UK Agriculture, Organic Farming and Relocalisation

[editor's note, by Chris Vernon] This is a guest post by Louise and Nick Rouse.
Additionally I feel I should apologise for the lack of activity on here recently, I have recently moved house but the disruption will be worth it since I've swapped my 50 mile a day round trip commute for a 20 minute walk there and back. Should cut my personal mileage some 70%! Anyway, on to the article:

Among the recurrent issues surrounding peak-oil is food production. With the Organic Food Festival visiting my home city of Bristol recently I've been finding out that in the UK there are particular peak-oil related problems that farmers and consumers will need to address if they are to adapt to a change in energy supply.

The two key problems I've found are transportation of the food we eat and the fertilisers used in non-organic food production.

Shorter supply chains are inevitable for the kinds of food we currently receive through air-freight, which is hugely inefficient, requiring between 7 and 9.5 Mega-joules (3.6MJ=1KWh[1]) of energy per tonne-kilometer for long haul flights and a staggering 25 to 40 MJ per tonne-Km for short haul flights.

Current methods of shipping are conceivable into the future, since the carrying capacity to fuel ratio is more efficient (container ships need around 0.15 to 0.2 MJ per tonne-Km)[2] and a revival in old fashioned sailing[3] is a novel way to keep us in kiwi fruits for centuries to come. What is not so well understood are the inefficiencies in using trucks and lorries instead of trains, I have only found figures for diesel trains (electric trains are even more efficient and have renewable energy potentials) but the ratio comparisons are as follows:

  • Heavy trucks: 0.7 - 2 MJ / tonne-Km
  • Light trucks: 9 - 20 MJ / tonne-Km
  • Diesel train: 0.2 - 0.8 MJ / tonne-Km

According to DEFRA studies, in 2004, air tonne-Km contributed only 1% of the total food transportation but accounted for 13% of the CO2 emissions in all food transport. In studies between 1992 and 2004, the amount of food transported by air tripled[4].

The problem is not as simple as having food from Argentina and New Zealand, its that we are choosing the wrong transportation for the majority of our food. By having food transported by trucks instead of trains we may also deprive investment to improve rail infrastructure. Efficiencies in boat to truck transfer technology could be applied to truck to train or even boat to train transfer technologies to reduce the problem of bottlenecks at goods yards making trains even more attractive.

Food that is produced within the seasonal boundaries of our immediate locale may be most preferable, but food that is transported with the least energy intensity from its point of origin whether that is from Dublin or Buenos Aires is crucial in conserving energy in our food chain.

Secondly, on the production side of the issue, UK non-organic farmers are particularly vulnerable to our domestic energy short fall. UK farmers (outside Kent and Sussex that is[5]) currently do not face the energy leeching problem of irrigation, in the way that Australia[6] does for example, we do, however, face energy insecurity affecting our food chain - we became net importers of natural gas over 18 months ago, from which we synthesise nitrogen fertiliser. According to the Soil Association the UK fossil fuel energy consumption for:

N fertiliser accounts for 37% of the total energy used by UK agriculture
Further more,
its price tracks the price of natural gas. UK N fertiliser prices are rising significantly and are the highest they have ever been. Comparative analyses of organic farming show that it requires about half the amount of energy to produce the same quantity of food
UK non-organic farms do not currently have the best infrastructure to help us sustainably reduce the energy consumption in our food chain. The Soil Association considers "preparing for a post peak oil world as an organizational priority" which is a hugely positive step as they are becoming such a well recognised name in UK food shops.

The more than 150,000 visitors attending the Organic Food Festival last weekend was a pleasant surprise with the likes of Yeo Valley, Rachel's, Duchy, Green & Black's selling their wares, and many others giving out information about organic ideals.

Another exciting local news story for Bristol was the launch of Quartier Vert's large capacity restaurant on Bristol's Bordeaux Quay waterfront[7] last week. Advertised on BBC local news, the restaurant, has employed a sustainable developments manager whose responsibilities include maintaining proprietor Barny Houghton's vision of low-energy zero-waste catering, and the groundbreaking declaration that 80% of the food in the restaurant will come from within 50 miles of Bristol, and no food will be air-freighted to the restaurant. Both are extremely positive steps in raising awareness of, and taking action towards using less energy in our food chain, a priority in a post-peak world.

Photos from Bristol Organic Food Festival.
Click to enlarge.

* * * * *


[2] Shipping Fuel Ratios in a graph

[3] Sailing ships powered by kites
Sailing ships for Japanese fishing

[4] DEFRA Food Transport Indicators 2004

[5] Water shortages in the south east

[6] Australian water problems, DIAMOND, Jared; 2005; Collapse; Penguin Books, p383-5

[7] Quartier-Vert restaurant

Chris, I have a 30 second round trip from kitchen to office - eat your heart out.
It's nice to speculate about moving food by rail, BUT:

  • the rail system has nowhere near enough capacity, already the freight operators are being rationed due to the demand from the passenger train operators

  • you still have to get the food from railhead to people (or to Tescos)

A better bet is to try to drive 'local food'.  It may still be trucked 50 miles, but that is better than flying Mange Tout from Africa.

At some point, we will have to reacquaint ourselves with seasonal fruit and veg.

On the fate of go-it-alone farmers, New York Times reports here (freely accessible) that a significant number of Indian farmers terminate their debt load through resort to suicide.

"Your father is dead," she [the wife] screamed at her small son, who stood before her, dazed.
Ah yes, the glorious green revolution!
Indeed. In conjunction with a high birth rate, the Green Revolution doubled or tripled the number of persons who are likely to starve to death after a brief and miserable life.

Such is progress -- and its unintended consequences.

I just visited a farm in the Napa Valley where they go to exquisite lengths to produce fully organic produce, which they then offer (no kidding) to Federal Express to you overnight, anywhere in the continental US.

Organic farming is 99% about vanity and 1% at best about efficiency of any sort, energy or otherwise. So dream on.

The most insightful commentary on this sort of agriculture was provided years ago by Frank Zappa ('I might be moving to Montana soon... just to raise me up a crop of dental floss...').

The principles I apply whenever purchasing food are: in season, local first, then organic.
This is certainly the way John Q Public sees organic farming, because he only sees the niche-market luxury stuff. These people are playing the organics game to make money.

Oddly enough, that's not the way the bulk of organic farming works. (N.B. I'm mostly talking about France/Europe, your mileage may vary). People do organics because they believe in it. You can generally be pretty sure they DO believe in it, because there's no money in it. Almost without exception, they would be better off financially doing non-organics.

The philosophical overtones of organics doesn't lend itself well to recognisable brand names and national distribution. It's mostly brown paper bags and limited shelf life. You're only likely to know about it if you live nearby, or buy your groceries at a co-op.

Organic farming is 99% about vanity and 1% at best about efficiency of any sort, energy or otherwise. So dream on.


And you know this because?

Why is it that economists seem to think that ad hominem attacks are convincing arguments? And what does that say about their relig^H^H^Hprofession?

Nonsense. The goal of organic farming is not to save energy. Although by not using fertilizers it may save some energy. Organic farming is all about the quality of the food. It is also much more sustainable because of the building of the soil. The taste of food is very important. If vegetables taste good people eat more vegetables and receive health benefits.
Organic farming is 99% about vanity and 1% at best about efficiency of any sort, energy or otherwise. So dream on.

The most insightful commentary on this sort of agriculture was provided years ago by Frank Zappa ('I might be moving to Montana soon... just to raise me up a crop of dental floss...').

I notice you've not responded to the question about HOW you obtained your 99%/1% position.   Given the most insightful thing you have to say about the matter is "raising dental floss", I am not shocked.

But feel free to comment on the products of non-organic farming methods ending up in penguins in the antartica, per Rachel Carson.


While I'm all for environment-friendly agriculture, I don't think it should be conflated with human health issues. Unfortunately, that conflation is part and parcel of ther organic food movement. I've had a look at the Soil Association's FAQ page 'Why organic'?

The ten reasons given are as follows:

1. It's healthy
On average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants.

2. No nasty additives
Organic food doesn't contain food additives which can cause health problems such as heart disease, osteoporosis, migraines and hyperactivity. Amongst the additives banned by the Soil Association are hydrogenated fat, aspartame (artificial sweetener) and monosodium glutamate.

3. Avoids pesticides
Over 400 chemical pesticides are routinely used in conventional farming and residues are often present in non-organic food. The UK government has recently found high levels of pesticide residues in baby food, spinach, dried fruit, bread, apples, celery, and chips.

4. No GM
Genetically modified (GM) crops and ingredients are not allowed under organic standards. Read more...

5. Reliance on drugs removed
There is growing concern about the high use of antibiotics on farm animals and the possible effects on human health. Soil Association standards prohibit the routine use of antibiotics. Read more...

6. No hidden costs
Compare this with the £120m that tax payers fork out to pay for removing chemicals from drinking water, mainly as a result of the pesticides used in farming.

7. High standards
Organic food comes from trusted sources. All organic farms and food companies are inspected at least once a year. The standards for organic food are laid down in European law.

8. Care for animals
Animal welfare is taken very seriously under organic standards. The benefits of the organic approach are acknowledged by animal welfare organisations such as Compassion in World Farming as well as the UK government. Read more...

9. Good for wildlife and the environment
The UK government has said that organic farming is better for wildlife, causes lower pollution from sprays, produces less carbon dioxide - the main global warming gas - and less dangerous wastes. Read more...

10. Top for taste
Many people prefer organic food because they say it tastes better. A number of top chefs choose organic, and every year many are involved in the Soil Association's organic food awards. Read more...

Reasons 1, 2, 7 and 10 are ecologically irrelevant and they are also, scientifically speaking, garbage. Non-organic food is equally healthy (1), has additives that are no less nasty than nature herself (2), has equally high standards (7) and tastes equally well (10.

At any rate there is certainly no evidence-based nutritional science or medicine for these claims. They have nothing to do with environental issues.

Perhaps the best foodstuff from the environmental angle would be one that poisons us all.


1. It's healthy
On average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants.


Non-organic food is equally healthy (1), has additives that are no less nasty than nature herself
"Studies have shown that "food" grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides are seriously deficient in about 5,000 enzymes which our immune systems, bodies need to sustain vibrant health."

And the data from don't agree with your counterclaim.

Please feel free to back up your counerclaim.

A couple of years ago I shipped a container load of (organic) wine from France to New Zealand.

I was rather shocked to discover that assembling the 6000 bottles from the various regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy etc) to a warehouse in Marseille was more expensive than shipping them from there to Auckland (from memory, up to 20 euro-cents, and less than 10 cents, per bottle respectively).

So when people asked me if shipping stuff around the world wasn't contradictory with the idea of organics, I asked them if any of their organic food had ever travelled by truck.

Good point. A friend of mine maintains the carbon cost is less to ship timber from Latvia to London (3,900 miles) than it is to truck it down from Carlisle (300 miles).
That's interesting. I think people talking up relocalisation as a response to peak oil frequently fail to recognise just how incredibly efficient container shipping of non-perishable goods is.
Local food is important to develop. Local gardens, rooftop gardens, local farms, local artisans and chefs integrating mostly local ingredients to create meals and baked goods.

Building direct connection between producer and consumer is a very important piece of the picture here. The benefits to the local economy can be incredible. All the money gets recycled in the same area instead of going off to distant lands through a thousand intermediaries. Skills are built up by individuals and local businesses that can be transfered later to other interested people with ease.

Buying local food is the answer.
Locate your local CSA ...

Also the 100 mile diet  ...

Thanks, I'm very familiar. I happen to be largely responsible for the two greenmarkets that came to my neighborhood. :)
In the U.S. we use (per capita) 10 barrels of oil equivalent per year for food, vs. 8 barrels of oil equivalent for transportation. By buying local, organic food from small farmers we can do much to reduce our energy consumption.

Pat Murphy:

David Pimentel1 has pointed out that the U.S. expends 10 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food energy produced. Other research shows that the U.S. spends 17 percent of its total energy on food.15 Either calculation arrives at the rough approximation of 10 BOE (barrels of oil equivalent) per person per year. In an organic, local, high-labor form of agriculture, which was practiced for centuries and is still practiced in many parts of the world, one calorie of labor can produce more than one calorie of food. Assuming a minimum of two calories produced for every one calorie of labor expended, a 20 to 1 difference (the product of the 10 to 1 ratio of fossil fuel to calories consumed and the 1 to 2 ratio of high-labor cultivation) between current and future ways of farming illustrates the possibility for rebuilding a truly sustainable way of growing food. There are six steps to reaching this goal.

1. The first step in reducing the fossil fuel energy cost of the food system is to eat less. David Pimentel notes that the average person in the U.S. consumes 2,200 pounds of food in a year.16 Also, the average U.S. citizen consumes 3,800 calories per day; however, humans only need 2,500 calories (kilocalories) per day, so food consumption could be reduced by one-third.

A side benefit would be better health. Overeating leads to obesity which leads to a variety of other diseases. A good reason for the high cost of American medical care is to treat diseases that are caused by a fossil fuel-rich lifestyle. In a contracting economy, people may no longer be able to afford quality medical care so the maintenance of good health will be vital.

2. The second step is to change one's diet. This means eliminating foods that are very energy-intensive. A good example is the beverage and snack food industry which ranks inordinately high in fossil fuel consumption. Fast foods and pre-packaged, highly processed manufactured foods should be avoided. The manufactured food industry is also associated with high fuel costs for refrigeration since the American lifestyle requires that liquids be chilled and food kept frozen. One might consider the 100 million refrigerators connected to thousands of power plants spewing CO2 into the atmosphere to keep hundreds of millions of cans of Coke or Budweiser at a constant low temperature.

The role of food corporations is significant. The large food manufacturers (and manufacturers implies fossil fuel intensive products) are the same people who provide extremely dangerous products. The largest food company, Altria (previously Phillip Morris) is also the largest producer of cigarette products. Part of wise purchasing is to determine the corporation behind the brands and examine their actions and motivations.

3. A third important aspect of diet is meat consumption - both the volume eaten and the kind of meat. The consumption of meat per capita in the developed countries is almost three times the consumption in the developing world.17 The developing world has doubled its per capita meat consumption since 1990, leading to more fossil fuel consumption. An industrial meat-based diet takes twice as many fossil fuel calories as a plant-based one. However, this does not mean the complete elimination of meat. Meat can be provided without using a high-energy form of food such as is used now in the form of feed corn and soybean meal. Locally grown meats using natural forage is not energy-
intensive. 18, 19, 20, 21

  1. Eating less, changing diets by eliminating processed foods, and reducing industrial meat consumption are the first three steps and can be taken without knowing anything about raising food. Step four is to purchase food differently. This means buying food produced by local producers to the maximum extent possible. Joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group is important if one is available. There are three results. First, local production is supported and that means less fossil fuel is used to transport the food. Secondly, it is a way to convert the country's agriculture from a corporate-based, high-energy consuming one to a more efficient one. Third, it supports new farmers, in many cases young ones desiring a farming career.

  2. The fifth step is to begin preparing your own food for storage. This reduces the energy used in keeping products frozen for months. It also allows more local food production since farm products are not just for the growing season but also for the winter period when food sources are either stored or kept frozen and later moved over large distances. This further cuts the power of the corporation and allows for more local food security. And it allows one to begin to personally participate in the food process. Leaning to can is easier than learning to farm.

  3. A sixth step is to create a garden or a henhouse. Producing one's own food allows one to actually experience the miracle of food from the land. This is a vital part of raising one's consciousness about food to counter the ignorance that currently colors our world view about nature and its bounty. Americans are not as far from the soil as is popularly assumed. Gardening, even if for flowers and not food, is an enjoyable past time for many people.

We must begin to consider the type of food we eat, its source and the distance it must travel. We must eat differently for our health, particularly with the rise in medical costs. We must also eat less and reduce meat consumption of industrial animal products. We must buy local, eat local, and store local. We should avoid all packaged goods to the extent possible. When possible, we need to develop our back- or front-yard gardens, replacing our fossil fuel intensive "carpet" lawns.

Hello DavidM,

Excellent post!

I posted this before on TOD, and I will say it again. Every country needs to rapidly move 60-75% of their labor force to localized permaculture hand-labor so that the majority of our foodstuffs can be retrieved within bicycle distance.

Zimbabwe, the former breadbasket of Africa, is failing due to poor agriculture policies with 60% trying to scratch out a living.  They now have a 30% malnutrition rate and rampant inflation.  Yet they started in 1980 with a much higher percentage of their labor force working the land [from memory 17%] than the US's pathetic 0.7% of the labor force [source CIA Factbook].

Teaching a society to grow their own food with minimal FFs inputs is extremely difficult-- it must be a multi-generational effort to transform our US lifestyles and knowledge levels.  We must get started now to get all the elderly to tell the children on how to live frugally.  We must get started while we still have some FFs to leverage this change and optimize the coming squeeze through the Dieoff Bottleneck.

Animals must run, crawl, hop, fly, swim, slime, and slither for their foodstuffs, or die trying.  The ratio of the calories harvested to the calories expended is very small.  The magnificent invention of the bicycle, steel wheels on steel rails, and floating barges allows us tremendous efficiencies in personal motion and movement of essential goods.  These can all be biosolar powered without fossil fuels.  The degree of failure to maximize localized permaculture will be directly attributable to the resulting levels of violence in a habitiat.

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

Zimbabwe is simply a story of bad governance.  A corrupt and brutal regime 'nationalised' the agricultural sector by sending its thugs to kill farmers and take their land.

The worst suffering has been amongst the urban poor and the landless farmworkers, who were allegedly to be 'helped' by this action.  The farms are being 'run' by cronies of the regime, who have no ability to manage agricultural production.

Mugabe is a psycopath.  Up there with Saddam Hussein and Stalin. At least there is some evidence Saddam wanted to develop his country.  Maybe Kim Il Sung of North Korea is a better example: wilfully starving his own people to keep his regime in power.

Ever so often you get some 'anti colonialist' writer who tries to 'explain' Mugabe's actions in terms of that framework of response to western colonialism etc.  It's about as credible as South Africa's Mbeki's denouncements of the HIV theory of AIDS as a white man's plot against Africans.  Mbeki is a big supporter of Mugabi btw.

The closest analogy I can find in history are Stalin's liquidation of the Kulaks (about 7-10 million killed by forced starvation).  Given the size of the country, the human tragedy in Zimbabwe is fast reaching that sort of scale.

Hello Valuethinker,

Thxs for responding. Agreed, Mugabe is nuts.  I have been posting about Zimbabwe for about 3 years now.  But I think most leaders around the globe will take a similar path postPeak.  I have yet to read of any politician promoting pop. control education, detritus Powerdown, and biosolar Powerup.  Instead, they continue the infinite growth paradigm, further globalization, increased militarization, and wealth consolidation strategies.  This all leads to social polarization which will erupt into tremendous postPeak violence.

Worldwide education for voluntary pop. control plus a massive shift to local permaculture lifestyles of daily field labor is the best way to proactively cut detritus consumption, increase community health and social cooperation, and reduce violence over vanity lifestyles.  Any early mitigation of further Overshoot will have tremendous beneficial effects during the coming Dieoff phase; optimizing the squeeze through the Bottleneck.

Recall that world leaders have been aware of Malthus for over 200 years, but they have found it to be much more profitable to let consumers expand their numbers into the dire situation of today vs through education making us very thoughtful eco-citizens with very small energy footprints.  In the archives: see my posts on the detritus-fueled humanimal ecosystem that overlies our actual ecosystem.  Either Nature will destroy this false construct through continuing detritus entropy, or we can choose to mutually cooperate and possibly stay one-step ahead of the Grim Reaper.

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

Population control is almost irrelevant.

1 new American is 25 new Africans in terms of consumption of the world's resources.

Most of the developed world has birth rates below replacement. Populations in Japan are already falling, and most of Western Europe is not far behind.  Russia is a demographic disaster-- losing nearly .3% of its population every year.

US is slightly ahead of that but that is largely due to the fertility of new immigrants.  There is a touch of Joe Haldeman's 'Worlds' Trilogy about all this: it is religious Americans, amongst native born Americans, who are having all the kids.

The problem is the rise in standards of living in a resource intensive manner.  It is emphatically not about population growth per se.

Within certain very poor countries (former Soviet Central Asia, Africa) the rise in population is presenting serious political and socioeconomic problems.  But it is de minimis against the resource use for the planet as a whole.

Worry about American urban sprawl.  Worry about China.  Don't worry about birth rates.

The supermarket crowd will be slow to connect with local markets as long as they remain expensive and seem preachy. I think we need a crossover approach, a bit like the way plug-in hybrid cars extend fossil fuels but are still 'cool'. For example synthetic fertilisers can be stretched with composts and nitrogen adding companion plants. Not hypocritical but smart. Farm tractors could be run on biofuels or wind charged batteries. TV shows could instruct how to make interesting dishes with little meat and lots of turnips or whatever.  This kind of thing should be phased in now not when there is a food crisis.
So where are the future farmers for america ?

Has anyone been to a high school lately ??

My 10 year old just proudly took the potatoes she grew this summer to her local 4H (rural children's club) meeting in preparation for showing them at a local agicultural fair this weekend. Next year she will be old enough to raise and train a calf to show. 4H is is well attended in our area, so there should be at least some future farmers for Canada. I take your point about the average highschool population though.
We need community-based programmes to help us adapt to the changes that peak oil will bring. As Richard Heinberg (Univ California) has suggested, we should be rationally moving towards reduced fossil C use (termed 'Powerdown'). I think that the key is social capital: people need to be inspired to take ownership of this issue on a regional basis (probably at the parish level in England). There is much that can be done to help us adapt to reduced fossil C availability and we need to start the process now, in order to maintain and enhance our quality of lives within sustainable communities.
There are local groups springing up all over the place in the UK. I'm based in Bristol where just this week we had a screening of End of Suburbia draw a crowd of ~23 people. The subsequent discussion was very positive, totally focused on positive action without a `doomer' in the room.