The Future of Industrial Agriculture

Jeff Vail at the Rhizome blog analyzes the thought-provoking essays at The Oil Drum by Stuart Staniford and Sharon Astyk on the nexus of Peak Oil and agriculture, with Staniford suggesting that peak oil will not result in relocalization of agriculture because the industrialization of agriculture is a more efficient use of energy and is not practicably reversible, and Astyk rebutting that idea. Vail offers a third perspective: that we have insufficient information to reach a conclusion about when energy scarcity will result in relocalization of agriculture, but that we will likely cross this threshold in the not-too-distant future and should prepare accordingly.

Below is Vail’s summary of the arguments on industrial agriculture. Click on any of the links for more detail.

Link: Jeff Vail

A. Why would centralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Economy of place: It is more efficient to grow oranges in Florida than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York (or, to use the classic example, wine in Portugal than in England).
2. Economy of scale: It is more efficient for one man to grow ten orange trees than ten men to each grow one for a variety of reasons.
3. Specialization of knowledge processes: A contributor to #2 above, but particularly important in the era of increasingly scientific and knowledge intensive farming—farmers can afford to specialize in farming, whereas people who are only part-time farmers cannot to the same degree.
4. Justification for intensive capital expenditure: An industrial farmer can justify the expense of a complex combine harvester that automates processes, whereas a small holder may not be able to. (Stuart Staniford)

B. Why would decentralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Transportation & operation cost: decentralized farming has the potential to require transportation over shorter distances to market than centralized farming, and therefore less embodied energy cost. Likewise, tractors and combines use oil, whereas hoeing and hand weeding do not.
2. Superior suitability for sustainable operation: for now, decentralized agriculture seems more capable of maintaining topsoil and is more adaptable to varying water regimes.
3. Greater resiliency to black swan & gray sway events: decentralized agriculture is less susceptible to terrorism, is more likely to incorporate the biodiversity necessary to overcome disease, and may be more adaptable in the face of global warming.
4. Less exposure to capital cost creep: decentralized agriculture is less dependent on expensive machinery that is subject to increasing cost as the cost of manufacture and raw materials increase. (Sharon Astyk)