"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

End Times Thinking and the Locavore Fallacy

I am not confident that the world will muster the foresight needed to thrive indefinitely. I do suspect that the economies of the west have peaked. I also think that the economy of the world will peak soon. This makes me a pessimist compared with the mass media, the government, the business community.

But compared with garden variety pessimists I am a wild-eyed optimist. I don't think we are anywhere near running out of food.

In the comments to a very doom-laden article on the Oil Drum by Peter Goodchild, Euan Mearns comments:

I gather that we use about 5% of our energy in agriculture, and on that basis I don't see that agricultural output will be immediately threatened by energy decline since I assume we will manage some how to prioritise. Furthermore, with conversion ratios of 7 to 10:1 for meat, we have a substantial buffer there where high meat prices may encourage us to eat more plant produce.
This seems right to me. The world is a long way from starvation.

If transportation becomes an order of magnitude more expensive, we will see no more of South American or New Zealand fruit, but continent-wide exchanges of food remain affordable. I think it costs about a penny to ship a tomato across the continent. If that goes up to a dime, we will still have out-of-state tomatoes.

What he learned from Katrina is that our customs make it impossible to abandon a city; we are tied to our "real estate" now as much as it freed us in the past two decades. New Orleans limps back to life whether people want it to or not. New Orleans has no choice. So as I look at the bizarre Texas drought and do what we all do nowadays when weather gets strange (wonder whether it is permanent) I contemplate the vision of a heavily populated Texas as dry as California, but perhaps lacking the power to appropriate water for far afield.

My more apocalyptic local friends are all talking about local gardens, because it will be too expensive to ship food. Maybe it will come to that someday, but not for a long time. Meanwhile, which is more expensive (more energy intensive) to ship to Texas: a tomato, or enough water to grow a tomato?

Fruits and vegetables are high value cargo. Water and fertilizer (and coal and timber and rocks and cement and steel) are not. If transportation becomes expensive, it is the low value industrial processes that relocalize. In wetter areas, bulk foods like grains may relocalize as well, though many grains ship well by sea, where shipment costs are negligible.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the locavore movement, whatever its social benefits, is fighting an uphill battle. Increasing shipment costs actually pull for efficiency of production, especially good soil and sustainable water. What little farming there is in Texas will decline sharply if this summer is a taste of the future. The huge population will decline only slowly. Food will be imported, and we will find a way to pay for it somehow.

On the other hand, increasing energy costs (and further increases in population, along with continuing decline in fish stocks) argue for less meat in the diet, as does direct greenhouse forcing via ruminant belching. And the terrifying message of the movie Food Inc. that I saw recently has me convinced that corporate meat sources are unethical. Local high value-add production of meat and of processed foods, on the model of traditional food production in Europe, is a good way to make use of human efforts and natural resources while respecting animal life. And in general, fresh, of course, is better.

But this romantic idea of making reliance on local resources on an overcrowded planet into an intrinsic goal is a fetish and a wrongheaded idea except in very remote places.

(On the other hand, I am glad I am not a citizen or landowner in Australia. I don't see how they cope given present trends of energy and climate.)


andrewt said...

I don't think you need to send us food parcels just yet, Australia produces roughly a tonne of wheat/person/year which alone should be enough to feed us - and its projected we will keep producing something like that.

ac said...

And now that the Russians have cancelled their orders there is plenty of roo to go around.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the current (and on-going) global cooling will have dire effects on food production. Go ask any Canadian wheat farmer!

David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

Andrew, is this projection based on consumption of groundwater? If so, it eventually ends.

David, you needn't take the "nonsense" part of your name quite so seriously. It has been a cold year in Canada, but Canada is not the globe.

Ac, "roo"?

Anonymous said...

But this romantic idea of making reliance on local resources on an overcrowded planet into an intrinsic goal is a fetish and a wrongheaded idea except in very remote places.

I think this is generally right, only expressed a little too strongly.

"This romantic idea of making reliance on exclusively/impractically local resources on an overcrowded planet into an intrinsic goal is a fetish and a wrongheaded idea except in very remote places."

Is both a bit easier for the locavore to hear without prompting immediate defensiveness and closer to the truth. For the average suburban/urbanite, supplemental locavorism is still probably both a net health/resource win and fosters that all important mental connection between consumption and production, which cetainly needs to be widerspread if we're going to get through the next century without massive, unnecessary losses.

Also, roo = kangaroo.

Michael Tobis said...

Maybe it was a tad too strongly stated, but I am really trying to question the value of localism as an intrinsic goal.

It ties too neatly into xenophobia and shabby local neofascist movements, and subverts too easily the sorts of global cooperation we need.

The solution to bad government is not no government, and the solution to bad corporations is not no corporations.

On an overpopulated world we need the large distributed systems to work. Throwing them away is not an option.

John Mashey said...

But the shipment cost of a tomato or a ton of grain is the wrong issue...

Speaking as an old farmboy, Liebig rules... Besides water, sun, and nutrients in the ground, it takes:

a) Fertilizer to get yields, i.e., N-P-K in particular, and you ought to consider the energy costs of making those things and getting them to the farms. In many places, it costs energy to get the water there.

b) There is the energy cost of doing the framing itself. Right now, we *eat* a lot of oil, or in the case of vegetables, a lot of migrant farmworker labor.

As it stands, 2% of Americans feed the rest of us, plus more. In 1900, the US Farm population was 40%.

c) Then there is the energy cost of getting the food to the end-user, which is only a piece of the cost, and probably not the major one for any reasonable distribution system.

IF the energy, or more accurately, energy+efficiency goes down with lower- EROEI supplies, i.e., takes us back to ~1900, think about where people will actually be living to make that work. [Of course, as I've written elsewhere, intense electrificaiton, windmills, solar panels, electric tractors, etc, help ... well, they're the only way out, and even better, they actually might work for poor farmers who will *never* have much oil.

You also might want to check how they make nitrogen fertilizer, and whether there is any concern over long-term supplies of phosphorus and potassium.

So, one more time: extreme locovorism is silly (although that's easy for me to say, given NorCal location; I could subsist quite happily on the found grown in this state). Any farmer knows its better to grow things in the right places, which is why many towns in CA grow 1 vegetable or fruit.

But all that *isn't* the issue for agriculture, especially high-energy North American agriculture.

ac said...

Australian wheat is mostly rainfall dependent. Irrigation is used for cotton, rice, grapes and so on, but not so much for wheat. Planting wheat is more or less a bet on whether it will rain at the right time in the growing season.

The developing El Nino in the short term, and projections of drier conditions in the south-east in the long term are certainly freaking out some farmers, but it seems like that's more of a threat to exports than local food supplies.

Aaron said...

It is about nutrients and economics. Both are too dirty to be romantic.

It takes about 30 calories of energy from oil to put one calorie of food energy as lettuce from Salinas on a plate in New York City. Most of that oil energy goes to pump irrigation water. Second is production of fertilizer and pesticides. Energy to transport the lettuce from California to NYC is way down the list.

Transport is not the limiting factor with our industrial food production system.

However, in order to make our food transport infrastructure worthwhile, you need to grow a lot of food in one spot.

Today, we grow that amount of food by using a lot of (oil) to extract resources that are used only once, and not recycled. Recycling is difficult when consumption is distant from production.

Four needs of agriculture are water, fixed nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus. Any useful agricultural model needs to address life-cycle energy flows, mass balance, and all the traditional economic flows.

We can use windmills to pump water, but declining water resources are still an issue. We are mining fossil water for current crop production. This is not sustainable.

With respect to fixed nitrogen, in modern hog production for example, there is more protein in the pig poo that goes to “holding ponds” than in the pork products produced. It is too expensive to ship the pig poo back to the fields where the grain is produced, so the nitrogen compounds in the pig poo are wasted (go into the atmosphere as NOX). Today, we solve this problem with cheap oil and just fix more nitrogen. It is simply not sustainable to waste that much fixed nitrogen. In the long term, there are several of ways to recycle fixed nitrogen, but they all require abandoning current capital facilities. A similar analysis holds for poultry.

There are environmental issues with mining phosphorus as we have been doing. Wasting phosphorus into pig poo holding ponds or POTW is – dumb.

We mine potash, spread it on our veggies, eat the produce, and put the potash back in the sea via POTW.

Oil intensive agriculture increased food production per man-hour and increased food production per arable acre. Given the economic analysis at the time it was rational, and land grant universities became a megaphone for the concept. Then oil was cheap. Now we can see times when oil may not be cheap. Small changes in the price of oil can have large changes in the price of food.

Use full life-cycle accounting, including externalities such as global warming and water pollution, and things change.

What is the cost of water pollution caused by agriculture? How much other water pollution is by nutrients that could be recycled in a more rational system of agriculture? What is the cost of AGW [CO2,CH4,NOx] from industrial agriculture?

With expensive oil, things change more. A little composting and recycling can save a lot of energy. That is NOT cost effective when energy is very cheap. It is very cost effective when energy is fully priced.

Sewage is full of water, fixed nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus. Use your beer twice; once for yourself and once for your tomatoes. Such recycling works better on a local basis.

Saying that we are not anywhere near running out of food is like saying we are not anywhere near running out of oil. After all, as we have less oil, the price of oil will go up and we will consume less oil. Similarly, as we have less food, the price of food will go up . . . .

David B. Benson said...

"Roo" is Strine for "Kangaroo".


Unknown said...


Texas may not be the ideal site. However, there are lots of big cities where sustainable urban agriculture on a large scale is beginning to take off.


Unknown said...

I'm concerned your article and the responses seem to be focusing on the developed world. One of the main reasons I want to avoid further global warming is the effect it will have on the developing world, where several billion people (and counting) have a subsistence existence and depend on local weather. A drought in Texas isn't so great for your garden, in the sub-sahara it causes people, already under/mal-nourished to be pushed over the edge into starvation. Similarly with any disruption to monsoons in the Indian subcontinent, or the removal of glacial/snow melt in summer to much of China, India and central Asia.

Michael Tobis said...

lionfish, point taken; continuing progress in the developing world is indispensable to a not-too-bad outcome.

My point here is that the expectation that peak oil will reduce the amount of trade in food is not realistic. In dry places it will increase.

Dry places which have nothing to trade will be in bad shape.

byron smith said...

Dry places which have nothing to trade will be in bad shape.
If you're again referring to Australia, then I expect we'll still be exporting plenty of coal to China for years to come, barring an enormous shift in priorities.