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.