More Farmers Needed?

Below are some excerpts from a lecture Richard Heinberg delivered to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on October 28, 2006. Strangely enough, Cuba emerges as the model for low-energy farming.

Link: Fifty Million Farmers | | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse

…there are reasons to think that our current anomalous abundance of inexpensive food may be only temporary; if so, present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest—famine.

The following are four principal bases (there are others) for this gloomy forecast.

The first has to with looming fuel shortages…. Modern industrial agriculture has been described as a method of using soil to turn petroleum and gas into food.

An attempt to make up for fuel shortfalls by producing more biofuels—ethanol, butanol, and biodiesel—will put even more pressure on the food system, and will likely result in a competition between food and fuel uses of land and other resources needed for agricultural production.

The second factor potentially leading to famine is a shortage of farmers…. Who will be growing our food twenty years from now? With less oil and gas available, we will need far more knowledge and muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more people on the farm, than we have currently.

The third worrisome trend is an increasing scarcity of fresh water. Sixty percent of water used nationally goes toward agriculture.

Fourth and finally, there is the problem of global climate change…. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general (hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, hail storms)—in short, unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production…. We have embarked on a century in which, increasingly, freakish weather is normal.

While we were achieving miracles of productivity, agriculture’s impact on the natural world was also growing; indeed it is now the single greatest source of human damage to the global environment. That damage takes a number of forms: erosion and salinization of soils; deforestation (a strategy for bringing more land into cultivation); fertilizer runoff (which ultimately creates enormous “dead zones” around the mouths of many rivers); loss of biodiversity; fresh water scarcity; and agrochemical pollution of water and soil.

In short, we created unprecedented abundance while ignoring the long-term consequences of our actions. This is more than a little reminiscent of how some previous agricultural societies—the Greeks, Babylonians, and Romans—destroyed soil and habitat in their mania to feed growing urban populations, and collapsed as a result.

I  believe we must and can de-industrialize agriculture. The general outline of what I mean by de-industrialization is simple enough: this would imply a radical reduction of fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, accompanied by an increase in labor inputs and a reduction of transport, with production being devoted primarily to local consumption.

Once again, fossil fuel depletion almost ensures that this will happen. But at the same time, it is fairly obvious that if we don’t plan for de-industrialization, the result could be catastrophic.

In short, it is possible in principle for industrial nations like the U.S. to make the transition to smaller-scale, non-petroleum food production, given certain conditions. There are both precedents and models.

However, all of them imply more farmers. Here’s the catch—and here’s where the ancillary benefits kick in.

The Key: More Farmers!

One way or another, re-ruralization will be the dominant social trend of the 21st century. Thirty or forty years from now—again, one way or another—we will see a more historically normal ratio of rural to urban population, with the majority once again living in small, farming communities. More food will be produced in cities than is the case today, but cities will be smaller. Millions more people than today will be in the countryside growing food.

They won’t be doing so the way farmers do it today, and perhaps not the way farmers did it in 1900.

What I am proposing is nothing less than a new alliance among environmental organizations, farmers, gardeners, organizations promoting economic justice, the anti-globalization movement, universities and colleges, local businesses, churches, and other social organizations. Moreover, the efforts of this alliance would have to be coordinated at the national, state, and local level. This is clearly a tall order. However, we are not talking about merely a good idea. This is a survival strategy.

It may seem that I am describing and advocating a reversion to the world of 1800, or even that of 8,000 BC. This is not really the case. We will of course need to relearn much of what our ancestors knew. But we have discovered a great deal about biology, geology, hydrology, and other relevant subjects in recent decades, and we should be applying that knowledge—as Holmgren, Mollison, Jeavons, and others have done—to the project of producing food for ourselves.

Freshwater Indices: Water Poverty Index

Does the availability of fresh water affect the prosperity of a country? The Water Poverty Index suggests that it does.

In determining whether a country is water poor, the Water Poverty Index considers five components: resources, access, capacity, use and environment. The researchers limited their analysis to the area of access, which focused on the percent of population with access to clean water, sanitation and irrigation.

The top five countries with access to clean water are Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Guyana.

The bottom five countries with access to clean water are Ethiopia, Haiti, Niger, Eritrea, Djibouti.

The United States ranks 34th out of 147 countries with a rating of 65. (The highest rating is 78, the lowest 35.)

Link: Freshwater Indices: Water Poverty Index

Water Resources and Freshwater Ecosystems — Freshwater Indices: Water Poverty Index Units: Index Number 0-100; lower scores indicate water scarcity and poor water provision

Country ISO 2002
Algeria DZA 50
Angola AGO 41
Argentina ARG 61
Armenia ARM 54
Australia AUS 62
Austria AUT 75
Bahrain BHR 56
Bangladesh BGD 54
Barbados BRB 66
Belarus BLR 61
Belgium BEL 61
Belize BLZ 66
Benin BEN 39
Bhutan BTN 56
Bolivia BOL 63
Botswana BWA 57
Brazil BRA 61
Bulgaria BGR 63
Burkina Faso BFA 42
Burundi BDI 40
Cambodia KHM 46
Cameroon CMR 54
Canada CAN 78
Cape Verde CPV 41
Côte d’Ivoire CIV 46
Central African Rep CAF 44
Chad TCD 39
Chile CHL 69
China CHN 51
Colombia COL 66
Comoros COM 44
Congo COG 57
Congo, Dem Rep COD 46
Costa Rica CRI 67
Croatia HRV 68
Cyprus CYP 62
Czech Rep CZE 61
Denmark DNK 61
Djibouti DJI 38
Dominican Rep DOM 59
Ecuador ECU 67
Egypt EGY 58
El Salvador SLV 56
Equatorial Guinea GNQ 68
Eritrea ERI 37
Ethiopia ETH 35
Fiji FJI 62
Finland FIN 78
France FRA 68
Gabon GAB 62
Gambia GMB 48
Georgia GEO 60
Germany DEU 65
Ghana GHA 45
Greece GRC 66
Guatemala GTM 59
Guinea GIN 52
Guinea-Bissau GNB 48
Guyana GUY 76
Haiti HTI 35
Honduras HND 60
Hungary HUN 61
Iceland ISL 77
India IND 53
Indonesia IDN 65
Iran, Islamic Rep IRN 60
Ireland IRL 73
Israel ISR 54
Italy ITA 61
Jamaica JAM 58
Japan JPN 65
Jordan JOR 46
Kazakhstan KAZ 58
Kenya KEN 47
Korea, Rep KOR 62
Kuwait KWT 54
Kyrgyzstan KGZ 64
Lao People’s Dem Rep LAO 54
Lebanon LBN 56
Lesotho LSO 43
Madagascar MDG 48
Malawi MWI 38
Malaysia MYS 67
Mali MLI 41
Mauritania MRT 50
Mauritius MUS 60
Mexico MEX 58
Moldova, Rep MDA 49
Mongolia MNG 55
Morocco MAR 46
Mozambique MOZ 45
Myanmar MMR 54
Namibia NAM 60
Nepal NPL 54
Netherlands NLD 69
New Zealand NZL 69
Nicaragua NIC 58
Niger NER 35
Nigeria NGA 44
Norway NOR 77
Oman OMN 59
Pakistan PAK 58
Panama PAN 67
Papua New Guinea PNG 55
Paraguay PRY 56
Peru PER 64
Philippines PHL 61
Poland POL 56
Portugal PRT 65
Qatar QAT 57
Romania ROU 59
Russian Federation RUS 63
Rwanda RWA 39
Saudi Arabia SAU 53
Senegal SEN 45
Sierra Leone SLE 42
Singapore SGP 56
Slovakia SVK 71
Slovenia SVN 69
South Africa ZAF 52
Spain ESP 64
Sri Lanka LKA 56
Sudan SDN 49
Suriname SUR 75
Swaziland SWZ 53
Sweden SWE 72
Switzerland CHE 72
Syrian Arab Rep SYR 55
Tajikistan TJK 59
Tanzania TZA 48
Thailand THA 64
Togo TGO 46
Trinidad and Tobago TTO 59
Tunisia TUN 51
Turkey TUR 57
Turkmenistan TKM 70
Uganda UGA 44
United Arab Emirates ARE 52
United Kingdom GBR 72
United States USA 65
Uruguay URY 67
Uzbekistan UZB 61
Venezuela VEN 65
Viet Nam VNM 52
Yemen YEM 44
Zambia ZMB 50
Zimbabwe ZWE 53
Natural Environment Research Council, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. 2002. The Water Poverty Index: International Comparisons. Available on-line at: Wallingford: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.