Energy Use in the US & Global Agri-Food Systems: Implications for Sustainable Agriculture

This is a guest post by Shirin Fatemeh Wertime. She wrote this report for a sociology class at College of William and Mary in May 2010. The report was previously published by Culture Change.

During the 20th century, access to cheap and abundant sources of energy helped transform the world in countless ways. Extraction of fossil fuels led to a massive expansion in economic growth and agricultural production, and was one of the bases of a six-fold increase in human population. Petroleum, the most sought after fossil fuel, had the largest role in this transformation.

Because of its versatility and liquid form, oil is today the world’s primary transportation fuel (Heinberg 1) and leading source of energy (Brown 27). Less than 200 years ago, however, all of the planet’s food energy was derived from the sun through photosynthesis (Pimentel, Pimentel & Karpenstein-Machan 3) and almost all work was done by human or animal muscle power (Heinberg 2). Practically all of our energy presently comes from non-renewable resources whose stocks are being depleted at an ever-faster rate.

The benefits we derive from oil are so numerous and of such great convenience that we have built our entire way of life around its use. Now we are entering a period of declining oil supplies and rising prices that threaten not only food security for increasing numbers of people globally, but also many aspects of political and economic stability as well -- a new phenomenon for a world that became accustomed to growing supplies of oil and relatively stable prices. Unless we begin quickly to a move away from fossil fuel dependence to a different energy regime and a radical lifestyle and societal change, the transition to a post-petroleum world could be devastating for Americans and people throughout the world. Food, the basis of all life, will be at the forefront of this upheaval.

Agriculture is one of many features of modern life that have been drastically altered by the availability of cheap and abundant oil. The American and most other agri-food systems are almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel energy for everything from food production to transportation to food preparation and storage. The structure of industrialized agriculture under a capitalist system, aided and abetted by government policies, including that of the United States, has spurred the expansion of farm specialization and consolidation, monocultures, the delocalization of agricultural production, and the adoption of industrial farming practices (Altieri 78-9).

The technological innovations of the Green Revolution drastically reduced a farmer’s labor input time and greatly increased agricultural yields. Thanks to modern mechanization, the time input necessary to raise a hectare of corn is 110 times less than that required by hand-produced crops (Pimentel 464). Since 1950, the world grain harvest has more than tripled. This growth in productivity resulted from a ten-fold increase in fertilizer use, a near tripling of land irrigation, and the development of high yielding crop varieties (Brown 36-7). Countering the benefits of modern industrialized agriculture is the massive amount of fossil energy needed to power the petroleum-fueled farm machinery and to produce indispensable fertilizers and pesticides. Increases in production notwithstanding, the shift to industrialized agriculture has brought about a host of ecological and social problems in its wake.

The increase in globalized food production, which has come at the expense of local production, is possible only for as long as cheap energy supplies can subsidize the transportation of goods across long distances. The price of food will inevitably climb as oil becomes more and more expensive and drives up the cost of production and transportation. This will disproportionately impact the world’s poor, especially those who depend on food assistance and cheap North American grain. Only by taking steps toward creating a sustainable food system of a radically new kind can we hope to attenuate the looming crisis in agri-food systems in this country and abroad. As Patricia Allen argues, any effort to create a truly sustainable food system must take into account the relationships humans have with each other as well as with their environment, which they have molded and influenced in many significant ways (1).

Agricultural dependence on fossil fuels is a man-made problem. It will take not just scientific and ecological solutions but also deep-rooted structural and institutional changes as well as lifestyle changes on the part of individuals, their governments, and societies to transition to a more sustainable, non-petroleum based food system which oil depletion and rising costs will inexorably force on us. Before dealing with the implications of oil depletion and rising costs for the agri-food system and human survival, a closer look at the dominant role oil plays in the agri-food system is in order.

Oil is a finite natural resource whose global rate of production will eventually peak and begin an inevitable decline. According to petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, the peak of oil production is passed when about half of the total resources have been extracted. Richard Heinberg notes that the basic concept of Peak Oil is derived from observations over the past 150 years of all older oil fields which have peaked and then declined in output (12). Indeed, the United States, once the world’s biggest producer of oil, reached its peak of oil extraction in 1970 and has since experienced declining output (Heinberg 12). Today, 90 percent of the United States’ oil deposits have been extracted and the country, once a net exporter of oil, now imports over 65 percent of its oil (Pimentel 459). Worldwide, the discovery of new oil deposits peaked in the 1960s and since 1981 the amount of oil extracted has surpassed the amount discovered by an increasing margin (Campbell). According to the oil giant ChevronTexaco, 33 of the world’s 48 major oil-producing nations are already experiencing declining production (Heinberg 13). There is uncertainty, however, as to when exactly global oil production will reach its peak. Some experts believe we have already reached Peak Oil while almost all agree that it will occur sometime during the first half of this century.

Although other sources of energy exist, such as nuclear, coal and wind power, none of these can produce liquid fuels. Some have hailed crop-based ethanol as a replacement for petroleum, but the negatives of ethanol production seriously outweigh any potential benefits. In 2007, one-fifth of the United States’ entire grain harvest was transformed into ethanol, but the 8.3 billion gallons of ethanol produced that year could only supply less than 4 percent of the country’s automotive fuel (Brown 39). Moreover, it takes 65 percent more energy to produce 1000 liters of ethanol than the energy that is derived from those 1000 liters. Thus, ethanol production has a negative energy balance (Pimentel et al. 15-6).

Diverting a large portion of the U.S. grain harvest to ethanol production has serious ramifications for the world’s poor. Worldwide, grain prices have increased dramatically, with the price of wheat more than doubling in 2007, setting off food riots in countries across the globe that same year (Brown 40). Ethanol production in its current form has no place in sustainable agriculture because it actually presents a net energy loss and because it is pricing food out of reach for the world’s poorest people.

In 2002, the U.S. food system consumed 17 percent of the country’s total fossil fuel use (Eshel & Martin 2). The availability of seemingly unending fossil fuel resources has led to the highly unsustainable situation whereby “the U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy” (Pfeiffer 4). Much of the food system’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels stems from the capitalist structure under which it operates. United States government policies have also encouraged the expansion of large corporate farms and farm specialization by subsidizing over production and the export of goods to international markets. Although large specialized farm owners benefit from economies of scale, they must in turn increase their use of synthetic chemical inputs and petroleum fueled farm machinery, creating a serious dependence on fossil fuels.

The use of synthetic fertilizers accounts for 20 percent of energy use on American farms (Brown 34), and annually one billion pounds of pesticides are applied to farms across the nation (Pimentel 463). The dramatic increase in urbanization over the past century, coupled with a move away from mixed farming systems in favor of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has deprived farms of natural sources of fertilizer and resulted in the massive expansion of commercial fertilizer use (Pimentel 464). The capitalist system encourages the food system’s unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels because as long as oil is cheap and plentiful, large profits can be made by ensuring the system remains unsustainable.

Farming itself is the least profitable and least energy intensive segment of the entire economy of agriculture. Of the roughly 2,000 liters of oil required per year to feed each American (Pimentel 459), only one-fifth of that energy is actually used for agriculture, with the rest going toward transport, processing, packaging, marketing, and food preparation and storage (Brown 35). The transformation of farm products into consumer commodities, along with the provision of farm inputs, are the biggest moneymakers in the American food system, and not surprisingly, the sectors dominated by large agrifood corporations. Farmers operating under the capitalist system must sell their products on the open market, which usually means selling to the large transnational corporations that dominate the market. Similarly, there are a handful of large companies that produce the fossil fuel-dependent farm inputs purchased by American farmers.

Today, farming only accounts for 10 percent of the total food dollar, while 25 percent pays for farm inputs and 65 percent for transportation, processing and marketing (Lewontin 95). A century ago, the value added by farming was closer to 40 percent of the food dollar and most farm inputs were produced by the farmers themselves by using draft animal power, storing seeds, and using animal manure for fertilizer (Lewontin 95).

The dramatic rise in monocultures and the increasingly globalized scale of agricultural production have essentially destroyed the localized food infrastructure in the United States. For example, in 1870 almost all the apples consumed in Iowa were produced locally, but a little over a century later that number had dropped to 15 percent (Pfeiffer 25). In the United States today, less than five percent of food is locally produced (Pfeiffer 68), and so our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before being consumed (Pimentel 467). The transportation of food from farm gate to dinner plate constitutes 14 percent of the energy used in the entire food system (Brown 35). Transporting a head of lettuce from California to New York City by refrigerated truck requires 4,140 kcal of fuel per head of lettuce, while actually growing the head of lettuce consumes only 750 kcal of fossil energy (Pimentel 467-8).

Given that 90 percent of global transportation is fueled by oil or oil by-products (Heinberg 4), declining oil supplies will most likely impede the transportation of produce internationally, and even across the United States. Fresh produce imports from the Southern Hemisphere will likely be one of the first casualties of rising fuel prices. Ultimately, higher transportation costs will be reflected in the price of goods, placing many of the items we enjoy today out of the reach of a majority of people. On the surface, the United States might appear to be food secure, but a cutoff in transportation would lead to serious local shortages of food and other goods.

Oil production will inevitably decline and eventually come to a halt once all accessible oil deposits have been exploited. As this trend intensifies, industrial agriculture in its current form will become impossible. Already, since 1985, fertilizer production worldwide has declined by 23 percent because of fuel shortages and high prices (Pimentel et al. 12). This downward trend will likely continue as petroleum becomes increasingly expensive. Sadly, much of the world’s soil has been so degraded by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that without the continued use of these synthetic inputs, the land cannot produce yields large enough to feed the world’s population (Heinberg 5). One study has shown that in the United States, soil is being lost at a rate 10 times faster than it can naturally be replaced (Hough).

Fossil fuel fed irrigation is leading to water scarcity as countries overpump their underground aquifers to the point of depletion. Irrigation currently accounts for 70 percent of all water use and 19 percent of farm energy use in the United States (Brown 69). Once groundwater sources are largely depleted, the amount of land available for cultivation will diminish substantially.

Another limiting factor of post-peak agricultural production is population growth. Over the past decade the per capita availability of cropland has declined by 20 percent worldwide (Pimentel 461), and still, 78 million people are added to the planet each year. It will prove increasingly difficult to feed the world with diminishing fertile land and water resources.

Ironically, while 862 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition, another approximately 1.6 billion people suffer from excessive caloric intake (Brown 107). In the United States, it is usually the most marginalized among us, the poor and minority groups, who experience obesity and a lack of nutritious food in their diets. The sale of processed food, which makes up 82 to 92 percent of food sales, is entirely subsidized by fossil fuels. By exploiting the availability of cheap energy, the agri-food industry has created a situation in which the most processed, energy intensive food is also the cheapest.

The average American consumes a diet of 3,747 kcal a day, which is greatly in excess of the FDA recommended intake of 2,000 to 2,5000 kcal per day (Pimentel 459). By simply reducing their caloric intake and consuming less processed food, Americans could greatly reduce the fossil fuel energy used in food production. Of course, in order to be able to start eating healthier, everyone must have access to nutritious foods, which is not the case in the current agri-food system. Another potential energy savings could come from a transition to diets that are lower in meat and dairy consumption and more seasonally based. Currently, one third of the calories in a typical American diet come from animal sources (Pfeiffer 22). A strictly vegetarian diet of equivalent caloric intake, however, consumes 33 percent less fossil fuel energy (Pimentel 459). These are only a few of the simple lifestyle changes that Americans could adopt to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.

On small farms across the country, agricultural techniques are being implemented to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Harking back to the days of pre-industrialized agriculture, some people have advocated a return to the use of draft animals as a replacement for fuel powered farm machinery. In a post-petroleum world, animal and human muscle power could very well be the most accessible forms of agricultural labor power. Although one horse can help manage 25 acres of farmland a year, that one horse in turn requires one acre of pastureland and 1.5 acres of hayland for its maintenance (Pimentel 464). Furthermore, the additional land that would be required to grow food for draft animals is currently being cultivated to produce food for humans. This needed cropland for draft animals will come from that presently reserved for humans.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of farmers across the country are choosing to adopt organic farming techniques. In the organic farming system, the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is replaced by the use of crop rotation and leguminous cover crops, which naturally replenishes nutrients back into the soil. The application of compost and manure produced on the farm can replace the need for synthetic fertilizers to a large degree. Moreover, a shift to minimum and no-till agricultural practices on about two fifths of U.S. cropland has helped reduce direct use of petroleum based fuel on American farms by 3.5 billion gallons from 1973 to 2005 (Brown 34).

Although the knowledge needed to transition to localized, sustainable agriculture exists, the current structure of power relations and resource control in the United States prevents the widespread move away from fossil fuel based agriculture. Those in positions of power within the United States government and in agribusiness have no interest in altering a system from which they greatly benefit. Without a change in the status quo, however, small local and sustainable producers will have a difficult time competing against the fossil fuel subsidized overproduction of agribusiness which finds its way into our grocery stores.

The adoption of sustainable agriculture can only be truly transformational if we broaden its scope to focus on the relationship between social, economic and ecological factors within the agri-food system. In order to move away from conventional agriculture, it is necessary to understand why it functions the way it does and who are the winners and losers in the equation. Sustainable agriculture is not just about practicing organic farming techniques, but rather it is a way to address the structural inequalities in the current agri-food system and to guarantee that all people have access to nutritious and affordable food. Although this vision of sustainable agriculture might seem Utopian and unrealistic given the current nature of things, it is the only acceptable way to ensure the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants.

The fact of the matter is that the present agricultural system cannot be maintained for much longer. Decreasing oil production and rising oil prices will effectively bankrupt the American agri-food system. Without petroleum and all of its benefits, there will be little choice but to revert to a system of local, organic production and consumption. The experience of Cuba with peak oil could possibly serve as a model for a transition to post-peak agricultural production. Cuba, which lost the majority of its oil imports and half of its food imports with the collapse of the USSR, now produces almost all of its food organically (Pfeiffer 56). Urban gardens are an important source of produce, providing over 60 percent of the vegetables consumed by Cubans (Pfeiffer 61).

The example of Cuba shows that it is possible to feed an entire nation with organic agriculture, but it also demonstrates the hardships involved in moving away from fossil fuels. In the first few years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the average Cuban’s daily caloric intake decreased by 36 percent and protein consumption by 40 percent, while undernourishment increased by 15 percent (Pfeiffer 57). It must be noted that Cuban government policies played a critical role in helping to ensure that the collapse of industrialized agriculture did not turn catastrophic. There has also been a change in attitude towards farming amongst the Cuban people. Cubans now see farming as an important and profitable endeavor and many families have migrated to rural areas to become farmers or have started urban gardens (Pfeiffer 60).

Peak oil is a real phenomenon with the potential to turn our entire world upside down. Modern industrialized agriculture is headed for disaster and unless we begin immediately to change our patterns of agricultural production and consumption, many people will suffer. At the individual level, a lifestyle change is needed whereby we start to consume local products, rely less on oil-powered modes of transportation, eat lower on the food chain, have fewer children and reconnect with the land by participating in the growing of our own food. Structurally there ought to be a return to localized, small-scale photosynthesis-based, appropriate-tech agricultural production and an end to the domination of economic and power structures that place profit above all else.

Broad based culture change will be a necessary component of any successful transition to a post-petroleum world. We can no longer afford to live isolated from one another and from nature. Of course, the rate of oil depletion is an unknown variable, and as Richard Heinberg observes the time interval before peak oil occurs will likely be too short to painlessly adapt to a new energy regime and way of life (3). However, if the United States, which is the world’s top oil consumer, can drastically reduce its use of oil, we might be able to buy time for the world to transition to a post-petroleum era (Brown 45). Clearly, weaning ourselves off of our addiction to oil will not be easy, but the alternative will be much worse.

* * * * *


Allen, Patricia. 1993. Connecting the Social and Ecological in Sustainable Agriculture. In (ed.) P. Allen Food for the Future. New York: John Wiley, 1-16.

Altieri, Miguel A. 2000. Ecological Impacts of Industrial Agriculture and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming. In (eds.) F.Magdoff, J.B. Foster and F. H. Buttel, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review, 77-92.

Brown, Lester Russell. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Campbell, Colin J. "About Peak Oil." ASPO International | The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. Web. .

Eshel, Gidon, and Pamel Martin. "Diet, Energy and Global Warming." Earth Interactions (2005): 1-36.

Heinberg, Richard. The Oil Depletion Protocol. New Society, 2006.

Hough, Andrew. "Britain Facing Food Crisis as World's Soil 'vanishes in 60 Years' - Telegraph." News, Business, Sport, the Daily Telegraph Newspaper, Sunday Telegraph - Telegraph. 3 Feb. 2010. Web.

Lewontin, R.C. 2000. The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian. In (eds.) F.Magdoff, J.B. Foster and F. H. Buttel, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review, 93-106.

Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2006.

Pimentel, David, Marcia Pimentel, and Marianne Karpenstein-Machan. "Energy Use in Agriculture: An Overview." (1998): 1-32.

Pimentel, David, Sean Williamson, Courtney Alexander, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Caitlin Kontak, and Steven Mulkey. "Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System." Human Ecology 36 (2008): 459-71.

I want to thank Shirin for writing this post summarizing a number of issues we have read about before. Food is clearly important to all of us, and we are very dependent on our current agricultural system right now.

One thing we clearly don't want to happen is to have our current system fail, without another system being in place, which can overlap it and fill in the gaps. Getting another system going to a sufficient extent will be a huge challenge, in my view. Cuba is somewhat of a model, but it is different--very long growing season; government able to somewhat help; fairly small cutback in oil; rest of the world functioning fairly well. It seems to me that getting the world adjusted to the changes likely in the future will be a much bigger challenge.

I agree with Gail that although Cuba's experience is worth studying, that there are also enough differences that it can not just "cut-n-paste" directly into US conditions.

We can do a decent job with urban ag for vegetable production, but probably not for calorie production. Grains and potatoes and dried beans in sufficient quantities require sufficient acreage.

I am in awe of the capabilities of our forefathers to farm large tracts of land with draft animals and hand tools. The Homestead Act gave families 160 acres that they had to make productive withing 5 years. After the Civil War many southern black families received 'forty acres and a mule' which they too made into productive farms.

Some of these large acreages were used for pasture, like Shirin mentions...

In a post-petroleum world, animal and human muscle power could very well be the most accessible forms of agricultural labor power. Although one horse can help manage 25 acres of farmland a year, that one horse in turn requires one acre of pastureland and 1.5 acres of hayland for its maintenance

...but even if the farm family only worked 25 of their 40 acres (with the rest in pasture, woodlot, and home) that is still an amazing achievement.

It is hard to imagine the fitness, habit, and lifestyle changes needed to farm 25 acres. I have great modern tools and sometimes struggle to manage my garden...

As I posted below, Giving land to the citizen that has no land now would be a great thing.

I'd love to know what I know now and go back then and get 160 acres to use.

But we don't have the land now to give away in those amounts not compared to our population. That and the water table in most areas is way below what it once was, amoung a ton of other differences.

Now if We could get 1/4 acre tax free for the lifetime of the first owner, that would be all I'd need for me to set up shop with my ideas. Not going to be a walk in the park the first few years, but I'd make do in the frontier spirit sort of way.

I have several weeds that I let grow to cut off green tops for composting, just another way of using plants.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world.
Hugs from Arkansas.

"As I posted below, Giving land to the citizen that has no land now would be a great thing."

Hi Charles,
This is an important point. A man who owns his own land will more likely invest in that land, improving the soil where possible, and incorporating other long term benefits. A man who only leases his land or worse has no incentive to enhance the land he works on.

If we compare our grandparents (maybe our great grandparents) living in 1900 to today, they spent perhaps 20% of income on energy and 30% on food.

Many parts of the world today still spend more than 50% on food and fuel

Today, in the developed world we spend maybe 20% on food and energy

Farmers make up 3% of the population in the US today , vs 50% + in 1900

The times they are a changin'

Yes sir! Grandparents homesteaded 160 up here from Neb and went thru those depression times, as well. It's a lot of work!Believe you me. Quite something. Don't think people today are quite up to snuff for that today, though. Maybe, when push comes to shove, people tend to do purty good at things!Those dang horses just require lots of care and calories, and that cuts into the household budget, doncha know?

The overall change in oil consumption underestimates the effect on agriculture:

"The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the loss of oil imports as well as the loss of their major trading partner. And U.S. sanctions kept the country isolated from the rest of the world. Almost overnight, Cuba lost 85% of its trade. Fertilizer, pesticide and animal feed imports were reduced by 80%. Imports of fertilizer dropped from 1.3 million tons per year to 160,000 tons in 2001. Herbicide and pesticide imports dropped from a combined 27,000 tons to 1,900 tons in 2001. Petroleum supplies for agriculture were halved."

In Ortega, E. & Ulgiati, S. (editors): Proceedings of IV Biennial International Workshop “Advances In
Energy Studies”. Unicamp, Campinas, SP, Brazil. June 16-19, 2004. Pages 37-64


It is hard to measure all of the energy embedded in fertilizer, metals, clothing, and many other products we import. My graph probably does not represent the full effect of the change. Also, farming probably was hit harder than most areas.

I think, though, that we have some of the same vulnerabilities that Cuba had on importing a lot of goods made from oil, besides oil. If we had to get along without product imports, it would be very difficult. For example, our corn ethanol depends on imported fertilizer.

I don't doubt that it would be difficult, I just don't see why it should be more difficult for us than for Cuba. At the very least we should have a lot more time to prepare than they did. But I also haven't checked to see whether we a substantially worse ratio of population to arable land.

If you keep posting this article, Greg, there's a very real danger that someone here might actually stop and read it :-}

I call this figure linked below the Happiness curve. A picture is worth a thousand words. Note Cuba in the little green box upper left.
from this:

Once your people get basic needs met, adding extra planets to your lifestyle does less and less to improve well-being. This idea was developed by Inglehart, I think?

I recommend The Power of Community to anyone who hasn't viewed it yet. Cuba is a model of the possibilities, potential, and ingenuity that we as humans are capable of in living rationally. Since the US uses many multiples of our equitable, proportional allotment of oil compared to the rest of the world, there's a lot of waste to be wrung from the system. We'd better get started.

I think we need to start discussing what happens as toxins from the Gulf seem to be entering the water cycle. Apparently an oily, toxic rain is damaging crops in the Gulf region. First reports sound ominous.,0,187535.story?track=rss

Offtopic, Inky, the first two of those links pertain to a very localized spill of sulfur trioxide link from a plant up near Memphis last month. The third, not so much. Is it possible that the controlled burn fires in the gulf are mobilizing oil into the atmosphere? Masters on the issue of rain and oil in general:

Rain and oil
Hurricanes evaporate huge amounts of water from the ocean and convert it to rain. In general, we do not need to worry about oil dissolving into the rain, since the oil and water don't mix. Furthermore, about 50-70% of the oil that is going to evaporate from the spill does so in the first 12 hours that the oil reaches the surface, so the volatile oil compounds that could potentially get dissolved into rain water won't be around. Hurricanes are known to carry sea salt and microscopic marine plankton hundreds of miles inland, since the strong updrafts of the storm can put these substances high in the troposphere where they can be carried far inland as the hurricane makes landfall. The Eastern Pacific's Hurricane Nora of 1997, whose remnants passed over Southern California, brought traces of sea salt and marine microorganisms to clouds over the central U.S. similarly, we can expect any landfalling hurricanes that pass over the oil spill to pick up traces of Gulf of Mexico crude and transport it hundreds of miles inland. However, I doubt that these traces would be detectable in rainwater except by laboratory analysis, and would not cause any harm to plants or animals.

This comment is about hurricane impacts. What he doesn't address in this discussion is the potential for controlled burns to increase the amounts of oil entrained into uplifts? Meteorologists? It still wouldn't be a lot of oil, I hope.

Back to the much more important and larger scale issue that we need to address, which is, our potatoes are not just getting potentially rained on by traces of oil Our potatoes are MADE of oil. Are we screwed? And if the poor cuss who wrote the article below was spouting these ideas at Harvard, then I doubt he got tenure there. It doesn't fit the Harvard corporate business model. LOL.

Sincere thanks for the information about the Tennessee spill. I appreciate your willingness to address an "off-topic" phenomenon.

Your point about the fires' possible connection to oily rain does sound plausible. If there is a connection, burning the oil becomes problematic on another front.

Lately my personal symbol for "carbon footprint" is the box of cornflakes. I still eat meat, but my "compass" points towards vegetables, at least. But the box of cornflakes contains maybe 3 cents worth of corn and half of THAT is carbon footprint. The rest is packaging, trucking and advertising.

The Cuban "Special Period" serves as a hopeful example of a fairly large population making a quick shift to an organic, animal and human-powered local agriculture. Starvation is a powerful incentive. Most Cubans lost a lot of excess body fat during those lean years. They were fortunate that they still had a fairly recent cultural memory of traditional methods, along with a tropical climate. Those of us in more temperate climes will have a harder time of it, and our recollection of the old ways is much dimmer.

Recently, the energy situation in Cuba has eased a bit and there's been a certain amount of backsliding towards more 'conventional practices. It seems to be human nature to take the path of least resistance until there's no alternative.

Not only do they have some memory of traditional methods, they have a lot of scientists working on sustainable agriculture:

Cuba did not produce their own food but relied on imported grains for most of their calories.


Most before the fall? Yes. After? I think not. Anyway, the US has a lot more potential for grain and meat production.

The vast majority of us have no memories at all of the "old ways" and we will not likely approach the levels of urban production so often mentioned in most american cities for two simple reasons.

The first one os that these examples seem to invariably be selected from places where the climate is much better suited to such endeavours than the AVERAGE American city's climate.

The second one is that we have adopted a religiously based attitude in respect to regulation of our lives as regards nuclear power, clean water, sewage treatment,farm animals being kept in residental nieghborhoods, and so forth.

Getting rid of all the entrenched bueracrats who make thier livings regulating these things, and changing the minds of the majority of the population which regard them as holy writ , will take more time than we've got;we won't get started as a society until it is too late.By the time the decision is made to change our ways, it will be to late for most people to deal with the learning curve and get thier program together.

This is not to say that lots of individuals and some communities won't get thier acts together;they will , and they can produce a substantial part of what they need in terms of fruit and vegetables,while saving a great deal of money and energy and getting some exercise to boot.

Most urban residents don't have access to enough land in my estimation to grow enough of the staple crops to make very much difference, but if bought in bulk wheat , corn , rice, potatos, and so forth are dirt cheap-compared to the retail prices most folks are used to paying for these same foods in processed form or in small quantities.

Most foods can be purchased in bulk if you are willing to look for a source.For instance , we buy pecans in hundred pound bags every Christmas for one third the retail per pound price.We sell apples by the bushel for around fifteen to twenty percent of the acverage store price of the same exact kind and grade and size, and we still have a few customers who buy enough to can and freeze a years supply-frozen apples are just as good in pies,as a cooked side dish, etc, as fresh.

If I lived by you I'd be one of your customers buying in bulk. We did it when we had the chance ages ago, when my first years of gardening produced heavy crops of things, just not fruit.

I've got some ribbons around here someplace for some canning I entered into a show one year.

Apple Butter is a family favorite, which we have done up by the case lots, Plain appleSauce as well.

The best way to save money now is to buy in bulk when you can.(no pun intended)

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed future,
Hugs from an Arkansas canner.

"Most urban residents don't have access to enough land in my estimation to grow enough of the staple crops to make very much difference"

I actually agree that a lot of staple crops should still be grown in the country--we just shouldn't feed so much of it to cattle and pigs.

But in poor neighborhoods, even some vegetable gardens can "make very much difference," when there is no other source of affordable produce. These are what are known as 'food deserts,' where only fast foods and junk foods are sold for miles around. The consequent rates of obesity, diabetes, and other consequences of poor nutrition are enormous.

Any increase in access to fresh produce is an important improvement. I have recently helped put in thousands of square feet of raised beds in some of the poorest neighborhoods near me. Every kid that has a bite of broccoli or a fresh snap pea from these will have increased his vegetable intake by about 1000%.

And there is in fact a lot of land that can be made available in many of these urban centers. From areas between and adjoining highways to empty lots to abandoned factory sites, many of the hardest hit cities have the most available land now for serious urban agriculture.

I know of people working to make this land available to groups that collectively would put many acres of land into productive use. Farmers at local farmers markets are starting to use land inside the city to grow some of the produce they sell here, too.

People don't have to be 100% reliant on food from within the city for it to make a significant difference in their lives. And of course that difference extends far beyond the nutritional value of what they grow. I would rather live in a city where most of the poor are engaged in at least trying to feed themselves and their neighbors than one where they are given nothing else to do but sit and contemplate their hopeless situation.

I also, by the way, know of small farmers just outside the city who do get all their fuel from locally produced bio-diesel. I personally think that we could scale way back on our use of oil for silly things--like hurtling single occupancy multi-ton assault vehicles through space for no particular purpose, or flying off to Acapulco just because some one is bored or stressed out by their life--and still have plenty of oil left for centrally important things like growing and transporting food and maintaining crucial infrastructure, for quite a while.

What is going to bite us, sooner, I fear, than later, is runaway GW, as feedbacks (I'm starting to call them death spirals) such as methane from melting tundra and seabeds, really starts kicking in--later this year given how fast things are dissolving in the Arctic (ice volume in the Arctic is currently dropping faster than BO stock price)? A sudden jump in global temperatures of 10-20 degrees is going to make all ag problematic pretty much everywhere.

By this time next year, millions at least will likely be dying directly from heat waves. Death from starvation, dehydration, and especially from diseases taking advantage of weakened immune systems will be the larger causes of die back. Wars and riots will doubtless claim many more lives.

Hard to say which route is preferable.

Of course, it may be a few years off, or some unknown unknown may pop up to save us.

But, just in case, I am starting to greet friends with "It's been nice to know you."


Sometimes you sound a little too far over to the idealisitic side as opposed to the realistic side of things for my taste, but you always have got your ducks in a row, and today they are lined up as straight as soldiers on parade.

Listen to dohboi folks, his summary of the food/diet 6/23/2:32am comment crisis faced by poor urban people is DEAD ON in every particular as he describes the problem.

I have made it a point to stay away from cities for the last decade and don't know very much about what is going on in terms of urban ag.

I do know that even a thousand square feet will produce a hell of a lot of vegetables if it is intensively worked and has good sun exposure;everything else is secondary and can be fixed one way or another except work and sun.

And unfortunately the realities on the ground are such that while a single vigorous hybrid tomato plant can produce a big basket of tomatos out on the farm,the economics of the distribution system are such that tomatos often cost as much or more than cheap meat and poultry at the grocery store, which require many times the production inputs.

We need to put that tomato plant in a bag of soil dumped into an old car tire or any other handy container placed anywhere the sun shines at least six hours in such nieghborhoods.

The retail distribution system we have works incredibly well sometimes but sometimes -as in inner cities-it literally sucks.sometimes it sucks even in suburbia.I was in "Live better save money" a few days back and for the sake of convenience picked up a fourpack of basil transplants for three bucks.At the local independent garden center run without the bells and whistles where I usually buy such things used in small quantities, better looking basil transplants are six for a buck fifty.

We just bought four HUNDRED sweet potato transplants from a local gardener who sells to his nieghbors for eight dollars.He pulled and wrapped them while we watched, which took only about ten minutes.Obviously I can't grow them that cheaply myself in the relatively small quantities I need them.

Of course he did not ask if we wanted a reciept and we certainly did not insult him , given the price, by asking for one.

It's time to get away from the idea that either the govt or the free market system-EITHER ONE-can solve our problems, and face up to reality.Some of our problems arise from govt, some from the market system , and some can only be solved by one, and not the other.

Dohboi is right about the amount of available land increasing in urban areas as certain businesses and industries shut down and move out.

A good Samaratin law freeing property owners of any liabilities should be the first step in making thse lands available for gardening, nexty combined with some tax breaks for each year they are made available.

If the founding fathers of this country could have foreseen see the results of long term saturation advertising via cheap msm there is no doubt in my mind that advertising would have been excluded categorically from free speech protections.

AGW is not an immediate threat, the immediate threat is that of the wheels of the economy totally falling off. The end result of that would be the national guard sitting in your neighborhood.

Good point about good Samaritan laws. I am on an advisory board to our city council and plan to present ways that the city can get out of the way of those trying to make the best use of idle urban lands. Any other ideas would be most welcome.

Keep in mind that urban population includes many people who have farmed for most of their lives and others who grew up on farms. Recent Asian immigrants seem the most eager to continue their centuries-old practice of growing as much as they can as close to where they live as possible. The Hmong family a couple doors down from me set up a greenhouse in their back yard a few months ago.

We could sure use a bunch more Old Farmer Macs around to help plan the productive urban landscape that is unfolding all around as we speak. This is a very rapidly developing area. Even those deeply involved can't keep up with the latest developments locally, nationally and beyond.

Thanks for your well turned phrases and many insights. Sorry if I sometimes come off as too harsh or too idealistic. At heart, I am deeply pessimistic/realistic about our collective predicament. But I do try to clear up inaccuracies when I see them.

Hi Mac,

I have made it a point to stay away from cities for the last decade and don't know very much about what is going on in terms of urban ag...Most urban residents don't have access to enough land in my estimation to grow enough of the staple crops to make very much difference

Had to got to the big city (Chicago) last week.

This idea of having folks relocate to a bit of rural land and growing food or the idea of growing food in a city - I just have a hard time visualizing this.

Approx population of metro areas:

NY Metro Area - 19 Million
LA Metro Area - 13 Million
Washington-Baltimore - 7 million
Chicago Metro Area - 10 Million
Mumbai Metro Area - 18 Million
New Delhi - 15 million
Mexico City Metro Area - 22 million
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose - 7 million
Tokyo, Japan - 35 million
Sao Paulo, Brazil - 18 million
Moscow- 10 Million
Paris - 10 Million
Soul - 10 Million

Maybe someone with good math, geography and ag skills can paint the picture for me. The picture should include consideration for biodiversity needs, water tables, soil erosion and these kinds of things.

I also wonder about the transportation of food in a truck through 25 miles of suburban areas to those high-rise folks. If food is at all scarce, will that truck make it?

Cities this size can only be supported by non renwable fossil fuels. Odum is a good read over this problem. Solar energy is a reliable but dispersed energy source. To make the most of it we are going to have to spread out again. City hubs of several million people or more cannot be supported without fossil fuels.

We have to look at cities from before the fossil fuel age to see what might be a reasonable maximum size. London and Rome, as the centers of empires, each had several million people. Most other cities were only as large as they needed to be. After the end of the industrial age, we'll probably see the reverse of the farm-to-city migration that occurred at the beginning of the industrial revolution. I'm thinking that places like Kansas City would probably be okay after oil. They are not too big (although some of the more distant suburbs would be problematic), and they are surrounded by lots of agriculture, so there would theoretically be enough food within range of horses or electric railroads to feed the urban population. Detroit offers another possible vision: tear down most of the houses and turn whole blocks into farm land.

Once we stop buying all of our consumer goods from China, we may see a renewal of small industry in dispersed locations (powered, perhaps, by small local wind farms or solar arrays). We'll probably see a resurgence of small towns, like we had up until the middle of the 20th century, if we all have to be closer to the food supply.

And, of course, we'll probably end up with a much smaller population, since our fossil energy intensive agriculture is what has allowed the total population to grow to 7 billion or so. Once that goes away, we'll be back to living off what we can grow with current sunlight (instead of the stored sunlight of oil and natural gas). It ain't gonna be any fun at all...

There seems to be a lot of 'heavy breathing' by people who worry that agriculture will collapse and 'we are all going to starve'. I think these people have never visited a well run sustainable locally-oriented farm. Note I specifically do NOT say organic, as I can go to Wal-Mart and get organic label products from halfway across the country.

The local foods *cost more*, and probably actually use more transportation fuel because when Wal-Mart ships something, it is a fully-loaded 18-wheeler that's at least 50% cargo mass. When the local foods guy brings his stuff in, he's driving a truck or car in which 5 or 10% of the mass is the farmer, and maybe another 5-10% is the farm product.

The midwest can easily support all of it's own agriculture fuel requirements by switching to soybean biodiesel and ethanol blends, and use less than 5% of the acreage to grow the corn and soybeans for it's own fuel needs. This is just using the existing already built ethanol and biodiesel infrastructure. Now add extraction of corn-oil in ethanol plants, and you've doubled biodiesel output.

Now you have a huge amount of dried distillers grains (leftovers from ethanol), and soybean meal... which are perfect animal feeds. So if we start reducing the size of confinement livestock operations (or eliminate them entirely), then all that animal manure ends up getting used as fertilizer, further reducing the fossil fuel input.

One very important thing to note though: Fertilizer (ammonia) comes from natural gas. And we have a huge glut of natural gas on the market, so although the technology for making fertilizer (ammonia) from wind energy (see for my other project) is available, I can't justify building a plant until natural gas gets back into the at least $8/MMBTU range.

If you want to hedge your 'lifestyle risk', move to the midwest. Life in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas is not going to change a whole lot. Most likely the cities are not going to change a whole lot either.

At the very least, quit whining and plant yourself an urban garden, or build a greenhouse. Do something instead of worrying about it.

"If you want to hedge your 'lifestyle risk', move to the midwest."

Although this was the area hardest hit by high diesel prices and even shortages which is what really started the run-up in the price of oil, triggering collapse.

Actually, it could get interesting in the Midwest. Industrial agriculture vacuumed the people out of the area, small towns collapsed, farms consolidated, schools closed and stores became fewer and larger.

I can remember the population density, economic activity and social structures of Midwest in the middle of the last century. It is within the lifetimes of many. It was a lot different. A rough guess is that 5% of the U.S. population was farming, down from 20% in the early 20th century.

So, now we have many people with the ability and energy to work and many with considerable education (always an asset until it becomes a hindrance). We have high structural unemployment, jobs that aren't coming back because they are not close enough to the productive economy.

Low energy farming is high people farming, mixed farms, smaller farms, more middle layers, more distributed infrastructure, more high schools, hardware stores, mechanics, small bank branches, donut shops, laborers, hairdressers, granges or something like them, local cops and local politics.

I don't have any problem imagining a lower fossil fuel, lower tech, more integrated, more sustainable farming. I remember it. I have a problem imagining how we are going to get back to the kind of population and skills in the farming areas that we have lost. The cubicle weenies of the 20th century don't know jack about how to make donuts or cut hair, much less take care of cows or grow crops.

And access to land is going to be a nutroll. We have consolidated into big farms with few owners. The future is small farms with many owners or renters. Or it is large farms and a large workforce without land rights.

The land issue is the biggest problem I see, though training is second.

Like I have been saying for a while now, getting people onto a piece of land, not big, something small and homey feeling, each person gets a small piece to call their own, even if they are joined together into a family farm unit, or a village unit. That would work too, but getting the land to the people will be the issue.

Getting training is something that needs to be taken up by the people that know how, to the people that don't. So start now and get some friends together and trade knowledge. Right now I am learning all I can from my dad and his skills and honing my own gardening skills back to what they once were.

I would think that schools today should have a garden tech class starting at kinder-garden and working up through 12th-sustainable living. Make it a local goal, teach it at the local levels and then when the times are right the national scene will take it up on that level. But don't wait around for Gov't to solve these issues for you, they won't they can't and it'll be too late when they get around to it.

If you can't get your schools to do it, then offer the classes out of school, to parents and the kids. If you can make them as low cost as possible.

I wrote a short novelle a few years ago, where the main Character bought land around his parent's house and started farming it as a sustainable garden, then shared with his nieghbors, and then was able to buy land elsewhere and started a school teaching sustainable living practices that he was living. His students as part of their learning, started other sustainable teaching schools elsewhere, and built on the process. Shear fantasy I know, but there are people out there online doing it, be it worm farming videos and such, or Will Allen and his greenhouse and fish culture videos and classes. Just look around at YouTube and get all sorts of learning online videos.

Why stop there? If you can make your own. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem, as someone said.

I have about 50 gallons of water still stored, and the drip off the AC condenser that gives me about 8 gallons a day, If I check it several times so it does not overflow.

I shared seeds with a friend as church who was starting a garden. I share food out of the garden I have even though it is still small and only provides some of our food needs, might as well share what I have while it is fresh. I still have to grub up an old hedge row and take down a fence and cut a tree or two to get the needed sunny spots back.

I bought a few bags of soil mix, and laid them out on some cardboard, scored drainage spots on one side and turned them over on that side. Then scored planting holes so that I have 6 holes each bag, and I ran a pvc pipe (the pipes were from an old supply of them from my dad's old job, rather more than 10 years old, plus new elbows and end caps) with holes drilled in them for water draining down the middle of the bag. The pipes were slipping into the bags from one end. An L on its side long ways. I have summer sqaush plants growing in a container.

So just because you have a green grass yard, does not mean you can't grow plants in it, or in containers, or in bags of soil. People just get this glazed over look when you tell them to grow food for themselves. Teach the small scale methods first then they feel that they can grow more and the gardening bug might have bitten. As a spring gift, give them potted herbs and instructions on how to grow them. Start small but each little bit is a step in the right direction.

We can't win this race, if we just sit and bemoan our fate of failure. Get a trip going, by making that first step and keep on walking.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one step at a time.
Hugs from Arkansas.

"We can't win this race, if we just sit and bemoan our fate of failure. Get a trip going, by making that first step and keep on walking."

Charles, 9 days out of 10, I would totally agree with you.

On that one other day, I ask myself if most people are ever going to make the necessary effort.

Just today's news sampling - drilling moratorium overturned by a federal court, people in the energy business screaming about how their livelihoods are being destroyed...people don't care about the big picture at all. Only the personal impact. The "me" society. Destined for the trash bin of history...probably pretty painfully.

I was telling some older friends about the Me generation, and that I would be on the cusp of that generation, I am also on the edge of the baby boomers too.

I can't figure out why so many people are so ME centric besides having had something disconnect with the generation after WW2, something must have transpired that gave the bulk of the people now alive, the ME first attitude.

I have to thank my parent's for infusing caring for others into me. Nasty stuff of the Me First generations that will get them into hot water.

I'll still get the stepping done, and anyone else that wants to join the crowd. Guess if you(they) can't get out of the Me centric life, you'll be one of the ones left behind and though I'll regret leaving you, you've been warned, learn the hard way if you must.

Effort is needed, but if they won't do it, wave at them and go on about your life Spring_Tides, leave them to their couchs and Happy-time Popcorn and American Idol.(glad I never watched that program)(dislike popcorn too)(don't much sit on a couch either).

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one step at a time.
Hugs to all, from Arkansas

"Effort is needed, but if they won't do it, wave at them and go on about your life ..."

Yes, I pretty much do that. However, it is hard to feel hopeful when surrounded by such insanity ;)

Low energy farming is high people farming,

Given the low amount of actual hard physical work, exposure to "culture", the high injury rate of farmwork, et la - other than being able to eat - why would anyone sign up for that?

Link please to "a well run sustainable locally-oriented farm" ???

do they use diesel fuel ?

Link please to "a well run sustainable locally-oriented farm" ???

do they use diesel fuel ?

In short: "you betcha."

And land, too. Mucho land.

And labor. Much if not most of it "volunteer."

And plastic. Lots and lots of plastic.

And electricity if they run an irrigation system.

And heating oil if they run greenhouses in the Temperate zone.


I think this is true, whether the farm is organic or not.

A popular item is an electric fence, to keep pests out. Convenient, but not a real long-term item.

The best fence is a good hedgerow, put in enough sticky pointy plants and you only get a few rabbits in through the bottom, and the electric fence won't deter them either.

Landscapers have been using pointy plants for eons for hedgerows to keep people out, and animals.

Sustainable fencing is grown fencing.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one bit at a time.
Hugs from Arkansas.

Try blackberries, good and sharp, but tasty too. Acacia, honey locust, Thorny Elaeagnus, to name a few.

Sustainable is nature, the man part is the issue.

A popular item is an electric fence, to keep pests out. Convenient, but not a real long-term item.

This is one of my pet peeves at the farm where I work. I have spent many hours maintaining that fence--mending broken wire, replacing insulators knocked off by deer, baiting the wire with peanut butter, mowing and weedwacking to keep grass from shorting out the charge--but the deer STILL get in.

I've argued that an electric fence does not keep deer out, but there's something of a psychological delusion that is maintained when the fence is up and running. My boss will not allow hunting on his property.

Electric fences DO keep deer out. Parents place - without the electric fence the deer will eat the spring garden down to the ground. And the more tasty plants.

Electric fences will keep rabbits out. Again - home garden of my youth. Grandparents didn't have a fence and had rabbit problems. We did and did not have rabbit problems. Given the parcels of land were attached and similar crops were planted - not like the rabbits were 'different' bunnies.

Hunting will stop the deer that are killed, yes. But the herd will keep coming back for snack-time.

An electric fence around a home garden is not the same thing as one mile of fence around a whole farm, Silly Wabbit.


You might want to switch to the plastic deer fence. Most all of the farms in my area growing vegetables (including mine) have long since switched to it. I have had no deer problems the last 4 years and no one I know mentions it as a real issue anymore.

A few farmers have even installed steel wire deer fencing (at significant cost of course - but it will last 20 years) that works very well.


The application of compost and manure produced on the farm can replace the need for synthetic fertilizers to a large degree.

Not even close to being possible.

In a post-petroleum world, animal and human muscle power could very well be the most accessible forms of agricultural labor power.

Horse- 4 to 5% thermodynamic efficiency
Tractor- 30% thermodynamic efficiency

Again, not going to happen.

Not even close to being possible.

The agrarian Romantics always forget to tell us HOW they plan to collect, ship, and spread all that manure.

What feeds the animals that makes the manure.

And "compost"? Outside of a well-run home operation (like mine), it's a total joke.

Where do the food scraps that go into commercial composters come from? Why, restaurants, and kitchens, and cafeterias that serve CONVENTIONALLY GROWN produce.

That, too, has to be transported, and then turned and turned and turned (with bucketloaders), then shipped again, then spread on the fields....where it disappears, like water.

Corn yields remained around 25 bushels/acre until the early 1940's. Thereafter they rose almost straight line at 1.7 bu/ac annually. Today yield is about 150 bu/ac with a possible plateau occurring.

25 bu/ac was about all the available N before synthetic ammonia. N, P and K had to increase in proportion to the nutrients removed because most soils do not have enough available for anywhere near today's yields. N has to be applied in excess because so much is lost to the atmosphere and through leaching.

The entire population is at the mercy of N, P and K applications at today's levels or higher. N is used in excessive quantities in Asia with high losses because incremental yield is so important.
The green revolution may have run its course as the ability to breed crops to produce grain at the expensive of stalks and with orientation of leaves to gather sunlight is maximized. These high yield varieties require pesticides and herbicides. The number of plants per area also increased.

The green revolution was a once in history event that has temporarily rescued most of the population from hunger. Because yield increase was constant the percentage growth exceeded population. For example, 1.7 bushels equals a 6.8% at 25 bu/ac but is a 1.1% increase at 150 bu/ac.

V. Smil discusses the manpower required to spread manure in Enriching the Earth. Much manure today is applied to crops. Long term it all has to be, along with what goes down sanitary sewers. And don't forget the value of bones, which are 10% P.

"Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes..."

It is one thing to do small scale scale organic farming, but the problem is that there is not anywhere near enough organic matter worldwide. A return to organic farming equals mass starvation!

Paul, I don't know how to reconcile your claim with the research I posted.

I fully support using all available agricultural, human and animal waste as fertilizers. Organic matter is definitely beneficial to soil. But all farming was organic for centuries, and some places such as China used all available organic matter until late in the 20th c. However, wherever synthetic and mineral fertilizers were applied, hunger decreased and eventually almost disappeared.

The article (link) you posted claims a 30% energy savings with organic methods. Yes, growing legumes adds N, but takes land out of higher yielding crops. Also, commercial fertilizer is concentrated by a factor of about 15 or more compared to something like manure, so transportation costs are going to confine manure to very local use. Urea (synthetic) is the most concentrated solid form of nitrogen fertilizer at 47.6%, and although it takes more energy to produce than something like ammonium sulfate or ammonium nitrate, it has the lowest transportation cost, making it a popular source of N and a net energy saver in many cases.

Human waste is much more problematic because it is so dilute. Of course animal and human wastes have to be handled carefully because of pathogens.


Sometimes I think you and I and just a very small handful of others, including Paul the Engineer , are the only ones here not drunk on sustainability beer or totally hung over on distilled hard crash hooch.

If and when we give up farming the way we do it now on the grand scale-and I suppose we will have to at some future time-words fail me, I can't even begin to describe how tough any short term transition would be.

Fortunately we can keep on farming more of less the way we do now for as long as industrial society and civil authority continue to exist-when tshtf, peoplw will get behind rationing inputs to farmers as necessary, regardless of the severity of cutbacks that might be necessary in other parts of the economy.

We will not change as a society in respect to our profligate use of energy until we are forced to do so by the scourge of utter and absolute necessity.

Only then will we seriously AS A SOCIETY get humping on the food sustainability question.But barring collapse, we can certainly produce ample food for the forseeable future, meaning the next two or three decades, to take care of our own needs.

The unfortunates who live in food importing countries dependent on trade for thier dinner are going to be going to bed hungry before this decade is out.

Just how expensive food might become here in the states is an interesting question-certainly it will probably take a much larger percentage of the consumers dollar before too much longer, and it may well become one of the top two items again,as in food and shelter, within our lifetimes, but I doubt that it will go that high-barring a collapse.

If and when we give up farming the way we do it now on the grand scale-and I suppose we will have to at some future time-words fail me, I can't even begin to describe how tough any short term transition would be.

The irony is we practice just about all the "sustainable" so-called methods here and the lesson learned is that it is unsustainable: One's reliance on outside inputs becomes starkly clear when one tries to "DIY."

I gather you farm commercially? Though I work at a small local farm, our own farm is for our own consumption. I still practice composting, mulching, etc., though I refuse to call it "organic" or "sustainable" because of the link to delusional thinking. The experience has caused me to respect the output large-scale commercial farmers manage while understanding that that, too, is utterly unsustainable.

The moral: organic or conventional, farming is unsustainable because farmers must practice both "drawdown" and "takeover" in order simply to grow more people.

We have been farming commercially in the nieghborhood for well over a hundred years but every generation the number of surviving farmers in the extended family shrinks;unless there is a turn around in the markets, we will probably be out as a family within another generation as our land and climate are not optimal for anything at all, on the large scale defined by wholesale commodity prices.

We are winding down commercial operations in the immediate family and would already be out except for the fact that our old Daddy loves his farming about as much as life itself.I doubt if we have earned as much as minimum wages for the last five years on the average, but we eat VERY welland we are superbly situated , compared to most people, including other farmers, for the powered down world that seems to be headed this way fast..

It is still possible to have a good year if the dice roll your way;good weather, good yield, and a pox on growers in other parts of the country, and buyers who normally wouldn't speak to you at church are suddenly your best friends.

Up until the fifties, when I was a kid, we also grew eighty percent of everything found in the kitchen other than sugar and coffee.We even had a waterpowered mill in the family up until the late thirties and did the local milling ; after that we bought flour and corn meal until around 1960 from another local mill which then shut down.Nobody has opened one since within a reasonable drive.

We all had a good laugh last Sunday recalling turning our noses up as kids at gourmet quality home produced pork chops, hamburger,peaches, ans so forth.We wanted some weenies and bologna and potato chips so bad Momma wouldn't take up into the grocery store to avoid the fuss when she shopped for the few items she bought regularly.

The power of Saturday morning tv cartoons and the ads that pay for them to shape lives and expectations is utterly beyond the grasp of almost everybody.

We can and do grow superb quality stuff, but we can't do it as cheaply as people in other parts of the country.But if people go back to buying locally, we can easily compete very well due to avoiding the shipping costs involved in supplying local stores with Washington apples and Maine potatos;our local stuff is just as good or better, but we can't supply the giant chain stores due to problems of scale and somewhat higher production costs.

I do see some signs of a turnaround in this respect and I firmly believe that people such as Westexas and Jeff Rubin are correct in thier basic predictions as to where the economy is headed and hope that I will live to see young folks making a living on a mountian farm again, as opposed to living on mountian farms.

The cost of transportation will necessarily increase as the cost of oil goes up, so in the long run we will all be buying locally, or, more probably, producing most of what we eat ourselves. After the oil runs out, I could envision small towns strung along railroad lines like beads on a string. If you drive along any of the old granger lines (Illinois Central, Rock Island, Burlington, etc.) you'll see the prairie skyscrapers in all the small towns every few miles down the track, so we've already been there. The only difference would be that the trains would have to be powered by electricity that is produced by solar panels or windmills, rather than diesel fuel. In fact, the midwest used to be criss-crossed by electric interurban railroads. Most of these lines went out of business during the Depression; they could no longer compete with Model Ts and state-financed highways, but if gasoline goes away and battery technology remains limited (unless we are still in Afghanistan to guard the lithium mines), then going back to something like what we used to have before the automobile age might just work...

The problem, of course, is that the transition period between where we are now and where we need to be is going to be "interesting" (as in the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times"). Until locally produced food (organic or otherwise) can compete effectively with factory-farmed product from thousands of miles away, farmers like you are going to be in a tough spot, and anyone who isn't growing their own food is going to be vulnerable.

BTW, my wife works for a financial planner/stock broker. Recently, they were on a conference call with some of their "vendors" on Wall Street. Among other things, they advised my wife's boss to avoid things like municipal bonds and commercial real estate (those were no-brainers). So, somebody asked what the Wall Street guys were investing in for themselves. Gold? The answer was very disturbing, to say the least. Three different hedge fund managers said they are buying "arable farm land far away from major population centers." Also gold. Also, guns and ammo... It kinda makes you wonder what these guys might know that the rest of us haven't quite figured out yet.

I keep pointing at the Cuban experience after the Soviets fell. Did they achieve the impossible?

No, they did not. There is a good-sized body of research on the Cuban economy after the Soviet regime fell. For example, the average adult lost about twenty pounds; they became a skinny people due to lack of calories.

What the Cubans did was remarkable--not impossible.

"With food production pitifully low for a country with fertile land and a year-round growing climate, farmers need more land and more autonomy in tilling it to boost output. Cuba imports at least 70% of its food, including a record $437-million worth from the United States last year."

A horse, however, returns almost all of its inputs to the earth, while a tractor does not.

I wouldn't use a horse on this property, however. Soil is too fragile. No massive fields of wheat for this little black duck.

Thanks for writing this article, tahnks Gail for posting it today. I have been posting about some ideas of mine in other threads and this ties in well.

The example of Lettuce, I'll assume it is Iceburg Head Lettuce, is kinda of telling. One Head of Lettuce at the most is less than 200 kcal but requires 4,900 kcals to get to the table of a NYC person from California. It is about 95% water to boot, and you can't live on lettuce alone. I have Oak Leaf lettuce about to go to seed in the bed that has ever bearing strawberrys.

One thing that we will see is when we transtion to a more local food diet, be it willingly or by force, the rest of the world that is getting fed by our surplus will be out of luck too.

I've been an Edible LandScape person for most of my years gardening. My newest project called BioWebScape ties in with that, as well and into housing designs. A whole system approach so that you have food and a roof over your head, and good supplies of water to drink.

Lots of places where ground water has been tainted or can't be gotten to, by simple methods, will need to be supplied by rainwater alone. So rainwater catchment and storage is all part of the package. Water use reductions, water saving gardening, and natural water filtration methods are used so that you don't need a lot of energy inputs.

But this limits the regions of the world where most people could live, to places where you get enough rain to store and use versus getting your water from rivers or lakes, unless you are using man made water features on your land. I am looking at the lowest possible outside energy use, so that it can be sustainable without the need of having a high tech world to depend on. The high tech world might still be in play, but we can't depend on it, or else all we will do is get complacent again.

In regards to Cuba, they live in the tropics, and they get enough rain, and have a better growing season than most of the USA, so using them as an example has it's limits.

If I had control of the system, I'd give everyone a chunk of arable land and have them be the owners of it. It would work out in the USA as something between 1/4 acre per person to as much as 1 acre. At most 500,000 square miles divided out into all the states and all the citizens not already land owners. Building small homes, where the biggest for large families being about 200 Sq Ft per person. Though if you build Earth Shelters you can make them larger if you like, just so long as you have as much of your roof under soil and plants.

There are plenty of Tiny Home sites and Earth Shelter sites on the web, several I like even have plans you can buy for low cost. Though being whom I am, I can look at the outside of something and build it myself in my head, and on a set of working drawings later. It might not be the same thing as they had, but space can be used in so many different ways, it's all up to the person wanting to live in it.

There are lots of places and people that are moving toward the goals of sustainable living, be they builders, designers, gardeners, all of them visionaries hoping for a better future.

One book I hope to buy is "Creating a Forest Garden" by Martin Crawford. Plans for a temperate climate forest garden is what the US will need most. Though Forest Gardens are an old theme, most are in the semi-tropical to Tropical climates, where growing is done year around and food is relatively easy to grow. It is places like Arkansas, with our dry months of June-august that make growing things with only rain water a pain.

Nothing is going to be easy, even if when you have a matured garden and system of growing and feeding yourself, and you might not have a lot of work to do some weeks. Getting to that point is not all easy, lazy days. But we don't have to slave away at growing things either. I figure that if you are slaving away at living off the land, you are doing something wrong.

Tilling all the time, and fighting nature is what has gotten us where we are now, why are we still doing the same planning of slaving away at beating nature into our image, when we could work better with it and live a lot easier lives? Call me Naive, but others have done it by working with nature, why can't the rest of us.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world,
Hugs from Arkansas,

"Call me Naive, but others have done it by working with nature, why can't the rest of us."

Link please to the "others" ?

Anyone currently growing ALL their food would be helpful .

We grow most of our own food here, vegetables and meat, and we hay our own hay crop, and smoke and cure our own pork, can vegetables and prepared meals, you name it.

And let me say it: We work AGAINST nature: against woodchucks, against Colorado potato beetles, against deer, against Japanese beetles, against slugs, against plum curculio, against cabbage looper, against coddling moth, against chipmunks, against rats and mice, against apple borer, against ice and snow and water and heat....

WE'RE UNSUSTAINABLE! We're totally dependent on machines and fuel and iron and electricity.

Humans are doomed. I hope not in my lifetime, though.

I was over at a nieghbors house yesterday helping work on a tractor in his garage with the bay doors open when we looked up and saw Bambi as pretty as any post card chowing down on his green beans, less than seventy five feet away.Please note that the countryside around here at this time of year is a browsers paradise, and that deer was fat and happy BEFORE it found his truck garden.

It just twitched its ears and tail a little when I yelled at it, and I had to run toward it to get it to move on.We will have to kill it of course, which is legal here, under the circumstances.

If we don't kill it, within three days all its buddies will hear about the buffet and within three weeks my nieghbor will be needing food stamps to feed himself next winter. We will give it to somebody who needs the meat and has time and opportunity to butcher it indoors and chill it out fast so as to beat the flys and bacteria out of thier normal hot weather due.

Farming ain't easy-we lost our primary crops last year to a late freeze, and we have been hit with hail twice already this year, but the damage to our fruit is light as we just caught the edge of the thunderstorm both times.

Most of our orchardist nieghbors are going to be deep in the hole this year-they will have to sell to the juice plant two hundred miles away , for whatever pittance they offer-if they are buying at all. If the crop up that way is heavy and any significant portion of it is of poor (juice only) quality, they will not buy from growers located outside thier immediate area.

You need a few select top predators. Where I live in rural OR we had a cougar move in a few years ago. Since then the deer population has fallen somewhat. Also the fox population has dropped, and probably other smaller mammals I haven't paid much attention to (possums, raccoons ). I don't think I've ever seen a rabbit hereabouts and the squirrel population is modest.

Unfortunately, programs like re-introducing the wolf to various areas often run across the very reason the wolf was exterminated to begin with, large sheep or cattle ranches. Then there is the unreasoning paranoia of big predators. One cougar attack on a human in a ten year time span and people howl for exterminating them. No thought given to the 40K or so deaths a year on the highways. Too many people.

If we don't kill it, within three days all its buddies will hear about the buffet and within three weeks my nieghbor will be needing food stamps to feed himself next winter.

Here's a funny anecdote for you: Where I work, the woodchucks are just ravenous. Since I've started working there I've insisted that they need to be trapped out, as the "have-a-heart" traps are insufficient and need round-the-clock surveillance, but everyone is too damned busy to bother with the traps. Besides, my boss is against killing.

We've come to a compromise: I bring leg-hold traps and a pistol on the days I work, and I've trained the younger workers--who have seen whole rows of their kale and broccoli wiped out--to be vigilant baiting and watching the "have-a-hearts" when I'm not there. We have caught and/or killed thirteen woodchucks in ten days.

After catching a chuck in a leg-hold trap, I asked one of the boys who works there--who was simply outraged at the disappearance of his beloved heads of broccoli--if he would like to shoot the chuck. He agreed, having never shot anything before.

Shakingly, he took the pistol and shot the animal--but didn't kill it. That was the last round in the chamber, so I had to run back up to the barn to get more shells, leaving him in the woods for many minutes to keep an eye on the suffering woodchuck.

I think it was a formative experience for him in the "Tragic Story of Human Success" (Catton).

Funny yes. In the Southern US a woodchuck is called a groundhog. They are actually pretty tasty in a stew. We always joked that, when eaten, it was appropriate to call them 'groundchucks'


Thanks for making my day!

We have to think in terms of the population alive today. We can't predict what new technology and knowledge will be available to unborn generations. For now we need to worry making a transition to a non-emitting energy source that is affordable. Our priorities must also be concentrated on mineral recycling and more efficient use of energy.

Agriculture is more efficient today than it was in the 1950s when I farmed. Literature reports that 60% fewer BTUs go into producing a crop today than back in my time on the farm. Less tillage, better soil conservation, and higher yields characterize today's farms.

Before world war II, nitrogen was chemically reduced with hydrogen produced by electrolysis. Now we get nitrogen from methane. The literature contains information on over 300 chemical methods for producing ammonia. Some methods require only heat of 800 to 1000 C and chemical catalysts. Researchers in Japan have produced ammonia with a process that has an efficiency of greater than 50%. Thermal solar and breeder nuclear reactors are potential heat sources to produce the needed hydrogen split from water.

As to replacement of petroleum, Los Alamos National lab has investigated the production of synthetic gasoline from hydrogen produced by water electrolysis and atmospheric carbon dioxide. The report that synthetic gasoline can be produced to sell at the pump for $4.50/gallon. With the more efficient method of hydrogen production that cost may be reduced considerably. The industrialization of developing countries in Asia is putting a huge strain the world's FF supply. Fortunately, they are moving ahead with a nuclear renaissance. The race to replace FF will be hard to win. Time will tell. Let's hope that stability of food supply holds up through the transition.

Methane is hydrogen and carbon, no nitrogen. How does one produce nitrogen from methane? Please check your chemistry.


Sorry, I left our a word, it should read ammonia-nitrogen or nitrogen fertilizer. The nitrogen story is rather complex, but some who have an interest agriculture may find it of interest, so for what it is worth I will do a short account here.

Ammonia is released from decaying plant matter in the soil. Ammonia nitrogen is in a chemically reduced form so that the plant can encorporate it into amino acids without having to spend energy to chemically reduce it. This maximizes the rate of plant growth. Some bacteria, Nitrosomonas sp. gain energy from oxidizing ammonia to nitrite. Nitrite is toxic to plants, but usually does not build up as Nitrobacter sp. gain energy by oxidizing it to nitrate. Nitrate is a useful source of nitrogen to plants, but plant must expend energy to chemically reduce it.

Farmers make large investments in tiling fields. A major reason for putting in tile is to prevent the soil from becoming water logged. In water logged conditions other bacteria (Clostridium sp.) can engage in anaerobic respiration - a process where nitrogen compounds replace oxygen needed for respiration. Nitrate is reduced to nitrite and nitrite to atmospheric nitrogen. Atmospheric nitrogen, as such, is unavailable to the biosphere. This process termed denitrification is very costly to soil fertility. Legumes can, with a process called nitrogen fixation, bring atmospheric nitrogen back into the biosphere, using a special set of enzymes. Lightning can also make it available to the biosphere as ammonia. Some ammonia escapes the soil as ammonia gas. When a shower of rain occurs the ammonia is dissolved in the rain drops and comes to the ground. People say, "the rain made my grass green". It was not only the water but also the ammonia that was washed out of the atmosphere which caused the grass to turn green. A thunder shower is even better at greening the grass than a rain without thunder.

Yes we have a farm that grows food for people, rather than commodities for markets - inspired to do so by sites like this -

The agricultural revolution started in the UK, a repopulation and reconnection of people, land and food is needed.

It is possible to have a better life for less.

Their main page has other links to their plant listings.

Robert Hart and his brother lived off their forest garden, both of them are dead now, but there are other videos of him and his plans, as well as a book.

A series of videos linked to Masanobu Fukuoka, who showed people the One straw revolution as well as other books of how to live off the land in a sustainable way.

Not every video will show you what you want to see, but look for Permaculture and Forest Gardening, amoung other names used.

Nothing is easy, but things can be easy if you plan better. Watch how your land and it's pests are telling you, and grow plants that don't suffer as much from pests, grow plants that pests hate around plants that you like.

Not every plant in my garden is for me, some the bugs like and leave my other plants alone. Some plants still die. But I have lots of plants growing, lots of things are edible. You'll have to mix and match, twist and turn a bit in the wind, but if you plant more than enough, you'll have enough.

I know my methods and ideas have their supporters and folks that say I am naive and don't know what I am talking about. Oh well, nice having the discussion, I'll buy you a beer and play a game of pool with you while the pool hall is open and they still serve beer.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one bit at a time.
Hugs from Arkansas.

One thing that we will see is when we transtion to a more local food diet, be it willingly or by force, the rest of the world that is getting fed by our surplus will be out of luck too.

Oh no! The subsidized dumping of cereal grains from the US that hits local farming communities like a plague of locusts will be lost.

Urban populations that are made dependent on hard currency imports after the local farming communities are undermined and many are forced to migrate to the cities will be forced to find ways to buy domestically, in soft currency, providing them in turn for a market for urban goods and services rather than trying to gain scraps of value added from low wage export processing zones.

Shock! Horrors! The system that has helped generate such thriving economic development in the emerging megacities in low income countries will be undermined? What are the odds that it will be possible to find a replacement for such a profound benefit to the low income nations of the world?

I didn't say it was a totally great method of feeding them. Half the world is living on lands that can't support them really. In fact look at most of California, Nevada, and Arizona, for unsustainable living. What happens to half our own population when we can't feed ourselves but from local little farms and gardens?

No sarcasm needed to know it is a mess waiting to happen.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one bit at a time,
Hugs from Arkansas.

If I had control of the system, I'd give everyone a chunk of arable land and have them be the owners of it. It would work out in the USA as something between 1/4 acre per person to as much as 1 acre. At most 500,000 square miles divided out into all the states and all the citizens not already land owners.

Yup, that system worked out real well for the folks in Zimbabwe!

I hope it turns out better than forestry where yields of small landholders are less than half that of managed forests.

It can be done badly so it must always be done badly. That seems to be what you guys are arguing.

If there are working farms I am not talking about chopping them up to the give to people who will have to learn a lot of things.

What I would do, and what I can do are two different things.

IF I were in charge, I would understand a lot more about the sustainablity issues than the Gov't of Zimbabwe, which just wanted to punish White land owners, and just wanted to get control of something they had little understanding of.

Plans to fix problems are always rift with nay sayers, it helps them feel justified when things don't work. There are a lot of for sale non-working farms, for sale arable lands, and gov't owned non-protected lands still out there. There are former farms that have become failed House farms, which can be reverted to usefulness.

There are also a lot of land owners, so they aren't part of my solution. Neither are home or apartment owners, neither are non-citizens. By the time the numbers are run you'll have a lot less than 200 million people.

Arable land is not all under cultivation, so there is also that, to consider.

But it is all a study in desires compared to something that will actually happen, anyway.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, not just the USA.
Hugs from Arkansas.

We aren't in a position to make a smooth transition on a number of counts.

The use of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers have degraded soil fertility. We'll be concerned not only with where land is (and who owns it) vs. where people are, but also with what shape the land is in. Naturally fertile soil is teeming with life, and that life has to be restored over time.

The uses of agricultural land will have to transform. Food production should take place within small sustainable, climate-appropriate ecosystems, incorporating food forest, organic garden, and well-managed, often small, livestock. It won't be factory farm over here and endless acres of grain over there, with miles between. Animals offer one source of natural fertilizer, but some plants also serve as green manures. Some fix nitrogen, making it available for other plants. Is it possible to maintain the fertility of land without agro-chemicals? Of course, but only if the task is undertaken intelligently, in concert with how nature actually works on its own.

Another issue is that of water rights and water supply. The availability and affordability of water will be critical factors. Underground aquifers are already over-tapped and cannot continue to irrigate as they have done. We've got to look not only at who is snapping up water rights and do something to ensure that we all will not be paying a fortune to access water in future, but also at permaculture strategies that work in dry climates and ways of capturing water when it rains.

Seed-saving (of nonhybrid seed) offers a way to adapt crops to evolving local conditions. Community seed banks can serve as a resource for community resilience. (For more information, see this PDF guide entitled "Seed Saving for Community Food Security.")

I expect that populations in most cities will thin out, and empty areas will be reclaimed for urban agriculture, as is happening in Detroit. We may end up with what looks like a village and farm system 2.0, with some smallish cities situated in fertile areas that enjoy sufficient rainfall. When we can't easily move much food to where many people are, we'll end up with people moving to where food may be produced.

Permaculturist Peter Bane rightly identifies organic farming as a "high knowledge" career for the future. Right now, only 1% of our population makes a living farming, and the average age of farmers is 55, pushing 60. Even today's conventional farmers will have to re-learn how to grow food, so the educational task looms large. Food system transformation is one of our most critical challenges.

The breadth & depth of knowledge needed for sustainable agriculture can seem almost infinite, especially to a beginner. Learning the basics is a matter of many years. Getting pretty good at it is a life's work. Right now, relatively few people are engaged in this learning process. We need millions more to redirect their time and energy in this direction.

We need, for one thing, to be able to link people who are without jobs to opportunities to start gardens and begin the learning process. Unemployment is running especially high among the young, so programs targeting them in and beyond the school years make sense. Making more land available for community gardens and microfarms would help, especially if there are mentoring programs that can are provided along with access to a plot of land. I like the idea of sustainable teaching farms, where aspiring organic gardeners and farmers can learn by doing, whether full-time or after hours while holding down a day job.

It certainly isn't a skill set that you can learn without a lot of 'doing'. Teaching or mentoring networks will be essential. Although some of these are starting to form, it won't be an overnight development. It could take generations. Our modern societies aren't used thinking in that kind of timescale.

There's enough good information out there to help a beginner who starts small see satisfying results early on, so that learning can be scaffolded over time. I can't think of any other area of my life where I see better returns on my investments than when I plant a vegetable seed or a fruiting shrub or fruit tree. Learning enough to feed oneself on a significant scale requires another order of knowledge, but making a start is not so very daunting.

I guess I got a green thumb then, it did not seem like it took me long to get things to grow, and keep them that way. But then it could be I was being taught things that I just don't remember, because one of my aunts kept me often when I was younger, before I was 4. After that we moved to West Germany, and was hardly ever back this way except the trip a few times every year after I hit 7, and then again a few other times, till we finally moved here and parent's bought a house. Which I had a hand in picking out.

Basics can be taught and the rest is an on going lifelong learning experience, can't get enough of it some folks will tell you, while others, just want to get back to something else as soon as they can.

There are 3 mindsets on TOD it seems, those folks that think the small forest garden/ farmer can never make it; those that think they can; and those that don't know which way the axe will fall, and can't tell you much about growing things except to say that they look like plants.

I know that going from the massive yeilds of the Modern high Fossil Fuel Farm to the maybe not so great and massive yeilds of a small farm which has to have a transition time lag, to get to peak production, will have a lot of people starving on the sidelines. But the effort has to be made to get to starting the move to small sustainable, or near sustainable farms/gardens, rather than waiting.

We can debate the subject till all of us are blue in the face, but actions need to be taken, even if they might be a few missteps along the way. Because doing nothing is a sure sign of disaster, and death for people when they can't feed themselves and the stores are empty.

Lots of things to plan, lots of things to just do on your own without waiting for Gov't to step up to help you. If you wait till you are all preped and ready to start, you'll have been left behind by the people that just take their shirts and go.

It won't be more than a few generations, starvation tends to increase the learning time.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one person at a time.
Hugs from Arkansas (its my happy thought signoff)

Here's a 2-acre "incubator farm" in NC - a mini teaching farm: .

Food production should take place within small sustainable, climate-appropriate ecosystems, incorporating food forest, organic garden, and well-managed, often small, livestock.


when population is cut by three-quarters.

Permaculturist Peter Bane rightly identifies organic farming as a "high knowledge" career for the future.

My own "high knowledge" of organic farming (I'm certified as a pesticides applicator at an organic farm, irony of ironies) has brought me to the conclusion that, not only is it too unsustainable, but it is unscientific and even based on pseudo-science.

Case in point: did you know that "organic" livestock certification requires a preference for "homeopathic" remedies over conventional ones?

No, I'm not making this up.

That is one reason I don't use the term "Organic" in most of my blog posts or TOD comments. Too many terms have been co-oped to mean something totally different than they were originally meant to be, too many hands on the words and the meanings change, and the image of the person who used them is gone.

Case in Point, is the new gov't regs concerning the word, the use of it in Popular brands, who can use one part organic and 99 parts something else, but term their product as organic. Etc Etc ETC!

Mike B, I know you have had a bad experience with it all and you have that impression to fight against when others on here talk about Sustainable, and Organic farming. In my mind, when I make up designs I have to be careful not to use to many off site inputs to my designs, because I want them to be truly sustainable in their own little worlds.

But off site inputs have to include rain, which is not from around here, Wind which brings in seeds, birds which do the same, insects and other animals, and even people coming into the system. So we have to put a boundary up and say nothing from outside coming in, or we have to realize that the whole earth is the system and we can't really use the term Sustainable as a limiting factor like we think we can.

Define how you mean the word to be, let us get a set of standard rules to what we think when we use these terms; Organic; sustainable; and others.

Just think of all the erosion that takes parts of your land away from you, just think of a flood wiping you out, we can't really plan long term sustainable in a system that we do not control the biggest factors of, like climate, and weather, and sunshine.

So let us all be honest with ourselves. We are in a world that has a lot of things going against us, and we have a lot of things we know about and can do something about. We just have to acknowledge that we are not totally in charge of it all.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one person at a time.
Hugs From Arkansas.

In 2002, the U.S. food system consumed 17 percent of the country’s total fossil fuel use (Eshel & Martin 2).

I went back through the refs and found this ultimately is derived from the Pimentels' book Food, energy, and society. How they came up with such a number I'm not sure. I think the reference is on page 138 - can't access the full preview for this page - and it looks to be a ref to another study.

In their analysis of inputs to oats production the Pimentels conclude that "Transportation" is 1.8%, "Machinery" 6.5%, "Gasoline" 9.2%, and "Diesel" 15.8%. Where they went from there to food gobbling up 3.2 mb/d I can't tell. Must be some study of shopping/driving patterns and use of onroad diesel.

I think to get anywhere near 17%, you have to include processing and packaging of very highly processed and packaged food, transportation of foods halfway around the world, sometimes twice (soy grown in the US, shipped to Japan for processing into specialized products, then shipped back here or to Europe...), and the final leg--transportation from the store to home and energy used to prepare it there.

As I recall, though I don't have the link with me, the amount actually used to grow the crops and transport them to population centers is very small--under 5%.

This is why I think we could cut back on lots of other more trivial uses of oil and still have plenty to keep farms going for a long time.

I doubt that in the U.S. there will be much of a return to traditional agriculture. IMO, what is most likely to happen in the U.S. is a massive scale up of coal-to-liquids production, as happened during and shortly before World War II in Germany. South Africa has Sasol, with very large capacity to produce liquid fuels from coal. Thus I think that rather than moving away from liquid fuels during the next fifty years, we are much more likely to keep a version of business as usual with huge investments in coal to liquids to provide diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, and other liquid fuels.

Also, we're not going to run out of nitrogen in the air and the electricity that is needed to make this nitrogen into nitrate fertilizers.

But surely switching to a more expensive way of producing nitrate fertilizers will drive up food costs. Natural gas is presently used as a feedstock because it is cheaper than alternatives.

Where have all the manure spreaders gone? Geez! That reminds me of a song I heard a long time ago on the radio!

I am almost certain that food will rise a great deal in real (inflation adjusted) prices over the next fifty years. Natural gas will be used to make nitrogen fertilizers so long as NG is cheaper than making nitrates out of nitrogen gas and electricity. Phosphorus and potassium are also essential elements in making fertilizer; we'll have to go to lower grades of mineral deposits, which will take more energy than today and which will also tend to increase the price of food.

Rising prices of food => rising death rates => falling world population, especially in the poor countries of the third world, where I expect age-adjusted mortality rates to soar as a result of food that is too expensive for the poorest half of the population to buy.

Both within and between societies the poorest will suffer the most. Already at least half a billion people are undernourished, and another billion (or more) are malnourished.

As a former full-time farmer and now a part-timer due largely to an 8-year drought, I have some personal experience. My (and other farmers') observation is that cost of inputs for the farmer have little to do with the cost of food, at least in the short run of, say, 100 years. Cost of inputs have little to do with the price we receive in the marketplace. The major price motivator is total world production. Even that takes a back seat to frenzied speculators, as the huge price rally a couple of years ago showed. If less than 1% of fund money (that's your 401K) is moved into ag commodities, the price will likely double.
What higher input prices do at this time in history is drive certain farmers out of business (drought, hail, untimely freezes, floods, low prices etc., also have a hand in it). Some, or sometimes all the above combine to drive a farmer out of business. Does the land go fallow? No, some bigger farmer with deeper pockets (his or his bankers') buys the land and goes right on growing crops. And, because he has more working capital, the land will be coaxed into higher yields. (I won't get into my opinion of quality at this time.) Because he has larger, faster equipment, his cost per acre is lower, and he can make a profit where a smaller producer can't. With the latest equipment, one farmer can spray herbicides at better than 100 acres an hour, and plant corn at over 40 acres an hour, including refill time. So in a normal month, allowing for adverse weather, one man with efficient suppliers can, using no-till methods, prepare and plant well over 8000 acres. He'd be dog-tired, but the large modern farmer is likely to be a strong type A personality who thrives on such challenges.
Until we reach a technological wall, the trend to ever larger monoculture farms will offset higher fertilizer costs, and the price of food in the grocery store will be largely determined by post-production costs after the commodity leaves the farmer's hands. The next thing is robots, turning tractors into large computers on wheels. It's been several years now since the first tractor started up at a farmstead, drove itself to a field, planted corn more accurately than a human could, and returned home. The next step? 24/7 robotic farming with man becoming the technician keeping stuff running.
Do I like it? No. I've thought for years that it would crash back to small, local food production, as so many on this site write. But the trend keeps on. Most people take little thought to their food, as long as it tastes and smells good, and is cheap relative to their other desires--cars, entertainment, houses. The time lag between poor-quality eating and poor health is too long for most people, including doctors, to make the connection.
If you want to see further evidence of the disconnect between prices and the farmer, follow the basis bids on the boards of trade. Basis has evolved into a way for processors to mitigate the craziness of wild speculators in the futures trade. For example, Kansas City hard red winter wheat closed today on the July 10 contract at $4.94/ bushel, but the price I can sell my wheat at is $3.52. It doesn't cost $1.42/bushel to move the wheat to a Kansas City flour mill. That wide basis is the millers saying "There's plenty of wheat in the world, the speculators are out of touch with reality, we'll bid the basis higher, thus lowering our cash cost to buy the wheat." Two years ago KC wheat went over $8 and grocers cried alligator tears and raised prices, knowing full well that the bread wrapper made from oil cost more than the wheat in the loaf. Has bread dropped 50% in price to reflect lower wheat prices? No way. Almost a total disconnect.
My opinion is that, except for the few who live and eat intentionally, agriculture will keep on its current trend until our civilization collapses. Avoid the news sound bites like the plague. Avoid the liberal monopolist college professors. Avoid the conservative capitalist industrialists. Avoid the politicians. What's left, if you can find it, contains some truth you can use.

Great points (though I'm not sure what a monopolist prof is).

It reminds me of rock telling us that the price of oil is not governed by EROEI considerations in any direct way.

Do you see alternative systems--CSA's, farmers markets, coops...--as providing another way for people to go?

His point was that most professors are liberals, and hence liberal ideology permeates information from academics.

Some departments, such as economics, engineering, and business administration are dominated by conservative Republicans. Most humanities and social science departments are dominated by liberal Democratic thinking. Research done by these professors reflects and supports their ideological biases.

The "monopolist prof" comment was a jab at the monopolistic higher education system,through which one must pay exorbitant prices for a degree that may not pay enough to cover the costs of the education plus everyday living. One can gain the knowledge in other ways--free internet classes (, for example), but without that sheepskin, most doors to the higher-paying jobs are locked. With such a monopoly, research and knowledge tend strongly to be channeled into whatever the corporations with the research dollars want. Being a Kansan (perhaps you Missourians can make comments) I've long thought of the University of Missouri as being Monsanto U.
There's a saying that any new lifechanging concept is at first poohpoohed, with the authors being crucified, sometimes literally, to a few people on the fringes trying it out and liking it, to finally being accepted as an "of course, everybody knows that" concept. Lag time--50 to 100 years. Can we make oil last that long?
The alternatives are being tried out now. Some people who actually enjoy sweating to grow their own food, or are willing to pay a higher price for someone else to grow it less fossil-fuel and corporate ag-dependant, are making the necessary lifestyle changes. In our area (NW KS) there is a group of farmers ( that is tied into a group of Colorado Front Range people who want to know the farmers who grow their food. The first step was to get the two groups together. The next step has been to start up the enterprise in these hard times (it's gradually growing). Perhaps later we can use a refrigerated truck that runs exclusively on biodiesel grown and processed on a member's farm.
Good replies dohboi, sunnata: There is a farmer who comments often on Successful Farming's website, who has a brother deeply involved in far-out technology. He says small-scale nuclear power is already doable, with the reactor system placed in a nonopenable box, good for 25 years of power for your home. Nuclear-powered tractors may not actually be that far away. The block is mental, social, not tecnological.
Until one actually tries to grow even half his own food for several years, going through crop failures, realizing that in third world countries a crop failure means some if not all in the family or village dies, one shouldn't criticize the current Western system too much. It was developed to address the problem of local crop failures, not just to keep someone on the land for next year, but to obtain a steady supply of food for the processors so that those who have left the farm for an easier life can eat. For most people in the world sustainable means they get to live another year. Most Westerners are too far removed from the land to understand.

Until we reach a technological wall, the trend to ever larger monoculture farms will offset higher fertilizer costs, and the price of food in the grocery store will be largely determined by post-production costs after the commodity leaves the farmer's hands.

Thanks for the post hayseed, 'some' of the other posts have a wishing well feel to them. This is not a technological problem, humanity has all the technology it needs, this is a cultural problem with long lead in times.

Dr Birol said. "The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously," Dr Fatih Birol, chief economist International Energy Agency (IEA)

The problem your highlighting to me is that people don't change unless their model of reality changes. Its been mentioned before, but in the wider population it would need to go through something similar to Kubler Ross's 5 stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

A dying individual's approach to death has been linked to the amount of meaning and purpose a person has found throughout their lifetime.

Our meaning and purpose in life is currently set by politicians (who want to get re-elected), advertisers and companies who want us to consume. We are consumers, globalised! Humanity in the Western world has huge entitlement expectations that at odds with biophysical realities. The 'optimists' have not posted one method by which internal perceptual models change, just 'could do' solutions. Wow, we've got some interesting decades ahead, and if you've got children just remember most of the solutions posted for today's generation creates huge diachronic competition as its just more draw down - stealing from the future in the hope of something coming along.

Surprised nuclear tractors hasn't popped out as the panacea for all our ills (is there a smiley for sarcasm?)

People who see themselves sliding down the economic scale are taking up or returning to gardening. Mel Bartholemew's book "All New Square Foot Gardening" ranks #307 in sales at Amazon. Toby Hemenway's excellent introduction to permaculture, "Gaia's Garden," ranks #1367. A number of popular gardening titles beat any one of John Grisham's novels in the sales rankings.

I'm one of those people who decided to return to gardening. I know that my earning power as a public school teacher will continue to be whittled (or axed) according to the state of the economy. Five years ago I decided that I'd better get going with a garden. It is possible to spend significant amounts of money tending a garden, so my little operation is evolving away from dependence on Lowes and toward sustainability. My tools are simple; my seed is saved from year to year. I fertilize the fruit trees by whacking down Bocking 14 Comfrey. I wish I could add a couple of pygmy goats or a few chickens to the mix, but I'll have to find land outside of town for that. Until then, I look to area farmers for sources of composted manure free of killer herbicides.

Lets hear it for the massive US ag system. Which takes basic corn(C4) and soybeans and converts them into simulated food products which guarantee medical problems with those who consume them.

All you folks who follow the merchandising adverts and prayerfully get thee to a supermarket to buy the 'industrial' grade products are creating bad health and increased incidents of heart disease , diabetes and obseity.

I just stopped by a farmer who sells me raw milk, cheese ,and range eggs plus grass fed beef.

This is what I was raised on and ALL my ancestors prior to me as well.

What is sold now is mostly simulated food which will put you in the grave.

All you folks who studiously are led by the marketeers of the food and nutrition industry are shortening you lives and health tremendously.

Like a rat caught in a leg hold trap you are going to be subjected to the ills of bad health and large doses of factory chemicals use to create the artifical food stuffs found today on the supermarket inner aisles.

Why does TOD continue down this path of failing to understand that for thousands of years we lived and ate differently and lived in a far different manner?

The campfires are a big joke. Come on folks, when are you EVER going to get a clue?

I have pretty much given up after all the hurray regards the GOM oilspill.
The regulars have left in droves, the newbies are running rampant chatting about the weird techie shit of oil drilling.

There are couple of far better websites that I frequent that speak to the reality of what is really happening on this planet.

TOD is fairly well 'out to lunch' on these issues. I suggest the Campfire series be eliminated before they do real serious harm.

Yes oil is important. It won't be much longer. Then what will folks do?

Answer: Die off with a clue.

Slow down a minute. I'm one of the newbies. I found this place because of the oil spill, but I stay because of some of the other stuff.

You're right about our diet being based on corn. You're right about the health effects. You're right about chemicals. There are probably over 100 chemicals in your bloodstream right now that didn't even exist 100 years ago.

I have passive solar panels on my house. This summer I'm going to can some vegetables to see if I can extend my garden's usefulness. I eat very little meat. I drive less and bike more. To hear other people tell it, all these things are impossible and crazy. I just don't see that not knowing every answer means we have to sit still.

Anyway, if you're really leaving at least leave us a trail of breadcrumbs. What other sites are also good?

And finally, what I really wanted to say...
The original post is actually a sociology paper. I think it's a lucid and concise presentation of some of the problems we face and she provides some rational suggestions. We should be applauding this young lady, and I'm encouraged to see that young people are seriously engaging on these issues.

There is no TOD position. The people who post here are TOD, with all kinds of different opinions expressed. I have not heard much from you and if think the discourse should be improved, then please post your views so they can be considered and challenged just like all the other views here.

I would be very interested in the "better" web sites that you visit as I am always looking for "better" web sites.

Most would agree with you that human beings lived thousands of years ago in a far different manner. That they lived is beyond dispute; how they lived is another matter. One of the debates is what we will have to return to and what the quality of life can be or would be. For millions of years, life was nasty, brutish, and short. Now we have billions of people. How do we create a life which is not nasty, brutish, and short, and oil and resource constrained?

This is the source of the doomerism you may find here. I would like to think that we could cut back considerably and still have a reasonably satisfying and pleasurable existence, even with a lot less energy. But I am not so sure. Which is one of the reasons I come here. I am not aware that any civilization has been able to pull out what amounts to a controlled crash without seriously damaging most of its citizens and ecosystems. Some here advocate an experiment on a grand scale. Others talk about moving to a sustainable existence. But is that even possible? The clock ticks and the resources dwindle day by day by day.

But there will be a future, one way or another. And it is pretty clear that our current path will lead to certain disaster with ugly and painful consequences. All the other paths are fraught with uncertainty. But we can't just sit and wait. There will not be any helicopters coming to save us even if our distress signal can be detected.

If you can say you have been a reader/lurker for a few years, then we might listen to your negative comments, but having been around this place for over 4 years, just 12 weeks shy of 5 years. Your comments, about what we talk about here, are lame. I don't want to sound mean, but you are calling TOD a useless site, when if you would have been around for a long time you'd see what all we do talk about outside the world of OIL, but related to it.

As to the number of people on here, It doubled because of the Oil Spill, and the servers got overloaded a time or three, and a lot of the regulars have planting and gardening and jobs to do in the summertime, some people are travelers for jobs and what not, and the flux is up and down, just giving a two week count, says nothing about those matters.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, hugs from arkansas.

Seconded about said lameness. Nuance clearly confuses him. I have actually learnt a lot from TOD and related sites. It's the reason I have a bike at all. His comment was jarringly out of place in it's vague, misplaced accusations and well, let's just say he wasn't exactly telling us anything we didn't know. Hell, I knew that stuff even before I came here.

passingby .....member for 3 weeks and 2 days

what do you suggest ?

"raw milk, cheese ,and range eggs plus grass fed beef. "

How many acres/adult does that take ?

what about your other calories ? or is "This is what I was raised on and ALL my ancestors prior to me as well. ???

Unless one has a 2.5+ acre garden they are tending , I suggest you start looking for a local farmer who will grow your calories.

If you believe this is what will happen, then it is incumbent upon individuals to make the changes required to provide for their family.

Industrial ag will change, but a return to horses/mules/oxen not likely. I use a BCS walk behind tractor to till garden, sickle mow field, chip limbs, and grade my driveway. I hire a local backhoe for big stuff. We have a woodlot for heat.

My point is that there will always be some fuel to use, but small scale guys don't big tractors and trucks to get by. On the other hand, growing and building is not a chore for my wife and I. It is us, simply who we are.

We are building up a hair sheep herd, buy a local grass fed beef which we split up with our family, grow our vegetables and fruit, and can our salmon. For treats we go for prawns and ground fish. We had omelets tonight courtesy of our flock, and sell just enough eggs to pay for bought feed to supplement hen foraging.

We still work and thank God every day for our jobs. I like challenges but would hate to have to rely just on what we produce. We can't grow grapes and oranges here and don't mind buying them.

As to how much land, it depends on the ground and growing season. I don't think you can ever go wrong picking up land. They sure don't give it away and never will. For regular folks, life means work. The laughs are free.


Congratulations Paulo, quite an accomplishment! In your post you mentioned: is incumbent upon individuals to make the changes required to provide for their family...Industrial ag will change...I use a BCS walk behind tractor to till garden...My point is that there will always be some fuel to use, but small scale guys don't big tractors...

Which relates to what I too have been looking for, a middle way of supplementary family-scale food growing. Not a complete diet, just the portion that makes sense for the climate, space, skills, and time the family has available. My space is not big enough for a walk behind tractor, but I have had great success using this wheel hoe for cultivating and weeding. It has got our gardening time requirements down enough that we are seriously thinking about enlarging the garden.

When people like Paulo and others here share their success stories (large or small) it provides a powerful boost to those who want to give food growing a try but doubt their capabilities.

You equate 'membership' time as total time!!!!

The length of time since creating an account has no bearing on length of time one spends reading the website. This should be obvious.

I have been reading TOD since shortly after it surfaced on my radar screen. About 5 or so years ago. Back when there was a smaller amount of postings but of far higher quality.

Slowly it became obvious that the words in the Mission Statement indicated a huge problem facing us in the future:

"Most people are not aware of the problems we face or they underestimate their potential impact. Politicians and the traditional media have overlooked the problem, out of ignorance or due to a conflict of interest. We seek to fill the information gap, disseminating underreported facts and analysis."

I submit that rapidly altering our lifestyles to a more sustainable and survivable one is obvious to all but the most hardened junkie stuck on what we term the 'modern lifestyle'. That lifestyle is ending shortly. It was created by the media, the corporations and your government. They grew rich and the populace suffered as a result. They still do. The medical industry is also to blame for our bad health and the several modern diseases of obesity,diabetes and heart disease as well as mental illiness and cultural decay.

My parents and grandparents lived far far different than we do currently.
What I do is return to those lifestyles and find them to be not only healthy but sustainable.

We are in a death spiral and the crisis in the GOM is the pigeon in the mine.

Time to wake up and quit fooling and fussing around and get this or some website totally aware of just how important it is to change NOW.

I see with the huge number of postings about the GOM that it has taken front stage and the Campfires have suffered as a result. Not that the Campfires were really going anywhere, and that is slowly becoming obvious that they are, we are running out of time.

Campfires should be about refitting for a new (actually old) lifestyle for our future. The time is NOW. Waiting and chatting for oilhead techies to pontificate endlessly on the DWH is wasting precious time.

I rest my case. Do as you wish but your lives hang in the balance. This is just a distraction from what this country and the net should really be about.

Modern Ag will be and is the death of us.

Corn and soybeans are changed into plastic foodstuffs. Our health declines as the corporations become more intrusive and steer the garbage most view on the TV.

Time to give it up or start the dieoff. The long descent,as one members website depicts it.

I am now starting to harvest my cabbages into sauerkraut. My potatoes are ready to gather up. The corn is tasselling already. Its been a very good year for gardening so far. I plant over an acre of garden and use very very little in the way of fossil fuel methods to produce it.

There is only one item of supreme importance. Can you live on what you produce(or barter for with your neighbors)? Using your own muscle,skills and on your own parcel of land and soil. And also protect it against those who would take it for their own.

Its just that simple. The pattern and die has been cast.

Consideration. Dealing with what has become known as CSAs is also going to be part of returning to the past. Its where you trade with your neighbors. Right now its still in infancy but growing.

I just stopped by a farmer who sells me raw milk, cheese ,and range eggs plus grass fed beef.

This describes us to the "T." We milk cows, make cheese, raise chickens and pasture our own beef.

We do it because it's fun, but we are under no delusions that this is some panacea for our current dilemma.

Farming--I don't care what name it goes by--grows people. That is the problem.

Good article. But this is not new news. Back in 1986 while attending a protest over proposed offshore drilling off the Mendocino CA coastline, I happened upon a paper published by someone that basically examined peak oil, and its agricultural implications. This was a study that the Department of Agriculture (I think) conducted in the Reagan years. The paper was privately published by the authors - since its conclusions ran counter to the Administrations "Morning in America" message. Reagan's administration probably wanted to quash the study.

Basic numbers - at the time they postulated that 95% of our agricultural output was dependent upon oil inputs. They estimated that sometime between 1995 and 2005 that we would reach peak oil. The worry was what would happen afterwards in terms of food security and national security.

Unfortunately I didn't save a copy and I haven't been able to find who published this. But 24 years ago they were talking about this already.

We may be at the peak now or in a few years. Or it may have already come and gone. Yet our society seems to be stuck in an uneasy inertia, and assume that either there will be a technological fix that will save us or that it is simply another person's problem.

You've been on this site for nearly five years, and you come out with this??

No one here that I have ever seen has claimed that Peak Oil is a new observation. Pretty much everyone (except you, apparently) knows that M. King Hubbert first predicted in 1956 that US oil production would peak near 1970, which it did, and he published a book on world peak in 1980 with Richard Nehring.

Wiki him to get full details.

Have you really been here for four years and 33 weeks???

Yes, he has been here longer than I have, and my membership goes back about four years and twenty-one weeks. I can remember some of his comments from 4+ years ago, and of course it is easy to look them up.
All you have to do is to click on his name in orange above the comment box, and then you can read all the comments he has ever made on TOD.

Negative/strident comments damage credibility and turn readers away. Then, your points become lost for many. We have lost out.

The engineers will design and build for our needs. The chemists will enlighten us to the basic blocks of matter. The physicists tell us what and why, and those with an arts bent paint the canvas of our spirits. None of this requires a degree.

Of course many people are all of the above. I once had a teacher who dropped engineering to teach Philosophy and English after hearing TS Elliot read. What a mind, what a heart! His wife refers to him as 'the old fart'. He was a great teacher that changed lives. I read negative postings about teachers and know there is more to the story. I remember the engineer/philosopher that changed my life.

TOD is a community able to communicate across the entire world. Sure, it is about energy, but the links folks provide save much fumbling and searching about as idea builds on idea.

Thanks to TOD have learned so much about the economy and how oil is produced. I am out of school and live in the boonies. How else could I find this information without TOD? The machine shop that runs on PV with a homepage and pictures of projects? Wow. Thanks. The oil experts telling us the real story. It sure beats Anderson Cooper. This site is fantastic.

I am in my fifties and love to read the postings from older folks who have been around. My dad died twenty years ago and I miss being able to listen about how Uncle Fritz farmed and how they traded for stuff in the Depression. When he died those stories died with him until I get together with family.

Will things change from the orgy of consumerism? I hope so, because we all need a spiritual side to fill and stuff doesn't do it. Will it be catastrophic change? I sure hope not because life is tough enough when things are going well. I don't want to share ideas about where to buy bullets and how to live on grubs. I want to learn and be inspired, not cajoled.

Think how awesome this is, albeit frightening. Many think something is growing wrong. We search for what why where when and find the people. We take their ideas/stories and grow. We have the ability to migrate and start new lives, if need be. It is what people have done forever, and this is our campfire across every time zone and culture.

I'll bet every day some of our readers decide to take control of their lives and move on to where they think they need to go. It may be as straightforward as leaving the house ten minutes earlier and catching the bus. It may be starting that garden. It is happening everywhere in a positive and deliberate way.


Sorry if I came off sounding too harsh for your sensibilities. I was honestly just dumbfounded that someone around that long would claim or imply that anyone here was claiming that PO was a new idea. The dude is perfectly capable, presumably, of straightening me out if he had some other intended meaning.

My impression, from reading this site for nearly five years and participating for about half that, is that this is not primarily I site for people to come to for spiritual inspiration, but to wrestle with and try to understand honestly the actual dimensions of our current predicament(s).

"We search for what why where when and find the people. We take their ideas/stories and grow. We have the ability to migrate and start new lives"

Sorry, buddy, but this sounds like new age, cheap spirituality to me. Why are you so obsessed with the need to "grow." Why do you choose "growth" as your spiritual metaphor? If your doctor told you that you had a "growth" in your brain, would you take that as good news? As news that you were on the verge of some miraculous new psychological and spiritual "growth"??

Growth is great for tadpoles and small children. But do we want our kids to grow forever? In every direction?

And why and where do you want to migrate to? Are you going to migrate by car, spewing more CO2 as you go? Isn't it time we committed ourselves to a particular place?

Ultimately, we have no "there" to go to. We can't migrate to the moon. There are no other proximate planets to migrate to. We have to mature enough to stop looking for "somewhere else." There is no elsewhere. To quote another bit of cheap, new-age-y spirituality, we really do have to all start to simply "be here now."

Most likely that will mean "die here now" in the next few months or years for most or all of us.

But, as the saying goes, it's a good day to die.

Better to go down with some tiny scrap of honor in the ship we're on than flail about in the cold waters--this time there will be no other boats to save us.

The entire planet, earth and sea, are going down--sunk by our own impetuousness.

(Pay a smidgen of attention to what is happening in the Arctic and you may start to understand what I'm talking about. But you probably don't really want to, since it will get in the way of your precious "growth," so never mind.)

I would normally just ignore this article but I am more and more concerned that useless, sweeping and inaccurate generalisations of the type contained here are serving to switch off intelligent debate and displace real, thoughtful and fact based inquiry. When these articles appear on a forum like TheOilDrum, which exists to do exactly the opposite of that, they crowd out vital debate at a time when we can least afford for that to happen

For example, this…

“The increase in globalized food production, which has come at the expense of local production, is possible only for as long as cheap energy supplies can subsidize the transportation of goods across long distances.”

…is utter rubbish, and supported by absolutely nothing but facile assumptions.

It is true more often than not that food transported a long way is MORE energy efficient than the same type of food would be if produced locally.

There are thousands of examples of this, but to pick one at random it would be much more energy intensive to grow bananas in greenhouses in the UK than to transport them by temperature controlled vessel from Central America. If you’re not sure why that’s true, I will provide calculations for you.

It would be a valid - but entirely different - argument to say that by choosing to vary our diets so highly we have increased the energy intensity of the products we eat, a trend which must eventually be reversed. However, this is akin to saying the Irish should stick to eating potatoes, and while there may be some painful truth in that (for all of us, not just the Irish), I somehow doubt from the right-on tone of your article that you would be quite so comfortable saying it.

Why can’t topics be addressed one a time, carefully and with minimum standards for using data and facts to back up assertions?

Bananas and potatoes are not native to Europe. So having the Irish only eat potatoes is not something that they did before Columbus.

The point of the article I got, was what do we do when Oil is running out, and shipping and trucking to all points becomes an issue.

As to a varied diet, we can have a varied diet if we eat more of what is not monocultured in today's farms.

Take for instance, Dandilion greens, beet tops, chard, sorrel, purslane, and Amaranth, aren't usually found in grocery stores, or even grown on most farms, but they are edible greens.

So a varied diet means you have to depend on your own garden, and not what is mass produced for stores. Saving energy doing this is on a one on one basis. You can't expect to get most of these crops mass produced. Eating them is more like having gone back to a hunter gatherer type of life style, but with the modern twist of you using knowledge to grow them yourself rather than depending on them being in the wilds.

I am willing to bet that people 1,000 years ago lived on a varied diet, more so than most modern folks do. Mainly because we only eat what can normally be produced cheaply in the modern food factory system we live under. That in third world outdoor markets you'd be able to find a lot more varity of fresh foods than you can in the USA.

But then again, I just ate stir fried watermelon rind, not something most folks in the USA have added to their menus.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, one person at a time.
Hugs from Arkansas,

Fair enough I should have put it slightly differently although the point is similar - I guess the point is people are happy to be told it is wrong that their food should travel long distances, because that is someone else's fault.

But telling people that they should simply not (or will not be able to) eat certain foodstuffs because they can not be produced locally without high energy consumption is a different message, a far harder sell and not nearly so right on.

I bet you are right about hunter gatherers having a more varied diet than we do. Unfortunately the carrying capacity of 1 square km (productive land) per person for a hunter gatherer lifestyle would imply the death of roughly 5.9bn of the 6bn people living today. As well as the fact that it takes roughly 100% of one person's labour to feed one person which means in practise no art, music, poetry, no writing or books and certainly no medicine.

Some of us are not so keen to go that way.

Apparently it one of the great myths about hunter gathers that they were constantly scaveging for food. Modern day hunter gathers spend about 2-4 hours and the rest of the time socialising etc.
It has references

I've only been a member here for a little over a week so far, although I have been reading this site a little longer. My wife and I have been growing some of our own vegetables for a couple years now, and are so far only part of the way up what appears to be a pretty big learning curve (although our current tomato crop is the envy of the neighborhood). Some of our neighbors have chickens and goats, but we haven't gotten to that point just yet. We are using a fairly labor-intensive square foot gardening system, using kitchen waste, crop rotation to replenish nitrogen, worm castings, leaf mulch, grass clippings, etc. With row covers on our raised beds, we are able to get 2 or 3 crops per year of different seasonal crops, so I'm pretty sure we are getting a higher yield than the typical pre-industrial farmer.

It is obvious that our current fossil-fuel-dependent society is unsustainable in the long run, but with enough lead time I believe we can make the necessary transition to a sustainable civilization without too much bloodshed. Whether we actually will be able to do that is still up in the air, but it is possible. The transition period will be interesting (like that famous Chinese curse), but the end result (after most of the fossil fuels have been used up) will probably look a lot like the small village/local agriculture system that existed for thousands of years before the industrial revolution. The level of technology that we may end up with is interesting to contemplate. There will probably be more solar panels and wind farms and not very many personal automobiles. The actual mix will probably be determined to a great extent by how rapidly and destructive the collapse of industrial civilization occurs.

At any given level of technology, the average quality of life will be inversely proportional to the total quantity of life. So the question arises: what is the natural carrying capacity of planet earth? Do any of you know off the tops of your collective heads what the average person requires in terms of acreage to provide a balanced diet, using traditional (sustainable, pre-industrial) farming methods, vs. our current (unsustainable, high-tech) agribiz? I'm trying to estimate how many of the 7 billion humans on this planet will have to starve to death (or be killed in wars over limited resources) so that the survivors can survive.

I am not sure we will ever know what the natural carrying Capacity of Earth was. The place has changed so much since we have moved so many plant species all about the globe. Coffee was native to South America, it is grown all over the tropics now. Potatoes, are also native to South America, but are grown all over the world. Just to name two of the millions of species that have moved locations since man started mucking about with what once was.

Stir into the mix that a lot of mankind now knows a lot more than mankind did 200 years ago, or even further back. Some information has been lost with each generation, some has been gained, and some has not ever changed. There is no central Knowledge bank that has all the answers, most of what we could guess is just that, a good guess, or a 'we suppose this to be correct but can't be sure really'.

Given all the changes to the global system and all the changes that will take place in the near future, we can maybe guess at a few billion at most being able to live without fossil fuels, but likely the numbers are still all wrong.

The problem with needs of diet is that it is not just calories that you have to throw into the mix. You need minerals and vitamins as well. You could get sick and die from just eating Potatoes all the time, or just wheat, or just rice, or for that matter just beef. Though you might not know it till you hit the mineral and vitamin tipping point and got sick, you might be able to live several months without knowing about it.

Modern medicine and our study of our bodies needs, is still growing in its knowledge base.

So given that you have to have a lot of things like minerals and vitamins, and base calories, I would guess that you could live off of the prefect 1 acre per person bit of land. I'd say that a prefect garden system might be able to cut that down to 1/4 an acre. But as I said the prefect system, is somewhere near 1/4 to 1 acre. In the real world, it could be higher than that, up to 5 acres, any more than that, and you are letting a lot of food go to waste, or are not using it for food production.

Globally we only have so much land, and once you say that it takes 5 acres per person, you can't support 7 billion on the land we do have( all of it), If you cut it down to 1 acre per person you are using 20% of the available land on earth.

What we are seeing today is that we are growing food crops on lands that have to be watered not from rainfall but from water from elsewhere. Pumped water, or deverted water is not something new to growing food, its been around for a long time, 1,000s of years. But what we are doing now is using more fossil fuels to pump it and use it.

Naturally produced foods( man not doing anything to them, Wild as it were) usually only survive on the rainfall for that area. No rain failure of plants and the fruits, even die offs. So if we were all hunter gatherers, and did not spread seeds and plants, we'd be a lot less dense than we are now. I'd guess about 500 million world wide at the most, likely a lot less, because big groups are not possible. We are talking no herding, no farming. More like 200 million globally.

But I don't think that will happen, at least not at first, might be the norm in the far future, but I can't get over the fact that people today know more than we did 1,000 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. really it is hard to guess and no one will be around to tell us we got it right or wrong.

Hope that got you some of the answers from one corner of the room.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world.
Hugs from Arkansa

We have what you might call an edible front yard, with various self-watering containers, raised beds, cold frames, etc.). We are growing all sorts of goodies, like beans, peas, carrots, beets, squash, kale, spinach, and too many tomatoes: it's the usual suburban farmstead... We like the idea of permaculture, and are trying to achieve self-sufficiency as much as possible, with several compost bins and a worm ranch in the back yard. Our long term goal is to buy a small plot - maybe 10 or 20 acres - in Missouri or Kansas or some other midwestern state where sufficient rain falls from the sky on a regular basis. Currently we live in north central Arizona, so we need to use well water from our slowly sinking aquifer. If the economic system collapses anytime soon, we are screwed, but then so are millions of others.

We aren't particularly interested in doing farming as a business (although we could specialize in various kitchen herbs, or have a farm stand), so we don't need a huge spread. However, we figure we'll need at least a couple acres to grow most (if not all) of our food, with more than just the bare minimum acreage per person, so we can practice crop rotation and allow some parts of the farm to lay fallow every year. We'd like to have some chickens for eggs, goats for cheese, a small orchard of fruit trees, and some extra pasture for Bessie the moo-cow and a horse or two. A small stand of hardwood trees and a pond would be nice too, as long as we are dreaming. In other words, we want to be able to provide a complete, balanced diet for ourselves, not just potatoes or corn. I used to live in Kansas, and have no desire to practice the kind of monoculture that so many professional farmers in that state have to do to stay in business. We just want our little rural survival retreat with a windmill and some solar panels.

My wife wants me to build her a "hobbit house." As a retired civil engineer, construction manager, and house rehabber, I think I'd be able to build an energy-efficient, earth-bermed, solar-powered house, so we can survive in relative comfort even if civilization as we know it collapses around us. Millions of people came here to Arizona to retire, but if the grid goes down and the air conditioning and water pumps stop working, this place is basically uninhabitable, so we want to move back to some place that IS habitable before any really bad things happen...

The sociopolitical landscape in a post-fossil fuel world will be interesting to observe (if not to live through). I can imagine small villages surrounded by community farm fields. I can imagine hundreds of landless peasants working like slaves on the local warlord's plantation. I can imagine wind- and solar-powered electric railroads replacing cars and planes for most transportation. I can imagine lots of sustainable, self-sufficient futures, but I have trouble imagining how we'll get to any of them from here without lots of pain and suffering and millions of dead bodies. If history tells us anything, it tells us that there will be wars fought over dwindling resources. It's interesting to note that the earth's population remained fairly steady until roughly the beginning of the industrial revolution when it started to grow geometrically (or is it exponentially?). I cannot imagine that 7 billion people can survive for long if we have to go back to living off the land, using only the energy available from sunlight, like our ancestors did for thousands of years before the fossil fuel age.

Excellent article - but not much lateral thinking on the solution.

The idea that our oil-dependent civilization can revive farming methods of 1900 to meet future food production requirements (without systemic collapse) is laughable.
As already pointed out, lack of available land, soil quality depletion, aquifer depletion, poor growing season in northern latitudes means that even if everyone was skilled in human/animal muscle power farming methodologies - then we would still fail to meet our food production requirements.

The future of food production 20 to 30 years from now is food though molecular assembly technologies. Nanotechnology.

Existing technologies are more correctly described as nanoscale, not nanotech (they do not not yet incorporate self-assembly). But as capabilites develop it will be possible to assemble food from soil, rubbish and other locally sourced raw material. Eventually each household will have a programmable nano-food assembler just as each has a refrigerator today. The electricity required will have to be from solar, wind, nuclear and other sources in the post-fossil fuel paradigm.

The big question is regarding transition. Can civilization transition from its oil dependent food supply to nanofood supply without widespread disruption to society, as the required new technologies are too immature to take up the slack?

Nanotechnology? Really, Wintermute? Really!

LOL, Heyoka. Welcome to the brave new world of "Counterblogging." TOD gets popular and goes on the list. Not to suggest that these are examples of counterblogging specifically, but it is going on.

Hmm. Come to think of it, if it's not counterblogging, after 120 posts about sustainable agriculture, what is it?

I've been watching nanotechnology for years, ever since I met Eric Drexler at a science fiction convention back in the 1970s. Basically, what plants already do IS nanotechnology. Even if we have general purpose molecular assemblers, the nanobots will still need energy to build proteins and carbs or whatever else we want them to make, which means using available sunlight, just like plants already do. So, even there may be some small tweaks to total efficiency, we're still going to be in the same ballpark as we would have been already. In other words, no net gain...

Now, if we can use the nanobots to make more efficient photovoltaic cells, we might be on to something.

I too have been following Drexler's work since I found his Engines of Creation in the late 80s.

Agreed that biology is nanotechnology. But the key difference is in potential. Natural selection will rarely approach the levels of efficiency which is theoretically possible in a properly engineered system. We *should* *eventually* be able to design artificial self-assembling edible plant substitute/analogs which exceed the food potential of natural ones.

To those that scoff at the thought of nano-assembled food. Consider the world-wide cellular phone system. 30 years ago if you described handheld devices offering mobile telephony for half the people on the planet - then this would invite ridicule! I will not even start on the incredible value-added information content the internet adds to the whole system.

We can't look back to 1900 for solutions to 2010 problems. Cuba's 1900s-era food solution is not the future for the whole world.

Often a target for environmentalists and global warming alarmists alike, intensive modern agriculture has been demonized as the cause of many types of pollution, including those dreaded greenhouse gases. A study, soon to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveals that highly productive modern agriculture actually reduces net greenhouse gas emissions when compared with using croplands less intensively. Furthermore, expansion of agriculture, needed to feed mankind's ever growing numbers, can help reduce future increases in CO2 emissions. Simply put, more intensive agricultural is a good thing for the environment. In fact, agriculture reduced total human carbon emissions from 1850 to 2005 by 34%. See my full article at:

Congratulations, your propaganda is very slickly produced. If you only look for the facts that support your existing position, you'll always be able to find them. You just have to ignore everything else.

Comments like "the government-knows-best Obama administration" or "the throng of climate change alarmists" are probably not helpful at furthering the discussion. (Though I did enjoy the photo of modern agriculture. The rainbow was a nice touch.)

Thanks for the reference.

Thanks for the reference.