John Michael Greer, on what kind of agriculture to expect after “peak phosphorus”:
“It’s true, of course, that the rapid depletion of the world’s reserves of rock phosphate, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers, is a serious short term problem. Today’s agricultural systems depend on chemical fertilizers, and there aren’t any other abundant and highly concentrated sources of mineral phosphate available to be dumped into the intake hoppers of fertilizer factories. Still, this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to starve to death; it means that the way we produce food nowadays is not long for the world, and will be replaced by other ways of producing food that don’t depend on mass infusions of nonrenewable resources.
Those other ways already exist, and have the benefit of well over a century of practical experience and testing. What makes it difficult for many people to notice them, or factor them into a sense of the future, is that they don’t look like industrial agriculture at all. To borrow a metaphor from computer technology, they aren’t plug-and-play components; they presuppose radically different relationships among land, resources, farmers, crops, and consumers; and as they expand into the space left blank by today’s faltering industrial agriculture – a process already well under way – the new social forms defined by these relationships differ so starkly from existing forms of food production and distribution so greatly that many people have trouble fitting the new possibilities into their view of the future..
Of course this same pattern pervades nearly all current debates about peak oil. Consider the endless bickering over the potential of renewable energy. Most of that bickering presupposes that the only way a society can or should use energy is the way today’s industrial nations currently use energy. Thus you get one side insisting that windpower, say, can provide the same sort of instantly accessible and abundant energy supply we’re used to having, using some equivalent of the same distribution systems and technologies we’re used to using, while the other side – generally with better evidence – insists that it can’t.
What nearly always gets missed in these debates is the fact that it’s quite possible to have a technologically advanced and humane society without, for example, having electricity on demand from sockets on every wall across the length and breadth of a continent, or mortgaging our future to allow individuals to zoom around in hopelessly inefficient personal vehicles on an extravagant system of highways. The sooner we start thinking about what kinds and forms of energy wind turbines are actually best suited to produce – rather than trying to forcie them onto the Procrustean bed of an electrical grid that was designed to exploit the very idiosyncratic kinds of energy you get from fossil fuel supplies – the sooner windpower can be put to use building an energy system for the future, rather than propping up a failing one from the past. What stands in the way of this recognition, of course, is the emotional power of today’s ideology of progress, the purblind assumption that the way we do things must be the best possible way to do them.
A similar set of blinders blocks the way to a clear sense of our agricultural options in the age of peak oil. It’s indicative, for example, that a recent post here on composting brought several denunciatory responses insisting that there was no way for one family to produce enough compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm or the equivalent. In one sense, that sort of response is quite correct; in another, it’s completely beside the point, because you wouldn’t use homebrewed compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm at all. Composting, especially on a home scale, is aimed at a different part of the complex land use pattern of a sustainable agricultural system.
If you hopped into a time machine and went back to visit farm country a century or so, to the days when sprawling interstate highway systems and fleets of trucks hadn’t yet made distance an irrelevance over continental scales, you’d notice something about the farms of that time that you won’t find in most farms today: each farm had, apart from its main acreage for corn or wheat or what have you, a kitchen garden, an orchard, a henhouse, and a bit of pasture for a cow or two. Those had a completely different economic function from that of the main acreage, and they were managed in a completely different way. Their function was to produce food for the farm family and farmhands, where the main acreage was used to produce a cash crop for sale; and they were worked intensively, while the main acreage was farmed extensively.
The shift in prefixes between these two words defines a nearly total change in approach. Extensive farming, as the term suggests, involves significant acreage. It maintains soil fertility through crop rotation and fallow periods, rather than through fertilizers or soil amendments. The basic tools of the trade are a plow and something to draw it – horses or oxen, when you don’t have factories to produce tractors and fossil fuels to power them – with add-ons up to and including the huge horse-drawn combines that lumbered over American fields in the 1920s. The crops that you can grow with extensive farming in temperate regions, in the absence of cheap abundant energy, are pretty much limited to grains, dry beans and dry peas, but you can produce these in very substantial amounts, and they store and ship well, so they make good cash crops even if the only way to get them to market is a wagon to the nearest river system and a canal boat from there.
Intensive gardening has to be done on a much smaller scale; among other reasons, the labor it requires is too substantial to be applied to acreage of any size. It maintains soil fertility by adding whatever soil amendments are available – compost, manure, leaf mold, a fish buried in every corn hill, you name it – and the basic tools of the trade are a hoe and somebody who knows how to use it. The crops you can grow in an intensive garden account for everything other than grains and dry legumes, from the first spring radishes to the leeks you overwinter under straw; the chickens, the cow, and the fruit from the orchard all belong to this same intensive sector and participate in its tight cycles of nutrients. In an age without fossil fuels, very little of what can be grown intensively can be transported over any distance without spoiling, so intensive growing is always done close to where the food will be eaten.
That’s why every farm in the America of a century ago had its own intensive kitchen garden, orchard and livestock, and it’s also why every American city a hundred years ago was ringed with market gardens, chicken farms, dairies, and the like, to keep the shelves of urban grocers filled with something other than grains and dried legumes. It’s also why most American urban houses from a century ago, even the cramped little row houses that were built for factory workers, had a little plot in back that got at least a few hours of sunlight a day. That was where the kitchen garden and the hens went; they were as much a part of an ordinary urban household as the pantry.
Thus America a century ago had two separate systems of food production.”