Friday, 29 January 2016

A Political Fantasy, Part 8: Agriculture -- What Lies Ahead

In my last post I summarized the state of agriculture leading up to the present, and promised that in this post I would talk about where agriculture seems to be going and where it needs to go if we are going to be able to feed humanity. This, of course, brings us back to the "Political Fantasy" theme that I've been riffing on for quite a while now.

That theme leads us to two questions:

1) what can governments do to ensure that enough food is grown in a sustainable way, based on reality, rather than ideology--neither techo-optimism nor technophobia.

2) what can governments do to make sure that food gets to the hungry people of the world--that no one is left undernourished when there is enough food to go around. We have a pretty terrible record in this department--hungry people are almost always poor people with little or no political or economic power and their needs get considered last.

First, let's consider question 1.

If left alone, modern agriculture will no doubt continue on its present course. More automation, better labour efficiency, higher yields and an intensification of the arms race with pests. Some of this will incidentally lead to minor sustainability improvements along the same lines as have already been made. And of course modern agriculture will continue its spread to the developing world, driven by the promise of higher crop yields. There is no doubt whatsoever that in the short run, modern agriculture can produce more food.

All kinds of people believe this is the way to go, based on the assumption that things will stay pretty much as they are today. But to assume that, you have to completely ignore a set of realities that are collectively known as "the limits to growth". A great many people are in denial about those limits, and huge efforts are being expended to treat them as minor problems, which can be solved to allow us to continue with business as usual. But of course, the essence of the limits is that they have no solution as such--we simply have to learn to adapt to life within the limits. The rest of what I have to say here is based on that reality. If you're sure that "they" will come up with a solution any day now, a solution based on technology, which will allow us to continue with our growth based consumer economy, then you're going to find the rest of this pretty unpalatable.

It is clear to me that if modern agriculture does continue on its present course, it will eventually fetch up against the hard limits of resource depletion--running short of fossil fuels (for energy, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals), potash, phosphorus, water and soil. Not to speak of losing its arms war with pests. All this is inevitable if we don't switch over to more sustainable agricultural techniques.

But even before then, the economic consequences of resource depletion and climate change will make themselves felt and necessitate a change of direction. Indeed they have already begun to do so.

The economy is really about energy--money is just a set of tokens for keeping track of energy. To be more precise, the economy is really about surplus energy. It takes energy to access energy, and what's left over after we do whatever it takes to get that energy is what is available to make our economy work and grow. Surplus energy is quantified as "EROEI", energy returned on energy invested, and you can read about the concept and its consequences elsewhere on this blog. Expressing this idea in monetary rather than energy terms leads to all sort of misunderstandings, but to put it simply, what makes an economy work is cheap energy. Having great quantities of energy available at a higher price does no good.

The growth based economy we've had for the last couple of hundred years was made possible by cheap, abundant fossil fuels, which supplied lots of surplus energy. This started to change in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Up until that point we'd been picking the lowest hanging fruit in the fossil fuel "orchard". Gradually we were forced to start using fossil fuels that afforded us with less surplus energy and our economy started to slow down. And, unfortunately, the alternatives to fossil fuels also deliver disappointing amounts of surplus energy.

As the average EROEI of a country's energy sources begins to drop, economic growth slows, it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new business ventures and eventually even to maintain infrastructure. With real economic growth slowing, investors look desperately for anything that will yield good returns. This results in financial bubbles, where speculation drives up values to extremely unrealistic levels. In the last couple of decades we've had bubbles in tech stocks (2000), real estate (2008) and tight oil and gas (happening currently). It looks like we are headed for another tech bubble, and probably one in renewable energy. The unfortunate thing is that people invest a lot of money when a bubble is being inflated, money that disappears when the bubble bursts.

Already we are seeing these effects of decreasing surplus energy, and because of them, an increased volatility in the markets, including markets for agricultural products. This has made it harder to farm profitably. Some governments have responded with supply management schemes to maintain prices, keep farmers in business and guarantee the supply of food. Even so, farming has not been hugely profitable and we are very fortunate that many farmers love what they are doing and have kept doing it under conditions that would have caused most other businesses to simply shut down. It is very common for farmers to have a job off the farm to put food on the table and enable them to continue farming. And no, these are not hobby farmers.

Since we all have to eat, agriculture is a business that is too important to fail. Based on continually growing unemployment and demand destruction, falling prices for commodities and reductions in the international shipping of goods, it seems the world economy is now in a deflationary spiral, which may well prove to be what I have been calling the "Great Contraction". Efforts to get off fossil fuels (spurred by climate change) by switching to large scale but low EROEI renewables ( grid tied solar and wind, both with storage) are likely to make this much worse, and use up the last financial and energy resources, might have been devoted to smoothing out the period of degrowth that lies ahead of us.

We had a financial crash in 2008, brought about by spiking energy costs and a bubble in real estate markets. It seems very likely that the current deflationary spiral will lead to another financial collapse, or a series of them, despite frantic efforts by governments worldwide to prevent it.

How will this effect agriculture? Because modern agriculture uses a great many inputs which must be purchased from off the farm, farmers are often dependent on credit to get each year's crop in, paying the bank back after the crop is harvested and sold. In the aftermath of a financial crash, banks become very conservative in their lending. If the crash is severe enough, many banks go out of business. Under such conditions, farmers will find it difficult to get the credit they need to get crops in, even though they have the land, the machinery and the will to do so.

Governments can help in such circumstances, guaranteeing farm loans or actually loaning money directly to farmers to keep the agricultural system working.

Of course, farming is not the only business that will be having a hard time after a financial crash. The business environment ahead will not be friendly to any large, industrial scale enterprise. It may become hard to even get many of the supplies needed to put in a crop and even if you do, and manage to harvest it, getting the food to where it is needed may not be possible. I'm not talking about some "Mad Max" apocalypse here. Even a partial and intermittent collapse of financial and commercial services is serious enough because everything is so interconnected, and optimized to the point where it is very brittle. In addition, infrastructure is not being maintained and is already starting to fail randomly. This will continue and increase, making it even more difficult for "business as usual".

A conventional response would be for governments to ration materials needed by agriculture, encourage more efficient use, discourage waste and eventually even ration food. But none of these measures constitute a long term solution. The first thing to do is acknowledge that there isn't a solution in the sense of a way to allow both population and economic growth to continue on in a "business as usual" world.

It seems pretty clear that the human race is an overshoot situation. The planet simply cannot support 7 billion people, much less the 9 billion that we are headed towards. Yes, we are getting fed, more or less, for the moment. But that's primarily because modern agriculture is pretty good at converting non-renewable resources into food. And because we've been using up the existing capital of the environment--soils, fossil water, forests, fish stocks and other wildlife (resources that are potentially renewable)--at a rate faster than they are naturally replenished, the overall carrying capacity of the planet is being reduced. This can't go on forever or, in fact, very much longer at all.

When it comes to agriculture, we don't need another "Green Revolution" which relies on non-renewable resources to increase yields. This would only push us further into overshoot, just like the last one did. We definitely do need a revolution that produces sustainable solutions, but we also need to reduce our population. We can take the first step in this direction by educating and empowering women everywhere, and assisting them with family planning. Beyond that, we face a few very chaotic decades--war, famine and disease will have their way. I am surely not saying that this is a good thing, but the alternatives are even worse. The larger our population gets, the harder it will crash when the time comes, and the worse mess will be left for the survivors to recover from.

So, governments need first to acknowledge the limits to growth. And yes, this is clearly the most fantastical element of my political fantasy. Then they need to change the way agriculture works to match the conditions that we will be facing. And, of course, practically every other aspect of our society as well. At first, governments will need to prop up the modern system of agriculture to prevent needless famine. But they will also have to facilitate a gradual shift over to something that uses fewer inputs and is more sustainable. And this will be particularly true in the developed world where modern agriculture is the primary source of food.

People who are successfully feeding themselves using low input traditional agriculture should be left alone. True, their methods are not 100% sustainable, but we in the developed countries have a very poor record in our attempts to modernise farming in the developing world. When we have converted our own agriculture into a sustainable system, then perhaps we will have something worth sharing with the rest of the world.

Of course, the urban population in the developing world don't feed themselves, and they are in a very precarious situation. I think one promising partial solution is to put the urban poor back on the farms their fathers came from and help them to feed themselves. Land reform will be necessary, but those who are practicing modern agriculture won't be able to continue and the land they are using could certainly be put to better use.

Meanwhile, back in the developed world, we will be busy with our own problems. As time passes, all the inputs that modern agriculture needs will be less reliably available.

Fossil fuels are probably the most important of those inputs. We will start to see shortages long before there is any real shortage of fossil fuels in the ground. It may seem odd to say this at a time when the price of oil have been dropping for over a year, but that is exactly the problem. We are caught in what has been called "the energy-economy trap".

As I was saying earlier, it seems that the great contraction has already started, with the first sign being the dropping prices of commodities, especially oil, coal and natural gas. These low prices are being caused by a glut in fossil fuels, but that glut is largely due to demand destruction. Why has demand fallen off? High prices for oil for the last few years strangled the world economy, which had never really recovered from the crash of 2008. There are lots of unemployed and under-employed people who aren't spending money like they used to, with predictable effects on our consumer economy. While low energy prices are great for consumers in the short run, oil, coal and natural gas are all too cheap to be worthwhile getting out of the ground--you can't make much of a profit at it, certainly not enough to finance the development of new resources.

It may be that when the price of oil gets low enough the economy will take off again. This is less likely than one might think because the oil industry is a major part of our economy and it is in very bad shape because of the low prices. But if the economy does recover and start growing again, the first thing it will need is energy. That demand will drive the price of energy back up again, especially since we are still using fossil fuels and what's left is ever harder to get at. Eventually higher energy prices will strangle the newly revived economy and bring us back to where we are now or perhaps lower. I don't think it is at all clear how many times this cycle will repeat, or even if it will happen more than once. But in any case, the economy will spiral down until it reaches a level that can be supported by the sort of renewable energy that is fairly low tech and high EROEI.

For the present, while commodity prices are going down, prices for necessities are increasing or at least not dropping nearly as much as commodities, because demand for them is much less elastic. Food is an example of this because we have to eat. Gasoline and diesel fuel prices on North America is another--they haven't gone down proportionally to the drop in the price of oil, because our towns and cities are set up so that most people must drive unless they drop out of the economy and the trucks must keep rolling to deliver goods to where they are needed. When necessities stay pricey as the rest of the economy falters, it can be a very serious problem for the poorest people.

Doing modern farming without a reliable supply of diesel fuel and gasoline will be quite a challenge. Bio diesel and alcohol have too low an EROEI to even bother with--we'll be farther ahead to use the land to feed draught animals, or hungry people who need work. A limited amount of power will be available from biomass (firewood), falling water, wind, solar thermal and a few other sources in locations where they are plentiful (tides, waves, geothermal, etc.), but most of that does not come in the form that modern agriculture needs most: liquid fuels with a high energy to weight ratio, suitable for powering heavy machinery.

The agricultural tasks now done by such machinery will mostly have to be done using muscle power. And since we have a surplus of humans and have not yet bred up an adequate supply of draft animals, that will initially mean using mostly human muscle power. Fortunately we do have a surplus of unemployed people. As in the developing world, our urban poor will be needed on the farm. Without powered machinery more people will be involved per acre, probably 20 to 25 percent of the population.

It would also be a good thing if farms were smaller, since it is well established that smaller farms get better yields. I think this is largely because small farms are usually worked by the people who own them, who have a great deal invested in the farm's success. So when moving urban people to farms, it would be better if they ended up as owner/operators rather than as laborers (serfs). Again, some land reform will be needed.

At the moment it would be difficult to get many of the unemployed to take agricultural jobs but after the first winter of shortages and rationing, that will change. People with concave bellies will be more interesting in securing their food supplies by becoming personally involved in farming and even those who don't take farm jobs will be ready to get serious about urban gardening.

Also let's be clear that the switchover to muscle power need not happen all at once. One tractor among several small farms, to be used when fuel is available would be a big help, especially during the transitional stage of this effort.

Long distance shipping of food will be largely impractical. Most food will have to be grown and processed locally. Of course this exposes the local population to famine when there are crop failures. It would be good to set up storage facilities to maintain emergency supplies of food that stores well (primarily grains). Excesses from good years could be held in reserve to see us through bad years. And it would be ideal if there was some small amount of medium to long distance shipping to help move those reserves around to where the need is greatest.

Large cities are probably not viable in a low energy situation, since an awful lot of food needs to be shipped into the city and there may not be adequate farm land nearby. Many cities are currently sited where water is a problem as well, especially without power to pump water in from far away.

The reliable supply of many other industrial products needed for modern farming will also be disrupted because of lack of energy and fossil fuels feed stocks, the effects of financial chaos on business and crumbling infrastructure. Some consequences flow directly from this. We won't be making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in large quantities, and mining and long distance shipping of the minerals needed to make phosphorous and potash fertilizers will be quite limited. Instead we will have to use composted organic waste, including human and animal "waste".

This may look like going back to traditional agriculture, but that is a deceiving appearance. There is definitely a place for advanced (but appropriate) technology in the agriculture of our future.

Pesticides, natural sourced or synthetic will not be available in large quantities, so we will have to implement integrated pest management techniques, which require a detailed, science based knowledge of the ecology the crops are being grown in and the pests that need to be controlled.

Hybrid seeds will not be reliably available either, because the big seed companies will be in serious difficulty or out of business altogether, and it is not practical to breed hybrid seeds on a small, local basis. It is my opinion that genetic engineering will have an important role to play in providing improved seeds. We can no doubt do without genetically engineered seeds, but not nearly as well. The varieties we need most have not yet been commercialized, but are in the process of being developed at universities and by small companies across the world. The emphasis for modern agriculture has been on high yields under optimum conditions, rather than resilience and adaptations to varying conditions. This means great yields under ideal conditions and very bad yields in bad years. But whatever plant breeding techniques we use to get them, we need crops that can give good yields under less than ideal conditions.

Confined animal feeding operation (CAFOs) are not likely to be workable under these conditions. The land currently being used to grow corn and soy beans to feed animals in CAFOs will be freed up to grow food for people. Our staple foods will once more be grains and there will be much less meat in the average person's diet. Meat, diary and eggs will still be produced, especially in areas where the land is more suited to growing pasture than feeding people directly, instead feeding animals who then feed people.

We will need to do everything we can to minimize the waste of food. The developed world currently wastes more food per capita that the developing world, in both the production and consumption phases. I think that switching to smaller farms and localizing the food supply has a lot of potential for improvements in this area, along with abandoning the current idea that we have lots of food and don't have to worry about waste.

We will also have to cope with and remediate the damage done to the environment during our period of overshoot. This especially means conserving soil and water and restoring wildlife habitats.

The effects of climate change will make all this much harder and we must be prepared to abandon areas spoiled for agriculture by climate change and move into new areas opened up by warming temperatures, even though they are likely to be smaller.

On the other hand, agriculture has a huge potential to sequester carbon and thus start to reverse climate change. Modern farming techniques have reduced the amount of organic matter in the soil. Correcting that deficiency will take a great deal of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Good governments, who have acknowledged the limits to growth, can surely help with all these changes. Among other things they can support the research needed to determine a reality (science) based path to sustainable agriculture, and avoid the many pseudoscientific approaches being advocated by the anti-science, techno-phobic people these days.

These changes will not happen overnight or even in the course of a single year, and there will be ever shrinking areas that go on practicing something more or less like modern agriculture for decades if not longer.

Over time, the contracting economy will leave governments much less powerful than they are now and less centralized. So they need to do what they can sooner rather than later and then pass the torch to more localized governments.

Eventually we will get switched over to a much more sustainable type of agriculture and we'll be able to grow enough food to feed a somewhat reduced population. My guess would be somewhere between one and two billion people, but that is just a guess. The number will largely be determined by how much more damage we do to the environment before we get around to making the transition.

But of course, growing enough food to feed a certain number of people and managing to get that food equitably distributed to those people so that none of them are going hungry are two very different problems. It's time now to consider the second question I posed back at the start of this post.

Despite the fact that we are currently producing adequate amounts of food to feed everyone in the world, hunger is quite common and famines still occur. This is because hunger is an economic/political phenomenon, caused by poverty and powerlessness.

I would argue that people need meaningful physical work, for both physical and mental health, as well as in order to make a living. This work which should allow them to supply themselves with food, clothing and shelter, and the more directly they can be involved in that, the better. Society needs to be set up so that it affords people with such work and a variety of it to suit people with varying amounts of talent. Society also needs to provide (within the limits of its capabilities) for the needs of those who, through illness, accident or age, are not currently able to provide for themselves.

I use the phrase "society needs to" because there are unpleasant consequences, both for individuals and for the society itself, when it does not do these things. While many people claim that capitalism and the free market are the best ways to achieve these ends, I would argue that modern capitalism has had a couple of centuries to prove itself and has failed to do so. Over the last few decades as the energy crisis has deepened, it has done even worse.

During that time neo-liberalism has taken over as the only political party in most countries. Its emphasis on consumerism, individualism and the free market has resulted in ever increasing inequality, with the poor get poorer and even less powerful and the rich get richer and more powerful. There is even a tendency to treat poverty as a moral failing of the affected individual and to make it practically illegal for such individuals to be alive. Certainly many cities take that approach with their homeless.

This needs to change and I think it can change as we transition to smaller communities which are to a great extent self sufficient.

In the developing world localized famines are fairly common. Some natural event such as a drought causes a poor crop in a particular area. It is not bad enough that anyone actually need go hungry, but the price of food on the free market goes up due to dropping supply, creating what amounts to a famine for those who cannot afford the higher prices. This applies not only to those who are consumers of food, but also to the producers whose crops are hardest hit, so hard that they are short of food for themselves and have nothing left to sell in order to buy food. They may be forced to give up their land and go to the city in search of work to feed their families, swelling the ranks of urban poor, whose situation is pretty dire as well. The land left behind may end up in the hands of those practicing modern agriculture, which is great in the short run, but as I've said, has no real future.

Charitable organizations from the developed world have stepped in with food aid in many cases. But that food has to come from somewhere and producers aren't going to grow it unless they can make money at it, at least enough to cover their expenses. The generosity of people in the developed world is dependent those people having some discretionary income to give away, and as our economies continue to contract, there will be less and less of that. Some other mechanism must be found for distributing food more equitably, especially during hard times.

At this point it is challenging to come up with advice for cash strapped governments in developing countries. But borrowing money to modernise and set up a growth based economy is certainly not a good idea, whatever development banks might tell you.

In the developed world things are a little different. We are just emerging from a long period of economic growth that provided lots of jobs. True, our market based economy had the odd glitch and there was more unemployment during depressions and recessions, but for the most part the rising tide lifted all boats. But now that the economic tide is falling things have changed. Labour is seen as an expense and a burden. Business are doing everything they can to automate and reduce the amount of labour they need, even though automation is expensive and energy hungry.

Because the capitalist system is set up to make profits for shareholders, those who are jobless or, worse yet, homeless, have no role to play. The system would just as soon they quietly disappeared. But as unemployment increases, this isn't going to happen and the problem of what to do with these people is going to intensify.

Rehumanisation is the answer, both to the question of what to do with the unemployed and how to run businesses in the face of a growing energy crisis. I've already spoken about the need to switch agriculture over to muscle power, but the same will have to happen in many other sectors of the economy.

This series of political fantasies ends here. In my next post I'll talk about being "Crunchy Without the Woo", and after that I'll start talking about political realities for a change.

I'd like to thank Doug and Linda Peebles and my youngest son Dan Mills for their input to this blog post and their continuing support of my efforts here.

2 comments:

Sylvia Leigh said...

Your musings are very thought provoking as usual, Irv! I especially like your optimism. On some days, I think the human race is doomed to selfishness and greed, but your strategies for transition and survival are practical and sensible and I do hope that's the way things go!

Irv Mills said...

Sylvia, it is nice to see someone realizing that I am optimistic. So many people see my views as extremely pessimistic.
In upcoming posts I'll go into more detail about how families and communities can cope with what lies ahead, even if our governments show no inclination to do so.