Start by Asking the Right Questions – Thinking About the Terms for the Debate on Local and Organic Food

Sharon September 11th, 2009

One of the reasons discussions of whether “organic” and “local” can “feed the world” often founder so badly is the whole set of presumptions that preceed such a discussion.  So let’s talk about those – James McWilliams’ book _Just Food_ and others have stirred up a good bit of controversy on this subject, and lots of people seem to know the answers.  But the real problem is that most people don’t really seem to understand what the questions are.

While I may eventually write a review of _Just Food_, which is a thoughtful, if sometimes weakly argued book, I think it is more important to speak about the terms of the debate, because discussions about food tend to begin from deeply wrong premises.

Consider the common question “can we feed the world with organic agriculture?”  Besides the fact that we haven’t asked what kind of organic agriculture (and people like McWilliams consistently conflate multiple kinds of agriculture, assuming that industrial organic and small scale agriculture are the same, and have the same proponents), people raising this discussion almost never actually ask “did we ever try to feed the world?”  The assumption, of course, is that industrial agriculture has always been engaged in the project of “feeding the world” – Cargill, ADM and Monsanto regularly argue that these are their goals, that their research is required to bring new crops that will make it possible to feed two or three more billion people.

The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that industrial agriculture has ever had the objective of feeding the world.  I am repeating here something Aaron and I say in much more detail in _A Nation of Farmers_ (and with full citation), but if you track the research, what you find is this.  The vast majority of increases in grain yields since the beginning of the Green Revolution didn’t feed hungry people – they went to feed livestock, to make meat in the rich world, and then to ethanol – with the help of the same industrial corporations that we plan to rely upon to feed us.  The same corporations that are going to “feed the world” by introducing new, drought resistant crops invested heavily in ethanol infrastructure, helping move more of the world’s grain harvest into gas tanks, rather than into people’s mouths.

At the same time that corporations were breeding herbicide resistant corn, and struggling to breed (unsuccessfully thus far) drought resistant crop varieties to respond to climate change, they were enabling climate change – encouraging the expansion of industrial agricultural plantations of palm, bananas and grain into rainforest areas that are carbon sinks, using heavy chemicals and encouraging corn-soybean rotations that strip the soil of organic matter and leave soils unable to hold carbon in large quantities, and, of course, encouraging people in the poor and rich world to turn agriculture, which could be a net carbon sink, into a root source of up to 1/4 of the world’s total emissions.

We assume that industrial agriculture is “efficient” – and in some ways, it has been efficient at reducing human involvement in the rich world, and replacing it with humans from the poor world or fossil fuels.  But industrial agriculture also is deeply inefficient – that is, at the same time it works towards a stated goal – feeding people – it also operates to reduce our capacity to feed people.  Imagine that, say, Microsoft were to devote nearly as much of its resources to getting people not to buy Windows as they do to selling it, and that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.  One of the most basic ways to streamline the food system would simply be to stop the “three steps forward, two steps back” system, and go for one or two steps forward at a time.

Moreover, when discussing the future, we must talk clearly and honestly about climate change.  Aaron Newton and I also asked “can we feed the world” and spent several years researching the answer.  Our answer is simply this – it depends on the extent and violence of climate change.  More profound droughts, loss of meltwater for irrigated agriculture, which produces 30% of the world’s grains, more flooding, the permanent loss of some land to food production, higher temperatures that reduce grain yields, all of these things move us towards a food disaster.  And what most commentators ignore in the discussion is this – we have pinned our hopes on GMOs – and we have no evidence (something McWilliams cheerfully ignores) that even were there no other concerns about GMOs, that we can increase yields with them.  McWilliams speaks of the importance of creating drought-resistant cassava varieties for African farmers facing climate change as a good use of GMOs.  The difficulty is that several studies have demonstrated that up until now, no genetically modified food (and they’ve been making them for some time now) has ever had a significant impact on yields.   The fact that so far, GMOs don’t work is a fairly big elephant in the room.

And perhaps it would make sense for us to pin our hopes on that elephant if we had no other options – but what people tend to ignore is this – what’s fascinating about research on small scale intensive, low input (some organic, some not – Aaron and I are not organic purists, but we believe that given our fossil fuel predicament, the chance that we’re all going to be able to dump all the fossil fuels we want on food without causing famine by food price rises is ridiculous) agriculture that focuses on soil and sustainable systems is that they often come close to matching the yields of industrial agriculture, but fall short in the best years.  What’s important to know, however is that in the worst years – the dryest and the wettest, these systems come into their own.  Greater amounts of organic matter mean both more water in the soil in dry years and better drainage in wet ones.  Greater diversity of crops means fewer complete losses.  Right now, the only proven tool we have for responding to climate change in agriculture is small scale, low-input, diversified small farms – period.  We can debate about what the best hypotheticals are, but the proof is all firmly on the side of one model.

Aaron and I spend a lot more time on this question in our book, but it is important to note that our current agricultural model does not either intend to feed the world, nor does it do so.  The UN FAO reports that at this point, two *billion* people in the world live on the product of low input, small scale, non-industrial agriculture.  I often hear people observe that without fossil inputs on a large scale we can feed only half a billion or a billion people – McWilliams puts this figure at 4 billion, which is at least more credible.  But we are already feeding 2 billion people that way.  Moreover, large scale industrial agriculture is not presently feeding the world – 85% of the world’s farms are small farms, smaller than 5 hectares.  These farms produce nearly half of the world’s total grain, and much more than half (since they are usually diversified) of the world’s total food calories.  Local food may not be feeding New York City and the I95 corridor, and it never will – I know of no rational thinker who believes so.  But local food *is* already feeding much of the world – the majority of the world’s poor don’t eat a Caesar salad that travelled 1,500 miles – they don’t even eat rice that travelled that distance.

The correct *QUESTIONS* are not being asked.  To what extent can local food *continue* to feed the world?  How can we begin to grow food in a way that doesn’t undermine our capacity to feed ourselves in the future?  What are the best demonstrated ways to adapt to climate change?  How should add complexity to discussions of organic or local to create ways of eating that actually lead to a future where everyone gets food?  How do we make the best use of our limited resources, in a world of limits?  Until we ask the right questions, we will never get decent answers.  

Sharon

34 Responses to “Start by Asking the Right Questions – Thinking About the Terms for the Debate on Local and Organic Food”

  1. dewey says:

    As a caveat, some portion of those two billion people who are now living on small-scale agriculture are living on slash-and-burn agriculture that is not sustainable, either because populations have grown large enough that there is not enough arable land to allow them to leave fields fallow until soil fertility returns, or because the lands cultivated are irreversibly damaged by erosion.

  2. I received a review copy of “Just Food” and upon opening it was frustrated with the broad polarizing statements – this IS good, this IS bad, and I got the sneaking feeling that James McWilliams has no qualms stirring up a controversy in a tea cup. I haven’t finished the book yet, and so far, many of the issues raised seem valid, but not at the exclusion of others. Early in the book the author puts the Locavore movement into a box with the idea that if you take it to the extreme, it is an unsustainable, broken system that is left behind – and millions (billions?) around the world cannot possibly feed themselves entirely on a local scale.

    This same argument, but related to water, started in Sydney, Australia some years ago – just how many people can we supply water to in the basin. They exceeded their catchment’s supply and started drawing from other catchments around, building massive dams and destroying ecosystems. With water, the local system is obviously the ideal, sure you can get water from elsewhere, but it is not the natural historical solution to survival, and it is only with engineering and often immense power outputs that we can make these systems work.

    I’ll keep reading “Just Cause” cause there seems to be some great information in the book, and I think it shows that our cultural knowledge of food systems as a whole is in its infancy.

  3. Greenpa says:

    :-) you and I know someone who HAS been asking those questions, and answering them.

    It’s more a religious problem than one of logic. Modern farmers DO know all the facts you list above- the problem is they’ve been raised from birth to believe that multiple total contradictions are true.

    And just as religious people have no trouble believing, with all their hearts, things that are (to an outsider) obviously irreconcilable; so too do farmers believe to their core, that their work in life is feeding the world. AND, that if you take corn ethanol away from them, all farmers will go broke, and die.

    And on and on. I’ve actually pointed this out to audiences composed mainly of corn and bean farmers. (I’m a very brave fellow.)

    Their first reaction is chagrin, when confronted with the two mutually impossible facts. But by the end of the talk, they come up to me with multiple arguments as to why they are not incompatible. And slightly angry, or willing to be angry, anyway.

    It is exactly the reaction you would get telling a Catholic that transubstantiation is cannibalism, and impossible anyway. Or pick any religion- it’s quite easy to find claims that are automatic fighting words.

    While agriculture, mainstream and organic/sustainable, both claim to be entirely based on logic and science, it’s really not true. They are religions.

    And conversion, from one religion to another, is an intractable and usually bloody struggle.

    The one argument that is ultimately irrefutable is- to demonstrate your system.

    If I were standing by Jesus when he passed his hands over the basket and the loaves and fishes multiplied right before my eyes- I would immediately become a devout Christian, and be deliriously happy about it.

    This is how farmers became converted, quite recently, to the religion of soybeans. They saw it work (make money); and so joined.

    All of which is why the majority of my life effort is being spent on doing, not arguing.

    (and how Sharon manages to do both, is beyond me.) :-)

  4. Jerry says:

    Sharon,

    I have just got off the phone with NRCS people (Soil Conservation) and I could not believe what I heard. The government has a program called Conservation Security where most of the money goes to no-till plantings of corn or soybeans in Iowa. How this can be construed to be conversation is beyond me. I fence off streams, have grass and clover growing instead of corn which I could easily have and manage my rotational pasture with electric fence yet I don’t qualify or if I did it would be for pennies on the acre. No wonder we have such a crisis of the lack of sustainable ag in this country when the small farmer is shut out of receiving federal monies.

  5. Ed Straker says:

    I’m reading this article and trying desperately to determine whether you do or don’t believe we’re in population overshoot. Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like you don’t, or you at least support the narrative of such a long and protracted collapse that population will settle gradually back down to a number sustainable with whatever agricultural methods we wind up with. You know, no long-pork or Monty Python “bring out yer dead” dystopias.

    The general theory of overshoot says that we live in a time of phantom carrying capacity. This phantom carrying capacity hides the underlying non-fossil-fuel phantom carrying capacity so effectively that answering questions like whether we can feed the world without fossil fuels can not be done definitively until we actually are forced to live that way. (Even the Cuban experience was obscured by the fact that it was ultimately a regional shortage of petroleum, and only temporary.) Ubiquitous fossil fuels muddy the waters. Even something as simple as mail-order heirloom seeds relies on fossil fuels for delivery.

    The only real guidepost here is to look at the population before the oil age compared to now, and the difference is so striking, that even if you chalk up some of the boom to sanitation and germ theory, we’re in for a tough time post-peak and post-global warming no matter what we do.

    So just as the scientists are having to scale back their hopes from any sort of global warming mitigation, I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to scale back our hopes in mitigating a die-off. People want happy endings, and we may only be able to control the depth of our misery, but be destined to face misery nonetheless.

  6. Sharon says:

    Ed, like all questions, the answer is “its complicated.” We are manifestly in population overshoot. It is also the case that population overshoot is manifestly at least a partly chronic situation, subject to acute and less acute phases, and may be manageable, or may not be. In a purely biological and material sense, I think we make clear in _A Nation of Farmers_ that we believe it is technically possible to feed a 9-10 billion person population long enough to manage decline, if climate change doesn’t involve a lot of rapid swings and can be mitigated, which is, obviously a big if. This is our answer to the purely scientific question – that is, to some degree the chemical consitutents necessary to our agriculture can be managed – human manures and human bones can replace artificial fertilizers and inputs – having used those energies to create 7 and more billion peeing, pooping and dying people, those energies can be recycled.

    So that’s the answer to the larger material question of whether it is physically possible to feed the world. A second question is this – will we do the many radically different things necessary to do so? And that is vastly less likely – I think the answer is no, as a whole world systems answer. Some areas may do them, but most won’t, and we’ll probably see a much more rapid population decline.

    But I try not to write that as a given, because I believe that it is a mistake to naturalize this – to say that we’re in overshoot so there’s nothing we could do. We certainly could have a managed decline with a much smaller death rate, and it is possible, if enormously unlikely, that we could have a fully managed decline. Again, to be clear, I think the chances of the last point are the proverbial snowball’s, but I do think the point worth making because otherwise, we make it seem as though this isn’t a choice – and we are making choices all the time that make this worth, that will be paid in blood.

    Again, this is a shorter piece of a much longer discussion, much of which Aaron and I take on directly in our book.

    Sharon

  7. vera says:

    The question that comes to me is… can industrial ag raise nutritious and humanely raised foods while building up soil? That one, they already answered in the negative. Can they feed all the people? They have never been able to feed everybody, and have done a great deal to damage local systems that did feed everybody (in that area).

    Is there any indication they want to feed everybody? I don’t see it. It’s part of their propaganda, but not their goal. Their goal is to make money. And if that means feeding some and starving some so that others profit, that’s what they do. If that means barring access to seeds, that’s what they will do. If that means destroying local agricultural practices and move the land into large landholdings and create yet more landless people who despite their skills are denied the chance to feed themselves, that’s what they’ll do.

    I don’t see why it is necessary to give them the advantage in that argument: they are in business to make money, not to feed the people. So if you want to feed the people… wouldn’t the first thing needed be getting out of the way of people feeding themselves?

    The industrial ag is not in the business of feeding the people, and never has been.

  8. dewey says:

    Agree completely. Will the global rich keep diverting grain to factory meat while millions starve? We know they will, because millions are starving – or at least very hungry and malnourished – right now, and as a group we are still gobbling up the factory meat.

    (Note, by the way, that the people dying of malnutrition generally do not resort to long pig.)

  9. dogear6 says:

    I strongly support local food and preserve a fair amount of it for the off-season. One of the things that bothers me though is that if something does happen to the food supply chain, everyone who does not buy local now will rush to the local market. This happened years ago with organic produce; those of us who bought it regularly couldn’t get it for a while. Then of course the panic passed and people went back to buying it at the grocery stores.

    There is no solution to this of course (other than to expand my garden again and that is not an option at this time), but I feel badly for the sellers at the Farmers Market who each week have leftover produce due to lack of customers. Some of the markets have already contracted.

    When I ask people why they aren’t more particular about where their food is coming from, they simply do not care. As long as it is cheap and available when they want it, it is simply not relevant how far it came or who grew it.

  10. Diane says:

    Again and again I read about a country where people are food insecure/hungry/starving but where there is adequate food. They just can’t afford it. People leave land for many reasons, but it seems that many had no real tenure to begin with and so are readily driven away as the land is claimed for industrial agriculture or resource extraction. They end up in vast urban slums (again without any land rights) and become even more economically vulnerable.

    The problem of feeding billions of people may be a political and legal problem as much as a scientific one.

  11. Lee says:

    I have been reading your blog for quite some time and this is one of your better postings. You are becoming more clear and more concise — just 10 paragraphs! Now, condense it to ten sentences and then ten words.

  12. Brad K. says:

    @ Jerry,

    The US Dept of Ag is money-blinded. The mantra last year, and I guess this year, is that every time you till your soil, every pass across, reduces carbon in the soil. Thus the emphasis on no-till planting – and, oh, by the way, the herbicides and pesticides that control weeds without *gasp* tilling the field. And, of course, relying on chemicals rewards the seed companies for diverting seed production to the “patented” varieties.

    @ Sharon,

    I mentioned this before, it has become a serious impediment to those not embracing the ADM/Monstanto product line of agribusiness.

    The protectionism that the US Government has put into place, to protect Monsanto and ADM and other patented seed producers from unscrupulous . . . American farmers. The controls and regulations are prohibitive. Grain elevators are legally barred from selling grain, other than tagged, patented seed, that might be used for seed.

    Frank W. James discusses the pre-season seed promotions going on in Indiana – where you have to sign a binding agreement that prohibits letting anyone possibly ever planting the results of your crop – before they will take your order. The GMO seed went from $220 a bag last year to over $300 this year – seriously challenging the ability of the farmer to make back the costs to plant and harvest the crop, depending on whether the market prices double next year.

    People growing locally, will need the latitude to escape the big business restrictions – such as Monsanto and ADM determining, a year in advance, what varieties and amounts will be available in your region. You are depending on Monsanto and ADM to allow seed for replanting, or to adjust to an unexpected winter or spring.

    As the big three or four keep buying up all other seed producers, the only real resource left is heritage seed. Open pollinated varieties. And the time is now to get those heritage and OP seeds not just into the ground, but into the business of growing local food.

    I watched Secy Treasury Geithner dance and hem and haw, and refuse to quantify where the national economy and banking industry stand today. He still leans on the doom spectre of bank failure, while glad-handing that the banking industry is ever so much better now than 8 months ago. But what of Agriculture? 40 years ago it was unthinkable that the venerable Farmall and Internation Tractor might fail – yet Hesston and Case, and the India spinoff Mahindra are all we have left.

    What happens if ADM or Monsanto fall afoul of Peak Oil? What if their seed production takes a hit – and half the industrial agriculture endeavors of the world take a year or two off? Here in Northern Oklahoma, there is precious little redundancy in alternatives, since the protectionism for Patented Seeds gutted the independent farmer’s options.

    I recommend that when you talk about growing fool locally you include the codicil of changing to heritage seeds, not so much for organic growing reasons, as for a buffer against the exclusive and increasingly fragile reliance on ADM and Monsanto.

    (I have nothing against organic growers. I just assume they are already selecting seed sources other than Round-Up Ready soybeans and corn, and will recognize the balance and stability of diverse seed sources.)

  13. Greenpa says:

    “# Lee on 11 Sep 2009 at 9:52 pm
    I have been reading your blog for quite some time and this is one of your better postings. You are becoming more clear and more concise — just 10 paragraphs! Now, condense it to ten sentences and then ten words.”

    I suggest you think of Sharon as Slow Food For The Brain. :-)

    Your comment appears regularly here, and Sharon remains unchanged.

    Which is a good thing. Once you get used to it, you’ll find it’s worth it.

  14. Isis says:

    Does anyone else think that we’ll never see those 10 bn? I mean, those projections just look at current trends, and extend them to the future. I’d be most surprised if they took into account shortages of various resources, starting with food (and water, and oil). Take away food aid, take away jobs made possible by oil, and people will have fewer children.

    Not saying this is supposed to be pretty. Just saying that I don’t see why we should be taking the 10 bn projection for granted.

  15. Greenpa says:

    Isis: “Take away food aid, take away jobs made possible by oil, and people will have fewer children.”

    Alas, the answer to that hope is plain: Visit the slums of Calcutta, Buenos Aires, Mexico City- and on, and on.

    I very much fear that we’ve been breeding ourselves to live and reproduce in those conditions for a long time.

    Those populations continue to grow.

  16. Isis says:

    Well, I don’t know, Greenpa. The period of total population growth has coincided with the period of growth of the food supply. I mean, people in those slums are still eating (perhaps not very well, but they are eating); if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be alive. So I don’t at all think it’s a forgone conclusion that, as food supply starts shrinking, our numbers will still continue to grow.

  17. Isis says:

    Oh, and here’s another question: is the population of those slums growing because people in the slums are having babies, or because more and more people who did not use to live in those slums are being forced to ‘move in’?

  18. Greenpa says:

    “Oh, and here’s another question: is the population of those slums growing because people in the slums are having babies, or because more and more people who did not use to live in those slums are being forced to ‘move in’?”

    Those are all good questions. Slums also grow in most places because people are still moving off the land, thinking the will live better in a city.

    It’s really really complex, of course.

    I don’t think world wide slums are a certain future, but I also don’t think population collapse is as inevitable as others see, either.

    For one thing, on food availability- the world right NOW produces plenty of food to feed 20 billion or so.

    It really does. Fact: half the food that reaches our tables is – thrown out; just purely wasted.

    http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Supply-Chain/Half-of-US-food-goes-to-waste

    And it’s not just the US, most food researchers will say this is world wide.

    And- post-harvest losses around the world average somewhere near 50%, too. In the First world, spoiled grain and vegetables average about 10%; but the 3rd world makes up for it, running to 80% some years; averaging 40%. Bad storage facilities, bad roads.

    People in slums are already utilizing those resources; scavenging in dumps, etc. And they will find ways to reach more of it.

    And we’ve not even mentioned the amounts of “food” that go to feed meat, or make fuel, already.

    In Africa right now, it’s very common for a household to get their kerosene or gasoline by stealing it- literally punching a hole in a commercial pipeline in a remote location, and filling buckets from it. A community event.

    This will happen with food more and more; any CAFO is a good target for a grain thief.

    And then there’s this kind of thing:

    http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/national-news/2009/September/10/Horse-murders-continue-in-South-Florida.aspx

    “The remains of 17 horses have been found since January in Miami-Dade County, many slaughtered and abandoned on or near rural roads. In May, two horses — their throats cut and flesh stripped from their legs — were found in a field in Miramar. None of the cases in either county has been solved.”

    They’re being butchered for meat; possibly just to make money; but hunger can’t be ruled out.

    Anyway- point being: the world has WAY more food available now than we’re using. Professors know, but don’t care- there just are no careers that would be boosted by improving 3rd world food storage (something I’ve actually spent a lot of money trying to do, incidentally), or finding ways to prevent Americans from just tossing half their food into the Insinkerator.

    The existing slums show that humans can tolerate this level of existence; and still reproduce. Food is still available- starvation doesn’t happen much in city slums, but in rural areas when crops fail- small potatoes in the population count.

    It’s a vast and intractable problem, and as Sharon points out, few of those who profess to be “working on it” are asking the right questions- or even know they should question their questions.

  19. Greenpa says:

    “Oh, and here’s another question: is the population of those slums growing because people in the slums are having babies, or because more and more people who did not use to live in those slums are being forced to ‘move in’?”

    Those are all good questions. Slums also grow in most places because people are still moving off the land, thinking the will live better in a city.

    It’s really really complex, of course.

    I don’t think world wide slums are a certain future, but I also don’t think population collapse is as inevitable as others see, either.

    For one thing, on food availability- the world right NOW produces plenty of food to feed 20 billion or so.

    It really does. Fact: half the food that reaches our tables is – thrown out; just purely wasted.

    Google: wasted food

    And it’s not just the US, most food researchers will say this is world wide.

    And- post-harvest losses around the world average somewhere near 50%, too. In the First world, spoiled grain and vegetables average about 10%; but the 3rd world makes up for it, running to 80% some years; averaging 40%. Bad storage facilities, bad roads.

    People in slums are already utilizing those resources; scavenging in dumps, etc. And they will find ways to reach more of it.

    And we’ve not even mentioned the amounts of “food” that go to feed meat, or make fuel, already.

    In Africa right now, it’s very common for a household to get their kerosene or gasoline by stealing it- literally punching a hole in a commercial pipeline in a remote location, and filling buckets from it. A community event.

    This will happen with food more and more; any CAFO is a good target for a grain thief.

    And then there’s this kind of thing:

    Google: horses killed for meat

    “The remains of 17 horses have been found since January in Miami-Dade County, many slaughtered and abandoned on or near rural roads. In May, two horses — their throats cut and flesh stripped from their legs — were found in a field in Miramar. None of the cases in either county has been solved.”

    They’re being butchered for meat; possibly just to make money; but hunger can’t be ruled out.

    Anyway- point being: the world has WAY more food available now than we’re using. Professors know, but don’t care- there just are no careers that would be boosted by improving 3rd world food storage (something I’ve actually spent a lot of money trying to do, incidentally), or finding ways to prevent Americans from just tossing half their food into the Insinkerator.

    The existing slums show that humans can tolerate this level of existence; and still reproduce. Food is still available- starvation doesn’t happen much in city slums, but in rural areas when crops fail- small potatoes in the population count.

    It’s a vast and intractable problem, and as Sharon points out, few of those who profess to be “working on it” are asking the right questions- or even know they should question their questions.

  20. Ed Straker says:

    “For one thing, on food availability- the world right NOW produces plenty of food to feed 20 billion or so.”

    So how much of that surplus food production capacity is due to fossil fuels, and how much will be left without it? That’s what I’m saying about phantom carrying capacity. Current food production means little other than maybe the amount of arable land the planet currently has (arable not meaning soil health, of course, since there is none in places routinely fed a steady diet of NPK)

    I’m not trying to discourage local food production. I have my own 1st year victory garden, pathetic as it is. I’m just trying to remind people of the dilemma here.

    BTW, basically what Sharon is suggesting is “Soylent Fertilizer”. I have no problem with humanure and can see that breaking through some social resistance when things get tough enough. Grinding up bodies of the deceased for use in the fields is a little grisly but I guess I can come around to it. I’m not sure how that will fly on main street, though.

    “Miracle Green is PEOPLE!!!”

  21. Megan says:

    Thanks Sharon. Unfortunately when I find myself in conversations with people who I don’t think are asking the right questions I get so confused I just stare at them in bewilderment… (:

  22. Sharon says:

    Ed, I don’t think I’d personally advertise it as “soylent fertilizer” ;-) . Animal bones may also be sufficient, at least for a while, as we move towards a lower-animal consumption society. In the end, all the solutions to depletion involve cutting back dramatically on what we try to accomplish, and then focusing on essentials, while replacing fossil fuels again with human beings – in a whole host of ways ;-) . I think the reality is that we certainly *could* replace much of our food producing energy – will we? That’s another question.

    Isis, urbanization generally does slow birthrates – the demographic transition tends to be speeded up by urbanization, which pretty rapidly translates children from economic advantages to economic liabilities – a rural Nigerian child produces more than he consumes by the time he’s 6, while an urban child simply can’t do the same – too many other child beggars and workers. So yes, there are somewhat declining birthrates – but maybe not enough. The most conservative estimates suggest 8.5 billion, I’m guessing the mid-range 9.1 and then decline is probably about right – barring, of course, some major other factor, which is not at all hugely unlikely.

    Lee, the only reason it is so short is that I wrote a 400 page book on the subject that I can refer to ;-) . I don’t think I’ll be turning it into a tweet anytime soon. Moreover, my own observation is that the world is full of people who condense complexities down to one paragraph – I don’t particularly aspire to be one.

    Sharon

  23. Greenpa says:

    Norman Borlaug passed away Saturday.

    I found I had a few things to say.

    #2009/09/norman-borlaug.html

    (the editors at the NYT liked the short version; it’s an “editors selection”; first time they’ve picked anything of mine.)

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  27. [...] get into who’s involved or even what they are discussing in any detail, but instead refer readers here, here, and here for background. Or if you want to stick to The Oil Drum, similar discussions [...]

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