In farm country, where I live, any conversation about alternative methods of food production will inevitably converge on the rhetorical question, “But can you feed the world that way?” In other words, can organic or intensive farming, or permaculture, or the local food movement, guarantee enough production to provide food for everyone on the planet? The people who ask me that question own hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery and use it to farm thousands of acres, or are teachers of agricultural education at high schools and colleges. They think it’s a straightforward question, but it carries more baggage than a 747 – and generally mangles that baggage in the same way.

These farmers are confident that the only way to feed the world is through large-scale agriculture as practiced here in the Midwest, and they believe that they and other farmers like them are succeeding at it. They use expensive machinery, genetically modified crops, and hefty inputs of manufactured agricultural chemicals – fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides – to grow things like soybeans, corn, and wheat. They have invested heavily in their farming method and in many cases are continuing a parent’s legacy, so they are usually not comfortable questioning their lifestyle. They can find support for their convictions by research conducted at land-grant universities that receive much of their funding from the agricultural manufacturing firms that make the products they buy. When they claim that only their model of agriculture can feed the world, they are assuming several things.

They may be assuming that all farmland is like the Midwest and that therefore all farmers should farm as they do. These big farmers demonstrate a short-sightedness that ignores much of the world. It ignores different landforms, levels of development, and even personal tastes, since not everyone wants to subsist on the kinds of crops that can be grown by industrial agriculture. As far as landforms go, farming on thousands of acres, with heavy machinery, growing soybeans and cereal crops, can only be done in certain places on the globe. In the Arctic, steppes and savannas, deserts, jungles, sea coasts, and mountains, food production will look very different. If people who live in those areas have to produce food, they won’t be using American-style industrial agriculture to do it.

Or maybe these American farmers are implying that much of the rest of the world should give up farming and be fed by American (or Canadian or Argentine or Ukrainian) exports, in which case the current methods of producing lots of crops in giant monocultures makes a certain perverse sense. But for people to exist on imported food, they have to have a source of income to buy it or a comparable product to trade for it. They have to have trustworthy political systems and efficient infrastructure. In other words, they have to have a first-world level of development – and not many countries have that. Even the countries that do may not have it forever.

And that leads to perhaps the biggest reason not to put faith in big farming: it can’t last. These farmers blustering at me assume that the status quo that makes large-scale farms possible will continue.

They expect that the government subsidies that shore it up will be constant. There are agricultural subsidies that these big farmers take advantage of – in fact, that’s a tautological statement, since the way to become a big farmer is to use government subsidies. But there are other subsidies that are less obvious yet still essential to big farmers: government maintenance of roads and other methods of transportation and support for the cost of fossil fuels. If farmers had to pay the true costs of transportation and fuel, especially if increasing costs of extraction, environmental damage, and military intervention to protect our access to fossil fuels are factored in, they’d find that their methods do not achieve the economies of scale that they seem to now.

Combining grain

Economies of scale?

They assume, in fact, that not just political and economic support will always be there but that all the conditions that favor big farmers will continue unchanged. Here are some things to bear in mind while considering that question.

We are already beginning to see what happens to big farmers when the foreign markets they rely on become unavailable through war, tariffs, or economic collapse. Big farms are being lost at an increasing rate each year; part of that process is caused by political instability. But there’s another reason that big farms are struggling to survive. The cost of extracting fossil fuels is increasing yearly. Scientists and economists measure something called energy return on energy invested (EROEI). An EROEI of 1 means that you get one unit of energy out for every unit of energy you invest in extracting it; greater than 1 means you are getting out more energy than it costs you to obtain, which is the goal. Less than one means that you are using more energy to create energy (mining, fracking, etc.) than you can produce. The EROEI number for all fossil fuels is declining; for example, the EROEI of oil imports in 1990 was 35 and in 2007 was 12. The oil, coal, and natural gas that are easy to extract, in other words that have a high EROEI number, have all been extracted. We are spending more and more money to extract less fuel and less valuable fuel. If you’ve followed the news, you’ve seen how many fracking companies have gone out of business in the last few years. Ultimately economics will decide fuel use, and farmers, like everyone else, will have to adjust to other sources of power.

The increasing cost and eventual shortage of fossil fuels doesn’t just affect the combines, tractors, and trucks that farmers use. Every step of modern agribusiness relies on inexpensive, readily available fuel. The business and university researchers who patent GMOs use non-renewable energy; the manufacturers of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers use it every step of the way, both as the raw material of their products and as the means to produce them. The worldwide transportation system of trucks, trains, airplanes, and ships relies on cheap fuel. Once the harvests become too expensive to transport, it doesn’t matter how much Midwestern farmers produce; their products won’t be able to get to distant markets.

Fossil fuels are not the only things that will run short. Scientists are anticipating a worldwide shortage of easily accessible phosphorus, perhaps within the next fifty years. Phosphorus, while available in a dilute form from many sources, is currently mined in places where guano was laid down over millennia. This is a slow process of creatures, seabirds for example, leaving their droppings where they roost. It’s been going on since before recorded history. Like fossil fuels, concentrated sources of phosphorus are a non-renewable resource, at least on a time scale that would mean anything to our species. And yet it is one of the three essential chemicals in every fertilizer used in industrial agriculture. When the last rich mines run out – or at least when their EROEI number gets to 1 and below – farmers will have to find other sources of phosphorus. Those will largely be human and animal waste. Farming methods will have to be changed, and whole new industries will need to be created to make phosphorus available – and even then, it won’t be on anything like the same scale that it is available for the present.

Artificial inputs like fertilizer are not even the most essential thing for farming, although many farmers forget that. The foundation of all our food and hence our survival is soil and water. Yet take a look at these numbers: first, it takes about 500 years, by natural means, to replace an inch of topsoil. Farming needs a minimum of six inches of viable topsoil. So if topsoil is lost through poor farming methods, such as tilling the soil and leaving it uncovered all winter, it may take millennia to replace it by natural means. It is possible to heal topsoil more quickly through good farming practices, but still, soil loss is an environmental and economic issue. And recently it has been determined that we are losing soil from 10 to 40 times more quickly than we’re replacing it.

Finding fresh, reliable sources of water is also becoming a problem. Farming practices, now and over human history, have polluted, diverted, and used up the fresh water essential to plants, animals, and humans. Some sources estimate that 70 percent of the fresh water that we deal with, for example, is used for farming irrigation, and half of that is lost through inefficient practices. Look up what used to be the Aral Sea before the Soviet Union began diverting its water for growing cotton; see particularly the speed with which it dried up, and consider the effects on the whole region surrounding it, on everything from fishing to agriculture to mother-baby health. Of course places like the American Midwest have adequate rainfall – for now – but still farmers need to ask themselves if they will continue to have the essential elements to farm the way they currently do. Given the last few years of droughts and floods, we may have to rethink what we take for granted.

irrigation systems
Irrigation

And that brings us to the biggest uncertainty: climate change. Or maybe climate change is the only uncertainty, because all of the other problems I’ve just mentioned are pretty predictable. The greatest danger about climate change is just that uncertainty: we can’t predict what will change and how. It’s not that people can’t shift their crops and planting schedules if their region warms up or dries out; it’s that every year may be different, one season drought, the next flooding, etc. Climate has fluctuated throughout earth’s history, of course, but when we look at the patterns of fluctuation, we can see that periods of rapid growth in human evolution and civilization have happened during times of climate stability. During times of drastic climate change, such as the ice ages, human beings remained in survival mode. It doesn’t look like we can count on that stability continuing.

I understand that some of the farmers who ask me if other methods of agriculture could feed the world are defensive. Some of them feel that they’ve been successful through their hard work and don’t want it implied that they’ve been working in the wrong direction. Others are defensive because they secretly worry about debts, environmental degradation, political and economic instability, and the increasing stranglehold agribusiness has on their lives. A third group feels that they’ve looked into alternative methods and found them too nutty to replicate at scale and don’t know where they can find trustworthy, disinterested information from people whose fashion choices don’t involve patchouli and tie-dye.

farmers' market
Can they feed the world?

I understand why they ask, but I get impatient with the question. In some places, people will subsist on animal husbandry or hunting and fishing, like the Maasai or Inuit; in others, tree crops will form the bulk of the diet. Densely concentrated farming will have to be used in some areas, where far more calories per acre will be needed than corn or wheat can provide. It may be, even with the best use of the land we have, that our current population cannot be supported; but that’s a different issue, one that will have to be looked at clear-sightedly, without the groundless optimism fostered by cheap fossil fuels.