The October Thing #3 – Agriculture – August 28, 2011


With robots producing 98% of the U.S. crop, only 2% of our labor force produces vastly more food than we need. Over 50% of the corn crop now goes to alcohol for cars, at a net energy gain of about 5%. Almost all of the rest is fed to animals at an average conversion efficiency of 13%. Soil fertility is low (half what it was a century ago) and the best land now lies under cities and suburbs, but, by adding phosphate (shipped from West Sahara) and nitrates (burned from the air by natural gas) we get fantastic yields. The nitrates eventually trickle into the Mississippi River and create a eutrophic dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Delaware. The NOx  rises from the fields into the air, increasing global warming.  The profits to the CEOs of Conagra, Cargill, ADM, Continental, etc. place them among the richest 1/1000 of Americans.

We ship very little food to most countries because they are too poor to “demand” (i.e. pay for) it. The exceptions are rice and soybeans to China and Japan. As long as they can demand food, we can demand Toyotas and computers. But the U.S. is becoming saturated with Asian goods; we have a huge stockpile of unused cars and computers, so demand is dropping. For a while, Japan and China can demand payment for their U.S. Treasury Bonds in food, but that won’t last. The Limits to Growth shows a sharp discontinuity (drop) in world food/capita between 2015 and 2020, partly due to financial constraints and partly due to global warming. This year’s U.S. drought impacted all grains, cows had to be slaughtered, deer abandoned their fawns, squirrels sacrificed their young, and Texas bats suffered from a lack of insect food. Xeric plants, primarily weeds, did quite well. We should probably begin to hedge our bets by planting xeric crops such as pistachios, leucaena, and algoraba. Amaranth is the most xeric grain. Comments?

2 thoughts on “The October Thing #3 – Agriculture – August 28, 2011”

  1. On September 13, 2011 at 12:06 p.m. CDT Wade Austin posted the following comment:

    First of all, what in the world is algoraba? Must be conjured up from the old testament or something. I am not at all opposed to Biblical conjurings because the roots of agriculture and some principles for stewardship and right livelihoods can be drawn up from the ancient wisdom books along with the occasional forgotten specimen nugget. My friend Ricardo Romero recommends reading, Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H.King for a look at how some of the most ancient farming traditions on the planet have been able to sustain their yields and their cultures as opposed to those Easter Island examples that at the least left behind some very interesting stone work.
    Second question is how do you figure that 98% of the US crop is grown by robots? How much of that statement is hyperbole and how much is sci-fi? Where do all these robots work? I don’t think that the popular mechanics vision of a farm being operated by one man in a control tower with a bunch of high tech equipment will be providing the sort of food that I would go out of my way to ingest any time soon.

    I sat in on the first half of a one-day backyard permaculture course yesterday in Huntsville, AL of all places. And I was amazed by my what my ears did hear when the conversation wasted no time in getting back to the very roots of agriculture along the Nile river. The reasoning behind plowing and breaking the progress of natural succession was quickly followed by an explanation of how the long-term history of agriculturally based civilizations is punctuated by desertification. The very next thread of discourse was to follow recent efforts of permaculturalists such as Geoff Lawton to ‘green’ the desserts of Jordan. Great gardens are being created in the midst of what was once hopeless wasteland. This is accomplished simply by working with the land as if trying to gently manage succession into the most ecologically healthy and economically productive stages by beginning with a focus on the elementary components of building soil and storing water in that soil. The story is phenomenal and the techniques are broadly applicable. I think that it is certainly a good idea for us to diversify our staple crops and to learn to enjoy the yields of plants that require much less investment of our time and energy, such as the xeric plants Passerini mentioned. However, if farmers begin to adapt some of the principles and practices that actually improve the local ecological richness instead of flushing it out into mobile bay (ever seen a summer night jubilee?), we can still have our tomatoes and canteloupes and eat them too.
    However, the iron triangle of big industrial ag, the congressmen they have in their pockets, and the government agencies moving heaven and hell to continue to fill these triangular coffers present a major challenge to the sort of changes that our food systems really need. Joel Salatin makes suggestions in his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal that hint at how we might go about developing a parallel food system that grows up on its on merit and could potentially makes way for the decline of government-sanctioned food systems that are out of scale with nature.

    307 million tons of British grown potatoes are likely to be grown and shipped across the pond to the Parisian restuarants, just as 322 million tons of French grown potatoes pass the barge headed to London delis and cafeterias. All of this in the name of commerce. Massive amounts of organic material criss cross the globe daily, sometimes even fed-exed on ice for same day sushi in St. Louis. This is obviously wacko. The system really needs a little tweeking to relocalize and to be much more selective about the extravagances that are justified by world trade.

    When efficiencies and economics become more important that the health of everyday people, we are indeed in trouble. The industrial agriculture in the U.S. is scary. I think that more people need to be able to enjoy bread-labor and working with the earth to obtain a yield. Instead of jumping all the way on that heterodox soap box, I’m gonna take Ed’s suggestion and link to a few helpful videos.


    Wade Austin

  2. As you’ve noted, Ed, it’s possible for 2% of us to grow enough food to feed the rest of us only because those 2% are farming massive tracts of land using massive fossil-fueled equipment with the benefit of massive importation of fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer and fossil-fuel-derived herbicides and insecticides. And it’s all paid for by agricultural subsidies provided by the rest of us. So we are in effect paying for our own poison.

    As the fossil-fuel gravy train grinds toward a halt, I’m afraid we will at first INCREASE agricultural subsidies in an attempt to sustain the unsustainable. Later, it will become apparent that the U.S. government lacks the ability to continue paying out subsidies of this size, and they will simply peter out. That’s when it will make a great deal of sense for all of us to be able to grow as much of our own food as we can. No, I’m not suggesting that we’re going to have to live only on what we can grow. What I am saying is that the more of our own food we can grow, the more secure we will be.

    I can accept that our crop mix is going to need to evolve as climate change kicks into higher gear; I’m not at all sure that there’s any silver bullet like xeric crops. It’s more likely, I believe, that agriculture, food, and innovation will become much more local. The best ideas for how to feed one’s family may be available not on the Internet but across the fence from one’s neighbor or at the local hardware store.

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