Warmists and the Organic Farming Activists

Organic farming creates more CO2 (which is a good thing, of course).  So why do urban organic activists pretend it's the other way 'round?

Urban organic activists begin every argument by pining for the good ol' days.  They point out that in 1940 one calorie of fossil-fuel energy produced two calories of food.  But now, due to the dreaded effects of industrialization, 20 calories of fossil-fuel energy are required per calorie of food.  And this, for them, illustrates why an immediate transformation of the food biz is required to "save the planet."  How?  By converting from a fossil-fuel-based food economy to one based instead on sunshine.  Case closed!  After all, it's a 20-fold increase, right?[i]

Well... turns out it's not.

A wise man once said an ordinary mind is incapable of making distinctions.  The distinction not being made in this case is that while we're using 20 times the fossil-fuel energy, we're certainly not using 20-times the total energy.  Not even close...

If only they had ever worked a day on a farm, these "slow," urban activists would appreciate the massive amounts of human and animal labor that used to be required before machines driven by fossil fuels came along.  The reason only a single calorie of fossil-fuel energy was required to produce two calories of food was that, prior to the mass industrialization during the Second World War, farmers did the rest of the work by hand and by back!  Far more calories were consumed emitting far more CO2.  Otherwise, industrialization would not have made economic sense.

Slow food activists will try to tell you that a great deal of today's fossil-fuel consumption results from the transportation of food, and that all food should therefore be procured locally.  But transportation turns out to only account for a tiny fraction of energy use.  (Were this not the case, greedy capitalists wouldn't ship food over long distances; it's that simple.)

It's energy-intensive activities like the plowing of land, harvesting, and the handling and processing of food that account for the lion's share of energy consumption and hence CO2 emissions.[ii]  And when our ancestors relied on horses to do this work -- which of course meant fully one-half of their arable land was dedicated to growing crops for feed (something which clearly had both an economic and environmental impact) -- they still expended enormous amounts of human energy.  And all that work, human and animal, had a measurable carbon footprint which greatly exceeds the 20-fold increase in fossil-fuel energy-use that occurred over the last 70 years.  How much more exactly?  Hold onto your hat.

Even if you believe, as the food activists do, that CO2 is a harmful pollutant, it turns out we're actually releasing at least an order of magnitude less of it today than we used to for every calorie of food produced!  Modern-day farming is far more efficient, and thankfully so.  All that's changed is that fossil-fuel calories can be easily measured while human and animal calories were never measured.  And why did farmers get sucked into replacing their horses with tractors?  Simply because there are over 20,000 man-hours of energy in a single barrel of oil which, even when oil is at its peak price, works out to less than a penny per oil-powered man-hour.  That's right... a penny![iii]

Of course, besides reverting to human and animal labor, there is another way that some urban food activists envision converting us back to a "sunshine-based" food economy.

They seek to replace evil ol' fossil-fuels with biofuels like ethanol.  Instead of burning 20 calories of fossil-fuel energy to yield two calories of food as we currently do, in a biofuel food-economy farmers would burn 20 calories of biofuel, and would once again find themselves setting aside half of all their land to grow that fuel... just like their ancestors did to grow feed for their horses.  See a pattern here?

All you achieve with biofuels is a shift in where the fuel comes from, not in how much is consumed.  So much for the sunshine economy!  Besides, fossil fuels are sunshine-based as surely as crops are. The sunshine was captured in forests millions of years ago and remains stored in underground reserves in the form of crude oil.  Why is today's sunshine any better than yesterday's?

Most members of the urban-environmentalist crowd don't have the slightest conception of what they're promoting in taking us back to what they perceive to be the good ol' days. But the really scary part is that many do.

Mischa Popoff is an IOIA Advanced Organic Inspector and is the author of Is it Organic? which you can preview at www.isitorganic.ca.

[i] See Michael Pollan, "Farmer in Chief" in New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2008, and Roger Doiron, "Let an organic garden grow, Mr. President," Times-Call Editorial, January 22, 2009. Together, Pollan and Doiron started the internet petition to get the Obamas to "install a garden big enough to capture the imagination of the public" at the White House and to do everything President Carter did and more to wean America off fossil fuels.  Pollan is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine (and former executive editor for Harper's Magazine), Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of five books on food activism, the most recent of which is titled In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.  Doiron is the former head of the European office of Friends of the Earth in Brussels and part of the American NGO delegation to the last United Nations World Food Summit.

[ii] See for instance Dennis Avery, "Safe Hamburger - At Last?" posted on March 28, 2011 by the Center for Global Issues, specifically where he points out that "that the 6.6 million square miles of lands not plowed because of the higher yields from the Green Revolution prevented the release of greenhouse gases equal to one-third of all the industrial gases emitted worldwide since 1850!"

[iii] See for instance Brian Hicks and Chris Nelder, Profit from the peak: the end of oil and the greatest investment event of the Century, Wiley Publishing, p. 72; and my column, "One Man, One Horse, One Acre, One Day - Turning Back the Agricultural Clock" on Family Security Matters.