Friday, December 14, 2007

The Price of Things

John Michael Greer has an interesting article about agriculture over at energy bulletin here: http://www.energybulletin.net/38349.html, because of its emphasis on the paying of a (largely unspecified) price for things. Generally speaking, I approve of Greer's willingness to be clear on the fact that transitions are not always easy - I think there are threads in the peak oil and climate change movements that both overestimate and underestimate the sheer amount of trauma change will cause - I think generally Greer, who doesn't sanitize things, but also is alive to possibilities, does a good job.

But here, I think, Greer's vision of a future agriculture falters, based, I think on an implied mathematics in which the full price of one side of an equation (the cost of transitioning to a sustainable agriculture) is laid up against an account that elides the costs of the other side of the equation. That is, Greer is right to want us to be open about the price of transitioning to another sort of agriculture. But he potentially overstates the price of this transition, by ignoring the gains offered in such a change, and thus, leaving readers with a misleading sense of the balance sheet.

This is not an error made by Greer alone, and I use this article as an example in part because I think it is a useful demonstration of how much what we "know" is naturalized into our lives so that we cannot see the consequences. I admire Greer's writing and thought, and don't intend to single him out here - but his are assumptions I see made often, and worth deconstructing.

Allow me to quote Greer's claims about the "price" we are likely to pay at length here.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – up more than 20% on average in the United States over the last year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all. Rising prices and shrinking supplies will pinch budgets, damage public health, and make malnutrition a significant issue all through the developed world; actual famines are possible, and may be unavoidable, as shifting climate interacts with an agricultural economy in the throes of change. All this is part of the price of adaptation, the unavoidable cost of changing from a food system suited to the age of fossil fuels to one that can still function in the deindustrial transition.

The same process can serve as a model for other changes that will be demanded of us as the industrial system moves deeper into obsolescence. Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.


It isn't entirely clear to me what sequence of events Greer is imagining - he allows the root causes of the malnutrition, public health problems and famine he imagines to remain vague, a vagueness that me suggests that he wishes ust to take these results as a given, and an inevitability without too much scrutiny. But I think we do need to scrutinize his claims, which seem to be that Industrial agriculture produced cheap food, and a transition to sustainable agriculture comes with two big bumps in the road - long term rises in food prices, and the problems of shifting systems.

And to some degree, Greer is almost certainly correct. My objection is not to his articulation of the difficulties, but to his presumption that such difficulties must inevitably lead to a price as high as malnutrition, damage to public health and famine - this, I think he has not established, but is rather relying on the unbalanced equation mentioned above to substantiate.

To balance the equation, let's begin with the claim that we have produced more food at lower cost than ever before. There are a number of scholarly analyses that suggest otherwise. While Americans, for example, spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history, in _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ Helena Norberg-Hodge documents that this is misleading - in fact, if you account for the fact that most families are now two income households, we are paying more for our food as a percentage of income that we were before World War II and the great move to industrialization.

In addition, Chalmers Johnson documents the role that militarization has played in the food economy. The move of millions of young men and women who would have stayed on family farms into the workforce has encouraged, enabled and required enormous investment in military programs, to give working class, high school educated young men and women work to do. This money comes largely from our tax base, and if factored in, raises the price of food dramatically above all prior estimates. It is at least twice as expensive to shift your young people into the military and its subsidies and go to war as it is to let them grow dinner and eat it.

Were we, for example, in America to give up the project of empire, keep a defense-suited only, smaller military, and move the same tax subsidies into food price stabilization and (vastly cheaper) investments in agricultural job training for the young men and women who now go into the military, we could expect to see several million new young, healthy farmers, lower overhead costs for their training, medical care and lifetime disability from being blown up or blowing people up, and an enormous new body of food producers, with stable prices. This is only one possible paradigm, and one that obviously involves major foreign policy shifts, so is unlikely - but it is important to note that our food is not, in fact, cheap - the costs are externalized, and if we were able to either shift those costs that are externalized onto the general public either back to them, or towards more productive, useful places, we would reap enormous benefits.

The health costs of industrial food also exceed the likely rise in food prices in a small scale industrial agriculture. At this point, 1/4 of the US population has no access to health care at any price, and nearly half have no insurance. More than 1/3of the population spends more on medical care than on food. And the effects of better nutrition are well documented - longer lifespans in Europe during WWII and in Cuba during the special period suggests that a shift to garden agriculture can result not in malnutrition, but improved nutrition.

The reality is that food yields at present are counted only in the largest consumed staple grains - but the shift to industrial agriculture has resulted in these grains being planted to the exclusion of other foods, all foods lost in the agricultural stream. It is not just in the third world where more grain has resulted in worse nutrition, but in the rich world as well. According to Marion Nestle's _Food Politics) up to 1/4 of the US population is overweight *and* suffering from malnutrition, in the technical definition of the term which means suffering from multiple nutritional deficits. We think of malnutrition as a matter of starvation, but it is not - it is the lack of a nutritionally adequate diet, and that describes many Americans, and to a lesser extent members of other rich world nations. There are reasons to believe that a shift to small scale polyculture, and a reduced emphasis on grain agriculture would result in less malnutrtion, not more. There is every reason to believe it would result in substantially lowered costs for health care - whether those reductions in cost would come about quickly enough to help out the average family is debatable - probably not for baby boomers and other elders suffering from the consequences of a lifetime of eating industrial food. But is worth noting that Cubans saw lifespan increases and improved health not only among younger people, but among the elderly as well.

The nutritional density of the food we eat also matters as much as sheer quantity. We need a certain number of calories, of course, but the number of calories required depends in large part on our ability to meet basic nutritional needs through them. So, for example, organic produce that is in many cases 40% or more nutritious than conventional produce means that less food can still mean better nutrition. There are limits on how far this equation can be played, particularly among the elderly and children, but even normal weight adults can often live in substantially fewer calories than recommended provided they are the right calories, and that they maximize nutrition.

Greer's claim that it "became economical" to centralize agriculture also bears some scrutiny. As Peter Rosset shows in _Food is Different_, the total subsidies (overt and covert) to industrial agriculture over the last 50 years are measured in trillions of dollars. It is not, in fact, clear that it was ever more economical to centralize agriculture. As Jules Pretty has documented over and over again, low input, small scale agriculture results in a substantial increase in caloric output. His studies, covering more than 50 countries and 150,000 farmers suggest that small scale, low fossil input produce substantially more output - 150% or more, than industrial agriculture. The "economies of scale" that Greer mentions are mostly a myth - it is true that in terms of yield - that is, maximizing the production of a single crop per acre, organic yields at best can compete with but not vastly exceed present yields. But the truth is that we don't have to, as Americans mostly do, eat just corn in a variety of ways in every meal - diversified polyculture on a very small yield has a vastly greater output - that is total production of food calories and nutritional value, as Peter Rosset documents in his paper "Small is Bountiful."

The fact is, it may never have been economically sensible to centralize food production - and if that's true, we can expect to see that, again, if we shift social costs around wisely, we may not find ourselves paying so vastly much more for food that we cannot bear the price. The same is true about sheer quantities of food - a real and fair analysis must include the food we aren't growing in place of what we are, what we lost as well as what we gained.

I've written more about this in paper on the Green Revolution here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/01/how-much-did-green-revolution-matter-or.html, but as food writer Margaret Visser notes in _Much Depends on Dinner_, industrial agriculture improved grain yields, but in many cases reduced nutritional value, and in some cases, reduced the total number of available calories. The classic example was in rice paddy farming, where "higher yielding" rice varieties also had higher rates of shattering (more crop loss), were more vulnerable to pests and diseases (more crop loss), and because of their dependence on chemicals and fertilizers, killed the frogs and fish that were traditional sources of fat and protein, and destroyed the green weeds that provided nutritional balance. In the net, more grain often meant less food and worse nutrition.

It is a commonplace to believe that industrial agriculture has given us cheaper food. Why do we believe this? Not because it is definitively true - in fact, it is probably not. Even the World Bank now admits that small scale polyculture is both more productive and cheaper than fossil fueled agriculture. At best the subject is up to dispute. But so many of us "know" this that it is easy for us to begin from this assumption, and thus carry it out to argue, as Greer does, that a future of sustainable food is bound to be caught up in hunger and malnutrition.

And, of course, I've left out the obvious costs of externalization - the fossil fueled economy was only ever cheaper than the agrarian economy because we declind to pay the price of fossil fuels. That is, we shifted the price diachronically, onto future generation - right now, we are paying for planetary warming done when I was a small child. A whole host of such payments are coming due now. This I have left largely out, because there are few short term returns here to compensate for rising food prices - that is, the economic benefits here will largely fall upon our children.

Greer is not very clear on exactly what the price of a food transition will be, but he focuses on higher food prices. This is, to an extent, likely to be true. He is correct, for example, that a transition to an animal-powered agriculture will consume a substantial portion of our total production.

But again, let us balance the sheets. For example, Greer mentions the loss of about 1/3 of one's land production to animal feed. That is true for a horse-based agriculture (oxen use less, as do water buffalo), and it can be hard to imagine a society in which 1/3 of all food is fed to draft animals. But we presently live in a society where very nearly that amount of food is lost to waste. That is, 17% of our food is lost to disease and pests (up by more than 10% from the pre-pesticide era), and almost 20% more is lost, mostly in transit, or in the back of our fridges. The minimizing of waste created by local, organic agricultures (use of Integrated Pest Management can raise yields and reduce losses to below pre-green revolution levels as Pretty documents) would account for half of that. Grazing animals on unused marginal space and land unsuitable for tillage would increase production still further. And intensive, human scale agriculture would reduce the need for draft animals - such agriculture could be wholly human powered or powered by food producing animals, "pigging" up ground, or geese weeding gardens.

Here we come to the heart of the question - is a shift to a new kind of agriculture likely to be inherently disruptive? Are food prices likely to rise out of control, and shortages occur, creating famines and malnutrtion?

The answer, of course, is "it depends" which is somewhat different than Greer's claim that we have to be prepared to pay this price. It is certainly possible, even probable that the process of shifting to a new form of agriculture could be painful and disruptive. It is also within the realm of possibility that it could not be. Remember, we have made agricultural/cultural shifts before without famine. In World War II, Americans were warned to expect food shortages, and the Victory Garden movement arose to compensate - in fact, food shortages, despite enormous disruptions in the agricultural labor force, in farming techniques, in input availability and other sources never arose. While hunger did arise in Cuba and the Soviet Union, widespread malnutrition never did, nor did full scale famine. While the Soviet Union was a public health disaster, Cuba demonstrated that food system changes don't have to be accompanied by such a crisis. And it is worth asking whether, if a movement or national program to transition *in advance* of the crisis had arisen, even such consequences as were borne in both countries might have been avoided.

Now this is not World War II, George Bush is not Franklin Roosevelt, and we can all imagine here why a transition today might not be as smooth. Greer is almost certainly taking these points as a given, perhaps that's fair. But I personally prefer to call the proverbial (and apt) spade a spade here - the likelihood of system failure that Greer attributes to the process of adaptation is more accurately attributed to *poor* processes of adaptation. That may, horribly, be the best that Americans can hope for - but other rich world nations, which Greer includes in his famine list, are likely to do better. And it is not fully clear to me that even the American case is hopeless.

Nor are out of control food prices an inevitability. We can expect to see a rise in food prices, and expect the poor world to suffer from it. But a transition to a sustainable agriculture that includes large numbers of gardens can compensate by simply reducing the funds required in outlay for food. The average American yard is just over a quarter acre. That quantity of land can produce an enormous amount of food - not everything anyone might want to eat in most cases, but enough to allow Americans to compensate for rising farmer payments. Moreover, when farmers actually get to keep most of the money they put into their food, rather than passing it on to multinational corporations, it becomes feasible for farmers to make a real and adequate living. Simply eliminating middlemen, processing, shipping and supermarkets and stabilizing food prices would enrich most farmers beyond their present dreams of avarice.

In addition, we can expect to see other costs fall - health care is most likely one of these, but there are others. Housing costs are another - the decline (if there has been one) in food prices in the rich world over the last fifty years has been compensated for by rising costs for housing, and by a transition of housing into the role of "consumer of resources" rather than creator of them. Changes in zoning, home food gardens, but moreover, a move to cottage industry and small scale local economies, combined with an inventory of low cost "walkaway" housing and consolidated homes mean that US cost of living is unlikely to remain the same. It is true that energy costs will continue to rise - which is one of the reasons why a *good* transition matters so much - with guidance, average families can be guided away from a need for much fossil fueled power, to homes that operate with human power and little energy.

Public health disasters are not inevitable either - a low cost, low input health care system can be added to most local areas, improving the current health status of the 40% of all Americans who presently can't afford even the most basic of health care, because of lack of insurance access. We have as model medical infrastructure in places like Kerala and Cuba that expend little money (Cuba spends $176 per person for health care, and Kerala less than $40 per person) and manage to maintain similar lifespans and infant mortality rates to the US. Because most public health measures can be achieved with minimal energy inputs and education, there is no need for such a disaster to occur - again, the distinction between a poor transition, and the problems of transitioning, I think are important here.

It is true that in a very fast crash, such a transition might inevitably lead to famine, malnutrition and public health crises, but I find it hard to believe that Greer, one of the most reasonable voices in the discussion of "doom" has shifted his position to believe that we are all going to go straight to Mad Max. But a slower adaptive process, implied in Greer's opener, need not involve large scale shortfalls.

That is not to say that price won't be paid - it just isn't necessarily the one Greer articulates. The price would come in dietary and cultural changes, the amount of labor that food production would demand of us, and economic changes. Fairly rapidly, we would have to move to a society with many more people working on small farms, and most people growing gardens at home. The economic shift would be rapid and probably stressful - we have trained a workforce to mostly pass information and stuff back and forth, and they are going to have to learn to produce something. The educational and training component, as well as the economic and social shifts are likely to be difficult.

Schools will have to shift to teaching food production, workers will have to be rapidly retrained to grow food in gardens and on farms. Agricultural salaries will have to be ramped up, and there will be some price rises. Land will have to be acquired, large farms probably broken up and sold off, and intensive farming and gardening courses offered, along with cooking and food preservation.

All of us are going to have learn to eat regionally, to give up the fantasy that we can all eat the same thing all the time. Diets will shift away from high fat, high meat, high sugar consumption and transition to more vegetables, more staple root crops (easier to grow than grains on a home scale). More time and energy will have to be shifted into cooking and preserving food, and diets will become not only local, but seasonal. Farmers in regions will have to shift to crops that grow well in their area, and consumers will have to begin eating those crops.

Most of us are also going to have to find time to garden. The industrial economy, to the extent it goes on, is going to have to become less productive as we delve more deeply into subsistence.

But all of these transitions can come without famine, public health crises or rises in malnutrition - in fact, both the latter factors could be improved by a good transition. There will be a cost, and I do not think it is wise to underestimate what it will be - many people will mourn the days when microwave dinners filled with fat and salt were available to them. Many of us will miss our evenings curled up with a bag of cheetos. I am not joking when I say that these are real losses.

So too will some people suffer when the jobs they've trained for disappear under them and they are expected to get to work in their gardens and on farms. Men especially seem to struggle with the idea that they have lost their professional identity, and this will bring about real pain. Nor should we underestimate the physical pain of transitioning our bodies back to whole foods and regular exercise. All of these will exact prices.

But they are prices an order of magnitude different than the ones Greer articulates. His prices may still strike us - but they are a not an inevitable cost of adaptation, but a result of bad adaptation. And I do not believe that it is so self-evident that we cannot adapt well that we should begin from the assumption that we cannot. For example, it is hard to imagine a national program of leadership that led us to a large scale Victory Garden movement and an agricultural transition - but as I discussed recently in my article about Richard Heinberg's claims about how achieve such a transition, in Cuba and the Soviet Union, and in World War II, most of the largest food system changes that mitigated hunger came not from above, but from ordinary people in communities. That is, it is not evident to me that even if we have (and we do) a feckless, evil government, that the people cannot do better.

The price of change is often high. But I'm not sure I agree even with Greer's larger claim that we have to be prepared to pay this price. We were not prepared to pay the price of industrial agriculture - even now, most people do not seem to realize that industrial agriculture has something that can be described in the whoel as a "price" rather than fragmentary inconveniences. Instead, we were sold a set of benefits - told that industrial agriculture would do this and that. In fact, many of those benefits were false - they were lies and we did not get even what we were promised. But to the extent that industrial agriculture did do what we were promised, we took our promises and didn't ask the price. Which is why I think it is so important that we look carefully at the benefits of giving up industrial agriculture and shifting to a sustainable system, in relationship to the price. We need to know, just as clearly as real price we'll pay, what we get in return. And what we get is not just "avoiding the apocalypse" - there's more, much more.

Sharon

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon, might want to check the name on that blog post again. ;-)

J = John, not Jan

Heather G said...

Wow, a lot of information to go over! Yes, subsidies make it hard to figure out the true cost of a lot of things, including food. But because of the hidden costs, people think that the current setup is cheaper. Why? Because I can get a bag of Ramen noodles (0g transfat now!), add in an egg and some frozen peas, and have a meal for under $1. Or pasta and sauce, or a number of other cheap meals. Yes they aren't the healthiest meals, but if you have limited funds, then the thought of food costing more, even if it's healthier food, is frightening. When you have $30 to spend for a week's worth of food, you don't care if the government is helping to pay for crappy food. The way Holyoke (where I used to live) got people to care and grow their own was that some people got permission to use some land in the middle of the city for gardening, and had free classes to get people started. And they love it! But, most of them probably wouldn't have gotten into it if they'd had to pay for all the materials upfront, without knowing whether or not they'd get anything for their time and labor.

Question: when you say Americans have a lot of corn in their diet, are you using corn to refer to grains in general, to corn itself (straight veggie form, corn chips & flour), or all corn products (which would include corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup?). I'm curious since my diet is pretty low on corn products and always has been -- certainly I don't have corn products on a daily or even weekly basis, but L does still like the occasional soda (contains high fructose corn syrup).

On malnutrition, I agree that many people are already suffering from it here and elsewhere, because of the quality of the food available. I think one factor in transition, and I don't know how anyone would figure out how big a factor it is, is distribution through the small-scale system. Yes, Cuba did it, and other places have done it, but some suffered more than others during the transition, so I don't see why the U.S. would be any different.

I know you're arguing that it's possible that a program could be installed (or maybe many programs -- at least one per state) that would help get people into growing their own food, just like my example of Holyoke (which is still very few people -- probably around 50). I guess the question is how can we get these programs going/what is the likelihood of being able to do it?

So in places that don't succeed in promoting small home gardens, food likely won't be grown in quantities sufficient to each population center as they are currently situated. I don't need math to figure that one out -- look at Atlanta, with their drought -- they can't even be self-sufficient for water, let alone grow crops for 4+ million people. You need water to grow a garden too..

So, we either have to assume that people will move (if they can) to places that have enough land and water, be it the countryside or towns/small cities that have lots of little garden plots, or that eventually they'll figure it out and catch up.... I think that once people are where they need to be in that regard, then small scale agriculture will be sufficient, each place to its own locale. I guess the question is how smoothly that transition will go...

Good points on the food losses we currently experience. L and I have gotten much better about the back of our fridge over the past few years, but it's a common enough thing that people make jokes about 'experiments' in their fridges.

The commercial aspect I hadn't really thought much on, but of course there's going to be some... and not just lost to disease and pests -- there's also "quality control". If it's bruised or scraped, a piece of food can be rejected and tossed in the trash (or compost, if the farm has one). In my own garden, if I grew it then by golly I'm going to get as much out of it as I can. There's a blemish on the apple? Cut it out and eat the rest. Apples are a little old and wrinkly? Bake'em! Or turn them into applesauce to eat immediately (since canning's best done with the freshest and best fruits and veggies). Nicked some potatoes while gathering them in? Potato soup this week! But in a large scale market, a bruised apple might go rotten and ruin all its neighbors -- a definite disadvantage to large scale agriculture.

On the horses/oxen thing, even if we did use them, some folks in this area have talked about renting out the animals that already exist here. That would cut the amount of grain that needed to be grown. If you only have little gardens, plow animals aren't really necessary, but I can see people still having a need for animals for plowing and harvesting if you have several acres. I don't know what you mean by large farms, but I think even 10 acres could be a bit much by hand, at least the first few years -- land that hasn't been worked on, or has had a different purpose, can be pretty tough to make usable for growing food. We broke ground up here in Ashfield to move some of my plants up from Holyoke, and I ended up cutting down on what I was planning on moving because we were having such a tough time breaking up the field -- lawn/hayfield, which has had tractors and people running over it for decades. We even used a rototiller for part of the work, but that just broke it up into large hard chunks -- as opposed to one solid hard mass, but...

I don't know... I really want the transition to be smooth all over the world, not just the U.S., but I have a hard time believing that the Feds will get it in gear in a timely fashion. Which is not to say that I won't keep writing and voting, but....

Well, we'll just keep chugging away in our little corner... Ooo! we are doing one more new thing next year -- some friends of ours are looking at moving up our way, so we've invited them to come help with the garden next year and plant some veggies of their own. Since some of them may be moving next year, it would give them a little more security while they're moving, plus give them an idea of what grows up here.

Anonymous said...

Greer's point that a third of the land farmed by horse will go to feed the horse is true but perhaps not a major concern. After all, right now more than a third of our grain and soybeans are fed to animals; just not to working animals. We can have horses if we get rid of factory-farming -- at least in some places; not all parts of the country grow wheat. The guy who wrote "Better Off" (who now has his family living a low-tech existence in the bucolic village of St. Louis) made a similar argumemt about horses, that you are using the horse to cultivate grain to feed the horse. He seemed to be taking the more extreme view that the horse did not produce significantly more than it ate, which I doubt.

Dewey

homebrewlibrarian said...

Re: The need to change our view of time in lieu of coming agricultural needs.

If it's true that most of the workers in the US deal in information or stuff exchange, I can see a great many people out of work at some point. The work that is left will no doubt become more local or at least regional and with that a certain amount of flexibility in work schedules.

Before compulsory schooling got started towards the end of the 1920s, it wasn't unheard of for children to be gone during the planting and harvesting seasons. Even here in Alaska, the school year got moved so that the school year ends in mid May - when Native Alaskan families head out to the fish camps for the summer. I suspect that that we'll go back to that sort of scheduling again - following the agricultural/subsistance timing of the seasons.

If all of us will be participating in the agricultural process, either at home or as our profession, the pace of time will be based on the seasons. Trying to keep a year-round, 40 hour/5 days a week schedule will become untenable. I suspect that even if the workplace didn't make allowances, the workers would by looking for job sharing opportunities or flexible schedules.

Changing our sense of time could be as disruptive as changing our spending habits or food ways. I, for one, would be delighted to work half days in the summer and longer days in the winter since the burden of storing up food gets done by October and we can't even break ground until late April. I'd take whole days off from late August into early October for the harvest season (such as it is up here). Alas, my employer (State government) and union don't see things quite the same way. But they might in the not so distant future.

Kerri

jewishfarmer said...

Heather - Marion Nestle does a fascinating analysis of how much it costs to heat a healthy, organic diet in _What to Eat_ and finds that you can eat quite equally cheaply eating organic whole grains, in season organic produce and vegetables. The under $1 meal isn't that hard to come by, even cheaply. For example, I can produce a meal for a family of six that meets every nutritional standard, involving organic produce for $3 - quite comfortably even now. That's 50 cents a head. But the skill set to do so, and even the opportunity to learn to do so is harder to come by. But that's not an impossible situation to remedy either - it is worth noting that poverty abatement is one of the tiniest proportions of our experience

As for corn, Michael Pollan documents that more than 60% of all foods include corn products - it is the single largest ingredient in the American diet. Much of it appears as meat and dairy, and processed corn syrups, however.

I don't think people will have to leave the Southeast, for example - the drought they've experienced this year is probably a short term problem, and there is ample evidence that we use considerably less water growing home food than importing it - the moving of food around the country is tremendously water inefficient. Gary Nabhan, in _Coming Home to Eat_ tracks this in one of the dryest parts of the Southwest, and comes to the conclusion that careful and wise irrigation results in a net regional water use reduction, not increase.

I agree with you that there are tremendous potential difficulties in making a transition to a sustainable agriculture - and I don't necessarily assume that we *won't* have famine and an increase in malnutrition. My point is that this is not inevitable, as Greer portrays it, but a consequence of a particular set of choices in adaptation.

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Kerri, that's a good point about time cycles. Honestly, a fall in economic productivity will be good for the environment, but that doesn't mean it is easy for society.

Dewey, I think that your point is well taken in the short term, but there are still real issues about the scalability of animal agriculture. The thing is, the animal we're likely to have the greatest surplus of is human animals - and, potentially, we are likely to have a large unemployment problem as well. One dedicated, healthy person can farm 1-2 acres by hand, and I think that there will be signficant use of animal traction - and some use of biofuels. But Bob Waldrop has also pointed out that existing American oil supplies could almost certainly fuel tractors and food distribution only, along with some essential medicines, for upwards of 100 years - that is, the US has enough fossil fuels accessible in the ground to fuel such a small usage over a very long time. The question is will we be smart enough to do so?

Sharon

Harry Wykman said...

I have recently been interested in this notion of subsidy. I have writted about it on my blog as Subsidising Sanity.

I think that necessity will make transition easier in some respects but we had better hope a few creative types have paved the way. I am interested in trying to move into a low energy future without becoming crazy. To somehow 'come off' the modes of this present life and subsidised comfort, into a new and satisfying reality.

I think that this is something you have been great at communicating Sharon; the joyful possibilities of a low energy life.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sharon

I just read your profile. FOUR CHILDREN?

Is this a new rendition in sustainability? FOUR CHILDREN?

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous,

You forget that Sharon is a convert to Judaism. Her God said, in Genesis 1:28, "Be fruitful, AND MULTIPLY, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Greenpa said...

Hi, Sharon- you continue to amaze me with the time and depth of your posts. HOW do you find the time?? Do you sleep for like 1 hour a night or something? :-)

Anyway; in view of both your interests and your ability to process complex stuff; are you aware of these people? http://www.badgersett.com/info/woodyag1.html

Basically - everything Wes Jackson hopes for- they've done, but using woody plants, not grass; they have farmers actually growing their crops (also unlike Jackson).

They're NOT widely known- looks like they're spending their time doing, not talking-

Leila said...

I wish the rude newcomers would hold their fire before badgering Sharon about her family size. If you hung around, searched the site, and read what she has to say on the subject, you might have a little more decency.

Remember you are talking to a person and you are talking about her babies, real live human beings.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

Ares Olympus said...

An interesting and worthy "TED talk" on a similar subject:
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/193 Juan Enriquez: Why can't we grow new energy?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous who brought in the religion thing: How many children did Moses, Jesus, Muhamhed, or Buddha have?

*You forget that Sharon is a convert to Judaism. Her God said, in Genesis 1:28, "Be fruitful, AND MULTIPLY, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."*

AND when the stockpiles in your dominion near depletion AND the pile of the smelly thing you and your “multiples” have created reaches the ceiling and hits the fan, there shall be RAPTURE! And YE shall be saved—to do it all over again?

Personally, I don’t care much for Abrahamic [or other] religions, or any similar mass deception programs...

Here’s a few for the Biblebashers:

Genesis 38:1-30
Genesis 19:30-36
Genesis 19:8

Back to the sustainable ranch...

The Do-as-I-say-NOT-as-I-do bit shoots a big hole through one’s credibility as an “activist, general progressive lefty, academic geek, teacher [of sustainable sciences?]...”

Then again, Impostor-in-Chief in Rome recently declared that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps that would cause a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering!

And to Leylo:

Isn’t it ill-mannered to do a “Judge not lest ye be judged” on the newcomers and call them rude? Say, “you might have a little more decency” letting people express their thoughts.

Greenpa said...

To some of the anonymesses here- my guess would be you have to "express your thoughts" this way - anonymously, on an open blog - because when you do it in person, people just walk away from you. I certainly would.

And, just as there are some people who should NEVER reproduce (hint, hint) - there are some types - (Sharon, for example, in my opinion) that the world definitely needs more of. Four seems like too few, to me. :-)

Rosa said...

Thanks for the Badgersett link, Greenpa - they're not far from me, and I never heard of them before. I'll definitely check them out. Coppice and wood agriculture is the way to go, if you live in the Big Woods (or where the Big Woods used to be). Where I live now is the first place I've ever gardened that didn't want to be prairie, and keeping the trees at bay, even on a city lot, is about half of my gardening work.

Anonymous said...

Hey Greenpa, aka Philip Rutter!!...LOL, thanks for the link to your work site. I've just found your blog recently and am thrilled to have both you and Sharon sharing the practicals of "doing it". Hope you share your work on your own blog soon.

Sharon, thanks for the additional critical analysis of JMG's piece this week.

/fan in Canada

Anonymous said...

"And, just as there are some people who should NEVER reproduce (hint, hint) - there are some types - (Sharon, for example, in my opinion) that the world definitely needs more of. Four seems like too few, to me. :-)"

greenpa your mama didn't take the NEVER reproduce hint (hint, hint) and look what came out!

Anonymous said...

And while we are on the subject of reproduction, the king of all beasts, human, has a larger brain than a rabbit (greenpa is excused... hint, hint). While rabbits reproduce [apparently] indiscriminately humans ought to consider FAMILY PLANNING [and keep the gene pool clean.]

Heather G said...

Sharon, any chance you can delete the Anonymous idiot's posts? His or her persistence regarding children, still without having done any real work at reading previous posts here on this subject, is highly annoying.

Quite frankly, Sharon's four kids have a smaller carbon footprint than a lot of single children, altogether.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins said...

You have made your own mistake of implied mathematics in the following statement:

"We can expect to see a rise in food prices, and expect the poor world to suffer from it."

If by "poor world" you mean the third world or developing/underdeveloped world, then this is an unwarranted assumption.

Much of the current 3rd-world woe is due to excessively low food prices (often due to 1st-world subsidies). Poor local farmers can't compete with subsidized imports, so they end up giving up farming and moving to cities (slums) in the hopes of finding paying work. Once food prices rise, it will again be worth a living for farmers to return to the land to farm. In much of the developing world, especially the poorest nations, a majority of people are farmers, so the net effect will be a benefit - the rural to urban drain will slow or reverse, and poor countries will become food self-sufficient, or even food exporters, as they were before the first-world crops put them out of business.

For more discussion of this, see the Economist: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=10252015

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins said...

Heather G worries that some urban areas will not make a transition to small gardens, and people will have to move to the countryside.

I believe there is far more potential in our cities to grow food than most people realize. Apparently, in Cuba, they can grow half a city's food needs within the city itself. If you compare the northern US (or, in my case, southern Ontario) with Cuba, we have a shorter growing season, but our cities have far more wasted 'green' space in our suburban sprawl. There are all those useless little lawns (too small to throw a frisbee) and all those little bits in between. Once food becomes an issue, there will be heavy pressure to grow edibles instead of merely turf. In South Korea, where land is at a premium, you see little plots of peppers where we would have ditches or boulevards here, and courtyard trees tend to be fruit trees rather than merely decorative.

Even in non-sprawl areas, we have lots of potential for window boxes, roof gardens, and indoor gardens - since our houses are now far larger than they need to be. Many sunny livingrooms could become makeshift greenhouses.

We also tend to have far more water available to us than we realize. Greywater is a largely ignored resource, as is better use of rainwater. This is a serious agricultural advantage.

I think that if we really try, we'll find we can grow a lot of food in our existing cities.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to grow a tremendous amount of food in window boxes, on roofs, in former flower beds, in containers.... I did so as a graduate student when I didn't have much money for food. In addition to the vegetables, I also lived from big sacks of pinto beans and made homemade tortillas. In the 1990s, I could feed myself reasonably well for about 7-10 dollars a week, figuring in the cost of seeds and materials (not labor), and the costs at the grocery store for beans, milk, cheese, flour and a little bit of chorizo I'd flavour the beans with.

After seriously delving into larger-scale vegetable gardening for the first time last year (and the British weather was difficult), I grew enough courgettes (zucchini), broad beans, peas, and runner beans to keep the two of us in vegetables from April until September. Also grew rocket, corn lettuce, and salad leaves as well. A nice herb garden continues to provide all our food seasonings. This year, I put in the potato patch, and I'm experimenting with growing winter veg, though without as much success. We also have for the past 18 months heated our home entirely by wood stove, and our water is heated by solar. Stove/oven are propane. The trick is figuring out how to get the rest of our electricity off the grid! Wind turbines seem inefficient, so it is still something we ponder.

The transition took some getting used to, and I don't devote as much time and effort to the job, but I'm happier and healthier for it. Those were probably some of those intangible gains to which Sharon referred. It does give one a real sense of accomplishment to grow and prepare your own food.

Cheers,

Anna Marie

Anonymous said...

The Pope sucks!

Read:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live
/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=501
316&in_page_id=1811

So now he claims that people who warn us about climate change are fear-mongering. What else? Is the Vatican still fighting Galileo?

BTW, Pope Benedict will be visiting Pres. Bush at the White House next spring. Undoubtedly, he has an election year agenda!

Nietzsche was right when he observed that God is dead in Western Culture, in our civilization. The religious institutions killed him in their lust for power. And we allowed it.

jewishfarmer said...

Greenpa, thanks for the kind and supportive comments!

Heather G., I don't generally censor blog comments - people are entitled to their opinions. I don't like the precedent of me deciding what other people can and should say on my blog, since I don't like being censored elsewhere. If it gets really icky here, I'll do it, but I'd rather not for now, and this is just the usual stuff.

BTW, Jews don't have Popes, I didn't have my kids because of my religion, and stupid Pope tricks have precisely the same relationship to the value of all religion that stupid Bush tricks have to all democracy.

Sharon

Tina said...

I love reading Sharon's blog and the comments of many of her readers. I am saddened to see her post so defiled. I hope that the rude comments of a few do not dissuade you from continuing to share your views Sharon. I have learned a great deal from you and from your conversations with your readers over the last few months.

Tina

Zach said...

The level of bashing is getting pretty high here ...

Just to inject some reality, try actually reading what the Pope said, rather than some breathless reporter's interpretation of it.

For example, the Reuters headline for the same story is "Pope urges prudence in environmental decisions" -- a far less inflammatory spin. And really, what's wrong with that? You think we should be in favor of imprudent, ideology-driven responses to climate change? This should be a "motherhood and apple pie" observation.

Update: Sharon, just saw your "stupid Pope tricks" response as I was composing this.

I suggest reading what the Pope actually said. It's available now through Zenit.

Some choice points (I'll summarize, rather than quote at length):

* We can't ignore future generations.
* We can't forget the poor.
* Prudence doesn't mean delay.
* Costs of transition must be applied justly.
* "The problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short."
* "One area where there is a particular need to intensify dialogue between nations is that of the stewardship of the earth's energy resources." (emphasis in original).

To be blunt, the Pope isn't saying what you say he's saying. If anything, the call for environmental and economic solidarity with the poor of the world sounds rather like what Sharon has been arguing herself.


peace,

jhereg said...

erich jacoby-hawkins said:
"Apparently, in Cuba, they can grow half a city's food needs within the city itself. If you compare the northern US (or, in my case, southern Ontario) with Cuba, we have a shorter growing season, but our cities have far more wasted 'green' space in our suburban sprawl."

keep in mind that Cuba has a population density of 102 people per square kilometer, whereas the city I live in (Columbus, OH) has a population density of 1306 people per square kilometer and the entire state of Ohio has a population density of 107 people per square kilometer.

clearly, not all cities are comparable. we should be cautious in our assumptions when making assessments of local areas.

-jhereg

jewishfarmer said...

Zach, thanks for the link to the Pope's actual words - I agree it isn't what the accounts have suggested. I'm no fan of the present Pope, but I appreciate much (not all) of what's in this message.

Thanks for everyone's kind words, but I'm a big girl, and I can take it ;-).

BTW,Erich, I agree with you that in many places higher food prices are great for the rural poor - the problem is that a majority of the world's poor no longer live in rural areas, but in cities where they have little or no access to land for food production, so they are merely hurt by high, unstable food prices.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Do not be fooled by the diplomatic niceties of the Pope. I and many other Catholics know that reading in-between the lines is a must to understanding and deciphering what comes from Rome.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins said...

jhereg: Havana has a population density of 3053 per square km, more than double that of Columbus. If they can grow half of Havana's food within Havana, then it should be no problem growing half of Columbus' within Columbus (lower density = more space for growing, and Havana is not known for skyscrapers, so Columbus must be fairly sprawly with lots of wasted green spaces). Other than a shorter growing season, our cities have more of just about everything needed for gardening than Havana.
-------
Sharon: I think it is more perception than fact that most of the poor live in cities.

According to the article I linked from the Economist:

"Three-quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas."

That sounds about right. They are less visible, of course, as they are spread more thinly - a crowded slum makes a stronger image. But even in slums, many there are young people who have left the countryside looking for work, since farm work doesn't make ends meet. Most of them still have family (direct or extended) back in rural areas and could return if there were better paying farm work - such as with higher food prices. There are also areas of abandoned land that could be resettled if governments were to make an effort.

Higher food prices aren't a panacaea, but on balance they would be good for most of the world's poorer nations.

Anonymous said...

I've read all kinds of things about relocalizing and the importance of having farmers. All kinds of things about the future needing more farmers, how it is possible for us to feed ourselves.

Well and good. What I'm about to say isn't a dig on anyone, but there is something I don't think is covered in these kinds of analysises.

Farming is not cool. Farming does not rock. The only farmers who I can think of who have any kind of cachet are large landowners who live a life of leisure. People like plantation owners, and we know how they made their money. This is not to say these kinds of people are useful or admirable, simply a statement of how I think they are perceived in the popular mind.

I can't think of a single film, tv show, or book that shows a happy contented farmer. I can tell you that where I live (American South) the life of a subsistence farmer was one of poverty, ignorance, squalor, degradation, and misery.

Forever. Until the 1930's at least.

I understand the nature of a society can differ even within a nation. I think I know that farmers in other parts of the US were much better off than in my neck of the woods in the times when farming was a more widespread and important part of the economy. But still.

Find an 18 year old kid. Convince him or her to take up farming. Most of them want glamorous,happy lives, without backbreaking toil. People dream about being rock stars, scientists, pilots, bond arbitrageurs or whatever.

No one dreams of being a farmer.

I'm sure you will find some. In areas that haven't seen farmers as an important part of the social net in a long time. Farmers wear funny clothes. When they speak they don't sound like J-Lo would find them attractive. You can't imagine them rocking in a trendy London nightclub.

Maybe it is different elsewhere. But what someone from California who was raised in a world of limitless possibility finds attractive for a little while is different from what someone raised with the help of public assistance in Mississipi or Montana thinks.

Necessity will force people to do what they have to do.

But say 90% of people had to be farmers again. I think most people if they had a choice would say "That's good for you, it's not good for me."

nulinegvgv said...

"I can't think of a single film, tv show, or book that shows a happy contented farmer. I can tell you that where I live (American South) the life of a subsistence farmer was one of poverty, ignorance, squalor, degradation, and misery."

anonymous,

Films and tv aren't especially good at presenting reality. Both tend to play on stereotypes. Being from the South you and I should know this. We are not all slow, ignorant bumpkins right? ;-)

As for books, you could start with Gene Logsdon (perhaps 'The Contrary Farmer') or maybe Wendell Berry (perhaps start with 'The Art of the Commonplace'. What are you reading that presents farming as hell?

The South has a rich, rural history complete with riches and poverty, ignorant and innovation, joy and sorrow, dogmatic thinking and adaptive reasoning. Just like anywhere else the real history varies and is not as black or white as portrayed in modern media.

I can't tell who you're trying to convince, other readers or yourself, that farming is not cool. I know children disagree. I know plenty of modern American teenagers who might agree. But even they, if approached in the right way, can come to have pride in a garden and enjoy the art and practice of growing some of their own food.

Like any change this is mostly about mindset. Plenty of people will sit around pointing out all the reasons why they think we won't grow food differently; while those of us who have a different mindset are actually growing food differently and making the change.

Anonymous said...

As long as humans can find ways to avoid hard physical labor, they will.
Development of better farming equipment that doesn't use fossil fuels, that can manage polycultures and smaller plots, and that can assist with organic soil management techniques is far more likely than millions returning to work the fields all day long.

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, I take your point about the social value we place on farming, but I have a slightly different response to what you say - in fact, I think it is astounding that so *MANY* people want to be farmers (even I've never suggested 90%, btw - 33% was my maximum, and that included people doing subsistence agriculture on a garden scale). Think about it - small scale organic farmers are the only fast growing segment of agriculture. I go to places like the Northeast Organic Farming Association and run into a hundred young people who want to be farmers - and most of them trained for something else.

People email me constantly wanting to know how to get land, where to start. The modern homesteading movement is bigger than any number of other more famous hobbies - there are more homesteaders than windsurfers, for example.

The fact is that farming is far cooler than we credit it with, and with, as you say, absolutely no cultural support. So what could it be if we gave it that cultural support?

And don't get me wrong, there's a lot of physical work involved - but as Gene Logsdon points out, far less than many more popular pursuits - it is less work than training for a marathon, less work than running a restaurant, less work than, as Eric Brende points out, trying to get partnership in a law firm. And yet many, many people want to do those things.

So getting that distinction made is, in fact, part of the project, isn't it? We tell people it is endless drudgery, when in fact, it is merely a good bit of reasonably satisfying work.

Sharon

Rosa said...

Trying to respond to Anon's comment is making me cry, because all the young men I knew who wanted to stay on the farm are in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Serbia right now. The girls are doing OK - a girl from my hometown got an SBA loan to grow hot house tomatos on her dad's farm, and I know several young women running conventional dairy herds on family land.

But more to the point - Sharon's right about the number of people who didn't grow up on the farm (or have been off the farm as adults for decades) who want to be small scale organic or pasture-animal farmers. Half the people I know daydream about it and a large subset are actually doing something about it - studying, apprenticing, working town jobs to pay off land.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to make anyone angry.

Still, I'm kind of surprised at how much interest there is in this sort of thing in other areas of the country.

Most people where I live have ancestors who were involved in farming, and if they are in the 50+ range it was probably a grandparent.

Other than the occasional gardener, no one seems to be much interested in farming. And the gardener probably wouldn't be interested in doing it as a profession.

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, I don't think your comment was at all offensive, but a point well taken. I don't think, however, it would be beyond hope to imagine a time when farming was both cool and profitable. But it would have to be under a different system than the present one.

Sharon

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