Friday, November 07, 2014

Regenerative Agriculture: The Transition.

In the face of peak oil and in order to curb carbon emissions, methods of farming that depend less on oil and natural gas, respectively to run machinery and to make synthetic fertilizers, must be sought. Such options are to be found within the framework of regenerative agriculture, but the transition from current industrialised agriculture to these alternative strategies will prove testing.

It is an illusion to think we can continue to use as much energy as we do now. No one can entirely rule-out that some extravagant technology will be forthcoming, e.g. solar power or nuclear fusion on the full-scale of more than 500 EJ/year as we get through now, but the particular issue of matching liquid fuels derived currently almost entirely from petroleum appears insurmountable. The "solution" is probably the collective of individual solutions, and this means adopting a completely different paradigm of human philosophy and intention. The most pressing demand is how to feed the population of the world, and how to adapt industrialised conurbations, with cities provided for entirely from external regions for their food and electricity. If oil is the most vulnerable element in the energy-mix as the life-blood of transportation, then we must aim to live with less transportation, and this includes the means and distribution implicit to modern food production.

In methods of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, much of the energy involved is provided quite naturally by native soil flora and fauna fed ultimately by photosynthesis, since the fuel for good soil derives from plants as the factories that supply carbon-rich nutrients, and in a wonderful symbiosis, the living soil microbes, especially fungi can draw other nutrients and water from the soil to nourish the plants. The individual elements of life feed one another in a mutually dependent and beneficial manner.

While the two approaches can be defined and envisaged rather clearly, the intermediate means for transition from industrial agriculture, with its acknowledged unsustainable impact on the soil, to regenerative agriculture (permaculture, agro-ecology) is rather more nebulous, since it has not been done before, or at least not in the degree that necessity now demands. So how might we perform this revolution in the least painful way?

For a start, a decolinising and restructuring of present industrialised agriculture is necessary along with an appreciation and magnification of native and traditional food systems Overall, a change in thinking and concept is required from conflict and limit to cooperation and abundance.

The scale of the transition may be compared with other milestone transitions throughout human history, such as the hunter-gatherers becoming farmers, and then modern industrial societies. It is the latter that are under threat and unsustainable, and a compromise devolution to a more localised collective of small communities (pods) is required, supplied by local farms and infrastructure with (probably) rail links between them for essential movement of goods and people. The maintenance of the Internet and electronic communications would seem desirable since ideas and knowledge can be transmitted from pod to pod and between countries and continents.

In the 1970s, there were studies done that evaluated the massive inefficiency in energy requirements for food production. It was concluded that 10 Calories of energy are expended to bring 1 calorie of food onto the dinner plate It has been stressed that essential agricultural production is to yield food and fibre - i.e. the essential elements of biomass. One might also add-in fuel as a product, if the consideration also includes fermentation of sugars form starch into ethanol, or hydrothermal production of liquid and gaseous fuels from biomass by heating it under pressure in the presence of water.

The impending stress of "climate change" is well acknowledged, e.g. sea-level rise and the spreading desertification of formerly green lands, but its impact on agriculture is rarely mentioned by climate-modellers. However, as a for-instance, it is speculated that the Colorado River basin could dry up. It's mighty dams would then look something like the pyramids of Egypt, maybe leaving future generations to speculate as to what their purpose was, and upon the nature of the civilization that created them. As climate zones shift, it is the variability of the weather that will have greater impact than ramping "mean temperatures" on the enormous investment made by humans in agriculture. The capital outlays required for new dams, irrigation supplies and the retraining of farmers will need to be contrasted with that for flood-defences in vulnerable locations (e.g. New Orleans and the east coast of England). Most likely both cannot be supported and it may prove expedient to simply let some regions "go to the sea".

Biodiversity is a natural means for evening-out the losses and gains of living systems It is cooperative in the sense that pests are not encouraged as they are by growing single strains of crop, and that suitably matched plants help each other to grow - the holistic whole being more robust than the simple measure of its components. The term "global village" tends to signify an interconnected unity of trade or electronic communication, while aspects of cultural diversity and biodiversity seldom enter the line of thinking. However, it is a necessity to preserve and expand the traditional food and fibre production systems that are tried and tested and whose regenerative capabilities have been demonstrated over millennia. We may adapt to or readopt cultures that have been lost, as industrial civilization has supplanted them, and it is the latter that we must seek to break away from in order to arrive at a sustainable future, that is if we are to survive as a human species.

If "global village" means "global supermarket", the term lends acceptance to the concomitant rule of multinational corporations. If we restructure societies to become self-sustaining, rather than dependent on inputs and indeed outputs, as they are now, we also must abandon "limited liability" and the legal designation of "corporations" as "persons" with the same rights as individual citizens. Traditional food systems are storehouses both of biodiversity and cultural diversity. It is a pity that the seedbanks around the world contain no information about the culture, economy, details of cultivation methods, flavour or other human aspects of the crops and the food they produce. Including my own musings on the topic, most commentators on the post peak oil world refer to the need to localise food systems, such that small populations are provided for locally by means of community farms. However, establishing regenerative systems to grow food and fibre must include cities too, the design of which must be analysed in terms of the natural mechanisms that interweave them.

It is mostly not realised that the rural development or redevelopment urged by the industrialised nations for the developing world are precisely those they need to adopt themselves. E.F.Schumacher's "Buddhist Economics" which he describes in the bestselling "Small is Beautiful - A Study of Economics as if People mattered", applies equally to the industrialised world as it must of needs de-industrialise, and take lessons from simpler societies which consume far less per head of population. The example of Cuba may be taken as a benchmark for progress, as it has survived and indeed thrived through implementing a system of community gardens, in the abrupt absence of cheap and plentiful oil and fertilizers gifted from the Soviet Union when that regime collapsed in 1989. "Small is Beautiful" has been updated for the 21st Century context by Fritz Schumacher's Daughter-in-Law, Diana:

James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis has acted as an iconic beacon to the environmental movement, drawing-in a range of people who are dissatisfied with the industrial and materialistic way of life, and seek alternative, more natural and or spiritually rewarding lifestyles, and with less detriment to the planet and life upon it. "Gaia" is holistic in nature and is based on ecology. Rather than an indstrialised "global village" it implies a "globe of villages". Food and fibre production one of the most important features of the transition to a post-fossil fuel era, to which the establishment of regenerative food systems is essential. Underpinning all of this is the need to grow and protect perhaps the most fundamental element of the life-nexus, the soil itself, which is truly "our children's earth"


Michael Stephenson said...

I calculated world ammonia production via the haber process, versus the best production method via electrolysis against global electricity production and it came to roughly 5% of global electricity production, and that electrolysis will become viable. I expected it to be much higher, and I admittedly did not include rock phosphates.

I do expect an entire collapse in food production. But Markets!

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

That's very interesting. Indeed, the low price of oil is likely to be temporary because it is in some cases costing more to produce it than it can be sold for.

I think the markets and economies will be squeezed badly as a consequence, but the oil price has to go up again, or there will be a collapse.

Food production appears to be vulnerable to many factors, the most fundamental one being the loss of topsoil. I'm talking about this to the Conway Hall Ethical Society tomorrow morning:

Michael Stephenson said...

I peraonally think the low price (along with the economic sanctions) is an ill conceived plan to create the conditions to overthrow Putin and replace him with a neoliberal like Khodorkovsky who will sell off Russia's oil and gas companies, I can't see it succeeding.

Far too far for me to attend your Conway Hall talk I'm afraid, hope it went well. I may try to make your reading talk on the 25th as I'll be down that way anyway.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Michael,

the Conway Hall talk did seem to go very well (this is the third one I have done for them, and there is talk of getting me back for one in the main lecture hall).

I have heard various "conspiracy" theories about the oil price being deliberately held down to (1) bring down the Russian economy, or (2) that the Saudis etc. who can produce oil at £25 a barrel are doing to to put the U.S.out of business on fracking etc., which costs much more ($80 and more) to produce.

If the price remains as low as it is there will be dramatic economic consequences globally, but I don't see how the oil companies (many of whom are selling off assets to generate cash-flow to pay their shareholders among other things), can continue to lose money on producing and selling oil.

I think the price has to go back up in accord with the marginal production costs.

As you say, I am speaking to Reading U3A on the 25th, so if you are there, it will be good to meet you at last!



Michael Stephenson said...

Hi Chris


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

This interesting because Russia can produce oil much cheaper than the West can. That said, its spending commitments require a given price of a barrel of oil at ca $90. My feeling is that it is the West that will suffer economically more, if the low oil price maintains.

I don't see how this can persist though, as some oil companies are losing money on oil.

I think it is probably a very smart move on Russia' part to buy "real" gold, which will always have an actual value, and yet 55 tonnes of it is worth "only" about $2 billion, so on it's own it doesn't make so much difference.

I wonder if some of that gold will disappear into the pockets of chosen individuals?

Michael Stephenson said...

I read a book called "Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis" by James Rickards. In it he recalls taking part in financial war games for he pentagon, in it he played as Russia and a friend played as China and they colluded to play a tact reminiscent as this, although his friend playing China failed to convince others on his team, Rickards faired better convincing his team mates and Russia did very well out of it. In the war game they also created a gold backed currency to compete against the dollar.

Whether or not this actually took place is a matter of whether you believe Rickards or not but the story rings true.

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