The Green Devolution

Food, energy & the fate of industrial agriculture

By Richard Heinberg

February 2007

“The energy transition of the twenty-first century is probably the greatest challenge our species has ever faced.”

Energy and agriculture are intimately linked. A calorie, remember, is a measure of energy. Food itself is energy. To truly understand the trends that will shape the future of agriculture, we need to understand our relationship with energy. In particular, we need to look closely at industrial agriculture�s dependence on fossil fuels, and our own dependence on industrial agriculture.

Our relationship with energy has always been subject to a simple net energy equation: energy gained minus energy spent equals net energy gained or lost. In other words, it takes energy to get energy. This is true whether we’re speaking of gardens or feedlots, oil production or solar panel production. Our lives depend upon maintaining a net energy profit—-upon consistently getting more energy from our environment than we expend. A coyote, for instance, has to exert energy chasing down a rabbit. If it expends more energy catching rabbits than it gets from eating rabbits, then before long there’s no more coyote.

The same has traditionally been true with humans. In some years, the net energy balance was good; in other years it wasn’t so good. In those years when the net energy balance wasn’t so good, we had famine. And routine famine was something humans endured—-or not—-for thousands of years.

Net energy and human progress

Humans and other animals have been taking energy from our environment by eating food, and exerting energy by way of muscle power (often in order to get more food) for as long as we have been around. Over time, we humans have found more and more innovative ways of harvesting more energy from our environments. Agriculture is one of the first and most important of these innovations. Humans discovered long ago that we could harvest more energy by producing our own food than by hunting it or gathering it.

Gradually, we discovered more and more innovative means to harness more and more energy. This net energy profit—-primarily achieved through innovations in agriculture—-is what has enabled us to build vast civilizations. Before agriculture, we could never have accumulated enough excess energy to support complex societies with class systems, full-time specialists, standing armies, and all the other familiar elements of civilization.

But even at its best, the process has still always been subject to limitations. This is why so many past civilizations fragmented or collapsed. In many cases, they depleted their soil or destroyed their habitat—-cutting down all the trees they depended on for fuel, for example. Some of the most durable civilizations lasted as long as they did simply because of their unique ecological conditions. Ancient Egypt, for instance, was one of the longest-lasting civilizations in all of history because every year, the Nile would flood its banks and deposit several inches of new silt—-basically, new topsoil—-on the fields. In that way, their civilization was able to sustain itself for a very long time without depleting its land base.

In the twentieth century, through the introduction of fossil fuels, agriculture reached a whole new level of energy intensity and left behind many of those historical limitations that agriculturally-based civilizations had previously faced. Technological innovations dramatically increased crop yields. New crop varieties were developed. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was introduced, replacing the use of manures and leguminous crops. And transportation of food over ever-further distances and in ever-larger quantities enabled local abundances to be spread over large regions—-even globally.

All of these developments together made the twentieth century the most productive century in world history in terms of food. And directly or indirectly, it was fossil fuels that made all of these innovations possible. In comparison to the sources of energy we used previously, fossil fuels were like a cornucopia of free energy—-the amount of energy it took to explore for, drill, and pump oil was minuscule compared to the energy we were getting out of the oil. The net energy principle, which had previously been among the most basic laws governing life on Earth, suddenly no longer applied. We were enjoying energy of a quality, quantity, and abundance never before known in human history.

This sudden access to millions of years of stored-up solar energy—-fossil fuels, remember, come from vast deposits of pre-historic plant matter—-changed many things, not the least of which was the fact that we could suddenly support a rapidly growing population. Previously, there had never been more than a few hundred million people on the planet. Around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when we were beginning to use fossil fuels with increasing intensity, our population hit one billion for the first time. By the 1930s, world population had doubled to two billion. It doubled again, to four billion, in the late 1970s, and then reached six billion in 1999. Just since 1999, we’ve added more than a half-billion more human beings—-more than the entire population of North America in well under a decade.

Now that’s an amazing success for a single species. But exponential population growth, we should remember, is not unheard of in the natural world. In fact, it is instructive to look at other examples of such growth.

A tale of two cultures

Take yeast in a ten-percent sugar solution, for example. Wine connoisseurs will recognize this as the recipe for wine: add yeast to grape juice, and let it sit. The yeast begins feasting off of the energy—-the sugar—-in its environment, and because there’s plenty of that energy, the yeast population increases dramatically. Meanwhile, while the yeast is eating the sugar, it is giving off a waste product: alcohol. (For wine drinkers, that’s the whole point of the exercise.)

The alcohol is poisonous to the yeast, however, so once the yeast has depleted most of its energy supply and the level of waste by-products in the environment reaches toxic levels, the population of the yeast crashes. It dies off.

Let us compare, for the sake of argument, what we�re doing with fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source, and we’re pulling them out of the ground and burning them as fast as we possibly can. Our population is increasing rapidly because of the energy these fuels give us. Meanwhile, burning fossil fuels is releasing a waste product into the atmosphere—-carbon dioxide—-which is changing the global climate, and in the process making it increasingly difficult for future generations to live here.

To my mind, this comparison brings up a very important question: Are people smarter than yeast?

I’m being facetious, in a way, but I’m also being deadly serious. Are people smarter than yeast?

Well, of course we are. We can build computers and cars and enormous information networks and so on. Unfortunately, however, nature really only cares about one kind of intelligence. All that matters to nature is whether or not we are capable of anticipating the consequences of our actions and adjusting our behaviour accordingly. If we are capable of doing so, then I think we deserve to call ourselves an intelligent species. If not, then functionally, we’re no smarter than yeast, and can expect similar results from similar behaviour.

“Peak oil is simply an observation: it is what happens to oil-producing regions over time.”

What goes up…

The phrase peak oil has garnered a lot of attention over the past couple of years, and I suspect that it will garner a lot more as time goes on. Peak oil is often referred to as a theory, but it simply refers to an observation: it is what happens to oil-producing regions over time. Oil extraction rates increase to a certain level, and then begin to decrease as the reserves are gradually depleted.

To illustrate what peak oil looks like, we need only look at the twentieth century’s most important oil-producing region, the United States. For decades the US was the world’s foremost oil-producing and oil-exporting nation. As recently as World War II, the US alone was responsible for half of global annual oil production. US production has fallen off significantly in recent decades, however. US oil discoveries peaked in 1930, and oil extraction (which the industry somewhat misleadingly calls production) reached its maximum level forty years later, in 1970. It has been declining ever since.

So that’s peak oil. It’s not theory—-it’s history. And the US oil production peak in 1970 had enormous consequences. But as long as more oil could be found in other places—-particularly in the North Sea and the Middle East—-global oil production and demand both continued to rise.

However, with more and more oil-producing regions reaching peak oil, we’re quickly running out of new sources to turn to in order to continue increasing the rate of extraction. North Sea oil production, for instance, peaked earlier this decade and is now declining rapidly. For the first time in 30 years, Britain will soon have to start importing oil.

In fact, most oil-producing countries are now in decline. According to statements by Chevron Texaco published in 2006, “out of 48 major oil-producing nations worldwide, 33 are experiencing declining production.” The big oil fields that we depend upon for most of our oil were discovered between the 1930s and the 1960s, and are rapidly maturing. We�re simply not finding giant oil fields like those anymore.

There’s very little dispute that, sooner or later, global oil production will peak and start to decline. How soon? Nobody knows for sure. According to some estimates, it’s happening right now; others say it won’t happen for another five, or ten, or even twenty years.

Evidence is accumulating, however, that the peak may come sooner rather than later. For instance, in spite of very high oil prices throughout 2006, oil extraction rates remained static throughout the entire year. Think about that: in spite of sky-high prices, the world isn’t extracting any more oil today than it was in December 2005. Global spare oil production capacity has virtually vanished. I’m not claiming that we’re necessarily at peak today and that 2007’s production figures will necessarily be smaller than 2006’s, but we may now be entering that bumpy plateau period that will certainly accompany peak oil production.

…must come down

So how serious a problem will a peak in global oil production pose? Well, its seriousness can hardly be overstated. We have come to depend on oil for just about everything. Ninety-five percent of our transportation energy comes from oil. Agriculture overwhelmingly depends on oil and natural gas. Countless chemicals, plastics—-just look around you: how much of what you see was either made using oil, or came from oil, or was transported to where it is with oil?

Analyses of the potential impact of peak oil are sobering indeed. For instance, the US Department of Energy commissioned a study by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)—-a company that routinely produces scientific reports for the US Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and so on—-to assess the potential consequences of peak oil. The Department of Energy asked SAIC two questions: Is global oil production peak a problem? And, if so, what should we do about it? In early 2005, SAIC came back with a hundred-page report, which you can find on the Internet. The opening paragraph of the report’s executive summary begins:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk-management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking” (emphasis added).

The word unprecedented, incidentally, doesn’t crop up very often in government reports, and here they have used it twice in the very first paragraph. Whatever they have found has clearly frightened them.

SAIC ran three scenarios. In the first scenario, we don’t take action until peak oil is upon us. In the second scenario, we start ten years before the peak, using all the resources of government and industry working together to solve the problem. In the third scenario, we start twenty years ahead of the peak with a similarly full-scale effort. According to the analysis, it was only in the third scenario, with twenty years of lead time, that there was much likelihood of averting “unprecedented” levels of economic, social, and political disruption.

The market, they are saying, is not going to solve this problem. Early action on the part of government is required. The US Department of Energy did not want to hear that. They would have been happy to hear that peak oil is a bit of a nuisance, as long as that was followed by the message, “Well, but don’t worry about it—-the market will fix it.” What they didn’t want to hear was that the government would actually have to step in and do something about it in order to avert “unprecedented economic, social, and political consequences.”

“If the twentieth century was about urbanization, the twenty-first century is going to be about re-ruralization.”

The future of farming

Returning to the topic of food and energy, what are the implications of peak oil for agriculture? To answer that question, we must first look at how energy is currently used in food production, compared to how it was used in the past.

There have been three periods of agriculture in North America: expansion, intensification and saturation.

From the European conquest of the continent until about 1920, growing more food was simply a matter of expansion, of putting more land into production.

From 1920 until about 1970, very little new land was put into production, but crop yields improved dramatically as a result of increasingly energy-intensive innovations. New fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, farm machinery, irrigation, and increased transportation of food over greater distances all had an enormous impact on both the amount of food being produced and the amount of energy required to grow the food.

Since 1970, however, we’ve gone into what could be called the saturation period. We are continuing to use more inputs on our crops, but with less and less corresponding benefit from the increase. These days, increasing applications of new pesticides and herbicides are required just to deal with the fact that weeds and pests are becoming immune to the chemicals we use. Meanwhile, crop yields are not increasing at anything like the rate that we saw in previous decades. In other words, the law of diminishing returns is catching up with us.

Today, we apply ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy we produce. At any previous stage of human history, such a poor return on energy investment would have spelled disaster. For any other species, to consistently expend more energy to get its food than it got from the food would soon spell extinction. This only works for us today because we’re spending, very rapidly, this one-time gift of nature that took millions of years to accumulate.

Agriculture is the single largest consumer of petroleum products in North America. US agriculture uses more oil than the US Department of Defense. What’s going to happen when scarcity sets in and oil and natural gas prices really skyrocket? How is that going to affect agriculture, and how can we adapt?

To answer these questions, it would be helpful if we had an example of a country that had already gone through peak oil that we could learn from. Well, in fact, we have such an example, and it’s the nation of Cuba, which went through a kind of artificial peak in the early 1990s.

The Cuban model

In 1989, Cuban farmers were using more oil and gas per hectare than North American farmers were. They were very fuel intensive in their production, and they were dependent on subsidized oil from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed and those cheap imports of oil from the USSR stopped, it was a catastrophe for Cuba. The Cuban GDP crashed 85 percent in the first two years. The average person lost 20 pounds. Cubans were very close to famine, to the collapse of their entire society. So what did they do?

Fortunately, some Cuban agronomists had already been advocating a much less intensive model for agriculture—-using less energy, breaking up the large state-owned farms, shifting away from export-oriented sugarcane monocultures, and so on. Nobody had listened to them before, but when the oil was shut off, these agronomists were called in and asked to redesign the food system.

And that’s what they did. They broke up the state-owned farms; they started breeding oxen to replace the tractors; they started moving people out of the cities and into the countryside to help with food production, because suddenly they needed a lot more farm labour.

People needed to learn how to farm, so they started teaching agriculture classes in every college in Cuba. They started paying their farmers better—-they raised the salaries of farmers so they were equal to or higher than salaries for engineers and doctors. They began growing more food in the cities—-in neighbourhood and rooftop gardens. These urban gardens now produce between 58 and 80 percent of the vegetables for the cities, in the cities.

As a result of these changes, people survived, and today, Cuba’s food production is up to about 90 percent of what it was before the crash. The health of the Cuban people has actually improved. The Cuban government has said that even if they do find another source of oil, their new methods of agriculture and production are going to continue.

The Cuban example is living proof that people can adjust to energy scarcity—-that whole societies can adjust. But two things were crucial to Cuba’s success: there were people advocating these things before the crisis arose, and the nation’s leadership understood the nature of the problem and took decisive action.

Back to the land

What can we learn from the Cuban experience? For one, we must realize that reducing the energy intensity of agriculture is going to require a much greater percentage of the population getting involved in food production. This is a complete reversal of what has happened over the twentieth century, in which the amount of labour involved in agricultural production—-both here in North America and around the globe—-declined dramatically. Even millions of people who really wanted to stay on the farm couldn’t, because they couldn’t compete with the big agricultural machinery that could produce food so cheaply, in such great abundance.

We lost farmers to cities, and as we did so, agricultural communities died. This was one of the great demographic shifts in all of world history. Previously, three or four out of every five people had to work at food production in order to make a whole society function. But we have reached a point where two or three percent of a country’s population now grow all the food for everybody else.

In sum, the twentieth century was about increasing availability of cheap fossil fuels, increasing fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, increasing transportation of food over greater distances, and reducing the percentage of the population involved in food production. People moved to the cities; the middle classes expanded; job categories proliferated. That was the twentieth century.

During the twenty-first century, we’re going to see exactly the opposite: declining oil and gas availability, declining fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, increasing food scarcity, and increasing need for farm labour. We are going to need more food producers as a percentage of the population, and we’re also going to need more production for local consumption. If the twentieth century was about urbanization, the twenty-first century is going to be about re-ruralization.

Canada currently has between two and three hundred thousand farms. If the Cuban experience holds true, something like five million new farmers will be needed in Canada alone over the course of the next 20 or 30 years.

Where are all those farmers going to come from? Well, there has to be an incentive for people to want to take up farming. The money has to be there. There has to be land available for them. There has to be education—-people need to learn how to farm without big machinery and chemical inputs. There have to be loans and other financial incentives available to get people started.

Just fifty years ago, Canadians were spending 20 percent of their income on food—-and that itself is very low historically. Today, Canadians spend ten percent of their income on food. Food has gotten really, really cheap. That is a testament to the success of modern agriculture—-but it can’t stay this way. We’re going to have to start paying a lot more for our food. And our food and fuel prices have to be stabilized somehow in order for the whole thing to work.

The energy transition of the twenty-first century is probably the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. It was easy to get used to cheap energy. It’s going to be a real challenge to get used to scarce and expensive energy. The only way it is going to work is if we plan for the transition. This is an enormous task, and our current political leadership is not up to it. They’re going to have to come up to speed very quickly.

Simply put, we must wean ourselves off of this one-time gift of nature.

If we can solve this problem, our children and grandchildren will thank us. If we fail, there simply may not be future generations—-it’s that serious. I know this is difficult to think about and to talk about, but it’s high time we started talking about it. Our future depends upon it.

Richard Heinberg is a journalist and educator who has written extensively on ecological issues. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004) and The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse (2006).

This article is based on a lecture delivered at the National Farmers Union national convention in Saskatoon in November 2006.

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