Why Modern Farming is Unsustainable

February 21, 2010 · Filed Under security of energy supply · Comment 

The farmer’s job is to manage the original solar energy collector-the plant leaf.   We use the sun’s energy collected by plants to take the carbon from carbon dioxide and the hydrogen from water to synthesise carbohydrates and give off oxygen. When the carbohydrate is eaten, burned or it just decays, the opposite happens- oxygen is required, carbon dioxide and water are given up and energy is released.

Of course, this is nothing new. This cycle was working perfectly well long before farmers came on the scene. We merely try to improve on nature by fighting pests and disease, by providing optimum nutrition and by trying to eliminate plants from our fields other than those that we wish to harvest.

Green plants are the only primary producers of foodstuffs and humans are dependent on plants for all of their food, either directly or indirectly. All of our human energy comes from the sun and the feeding of the world depends on our ability to collect enough solar energy and convert it to food energy through farming plants .It used to be so simple. Around 30% of crops were used to fuel the horses, oxen and humans to provide the muscle for field and transport work. Soil fertility was maintained by recycling nutrients, crop rotation including nitrogen fixing legumes and fallows. Yields were low but so was the world population.

But in the past 70 years or so there has been a dramatic development that has enabled the world population to triple. WE have found a way to cheat!

Instead of just converting current sunshine in to food energy we have found how to convert ancient sunshine collected by pre-historic plants and marine organisms in to food energy.

We now convert hydrocarbons in to carbohydrates.

The present population of nearly7 billion people is being supported not just on current sunshine but on sunshine that reached this earth millions of years ago.

The land previously used to feed work animals can now be used to provide human food as diesel engines provide the muscle. Fossil fuel sourced pesticides and nitrogen fertiliser have dramatically increased yields and enabled the green revolution in India and elsewhere.

Amazingly, if transport and processing is included, we now use about 10 calories of fossil energy to produce each calorie of food energy in an average meat based diet.

Converting fossil energy in to a smaller amount of more expensive food energy worked well when fossil energy was cheap and plentiful but will fail when it is scarce and expensive.

America the Vulnerable

January 16, 2009 · Filed Under security of energy supply · 1 Comment 

The United States is a land with bountiful resources of all kinds of minerals, oil and gas reserves, agricultural land and best of all, a well educated, innovative and hard working people. In addition, it has the most powerful armed forces the world has ever seen. But, in my opinion, it is in a worse position to deal with the looming threats of climate change, oil and gas shortages, and Jihadist attacks then any developed country.

How can this be?

America has become incredibly wealthy by exploiting its resources, but most of all, by using lots and lots of energy from finite fossil fuels. In agriculture, Americans were way ahead of the rest of the world in turning oil calories in to food calories. While the rest of the world’s farmers were using the muscle power of horses, oxen and humans to till the land and harvest the crops before world war II, U.S. farmers were introducing tractors and harvesters to the huge field of the grain belt, where they were highly suited. This early mechanisation of farming freed up labour to work in industry. In industry too, Americans were leaders at using fossil energy to increase productivity, with highly mechanised factories using production line methods.

This mechanisation of farming, allowing most of the population to work in manufacturing or service industries is the key to prosperity. Even now, the poverty of a nation can usually be discovered by the proportion of it’s workers still employed in farming. In America today, despite being a big food exporter,  only about 2% of the population work in agriculture. In many poor countries, over 75% still work in farming.

So why America the vulnerable?

Americans have become so expert at using fossil fuels to raise living standards that they have developed a system that depends on cheap plentiful and reliable supplies of oil and gas. Unreliable, scarce and very expensive oil and gas are no good.

America had massive reserves of oil and gas, and still does, but the system is now so hungry that about 22 million barrels of oil are used each and every day, about 25% of the world total, when domestic production is only about 7.5 million barrels per day and falling. Each American needs about twice as much oil as each European even though Europeans have a high standard of living. This means that the American system will collapse more easily and completely when the big oil shock comes.

Because petrol (gas) is not heavily taxed in the U.S. there has been no incentive to use fuel efficient cars or to live close to work and shopping. Public transport and trains are not preferred to cars and airplanes and cities are built in locations that would be intolerable without air-conditioned cars, homes and offices. In the best American tradition of free competition, food is produced intensively where the soil and climate are best for that crop and it is then trucked all over the U.S.

I have been on several bus tours to the U.S. and was surprised that close to some big cities there were no fields of potatoes or vegetables. In some areas there are no grazing cattle and then suddenly there are thousands all together on a few acres, crowding  under sun shelters, in a district that has no obvious cropping to feed them. Plainly, all the feed is trucked in from where it’s cheapest.

The finite nature of oil, Peak Oil, middle east turmoil, terrorist attacks on oil installations, the possible establishment of an extreme Islamic state covering much of  the middle east including nuclear Pakistan, are all threats that have been covered by other posts on this site.

America is so dependent on imported oil and gas that it is more vulnerable to collapse, especially in agriculture, when they are no longer easily available. Because of the events in Iraq and the possibility of nuclear weapons in Iran as well as those in a future radical Pakistan, it may not be easy to use U.S. military might to secure supplies.

Let’s hope that the next administration uses legislation and taxation to reduce dependence on imported oil. At the same time that would help in the battle against that other big threat-climate change.

Has anyone any ideas on how America would react to a severe and prolonged shortage of oil? Please leave a comment.

2 Responses

  1. farmingfriends Says: