Archive for the 'agriculture' Category

Dissecting the Long Emergency

Sharon March 28th, 2008

If there is one thing Jim Kunstler deserves all the props in the world for, it is his naming and describing the complex, sweeping and all-encompassing crisis we’re facing.  He called the combination of energy, climate and financial crisis “The Long Emergency” and I think that’s turning out to be just about right.  As a prophet, Kunstler is looking pretty accurate in some respects (I’m still kind of skeptical about the Asian pirates marauding across the northwest coast, but maybe I’m wrong ;-).

I’ve been getting emails from people asking me whether the present crisis is “just” financial and whether/how peak oil and climate change are factors.  And this is a fascinating question - because, honestly, it is awfully hard to sort them out.  In fact, it is really all one crisis - I call it (perhaps not as eloquently as Kunstler) the crisis Ourobouros, the great worm that encircles the globe, and does not realize that he is devouring his own tail - it is impossible to entirely find the beginning or end.  But we can take a stab at it.

 I thought for my own edification, and perhaps for others, it might be worth trying to sort out how all three segments of our present situation are working together, and what parts of the hard times facing us are tied into more than one segment of the crisis.  I make no claims that I can provide a perfect explanation, or that I won’t miss some links, but if nothing else, it is an interesting way for me to clarify my own thought.  So I’m going to list present problems one by one, and describe how (if at all) they are tied into each element - financial crisis, climate change, peak oil.  I’ll try and figure out whether what we’re seeing is a cause or effect, and just how closely related they are.  I doubt I’ll even come close to articulating the whole picture - that sounds like a book in itself, and one for someone more knowledgeable than I.  But here goes nothing:

Crisis # 1: Rising Food Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Super Direct. Climate change is a direct cause of rising food prices, particularly the rise in wheat prices.  Wheat crops were heavily affected by drought in Australia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  Aquifer depletion in China, along with reduced rainfall is also affecting wheat crops.  Massive growth in  biofuel production, was in part motivated by the (completely erroneous) assumption that biofuels would produce fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels.  Climate instability is also a primary motivator as nations become more concerned with feeding themselves, and restrain exports or raise tariffs, as when Russia raised wheat tariffs and Egypt and India announced they will largely stop exporting rice.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Super Direct. Peak oil is a direct cause of rising food prices.  Biofuels are only a feasible project in a world of declining oil availability - their Energy Returned over Energy Invested is simply too small to make any sense when you’ve got plenty of oil and natural gas.  The mistaken belief that we can keep all the cars going and our basic lifestyle intact has led to a rush to biofuels that has helped driving prices of staples, meat, eggs, milk and other foods up by 50%. In addition, rising fertilizer prices (because of rising prices for natural gas and rising prices for rock phosphates) are also driving food prices up, as are the costs of transporting industrial food over long distances. 

Relationship to Financial CrisisDirect. The financial crisis is in part a result of rising food prices.  Over this winter, we saw more and more people using their holiday gift cards and store credits for groceries - food prices are rising so quickly that they are cutting heavily into consumer spending, which is a substantial part of the economy.   Food price rises have slightly slowed growth in countries whose wealth has been propping up the US economy. This is somewhat speculative, but rising food prices are probably an underlying force fueling the collapse in housing values - the reality is that basic needs like food and housing must both be met, and when you are paying more for one, you can pay less for another.  I’ve written about the relationship between housing and food prices here.

Crisis #2: The Housing Collapse

Relationship to Climate Change: Tenuous.  So far, sea levels haven’t risen enough, and climate change hasn’t been a large enough factor to really motivate large numbers of people to relocate.  Some farmers in Australia, and a few others are starting to see the writing on the wall, but mass migration in the rich world has not yet affected property values.  So far, people are still looking at any given disaster as short term thing.  I don’t expect that to last.  In the long term, climate change will probably dramatically alter housing patterns, and cause some markets simply to collapse.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Substantive.  I’m going out on a limb here, because I’ve seen no research suggesting this to be true, but while the majority of the housing collapse is based on the fact that we had ridiculously overinflated housing prices to begin with, I think that it is also the case that rising energy prices for home heating, cooling, food and other things have begun to eat into not just people’s ability to pay a large chunk of their income towards a mortgage, but also into their belief in housing as a refuge from difficulty.  It isn’t an accident that the housing boom really took off in the US shortly after 9/11, when people turned inwards, hiding from the outside world. Again,  I’m speculating, but I think the outside world has penetrated, and the idea that a home could be a form of protection is wearing off in the face of skyrocketing costs. Also, as energy prices rise, local governments are less able to maintain services -we have seen this with school bus and plowing declines - and thus become lower value regions, although the latter is a tertiary effect.

Relationship to Financial Collapse: Absolutely Direct.  In this case, it operates as both a cause and an effect.  The housing boom and the use of inflated house values to borrow was the cause of the bubble, and the collapse of housing prices is, if there is a single root cause, the cause of the crisis.  But it is also an effect of drying up credit - the less there is to borrow, the smaller the chance people will buy.    The more foreclosed and devalued properties there are, the less reason to buy a new house.  It is vicious circle, and it looks like it has a lot longer to go.

Crisis #3 - Rising Gas Prices

Relationship to Climate Change: Not Much Yet.  We are going to see a strong relationship in both cause and effect here, but so far, the effect has been small.  So far, the major effects of climate change in oil prices are limited to natural disasters affecting refineries, and growing political conflicts over water that threaten economic relationships.  None of these is terribly acute yet.  However, with discussion of carbon taxes in the works and more and more disasters, water shortages and other problems occurring, we may see supply issues more tied to climate change.  More importantly, gas prices have yet to drive off global demand enough to mitigate climate change.  As prices get higher, more effects should be seen - but probably not enough to mitigate things.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Umm…duh!  Do I really have to explain this one?  Yes, peak oil is the root here.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Significant, but mostly concealed. Growth requires energy - and quite a lot of it. I won’t go into detail here, since Gail the Actuary has just done a great talk on this subject which you can read here that covers anything I would say better.

Crisis #4 - Failing to Mitigate Climate Change

Relationship to Climate Change: Well, yes.  This one seems like it would be a “duh” but it actually isn’t just that.  Yes, our failure to mitigate climate change is causing climate change.  But we are also failing to mitigate climate change *BECAUSE* of climate change.  That is, the rising number of natural disasters are making us react to climate change more and more, rather than addressing it.  We are spending more and more of our money and energies that we might use to adapt our infrastructure repairing it and fixing the damage of climate change.  Moreover, because climate change is happening much more quickly than anyone expected, we are still basing our mitigation efforts on inadequate information - that is, we’re still talking about 450 or 550 ppm limits, when 350 ppm is probably more like it.  We still don’t get what we even have to do - and that weakens our ability to do it.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Very Direct.  The reality is that all the discussions of what we potentially could do to mitigate climate change depend on large scale economic growth and lots of cheap energy to do the initial build out.  As energy prices rise and shortages start showing up (mostly so far in the Global South, but not entirely), we’re going to use more and more money and energy on mitigation. Diesel supplies, which are required for global trade, build outs, mining and other projects are showing shortages even in the rich world.  Moreover, our warmongering is the direct cause of 10% of all emissions, and that, of course, is about the oil.  James Hansen recently released an analysis suggesting that there isn’t enough oil in the ground to get us to the worst effects of climate change - but that would only work if we didn’t use the coal.  But higher oil and natural gas prices are likely to drive us steadily towards coal.

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Direct.  Despite all the hype, the payback time of most renewable energies is pretty damn long, compared to oil.  So in order to build out renewable energies you lots of liquid credit dripping off the walls and down into various new industries.  We need people who are willing not to get their money back for a good long time.  Guess what - those people are increasingly in short supply.  So expensive, long term renewable solutions are also likely to be in short supply.  On the domestic level, while some energy consumption drop is likely to happen, there are also likely to be short-term losses, for example as people priced out of heating oil in the northeast burn coal, or as people rely on existing gas guzzlers rather than buying more fuel efficient vehicles.  In the long term, a depression will cut consumption, but also adaptation, which will mitigate climate change and increase unhappiness.  Poorer cities and towns will likely end efficiency programs, nations may permit coal plants again to keep the grid going.

Crisis #5 - Increasing World Political Instability

Relationship to Climate Change: Absolutely Direct.  Climate change is likely to be a political disaster - up to 1.5 billion people without access to safe water, some without any water at all.  More than a billion refugees.  Growing hunger.  Political conflict over resources, land and borders of all sorts.  Some of these wars are already popping up - the conflict in the Sudan, for example.  And a fair bit of anger on these issues is likely to be directed (quite correctly) at the Global North, probably especially at the US.  We can also expect more internal conflicts within nations over resources, such as the ones the US is already seeing over water.  Political unrest is also likely to exacerbate climate change, as oil fields and forests are burned in conflicts and the war machine, which already produces 10% of all greenhouse gasses, expands.

Relationship to Peak Oil: Direct…And Getting More So. Well, I won’t belabor Iraq, but that’s probably just the beginning.  For example, Saudi Arabia recently announced it will no longer grow wheat, its primary staple - probably due to climate change.  Rice prices rose by 30% in a single day this week - and almost 2/3 of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food, in large part due to climate change and biofuel production.  The rising price of corn is already causing tortilla riots, and that’s directly tied to ethanol production. 

Relationship to Financial Crisis: Tenuous…for the Moment. Even if you don’t think that any attack on Iran will be partly motivated by the Republican administration’s desire to distract from the unfolding financial crisis, our political relationship to Russia and China (among others), is clearly being shaped by America’s declining economic situation.  So far things are in the early stages, but it seems like the balance of world power is shifting, and how that will play out, we do not know.  The one good thing one can say about the coming financial crisis is that if the economy crashes enough we will probably leave Iraq fairly quickly.

I’m sure I could come up with a whole host of other crises to discuss, but this at least gets us a start! 



Sixteen Tons and What Did You Get?

Sharon March 27th, 2008

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

- Original Lyrics by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but my favorite version is by the Nighthawks

Ok, we’re at the end of a boom, headed solidly into what is known as a “bust.”  As Richard Heinberg so aptly put it, the party is over.  Most projections suggest that even if we’re not at an oil peak, oil will never be cheap again.  Neither will food.  A lot of people’s houses will never be worth what they paid for them, much less appreciate enough to allow them to keep borrowing money for more home improvements or upgrades. 

I was thinking on this subject as I’ve been known to do (I can just here you saying, “no kidding,  - does she ever shut about it?” ;-)), and it occurred to me to ask you all.  Was it worth it?  That is, do you feel like that last 10 years were good years for you?  Or for the country?  Was it all good enough that it was worth the price - both the one we’re going to pay now, but also the trade-offs we had to make in the process?

That last question might seem unfair - after all, who in their right mind would say anything good about the direction the US has gone in for the last 7 years?  Surely she can’t attribute everything about the Bush administration to peak oil and the boom times?  And as to the first, well, sure, there were good times, right?

But think how much of what we’ve lost you can attribute - that is, it isn’t just a coincidence that we got involved in a vast, endless oil war, that we lost much of our personal freedom, that we consolidated wealth into a narrower strip of the population than ever before, that corporate power grew exponentially.  I think this is one thing that a lot of people still don’t grasp - these things did not just happen - they were the logical cost of what we got in exchange.

That is, it isn’t possible to build an economy dependent on an ever-increasing supply of cheap oil without eventually making evil choices simply to keep the supply flowing.  It isn’t possible to stop taking care of ourselves and paying corporations large sums of our money to meet our most basic needs without those sums translating into political power.  It isn’t possible to increasingly invest in the money economy at the expense of the home and family economy without many people being increasingly priced out of the economy all together - and so on. 

We went shopping for a set of things - more stuff, bigger houses, more energy, endless growth, corporations who will take over any inconvenient jobs for us,  and we didn’t look very carefully at the price tag.  Essentially, we put it all on our credit card, and now we’ve hit our limit, and the payment is coming due.  And most of us had no idea what we were buying.  We did it in ignorance - but partly willful ignorance.  Because the evidence was out there if we had wanted to see it. 

Now I know that most of my readers are not blue collar workers, but I was struck about how apt the lyrics of “Sixteen Tons” are increasingly to all of us.  Yeah, it is presumptuous for middle class white folks to bemoan their fate when there are plenty of other more screwed people around us - except that most of us are going to be just another species of debt slaves - ones who are luckier than some, and less lucky than others.  And I know not all of my readers are all that middle class - and I suspect fewer and fewer will be.

Here’s the thing - we really did sell our souls to the company store.  The company store isn’t a literal spot - it is all the places that the growth economy says “put your money here” - and lookie, the company you just bought your shoes from is probably a subsidary of the same folks you pay your credit card bills to.  The whole growth economy is a company store - you keep the system going by paying in (buying stuff), some of the same money (a little less each time)  rotates around and pays you to buy more stuff, but some of it gets filtered off to go deprive you of access to power and put wealth in the hands of people who already had it. Catherine Austin Fitts calls the growth economy and the political system that goes with it “the tapeworm” and that’s not a bad name.  The thing is, we can never, ever catch up - we’re never going to fix the problem by chasing those dollars around in the circle again, and letting a few more people skim off the top.

So was it worth it?  If you think about what we lost in our democracy, in self-sufficiency, in good health as we ate crappy commercial food and sat in front of the computer all day, in our kids as they came to belong to popular culture and the tv advertisers more than they belong to us, was it really worth it?  For those of us who got them, were the nice clothes and the cool toys and the iPods worth it?  For those who didn’t, was it worth it that some of us got it?  Why the hell aren’t we angrier at ourselves, and those who facilitated these choices?  The reality is that life shouldn’t be “another day older and deeper in debt.”  The company store never has anything so good that it is worth getting to the point we’ve got to. 

Every so often, I run up against someone who is just plain horrified at the idea that in the future they might have to grow gardens, preserve their own, get out use their muscles to grow food, repair their underwear, to get out and do the work of making our own and meeting many of our own needs.  That work sounds too hard, the price sounds too high.  Over on the Oil Drum when I suggested we might need 100 million farmers, someone called me “Pol Pot” and suggested I was going to be driving aging baby boomers out to midwestern cornfields at gunpoint (ok, I admit to thinking that that image was kind of funny, actually ;-)).  That’s an extreme version of this conviction that it would be beyond horrible for us to have to meet more of our needs, but I do think that’s a common reaction - the idea that the work is too hard, that we’re better off now.

But I want to question that.  Are we better off?  Are we really?  Is the level of vulnerability we have to economic crisis better?  Does our food taste better?  Do we have what most parents and grandparents have - a secure future for our kids?  Do we know that they will have “better than we did?”  Do we look forward to a stable, optimistic world where things get better?

Any evaluation of how “bad” it will be to go back to an agrarian society has to have at its root an honest evaluation of what we have now - about what will be better and what will be worse.  And it has to contain an honest evaluation of the price we pay for what we get.  Most people on either side of any debate will pretend that there is no price tied to their “side” and a high one attached to the other.  We’ve gotten so used to the growth economy, and so confused by the sheer scope of what we live in that most of us can’t even see that the price tag was hanging off our company store purchases all along - we just didn’t read it.

 You went to work every day, and you contributed to the party.  You moved your metaphorical sixteen tons, whether you did it with sweat or with the long aching muscles of someone who sits on their ass all day.  And now, the FED will bail out companies, and let them come for your foreclosed house, and the credit card companies turn you into debt slaves.  That party is over - but it is extra over for us, who will not be bailed out.  Unless, of course, we bail one another as best we can, with what we’ve got. 

Time to recognize that we didn’t want half this shit anyway - and that none of us were prepared to pay this kind of a price.  So we need to find a new way - close the fucking store, start rethinking the system, and ask ourselves - what do we really want, and what is the price we’re really willing to pay for it?

And the answer to that is this - stop giving them your money.  Stop buying from the company store when you can.  And start building another economy - one that can hold us up when things fall down.  It isn’t easy.  It will suck.  A lot of us have unused muscles.  A lot of us will suffer.  But no small refinement on the present system will fix the problem - we paid too much for something we didn’t care enough about.  We lost what mattered.  Now, we have to get it back, and we’re going to have pay even more.  The difference is some things are worth high prices.

Democracy. Hope for the future.  A better world for our kids.  Once upon a time they were worth “Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”  They are sure as hell worth digging some dirt for.


Wheat Rationing? Seed Shortages?

Sharon March 19th, 2008

I’m hearing some interesting stories coming in about grain and seed availability.  What’s most interesting is that we aren’t just seeing problems in the Global South, but here in the US as well.

-Idaho Locavore reports that WaltonFeed seems to be out of most Organic Wheats. 

-Murray, a farmer and reader who produces organic seed for several small seed companies says he has had repeated calls from both existing customers and other seed companies seeking more seed - and he’s out of last year’s production.  Several companies that don’t normally buy from him are sold out of their normal varieties and desperately seeking substitutes.

-Perhaps most disturbing, a member of my food storage class from the Northeast reports that when she bought flour at Costco yesterday, there were set 50lb limits, and that the check-out person actually verified on her membership card that she had not previously bought flour at any other Costco.

 -Aaron tells me that there are no set limits at his local warehouse store, but that when he asked to buy 200 lbs, he was told that was “as much as we can sell you.”

- Littlebyte reports that her coop is experiencing “significant delays” in deliveries of several items, including whole wheat and whole wheat flour.  Their supplier told them that availability was tight throughout the system.

- As I reported yesterday, Fedco and Johnny’s seeds are out of some varieties and are experiencing much greater demand than usual.  A friend who runs an herb business tells me that her wholesale provider is also out of many seed varieties and says demand is way up.

As Aaron put it, we may be seeing the beginning of a real “threshold moment.”  Anyone else seeing delays? 

Note, it is not my claim that we are about to see massive food shortages - but I think we may see systemic problems with a few commodities, including wheat.  And there’s something about the psychological weight of not being able to buy bread that I think will connect the dots for folks about how serious this is.

 Besides all the usual culprits: biofuels, global warming  which seems to be proceeding apace, there’s also the danger of major wheat diseases, which the UN FAO suggests could cause famine. 

Since we’re already seeing violence over bread in places like Egypt, which is calling out the army to help stabilize the wheat crisis there.

 So, keep watching everyone!


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.

The Seeds of Hunger: Seed Availability as a Limiting Factor

Sharon March 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Month of March, which will be officially known as “Hard Times Now” month over here at CB. During the course of this month, I’m going to work under the assumption that we may reach a crisis point fairly soon due to economic constraints - and the underlying pressures of energy and food.

Do I know this to be true? Absolutely not - nor is my intent to scaremonger. But I do think that living the thought experiment of “what would happen if we entered into a Depression right now” is an important exercise. There are simply too many signs of deep, pervasive trouble (I’m not even going to bother linking here - if you don’t know what I mean check out the Debt Rattle at

So whether we’re talking obliquely about a food crisis by talking about food storage and preservation, or we’re explicitly exploring what we might have reason to be concerned about, I’m going to focus this month (and ask my readers to do the same) on the possibility that we may not have years to prepare or accustom ourselves to the idea of hard times, but weeks or months.

Which makes this a good time for me to write a series that I’ve been mulling over and working on for some time, about the problem of seed supplies. That is, I wanted to ask the question of whether our seed supply would be able to meet demand if we suddenly needed to move to large scale gardening and home food production? Would we even be able to do so, in a fast-growing food crisis (not unlike the one that seems to be beginning now)?

I found the answers disturbing. The first part will go over the problems of seed production. The second part will focus on what we can do about that, and the third and fourth on the ways that growing a seed saving garden that you rely upon for food and future food is different than the kind of gardening many of us do.

I’ve said before that I don’t find it especially likely that the US will undergo a Cuban-style sudden loss of all fossil fuel inputs anytime soon. I suspect our transition will go more slowly. But believing that we won’t have a sudden energy crisis doesn’t mean that I think that we may not be forced to make a fairly rapid transition to a regenerative, home scale agriculture.

It is not at all difficult to imagine present trends of rising food prices and and absolute shortages, combined with a faltering economy to bring about widespread hunger not only in the Global South, but in the North as well.

Right now most Americans and other rich world denizens are still fairly oblivious about the world’s depleted food supplies, falling reserves and the implications of peak oil and climate change for the food supply. While people are beginning to wake up to energy issues and climate change, the reality that it will affect their diets, and their access to dinner simply hasn’t penetrated. The news has just begun to discuss food issues, but we are already well into the early stages of a food crisis that is likely to continue to worsen.

When people do finally become aware, they are likely discover their vulnerability in some fairly difficult, unpleasant ways. They are likely to find stores short of preferred food – or prices too high for them to pay and food pantries unable to meet demand. They will need to eat different foods, and learn to grow them. Which means they will need seeds – millions or tens of millions of people will need seeds for their gardens.

And they will not merely need a couple of packets of tomatoes, basil and peppers, but enough seed to plant fairly large gardens filled with staple crops that can feed them through their dry or cold seasons, along with the tomatoes peppers and other flavoring crops that make such a diet palatable. That is, they will need ounces of parsnip and carrot seed, larger quantities still of seeds of greens for succession plantings, pounds of seed potatoes and plant starts. If they need winter or dry season greens, they will need additional seeds for sprouting.

And, because the need to garden is likely to be accompanied by economic difficulties, they will need open pollinated seeds, that is, seeds that come true to type, rather than more expensive hybrids that have to be bought year after year. Then, they will need to learn to save them, and in many cases, learn to produce enough seed for next year’s crop as well as feeding themselves, to store it and keep it viable. Or, if they rely on hybrids they will need to find the money for more seeds – but with millions or tens of millions of people competing for available seed sources, and predictable rises in price.

We face the real possibility that it may well be easier to teach 100 million Americans (and a similar proportion of folks in other nations in the Global North) how to grow food than it will be to find enough seeds to feed them, and to grow more, if an agricultural transition happens rapidly, requiring a large percentage of the US to grow food to feed itself quickly.

Obviously, there is no such thing in any meaningful sense as “peak seed” that is, a seed crisis is a short term, rather than long term problem. But assuming the possibility of a Depression or skyrocketing food prices, it is not so very hard to imagine that many of us might depend on our food supplies – and soon. With a large percentage of the US population needing to transition to home production in the space of a year or two, seed supply represents an enormous potential bottleneck, and one we have not consider sufficiently.

That is, individuals have thought about storing and saving seed for themselves, but my own perception is that little has been written or discussed in regards to the real stakes of the seed issues on a large scale.

There are a number of issues here. The first is the absolute supply of seed, the second the (vastly smaller) supply of open pollinated, non-GMO seeds. There are concerns about time to ramp up commercial seed production, and time needed to become a successful seed saver. There are issues of seed quality that are likely to become more critical when we depend on our garden seed to eat – that is, when a crop failure means that we do not have any peas this year. There are critical issues of genetic diversity and disease vulnerability, and particularly the vulnerability of staple food crops like corn and potatoes.

I think most of us have underestimated the potential limits created by our current seed production model when applied in a crisis. There are also solutions to these problems, and I will get to these.

One of the most obvious is home seed saving – the more people who produce seed, the better. But seed saving is not always easy, and seed savers gardens work differently, in some respects, than the gardens of those who can rely on seed always being available. Parts 3 and 4 of this series will consider how to create a seed savers garden – how much land needs to be allotted to seed crops and how serious seed saving shapes our gardens.

But first, I want to emphasize the sheer magnitude of the problem. I suspect many of us who are aware of food security issues have thought, at least a little, about the problems of getting seed in a situation of energy disruption, but mostly on a personal level. This essay is an attempt to evaluate how serious the seed issue might be on a national level for the US. I would encourage readers in other countries to consider doing similar evaluations for their own nations. I’ve kept my focus narrowly on my own country here because seed policies and garden practices differ enormously – other nations might well be better prepared. They’d almost have to be.

It is helpful to begin by describing the seed trade as a whole. The vast majority of seed production in the US is focused on professional, industrial scale farmers, and on a fairly narrow range of crops. A majority are either hybrids, that is they (generally – some plants labeled hybrids have actually stabilized genetically and do come true, but this is comparatively uncommon – more on this later) do not “come true” if you save seeds from them and replant.

That is, if you take an open pollinated seed (once all seeds were open pollinated), plant it, grow the plant out and save seed, you’ll get something pretty much like what you planted, if you take reasonable care to prevent cross-pollination. If you plant a hybrid, you’ll get a mix of “off-types” that resemble the parents, not the plant you want. Some of these may be fine, some may be nigh-on inedible – you simply don’t know. You can replant seed from hybrids, but often what you get will not be what you want – the plants will be less vigorous, lower yielding, less good tasting or in other ways inferior, because the hybrid was about the combination of the two parents, not either parent singularly. If you have time and patience, you can grow these hybrids out, get rid of any ones you don’t want, and select until you get something you do want, but that takes some years, and does not offer short term solutions.

The home garden trade is a small subset of the seed trade, and the serious home gardening/small farming trade a vastly smaller subset even of that. The majority of home gardeners start comparatively few seeds – they purchase pre-started flats of vegetables instead of seeds. I’m consistently amazed to see things that are grown from seed incredibly easily – lettuce, for example, in flats, and being bought like wildfire. So the majority of home gardeners have little experience planting seeds at all – carrots, perhaps and peas, and that’s probably about it. Although slightly off my main topic, this is something worth noting - even most experienced gardeners may have almost no experience growing food from seeds.

Of gardeners who do start seeds, the vast majority – more than 90% of them – do not order from seed catalogs and companies that specialize in home garden seeds, they get their seeds from seed racks in garden centers, supermarkets, Walmarts and other places. And the majority of seed companies that sell through these seed racks are not deeply invested in producing high quality seed. According to Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seeds and author of _Gardening When It Counts_ the vast majority of seed sales involve simply the purchase of bulk seed, often from foreign distributors, and repackaging of that seed without variety trials, often without germination tests, and with little consideration of what is adapted to particular regions.

In many cases, the cheapest varieties of bulk seeds will have off-types, because hybridization often requires labor-intensive hand pollinating in the field, and high cost isn’t what such companies are after. Solomon also notes that many companies use extremely poor quality seed, even sweepings from the seed floor, in cheap packets to be sold in commercial garden centers. Those 10cent packages of seed you see in various places may not actually even have 10 cents worth of seed in them.

Only about 10% of the home garden seed trade is focused on high quality vegetable seed production, mostly by mail order. These are the seed catalogs whose seed will have the germination percentages they claim. These are the people who will replace your packet that does have poor germination, and who will ensure vigorous seed with varities tested for your region – but it is important to remember that they do serve a tiny percentage of the total seed sales in the US, and they are not necessarily prepared to serve a vast increase in need.

That is not to say that high quality mail order catalogs are the only place you can get decent or viable seed – but they probably are the best source for home gardeners.

In an agricultural transition period, when people start running short of food, what they will want are seeds that are viable (that is, they are not too old and have been stored well, and thus, will grow), vigorous (that is, they grow well and don’t produce weak plants vulnerable to disease and pests), high yielding (that is, they produce a lot of whatever crop we are seeking), are adapted to their climate and to small scale food production (that is, they weren’t selected for commercial production, or primarily for shipping ability and they grow well where we’re growing food), available in fairly large quantities (most home gardeners buy a packet or two of each thing, but if you are feeding yourself from your garden, or making succession crops, or selling at market, you’ll find you need much more seed), and reasonably priced (that is, you can afford to buy it, or you can save seed and only buy it once).

Most of the home garden seed trade may produce seed that has some of these qualities, maybe even all of them. But only a small percentage is focused on ensuring that all these requirements are met. Assuming that, for example, we were to see food shortages in 2009, and a widespread agricultural transition beginning in 2010, how long would it take to ramp up an adequate seed supply that would serve small scale market gardeners and home food producers, and meet the above requirements?

Well, first of all, we could expect to see serious shortages in 2010. That year, seed suppliers would be unable to meet demand – they have been expecting less than 5% of the American population to plant any kind of garden, most of them flower gardens, and they simply don’t have enough spare production capacity to meet present needs. This is particularly likely if the biofuels boom is continuing, and there is no leeway in the demand for seed among commercial farmers that might be sold to home gardeners.

Imagining that 10-20% of the population begins to garden in 2010 and existing home gardeners expand their production, we can expect seed prices to skyrocket, availability to fall, and many people to have to rely on seed packets that don’t meet the above requirements – that is, seed packets that have been kept in heated supermarkets and thus have reduced viability, or those routinely placed outside where they get wet and are exposed to repeated freezing and thawing, or were of low quality to begin with. So not only will the seed trade come up short, but some of what will be sold will be seed that was never of a quality likely to feed those who depend on them.

This is seed that was grown cheaply, with minimal investment of labor in things like isolation and drying. The idea was to allow a gardener who wanted a few lettuce plants to essentially dump the whole package on the ground and get a few dozen lettuce plants – and for that purpose, it works. The problem is that if the home gardener really needs to eat the food they are growing, they need higher germination rates and vigor than they are likely to get from many commercial seed rack seeds. Remember, when you eat what you grow, seed quality equals food quantity. Poor seed means hunger

Now seed production obviously requires at least one year to ramp up – and two years for the large number of primary vegetable crops that are biennials. Many of these are staple foods in difficult times (carrots, cabbage, etc…). So let us imagine that early in 2010, as it becomes obvious that there’s much more demand for seed than there is supply, seed producers all over start casting around like mad for people to grow seed out for them.

In some cases, this will be perfectly possible. Existing seed farms may be able to ramp up their production. Large companies may be able to outsource seed production to poorer countries, where the labor intensive process of hybridization can be done cheaply – assuming, of course, that the crisis allows such trade and expansion. But again, assuming that the biofuels boom is still in progress, we may see difficulty finding land to triple or quadruple seed production.

Seed companies will probably look to farmers who have not grown seed before – and this is potentially a good business for them. But it is worth noting that the need for seed production will become obvious in late winter and early spring of a year in which many farmers will have already planned for crops – that is, it may not be easy to convince farmers to begin growing a field of carrots for seed production – that farmer may have expected to grow watermelons for market instead. A high price may have to be paid for the seed – more than the watermelons would have generated, which is likely to raise the price of seed further.

Seed saving on a large scale is quite difficult for some crops, and for inexperienced farmers – again, it is not unlikely that offtypes and some crosspollination will occur, particularly for wind pollinated crops that are difficult to isolate, such as corn. Since seed production also requires adequate equipment (winnowing, drying etc…) and storage facilities, again, it is likely that there will be some losses in production, even if seed sellers can find enough farmers to produce the seed at all so quickly.

For biennials, there are several additional issues. Most biennial production in the US takes place in fairly warm areas where it is not too difficult to overwinter chard or carrots in the field. If it is necessary to localize seed production, this may require more capital investment in hoophouses and other heat retention aids. Some crops may not be able to be produced on a large scale in some regions – for example, production of cabbage seed in the cold northeast generally involves digging up the cabbages, planting them in buckets of sand and replanting them – not bad on the home scale, much harder over multiple acres. This is enormously labor-intensive and large scale local cabbage seed production may be impossible – or prohibitively expensive. Also, a biennial crop that stays in the ground must compensate the farmer for extended periods in which she can’t plant anything else – again, prices can be expected to rise.

Meanwhile, new seed savers are likely to have similar difficulties with keeping seed pure and overwintering some crops – the learning curve on seed saving is reasonably long. It requires very little practice to successfully save lettuce, bean and pea seeds, but quite a bit to master squash, corn and beets, especially in a neighborhood where lots of other gardeners are creating opportunities for cross-pollination. Again, this is not necessarily a disaster – cross-pollination doesn’t always result in something you’d choose, but often the results are edible. But sometimes they aren’t – or just barely – if you have ever eaten the results of a badly isolated squash cross.

Practiced seed savers will be under some pressure to expand, either so that they can sell, give or share seed, or to enable family members to start their own gardens. So they can expect to have to either enlarge existing gardens, or devote an increasing percentage of their gardens to seed production. Some crops, such as squash, are have no “price” for seed production – that is, you can have your squash, eat it, and save the seeds. But for a majority of crops, a choice has to be made – eat it or save seed from it. Bolting lettuce and spinach are unpleasant to eat – a tomato, eggplant or pepper has to be on the verge of rotting to produce good seed. Peas and beans must be dried and saved. So must potatoes and sweet potatoes. Expanding seed production means making choices between more food and more seed – difficult in a time of crisis, when we’re hungry.

So we can expect that the ramp up will involve quite a lot of low quality seed in the first year or two, either from grower error, or outright hucksterism. For example, those who do not care about the eventual result might simply strip the seeds off some ears of corn, unconcerned about the fact that a field of cow corn grew right across the road from the popcorn, and that the plant will not come true.

Certainly we can expect prices to rise dramatically, and families to struggle to pay them. It would be 1 year before any rise in production of annual vegetable crops could be expected. 2 years before we would see the first biennials – remember, biennials include many nutritious, calorie dense and cold hardy crops. But again, those first and second year efforts are likely to be expensive and contain many quality issues. By year three or even four or five, depending on the severity of the crisis and the rate at which new gardeners are added, we could expect both an easing of constraints and a better seed supply – but in the meantime, depending on how much we depended on our gardens, the cost may come in malnutrition, even starvation.

Next, solutions and the creation of a seed savers garden.


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