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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food-Energy: the Fragile Link Between Resources & Population

excerpted with permission from The End of Fossil Energy and Per Capita Oil by John G. Howe of Waterford, ME

Every successful species harbors a genetic drive to reproduce more numbers than can be supported by a stable, sustainable environment. The limitations are food, non-energetic resources necessary as building blocks for life, competing spe- cies (also hungry for food), a hospitable ambience, and adequate physical space. Those who best adapt evolve as conditions crowd out or supercede those that don’t. This is simple Darwinism and most often infers a short, harsh individual life of competition and survival. Changes in the environment by natural causes and/or environmental destruction add additional challenges to the status quo, and favor those species which are fortunate enough to adapt, or smart enough to plan ahead.

THE FOOD-ENERGY BALANCE

Humans acquire their energy from food which at one time came directly (or indirectly farther down the food chain from other plant eaters) from plant photosynthesis of incoming solar energy. As quickly as new offspring begin to grow on their own, increased demands are placed on the food supply although at first it may be as food-energy still supplied by a supportive parent(s). As long as food is available the population will increase to the limits of the species’ range, individual or collective skill (including tools), and individual energy available to procure the food and/or avoid being food for others. It should be obvious that population is therefore limited first and primarily by the ability to access and store food…

To continue our analysis, we will focus on the food-energy balance required for human survival without relying on a temporary surge of non-renewable energy capital, e.g., fossil fuels, or imported food from another location or time (inferring a surplus somewhere else). For hundreds of thousands of years our predecessors lived as hunter-gatherers in a precarious ratio which had to be larger than one, between Food-Energy Returned On (Personal) Energy Invested (FEROPEI).

CULTIVATION AND AGRICULTURE

Then about ten thousand years ago, humans learned to utilize favorable, unique, local growing conditions and crops. The age of agriculture began. A slight improvement of human FEROPEI, combined with reduced energy requirements and risk related to excessive travel, provided a tiny energy surplus to support the beginning of recorded history. The extra energy made possible early civilizations and the construction of ancient monuments many of which have survived to this day. To build anything of substance, the energy has to come from the excess over and above the primary requisite-energy required for personal food and survival. Instead of a hunter-gatherer barely able to procure food for himself and enough progeny to perpetuate the species, a hard-working farmer with favorable ecological conditions could now feed additional dependents plus non-farmers. Energy-intensive travel was still limited by human personal mobility, draft animals, and wind power for sailing.

Because of agriculture, the average FEROPEI improved, possibly up to 6:1. This provided the steady-state support for long-term societies like the Chinese, but could not support continued growth of extensive, non-agrarian expansion like the Roman Empire. Many societies flourished, then collapsed because of the inevitable conflict between growing populations and the limitations and degradation of local food-carrying capacity.

ADDITIONAL ENERGY

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, slow adaptation to wind, water, and draft-animals gradually improved local agricultural output by reducing the direct dependency of food output from human-energy alone. The food-energy return on human labor input (FEROPEI) slowly increased up to the 10:1 or 12:1 range. Still, population was held in check by disease, poor health care, unpredictable diet, infant mortality, and short life spans. But, the new energy surplus made possible multiple layers of non-farm population, societal administration, and cities. Marketing, money, and laws evolved on the backs of peasant (or slave) farmers. There was enough extra energy and manpower to support armies and wars required to wage territorial, resource, and cultural disputes.

A very erratic and slow increase in world population continued up to just several hundred years ago. Additional food sources and room for growth came primarily from exploration and settlement of new lands. Malthus’s prediction of population limits was temporarily proven wrong because the exploitable world seemed limitless. Then, suddenly, inventions of new ways to exploit the convenient vast stores of finite fossil energy, far beyond renewable wind and water, made possible and began the industrial age. As would be expected, the unprecedented utilization of non-human energy escalated the food-energy available for human consumption and population growth.

A NEW (VERY SHORT) HIGH-ENERGY AGE

The utilization of vast stores of pre-stored fossil energy, beginning with coal two-hundred years ago, and followed by oil and natural gas, suddenly jumped the ratio of food energy returned on personal energy invested (FEROPEI) to as high as 300:1. One farmer could now feed three-hundred people instead of six by himself or twelve with the help of animal power. Concurrently, in the same short period, as would be expected, world population soared from one-billion to seven-billion. This was due to many factors directly related to the sudden energy bonanza. Access to formerly remote lands, genetic crop improvements, inorganic nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, energy-intensive farm equipment, irrigation, refrigeration, packaging, and long-distance mobility all contributed to the modern lifestyle now enjoyed by the industrialized world. Concurrently, giant strides in medicine and health care vastly increased life span and population. But still, all must eat with the same basic individual requirement(s)…

In the past several decades the “green revolution” maximized food production and made possible the seven-billion humans now needing food. However, this final push is unsustainable and is causing new problems; for instance, genetically modified (GM) foods may be linked to new health risks.

Resilience, an advantage of crop diversification, is absent. New pesticides, monoculture, and herbicides also lead to super-bugs and environmental contamination. The societal improvements promised by capitalism and industrialized agriculture are, in effect, just more examples of temporarily polarizing wealth between the masses and the few who control the system. Finally, and obviously, the mechanization of modern agriculture cannot continue without oil.

THE LINK MUST BREAK

Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital and therefore must inevitably face a return to the food-production default range with a FEROPEI as low as 6:1 or, at most, 12:1. This assumes individual farmers can retain a semblance of traditional agriculture, knowledge, hard work, and renewable energy, while drastically reducing non-food energy expenditures for travel and keeping warm. This is the “end point” we must return to in the next 60 to 80 years while, in the same one-lifetime span, reducing the numbers to be fed from the present seven billion back to, at most, one or two billion who must also be located very close to their food source. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. Nutrients must also be returned to their source. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil…

CAN WE RETURN TO “SUSTAINABILITY”?

Homo Sapiens will survive. Our ancient ancestors lived off the land and survived ice ages (without metal or plastics). But, in order to avoid total collapse first, we must clearly recognize our predicament in quantitative terms and define exactly what to do. We must get started immediately to allow time for a commensurate population reduction through natural attrition instead of famine, war, and disease. We will not make it without three basic prerequisites necessary in the time and direction available:

  1. Explicit knowledge and broad publicity of what to do, and why we (including you) must get started immediately, especially networking this story.
  2. Negative population growth at a level of not more than one child per female (or male).
  3. A systematic reduction of American per capita energy consumption from 22 b/b/y to 3 b/b/y (billion barrels per year); including rationing, in the next thirty years.

All must be done.

We should avoid wasting and/or fighting over the remaining oil. Never before in recorded history has there been so singular a resource as oil for food, or the urgency for a controlled descent from the ephemeral peak of energy usage we enjoy today. No other species has achieved the feat of anticipating and systematically executing an energy and directly-dependant population reduction.

In my office piled high with pertinent web print-outs I have one, in particular, a comprehensive classic (theoildrum.com, Oct 20, 2008). It is a paper by Peter Salonius, a Canadian soil microbiologist. The title, Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Began 10,000 Years Ago, and six parts including Part 4, Intensive crop cultures are unsustainable, cover the entire theme that “human population numbers will have to be brought into balance with the sustainable productivity levels of the local ecosystems upon which they rely for their sustenance”.

In Part 6 is a wonderful concluding paragraph:

Balancing of human numbers to the productivity of their supporting local ecosystems may be accomplished by planned attrition, much lower birth rates and the economic dislocations and hardships that a retreat from classical economic growth will incur, or the balancing of human numbers may be accomplished by a catastrophic collapse imposed by natural resource scarcity. The species with the large brain must make the choice between economic hardship and catastrophic collapse.

Now in my eighties, I speak as a retired engineer but with a lifetime of farming experience. I would be happy to send a copy of my book to anyone who provides a mailing address: 298 McIntire Road, Waterford, ME 04088. A ten or fifteen dollar donation would help but is not necessary. See www.solarcarandtractor.com.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Planting Calendar and Other Diagrams

From Dusty Shelves: A 1943 calendar for seeding your vegetable garden.

The First Year

The First Year

by:
from issue:

Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

Cultivating Questions: The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

It took several incarnations to come up with a satisfactory design for the bottom heated greenhouse bench. In the final version we used two 55 gallon drums welded end-to-end for the firebox and a salvaged piece of 12” stainless steel chimney for the horizontal flue. We learned the hard way that a large firebox and flue are necessary to dissipate the intense heat into the surrounding air chamber and to minimize heat stress on these components.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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from issue:

The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

The Brabants Farm

The Brabants’ Farm

by:
from issue:

The Brabants’ Farm is a multi purpose farming operation whose main goal is to promote “horsefarming.” Our philosophy is to support the transformation of regional conventional agriculture and forestry into a sustainable, socially responsible, and less petroleum dependent based agriculture, by utilizing animal drawn technology (“horsefarming”), and by meeting key challenges in 21st century small scale agriculture and forestry in Colombia and throughout South America.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

by:
from issue:

In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

by:
from issue:

At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

LittleField Notes: Fall 2011

by:
from issue:

There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process.

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

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from issue:

I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

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In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

by:
from issue:

It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT