New York Times On Organic Farming Impacts

January 2nd, 2012
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It seems that the mythology of “Organic” farming somehow being wonderful for the environment, for everyone’s health, for the farmers, the animals, the children and whatever other cliche you would like to insert is starting to come apart. The New York Times recently ran an article about the realities of “organic” farmed products and the environmental impact that comes with them.

I was disappointed by how apologetic the article was, but it still made an important point about where our food actually comes from. Indeed, the “ideals” that the Times refers to never really were embodied by the organic farming movement in any meaningful way. The entire idea really comes down to a philosophy that certain things are bad simply because they are man-made, while others are acceptable. There’s no science to it at all and there never was.

Via the New York Times:

Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico — Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.

Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round.

But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.

Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in microclimates near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando FrÃs, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.

Lets stop and consider the greater context here: there are eight billion people in the world. That’s a lot of people to feed. Thankfully, we can feed them all. The fact that not everyone gets enough food is not due to a lack of capacity to produce it but more because of localized socioeconomic and political issues in getting it to those who need it. We grow enough food in the modern world to feed everyone. Not only that, we do it at a very reasonable cost, which results in people generally not having to spend the majority of their income just to get their daily nutritional needs filled.

For example, if you’re in the United States, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If you work one hour a day at the minimum, you can make enough money to keep yourself reasonably well fed. And not only that, but in first world countries, the average citizen can afford to buy things that are imported out of season. Better yet, our food rarely carries serious pathogens and when it does, it gets recalled rapidly. We don’t suffer from periodic famines. The worst thing most of us will ever suffer through is a regional drought or frost driving the cost of a particular type of produce up for a few weeks.

Sure, we take all this for granted, but considering what it has been like for most of human history, the fact that you can reliably go buy a meal for a few dollars, that it will be free of pathogens and that it’s always available and not subject to periodic shortages is pretty damn impressive.

We did not get to this point by forcing all foods to be grown in small mom and pop farms. Such local food is great when you want something that’s as fresh as you can get and happens to be in season, but make no mistake, it’s a luxury. We could never feed all of society by such small operations and doing so would not have any real ecological advantages. All human activity will have some impact on the local ecology, and agriculture is no different. That does not mean the impact has to be unacceptably large. However, the best way to keep that impact to a minimum is by efficiently farming the land, using the most modern practices and technology available.

“Organic food” is not about small, local mom and pop farms. Most people seem to think that if food is “organic” it means that a friendly old man in overalls grew it while chewing on a blade of grass and whistling a tune about how he loves the land. It’s not. Farming is a business like any other business and farmers will use the tools they have at their disposal to produce as much as they can with as few resources as possible. The farms are located in the most favorable areas. That means that fruit and vegetable farms are often located in tropical areas where they can provide fresh product to market all year long.

On large farms, efficiency is very important and great efforts are taken to get as much product from the given area as possible. They’re run and managed like the industrial-scale operations they are. Many, but not all, of these large farms are owned by families. Thanks to modern management and farming methods, these farms are productive enough to make their owners very comfortable financially.

It is much harder for anyone to support themselves on a small farm. Many of the smallest local farms are not full time operations. The owners may have other jobs and keep the farm as a “hobby farm.” Those which do work small farms full time may have to concentrate on a specialized sector in order to remain commercially viable. Some manage to make small farms economically viable by operating them as a specialty product provider, such as a winery a nursery for ornamental plants. Others make money by having a store that provides other products. A few may capitalize on Halloween hayrides or pick-your-own events.

There’s nothing wrong with these small farms that cater directly to consumers looking for the novelty or nostalgia of such products, and many do provide excellent fresh products and make great pies. Yet they may give some the wrong impression of what farming really is. They are not the food producers that provide the staples which keep the world fed.

Those who do work small, low-production, low-income farms as their primary means of getting by are subsistence farmers. Thankfully this practice has largely vanished from industrialized nations, yet it remains common in many parts of the world.

When a farm decides to go “organic,” they are simply giving up some of the tools at their disposal to grow foods. Many types of fertilizer suddenly become forbidden. Tractors, tilling and irrigation are generally not affected, but the types of crops, fertilizer and insect control uses are. In some cases, the organic farmer will be required to buy materials that are chemically identical to forbidden compounds simply because they come from a certified source that is regarded as “natural.”

Since some of the tools are now taken away it becomes harder to grow food reliably and at high capacities. Some other commodities become more important. If fertilizer is less concentrated, more water may be needed to get the nutrients to the roots. If more of a crop is lost to pests, larger areas must be planted for the same yield. If crops yield fewer fruit per plant, more plants are needed. Not using one tool means all the others will tend to be more taxed. It may require more labor, more energy, more land and more water. It costs more too. Farmers don’t do this because they’re stupid, of course. They do it because they know that consumers are stupid and will pay a premium for this stuff.

Before buying some of that overpriced organic food, stop and think about the bigger picture. Do you really think Old McDonald is the one who feeds the world? Farming is an industry and if you want everyone to be fed, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Modern society requires that most people work in fields other than agriculture. We need farmers, but we also need doctors and dentists and mechanics and engineers. Trying to force society back to the days when a farm fed only a few local families is not going to help the environment or our food supply.


This entry was posted on Monday, January 2nd, 2012 at 6:35 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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28 Responses to “New York Times On Organic Farming Impacts”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    As another example of how stupid the organic label is, I received a bottle of a chocolate-chili sauce for Xmas that boldly claimed on the label that it was 78% organic. Upon closer inspection it turns out that this indicated that it was made with 78% by weight certified ‘Fair Trade’ ingredients. Apparently other material in the mixture wasn’t deemed ‘organic’ because it hadn’t met some sketchily defined Fairtrade Standard.

    When I pointed this out to my otherwise practical minded daughter, who had given me the gift, she said that she knew that this was what I would get a kick out of seeing, as she hardly expected anyone to eat the stuff.


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  2. 2
    Anon Says:

    How about just using the definition of organic from the IUPAC? Would that be enough to solve the problem?


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  3. 3
    Matthew Says:

            DV82XL said:

    As another example of how stupid the organic label is, I received a bottle of a chocolate-chili sauce for Xmas that boldly claimed on the label that it was 78% organic. Upon closer inspection it turns out that this indicated that it was made with 78% by weight certified ‘Fair Trade’ ingredients. Apparently other material in the mixture wasn’t deemed ‘organic’ because it hadn’t met some sketchily defined Fairtrade Standard.

    When I pointed this out to my otherwise practical minded daughter, who had given me the gift, she said that she knew that this was what I would get a kick out of seeing, as she hardly expected anyone to eat the stuff.

    Why wouldn’t anyone eat it? Chocolate chili is great stuff!


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  4. 4
    DV82XL Says:

            Matthew said:

    Why wouldn’t anyone eat it? Chocolate chili is great stuff!

    Believe it or not there are those of us that do not think that adding significant amounts of capsaicin to any food at random improves the taste. In general making food ‘hot’ in this manner is usually an attempt to mask the fact that there are no real nuances to the flavour, or worse, something is being hidden.


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  5. 5
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    [SNIP]or worse, something is being hidden.

    Like e-coli?

    For ‘organic’ food that wouldn’t be such a stretch.


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  6. 6
    TomT Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Believe it or not there are those of us that do not think that adding significant amounts of capsaicin to any food at random improves the taste. In general making food ‘hot’ in this manner is usually an attempt to mask the fact that there are no real nuances to the flavour, or worse, something is being hidden.

    Oddly enough Chocolate + Capsaicin is a combination made in heaven. It has to do with how molecules bind to the tongues taste receptors. The two are very much complimentary flavors. There is a reason that one trick to making very good enchilada sauce is to add a dash of chocolate to the sauce as you make it.

    You right though that just adding Capsaicin at random to things isn’t always a good combination but in this case they go together wonderfully.


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  7. 7
    drbuzz0 Says:

    You do realize that matters of taste are impossible to win an argument about, right?

    It’s entirely subjective and two people can completely disagree on what tastes good and it will never be resolvable because there is no empirically correct answer.

    I personally am not a huge fan of foods which are just raw spiciness without having much real flavor to back it up. Having some “heat” to the food is good to bring out flavor, but only in some cases. I don’t see how it would work with chocolate. Chocolate is pretty rich to begin with.

    But that’s only my opinion and since it is a matter of taste, it is neither right nor wrong.


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  8. 8
    Vader Says:

    De gustibus non disputandem est.

    However, I’m going to try a dash of chocolate in my next New Mexican green chile dish. There’s just no substitute for clinical trials.


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  9. 9
    Amoeba Says:

    Lets stop and consider the greater context here: there are eight billion people in the world.

    Huh? Did everyone get busy while I wasn’t paying attention? Or is this an error?

    http://www.onlineconversion.com/world_population.htm


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  10. 10
    Anon Says:

            Amoeba said:

    Lets stop and consider the greater context here: there are eight billion people in the world.

    Huh? Did everyone get busy while I wasn’t paying attention? Or is this an error?

    http://www.onlineconversion.com/world_population.htm

    That’s only the people you know of.


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  11. 11
    Amoeba Says:

            Anon said:

    That’s only the people you know of.

    So presumably, you know different? Is that why you hide behind ‘Anon’?


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  12. 12
    Anon Says:

            Amoeba said:

    So presumably, you know different? Is that why you hide behind ‘Anon’?

    Yes, there are more people than those opposed to human cloning realise.</joke>


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  13. 13
    Calli Arcale Says:

    A few may capitalize on Halloween hayrides or pick-your-own events.

    Definitely, though around here, it’s usually the big players that get the most out of the Halloween/harvest events. (And, to some extent, the pick-your-own.) It ends up having a big carnival atmosphere at the big players. They’re family-owned, of course, but they’re not small farms by any stretch of the imagination. And at least one of them is organic, with a very shrewd business sense; they’ve gone organic as part of their overall “target the locovores” strategy, and it’s worked out well for them so far.

    There’s another problem with the folks who generally buy organic — a significant proportion are also opposed to processed food. They see it as the root of all evil, but in fact, processed food was how all of our ancestors survived the winters (apart from the ones who survived the winters by living in the tropics). Shipping broccoli from Chile to Minnesota may be a cost-effective way of getting *fresh* produce, but maybe we are collectively too picky in demanding fresh produce all the time. We shouldn’t be so afraid of food processing. There’s a good reason it was invented.


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  14. 14
    Mike Lewinski Says:

    While we may make enough food for everyone in the world (now), there are some regions that have apparently outstripped their carrying capacities for the long term, and probably shouldn’t be inhabited to the degree they are. Those areas have a perpetual risk of famine, and seem to not have a lot of other resources to trade for food either. Other than “I was born there and my family lives there” what else does it have to offer?

    The degree to which modern agriculture is dependent on oil is disturbing. We’ve tied our food–the most basic and indispensable element of the real economy–to a resource that appears to be getting scarcer and more expensive over time. Meanwhile, we take perfectly good organic waste and landfill it. Monocropping is also stupid. At a certain point complex systems that trade efficiency for resiliency crash.

    At some point we’re going to have to make big changes to how we grow food. I’m not saying that “organic” is the solution. But I don’t think that throwing more pesticides and herbicides at the problems created by monocropping is the answer. I like the ideas in this article.


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  15. 15
    Mike Lewinski Says:

    Sorry for double-posting. I made a mistake and meant to say “systems that trade resiliency for efficiency will crash”. See Reinventing Money: An Ecosystemic Approach part 1 / part 2 for more on this idea.


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  16. 16
    DV82XL Says:

            Mike Lewinski said:

    At some point we’re going to have to make big changes to how we grow food. I’m not saying that “organic” is the solution. But I don’t think that throwing more pesticides and herbicides at the problems created by monocropping is the answer.

    You are right the answer is not more pesticides and herbicides or fertilizer, but genetic engineering. This is the only technology that will assure us of enough food to feed everyone.

    One must understand that any attempt to use small scale solutions will fail. They may appeal to ex-hippy academics, but they have no traction in the real world.


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  17. 17
    Mike Lewinski Says:

    I believe the problem is growth and bigness. Feed everyone for how long? What’s your optimal world population and how do we stop there? Or do we?

    Genetic engineering should be part of the solution, as much as my ex-hippy academic friends hate to hear it. When it doesn’t promote other inherently unsustainable practices, I don’t have a problem with it. But as long as we need oil for making the herbicides that accompany the genetic engineering, we’re in a position of vulnerability. The poorest will be the first to suffer when oil prices go up and food prices rises in tow.

    Diversity in production of food and energy makes sense for many reasons. Another event like the Carrington super solar flare could easily wipe out everything, including transportation of food to cities, and the means to rebuild before things get bad. I don’t share the optimism of the DHS.

    Locally produced food is an insurance policy that keeps people from starving in bad times, and cuts down how much fuel we have to burn to get it to market all the time. We should grow more native foods, not because it’s the hippie thing to do, but because those are the plants best adapted to our area and most resilient to the local set of pests. As a bonus, we continue to evolve new unique cuisines. I see lots of win-win to local agricultures. Preferably right down to our yards, as a way of re-connecting with nature. Those ex-hippy academics have published. Are you opposed to urban greening projects? There’s so much carbon dioxide emitted in cities that the additional foliage can’t but help soak it up right? Another win-win.


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  18. 18
    DV82XL Says:

    Look, the basic problem of population can be shown to be an inverse function of standard of living. In other words the MORE people have the Less they tend to breed. This has been established over and over again, yet somehow Western thought seems obsessed with a lot of nu-age crap about ‘reconnecting’ with nature.

    Nature, all of these idiots seem to forget is truly “red in tooth and claw” as the saying goes, and most of us would fill our pants if we were dropped into ‘nature’ to fend for ourselves for even a night. Right now I would surly die if I was outside my own home without clothing inside of an hour it is so cold, and I don’t need to reconnect with nature to know this.

    Our standard of living is the result of generations of hard work to bring us to this level. A place where we can live in comfort and without want. The very best thing we can do for the rest of the world is to bring them to our level as quickly as possible.

    Claims that we could not survive a major geophysical event are largely from the imaginations of those that are pushing this way of life, and have little backing by real science. The sky. Chicken Little, is not falling.

    If someone wants to grow their own food, I won’t stop them, but I am sick of this sanctimonious nonsense that says that the rest of us should follow.


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  19. 19
    Anon Says:

            Mike Lewinski said:

    While we may make enough food for everyone in the world (now),

    More importantly we know how we could make enough food to feed even a much larger population than what we have now with less environmental impact (in fact we’ve managed to increase food production and reduce the amount of land used for such at the same time, at least among those who have the technology to avoid ‘organic’ farming).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    there are some regions that have apparently outstripped their carrying capacities for the long term, and probably shouldn’t be inhabited to the degree they are.

    Transportation from areas which can produce food is cheap enough (even under the worst possible peak oil scenarios) for that not to be a problem (and technology can make areas which couldn’t produce much food produce quite a bit and there’s a lot of room for improvement to be had from genetic engineering).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Those areas have a perpetual risk of famine,

    Famine is caused by bad government policy, not lack of enough land to grow food.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    and seem to not have a lot of other resources to trade for food either. Other than “I was born there and my family lives there” what else does it have to offer?

    There are people there, those people can do things (if they don’t have anything else then they could provide cheap labour).

    Besides, with transportation so cheap just donating excess food isn’t all that expensive in the grand scheme of things.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    The degree to which modern agriculture is dependent on oil is disturbing.

    Overstated would be a more accurate term.

    We can get the ammonia for making nitrogen fertiliser without using natural gas (done before in fact) and transportation can mostly switch to nuclear without much issue (shipping and rail are pretty trivial to convert in the scheme of things). Farm equipment could run on electricity instead of diesel fuel (although farm waste in the form of biodiesel or ethanol would also likely work well here and there shouldn’t be enough demand for anyone to specifically grow crops for fuel (which is idiotic in the extreme)).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    We’ve tied our food–the most basic and indispensable element of the real economy–to a resource that appears to be getting scarcer and more expensive over time.

    Never mind that we could it replace without massive price increases in our food.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Meanwhile, we take perfectly good organic waste and landfill it.

    We’ll be doing that forever but burning the methane from that for electricity would help and we could reduce the amount we need to landfill by finding other uses for it (but even then, if people aren’t throwing away a lot of food, you aren’t producing enough).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Monocropping is also stupid. At a certain point complex systems that trade efficiency for resiliency crash.

    In small scale (say a given farm only growing one crop) and provided you don’t have the whole planet growing just the one crop then the efficiency advantages can make sense.

    On a larger scale you’d want different crops in each climate and you’ll also have varied taste in foods which will mean that you get variety naturally without needing to force it.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    At some point we’re going to have to make big changes to how we grow food.

    Not really, switching to genetically modified foods is about the most drastic change we’ll need to make (though we could probably feed > 10 billion even without them but at much greater land usage).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    I’m not saying that “organic” is the solution.

    I should hope not because to do so you must accept mass murder.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    But I don’t think that throwing more pesticides and herbicides at the problems created by monocropping is the answer.

    Genetically modified crops tend to need less chemical input but even then pesticides aren’t all that evil provided they are used with care (and aren’t needed in the quantities of fertiliser).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    I believe the problem is growth and bigness. Feed everyone for how long? What’s your optimal world population and how do we stop there? Or do we?

    We feed everyone or we commit mass murder, take your pick.

    The population will reach 10 billion regardless of whether or not you think that is a good thing and will probably go quite a bit beyond that.

    What we here think should happen when it comes to population size is irrelevant, what is relevant is what will happen.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Genetic engineering should be part of the solution, as much as my ex-hippy academic friends hate to hear it. When it doesn’t promote other inherently unsustainable practices, I don’t have a problem with it. But as long as we need oil for making the herbicides that accompany the genetic engineering, we’re in a position of vulnerability. The poorest will be the first to suffer when oil prices go up and food prices rises in tow.

    Pesticides are a relatively minor item in food production and petroleum demand (and not all are based on oil anyway) so oil price rises won’t affect them all that much at first (it’ll be transportation which gets affected first and nuclear power provides an upper limit on the cost of shipping and rail transport).

    As long as we don’t stupid things like trying to feed SUVs corn we shouldn’t have any problem with oil prices making food completely unaffordable (as long as food is still cheap enough for developed countries to give away without noticing that option would still exists).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Diversity in production of food and energy makes sense for many reasons.

    We already have diversity of food production, on the issue of energy production we don’t really need all that much diversity (the LFTR looks like it could handle almost all our primary energy needs, including hydrocarbon synthesis).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Another event like the Carrington super solar flare could easily wipe out everything, including transportation of food to cities, and the means to rebuild before things get bad. I don’t share the optimism of the DHS.

    The idea that the grid would be out for a decade after such a thing is utter nonsense.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Locally produced food is an insurance policy that keeps people from starving in bad times,

    Then why is that whenever there are bad times and people starving the food to get them out of starvation comes from far away?

    It looks more like cheap transportation, excess food production (as I said before, if you aren’t throwing a lot of food away, you aren’t producing enough) and existence of foreign aid is the real insurance policy keeping people from starving in bad times.

    All we would get if we moved to more local production of food is less resilience since we’d be relying much more on the local conditions remaining favourable to agriculture than if you can get food from the other side of the world.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    and cuts down how much fuel we have to burn to get it to market all the time.

    Nuclear powered ships and electric trains running on a mostly nuclear grid aren’t going to be burning much in the way of fuel (and that is the future of transportation, at least for bulk items like food).

    It’d certainly beat growing crops in climates they aren’t adapted to.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    We should grow more native foods, not because it’s the hippie thing to do, but because those are the plants best adapted to our area and most resilient to the local set of pests.

    We should be growing the crops that are best adapted to a particular climate in that climate, but that doesn’t mean we have to adapt our preferences to what grows best in our neighbourhood.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    As a bonus, we continue to evolve new unique cuisines.

    Which would happen anyway.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    I see lots of win-win to local agricultures.

    There is even more of a win-win to cheap transportation.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Preferably right down to our yards, as a way of re-connecting with nature.

    If a person wants to grow something in their yard then we shouldn’t stop them (provided it won’t cause others problems of course) but these kinds of things are little more than trinkets and do not have the potential to even provide a significant contribution to food production (not to mention that most people would rather do something other than tend to a microfarm after they get home from work).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Are you opposed to urban greening projects? There’s so much carbon dioxide emitted in cities that the additional foliage can’t but help soak it up right? Another win-win.

    A few extra trees and plants in urban areas won’t do much of anything about COâ‚‚, to fix that problem we’ll need to get rid of coal and natural gas for electricity production, then get rid of oil for transportation, then reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and other industries (genetic engineering shows great promise at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture) and even then we’re probably still too late to avoid the effects of global warming.

    If you think the place looks better with a few plants or some green paint then that’s fine, just don’t think it’ll change the world because it won’t.


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  20. 20
    George Carty Says:

            Anon said:

    More importantly we know how we could make enough food to feed even a much larger population than what we have now with less environmental impact (in fact we’ve managed to increase food production and reduce the amount of land used for such at the same time, at least among those who have the technology to avoid ‘organic’ farming).

    I’d say that barring an extreme increase in our energy usage (ie entire cities-worth of vertical farms — I doubt even fission could supply enough energy to make this work) we’d find it hard to feed much more than 20 billion people…

            Anon said:

    Not really, switching to genetically modified foods is about the most drastic change we’ll need to make (though we could probably feed > 10 billion even without them but at much greater land usage).

    Which particular genetic modifications do you expect would lead to substantial increases in per-hectare productivity?

            Anon said:

    I should hope not because to do so you must accept mass murder.

    Indeed, many of the most murderous policies of the Nazis (such as the “Hunger Plan” in Eastern Europe) were inspired by the Party’s agrarian fundamentalist wing: one of its major figures was Walther Darré, who was an ardent advocate of organic farming.

            Anon said:

    We already have diversity of food production, on the issue of energy production we don’t really need all that much diversity (the LFTR looks like it could handle almost all our primary energy needs, including hydrocarbon synthesis).

    I think some diversity would be a good thing: my desired end state would be something like 65% LFTRs, 25% plutonium breeders and 10% non-nuclear (mostly hydro). Unless fusion is made to work, although I imagine that fusion would probably mean a small number of monster reactors, leaving smaller energy uses in the hands of fission reactors.

            Anon said:

    If a person wants to grow something in their yard then we shouldn’t stop them (provided it won’t cause others problems of course) but these kinds of things are little more than trinkets and do not have the potential to even provide a significant contribution to food production (not to mention that most people would rather do something other than tend to a microfarm after they get home from work).

    Nathan Lewis is a lot more sceptical than most Depleted Cranium readers would be regarding our prospects for a high-energy future, but he did do a good series exploding the myth of suburban farming:

    The Problem with Little Teeny Farms
    The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?


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  21. 21
    Mike Lewinski Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Look, the basic problem of population can be shown to be an inverse function of standard of living. In other words the MORE people have the Less they tend to breed. This has been established over and over again, yet somehow Western thought seems obsessed with a lot of nu-age crap about ‘reconnecting’ with nature.

    I’m aware of the inverse function. Japan is rushing to build robots to take care of their aging population, and maybe someday I’ll have a robotic nurse too.

    Globally I don’t see a lot of “social mobility” amongst countries. The poor stay poor, even when they have resources. The earth’s population has doubled since I was born. Exponential curves like the one we’re on now usually tip over at some point and crash.

    One man’s nu-age crap is another man’s published research. There are measurable benefits to even looking at pictures of nature. Did you check out the research summary link?

    From my perspective, “reconnecting” means noticing what is going on around me. I don’t just read the news about 1000+ U.S. cities breaking record high temperatures last week, I also saw the bulbs coming up here in Maryland. I saw the flies and gnats still breeding in the Blue Ridge mountains the week before.

    The greatest value from reconnecting is that people become aware of–and hopefully involved in–the health of the places they live.

            DV82XL said:

    Nature, all of these idiots seem to forget is truly “red in tooth and claw” as the saying goes, and most of us would fill our pants if we were dropped into ‘nature’ to fend for ourselves for even a night. Right now I would surly die if I was outside my own home without clothing inside of an hour it is so cold, and I don’t need to reconnect with nature to know this.

    I’m not sure if you mean to include me in “these idiots”, but it feels like a sidewise ad hominem attack either way (as do the nu-age and hippie remarks).

    I like to hunt elk in the fall, usually above 10,000′. I know how to fend for a week at a time when it drops to 18F at night, rain or snow.

            DV82XL said:

    If someone wants to grow their own food, I won’t stop them, but I am sick of this sanctimonious nonsense that says that the rest of us should follow.

    I said “ideally” because I think gardens are good ways to teach children about nature, and most families have children who are learning biology in school. I also think they are good ways to get people active in their communities.

    I’m just not impressed with your rhetoric and don’t see much reason to continue this.


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  22. 22
    Mike Lewinski Says:

            George Carty said:

    Indeed, many of the most murderous policies of the Nazis (such as the “Hunger Plan” in Eastern Europe) were inspired by the Party’s agrarian fundamentalist wing: one of its major figures was Walther Darré, who was an ardent advocate of organic farming.

    Godwin already? That was fast.

    Thanks for the links though. I’ll read them. Did you read the first one I posted?


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  23. 23
    Anon Says:

            George Carty said:

    I’d say that barring an extreme increase in our energy usage (ie entire cities-worth of vertical farms — I doubt even fission could supply enough energy to make this work) we’d find it hard to feed much more than 20 billion people…

    It’s not so much about energy as about land (and 15 billion should be quite doable, we could probably do it with current technology if we were willing to cut down enough forests).

            George Carty said:

    Indeed, many of the most murderous policies of the Nazis (such as the “Hunger Plan” in Eastern Europe) were inspired by the Party’s agrarian fundamentalist wing: one of its major figures was Walther Darré, who was an ardent advocate of organic farming.

    Not to mention the early history of the UK’s Soil Association.

            George Carty said:

    I think some diversity would be a good thing: my desired end state would be something like 65% LFTRs, 25% plutonium breeders and 10% non-nuclear (mostly hydro). Unless fusion is made to work, although I imagine that fusion would probably mean a small number of monster reactors, leaving smaller energy uses in the hands of fission reactors.

    That’s probably not such a bad end state though 10% hydro is probably a bit much (and note that we’ll probably end up with more than just electricity production being done by those reactors, desalination and process heat will also be big uses).

    I’d probably aim for about 75% LFTR, 20% Pu breeders (Cholrine MSRs if we can get them working) and < 5% hydro (mostly) and geothermal (where that'll work), maybe some OTEC for off-shore facilities (the by-product of bringing nutrients up to the surface layers would probably make those worth it for aquaculture (which we'll need if we want fish not to go extinct) even if you threw away the electricity they produced), some methane from landfills and maybe even burning some of the synthetic fuels produced by high temperature reactors in peakers.

    How fusion or space solar (which also has the potential to actually work) would change that would depend on how they actually turn out once someone gets around to actually building power plants although those are really the only technologies which could actually rival fission and even if they do turn out to be better would probably only capture new builds and not actually justify replacing existing reactors (that also means we'll end up with at least several percent LWRs for at least the next few decades as there probably won't be an economic motivation to replace them until they are worn out).

            Anon said:

    Nathan Lewis is a lot more sceptical than most Depleted Cranium readers would be regarding our prospects for a high-energy future, but he did do a good series exploding the myth of suburban farming:

    The Problem with Little Teeny Farms
    The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?

    You’ve mentioned those before and they do blow the idea that having a little vegetable garden in your backyard is going to help you survive a major food shortage right to bits.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Globally I don’t see a lot of “social mobility” amongst countries. The poor stay poor, even when they have resources.

    The percentage of the population who are starving has been steadily dropping and except for sub-Saharan Africa (which has had to contend with a massive AIDS epidemic) life expectancy has been increasing almost everywhere.

    Whilst things aren’t getting better as fast as we’d like they are improving.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    The earth’s population has doubled since I was born.

    So? It’ll double again as well, maybe it’ll level off around 15 billion, maybe it won’t and we’ll have to until it gets to 20 billion for that, but we’re going to have to deal with whatever happens as best we can.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    Exponential curves like the one we’re on now usually tip over at some point and crash.

    Fertility in most countries is dropping gradually so it looks like it’ll actually level off, not crash.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    The greatest value from reconnecting is that people become aware of–and hopefully involved in–the health of the places they live.

    The problem comes when their involvement is done without actually knowing what is really going on, what the real problems are (not just what it looks like the problem is) and what can be done about it (as opposed to what feels good).

            Mike Lewinski said:

    I said “ideally” because I think gardens are good ways to teach children about nature, and most families have children who are learning biology in school. I also think they are good ways to get people active in their communities.

    Sounds to me like you have motivations other than feeding the world and are just trying to use the whole problem with how to feed everyone as a way to push your agenda to get people outside and acting like extroverts.


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  24. 24
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Mike Lewinski said:

    While we may make enough food for everyone in the world (now), there are some regions that have apparently outstripped their carrying capacities for the long term, and probably shouldn’t be inhabited to the degree they are. Those areas have a perpetual risk of famine, and seem to not have a lot of other resources to trade for food either. Other than “I was born there and my family lives there” what else does it have to offer?

    The problem is that you’re really not going to get people to move and redistribute to any degree by anything short of force. Even then, people will resist to the last man. People are VERY attached to their land.

    You can see a perfect example in Israel. It’s a little sliver of land that’s smaller than New Jersey. As far as resources, it doesn’t have a whole lot. The West Bank is pretty good for agriculture, although the water supplies are vastly overtaxed. Other than that, it’s basically a sliver of desert that has a few okay areas, but otherwise it’s not super desirable land.

    People will none the less fight to the death over it because they feel an ancestral attachment to that little sliver of land.

    I just don’t think you will have any reasonable shot at redistributing the population based on what areas are most suitable for habitation.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    The degree to which modern agriculture is dependent on oil is disturbing. We’ve tied our food–the most basic and indispensable element of the real economy–to a resource that appears to be getting scarcer and more expensive over time. Meanwhile, we take perfectly good organic waste and landfill it. Monocropping is also stupid. At a certain point complex systems that trade efficiency for resiliency crash.

    It is even more dependent on natural gas. Nitrogen fertilizer is by far the most important and atmospheric fixation of nitrogen requires hydrogen. That hydrogen can come from any source, but it is almost always sourced from steam reforming of natural gas.

    This consumes a significant proportion of world gas production and it’s disturbing on many levels. The price volatility of gas is as high as oil. It comes from a limited number of sources, and as Western Europe has seen, it can be cut off relatively easily.

    I think that for the long term, the economics of water-sourced hydrogen can be very favorable if it’s done correctly and could provide a vital source of secure hydrogen for fertilizer.

            Mike Lewinski said:

    At some point we’re going to have to make big changes to how we grow food. I’m not saying that “organic” is the solution. But I don’t think that throwing more pesticides and herbicides at the problems created by monocropping is the answer. I like the ideas in this article.

    Yes, and there are some things we should do NOW. One thing that bothers me a lot is the turning of food crops into non-food crops due to government mandates and subsidies.

    In the US we have spent years growing millions of acres of corn and fermenting it into ethanol. This is not something that is economically viable on its own and it would not happen if the government didn’t step in. It was supposed to be environmentally beneficial. It’s not. It was supposed to improve the economics of fuel and reduce the dependence on oil. It doesn’t.

    These biofuel programs diverted a lot of land that could grow food or could simply be kept in reserve for future use should it be needed. We burned out the soil of prime farm land for no real benefits. Of course it’s monoculture because when you subsidize something so heavily, everyone starts growing the crop that yields the most ethanol per acre, which in that area is corn.

    The rush to biofuel has been cited as a factor in the spikes in food prices in that have occurred in the past few years.

            George Carty said:

    I’d say that barring an extreme increase in our energy usage (ie entire cities-worth of vertical farms — I doubt even fission could supply enough energy to make this work) we’d find it hard to feed much more than 20 billion people…

    We could feed a lot more people now (maybe not 20 billion but a lot more) if our current capacity for growing food crops were used for food crops and the product was actually eaten. Much of it is either turned to ethanol or processed into sweetener, leaving much of the plant behind, or it’s thrown out or even burned by government programs that are aimed at stabilizing prices by destroying what is seen as surplus.


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  25. 25
    DV82XL Says:

            Mike Lewinski said:

    I’m just not impressed with your rhetoric and don’t see much reason to continue this.

    I’m even less impressed by those that cannot or will not understand that technology is the greatest and most valuable intellectual capital that is passed on to future generations. Man is the animal that creates technology, it is not a violation of nature, rather it is our nature and the intelligence and drive to create it is the one feature that was selected for above all others in our rise in evolution.

    To reject it is to reject your own species, and can only come from a deep self-loathing, or uncritical acceptance of the ideologies of others that do.


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  26. 26
    George Carty Says:

            Anon said:

    It’s not so much about energy as about land (and 15 billion should be quite doable, we could probably do it with current technology if we were willing to cut down enough forests).

    My point is that vertical farms could transcend the fundamental land constraint (by replacing sunlight with electric lighting), but at a colossal cost in energy.

            Anon said:

    Not to mention the early history of the UK’s Soil Association.

    Got any links with more information on that (not just for myself, but for other readers of this thread)?

            Anon said:

    You’ve mentioned those before and they do blow the idea that having a little vegetable garden in your backyard is going to help you survive a major food shortage right to bits.

    Actually no — they note that backyard vegetable gardens were a useful survival measure for urban Russians and Cubans during the ’90s. What they are not is a model for civilization as a whole.

            drbuzz0 said:

    We could feed a lot more people now (maybe not 20 billion but a lot more) if our current capacity for growing food crops were used for food crops and the product was actually eaten.

    70% of grain is currently used to feed meat animals. Maybe in vitro meat would be a major contribution to being able to feed future populations in the fashion that they desire?


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  27. 27
    Anon Says:

            George Carty said:

    My point is that vertical farms could transcend the fundamental land constraint (by replacing sunlight with electric lighting), but at a colossal cost in energy.

    Quite true, but it doesn’t look like we’ll need to even consider that any-time soon.

            George Carty said:

    Got any links with more information on that (not just for myself, but for other readers of this thread)?

    See the end of http://badecology.blogspot.com/2008/08/organic-food-as-bad-as-ever.html

            George Carty said:

    Actually no — they note that backyard vegetable gardens were a useful survival measure for urban Russians and Cubans during the ’90s. What they are not is a model for civilization as a whole.

    For a bit of extra food (and also some choice as to what to eat instead of just whatever is available), but there’s no way anyone with an urban garden is going to survive without food grown from further away (though the food grown could also be useful for barter).

            George Carty said:

    70% of grain is currently used to feed meat animals.

    Maybe in vitro meat would be a major contribution to being able to feed future populations in the fashion that they desire?

    Everyone becoming vegans could really stretch our food supplies quite a bit (though it isn’t so likely to happen).

    Moving to genetically modifying animals as well as plants could probably get us a pretty decent improvement in productivity and factory farming helps a lot with land usage.


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  28. 28
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