap a tax on the stuff and it will be used far more effectively -as by applying it lightly twice rather than once heavily.Plus the fields can be required to have buffers, etc.

Now I don't mean to belittle other's posts concerning the subtle effects of low level pesticide contamination on our health or on the environment.quite to the contrary this is something I find to be a very serious problem but one that is not yet well understood.But it is a problem that can be dealt with by regulation up to and if necessary banning particular products totally , as has been done in many cases already.

Meanwhile we must face the fact that this is the farming system we have actually GOT, just as we have an economy that is based on ff.

Now I have the old plows and the discs harrows and spring tooth harrows and stuff we used as a kid sittinfg around and ready to go-we still use this stuff for our extensive gardening.

Personally I think that getting two or three or four or five times the yield out of a field, which is not bs but reality, by using some weed killer and genetic engineering and fertilizer, while burning a lot less fuel, wearing out a lot less machinery, and losing a lot less siol to erosion while at the SAME TIME keeping proportionately larger amounts of land FALLOW in forest or prairie or wetlands -up to FIVE TIMES THE ACREAGE in industrial cultivation -is not proven to be a bad deal environmentally.

Of COURSE there are ways to improve the system, and of course it is not sustainable over the long haul.Of course there are abuses.But the system is capable of refinement to lessen adverse environmental impacts and in fact the impacts per acre or per bushel or per pound of meat are probably trending down.

Certainly they are in the kinds of ag I work in on a regular basis, mainly orchards,forestry, and grass fed beef.

Before the readership goes crazy in the same way they did over the email flap and roasts this man alive we need to remember-UP TO FIVE TIMES THE ACREAGE in cultivation, more fuel , more machinery, more erosion, the way it used to be.

And the replacement system that will cure all these ills?

It' like wind and solar power- IT'S showing a LOT OF PROMISE but it WILL BE short on RESULTS for a LONG TIME to come.

And when it does arrive it will consist to a very large degree of bau ( gmo's plus pesticides and fertilizers but in much lesser quantities ) for at least as long as most of us following this forum will live.

But the


Just one simple question, or maybe two, from my background of 71 yrs of being born and raised on the very ground I live on now and having been back for over 20 years. Having farmed it and doing custom hay all over the county and now of the last several years working off and on for a farmer who does 3,000+ acres in which I see and experience ALL the areas of modern agriculture including running combines, hauling semi loads of grain to elevators,spring planting and much more.

Tell me they why is it that my grandfather who raised me was able to father 14 children living and working a 100 acre sharecrop farm and YET my farmer buddy working over 3,000 acres of land can barely raise his one son(the wife having been divorced)..and just gets by. In hock up to his suspenders, constant angst and concern with the markets, working 7-8 men and paying them starvation wages($7 per hour)and can barely keep his electronics(Mack truck computer modules,planter computer controlled,combine with 10 computer modules)..can barely do that and only because me (a former field engineer and staff programmer,ham radio operator) is on call to fix those problems and keep his two way radio repeater and mobiles as well as his desktop computers running??????????

Why is that?

A result of 'modern' lifestyles is his family dissolution, his son leaving for the big city life, his failing health at only middle age and more concerns in one days than my grandfather must have faced in a year. And my grandfather had time often to go hunting and fishing. My buddy has none.

Why is that?

And the result is massive destruction of habitat. Massive runoffs of chemicals, the death of wildlife species that I can actually measure, see and observe.

BIG AG is killing us slowly thru the total destruction of soil, nature and pretty bad food.

I just went to the most upbeat grocery store in the city and brought 3 pounds of Angus labeled Ground Round.

Last nite I fried a burger. Couldn't eat it for the bone chips and gristle in it. The taste was just as bad as Wally World ground chuck which is about as bad as it gets.

Our food stocks are basically garbage. Vegetables are trash. Good meat is very hard to find.

To get some good cured country ham,bacon and sausage I have to drive to Muhlenberg County(where Paradise laid) a local farmer named Scott who does his the old fashioned way. I can keep that meat(except the sausage) without refrigeration for a very long time. With a cooler for over a year and it be tasty and wholesome while the garbage at our wonderous grocery stores is bilious and disgusting.

Ditto farm raised vegetables.

Sooooo Kudos to modern Big Ag? I don't thhhhhiiiinnnnnkkk so!!!!!

My question. Then and now. What happened? Big Gov, Big Ag, Big Biz, Big stupid people who live by the BIG TV bullshit and think we have advanced. Big Science tied to the other BIGGIES above have created what we are now seeing and sinking this planet.

I quit driving the semis. I pretty much refuse to work on the electronics in that area anymore. Why should I contribute to what it killing off nature around me?

I live for the decline and death of Big Ag. I live for a return to a more slowly paced and worthy life style if it be possible after the ruin and destruction that falls around us.

"I'm getting by,
I'm making do,
I'm doing ok,
How bout you?" -New Grass Revival-

You go, Airdale!

sorry ofm but i think you and john t have a limited viewpoint on the usefulness and sustainability of gmo's, pesticides etc.
If you really look into recent gmo studies you will find that they are using more pesticides not less and are also turning out lower yields, in brasil they are going back to conventional soya due to lower gm yields.

The other blind spot for farmers in your generation is the idea that a) pests are a bad thing and b) pesticides are wonderful and essential.
I highly highly recommend the book "healthy crops - a new agricultural revolution" by francis chaboussou. Get it for christmas, i'd happily send you my copy! Read it, then read it again and at least 3 more times..(seriously)
Now i trained in organic horticulture but it wasn't until about the 4th time i read this book that the information really sank in.
this book is vital, vitala reading.
Some of the studies which show pest proliferation after pesticide dosing mind blowing!
I've read a lot of your posts ofm, and respect your viewpoint and must add that most of modern agriculture is working against nature -it's wasteful, inefficient and most of all does not understand the systems upon which seeks to work against.

Kill the bad bugs, kill the good bugs. Lets just kill'em all! Thats how we do things.
Starship Trooper, the movie: "the only good bug is a dead bug".

Many GE crops are designed to resist defoliants and weed killers so that they can spray the crap out of the fields with Roundup and Crossbow. That's ok, adds to the flavor. Kill the bad weeds, kill the good weeds. The only good weed is a dead weed, right?

"Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out!" ;)


I got the feeling that God is already at his 'sorting out' work.



I've posted a link to this talk by E.O. Wilson a few times in the past here on TOD. Since I just read Airdale's comment below, I urge you to take 24 minutes out of your life and listen to Dr. Wilson and think about how far towards the dark side you have wandered. You can't possibly claim to be a biologist and pretend to ignore the true consequences of what we are doing to our ecosystems.

E.O. Wilson: TED Prize wish: Help build the Encyclopedia of Life

Thanks for this link to EO Wilson. One of my favorite biologists.

My background is in evolutionary biology and ecology. One thing we learned during the 1990s especially was the incredible homology of developmental genetic mechanisms. This means it is extremely difficult to keep chemicals from having non-target impacts.

This is manifesting itself in some pretty amazing ways. Let's say the pesticide works on its target at 1 part per billion and shows acute toxic effect to humans and other non-target organisms at 1 part per million. No problem then, you may say, it has low toxicity so use it.

Not so fast...newer research is finding hormone disruption effects at levels like 1 part per trillion, which is akin to pesticide residue on the foods we eat. These impacts are found in the the very common organophosphate group.

Here is a link to recent research:

and a snippet:

The writers, in conclusion:

* Say their study “contributes to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the need for CPF and other organophosphates to be analyzed for endocrine disruption during risk assessment analyses.”
* Hypothesize that altered neural pathways (from CPF exposure) may be located in a brain region that controls both behavior and thyroid hormone levels.
* Write that study reinforces the idea that low dose in utero exposures must be considered during toxicity assessment of materials.

Seems its just a matter of who's data you look at, kind of like PO or AGW.

Nice point. Also note that these chemicals are rarely if ever tested for their accumulative effect with other harmful elements likely to be in food, water and air.

A nice analogy I heard once was that we are essentially living right in the middle of a freeway where every knew toxin is a new car hurtling toward us. Any one of these may be easy to dodge, but the accumulative effect is ultimately deadly (or should I say smashing?)

Just to keep things in perspective, I'll point out that most TODers have already lived longer than perhaps 99% of all humans that ever lived. Just a thought.

Nice point, though a bit deceptive. Most of the increase in average life span is due to increases in survival rates in the first few weeks of life (something the US lags far behind other industrial and many non-industrial nations in).

Most of us are essentially artificially animated by huge infusions of short-term ancient sunlight.

Best wishes to all on the long descent.



Thank you for the E. O. Wilson video clip. He is truly one of the great minds of our day. We should all endorse biodiversity. What biologist wouldn't?I recommend to you another E,O. Wilson fan, Stewart Brand. His new book, The Whole Earth Discipline gives a strong cases for genetically engineered crops and nuclear power. I have made no case for spraying pesticides or even herbicides other than Round-up. While other farmers used DDT to control flies in their barns we did not. Today, we recognize that we overreacted a bit to Rachel Carson's, "Silent Spring". Many children in the tropics could have been saved from Malaria by doing selective spraying of DDT inside peoples houses. We need to be discriminating about the dispersing chemical into our environment. The burning of fossil fuels especially coal comes at a high cost to humans as well as to biodiversity. Monsanto's Agent Orange was a disaster of epic proportions while Monsanto's round-up coupled with round-up ready seeds is a godsend. We can't just lump all chemical together and call them all bad. Much good has been done by green peace and the Sierra Club, yet they have rejected genetically engineered seeds and nuclear power which produces 70% of our emission free power and has one of the best safety records of all industries. In fact our evolutionary history has endowed us with an immune system that is induce in several ways by somewhat elevated levels of ionizing radiation to be more resistant to cancer as well high resistance to disease. One prove mechanism is radiation induced DNA repair enzymes. The phenomenon is termed radiation hormesis. The "greens" have insisted on the discredited linear no-thershold model for low dose radiation. The result is less nuclear power and more coal with pollution including AGW the biggest threat ever to biodiversity from human activity. You accuse me of being taken in by big corporations, may you have gone a bit overboard in taking in green propaganda? My students carried out a study of 200 farm wells in our area which is situated in karst limestone. We found a strong correlation in wells with proximity to the barnyard. Deep sandstone wells with the overlying limestone cased out consistently produced water free of coliform bacteria and low in nitrate. Our study was cited when our State legislators passed a groundwater protection act requiring the casing and grouting of wells. Properly designed large feeding operations with containment and management of liquid waste were less of a threat to the aquifer than small unregulated herds.
Because modern farming results in less soil erosion and uses less fuel in crop production I stand by my statement that out modern agricuture is the best in the world.

John, I appreciate your measured response. Perhaps we do have some common ground to stand on.

You accuse me of being taken in by big corporations, may you have gone a bit overboard in taking in green propaganda?

My personal views are more along the lines of a non ideological skeptic, I have as strong a reaction to non scientific propaganda coming from left leaning greens as I do to those of unscientific cornucopian conservatives. I personally have a strong dislike for the label "Green" because it has, to me at least, lost any useful meaning.

For the record I am neutral on the topic of genetically engineered crops because from my perspective it is just another tool in our scientific arsenal. How, to what purpose and by whom it is wielded is where the rubber hits the road.

I am well aware that the "biological warfare" among organisms that goes on in your typical rain forest or tropical reef ecosystem makes all human endeavors at mutual aggression pale in comparison.

One of my main concerns with regards the current monopolistic agricultural system is basically, that even if one could argue that it is environmentally benign, a point I strongly contend it is not, It is based on an unsustainable inverted energy pyramid teeter tottering on a foundation of fossil fuels. This being TOD I feel I do not have to go into any detail with regards this claim.

I do not dispute the immense success of the so called Green revolution in agriculture and there is no doubt in my mind that one of the ironic consequences has been the fact that it is largely responsible for our current predicament of global population overshoot.

Our modern agricultural practices are part and parcel of a system and a way of thinking that many here at TOD refer to as BAU. Nate Hagens recently posted a link to a seminal paper: Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System by Donella Meadows, It's basic premise is that we are all pushing hard at the wrong levers. Modern agriculture in its current form, as good as it is, is pushing all the wrong levers.

I completely agree with your statement that modern agriculture is on an unsustainable fossil fuel base.
"It is based on an unsustainable inverted energy pyramid teeter tottering on a foundation of fossil fuels."

I, too, see myself as a moderate who takes issue with both extremes of the political spectrum. I fear that the transition away from a fossil fuel maybe catastrophic. Agriculture and trucks, and airplanes are dependent on liquid fuel. Oil is the first of the fossil fuels to peak. Perhaps liquid syn fuels may be a part of the replacement. Hydrogen, efficiently produced from splitting water in high temp reactors, may be used to reduced CO2 in order to create hydrocarbon synfuels.

I do not agree with Lorna Salzman, Green party candidate in the 2004 presidential election, that we must make a drastic reduction in our utilization of energy and goods. I believe that her solution is the quickest road to becoming a third world economony. Energy has been equated with wealth. With energy a society makes goods for local consumption as well as goods for export. I would advocate that we help the developing world industrialize by supplying them with affordable emission-free energy. It is recognized that birthrates lowers when industrialization draws people to the city where women gain independence and opt for smaller families.

I have in mind development and manufacture of generation IV nuclear power reactors. NASA's James Hansen points to Integrated Fast Reactors (IFRs) and Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs)as good energy sources for the future. They may be cheaper to build because they are cooled with liquid metal and they operate at ambient pressure. There is no need for the "billion dollar dome" or the need for an operator. They can be buried underground which has the advantage of lowering the threat of terrorism. They are meltdown proof and they can be fueled with the spent fuel from our current LWRs. LFTRs are fueled with thorium which is three times as abundant as uranium. The fuel is completely fissioned to fission products with half-lives of 30 years or less. Research at ORNL in the 1960s demonstrated that these reactor can be built in smaller sizes and they are able to follow load. Research and development is traditionally funded by government. The investment of tax dollars in new nuclear energy technology that our world desperately needs is good way to put our workforce back to work and revive our economy. The advantage of nuclear power is that the fuel is two to four million times more dense than hydrocarbon fuels. Renewables are much less dense than hydrocarbon fuels. There is a very strong likelihood that renewables will never be competitive with nuclear power.

"As fossil fuel wind down, nuclear power appears to be the only energy source fully capable of replacing fossil fuel for a source of energy and hydrogen to make nitrogen fertilizer."

I'm not holding my breath for nuclear:

Seems our systems are experiencing a brain fart. Please excuse duplicate posts....

p.s. I love the cartoon on page 2.

"As fossil fuel wind down, nuclear power appears to be the only energy source fully capable of replacing fossil fuel for a source of energy and hydrogen to make nitrogen fertilizer."

I'm not holding my breath for nuclear:

"As fossil fuel wind down, nuclear power appears to be the only energy source fully capable of replacing fossil fuel for a source of energy and hydrogen to make nitrogen fertilizer."

I'm not holding my breath for nuclear:

The point is that if oil isn`t readily available or if its very expensive then transporting food vast distances may not be possible or it may be too expensive.

I`m sure everyone---or almost everyone---likes their local supermarket and all the foods wrapped in plastic. The plastic and the transport of these foods is what makes large agribusiness viable. Not just grain but fish (large-scale fishing operations) and bakeries (huge commercial ovens and machines) and other food factories. All depend on cheap plentiful energy and large inflows of raw products. And large outflows (demand from consumers) to make it all worthwhile.

But neither the inflows nor the outflows are going to be possible without the oil that powers the trucks and makes the plastic...and also if customers can`t afford the products then that spells more doom for these massive operations.

I watch the failure of many kinds of businesses now. Supermarkets are also feeling the pinch. Big Ag cannot possibly escape the same bad outcome that awaits all the other oversized, overscaled, auto-reliant, oil-dependent places and commercial enterprises in the world. It may take a few years or it may happen quicker than that, but its fate is assured. Thank God! Since I personally don`t like the supermarket at all and try to buy from local growers whenever I can. In addition plastic (used for packaging) is a wasteful, expensive, polluting substance which leaches harmful chemicals into the food which we eat.

Therefore the end of Big Ag is rather to be looked forward to! I think people will adapt to the new reality. Actually I think many people will surely understand what is happening and actually enjoy life more when they are producing more of their own food and living on less. We evolved in an environment of scarcity and we can basically deal with scarcity much more easily than we can deal with abundance (which makes us fretful that others are getting MORE than we are and leads to unnecessary competitive and conspicuous consumption).


You got it.


Thanks Airdale. I`m also praying for an end to the Big Ag madness over in my little corner of the world. And the big construction madness, the highway madness, the auto industry madness.......And like you I take heart in the changes I see!

Airdale, I hate it when I don't get this (inside?) stuff - OK what is with the "7"?

The value of Pi. Well to five or so figures anyway.


Is not PI = 3.14159265 ?? I was wondering about the "7" - thought if might be some inside joke or something.

Hi John T,

I'd like to highlight one key misconception:

"We can not go back to the organic farms of the 1950 without causing mass starvation."

Modern sustainable agriculture has made technological advances just as amazing as conventional agriculture in the 60 years since the 1950s. Modern sustainable practices include using cutting edge soil analysis tools, computerized crop rotation analysis, crop and seed optimization for growing regions (rather than the one-size-fits-all factory seed stock), robust linkages to local food markets (without the reliance on crop subsidies for sugar or ethanol), modern equipment, and much much more.

The primary difference is that the conventional farmer sees agriculture as a chemistry problem, whereas sustainable practitioners view agriculture as a biological system. Yes, soil chemistry is measured, but it is used as a measure to determine how to best support the biology of the soil.

These practices are also more profitable than conventional agriculture. It's more work, and it takes time to restore the soil, but it's a proven business model. The main reasons farmers aren't switching are 1) age/proximity to retirement, 2) finances to afford the transition, and 3) willingness to learn the new methods.

As for people starving, two points:

1) Only 13% of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for seed and food. Much of the corn grown here is used for sweetener and ethanol. The portion used for animal feed is not a "starvation" issue either, as people would get 9x+ more calories simply by eating the corn directly.

2) Studies by the United Nations show the food production worldwide would increase 30% if everyone used sustainable methods, with the most dramatic increases happening in less-developed countries.

So can we dismiss the "starvation" red-herring once and for all?

My hope is that we can end the misconceptions that abound, and have conventional agriculture take on many of the successful practices of sustainable agriculture, just as sustainable ag has benefited from technological advances in many fields.

There are many stories and scientific studies of farmers converting to sustainable methods and being very very successful on all measures (profits, crop production, soil chemistry and biology, conservation, production of healthy and nutritious food, etc).

I promise not to talk about your '50s - '70s with DDT and Malathion, if you won't talk about our 60's with communes, hippies and free love (although if those are the two options the choice seems pretty clear to me now!). We've all grown up since then, but there is still much to do and it will take us looking very objectively at where we are now, where things will be in 10 years, and what we have to do now to have intended outcomes in 10 years rather than unintended consequences.


Thanks Craig. I agree, and I wonder:

Those farmers that have successfully converted to sustainable methods, are they dependent on a "local-enough" source of sophisticated consumers that will pay premium prices?

I am thinking of Farmer John, who almost lost everything before he realized he could market a CSA in Chicago, and of Joel Salatin, who has access to some big East Coast cities. Also, I am thinking of the corn farmer in Food, Inc., who seems to imply that unless consumer demand changes, he cannot afford to change his practices.

Certainly modern ag will not be sustainable without fuel. Locally grown crops will keep bread on the tables of the Midwest. I am a gardener. I feel a bit guilty about my big yard. Over 40 years ago we bought this suburban home. Since our area didn't have city services we had septic systems and zoning for septic systems required half acre lots. The suburbs could grow lots of produce. Our city gives us all the composted leave that we want and on Mother's Day they even provide free loading. I know that sustainable ag does well at present scale. Would organic fertilizer be limiting if we scaled up? I suspect that much of the increase in crop productivity of the past 60 years could be given up. Certainly we should not make ethanol fuel. The ethanol subsidy can not be justified. Yes we could do with much fewer T bones and also pet food. In an energy starved world the large city would be a nightmare to supply.

Sustainable ag has not embraced some of sciences greatest achievements. GE crops are one of the great breaks in the whole history of agriculture. We can improve the nutrition of crops and remove allergic components in plants. Oh yes, we can do it with old time plant breeding, but EG offers quicker and surer results. Round-up/Round-up ready seeds results in soil building and saves fuel. In short these modern scientific advances make agriculture more sustainable than sustainable agriculture. As a scientist I am outraged when wonderful breakthroughs are snubbed because of some silly perception not rooted in science. I agree that if nuclear power cannot be transitioned to in a smooth way as peak oil drives prices for fuel out reach, sustainable ag will be the salvation and suburbia will need some intense lessons in turning lawns into gardens. I am also a believer in diversity and I believe that this world would be poorer if we were to loose our sustainable ag folks. Hang in there and keep modern ag folks honest. There is much that in the long run is not sustainable in modern agriculture. I wonder about center point irrigation. What about huge feeding and milking operations? Do they prevent the redistribution of nutrients?

Round-up/Round-up ready seeds results in soil building and saves fuel.
- reference for this?
but EG offers quicker and surer results
- i guess you mean GE, again this is a widely used claim, as if GE is precise and accurate - shooting foreign genes into plants with a "gene gun" and then breeding these out and sending the first or second generation plants into the public is irresponsible.

And what about patented seeds John T? Will you be dehybridising round up ready seeds if you can't get hold of any others? what about terminator technology, now rearing it's head once again..

After 15 years of Gm, all the same old promises are being made, wild claims for nutrient filled crops that never arrive, drought resistance etc and still no results. The farmers on the ground are tired of them, in debt and killing themselves not only in India but all over the world- how is this sustainable?

I just keep hearing company literature from you, i guess you support bill gates and his new green revolution?
Look i'm not 100% anti technology, but i am a luddite -that is i support appropriate technology.
If you use pesticides on a regular basis and think it's all about a battle, attacking and wiping out the pests, you really don't understand the role they perform in nature.
When humans get it wrong we tend to blame everything else rather than admit we may be doing something wrong. I would recommend you read "healthy crops" john, it might give you a different perspective on the role of pests and disease, don't worry it's got lots of science in there!

The current varieties of seed corn being planted by Big Ag is not going to cut it with home gardening.

First is the 'pop' and row spacing/plant spacing(which is what all about)..Doesn't work good for home plots. Like I want an acre to for consumption as well as feed stock? Nope. Its too far 'refined' for that.

The ears are small. The stalks are small height and small diameter. The kernels are small.

You get a bigger yield for reasons that do NOT work out in the homesteading venue.

I have planted all 'open pollen' corn for years. You will NOT be able to do that with hybrids. Period. End of debate.Its over.

Same with wheat and other highly modified varieties of seed/plants.

Of course I only get 40 bu/ac. Thats enough. Why more? The stalks are bigger, the cling to the soil better and on and on I could go.

For those who just take a quick lookysee or like you think its Heaven? Its not. Check what the 'new green revolution' wheat did to India.

What worked for many long years for our ancestors has been proven to work for us who return.

You will likely not make it if you continue your present course. Good luck with that.


PS. In the future we will be trying to feed 'ourselves' and our families. We will not be feeding the maws of ADM et al.
And you will NOT be processing it into HFCS or removing chemicals/components to sell to Big Pharma!!!!!

On the contrary, GE seeds are required to pass tests to show that no harmful molecules are present in newly engineered crop variety.
- these tests you speak about are monitored by the companies themselves- it's voluntary in some cases.
They have also worked their way around this in saying gm crops are "substantially equivalent" - i.e no different to conventional...

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are a lifesaving breakthrough for the developing world because plants have been created that has all the essential nutrients for human health.
- lol! john monsanTo is it? Man you are either a "schill" as they say, or else woefully misinformed.. how many times has "golden rice" been rolled out as the solution to malnutrition? where is it now? not to mention all the major crops are mass commodity western crops like soy etc How many times does it need to be said that the "developing" world can feed itself, it's distribution of food not abundance of food that is the problem..

Giving you the benefit of the doubt you are seriously misinformed, look up gmwatch and read about the problem of bt cotton in india, dead sheep, dead farmers, gm crops needing more inputs not less..

On the contrary, GE seeds are required to pass tests to show that no harmful molecules are present in newly engineered crop variety.

And yet I can find links that say your claim is wrong:

‘Specificity of the association of GM foods and specific disease processes is also supported. Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation, including upregulation of cytokines associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation. Animal studies also show altered structure and function of the liver, including altered lipid and carbohydrate metabolism as well as cellular changes that could lead to accelerated aging and possibly lead to the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Changes in the kidney, pancreas and spleen have also been documented. A recent 2008 study links GM corn with infertility, showing a significant decrease in offspring over time and significantly lower litter weight in mice fed GM corn. This study also found that over 400 genes were found to be expressed differently in the mice fed GM corn. These are genes known to control protein synthesis and modification, cell signalling, cholesterol synthesis, and insulin regulation. Studies also show intestinal damage in animals fed GM foods, including proliferative cell growth and disruption of the intestinal immune system. ‘

Where is your data backing up your claim?

I am also familiar with studies showing that pesticide use is not declining. Because the GMOs produce the toxins (Bt) or resistance genes (RoundUp) all the time and throughout the plant, constant selection for resistant weeds and insects is occurring.

Lifesaving breakthroughs happen to be recognized by environmentalist Stewart Brand. He laments in his new book "The Earth Discipline" that short sighted "greens" that have caused the starvation of many Africans with their misguided campaign against GE crops. What I find most objectionable is the close mindedness toward good science in the areas of molecular biology and radiation biology.

"short sighted "greens" that have caused the starvation of many Africans with their misguided campaign against GE crops"
- You're really rolling out all the tired old arguments here john.
It goes like this: "if only those poor simple Africans had access to our technologies (at a price) they wouldn't be starving now, the least we can do is send tons of surplus wheat to them.." the image that comes to mind is of the benevolent west (esp USA) holding out this shining gift to the outstretched arms of those poor Africans with those mean old greenies standing in the middle ;-
In reality African sustainable agriculture is thriving, however trade policies that insist on development of an export market mean that even during famines, food is being exported.
As i said before it's not a matter of the food being there, it's access to it.

Fertilisers that degrade the land, patented seeds and GM crops which don't deliver are part of the "development" well meaning and profit minded companies wish to offer poor old Africa.

I see no evidence of a real grounding in the realities of the Gm situation on your part here John, only the same old reasoning imported direct from certain books and newspapers.

Have you any knowledge of the "revolving doors" between companies like Monsanto and the FDA? It's absurd

I highly recommend the Future of food for a more revealing look at the reality of Gmo's
and highly, highly recommended for a historical look at famine, and the modern food system:
Stuffed and starved -

Lifesaving breakthroughs happen to be recognized by environmentalist Stewart Brand. He laments in his new book "The Whole Earth Discipline" that short sighted "greens" that have caused the starvation of many Africans with their misguided campaign against GE crops. What I find most objectionable is the close mindedness toward good science in the areas of molecular biology and radiation biology.

The food system in this country is part and parcel of corporate capitalism. That means that its operation is enmeshed in the whole marketing and media juggernaut, plus the retailing business.

So, you can imagine there is a set of reasonable "apolitical" options that merely need to be heard to be implemented, but that's a pipe-dream. This is a totalitarian power structure we're up against. We're going to need a huge new social movement to make any dents.

I've always enjoyed your posts, and this one is excellent. You've taken a complex subject and summarized it well and you tell it like it is. There are many very good comments here, as well.

The state of American agriculture is a disaster of wrong policy driven by corporate lobbyists and the way in which our political system is set up, including the Iowa caucus. I like to compare it to the banking system. Ag has also gone wrong because of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. When all of those investors always talk about farmland prices and how much they just have to go up in the future, they don't see how much overproduction our wrong policies have created and the unsustainable nature of it all. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest so I know both sides of the story. The Midwest is so sterile, industrialized, and monocultured now that there isn't even a place to hike if you'd like to take a walk through a countryside. Public lands are rare to nonexistant in most areas. I get depressed every time I go back to visit and now, following the corn ethanol debacle the Midwestern landscape is looking all the more surreal.

No wonder the young people leave. See the book, Hollowing Out the Middle, by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas. We need to remember that this Ag policy is also a cultural problem for those who are left farming. Back in the very late 1800's even small communities in the Midwest were vibrant with traveling operas and celebs from NYC, made possible by interlinked railroads into those same communities, now also gone.

It seems like the best organic farms now are in the areas that were considered marginal previously, because they weren't first choice for industrialization. How ironic. This country has been richly blessed with rich farmland, thanks to the prep work done by the tall and short grass prairies. Oh, how short a time it takes the white man combined with cheap FF's to decimate the land that nature's wisdom made. Another problem, like the banking industry, is that the farms keep getting bigger, which squeezes out the smaller guy who tries to run a sustainable practice. It's like a farming bubble built on FF's which will pop when inputs go so high that policy will finally have to be tested and repealed. But, you're exactly right about needing to produce more real food in this country--fruits, nuts, vegetables, free range livestock and poultry.

I am late to this post, but am glad to see in a thread way above this one, now, a goal of solutions, as that is the key. A possible model going forward is this one, called Agriburbia.

Hi Kalpa,
Thanks for the kind words. I read your blog regularly and look forward especially the ag updates each week.

Cultural issues are huge. Most of the young and usually organic (or quasi so) farmers I know don't want to live in a place lacking cultural amenities. And like you, I get depressed without space to wander.

In the midwest I can image there being some jewels left, perhaps in and around some of the smaller land grant schools or where the small liberal arts colleges dominate the social life. We landed in Corvallis OR because it had great farmland, strong support for the "local and sustainable" memes, an ag university (with all the pluses and minuses that come with that), and large swaths of public land for recreation around the town.

How to get the Midwest back? Perhaps young people will form new "villages" and repopulate rural areas and create culture from scratch, e.g.,

Thanks to you as well! I'll have to "up the ante" now that I know you are reading. ha. I did not know about your business in farmland investing and would love to visit with you about your perspectives on that - I see it as a deflation/inflation issue as well as farm policy issue and at least it's the kind of job that you can feel good about, like you are helping to change the world one step at a time. I've contributed a number of articles on farmland values to Seeking Alpha, now, as you probably know. Coincidentally, we looked at Corvallis as a place to relocate to when we relocated here to Boulder 1 1/2 yrs ago!


Given the TOD theme, that is a most ironic image on your recent post on your blog Financial News Express. (I'm assuming that is the tall stack of a fossil-fuel fired power plant in the background)

Yes, that photo has a lot of irony in it for many reasons. How about "nature always wins in the end"?
This is the author of "The Jungle Effect" and discusses the food we shove in our mouths and suggests a diet. Mentions Vit. D and using meat as flavor - not the main course as highlights.

Whereas many of the podcaasts I recommend are a background noise this one is worth listening to in depth.