Archive for March 13th, 2008

Dinner, And Whether You'll Be Getting Any, to 2050

Sharon March 13th, 2008

Stuart Staniford strikes again!  Between his post at TOD  ”Food to 2050″ and John Michael Greer’s analysis of our prior debate, the “whither shall we goest with food question” is, like Spring, in the air again.   As usual, Staniford does an enormous amount of impressive analysis.  And almost as usual, I’m going to argue with him. 

Now I give Staniford a lot of credit for his work, but his current discussion does hinge upon some postulates I regard as comparatively unlikely.  For example, Staniford’s assumptions about agriculture hinge heavily on further postulates he made in a prior post in which 1. Staniford is made emperor of the world and eliminates all political obstacles and national barriers to a worldwide energy system 2. The economy has a brief recession but basically keeps growing exponentially so we can afford massive investments 3. Climate change isn’t a major limitation both because we are able to power everything with solar and also because we are able to absorb or ignore the potential climate consequences of such a build out. 

Staniford himself claims that his parameters are fairly realistic - he says,

“… I use the overarching principle of trying to assume as little change in the way the world works as possible - I assume it remains a more-or-less free market world, in which national governments regulate their own countries to temper the worst excesses of the free market and periodically enter into treaties on the more pressing global problems. I assume it remains full of highly imperfect humans mostly struggling to improve their own circumstances. I assume people are willing to come together and take collective action for the common good, but only when the need for that action has become so overwhelming and immediate as to be irrefutable.”

 But, in fact, I think that we can safely say that Staniford’s original parameters, while an extrapolation of what is technically possible do gloss over a large number of potential problems.  And this is at least partly his intention.  It is also the case that when there are multiple sources available to base analysis on, Staniford consistently seems to choose one of the more optimistic options in this scenario, as, for example, when he dismisses GLASOD analysis, or the IPCC accounts (more on this later), or even the UN FAO analyses he includes, which among other things base their assumptions on “slowing growth in demand for agricultural products” (not what we’re seeing) and 1990s information about fuel supplies and climate change.  To be fair, it would be hard to find better sources, and it is always difficult to know how much to “curve” data based on new information - my claim is simply that simply that Staniford has chosen to do what he does not generally do in his oil analyses - taken optimistic assumptions more or less at face value.  This is not to say that there aren’t reasons to prefer this, but they do amount, cumulatively, to a gentle but solid nudge towards input data friendly to Staniford’s conclusions.  And we all know that you get out what you put in. 

Staniford then observes that we are nowhere near theoretical maximum yields for food, that we do have some land available to be brought into production (much of it marginal), that the soil crisis probably isn’t quite as bad as has been portrayed and later (in comments) that agriculture probably isn’t a first-order issue of climate change, and argues that we’re in ok shape, and we can expect yields to continue to rise.

His conclusion is this:

“There seems to be reason for cautious optimism that if other global problems can be solved, food production will not be a critical constraint on civilization to 2050. If industrial agricultural yields maintain their historical trajectory, there will be enough food without needing much more land. In case yields fail to continue increasing, more land is potentially available globally, though likely of poor quality. Soil erosion is an important problem, but not a critical emergency, and can seemingly be solved permanently with no-till farming methods. Fertilizer does not appear to be seriously constrained in the long-term, though nitrogen fertilizer needs to be transitioned away from reliance on natural gas. Agriculture only needs a tiny fraction of global liquid fuel use to operate, and this can be maintained for a long time, since food production is a critical infrastructure.

However, if we were to keep growing the conversion of food into biofuels, all bets would be off.”

Now I think there is genuine, if limited merit in running this kind of optimistic scenario, because it does generally help establish whether limitations on things are “human problems” or “technical problems.”  The problem, of course, all technical problems have human problems built in to them.  To misquote William Goldman in _The Princess Bride_ “Life is Human Problems, Princess.  Anyone who tells you otherwise  is selling something.”  My claim is not that there is no merit in establishing that something is theoretically doable, just that we shouldn’t overstate that value.  I think Staniford rather does a bit.  His claim about the merits of his work (made in comments) is that

 “However, I would distinguish my views from those of cornucopians in general, in that I don’t view it as inevitable that civilization will survive all catastrophes and problems based on technological prowess. Instead, I view it as desirable that civilization continue, and I view each threat as something that has to be analyzed empirically on its merits to see how serious it is, and what ways of coping with it might be developed. I’m open to the idea that there might be some threat civilization cannot adapt to, but I’m not yet persuaded that we’ve hit one with peak oil, or with climate change (very serious as those are). However, I’ve said quite clearly that the recent trend of food-based biofuel growth, for example, is going to be fatal to civilization in short order. However, this isn’t inevitable - we (society) have to change public policy in order to slow biofuel growth to something more”

My own take is that the value of Staniford’s approach is limited by his choosing to take only optimized scenarios, and his preference for data that supports them - that is, we need to know not just that we can survive if everything goes extremely well, but also if some human factors actually prevent the perfect realization of our goals.  I think is a reasonable standard to demand for any plan for the future.

That is, in order to get the results Staniford suggests,  we must as he himself puts it ensure “other global problems can be solved.”  Now while I personally experience some doubt about whether Staniford’s proposals are economically, technically or environmentally feasible and wise, I’m willing to accept, for the moment that these are *possible* scenarios in a technical sense.  And yet, at this point in the discussion, in order to have a secure long term food system, we will, under Staniford’s own analysis have to fix both the climate and energy peak problems, along with raising the world’s poor out of poverty.  

 But what if we don’t do these things?  Or if we do them only partway, but encounter real economic or political or even technical limitations?  Again, I’m willing to accept that it is technically possible we could do these things - but also would observe that in the case of the massive solar infrastructure, we have not yet done these things, and it is more common than not for practices to have unintended consequences, complications and limitations.   I don’t make graphs, myself, but I bet if I could graph the trends we’re showing in converting to renewable energies and eliminating emissions, we would not see a curve likely to lead us to Staniford’s outcome.  That is, it isn’t that Staniford’s case has no merit at all, it is merely that feeding ourselves is far to important to only work if we manage to optimize and fix just about all other problems.

Now it is quite possible that Staniford’s longer term intention is to test these variables against less optimal scenarios - say, to play out the question of whether we can produce food to 2050 even if growth of alternative energy sources is not enough to relieve our climate and fossil fuel problems.  He has not, as far as I’ve seen, articulated such a plan, however, and I think it is fair to say that my own deepest critique of Staniford’s analysis lies in the limits of postulating such an optimized set of parameters.

My own feeling is that the current situation is quite difficult (as Staniford notes) and demands that we be able to negotiate both optimal and non-optimal scenarios.  And since food and water are simply non-negotiable, our planning for food and water availability must be robust enough to handle signficant difficulties that we can reasonably project as a possibility.  That doesn’t mean that we have to be able to fully adapt to a comparatively improbable immanent asteroid strike, but it does mean that we have to consider the reasonable possibility that we might not have all the electricity we want by 2050, that the climate might be more sensitive than we expect, or that a host of other things might go wrong.  An agricultural system that doesn’t work without all those happy postulates strikes me as problematic - that is, any case for maintaining industrial agriculture must test the ability of the system to respond to sub-optimal conditions.  In fact, as I will argue, we are presently undergoing such a test, in biofuels growth, and the system is not responding especially well.

I think Staniford and I have rather a lot of common ground.  Like Staniford, I don’t think that peak oil and climate change are inevitably the end of civilization.  I suspect we have rather different definitions of what “civilization” is, and what kinds of markets and technologies are required within the parameters of “civilization.”   But still, we agree that peak oil and climate change are not the end of the world.  We also agree that there is reason for cautious optimism about humanity’s ability to feed itself, within the anticipated global population parameters.  I’ve been arguing for at least 5 years now on various forums and in various writings that humanity can continue to feed itself, and absorb population increases and eventual stabilizations.  I’m in the process of writing a book on precisely this subject, so I’m actually quite pleased that Staniford agrees with me, even if we have a fairly fundamental difference in our opinion of how to accomplish this.

In my own case, I believe that rising population and falling availability of arable land, reduced land quality and water issues (Staniford explicitly leaves water out of the discussion of agriculture, saving it for a later post - I admit, I think his order of things is troublesome here - water preceeds agriculture by definition, because agriculture is so dependent upon it)  - suggest that one of the absolute essentials of the future will be to use what land we have as wisely - and intensively - as possible.  This seems to be an area in which Staniford and I agree.

Water and climate change are, as noted, factors that I think need to be integrated fully into an analysis - and perhaps Staniford will do so in a later post, but I hope he will forgive me for not leaving them out here.  For example, Staniford seems content to rely on IPCC projections of the risk of climate change to agriculture, despite the fact that the IPCC has been criticized both from within and without as far too conservative, and that in several areas (most notably its projections about Arctic Ice loss) it has shown huge margins of error - arctic ice loss projections are now fully 100 years ahead of the IPCC schedule.   While the IPCC doesn’t quite have the same error rate as CERA, it is not unreasonable to note that its prior failures have generally been in *underestimating* the severity of climate change - and that the potential consequences for doing so are serious. There is a growing discussion of the possibility we have underestimated climate sensitivity dramatically - NASA scientist James Hansen argues that 350 ppm is probably our limit (we are now above that number) and the Carbon Equity Report suggests that we passed a threshold point 30 years ago. 

 Again, I do not claim that the IPCC is wrong and Carbon Equity and Hansen are right - merely that again, Staniford choose to offer his postulates against only the most optimistic scenarios.  But the agriculture we choose must have sufficient resilience to respond to less than optimal realities.  My point here is present the real possibility that an analysis that relies primarily on optimized scenarios might not provide relevant grounds from which to determine how we should go forward as a society.

Similar (and inter-related) issues arise for water.  It is worth noting that while only 17% of the worlds arable land is irrigated, but that land provides 30% of the world’s cereal crops - and most of it lies in areas that are projected to get considerably dryer due to global warming (Runge, Senauer et al 48).  Staniford’s projections of yield growth probably depend at least as much on water supplies as it does upon new agricultural technologies - in developing countries - in _Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime_ Runge et al demonstrate that both yield growth and declines in yield growth rates have followed the water curve in developing countries.  Thus, they project (and the book preceeds recent IPCC, NASA and GISS projects of water shortages rather significantly) that yield growth in dry regions will fall off and begin to decline in the second decade of the 21st century, with “an annual loss of cereal production of 139 million metric tons, which is slightly greater than the ttoal rice production in China in the late 1990s” (Runge et al 49).  This is based upon the UN FAO’s Irrigation Water Supply Reliability Index, which was expected at date of publication in 2003 to drop to 0.71 by 2025.  I was not able to locate a full evaluation of how this data has changed give more recent projections, but since the general assessment of the Palmer Drought Severity Index has grown, it is likely that irrigated agriculture is at greater, rather than lower risk.

Again, I observe all this not because I am claiming that these are inevitable outcomes, but rather that it seems as though it would behoove us to prepare not just for optimized scenarios, but for darker ones - and not just in regard to water, but in regard to energy availability, climate change and sensitivity and a host of other factors.

 My suspicion is that Staniford would argue that the burden of proof is on relocalization - because Staniford views small scale agriculture as “reversalism” and a radical shift from our present trajectory. As both Kiashu and I have argued , this not actually true - small scale agriculture remains an enormous portion of our present agriculture, producing about half the world’s food.  Still, Staniford casts back the burden of truth, relying on historical increases in yield.

“Secondly, anyone who wants to suggest that the world can be fed other than through industrial agriculture has some explaining to do about this data. Every crop shows yields prior to the green revolution that were flat and a small fraction of modern yields. If we returned to yields like that, either a lot of us would be starving, or we’d be terracing and irrigating most of the currently forested hillsides on the planet for food. While shopping for locally grown produce at your nearest organic farmer’s market, stop and give a moment of thanks for the massive productivity of the industrial enterprise that brings you, or at least your fellow citizens, almost all of your calorie input.”

I will accept that the burden of proof remains on relocalizers to demonstrate that organic, small-scale hand agriculture can feed the world - that it can match the yields of present day industrial agriculture, and this is not difficult.  Staniford seems unaware of the fact that small scale, organic and hand agriculture have kept pace or exceeded Green Revolution yields. 

Earlier in his post, Staniford claims that such yields didn’t appear to be due to mechanization, because “Steam tractors were in widespread use in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”  I was going to cite an actual book ;-)  in refutation of this, but in comments, commenter JoulesBourne kindly posted this useful graph.  The truth is that the rise in yields does mirror the conversion to tractors, making Staniford’s conclusion, that most of the yield increase is due to artificial fertilizers and plant breeding suspect.  That’s not to say mechanization does account for the yield increases - just that Staniford has not demonstrated it did not.  In the same sense, Staniford seems to assume that because yields rose under conventional agriculture, that means they could not have risen any other way. 

To demonstrate that this is incorrect, first we need to ask whether increased yields have actually meant more available food and nutrition.  Ignoring biofuels and increased meat consumption among the rich, two factors alone seem to suggest otherwise.  The first is the rising loss of food to pests, despite inputs.  For example, in the US now loses 13% of its crops to pests, up from 7% before the pesticide boom  - ten times the chemicals now get us a substantial increase in crop loss.  This must be calculated into any claims on rate of increase, as does the calculation of *loss* of nutritional value.  The latter is uncertain, but a major study suggested that we are eating more in part because of a substantial loss in nutritional value from conventionally grown food. 

Add to that that some of the increase in yields simply came by moving from other crops to cereal production - say, the conversion of grazing land to grain farming, or the loss of fish production in rice paddies due to pesticides - operated to simply reallocate calories from one kind of food to another - and to centralize them in staples grains.  The total claims of the Green Revolution yield increases are probably overstated (how much is a matter of considerable debate by agricultural scientists - see Keith Griffin’s _Alternatives Structures for Economic Development_ and the work of Donald Freebairn, among others) - that is, there were certainly genuine increases in yield, but we should not mistake discussions of grain calorie increases with discussions of total caloric availability.

Moreover, as even the World Bank admitted in 1986, more food does not mean less hunger - access to food is the issue - if it were not, America would have no hungry people. Food access is the most important issue in feeding the world, as, among other people, Amartya Sen has discussed at length.  According to the abovementioned Freebairns analysis of more than 300 research reports on Green Revolution results, 80% of them found that inequity increased with the adoption of Green Revolution techniques.  This matters because the issue is not absolute quantities of food, but access to them - if the Green Revolution had responded to real material shortages of food worldwide, the cost might be worth it.  But it did not - as Freebairn documents, the food supply was sufficient to feed the world’s population in 1950, just as it is now.  In fact some analysts have suggested (whether rightly or wrongly) that population growth itself is a product of that growth. 

Dissecting figures about hunger in _World Hunger: 12 Myths_ Lappe, Collins et al note that while figures first seem to suggest that real gains were made in hunger reduction by the Green Revolution, because total food available between 1970 and 1990 rose by 11 percent and the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942 million to 786 million, in fact, if you take China out of this discussion, the figures look very different.  Removing China from the equation, the number of hungry people in the developing world rose from 536 to 597 million. And

“In South America, while food supplies rose almost 8 percent, the number of hungry peopel also went up, by 19 percent…In South Asia there was 9 percent more food per person by 1990, but there were also 9 percent more hungry people.  The remarkable difference in China, where the number of hungry dropped from 406 million to   189 million almost begs the question: which has been more effective at reducing hunger, the Green Revolution or the Chinese Revolution?” (Lappe, Collins et al 61)

This suggests that first of all, while absolute food availability is relevant, it is not as relevant as distribution and economic justice.  And because China was a comparatively late adopter of Green Revolution seeds and techniques, it also suggests that the Green Revolution itself may be less important than improved agricultural techniques that have been applied by many forms of agriculture.

That is, Staniford’s claim that anyone who suggests we can feed people without industrial agriculture has some explaining to do may be true, in part because of the widespread lack of understanding of the gains of organic and sustainable agriculture, but it isn’t self-evident that his observations are really relevant.  That is, if it were Green Revolution seed varieties, or mechanization or chemical inputs that was responsible for increased yields and also reduced hunger, we would then expect to see that those yields could not be matched without those inputs - that, in fact, we are dependent on Green Revolution technologies.  But that is simply not the case - for example, much of China’s hunger reduction occurred before the large scale importation of Green Revolution technologies.

It is also the case, however, that anyone who makes the case for industrial agriculture also probably has some explaining to do - explaining about how the current model will work towards increased *access* to food, as well as increased amounts, more than the conventional claims about lifting all boats.  The current biofuels boom, only feasible under industrial agriculture, thus appears as a further increase in the problem of access, created and enhanced by industrial, globalized agriculture itself.  That is, the biofuels boom is an accidental error, but a product of a system that elides distance and differences between agricultural regions, separates producers and consumers from one another and institutionalizes inequity - that is, the biofuels disaster is a reasonable outcome of industrial agriculture.  One we could mitigate - but a consequence of investment in a particular system.   

But let us back up to our explanation, one by one, and go through the outputs of the Green Revolution and ask whether increased agricultural yields depend upon them.  If, for example, agricultural yields depended on mechanization, we would expect mechanized agriculture to consistently out-yield hand labor.  If they depend upon chemical inputs, we would expect organic agriculture to be heavily outyielded by conventional industrial agriculture.  And if they depend on plant breeding, we would expect older varieties to be outyielded by newer ones.  

Are these things true?  Well, not in absolute terms.  That is, small farms, which generally speaking use much less mechanization, fewer inputs and are more likely to use older plant varieties and save seed than large ones, actually are more productive per acre in total output than large farms.  At the extreme ends of this, we can see it in Ecology Action’s biointensive gardening methods, which offer yields per acre much, much higher than industrial agriculture can achieve - without fossil fuel inputs, using open pollinated seeds.  But in _Deep Economy_ Bill McKibben argues that the 2002 Agricultural Census confirms this as well - small farms produce more food per acre by every measure, whether calories, tons or dollars (McKibben, 67).  As Peter Rosset observes, this is true across national boundaries - small farms and gardens produce far more food per acre - and are likely to use significantly less or no mechanization. 

It is also true that organic agriculture as a whole can consistently match yields with conventional agriculture, suggesting that we do not depend on artificial fertilizers or pesticides.  In a 2007 paper “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply” the authors demonstrated that organic methods would offer a substantial net increase in yields in the Global South, while continuing comparable yields in the Global North.  In a world-wide organic only policy “farms could produce between 2641 and 4381 calories per person per day com-pared to the current world equivalent of 2786 calories per person per day.” In other studies, Agronomist Jules Pretty studied 200 sustainable agricultural projects in 52 countries, and observed that per hectare, sustainable practices led to a 93% average increase in food production.  Grain yields, as discussed in his volume _Agri-Culture_,  as a the results of studies including 4.5 million farmers, had average yield increase of 73%.

Still another analysis suggested that in terms of food access, as shown, a major factor, we’d be better off with organic agriculture because using organic agricultural techniques farmers who also buy food could afford to feed themselves better because of reduced costs for inputs.  Given that 60% of the world’s population still farms, this is a major potential source of hunger reduction. 

So while the Green Revolution did increase yields, organic and sustainable agriculture have also kept pace and in some cases exceeded the results of Green Revolution techniques.  We need not depend on chemical agriculture, mechanization or any other fossil (or eventually renewable) fueled technology to feed ourselves.  And Staniford’s claim that without Industrial Agriculture, our impact would be greater is also probably false:

“Which raises a third important point. Food = Area Cropped x Average Yield. If average yields had not increased like this, humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems would be much greater. It’s true that industrial agriculture has a lot of impacts (nitrogen runoff and the like). However, the alternative would probably have been worse, since it would have required us to intensively exploit enormous areas of fragile, and currently less intensively exploited, land.”

In fact, if we are to take total impact as a compelling factor, small scale polyculture has a substantial benefit in terms of land use, over industrial agriculture.  This has more than aesthetic issues - that is, our optimization parameters for climate change, at least, depend on how much land we are able to leave in rainforest and how much humus in the soil enables us to absorb carbon.    Since small scale polyculture produces more food per acre, and instead of depleting soil, increases humus and enables it to absorb carbon, this is a substantive difference, and potentially, an argument for providing incentives for small scale production.

The same is true of soil depletion, which Staniford argues is not a near-term problem, and for which he proposes the solution of no-till agriculture.  The difficulty is that herbicide resistance (ignoring the human and wildlife costs of chemical use)  is already a growing problem for no-till, and widespread conversion to no-till is likely only to hasten the growth of that problem.  No-till is also not the optimal way of dealing with it, as an extended study by a USDA agency demonstrated last year.

Staniford has claimed repeatedly that the burden of proof should be upon those who advocate “reversalism” or a substantive alteration in the current agricultural trajectory.  And yet, I think there is a compelling case for moving the burden of proof back to industrial agriculture.  We know that industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on inputs that are vulnerable to supply constraints.  We also know that small scale, relocalized agriculture is far less dependent upon these supply constraints.  We know that industrial agriculture is a major factor in global warming - and that sustainable, small scale agriculture could be a major mitigating factor in global warming, both by increasing capacity to absorb carbon and also by reducing potential emissions and land use.  We know that small scale agriculture on existing land provides access food stably - more so than today’s fluctuating agricultural prices.  Since food access, rather than quantity, is the central problem under discussion, this matters.

 We also know that Staniford’s own claim is that his scenario depends on our being able to completely resolve both fossil fuels supplies and climate change.   His own analysis also suggests that the trajectory of industrial agriculture is towards massive biofuels growth and potentially, the starvation of a large portion of the human populace.  As Staniford notes, it is possible to find policy solutions to this danger - it is also possible we will not.  But it is probably literally impossible to imagine a massive biofuels growth in a relocalized, food sovreign society - that does not mean that such a society might not have its own difficulties, but the transformation of half the food supply into biofuels - and thus the potential criminally negligent homicide of, say, half the human population, is not possible.  That alone seems a virtue - instead of solving one problem (like biofuels starving half the world or soil erosion potentially reducing our ability to feed ourselves) with another complex solution with its own drawbacks (weed resistance and chemical toxicity in one example, slow and inequitable political solutions in another) we manage, effectively, to avoid the great challenges that threaten us more or less altogether.

In _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ Joseph Tainter discusses the problems of diminishing returns in complexity - the solutions that Staniford propose overwhelmingly involve increases in complexity - with the increased risks of failure, unanticipated consequences and decreased resilience inherent in such solutions.  Small scale organic polyculture is hardly perfect, but its very simplicity and accessibility act here as a virtue - it simply does not create problems bigger than the ones it solves. 

 So the question becomes - where should the burden of proof lie? And what is it we are looking for in an agricultural system - my own assessment is that resilience, and built in resistance to the worst of human error are high on that list - and that Staniford’s account of industrial agriculture does not have either.

As John Michael Greer suggested recently, the reality is that there probably won’t be a single, systemic solution at all - some people will grow food on a small scale, some will do it on a large.  But to the extent that policy solutions, or grassroot solutions are available to us, the merits of proposing solutions that meet the basic criteria of being able to handle sub-optimal conditions, meet basic needs and that avoid creating new, giant problems with everyone getting dinner,  seem to me to make the case for advocacy of relocalization


Works Cited

Freebairn, Donald, “Dd the Green Revolution Concentrate Incomes?  A Quantitative Study of Research Reports” in _World Development_ 23:2, 1995.

Lappe, Collins, Rosset and Esparza, _World Hunger: Twelve Myths_ Grove Press, 1998.

McKibben, Bill _Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future_ Henry Holt: 2007

Pretty, Jules N. _Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature_ Earthworks:2002.

Runge, Senauer, Pardy and Rosegrant _Ending Hunger In Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization_ Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003.