free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 84. MORE ON THE GREEN REVOLUTION

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


As I've noted before, the "Green Revolution" is the linchpin in the peak oil die-off argument. In short, the idea is this: Humans discovered oil, and by using oil in agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, transport) were able to boost food production above what is possible without oil. This allowed people to, in a sense, "eat oil" -- which in turn caused the population to bloom and overshoot the carrying capacity of the earth. Therefore, when oil gets scarce after peak oil, 4 or 5 billion people will have to die to bring the system back into balance.

This argument is as full of holes as a piece of swiss cheese (as I have pointed out in earlier articles -- see #15, #22, #28, #46, #48, #55, #72, #76), but here I would like to point out one more error: the claim that Green Revolution-style mechanized, monocropped agriculture produces the most food per acre. This claim is demonstrably false, and is in fact a myth propagated by the PR departments of multinational agriculture companies like Monsanto.

Numerous studies show that chemical inputs do not increase crop yields. Here are two examples:
One of the longest running agricultural trials on record (more than 150 years) is the Broadbalk experiment at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in the United Kingdom. The trials compare a manure based fertilizer farming system (but not certified organic) to a synthetic chemical fertilizer farming system. Wheat yields are shown to be on average slightly higher in the organically fertilized plots (3.45 tones/hectare) than the plots receiving chemical fertilizers (3.40 tones/hectare).Source
A comprehensive review of a large number of comparison studies of grain and soybean production conduct by six Midwestern universities since 1978 found that in all of these studies organic production was equivalent to, and in many cases better than, conventional (Welsh, 1999). Organic systems had higher yields than conventional systems which featured continuous crop production (no rotations) and equal or lower yields in conventional systems that included crop rotations. In the drier climates such as the Great Plains, organic systems had higher yields, as they tend to be better during droughts than conventional systems. In one such study in South Dakota for the period 1986-1992, the average yields of soybeans were 29.6 bushels/acre and 28.6 bushels/acre in the organic and conventional systems respectively. In the same study, average spring wheat yields were 41.5 bushels/acre and 39.5 bushels/acre in the organic and conventional systems respectively.(Source: same as above)
More data on such experiments can be found here:
Moving Towards Eco-Farming
What is efficient agriculture?
The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Four -- Industrial Agriculture is Efficient

Another myth is that Monsanto/Cargill-style monster farms produce the most food per acre:
The emphasis on small-scale family farms has the potential to revitalize rural areas and their economies. Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery. Larger farms in the third world also tend to grow export luxury crops instead of providing staple foods to their growing population. Small farmers, especially in the Third World have integrated farming systems where they plant a variety of crops maximizing the use of their land.

They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility. In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms (Rosset, 1999). Figure 1 shows the relationship between total production per unit area to farm size in 15 countries. In all cases, the smaller farms are much more productive per unit area— 200 to 1000 percent higher — than larger ones (Rosset, 1999).(Source: same as above)
Government studies underscore this "inverse relationship." According to a 1992 U.S. Agricultural Census report, relatively smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones. The smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive.Source
The data shows that farm size is the critical factor. Man-hour intensive farming can compensate for the loss of fossil inputs, and increase food output beyond what it is now. Extremely small farms (4 acres are less) are 2 to 100 times more productive than large farms. Thus it is clear we can massively increase carrying capacity and total food production simply by decreasing farm size.

The above facts make me wonder if the mechanized/chemical farming industry is similar to the automobile industry. We don't really need the machines/chemicals, and that's why the makers push them with such an aggressive hard sell. It's a lot like cars; you don't actually need them, but the big automakers help rig the system to make you need them, and then they spend millions of dollars on PR to pump out the message: "Can't live without a car." Similarly, you don't need the chemicals, so the chemical manufacturers have really robust PR departments, and employ sophisticated media shills to pump out the message "Without chemicals, we'll all die." The peak-oil doomers have (as usual) bought into this corporate brainwashing.
*) Thanks to oiless for the links.


At Friday, September 9, 2005 at 6:19:00 AM PDT, Blogger Ivan said...

Land is cheap. Who cares if they produce the most food per acre?

I care about the most food per dollar.

I mean, have you ever driven up I5 in California? Miles and miles and miles of farmland, all taking an extremely small ammount of people power and money.

At Tuesday, September 20, 2005 at 8:59:00 AM PDT, Anonymous coffee17 said...

Cool, those are some heartening links and information.

Relating this to peak oil however, taking this together with using organic fertilizers makes it evident that in theory one could still feed the world. However there is the fact that currently most food production is down on large monoculture fields as you state. Could one go from one years crops of monoculture to a more labor intensive (it would solve the question of what work to people find when the factories close down) organic method the next year?

Change is possible, but the process of change usually results in stress and difficulties to individual humans. Plus there's the fact that people might not want to change, or be aware that they can. So as fertilizer/transportation prices rise, unless food commodity prices rise (which they're not guaranteed to do) smaller farmers with less of a capital reserve leave the game, and more is done by agribusiness. As the system becomes more reliant upon them, it will make transitioning still more difficult. Not only will agribusiness own a lot of land, but the use of chemical fertilizers tends to make the land less productive. A lot of fresh organic material would need to be brought in to make the soil healthy again. In some areas, strictly raised bed farming may make more sense. And when fuel prices are expensive relocating hundreds of cubic meters of compost won't be cheap, even by horse and wagon, or bike-powered wagons (because of the man power/time required).

Ivan: While you might care about food per dollar, if there's a shortage of food, you won't care about the price, you'll care about availability. Heck, if there's food available it can be stolen (or other stolen goods can be fenced for food money). But if there's no food...

At Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 5:09:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh??? I don't know about you, but I don't purchase large quantities of agricultural chemicals so I don't know how I'm the one that's being brainwashed by Big Chem. You seem to be saying that Big Chem has successfully brainwashed Big Farm into buying unneeded products, which is more than a little silly, because Big Businesses are pressured to cut corners in any way possible.

At Monday, June 22, 2009 at 5:36:00 AM PDT, Blogger craftycorner said...

Under four acres isn't much more than a very big garden!

At Monday, January 25, 2010 at 7:06:00 PM PST, Blogger Nini said...

I know hundreds of farmers and have been on hundreds of farms. I don't know a single one that practices monoculture. American farmers practice crop rotation to avoid buildup of pathogens and pests, to avoid depleting soil nutrients, to replenish nitrogen, and to improve soil structure and fertility. Where are all these monoculture farms you claim?


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