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Question about carrying capacity of organic agriculture

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  • er@sgale.fastmail.fm
    Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast Food World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a rough transcription of
    Message 1 of 8 , Jan 14, 2004
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      Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast Food
      World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a rough
      transcription of an astute question from an audience member along with
      answers from three of the participants.

      Q: Do you think that we have changed the carrying capacity of the earth
      through fossil fuels to the extent that we could not support the current
      population with organic agriculture free of synthetic fertilizers?

      Michael Pollan: That is a very hard and scary question. When I've done
      research on nitrogen fertilizer, which in a way is the key 20th century
      invention driving the whole industrialization of food, is the fact
      that we've learned how to turn fossil fuel into food for our plants. I
      learned that there are 2 billion people on this planet whose very
      substance is nitrogen that came from those fertilizers. So whether we
      can undo that is a real question. That is the limiting factor in so
      much agriculture and therefore in so much population is this limitation
      on the nitrogen in our soil--and we've exceeded that artificially. Now
      there is a margin, Wes Jackson says there is a kind of margin of error
      because we're feeding so much food to animals. If we truly went to
      organic and could eliminate all the fertility we are giving to our
      cattle, it might help. I don't think it is at all clear that going
      to organic agriculture as we know it could support a population of 8
      billion.

      Wendell Berry: Well, the first thing to say in reply to that question,
      is we don't know. We're probably going to find out. (Nervous audience
      laughter) But, to talk about this dependence on industrial agriculture
      that we now have is, once we understand it, is to propose that we become
      dependent on a form of agriculture that is ultimately going to starve
      everybody. So, whether we can feed everybody for a while with this kind
      of farming is just a quibble. We've got to hope that we have some kind
      of a margin for change. If the government decided to change right now
      to a more conservative kind of agriculture we couldn't do it in this
      country very fast because we don't have the people to do it, we don't
      have the knowledge, we don't have the skill, we don't have the local
      cultures that can sustain this kind of work. We had these cultures half
      a century ago, this would have been a much more thinkable thing than it
      is now. But you can't simply pull the farmers you need out of the labor
      pool as you would for factory work or other industrial work. To have
      good farming, you have to have people who know how to do it, and we just
      don't have them, and we're not saving the ones we have. (Polite Applause
      for the older gentleman)

      Vandana Shiva: I don't know the farms in Iowa, I've never been there,
      I've never seen them. But I have studied the green revolution in India,
      which is the introduction of fossil fuel inputs, whether as nitrogen
      as fertilizer or as mechanization. And in fact that's what started me
      off on spending my time and life on food issues, because at the end of
      studying the violence in Punjab in the 80's, it became very clear that
      we hadn't produced more food on the land in Punjab. We had produced more
      rice and wheat. But we had produced more rice and wheat by getting rid
      of all the oilseed, all the pulses, all the greens that were also part
      of food, but they were never taken into account in the food basket. The
      fact that the calculations have always been done with respect to the
      monocultures of five globally traded commodities and then generating
      the artificial surpluses in those commodities, does not mean more food
      is being grown per unit resource use. I believe less food is being
      grown per unit resource use, and the units of resource use are land,
      biodiversity, and water. We're actually using ten times more water to
      grow the same amount of food. So we're mining the planet for water,
      just to dissolve the extra chemicals. The plants don't need that excess
      water, the chemicals need it. And I also know, beyond a point, you can't
      keep pumping synthetic fertilizers into the soil and have the plant keep
      taking it up, because what helps the plants take up nutrients is the
      living organisms in the soil. So chemicals have no direct relationships
      with the plants. The fact that we extrapolate, very conveniently, to
      say this much more additions of nutrients--in Punjab, the productivity
      and yield is declining totally because now the soils are saturated
      with synthetic fertilizers which have killed the original creators of
      fertility. We need to move from monoculture calculations to biodiversity
      calculations, and I think in terms of biodiversity, ecological farms
      using biodiversity--not just monoculture organic farms (I think those
      will stay impoverished)--but biodiverse farms using land, water, and
      biodiversity efficiently and having biodiversity not just as an input
      but as an output, that output is much higher than any industrial farm
      can produce. And that I think is a biological fact. (Louder Applause)

      The third answer differs significantly from the first two. Shiva
      sidesteps the dilemma altogether by asserting that the green revolution
      of synthetically fertilizing monocultures never actually increased real
      productivity when compared with organic polyculture. Is anyone aware of
      any hard data to support her position, or is she obfuscating in order to
      provide a happy, applause-inducing, book-selling answer?
    • bradfordfour
      Can you please give us a link to those transcripts? I d like to answer your question, but so far I am not able to figure this out myself. I see good
      Message 2 of 8 , Jan 15, 2004
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        Can you please give us a link to those transcripts?

        I'd like to answer your question, but so far I am not able to figure
        this out myself. I see good information about yields from
        permaculture, biointensive, etc., but I have the same questions
        about scale as we get with other technologies and the questions
        about lag time as brought up in responses below.

        Jason, CA

        --- In energyresources@yahoogroups.com, er@s... wrote:
        > Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast
        Food
        > World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a
        rough
        > transcription of an astute question from an audience member along
        with
        > answers from three of the participants.
        >
        > Q: Do you think that we have changed the carrying capacity of the
        earth
        > through fossil fuels to the extent that we could not support the
        current
        > population with organic agriculture free of synthetic fertilizers?
        >
        > Michael Pollan: That is a very hard and scary question. When I've
        done
        > research on nitrogen fertilizer, which in a way is the key 20th
        century
        > invention driving the whole industrialization of food, is the fact
        > that we've learned how to turn fossil fuel into food for our
        plants. I
        > learned that there are 2 billion people on this planet whose very
        > substance is nitrogen that came from those fertilizers. So whether
        we
        > can undo that is a real question. That is the limiting factor in so
        > much agriculture and therefore in so much population is this
        limitation
        > on the nitrogen in our soil--and we've exceeded that artificially.
        Now
        > there is a margin, Wes Jackson says there is a kind of margin of
        error
        > because we're feeding so much food to animals. If we truly went to
        > organic and could eliminate all the fertility we are giving to our
        > cattle, it might help. I don't think it is at all clear that going
        > to organic agriculture as we know it could support a population of
        8
        > billion.
        >
        > Wendell Berry: Well, the first thing to say in reply to that
        question,
        > is we don't know. We're probably going to find out. (Nervous
        audience
        > laughter) But, to talk about this dependence on industrial
        agriculture
        > that we now have is, once we understand it, is to propose that we
        become
        > dependent on a form of agriculture that is ultimately going to
        starve
        > everybody. So, whether we can feed everybody for a while with this
        kind
        > of farming is just a quibble. We've got to hope that we have some
        kind
        > of a margin for change. If the government decided to change right
        now
        > to a more conservative kind of agriculture we couldn't do it in
        this
        > country very fast because we don't have the people to do it, we
        don't
        > have the knowledge, we don't have the skill, we don't have the
        local
        > cultures that can sustain this kind of work. We had these cultures
        half
        > a century ago, this would have been a much more thinkable thing
        than it
        > is now. But you can't simply pull the farmers you need out of the
        labor
        > pool as you would for factory work or other industrial work. To
        have
        > good farming, you have to have people who know how to do it, and
        we just
        > don't have them, and we're not saving the ones we have. (Polite
        Applause
        > for the older gentleman)
        >
        > Vandana Shiva: I don't know the farms in Iowa, I've never been
        there,
        > I've never seen them. But I have studied the green revolution in
        India,
        > which is the introduction of fossil fuel inputs, whether as
        nitrogen
        > as fertilizer or as mechanization. And in fact that's what started
        me
        > off on spending my time and life on food issues, because at the
        end of
        > studying the violence in Punjab in the 80's, it became very clear
        that
        > we hadn't produced more food on the land in Punjab. We had
        produced more
        > rice and wheat. But we had produced more rice and wheat by getting
        rid
        > of all the oilseed, all the pulses, all the greens that were also
        part
        > of food, but they were never taken into account in the food
        basket. The
        > fact that the calculations have always been done with respect to
        the
        > monocultures of five globally traded commodities and then
        generating
        > the artificial surpluses in those commodities, does not mean more
        food
        > is being grown per unit resource use. I believe less food is being
        > grown per unit resource use, and the units of resource use are
        land,
        > biodiversity, and water. We're actually using ten times more water
        to
        > grow the same amount of food. So we're mining the planet for water,
        > just to dissolve the extra chemicals. The plants don't need that
        excess
        > water, the chemicals need it. And I also know, beyond a point, you
        can't
        > keep pumping synthetic fertilizers into the soil and have the
        plant keep
        > taking it up, because what helps the plants take up nutrients is
        the
        > living organisms in the soil. So chemicals have no direct
        relationships
        > with the plants. The fact that we extrapolate, very conveniently,
        to
        > say this much more additions of nutrients--in Punjab, the
        productivity
        > and yield is declining totally because now the soils are saturated
        > with synthetic fertilizers which have killed the original creators
        of
        > fertility. We need to move from monoculture calculations to
        biodiversity
        > calculations, and I think in terms of biodiversity, ecological
        farms
        > using biodiversity--not just monoculture organic farms (I think
        those
        > will stay impoverished)--but biodiverse farms using land, water,
        and
        > biodiversity efficiently and having biodiversity not just as an
        input
        > but as an output, that output is much higher than any industrial
        farm
        > can produce. And that I think is a biological fact. (Louder
        Applause)
        >
        > The third answer differs significantly from the first two. Shiva
        > sidesteps the dilemma altogether by asserting that the green
        revolution
        > of synthetically fertilizing monocultures never actually increased
        real
        > productivity when compared with organic polyculture. Is anyone
        aware of
        > any hard data to support her position, or is she obfuscating in
        order to
        > provide a happy, applause-inducing, book-selling answer?
      • woodard214
        While I can t provide an authoritative and complete answer, 1. chemical agriculture typically produces crops with a higher water content than those grown by
        Message 3 of 8 , Jan 15, 2004
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          While I can't provide an authoritative and complete answer,

          1. "chemical" agriculture typically produces crops with a higher
          water content than those grown by "organic" methods (which are not
          the same as just growing without syntehtic fertilizers). Organic
          crops have higher dry matter and nutrient content, of the order of 10-
          20%.

          2. The Green Revolution in India involved replacing wheat with 12%
          protein content with much larger quantities of wheat with 6% protein
          content, and an end to the growing of high-protein, nitrogen-fixing
          lentils etc. With cheap fuel and fertilizer and the necessary finance
          it was more profitable - for a while.

          3. Organic crop production in North America typically involves
          growing nitrogen-fixing crops as part of a rotation, and these are
          typically forages for animal feed. Rotations with soybeans and other
          human-food nitrogen-fixng legumes fix a rather limited amount of
          nitrogen. The total production with nitrogen-fixing forages is large,
          but much of it is not directly suitable for humans; the amount of
          plant production which can be turned into human food is much reduced.
          Can we develop cropping systems which fix nitrogen in adequate
          amounts and produce mostly human food? I don't know. If it's
          possible, it will take effort and time. Will we have enough time? The
          current North American industrial agriculkture is very efficient in
          its use of labour, but inefficient in its use of land (except that it
          doesn't need to grow horse feed). More labour well used would produce
          more food.

          However, dairying is a relatively efficient way of producing animal
          protein and fats.

          Doug Woodard
          St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada


          --- In energyresources@yahoogroups.com, er@s... wrote:

          [snip]

          > The third answer differs significantly from the first two. Shiva
          > sidesteps the dilemma altogether by asserting that the green
          revolution
          > of synthetically fertilizing monocultures never actually increased
          real
          > productivity when compared with organic polyculture. Is anyone
          aware of
          > any hard data to support her position, or is she obfuscating in
          order to
          > provide a happy, applause-inducing, book-selling answer?
        • John Warner
          Michael Pollan, quoted in full below, says, When I ve done research on nitrogen fertilizer . . . [I ve found] that we ve learned how to turn fossil fuel into
          Message 4 of 8 , Jan 15, 2004
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            Michael Pollan, quoted in full below, says, "When I've done research on
            nitrogen fertilizer . . . [I've found] that we've learned how to turn
            fossil fuel into food for our plants."

            This is not correct. As a small farmer who practices alternative
            agriculture, I feel poorly represented by a number of self-appointed
            spokespeople who claim they are championing my interests. I prefer
            intellectual honesty.

            Industrial nitrogen is generated by the Haber process which goes like this .
            . .

            Hydrogen and nitrogen gas, when subjected to heat and pressure, will yeild
            ammonia plus heat [which is put back into the process].

            So where's the fossil fuel? None required. Heat and pressure can easily be
            generated from renewable resources such as hydroelectric or perhaps even
            wood. It would be interesting to know, however, how much net energy is
            required to keep the process going. It's quite likely that in practice
            petrofuels are used, but they are not required.





            Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast Food
            World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a rough
            transcription of an astute question from an audience member along with
            answers from three of the participants.

            Q: Do you think that we have changed the carrying capacity of the earth
            through fossil fuels to the extent that we could not support the current
            population with organic agriculture free of synthetic fertilizers?

            Michael Pollan: That is a very hard and scary question. When I've done
            research on nitrogen fertilizer, which in a way is the key 20th century
            invention driving the whole industrialization of food, is the fact
            that we've learned how to turn fossil fuel into food for our plants. I
            learned that there are 2 billion people on this planet whose very
            substance is nitrogen that came from those fertilizers. So whether we
            can undo that is a real question. That is the limiting factor in so
            much agriculture and therefore in so much population is this limitation
            on the nitrogen in our soil--and we've exceeded that artificially. Now
            there is a margin, Wes Jackson says there is a kind of margin of error
            because we're feeding so much food to animals. If we truly went to
            organic and could eliminate all the fertility we are giving to our
            cattle, it might help. I don't think it is at all clear that going
            to organic agriculture as we know it could support a population of 8
            billion.
          • er@sgale.fastmail.fm
            ... No, sorry. I typed it up myself while listening. I can provide links to the MP3 audio: http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=8392 If you download part
            Message 5 of 8 , Jan 15, 2004
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              On Thu, Jan 15, 2004 at 06:03:15PM -0000, bradfordfour wrote:

              > Can you please give us a link to those transcripts?

              No, sorry. I typed it up myself while listening. I can provide links to
              the MP3 audio:

              http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=8392
              If you download part two, the question is asked at about the 19:45 mark.

              or the RealPlayer video:

              http://webcast.berkeley.edu/events/details.html?event_id=111

              However, most of the discussion is not directly on the topic I brought
              up.
            • Jack Dingler
              Of course fossil fuels aren t required. Only if you want artifical fertilizers in sufficient quantity to meet demand, are we forced to use fossil fuels. As to
              Message 6 of 8 , Jan 16, 2004
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                Of course fossil fuels aren't required. Only if you want artifical
                fertilizers in sufficient quantity to meet demand, are we forced to
                use fossil fuels.

                As to using other energy sources that are already spoken for, like
                hydro-power, what would you have people give up, in order to take
                their energy away and use it to make fertilizers? I assume aluminum
                production would be the first to go, as much of that is hydro-powered.

                Jack Dingler

                --- In energyresources@yahoogroups.com, "John Warner" <daddyoat@n...>
                wrote:
                > Michael Pollan, quoted in full below, says, "When I've done research on
                > nitrogen fertilizer . . . [I've found] that we've learned how to turn
                > fossil fuel into food for our plants."
                >
                > This is not correct. As a small farmer who practices alternative
                > agriculture, I feel poorly represented by a number of self-appointed
                > spokespeople who claim they are championing my interests. I prefer
                > intellectual honesty.
                >
                > Industrial nitrogen is generated by the Haber process which goes
                like this .
                > . .
                >
                > Hydrogen and nitrogen gas, when subjected to heat and pressure, will
                yeild
                > ammonia plus heat [which is put back into the process].
                >
                > So where's the fossil fuel? None required. Heat and pressure can
                easily be
                > generated from renewable resources such as hydroelectric or perhaps even
                > wood. It would be interesting to know, however, how much net energy is
                > required to keep the process going. It's quite likely that in practice
                > petrofuels are used, but they are not required.
                >
                >
                >
                >
                >
                > Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast Food
                > World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a rough
                > transcription of an astute question from an audience member along with
                > answers from three of the participants.
                >
                > Q: Do you think that we have changed the carrying capacity of the earth
                > through fossil fuels to the extent that we could not support the current
                > population with organic agriculture free of synthetic fertilizers?
                >
                > Michael Pollan: That is a very hard and scary question. When I've done
                > research on nitrogen fertilizer, which in a way is the key 20th century
                > invention driving the whole industrialization of food, is the fact
                > that we've learned how to turn fossil fuel into food for our plants. I
                > learned that there are 2 billion people on this planet whose very
                > substance is nitrogen that came from those fertilizers. So whether we
                > can undo that is a real question. That is the limiting factor in so
                > much agriculture and therefore in so much population is this limitation
                > on the nitrogen in our soil--and we've exceeded that artificially. Now
                > there is a margin, Wes Jackson says there is a kind of margin of error
                > because we're feeding so much food to animals. If we truly went to
                > organic and could eliminate all the fertility we are giving to our
                > cattle, it might help. I don't think it is at all clear that going
                > to organic agriculture as we know it could support a population of 8
                > billion.
              • Roger Arnold
                In http://groups.yahoo.com/group/energyresources/message/48581, John Warner points out that nitrogen fertilizers are produced by the Haber process. It doesn t
                Message 7 of 8 , Jan 17, 2004
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                  In http://groups.yahoo.com/group/energyresources/message/48581, John Warner
                  points out that nitrogen fertilizers are produced by the Haber process. It
                  doesn't involve fossil fuels directly.

                  Jack Dingler then replied:

                  ----- Original Message -----
                  From: "Jack Dingler" <weaseldog2001@...>

                  > Of course fossil fuels aren't required. Only if you want artifical
                  > fertilizers in sufficient quantity to meet demand, are we forced to
                  > use fossil fuels.
                  >
                  > As to using other energy sources that are already spoken for, like
                  > hydro-power, what would you have people give up, in order to take
                  > their energy away and use it to make fertilizers? I assume aluminum
                  > production would be the first to go, as much of that is hydro-powered.
                  >
                  > Jack Dingler

                  It worth noting that production of ammonia for fertilizer is the perfect
                  application for energy from wind turbines. Doesn't matter if the wind farm
                  is out on the plains, 100 miles from the nearest power transmission line.
                  Doesn't matter that the wind is intermittent. You just use power when it's
                  available to produce hydrogen, and make ammonia right there at the wind
                  farm. It's pretty easy to transport, either by truck, rail, or pipeline.
                  Or it can be converted to urea, which is safer in the event of an accident.

                  With the price of natural gas way up for at least five years to come, that's
                  probably already the cheapest way to produce fertilizer in North America.
                  But somebody needs to manufacture the small ammonia plants and promote the
                  idea to investors. It would be a good business for Stuart Energy, since
                  they already make electrolysis units for hydrogen production.

                  Roger Arnold
                  Sunnyvale, CA
                • Mike Stasse
                  ... ... research on ... turn ... will ... John, And just where do you think the Hydrogen comes from? Either it s made from electrolysis
                  Message 8 of 8 , Jan 17, 2004
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                    > --- In energyresources@yahoogroups.com, "John Warner"
                    <daddyoat@n...>
                    > wrote:
                    > > Michael Pollan, quoted in full below, says, "When I've done
                    research on
                    > > nitrogen fertilizer . . . [I've found] that we've learned how to
                    turn
                    > > fossil fuel into food for our plants."
                    > >
                    > > This is not correct. > >
                    > > Industrial nitrogen is generated by the Haber process which goes
                    > like this .
                    > > . .
                    > >
                    > > Hydrogen and nitrogen gas, when subjected to heat and pressure,
                    will
                    > yeild
                    > > ammonia plus heat [which is put back into the process].

                    John,

                    And just where do you think the Hydrogen comes from?

                    Either it's made from electrolysis (unlikely as only 2-3% of all H2
                    is made this way), or it comes from natural gas reformation.

                    Mike Stasse
                    Australia
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