319. NON-MECHANIZED AGRICULTURE
The classic doomer soundbite: Peak oil will cause a massive worldwide die-off because modern agriculture is utterly dependent on oil for fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural machinery and transport.
Admittedly, it's a great soundbite. Very scary and plausible if you take it at face value. But -- to quote Baudrillard -- no truth can withstand being verified, and this truth is no exception. It falls apart under pressure. As we have seen:
- Fertilizer isn't made from oil, and can be manufactured without any fossil fuel at all (314. PEAK OIL AND FERTILIZER: NO PROBLEM).
- Pesticides account for an infinitesimal fraction of world oil production, and can be produced from coal or bitumen long after oil peaks (48. WHAT ABOUT PESTICIDES?).
- Agricultural machinery can be electrified to enable use of non-oil, non-liquid energy sources like coal, nuclear, hydro and renewables (317. ELECTRIC AGRICULTURAL MACHINERY).
Heavy machinery spewing diesel exhaust. The big harvester-combine, mowing through the fields, blowing a stream of kernels into a transport truck. The operation definitely is oil-intensive. But there are ways of massaging that problem too, although I won't go into them today.
Today, I want to focus on another face of agriculture, one we are all familiar with, although we tend to forget when worrying about our "utter dependence on oil". It looks like this:
Remember these people? Yes, of course you do. In the U.S., they're called migrant farm workers, or illegal immigrants. It makes you wonder: Why does the U.S. need so many of them if their agriculture is utterly dependent on oil (i.e. mechanization)?
It turns out that, aside from grains (wheat, rice, corn), most of the fresh food you get at the supermarket is processed/harvested by human hands, not oil-burning heavy machinery.
The Center for Immigration Studies has compiled some interesting USDA-NASS stats on this phenomenon. In 1997, for example,
- 2,775 farms covering 203,000 acres produced 7.5 billion lbs. of head lettuce at a rate of 50 man-hours/acre using 11,000 harvest workers.
- 22,805 farms covering 236,000 acres produced 2.4 billion lbs. of fresh sweet corn at a rate of 30 man-hours/acre using 15,000 harvest workers.
- 28,100 farms covering 454,000 acres produced 10.2 billion lbs. of apples at a rate of 50 man-hours/acre using 57,000 harvest workers
You could say the same thing for many meat and dairy products as well. Do you recognize this scene?:
Not much oil being consumed there. We certainly aren't mowing chickens into chicken parts with big oil-fueled combines. In fact, aside from transport and the oil inputs to chicken feed, most of the work on chickens is done in electric factories, or by human hand.
This is a fertile area of inquiry, and I've only scratched the surface. The take-home message: There are two segments of the modern agricultural system -- foods which are highly dependent on oil-powered machinery, and foods which aren't.