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Fw: [energyresources] Question about carrying capacity of organic agriculture

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  • John Warner
    Here s an interesting post from the Energy Resources list. ... From: To: Sent: Wednesday, January 14,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2004
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      Here's an interesting post from the Energy Resources list.

      ----- Original Message -----
      From: <er@...>
      To: <energyresources@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 11:22 PM
      Subject: [energyresources] Question about carrying capacity of organic

      > 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?
      > Your message didn't show up on the list? Complaints or compliments?
      > Drop me (Tom Robertson) a note at t1r@...
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