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Food & agriculture - Oct 21

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Oregon farmers are loving biosolids

Peter Zuckerman, The Oregonian
OREGON CITY -- Spraying recycled human waste on farmland once sounded like a bad idea to Howard DeLano.

Now the cattle rancher east of Oregon City is among a growing number of Oregon farmers who can't get enough of the black slop. He says the natural fertilizer improves soil quality, reduces erosion and, most of all, saves him about $4,000 a year.

State regulations forbid using treated sewage on crops intended for human consumption. DeLano uses it to fertilize hay.

Just a few years ago, wastewater treatment officials sometimes had trouble finding enough fields to dispose of biosolids, the industry's preferred name for the sludge that remains after sewage treatment. Excess was stored at treatment plants, lagoons and, in a few instances, sent to landfills.

But as petroleum prices have spiked, so has demand for biosolids. Chemical fertilizers are derived from a variety of chemical processes that typically require natural gas and other components that need to be mined and transported in a petroleum-intensive process. The result is a doubling or tripling in prices in recent years.
(19 October 2008)



(Re)discovering (s)oil

Richard Heinberg, The Ecologist
It’s hard to learn much or do much about sustainability without getting your hands dirty.

True, global problems of resource depletion and climate change entail some high-level thinking. We need to understand some important numbers: 350 parts per million of CO² (the atmospheric target necessary to avert catastrophic climate change); 5 per cent production decline rate in existing oilfields (what must be overcome each year to forestall the inevitable peak of global oil output). We need skills in analysis and persuasion.

Inevitably, all of this requires much time spent in front of computer screens. However, while we attend to these technologies and abstractions, we are much more likely to succeed in our ultimate goal of building sustainable culture if we are also grounded in the most basic of activities – obtaining food directly from the Earth.

Reading has taught me a lot. Gardening has taught me as much or more. Often, these lessons tend to be ones that sound trite when put in words: stay humble; don’t demand too much too fast; notice the interconnections; go slow, but always pay attention and be prepared for rapid-onset opportunities and problems. When you garden, however, you don’t simply learn these lessons verbally and mentally, you learn them with your whole body.

Leaving food production entirely to others is the essence of full-time division of labour, the origin and vulnerable taproot of civilisation. Only in agricultural civilisations has a rigid class system arisen in which the most important decisions are made by people who don’t need to spend any of their time directly contemplating our human dependence on nature...
(1 October 2008)


Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Began 10,000 Years Ago

Peter Salonius, The Oil Drum
TOD editor Gail Tverberg writes:

This is a guest post by Peter Salonius, a Canadian soil microbiologist.

According to Peter, humanity has probably been in overshoot of the Earth's carrying capacity since it abandoned hunter gathering in favor of crop cultivation (~ 8,000 BCE). The problem is that soil needs tightly woven natural ecosystems to properly recycle nutrients and prevent soil erosion. Earth's inhabitants have devised a whole series of approaches to increase the amount of food that can produced, starting first with hand-cultivation and culminating in the last century with the widespread use of fossil fuels. These approaches strip the soil of its nutrients and cause soil erosion. Even Permaculture cannot be expected to overcome these problems. According to the paper, eventually, to reach sustainability, the world will need to reduce its population to that of the hunter-gathers, and go back to living on the resources the natural ecosystems can produce.
---
... Part 6: Moving Beyond (Back From) Cultivation Agriculture

There are areas of the planet with such low rainfall as to preclude the growth of forest vegetation where a return to pastoral herding, with low stocking levels, will allow the reinvasion of native prairie vegetation. As we move toward the abandonment of unsustainable agricultural practices, it would be advisable to shift away from the cultivation of grains and forages that require bare ground cultivation on these lands.

As human numbers are contracting/shrinking under a OCPF/RPD or some other numbers reduction methodology, the extant population will insist on being properly nourished. The only way enough food can be produced for them is by cultivation agriculture that will further deplete most of the arable soils on the planet. During the centuries of transition, as we move toward a solar-dependent culture that again sustainably exploits natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems, we should be exercising as responsible agriculture as is possible on the shrinking arable land base where it is still practiced. During this transition, the growing amount of land that is abandoned will revert toward natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems very rapidly after we cease cultivating it (Weisman 2007).

Balancing of human numbers with the productivity of their supporting local ecosystems may be accomplished by planed attrition, much lower birth rates and the economic dislocations and hardships that a retreat from classical economic growth will incur, or the balancing of human numbers may be accomplished by a catastrophic collapse imposed by natural resource scarcity. The species with the large brain must make the choice between economic hardship and catastrophic collapse.

Cultivation agriculture must be relied upon for the bulk of the food required to support global humanity until we have reduced our numbers to a level that can be sustained by regulated exploitation/harvesting activities that fall within the
(now better understood) capacity of ecosystems to maintain diversity, to form soil and to replace soluble plant nutrients lost by harvesting or leaching.

The attractive aspect of moving toward sustainable co-existence with self-managing ecosystems is that the hit-and-miss process of evolution has already established how to make them work. Our responsibility (after our numbers have fallen to sustainable levels) will be to learn to live within the regeneration capacity of these restored ecosystems. The penalty for exceeding their regeneration capacity will be hunger and privation, as it was for our hunter gatherer, forager and pastoral ancestors.
(2X October 2008)
ascinating article and discussion.

FWIW, I don't think we can come to any meaningful conclusion about carrying capacity, reversion to hunter-gatherer lifestyle or whether agriculture can ever be sustainable.

These topics are fun to talk about though.

More relevant are technologies and practices that are MORE sustainable than what we have at present.

The author's field, soil microbiology, deals with some of the most intriguing possibilities for sustainability. I wrote Soil food web - opening the lid of the black box to try to understand the new field of soil ecology.

Imagine if we would put a fraction of the money into sustainable agriculture that we currently invest in the development and marketing of junk foods. Perhaps we'd have some good answers by now.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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