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31 July 2009 @ 04:00 pm
The Omnivore's Delusion - Blake Hurst  
Well worth a read.

"Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river."
a stunning paragon of nomenclaturesemperar on July 31st, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
Miusheri: Laramiusheri on July 31st, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
Would that we could all be such masters of pith! ::sighs wistfully::
Purrsia Kat: drinktothatpurrsia on August 1st, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)
"Young turkeys aren't smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown."

I think I've had customers this stupid.
Miusherimiusheri on August 1st, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
LOL! If only more of them got caught in heavy downpours...
Arsenalmarkarsenal on August 4th, 2009 03:30 am (UTC)
Not trying to start a flame war, but...
"Food production will have a claim on fossil fuels long after we've learned how to use renewables and nuclear power to handle many of our other energy needs."

Whilst this may be true, I searched hard and could find no solutions to what we will do in the next few years when oil is $500/barrel?

I always thought Pollan's thesis was that humans need to relearn paleo-agricultural skills because renewables will not be able to replace the petrochemical inputs currently required. The same could be said for most of the inputs of modern life. There is still some question out there as to whether modern industrial society can find a substitute for petroleum... Time's a-tickin.
Miusherimiusheri on August 4th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
Yeah, I'm really not sure on this part. On one hand, if we do turn to nuclear, solar, etc. for the bulk of our power production, then demand for and usage of oil drops, and thus so would the price. By then, who knows, maybe we'll have also found good substitutes for petrochemical inputs. I don't know much about the specific chemicals being referred to, and how readily they can be swapped out, so I can't offer much that's intelligent on this.

I think we can all agree that reliance on fossil fuels is a problem, and that it expands beyond agriculture and into most facets of modern life. Humans are not known for their long-term planning, but I sure hope we keep researching and improving alternative energy sources (and that nuclear gets un-demonized somehow)!
Arsenalmarkarsenal on August 4th, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
The main issue in alternatives is portability - we're all aware of the range issues with current battery cell technology - even very good batteries pail in comparison to a 30-gallon tank of 108-octane gasoline in terms of long-range portability and performance - they still haven't figured out how to fly jet aeroplanes on anything but petrol (biofuels freeze at high altitudes). There's a budding industry of battery-powered airplanes, but their range is awful and they're all just 1-2-seater ultralights.

Then there's the distribution thing. it will take a long time to build a network to distribute say fuel cell recharge stations; and because of the time factor and grid load, it's not easy to stop and refuel a bettery-powered car or plane.

As for the ag inputs - the biggest thing is diesel fuel for the equipment, which admittedly is easy to replace with biodiesel, but the EROEI (energy return on energy investment) of biodiesel is about 1.5:1 (for sugar-based fuels; corn-based have a negative EROEI), compared to an average 5:1 for even low-grade Canadian tar sands (let alone the 100:1 we used to get with Texas oil in the 30s and 40s or Saudi oil in the 60s and 70s). Basically, biofuels will mean we'll all spend a lot more money and have a lot less energy. Once again, solar, wind and nuclear power can't easily replace this because of portability/durability issues (and in the case of solar and wind, the fact that they are not constant and thus reliable storage is a major issue).

Fertilizers are a scary thing - they are primarily made up of natural gas-based ammonium nitrate, and the main reason they are used so widely is that we needed to put the postwar surplus of explosives materiel to productive use, and now our food supply is absolutely dependent upon it. Natural gas is also outrageously expensive to transport, unlike oil, so we're consequently using up our domestic reserves faster than any other petro-fuel.

And I haven't even gone into global warming or Gulf dead zones, which I think is the main thing the anti-Pollan camp focuses on ;)

In all cases, signs are that we hit peak production of most petro-fuels sometime in 2007 or 2008, and I doubt we can bring alternatives online fast enough to avoid shortages and even major social upheavals in less-well-off places in the coming years, especially if the US starts consuming more in the face of a slightly-improving economy.

As for nuclear, my own research tells me that we have already high-graded all the best ores and the EROEI on current ore bodies from Australia and Canada are not much better than biofuels. There's also the fact that to harvest heavy metals we need explosives and earth movers, which require - surprise - fossil fuels to produce or run. The estimated uranium ore supply in the Earth's crust based on current human harvest capabilities shows peak production sometime this century - earlier if we run out of oil without an alternate way to run the mining equipment...

Where's my umbrella?
Miusherimiusheri on August 4th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
May necessity once again be the mother of invention!

Back to focusing on agriculture, I think the big point of this article was that GM crops and no-tilling practices (made possible by herbicides) can result in a decrease in pollution and fossil fuels needed. Every little bit helps, right? =) Meanwhile, organic farming can't work without pesticides and practices that are environmentally unfriendly, and it could not sustain the current world population if used exclusively, which is not the message you get from most of the people touting its benefits.
Arsenalmarkarsenal on August 4th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
Sorry if I seemed to stray from ag, but in my opinion, agriculture is a means of converting one energy form into another (caloric energy for our bodies). In the past our bodies produced their own energy (1 hour of ag work produced food for 5-10 hours of life, etc).

The fact that most of our food, and thus our lives themselves, are converted from fossil fuels these days is a point very few people seem to notice - fossil fuels make our bodies produce their food energy more efficiently, allowing social specialization, but in the 200 years or so since we began using them as a substitute for human labor in agriculture, we have made farmland less productive on a calorie/acre basis (which had to happen when one person has to take care of 300,000 hectares or so), and most of the population have lost the skills to make adequate food for themselves, which will come back to bite us if (when) the windfall energy source is depleted.

I agree that the organic lobby seems to overlook that the only real solution to this problem is massive human die-off, which when you look at biological history, is usually what happens when a species uses up a windfall energy source (locusts being the best example). I'd argue that mass-education in paleo-agricultural skills and urban permaculture would have a bigger impact - but fat chance of that happening - as you noted, humans are not known for thinking 100-200 years into the future (just look at all the debt the Boomers ran up for us ;) ).

Exponential human population growth and specialized industrial civilization are an artifact of the mass-utilization of fossil fuels. Once they're gone, most of us probably are, too.

As for GM crops - there's definitely a paranoia bug that makes them scary for some of us. Whilst they have yet to cause any widespread identifiable problems to the biosphere, there is that issue of manipulated genes blowing on the winds and causing unforeseeable changes to organisms that make the planet habitable. Kill all phytoplankton, for instance, and the oxygen in the atmosphere would be too low for most animals to survive in within a few days. Mix terminator genes (the very thing that makes crops patentable) into the general gene pool and who's to say whether any seeds will sprout down the line? It's pretty scary stuff. The agriscience firms are telling us this is the only way to feed the 8-9 billion people who will (supposedly) be around later this century - but I would argue that this tells us it's time to start taking more extreme measures to control the population. I don't think we're looking at this from a long-term species-survival perspective; we're focusing too hard on "keep things the way they are and keep the masses fed".

Soylent Green anyone?
Miusherimiusheri on August 4th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
we're focusing too hard on "keep things the way they are and keep the masses fed".

I agree, and I also agree that it sucks. The same thing seems to be happening in the healthcare reform debate, but that's a whole 'nother issue (and again, one for which there are no easy answers)!

Like you mentioned, I'd love to see more micro-level farming, and urban agriculture is a great idea too. I'm having trouble finding a link, but there was a professor who, along with his students, designed a model for a farm contained within a skyscraper. It looked pretty awesome.

I have a hard time being as paranoid about GM crops for two reasons: they are some of the most rigorously tested food items in existence, and just about every crop known to man has been genetically modified over thousands of years. We have been selectively breeding crops with desirable traits for practically as long as we've been farming. If a mutation came along that we liked, we kept it going. Now, we do some of that tweaking in controlled conditions in a lab, rather than performing potentially risky and costly trial-and-error out in the field. Hooray for science! ;)

As mentioned, I think we all hope the fecal matter doesn't hit the fan where fossil fuels are concerned. We definitely need more research into viable substitutes. I'm kind of shocked that more private capital isn't getting funneled into this. Just imagine if you're the one who comes up with The Oilkiller, and you're the first to market!

(Maybe I just play too much Civilization... I know I'd be funneling tons of research into getting that tech before anyone else, lol!)
Arsenalmarkarsenal on August 4th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Not trying to start a flame war, but...
"they are some of the most rigorously tested food items in existence"

Not sure I buy this. The approval agencies are very corrupt - you can easily buy approval for something, as recent pharma controversies have proved.

Selective breeding over time is one thing, but transgenic manipulation (splicing pig DNA into bacteria DNA to grow test tube meat, for example) is a whole lot scarier and something the biosphere has no working examples to give us. I'm not saying that means it's automatically dangerous, just that it's unknown territory, and we shouldn't be Polyannas about this stuff...