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Local Farming Can’t Save the Planet

“The world is flat,” proclaimed economist Thomas Friedman in his 2005 book of the same title. And since then, the world has flattened further still. Not only has a contagious fragment of RNA ravaged every corner of the world, but so have the economic shockwaves. In a flat world, everything is connected to everything. And if someone somewhere happens to capture and sell the wrong bat, we’re all in trouble.

This is one reason we’re witnessing a fresh backlash against globalization, in particular when it comes to the way we produce and transport food. “Spoiled Milk, Rotten Vegetables and a Very Broken Food System: The coronavirus crisis demonstrates what is wrong with how the world feeds itself,” proclaimed a New York Times headline last month. Across much of the world, these concerns tap into pre-pandemic anxieties about our mass-industrial approach to food creation, and longings for smaller, family-run, more sustainable, and humane production closer to our communities. Instead of hauling foodstuffs around the globe, we’re told, we need to appreciate local and seasonal crops again.

True, globalization has made our food ridiculously cheap compared to previous eras. But perhaps that’s part of the problem. As Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, recently put it in an interview, we need to replace the current “low-cost” approach with one that holistically addresses national health, environmental, and social needs—including the need to avoid carbon emissions associated with international food shipping. Or as British author Carolyn Steel argued in her new book Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World, cheap food is in fact no bargain, because it is bad for us. And so if we pay a little more for what we put in our mouths, we’ll actually be getting better value.

The data, however, says otherwise. To be clear, we have nothing against local and seasonal food, including organic and artisanal varieties that come with a heftier price tag. Indeed, from time to time, you can spot each of us at the local vegetable market filling up a paper bag with delicious produce straight from the local farm—or sipping a bottle of wine made from local grapes, perhaps even trampled barefoot in the old Roman fashion. And we both support the idea of urban farming projects, in which city-dwellers grow vegetables in communal lots. All of this enriches our lives by fostering a feeling of connection with nature and with the food coming out of the ground.

But there is an inconvenient truth that proponents of local and self-sufficient farming tend to ignore: We can’t feed 10 billion people this way without destroying the planet.

Organic farming, in particular, represents a form of luxury consumption for well-off westerners who can afford it. If you start crunching the numbers, you’ll find that it is significantly less efficient than conventional farming (by about 20–30 percent), as is local and small-scale farming in general. This inefficiency is not just a question of price and profits; it also means more environmental degradation, more carbon emissions, and more waste, per unit of food produced.

Consider the desire for locally grown food. The authors of a recent study in Nature calculated how many people worldwide would be able to get their staple crops (wheat, rice, corn, sorghum) if they were required to source them from within a radius of 100 km. They estimated the figure at between 11 and 28 percent, not even a third of the global population. For the rest of the world, crops need to travel a longer distance. For half of us, this is typically more than 1,000 km. And the reason is simple: Not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food, and some regions are far more suitable than others. “Buying local” is fine if you happen to live in a fertile, temperate river delta, but not so much if you live in a drier or colder region. And even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”

But surely, shipping food across the planet is wasteful, and causes carbon dioxide emissions and other forms of pollution, right? In net terms, in fact, the opposite is true. If you track all the carbon emissions related to the production, packaging, and distribution of food, the contribution of transport is surprisingly small: a mere 10 percent (and for beef as low as 0.5 percent). The other 90 percent comes from the tractors, fertilizers, tilling, irrigation, deforestation, and other resources and activities that go into production. By buying local, you’re cutting down on the 10 percent tranche, but more than offsetting it through the other 90 percent.

Why? Because farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils, leading to higher use of fertilizer, water, land, and pesticides. In an ideal global food system, everyone grows the food that is best suited to their own climate and soil, and then trades it with the rest of the world.

Believe it or not, agricultural intensification is actually a boon for nature and biodiversity, too. The main cause of declining biodiversity, as it turns out, is destruction and fragmentation of species habitats. By growing our food more efficiently—i.e., more food from less land—we can give back more land to nature.

The last two decades have seen a lot of research on the so-called land sharing/land sparing dilemma: Is it better to invest in “wildlife-friendly” farming at the expense of yield, or should we focus on producing more on less land, thus freeing up (i.e. “sparing”) space for nature? Research in Ghana, India, Poland, Colombia, and Kazakhstan, amongst many other places, has showed that the latter approach was the best strategy for preserving biodiversity. It turns out that wild animals and plants generally don’t mix well with agriculture of any kind, no matter how wildlife-friendly you think your farm is. So the best approach is to use intensive production techniques that minimize your footprint and spare more land for nature.

A recent study on the preservation of birds in two regions of England (the Fens and Salisbury Plain) showed that, even in regard to Britain’s already highly intensified agriculture, the balance tips in favor of land sparing as the best strategy for reconciling food production and biodiversity. True, the researchers did show that low-yield agriculture can help to preserve farmland birds. But for this to work, yields have to remain really low (probably less than 50 percent of what would otherwise be expected from conventional agriculture), as birds such as the godwit are quite picky. Such areas could serve primarily as a bird or nature reserve while producing some local niche products, but aren’t suitable when it comes to the bulk of food production, which is best conducted through highly efficient farming.

The global potential for land sparing remains huge. Another recent study in Nature showed that, by intensifying production in the most fertile regions, we could give back 50 percent of total existing farmland to nature. An older Dutch study calculated that Europe could produce as much food as it does now on just a quarter of its current farmed area, by optimizing and concentrating on the most fertile places. (With yield gains having outpaced population growth in Europe for the last three decades, the total area needed is probably even lower.) Imagine being able to give three-quarters of agricultural land, or more, back to nature.

Needless to say, this would also be good news for the climate. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, land-use changes have been the second most important contributor to climate change since the industrial revolution. More CO2 has been added to the atmosphere through the transformation of forests to farms than through burning oil and gas. Only coal has had a bigger effect on our climate. Reversing the trend of our ever-expanding claim on the planet—humans now use 50 percent of all ice-free land, up from 3 percent in 1400—would be an immense achievement. In fact, a recent PNAS study showed that reforestation is the most effective natural way of combating climate change. And in 2016, researchers from Cambridge University showed that the UK could meet its targets under the 2015 Paris climate agreement without even having to change its energy portfolio, by just concentrating its agriculture and returning the freed land to nature, thereby seeding more trees that suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

Our case for intensification is not a plea for business as usual. The Netherlands, where one of us lives, shows that many global improvements are still possible. Dutch agriculture has the lowest environmental impact per kilogram of food produced: Farmers have managed to halve their pesticide use since 1985, and cut fertilizer use by a similar amount, while at the same time yields have soared. But even here, there is still room for progress. New gene-editing techniques can improve the disease resistance of crops; precision agriculture has the potential to lower fertilizer use even further; and, yes, in some cases there is also room for agro-ecological measures such as mixed cropping and the use of natural predators to control pests, while still maintaining high yields.

We are of course aware that intensification does not magically lead to land sparing, just as building more highways does not necessarily relieve traffic. According to the Jevons paradox, when efficiency rises, farming gets easier, making it attractive to cultivate more land. Thus, strict zoning policies would need to be enforced for all of this to work. Globally, 15 percent of land area is marked as protected, up from 8 percent in 1990. We hope this share continues to increase, and so we applaud the recent plan by the European Commission to have 30 percent of EU land set aside for nature by 2030.

One reason why intensification gets a bad rap is the proliferation of caricatures and misleading language (as with the term “Frankenfoods” to describe GMOs). While we acknowledge that bad intensive farming practices exist, farmers generally don’t douse their crops with “poison,” nor do they “destroy” their soils. On the last point, a recent South African study showed no correlation between farming intensity and soil quality. And it’s notable that while soils in The Netherlands are in relatively good shape, problems have been more likely to arise on marginal lands in, for instance, Spain and sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers are often unable to restore nutrients to the soil after the harvest.

Some other myths need to be debunked, too. Many commentators, including the aforementioned Olivier De Schutter, have suggested that modern agriculture makes us “sick.” But such arguments often conflate production and processing: It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such. A report by Oxfam Novib in 2015 declared the highly intensive Dutch food system to be the best in the world, hailing its output as abundant, healthy, and diverse. The UK and Ireland also scored high rankings with their own intensive systems.

The most troublesome—even troubling—notion at play here is the critics’ suggestion that there is something wrong with cheap food. In fact, the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity. And the benefits are felt most strongly by poor people: The less money you have to spend on food, the more you can set aside for other things, such as giving your children a proper education.

Yes, there are hidden social costs associated with food production (notably, carbon emissions). And these should be internalized into the price, ideally through a universal carbon tax. But the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority that feeds itself on a constrained budget. If wealthy westerners—including us—are prepared to pay extra for artisanal wines and organic vegetables, then by all means, let us continue to do so. But telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.

And to conclude with something that we hope should be obvious: No, COVID-19 didn’t originate with industrial farming. Again, the opposite is true: Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on those small farms with which we are all sentimentally enamoured, where different animals mingle with each other and with their wild relatives in the open air, the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater. If we want to prevent pandemics in the future, we need to create more divisions, not fewer, between farm animals and nature.

Or we could stop eating them altogether, of course. But that’s a debate for another day.

 

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science and current holder of the Etienne Vermeersch Chair of Critical Thinking at Ghent University. His most recent book is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, co-edited with Massimo Pigliucci. He tweets at @mboudry.

Hidde Boersma, a molecular biologist by training, writes on biotechnology and agriculture. He tweets at @hiddemhigh.

Comments

  1. The authors of a recent study in Nature calculated how many people worldwide would be able to get their staple crops (wheat, rice, corn, sorghum) if they were required to source them from within a radius of 100 km. They estimated the figure at between 11 and 28 percent, not even a third of the global population. For the rest of the world, crops need to travel a longer distance.

    If it were a goal to do so, then it would be something which would take decades to achieve and… people would move. Already over past generations we’ve seen the movements of tens of millions of people from one country to another, whether because of war or economics, and from rural areas to cities. It is a normal part of the world since probably 1500 or so to have economic, military and social changes lead to the movement of millions of people from here to there. Thus, a study which assumes that nobody will go anywhere is wrong-headed.

    If you track all the carbon emissions related to the production, packaging, and distribution of food, the contribution of transport is surprisingly small: a mere 10 percent (and for beef as low as 0.5 percent). The other 90 percent comes from the tractors, fertilizers, tilling, irrigation, deforestation, and other resources and activities that go into production.

    To begin with, a 10% reduction in agricultural emissions would be a good thing, and better than we have managed in recent years.

    Setting aside the fact that a 10% reduction would be a good thing, my understanding is that those promoting eating locally also promote reducing those other components, too. The sort of people who are against flying mangoes from Queensland to Hobart in winter are also against using tonnes of artificial fertiliser on crops. This is like people’s critique of the Catholic church’s stance against abortion: “but what about rape and incest?” Well, Catholic doctrine is against rape and incest, too. It’s not really fair to judge the worth of a set of ideas by looking at just one, since by itself one won’t work well, you have to look at the whole package.

    This piece of course ignores resource depletion. Whether burning fossil fuels causes climate or magically gives us vitamin C is irrelevant to the fact that they are finite. As they deplete, there will come a time when we seriously question whether creating a 3,000 mile Caesar salad is the best use of our remaining fossil fuels.

    farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils, leading to higher use of fertilizer, water, land, and pesticides.

    This is a result of urbanisation. Historically, people settled on good soil with access to water. As more people came, more housing got put on top of the good soil. The city expands, and so on. Over time, urbanisation leads to a reduction in farmers’ access to good soil and water.

    This is not inevitable, as there can be regulations or market incentives to build elsewhere and retain good farmland, or reduce population growth to reduce the demand for new housing, and so on. And indeed, the authours talk about regulation and taxation and so on later; you can’t bring up regulation as a solution to the problems of your approach while dismissing regulation as a solution to the problems of someone else’s approach.

    In an ideal global food system, everyone grows the food that is best suited to their own climate and soil, and then trades it with the rest of the world.

    Or they just eat what grows locally, and develop their own national dishes based on that. If the people of Mongolia eat lots of sheep and not much tropical fruit, and the people of Fiji eat lots of tropical fruit and not much mutton, that’s alright.

    There are other flaws with this piece, but that’s sufficient for now.

  2. In the late 90’s i was the US representative to the World Tomato Council. I visited and studied every region of the world that had a tomato processing industry. It was fascinating to see a crop in its global entirety.

    For smallholders in developing areas, the article means little. They eat what they grow, and maybe trade a bit.

    For Agronomic crops, like cotton, or oilseed crops like rapeseed or for grains like wheat or rice or for sugarbeets and cane, the only answer is intensive monoculture farming. And the main issues with those systems is loss of organic matter in the soils. So the article is at its strongest for this segment of agriculture.

    For fruits and vegetables used in processed foods, like tomatoes for concentrate, or frozen peas, or dried walnuts, again intensive agriculture is the only way to go, and this is as much for the destructive mechanized harvest and timely processing as for efficiency.

    For out of hand (fresh) fruits and vegetables, the article is on less fertile ground, so to speak. Organic and local ‘truck farms’ (farms that harvest 2-3 times a week and drive local fresh produce on a truck to a market) are probably never going to compete on price w factory farms, but quality, freshness, regional flavor, and consumer satisfaction the less intensive small local family farm probably is a better option.

    Will weird looking heirloom tomatoes from a local organic farm save the planet? Well…if you look at the concept of in situ conservation of germplasm…then yes, actually they might! Take coffee germplasm in Ethiopia, or corn/maize germplasm in Mexico or the famous potato germplasm collections in Bolivia and Peru for examples (and there are many more). Seedbanks alone cant account for all the germ plasm available for all our crops. Local farms in Peru can have totally different potatoes on different soils at different elevations (weather) just a few miles from another farm with totally different potatoes.

    There is more to the argument made in the article than meets the eye. Yes GMO’s and intensive crops are the only way to feed the billions…but preservation of local shapes and colors and tastes of all crops also needs to be taken into account. In situ conservation is important. Those weird potatoes grow in very high pH soils and tolerate salts in the soil. One day the DNA of those little odd potatoes of grandmas garden will be used to grow potatoes on Mars. Or not.

    Now lets talk about livestock. In situ conservation of rare breeds again is important.

    But intensive chicken, pig, or dairy farming? No thank you. It is in humane, end of argument. Then there are a host of environmental issues with intensive meat production. How about the run off is an incubator for disease mutations.
    The immunity to antibiotics is problematic, for the survival of humanity, to say the least. Here is one: the ground water gets contaminated with nitrites, nitrates and more, and groundwater becomes un drinkable. There are many more issues with intensive meat production.

    I love the article. It is a subject dear to my heart (spent four years as a graduate student studying ag-ecology at Davis)

    Here is the best book on the subject, and its from Holland.
    https://all-med.net/pdf/raising-and-sustaining-productivity-of-smallholder-farming-systems-in-the-tropics/

  3. You may have have reached the end of arguing, but others have not.

  4. Yes sir, you know it! Elk is tasty. I must admit, i was kinda getting tired carrying the 140 lbs hind quarter, and ended up dragging it thru the sage for a few miles. Seasoning!

  5. Have those people been moving into rural areas or has the majority of movement been from rural areas where it is easier to eat locally to urban ones where eating locally is more difficult? People are likely to become more urbanised meaning future human migration will make eating locally more difficult. I assume this because people are generally not choosing to migrate based on where the best farmers markets are.

    You are assuming that they do not hold contradictary positions. If you do not fly mangoes from queensland to hobart you will have to use a hell of a lot of fertilizer in hobart. They actually address this in the article.

    Yes a lot of people are for all the good things in the world and people who point out that you cannot have your cake and eat it are not ignoring their good intentions.

    Urbanisation comes with a lot of benefits outside of proximity to good farmland. People living in rural areas need to travel far longer distances to access all basic goods and services and generally have lower quality access to things such as healthcare and education. I am not prepared to accept a policy of trying to control where people live in the narrow interest of making sure everybody is close to a place they can farm for themselves. Even assuming you can solve one problem with carefully tailored regulations, the world is more complex than your one problem. Please explain to me the regulation that will reverse the flow of people from rural areas to urban areas that would be effective and politically viable. There are places and times where this kind of thing has been done and in my opinion they have all been gross human rights violations.

    Yes, and next time there is a drought everybody can just starve to death because there is no system for transporting food from places with bumper crops to places with bad crops.

  6. The problem is not, of course, that we buy our tea, coffee, spices and vanilla from some exotic tropical overseas nation (as has been the case for centuries now), but now also that whole cornucopeia of , once only seasonal, fresh produce, fruits and vegetables and other stuff at cutting edge prices: our animal feed (sometimes even the hay), shrimps (after catch transported to some cheap African country to peel, then back to us again) apples, plums, strawberries, french(!) beans and whatever from the other end of the world where such things can be produced a little bit cheaper due to local labour rates, even if flown in in our winter from Chili or Peru to the Netherlands (why eat plums and asparagus in winter, whereas this means less scarce water for the staple crops for ordinary people there?). I see in such exaggerated , wasteful and unnecessary food habits (the bulk of the diets these days in the West) THE END OF (the decisive, but limited role of ) GEOGRAPHY . With world food problems and food security, with or without fertilizer or organic means, it all has very little to do. China (northern parts) used to live on local, drought resistant millets, now they pump their rivers dry to irrigate the non-local maize and even wheat, all signs of that end of geography, but how long can the expanding and fattening humanity go on with this wasteful behaviour??,

  7. Oh, look! Malthusians being Malthusians! I am SHOCKED! Shocked I tell you.

    How surprising, how very surprising, to find religious arguments completely devoid of facts, on Quillette. No proof the world needs to be saved. Just an assertion without fact. Then the priests of the cult come in, start talking about “CO2 gonna kill us all!”. In the fact free argument world, why assume that it is humans who have the power to save the planet? Maybe it is skunks. Maybe it’s cattle flatulence.

    Yet another article from the same group of people who have asserted that we would all be under ice sheets in another ice age by now, and that the Arctic would be ice free by now.

  8. I thought it may be useful to hear from someone who farms. Now my context is different than Europe, certainly moreso than the Netherlands. We run a small (for our area very small) family farm focused on grass based proteins.

    When we took over our land it was highly degraded. The soil organic matter was at under 1% - in places as low as 0.5%. Soil microbiology was largely absent. Mineralogy was moving ever towards higher salts, higher acidity, and less bioavailability. Local indicator species (amphibians in particular) were missing or in serious decline. The land was being farmed with the techniques of industrial farming, using GPS technology and the early stages of precision agriculture for application of chemical. In short, it was exactly the kind of farming recommend by this article.

    When this land was broken from native habitat into agricultural land it would have had very rich soil, OM into the double digits (10-14%) and would have been between 18" and 36" (45cm and 90cm) deep before hitting subsoil. It was broken to farmland around 1910 - so about a century of use prior to us taking over.

    We have switched over to a perennial system based on tame and native grass and legumes. We also utilize green crops and cover crops as needed to build soil health. The land here “wants to be grasses” is the best way I can describe it. This area of the world has been grasslands and savannahs since the last ice sheet receded 15,000-20,000 years ago.

    The results? In 4 years our OM has doubled to quadrupled. (Now between 2% and 2.5%) Bird counts are through the roof. Amphibians very much around. Increased microfauna and macrofauna. We are binding mountains of carbon into the soil and trees. Our productivity as a farm that grazes animals is 2.25 - 2.75 TIMES what our neighbours get. We are growing soil at about half a centimetre per year in some places. We are partnering with researchers to study what is happening, because according to the current body of research as cited by articles like this, it should not be.

    We are operating using precision grazing, so this is an intense form of agriculture, but it is also coupled with wildlife spaces and wildlife itself. We leverage them for ecological services like pest control (flies, mosquitoes, rodents). This year we have a hawk that literally hovers over the fields eating mice and ignoring our pasture chicken flock right there. We have a fox following the cows eating mice and grasshoppers. And at the same time we are producing high quality, high nutritional density foods.

    At this early stage I would estimate we could produce about 600,000 kcal per year, per acre, indefinitely. While doing so the land would continue to repair, and as it does our capacity would increase. Now that is a lot less than a grain feild, which will average 12,500,000 kcal per acre per year here. 1:20th the caloric output. But that output has to be measured against the caloric input to get the net caloric gain to humanity. Our 600,000 uses about 3L of diesel per acre pre year (about 25,000 kcal), plus the caloric needs of the farmers (25,000 kcal), plus transport and building materials (25,000 kcal) - so about 75,000 kcal per year per acre to produce 600,000 kcal per year per acre. So about an 8.5x return on energy input.

    Not sure what a grain field gets by the time the food hits the belly for an industrial farm. Would be curious to see what it is.

  9. authors of a recent study in Nature calculated how many people worldwide would be able to get their staple crops (wheat, rice, corn, sorghum) if they were required to source them from within a radius of 100 km. They estimated the figure at between 11 and 28 percent, not even a third of the global population.

    I’m a little confused about what to think of all this. Specifically, I’m confused about the dialectic between agribusiness and local farming as presented in the article.

    First, are there any studies investigating the mass displacement of farm families (using “families” in a way that spreads generations) on account of the rise of agribusiness?* (And what is the normatively relevant understanding of “displacement”? Is it merely the displacement from a geographical coordinate? Or is it the expulsion from a way of life, set of communal traditions? Or both, or some mix?) This seems like it would be a relevant consideration, since if mass displacement isn’t a big problem for agribusiness (it’s a fine sacrifice to make) it seems hypocritical to say it is a big problem for localization. Although I the extent of the damage is still unclear, since there are so many factors, big agribusiness occasioned a mass exodus of farm families from their place of habitat and way of life, over a few decades. So too, localization wouldn’t happen overnight. The pressure to move would be a slow-burn. Why is it okay for this kind of displacement to happen for the sake of agribusiness and closely connected globalizing tendencies, but then it is an objection to localizing?

    Second, there is at least a defeasible reason to think that the quality of displacement was worse in the movement towards agribusiness (displacement of localized relatively self-sufficient farm communities) insofar as their dependence on the land - but also the greater communal or local self-sufficiency that follows - often has a history and way of living that persists through many many many generations, and so the roots run quite deep. So there is an uprooting of a way of life with at least some significant history. But is it not the relatively recent development of agribusiness that at least in part made possible the way of life of the 11-28% of the population for whom localization of the food industry is not an option? And doesn’t this suggest that the way of life lacks a certain historical precedence and so rootedness at least relative to the local model? That this is a recent development suggests that it is not necessary and so not irreversible.

    I guess I just want a bit more of an argument for why the mass displacement of traditional farming families – participating in an ancient and unobjectionable way of life, one that makes local self-sufficiency at least possible-- on account of agribusiness is okay, but not the displacement of people who rely on agribusiness, and are thereby excluded in principle from achieving local/communal self-sufficiency.

  10. But can these people decide for themselves if what you claim is all right is right for them all?

  11. BTW, the above article on local farming of Boudry and colleague appeared earlier (15 May) in my Dutch newspaper NRC, though with another title, -Agriculture has to intensify more, not less-. Is Quillette also a second extra outlet for journalists of smaller nations? I wrote a letter to the editor, reasoning that monoculture and labour efficiency is something good for us rich nations, but much less so for the rest of the world, with the extra advantage of selfsufficiency and CO2 .
    My reply was not accepted, I am on the cancel , deplatform list since 2016 ( after 10 yrs of regular contributor of letters and columns), and this is the main reason of my commenting here intensively. Not PC enough in our free and diverse Nls??
    And @Rye: the displacement you mentioned (not only to the slums there, but also increasingly to Europe) was one of my critical points. Not very PC, thus canceled (as I think it was, but they simply cancel all my last contributions, maybe don’t even read them anymore).

  12. First off, objectively speaking; they did it to themselves.

    How do you farm more efficiently? Well, less people, bigger machines.

    There are pictures of by great grand father’s threshing crews. 20 to 40 teams of horses, pulling carts and wagons. Horses on treadmills, running the threshing machine(s), later a tractor and belt pulley. A hired man for each horse team, plus spare men for repairs, men to fork the sheaves in, bring water for the horses, 60 or 80 men working.

    I drive down the highway during harvest time now, I see one guy, who drives the super-B to the field, parks it, gets on the combine, fills the truck, parks the combine, drives the truck to terminal or grain bin.

    A good tractor and grain trailer, is going to cost you a half million. Combine with up to 600 horse diesel, even more. You need to put at least 1000 threshing hours on a combine in a single season to break even on that. So if you don’t farm an entire township (6 miles by 6 miles, 36 square miles of farmland) by yourself, you either contract to combine for other people including yourself, of you contract to get your combining done.

    All the sprayers, the field tractors, the tillage equipment, they are all the same size and the same costs as the combine. So, if you don’t personally own 36 square miles of farmland, you are contracting most to all of the farming operations out.

    The demand for ever bigger machines, means ever fewer people working a single farming operation. The logical question to ask is “when there is only a single combine to harvest the entire continent, who gets to build it, and who could possibly own it”.

    In a way, farm equipment manufacturers are slitting their own throats too. The market used to be millions of tractors a year, in the 20 to 60 horse power range; L Case, John Deere D, JD 820, Farmall H, super W6. Now, everyone wants only 600 and 700 horse tractors, and these are all 1/4 to 3/4 million purchases.

    They used to build machines and equipment appropriate in size and cost to farming a single quarter section of land profitably. They stopped sometime in the 70s or 80s, because farmers stopped buying small.

  13. Hey Geary_J,

    So your farmer friend runs a pub as well? Seems to illustrate my point. :laughing:

    We do some value adding. Doing so adds labour, fixed costs, infrastructure, and variable costs. Brewing vats aren’t free, nor is building a regulation brewing space. (To stick with your example) If you look through the research on value adding it is hit and miss as to whether it improves the take home pay of the farmer or not. It really depends on context and situation.

    In our case we take excess egg production and turn it into ready to heat quiche. By the time we pay for rent on the commercial kitchen, packaging, ingredients, and labour our profit margins come out at 12% to 15% on the value added product. The eggs sit at 18% to 28% margin depending on sales channel. So it is a whole lot of doing to make less profit. So we only do it when we have excess product that would otherwise go to waste stream - as they are already sunk costs by the time they are laid. 12% is better than -100%.

    If we were in an area with cottage industry laws we could probably make a stronger case, but that is not our context. I know dairy folks who radically increase their margins with butter and cheese. It really just depends.

    (Edit) We host bees, but I am EpiPen allergic to their stings so we leave that to others. :grinning:

  14. This article makes the all too common mistake of separating farming from nature (“we need to limit our farming footprint to give more to nature”.) A farm that is truly ecologically sound, biodiverse, and mimics natural patterns and behavior does not take from nature, it is nature! The idea that nature is a pristine, untouched place where no food is produced is absurd. The way the great plains got to be great was with massive herds of migratory herbivores moving throughout them. This can be replicated with cattle. We can grow food and increase the health of the land at the same time. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up Allen Savory.

  15. Industrialised agriculture will not go on in its present form forever, because it cannot. It requires large inputs of fossil fuels, which are finite.

    Sure they are – but the higher the demand for oil (in particular) gets, the more comes online.

    There are numerous deposits of oil sands in the world, but the biggest and most important are in Canada and Venezuela, with lesser deposits in Kazakhstan and Russia. The total volume of non-conventional oil in the oil sands of these countries exceeds the reserves of conventional oil in all other countries combined. Vast deposits of bitumen – over 350 billion cubic metres (2.2 trillion barrels) of oil in place – exist in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. If only 30% of this oil could be extracted, it could supply the entire needs of North America for over 100 years at 2002 consumption levels. These deposits represent plentiful oil, but not cheap oil. They require advanced technology to extract the oil and transport it to oil refineries.

    So it be quite a while before humankind runs entirely out of oil: it’ll get gradually more expensive, which will provide continuous incentive for deploying alternative energy sources.

    If I have limited fossil fuels, which I could use to either transport food grown somewhere distant, or increase the yield and variety locally, the free market result is likely to be the latter.

    That depends on the costs of transportation vs. the costs of increasing yield & variety locally. I guess we already have the technology to hydroponically grow tropical fruits even in the prairie provinces of Canada – but it is much cheaper to import banana & pineapple from Ecuador & whatever other places they produce them than do it locally for now. Which situation might change – but it’ll change only as those cost ratios change.

    Furthermore: increasing yields is useful only if there’s demand for the increased production. But Ecuadorans are already producing much more bananas for export than for domestic, i.e. local consumption: if demand for their banana production would collapse (for whatever reason), they last thing they would want to do is increase yield of their banana production. That’s why trade enriches everybody: Ecuadorans get rich by consuming those goods which they exchange for their banana exports. Which are quite likely not even foodstuff, but rather every kind of industrial goods. If they couldn’t export their banana, they couldn’t import cars, gasoline to put into those cars, rubber tires to run those cars on &c. &c. They couldn’t import a myriad things for which they pay for with their banana exports.

    That’s why autarky is the surest way to poverty: it robs people of

    • benefits flowing from specialization (increasing yields)
    • benefits flowing from economies of scale
    • benefits flowing from comparative advantage

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