Thursday, March 31, 2011

Organic agriculture needs to address energy

There was always a simple agrarian equation that farmers must produce more energy as food than the energy they spent on growing it. They needed to produce energy for themselves, for their young (reproducing the labour force), their old and sick dependants, for other trades people and for the rulers, who offered protection in return for taxes or a labour tithe. For a long time this energy equation remained the same. Gradually, through technical innovations, productivity increased and new lands could be tilled, thereby allowing a slow increase in population. Overall productivity per worker didn't increase so much; slash and burn farming, almost without tools, is almost as productive as farming with oxen and a plough. Three things, all linked to each other, changed this dramatically: the emergence of the capitalist market economy, industrialization and fossil fuel energy.

The production per agriculture worker in the most advanced economies has now reached 2,000 tons of grain per person year, compared to historical times when it was just a few tons; an increase in labour productivity of about a thousand fold. In the poorest countries the average value produced by a farm worker is just above 100 dollars per year. In France it is some 40,000 dollars per year. And, the gap in productivity between the rich and the poor is widening. Labour productivity in modern farming can largely be explained in terms of the command of energy resources. The modern farmer is de facto in command of a massive army of "energy slaves"; a barrel of oil represents the energy of 25,000 hours of human toil – the equivalent of 14 people working a year under normal Western labour standards. This shows that the energy efficiency of modern farming is considerably lower than in pre-industrial farming systems. Our ancestors would have starved to death if they their energy ratios were as bad as ours; industrial countries use between 10 and 15 times more energy in the food system than is contained in the food they end up eating. Organic farming is somewhat more efficient than non-organic, but organic farmers in industrialized countries also have a very energy-inefficient production.

Farmers in developing countries, have almost no access to fossil fuel energy resources. Yet they are supposed to compete with their colleagues in developed countries who use energy resources that are the equivalent of hundreds of labourers. Perverse subsidy systems, trade and food policies further bend the rules in favour of farmers in rich countries. And to make matters even worse, various kinds of "climate" or "carbon" standards are now being imposed on poor farmers. But the reality is that (with the exception of slash and burn farmers) they are performing much better than industrialized farms, regardless how we measure (per hectare, per man hour or per kg crop or meat). The organic sector should avoid repeating this way of penalising those who are already disadvantaged, and we should realise that the energy use of modern farming is highly inefficient. The only more disturbing feature in modern farming is the destruction of natural capital in the form of soil erosion. Organic farming began with a concern about the soil issue. We now need to take the energy challenge much more seriously.

This article will soon appear as a column in the magazine Ecology and Farming

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Magic washing machine

Hans' presentation shows the link between poverty and energy and the challenges involved in a very easy to grasp way.

What I often miss in Hans' presentations is the link to economic and political forces, which both helps to explain WHY things are like they are and also have the solutions. Nevertheless, he does a great job, and you can find much more on Gapminder

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ecosystems: Invaluable and worthless

(another extract from Garden Earth, the book)

In the middle of the 1990s, a study estimated the value of ecosystem services to some US$ 33 trillion, double the size of the world Gross Domestic Product, GDP (Hall and Klitgaard 2006). MEA doesn’t try to assign values to ecosystems and ecosystem services, but it shows with numerous examples that if we did calculate such values, many things we consider to the profitable today would not be profitable and vice versa. This is because profit is calculated by the entrepreneurs running a company and as long as they can use ecosystem services for free and as long as the degradation of the services are not paid for, this will not appear in any economic calculations. Some examples of estimated values of ecosystem services are:

- In Belize, mangrove and corral reefs produce fisheries, tourism and coastal protection for a value between 395 million and 559 million dollars annually, according to studies of World Resource Institute and World Wildlife Fund. This can be contrasted to the whole Gross Domestic Product of Belize of 1.3 billion dollars (WRI 2008)

- The value of biodiversity in New Zealand was estimated 1997 to 152 billion dollars, which can be compared to the GDP of 56 billion dollars. The valuation didn’t include theoretically potential services but only those that are known (OECD 2001).

- ‘Business as usual’ deforestation and land-use changes cause annual losses of natural capital valued at between EUR 1.3 trillion and EUR 3.1 trillion, a sum exceeding the total financial losses of Wall Street and London City during 2008, their worst year ever (Arborvitae 2010).

Let it be

In October 1999, the state of Orissa in India was battered by a super cyclone that killed almost 10,000 people and caused a massive loss of livestock and property. A researcher found that mangroves do provide important storm protection to people, livestock, and buildings. Had the mangrove forests been intact, more than 90% of the deaths due to the 1999 cyclone would have been avoided. A hectare of mangrove forest land stopped damage worth $43,000 in the district during the super cyclone. Of course, such severe storms do not occur every year. But even allowing for the fact that mangroves have no storm protection value during non-storm years, the long-term protection value of about $8,700. At the time, a hectare of cleared land was fetching $5,000. Thus, leaving mangroves as storm buffers generates more value to society than clearing them for development (Glover 2010).

How Mexican farmers get paid by American blue chips to bind carbon

To an increasing extent, systems are developed for payment of maintenance or new production of ecosystem services. Already 1996, Costa Rica introduced a system where land owners could get compensation for carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water regulation and aesthetic values. Year 2001, the payments in this program had reached 30 million dollars for a total of 280,000 hectares. Farmers in the EU and the USA are paid for all kinds of environmental services to protect landscapes, water sources, maintain or re-create biodiversity[1]. The USA pays 1.4 billion dollars annually for 13 million hectares (FAO 2007).

The possibly best know market for environmental services is the market for reduction of emissions of green house gases. There are two markets. One is government controlled and is regulated under the Kyoto Protocol, the other is a voluntary market for companies, organizations or individuals wanting to reduce their environmental footprint or making themselves “carbon neutral”. The Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto protocol, the EU system for emission rights and the voluntary so called “carbon[2] market” was worth some US$ 143 billion market in 2009, an increase of US$48 billion just three years earlier, so this is now one of the fastest growing markets in the world (World Bank 2010b). In Brazil’s first so called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) project each family in the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve in the Amazon, each family receives US$ 28 per month if the forest remains uncut (UNEP 2010b). Farmers in the Scoltel Té-project in Chiapas (Mexico) sell carbon sequestration, in the soil and in the vegetation, for 3.30 dollar per ton. Of this 60 percent goes directly to the farmers, representing an increase of their income with between 300 dollars and 1,800 dollars, big sums for households where the average income is about 1000 dollars (World Bank 2007).

The city of New York gets the majority of its water from an area stretching 200 km north and west of the city. The authorities came to the conclusion that is was more efficient to manage the catchment area for good water quality instead of investing in a purification plant. Such a plant would cost between 6 and 8 billion dollars. The implementation of a catchment management program cost 1.5 billion. It includes measures such as purchase of some critical lands; education, support to farmers for reducing use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides according to FAO, the United National Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2007). Insurance and shipping companies are financing the reforestation of the Panama Canal Zone to restore freshwater flows and avoid increased costs caused by canal closures (TEEB 2010).

Global extortion or fair compensation?

The United States Treasury and Brazil have signed an agreement converting $21m of Brazilian debt into a fund to protect three tropical ecosystems. Brazil will use the money for activities to conserve protected areas, improve natural resource management and develop sustainable livelihoods for communities that rely on forests. The agreement comes under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) of 1998, which to date has generated $239 million to protect tropical forests in Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and the Philippines (ISEAL 2010).

Taking the idea of getting paid for not using a resource to new levels, the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has said that his government is prepared not to extract nearly a billion barrels of oil from Yasuní National Park, a part of the Amazon rainforest of extraordinary but fragile ecological and cultural richness. To do so, however, Ecuador will need to be compensated by the international community for its loss of oil revenue – to the tune of US$350 million per annum for the next 10 years. A conservative estimate is that exploiting the oil would bring in US$5.7 billion in present value terms, or 10% of Ecuador's GDP. With abatement[3] cost for carbon dioxide at US$14 to US$20 per ton, the cost to the world to abate these emissions will be between US$1.7 billion and US$2.4 billion for the extraction and burning, and US$909 million for deforestation, for a total between US$2.6 billion and US$3.7 billion (The Guardian 2009b).

Like with other new programs, especially when they involve money, there are potential problems and side effects, some of which are not seen initially. There are examples from India, where poor landless people have been harmed of community forest management plans, because the plans limit their access to resources to which they before had unrestricted access. Other examples when communal land has been appropriated by private owners who suddenly see a commercial interest in these environmental services. In Guyana, a private equity firm has bought the rights to 20 percent of the value of environmental services from a 370,000 hectare rainforest reserve anticipating that its carbon storage, water storage, biodiversity maintenance and rainfall regulation services will become a valuable asset in the future (Arborvitae 2010).

Should the have a price or are they invaluable?

We have seen how important ecosystems and the services they can supply are. Mostly we are not aware of the services that are provided by nature to our benefit. Their composed value is very high, notwithstanding many of them are of such a character and importance for our survival that their value simply can’t be calculated; such as supply of oxygen. We can’t even imagine how to organize the same service if the current ecosystems collapse. Ecosystem services can be more efficient, we influence them all the time. Agriculture is of course the most prominent example where we over millennia has increased the value (for us, that is), the yield, from a certain area. But the example also highlights the dangers of looking at only one ecosystem service, in this case the supply of food. It is exactly that narrow perspective that has led us to degeneration of the agriculture landscape, to erosion, to pollution in the same time as it has given us the possibility to tenfold population.

Surprisingly, there is not a very strong critique against the privatization that payment of ecosystem services actually entail, not even from normally anti-capitalist groups. On the contrary, many of them express sympathy and support programs for programs to pay farmers for ecosystem services. Probably they don’t realize that payment of ecosystem services from taxes represents a giant privatization and a transformation of nature resources and commons into commodities. As we discussed the total value of the ecosystem services probably exceed the total value of the current economy. And as more and more services are threatened, their prices will increase, fully in line with the principles of market economy. This also means that the GDP will increase and increase more, the more we deplete our resources, until they ultimately collapse.

[1] The link between the payments and the supplied service is rather weak, in particular in the EU. The levels of compensation are not calculated in any scientific or economic way, but are rather just the results of horse-trading between farmer organizations and the EU member states.

[2] The real ”carbon market” is of course the coal, gas and oil market and not the carbon dioxide green house gas emission reduction market

[3] Abatement and mitigation are used interchangeably to describe the processes by which greenhouse gases emissions can be reduced or compensated for by some other mechanism, such as carbon sequestration, carbon sinks. Adaptation refers to the process of adapting to climate change, i.e. not change it or do anything about it, but learn how to live with it.

Japan: post growth and post-peak-oil works?

This blog post has a lot of copying from of Japan: The World’s First Post-Growth Economy? at
One of the problems with the post-growth movement is that it can appear theoretical. More of the ideas have been tried than you might think, but certainly they haven’t all been tried at once as a deliberate strategy. No matter how confident we might be, we lack proof that a post-growth economy is possible. Or do we? Perhaps the world already has a post-growth society, albeit an unintentional one. Here’s what Japan’s GDP has been up to for the last twenty years:

I also contrast this against the chart of Japan's energy consumption which proves my point of the intrinsical link between energy and economic growth. Japan is also a country that emits a lot less carbon per person than most other rich countries.

And yet, the lights are still on, everything still works. Literacy is high, and crime is low. Life expectancy is better than almost anywhere on earth – 82 years to the US’ 78. The trains run to the second. Unemployment is only 5%, and levels of inequality are enviable. In fact, it is living proof that growth isn’t necessary to deliver a high standard of living. And they even seem to cope with the effect of the earthquake and disaster fairly well. This because Japan is a rather well functioning society with social capital
That’s not to say that Japan is to be envied or emulated. A legacy of failed stimulus ideas has left it with big debts, and the future is as uncertain as it is anywhere. Neither is it a steady-state economy in the way that matters most – in its materials. Japan consumes considerably more than a one-planet share and is not sustainable in that sense.
The point is that for well over a decade, one of the world’s most important economies hasn’t grown. And at the end of that stint, it’s still a great place to live. So maybe Japan isn’t a failure. Maybe it’s just ahead of its time – not ‘stagnating’, but settling into the plateau of ‘enough’.
After 15 years of fretting, maybe it’s time Japan embraced its post-growth state and told the economists where to stick their theories. Professor Norihiro Kato recently suggested that Japanese youth culture was doing just that, downsizing and taking a more measured approach to consumerism. Japan’s population had already levelled off, he noted. He even suggested Japan was entering a post-growth era. “Japan is a small country” people are saying, “and we’re O.K. with small. It is, perhaps, a sort of maturity.”
Japan, whether it likes it or not, is the world’s first post-growth economy. It won’t be the last. Japan proves that growth isn’t necessary to safeguard the things that matter most in life. There’s nothing to fear in levelling out, and if the alternative is boom and bust, then the plateau is a far safer place to be. How Japanese people themselves look at it can be read at: 

Update: just a few days after this was posted, The Guardian had an article about Japan as a show case for how "post-peak-oil" could look like.  So I amended the headline of this article, to include that perspective. I had already mentioned that there is this strong link between energy growth and economic growth. Essentiallyh post-growth and post peak oil are the same, at least as long as we have an economic system as the one we have.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Energy is the currency of the world

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the universal unit of energy used in all living cells. This molecule is produced and broken down in metabolic processes in all living systems.Known as the ‘energy currency of life,’ ATP can store and transport the energy we need to do just about everything that we do. Essentially all metabolic functions of living cells require energy for operation and obtain it directly from stored ATP.

That's the stuff going on in our cells.

But the more I look into the issues I believe there is a justification to state that energy is the currency of the world at large. It is energy that flows from the sun, that starts the whole cycle of life, and all our life is dependent that. In addition, all farming is about yielding energy, and ultimately our whole industrial society is based on access to cheap fossil fuel. If it were not for the coal pits in England, there might never had been an industrial revolution nor capitalism.
There seems to be a rough overall correlation between GDP/capita and energy/capita. This is understandable, since higher productivity per individual will cause a higher energy need for each. Due to the very rapid expansion in financial "services" and housing booms in many countries there was seemingly a bigger disconnect the last twenty years than we can see historically.
Source: the World Bank.

I believe this very strong correlation is what makes the energy issue to such a hot political issue more than a technical issues. It IS about our lifestyles and it IS about our economic system at large. To challenge energy use is fundamentally to challenge capitalism. That's why even proponents of wind and solar or biomass have this tendency to oversell those technologies, because it is only if they can show that they will be adundant and cheap that you can get political acceptance for them.

But as well as sugar is energy in our body, and more energy makes a stronger person, ultimately it also leads to diabetes and obesity. Our societies are obese, not only the people.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Less Salmonella in Organic Chicken

We are always scared with that organic is less safe. The argument goes that because organic farmers don't use pesticides, parasiticides, fungicides or antibiotics, organic crops or animals will be a risk for health. I always thought that it is nonsense, but it is hard to convince folks just from your gut feeling. But again and again you find evidence that organic is even safer. The latest survey of that kind says:
The results of our study suggest that within this poultry company, the prevalence of fecal Salmonella was lower in certified-organic birds than in conventionally raised birds, and the prevalence of antimicrobial-resistant Salmonella was also higher in conventionally raised birds than in certified-organic birds.

What is perhaps more alarming is that 39.7 percent of the salmonella found in the conventional birds had resistance to no fewer than six different antibiotics. None of the salmonella from the organic birds showed antibiotic resistance.
read more

Organic egg sales are progressing says The Organic Man

Also there is a nice blogpost on this at grist

When the economy crashes, we run out of oil and nature disasters hit: we survive

While many of my post sound a bit pessimistic and critical, deep inside I am actually quite positive to the chances of humanity to survive. In the end I don't think a collapse of the economy or that we run out of oil will be such a disaster. I believe that how such a decent will go is largely determined of the social conditions. With a social cohesive environment, what often is called "social capital" we humans can manage the most difficult situation. That means a lot more than technology or economy for our resilience and our ability to cope with new situation.

One example is how Cuba managed the "special period" which happened when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba suddenly lost favourable trade conditions and access to cheap oil and things associated to that (like chemical fertilizers). They managed that remarkably well. They also manage hurricanes very well - Cuba is in the middle of the hurricane trail and still very few people ever die in hurricanes there. Compare that to Haiti, or even the USA (Having said this I am no great Cuba fan, it is an oppresive regime, and I am not that impressed by the organic farming, or the urban farms which many people point to as so great. But it is a function society, or at least has been) Regardless of how messy the situation in Japan looks today I am quite convinced that they will manage to survive the tsunami and that in a few months time things will work again - of course there is awful human suffering that will take very long to heal.

From Argentina you saw a lot of examples of what happened when their economy was in free fall some ten years ago.
Rosario, Argentina, embraced vegetable gardens as a way to pull through an economic crisis. It now leads the way among cities in the promotion of urban agriculture.
Providing the necessities for her family has always been a challenge for Vilma Cala, a single parent of four children in Rosario, Argentina. Her income from work as a domestic and the produce from a vegetable garden allowed her to put enough food on the table, but that was before the economic crisis that rocked the country in late 2001. The January 2002 devaluation drove the peso down to one-third of its value, and Cala, to a critical point. “I had to go to a soup kitchen and ask for food. It was terrible, having to depend on others. It really hurt, but I did it,” she says. “If you don’t have food to eat, you don’t have anything at all.” Now Cala tends a large garden in a field criss-crossed by inactive power lines. The garden produces enough for Cala to sell at a market that the municipality of Rosario created especially for urban farmers. She also belongs to a group of women that makes cosmetic products from natural ingredients such as nettle, aloe, and burdock, grown in their gardens. Cala’s earnings from these activities, combined with additional income earned by cleaning houses and gardening, has enabled her to regain some ground in providing for her family.
Read more

Also in Argentina, not only food production was reorganized, but also industrial production:
After the late 2001 financial and political meltdown in Argentina, thousands of companies were abandoned by their owners in a sea of debt. But some of them were taken over and reopened by their employees. Today, as the economy continues to grow, these worker-run factories are still going strong. There are now 205 "recovered" companies, with a total of 9,362 workers -- up from 161 companies with 6,900 workers in 2004, according to a study published in October.
read more
What is most important for us to prepare is to build strong social networks and support civil society and local governments. Those are the institutions that can bring us safely accross peak oil and financial melt-downs as well as tsunamies and earthquakes.

Njuice from Time magazine

...nuclear fission turns out to be an outlandishly expensive method of generating juice for our Xboxes.
writes the Time
In an earlier piece it wrote
If you want to understand why the U.S. hasn't built a nuclear reactor in three decades, the Vogtle power plant outside Atlanta is an excellent reminder of the insanity of nuclear economics. The plant's original cost estimate was less than $1 billion for four reactors. Its eventual price tag in 1989 was nearly $9 billion, for only two reactors. But now there's widespread chatter about a nuclear renaissance, so the Southern Co. is finally trying to build the other two reactors at Vogtle. The estimated cost: $14 billion. And you can be sure that number is way too low, because nuclear cost estimates are always way too low.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Energy and agriculture

We live from one four-hundredth of the sun's energy
(another posting about energy and food will come soon)
Approximately 130 Joule[1] per cm2 reaches the earth as solar radiation. Some of it is absorbed by the atmosphere directly or is reflected. 91 Joule reaches the surface of the planet, of this 18 Joule is reflected again; 31 Joule is radiating as heat; 36 Joule is used for the evaporation of water; 6 Joule heats the soil and the plants tie up some 1 Joule as chemical energy (Bayliss-Smith 1982). It is this little part, less than a percent of the sunlight that reaches the surface that is the plants' share of the solar energy. And it is this tiny fraction we use for food, feed, fibre or biofuels. Or rather, it is only a part of this tiny fraction as we rarely use the whole plant. If one calculates backwards from the crops actually harvested, we find that in 1993 harvested products represented only 0.4 percent of the solar energy reaching the fields. Of these 0.4 percent we actually only used 61 percent, i.e. our real use was only around 0.25 % of the solar energy that reach the ground (Uhlin 1997). There is a theoretical maximum for the efficiency of the photosynthesis on around 3-4 percent, but in reality, it is most likely hard to go above 1 percent for a total farming system. Of the solar energy not absorbed into plants, we use a small fraction in the form of hydroelectricity and wind power. And then we use biomass from forests and some of the solar energy that reaches the ocean in the form of fish, sea food and sea weed.

The simple agriculture equation has always been that one has to get substantially more energy out of the food than one put into the production of food. As long as in-energy is human labour it is an iron law that can only be skipped for shorter periods. Obviously we also need other things than energy from food, we need proteins, vitamins etc. but without a positive energy balance at the core, these others are not important as the farmers, or their families at least, will fade away. The agriculture worker should not only feed herself or himself but also other family members who are to young, too old or sick to work, as well as some few others that supply services. Finally, in almost all society there have been rulers that has taken a great share of the production. In pure agrarian societies, around 80 percent of the population is engaged in farming. The other 20 percent are living from the farmers.

One can roughly divide the agriculture systems into three groups based on their energy use. This division is also reflected in the tools used, the degree of specialization and market orientation etc.

- pre-industrial farming, where the external energy is less than ten percent of the total energy (i.e. human labour represents the totally dominating energy source);

- semi-industrial agriculture systems where external energy is 10-95% of the total energy, and

- industrial systems where internal energy supplies constitute less than 5% down to completely negligible proportions.

Looking at these system one can see the following pattern

- the total energy harvested per hectare can increase with increased use of ancillary energy, perhaps with a factor of five, i.e. one can increase yield per hectare fivefold with the use of more energy. This energy can be in the form of better (and more timely) soil preparation, irrigation, fertilizers etc.

- The ratio between energy out and energy in, i.e. efficiency in use of energy, seem to be fairly constant to a certain level after which it rapidly deteriorates. In industrial farming system we have since long passed the optimal use level

- Harvested energy per labour unit increases dramatically with increased input of energy with a factor of between ten and hundred, allowing the most advanced agriculture systems to have one farmer per hundred persons. Admittedly a lot of support work is needed to that farmer and the whole modern food industry employs a lot of people so the actual net efficiency increase is less, but still very substantial. (Bayliss-Smith 1982)

Table 6 energy efficiency in seven agriculture systems

Energy use per hectare (MJ)

Energy harvest per hectare and year (MJ)


fossil fuel



productivity per person day (MJ/person day)

Energy ratio

(harvested energy/used energy)


New Guinea[2]






England 1826













India 1955






India 1975







Soviet union






England 1971






source: Bayliss-Smith 1982

A barrel of oil for a ton of maize

According to FAO, 6,000 MJ of fossil energy (corresponding to a barrel of oil) is used to product one ton of maize in industrial farming, while for the production of maize with traditional methods in Mexico only 180 MJ (corresponding to 4.8 litre oil) is used. This calculation claims to include energy for synthetic fertilizers, irrigation and machinery, but not "shadow energy", i.e. energy used for making machinery, transporting products to and fro the farm, and for construction of farm buildings (FAO 2000). The energy ratio is negative (below 1) for modern rice farming and just above one for modern maize farming, while traditional production of rice and maize give a return of 60 to 70 times on energy used. Schneider and Smith (2008) land on an energy ratio that is a lot more depressive reading. Their figures state that almost 150 times more energy put in than taken out from the food system (more than just farming). Their calculations include livestock and are drawn from macro level data and not cases. Their figures appear to be implausible if put in relation to the total energy use of modern society. Johansson and others (2010) say that total agriculture energy output content is 19,900 TWh, of which 17, 560 TWh was considered edible. This corresponds to four fifth of all transport energy in the world or roughly one fourth of all energy consumption. If that is the case to output/input ratio can't clearly not be much lower than 0.5-1 as there are many other uses for energy than farming. In any case, the ratio is bad, and there is no doubt that it is worse in high income countries than in low income countries; in industrial farming system than in traditional farming systems (with the exception of swiddening farming[3]).

FAO has also compiled average data for energy yields for developed and developing countries respectively (see table). It shows that developed countries use more than double the amount of energy to produce a ton of grain, and three times as much per hectare (the reason for it being more per hectare is that yields are a bit higher in developed countries). FAO notes that “productivity is higher” when more energy is used, and with that they mean in particular productivity per labour unit. One could of course put it the other way round and say that the productivity measured on used energy is very low. When we discuss bio-energy this discussion is suddenly very relevant.

Table 7 Energy use and efficiency in Developed and Developing Countries

Energy (MJ) per hectare

Energy (MJ) per ton grain

Energy (MJ) per farm worker

Developing countries

4 019

2 009

4 144

Developed countries

13 062

4 856


Source: FAO 2000

Different kinds of agriculture production and different food also have different energy ratios. The energy ratio is very low for deep sea fishing; for meat production from feed lots and from vegetables in heated green houses[4]. A big share (often above 50%) of the energy use in farming is for the production of synthetic fertilizers, in particular nitrogen fertilizers, and pesticides. This also means that the contentious debate about organic versus conventional (non-organic) farming has a strong element of energy dependency debate. If improved energy ratio is a primary goal for farming, skipping, or at least dramatically reducing, nitrogen fertilizers, is one of the best ways to get there.

Figure Energy use per kg for selected foods

source: Carley and Spapens 1998

Why the petrol price and the grain price follow each other

Farming uses energy in many different forms: diesel for tractors and pumps; electricity for pumps; fans and in-door machinery such as milking machines. Fertilizers represent a big energy use. Energy represents 90 percent of the production costs for nitrogen fertilizers, 30 percent for phosphorus fertilizers and 15 percent for potassium fertilizers. For production in the USA energy costs represented between 22% and 27% of the production costs for wheat, maize and cotton and 14% of the production costs for soy beans[12] (US CRS 2004). These figures do not include embedded costs in buildings; machinery etc. so the actual share of the costs is substantially higher. In Argentina energy costs were calculated to 43% of production costs in 2006 (Baltzer et al 2008). In a situation with rising energy prices, agriculture prices will follow suit. This could also be seen in the food price – and oil price hike 2007-2008[13]. Energy prices influence food prices in four different ways:

- by making the production more expensive

- by making biofuel more interesting to produce and therefore reduce the production of food

- increased transport costs which directly reflect on food prices

- reduced competition in the food sector (increased transport costs means that the pressure of global competition is reduced)

[1] An energy unit, 1 Joule is 1 Ws

[2] The example from New Guinea is of a very primitive farming, based on swiddening. Energy in the swiddening itself doesn’t seem to be included. As can be seen the energy ratio appears to be maintained initially to be radically lower when external energy is becoming dominating.

[3] I have not found any figures for energy use for swiddening, but if we assume that there is some 100 qubik meters of wood per hectare which is burnt and that the land is used for farming three years, that would mean that some 35 kubik meters of wood is "used" per year. That would correspond to the energy of some 3 kubik meters if oil, which would mean an appalling energy efficiency, even worse than most industrial systems.

[4] This is hardly surprising as they don’t contain a lot of energy and heated greenhouses in the Northern hemisphere need a lot of energy for heating and even artificial light.

[12] Who can be grown without nitrogen fertilizers as they have natural nitrogen fixation.

[13] There were also other factors driving this, but increased oil price doubtless was one of, if not the main driver.

Extract from Garden Earth

More energy posts.

Economic growth leads to a scarcity of time

she has a lot of time...

Philosophers, politicians and economists have all given voice to the idea that once we have been freed from destitution and poverty, through the blessings of industrialisation, we would get time to spend for art, spiritual development, games and exploring the deeper meaning of the concept of freedom. But this didn't materialise. Already 1969, economist, and later trade minister of Sweden, Staffan Burenstam Linder (1970) described in The Harried Leisure Class how consumers in high income countries have become more stressed and restless in their efforts to increase productivity of their leisure time. The productivity of work has increased tremendously through mechanisation and use of external energy. This creates a corresponding pressure on our time off to also be more “productive”, influencing both household work and pure leisure. That we have more money to dispose of doesn't alleviate the situation, rather the contrary, as all that money needs to find its use.

We only have so many hours “to spend”. Through technical development and efficient management, we produce an awful lot of things today, a lot more than we did before. But we work more or less the same. This means that we have got more and more things to consume and services to buy in the same limited time. No wonder we get stressed. In the same way as our productivity in industries and offices has increased tremendously by more tools and machines, our time off is also increasingly dominated by them. We use more and more tools and gadgets and activities that have no corresponding gadget lose their appeal; for cooking, a food processor or an ice cream maker is preferred over a straight forwards slowly simmering stew. Sports, even the “simple outdoor-life” is dominated by designer brands and special technical aids. We need one helmet for ice hockey, another one for our bicycle, a third one for driving a motorcycle and a fourth one for the piste just to mention the most common ones is a cold climate.

In a similar way, we are supposed to constantly upgrade our competence. We are moving towards a knowledge society it is said. Earlier, some five to seven years of formal education was enough for many trades, followed by apprenticeship on the job, today school reaches some twelve grades in most countries and a bulk of the people are supposed to continue into higher education[1]. We need to be better and better not the fall off the merry-go-round which is spinning quicker and quicker. This competition is another side of the growth paradigm and a cause of insecurity and loss of well-being. Not only do we want more things all the time, we should also know more and be attractive in the market (be it the labour market or the dating market). This contributes to stress and that some actually fall off altogether. Our ability to integrate those that are a bit different, the odd ones, is diminishing by the year, both at work and socially. The time we have for taking care of an old relative, or just to sit and listen is constantly shrinking.

[1] Humans have always been driven by a wish to know more, to understand, by curiosity. It is a big difference between when people learn because the do it for those reasons and when they do it out of plight or force to be in demand. Those skills that are demanded are not at all necessarily the skills that we seek for our personal satisfaction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to change complex systems?

Donella Meadows describes in the paper Leverage Points, Places to intervene in a System where we shall intervene if we want to change a system (ecological, economic or social) on different levels. She lists twelve different ways (in reversed order of their impact)

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
11. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows (say the treasure of a state)
10. Structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)
9. Length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes (like building a new nuclear energy system)
8. Strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against (such as welfare systems or property taxes as means to re-distribute wealth)
7. Gain around driving positive feedback loops (housing bubbles or eutrophication of a lake)
6. Structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)
5. Rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)
4. Power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure (like in human cultures, in nature or even the human body)
3. Goal of the system (such as making profit)
2. Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters - arises out of (“we build skyscrapers because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously valuable” says Meadows)
1. Power to transcend paradigms (Meadows 1999)

One can discuss single things in her outline, e.g. I am less convinced of the potency of information. I find that we live in a constant flow of information which doesn't change a lot. Still, by and large it is a helpful way of looking at our situation, as well as understanding the limits of normal “muddling through” political processes, so I follow her outline below. The points at the top are fairly easy to manipulate, but alas, they are not very efficient or important, Nevertheless, daily politics are about the level of a particular tax or the budget for this or that purpose (#12). I find the discussion around the negative and positive feedback loops particularly relevant, especially as I think we can see how important the positive loops are. In the social sphere we see housing or stock market bubbles as typical examples; increasing prices drive expectations of future increases, people borrow and banks lend all based on the assumption that prices will continue to rise, but around the corner the inevitable collapse lurches. Almost all actors know it is a bubble, but as long as you are not in the wrong end of the chain you can continue, and gain from it. In capitalist societies with no re-distribution policies the rich get richer and the poor poorer, through several mutually reinforcing feed back loops.
Monopolies also seem to be driven by positive feed back loops. We discussed earlier how there might be many positive loops related to climate change (such as melting of the permafrost). It is largely by introduction of societal negative feedback that the processes can be kept checked. Other negative loops are taxes on pollution, the polluter-pay-principle. The governor of a steam engine is another such example, the faster it rotates, the less fuel will be supplies; a simple self-corrective device. The negative loops are thus more of a “regulating” nature, while the positive loops threaten the stability of the system. Therefore, we need to pay a lot of attention to such tendencies. Meadows say: “A system with unchecked positive loops ultimately will destroy itself. That's why there are so few of them...if you keep raising the capital growth rate in the world model, eventually you get to a point where one tiny increase more will shift the economy from exponential growth to oscillation. Another nudge upward gives the oscillation a double beat. And just the tiniest further nudge send it into chaos” (Meadows 1999).

The rules of game and the power over those rules (#5) are apparently very important. Our whole economic system rests on a legal protection of property and a violent state to enforce it. Another such cornerstone is democracy and liberties. There is no coincidence that countries constitutions are a classical battleground for ideologies, and also that it is not changed so easily. In many earlier society religion supplied those rules, but as the religious hegemony withers (in some countries at least) they don't play that role any longer. The question today, is not what is the best thing to do within the rules as they are. The question is how we can get away from the rules we have been operating since the birth of industrial capitalism.
To challenge, the goals of a system, or even simply to ask what they are (!), can be very powerful. Most systems have evolved over a long time, in small steps, from a set of original goals, but mostly those goals are not present in the everyday discourse, many people don't know them, and perhaps they don't agree to them. To question them can be a seed of change. These kinds of questions most likely played a rather great role for the fall of the Soviet Union: when the difference between the actual situation (little freedom, low quality of life and drudgery) and the stated goals (solidarity and a non-exploitative society) became too apparent and too big the credibility of the system collapsed. In the end, we humans seem to like to be soothed and believe things will work out, but at a certain stage, when we lose faith in what is going on, only the most extreme oppression can contain our wrath. Today, we can ask if the purpose of the capitalist market economy is to create immense wealth for a few through profits or if it is to create wealth for us all, or happiness for us all, or freedom. Can anyone still remember? Did you choose to live in this society?

To go a step further and to change our patterns of thinking is what is called a shift in paradigm, which can be accomplished by pointing out again and again that the current one is leading us astray, or that another one is more appealing. I lose Meadow's thought when she goes one step further with her last point which is about totally transcending paradigms; to realize that no paradigm is true; that the universe is immense and goes well beyond human comprehension. In this stage we can “live in constant joy, bring down empires, found religions, get locked up, “disappeared” or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia” (Meadows 1999) .

Donella H. Meadows (1941 - 2001), American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. Lead author of groundbreaking, and criticized, book of the Club of Rome The Limits to Growth.

Energy:the big picture

This is a sad hoax, for industrial man no longer eats potatoes made from solar energy; now he eats potatoes partly made of oil. (Howard T Odum)

There are only three primary energy sources on earth, solar energy, the gravitation of the sun and the moon and the geothermal energy. Of these, solar energy is completely dominating. These primary forms are the origin of all the secondary forms; biomass (from photosynthesis); circulation of water (which allows us to extract hydro-electricity); the wind; tidal flows and geological processes (volcano eruption, erosion, earthquakes etc.) The primary and secondary energy sources that formed the oil, photosynthesis, geological movements and geothermal energy are all diluted and difficult to use. But they have had a very long time to create a very concentrated product, which can be extracted for a low cost and be the basis for other energy carriers, such as electricity and petrol. It is the great “work” of the bio-geosphere that has created the energy intensity of oil compared to the original biomass.

Energy has been central for the dramatic increase of productivity of human labour. The tremendously improved, and thereby cheaper, transport that resulting from cheap oil is a key driver in the globalization of our economy and of our life. The economic importance, and the implications, of this largely surpass the importance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU and other free trade agreements, or possibly one could even say that they are a result of energy use[1]. Despite us living in an industrial society, or as some claim, an information society, agriculture is still very important and the interaction between energy and agriculture has major implications as oil reserves dwindle. It works both ways. It is largely through the use of external energy that labour productivity in farming has increased. On the other hand, historically and ecologically, agriculture was supposed to deliver more energy than it consumed. That was the whole point of farming in the first place. But agriculture of today, and even worse our food system at large, is a huge net consumer of energy. At the same time, expectations are that we will produce more biomass and energy from farming. Those are the reasons for why this chapter discuss the energy and agriculture nexus thoroughly.

Energy costs represent some 3 percent of GDP. This fact can lure us into believing that energy is not so important for our economy. But nothing could be more wrong. Water costs are almost negligible and still most of our economy would collapse if there was no water, well all of it would collapse. If the 3 percent energy costs are taken away, most of the other 97 percent will vanish. Cheap energy, mainly in the form of fossil fuel, is the fuel of our whole economy, all things would grind to halt, like a car without petrol without it. This is also realised by many, even if most politicians try to do a balancing act of overplaying our ability to find other solutions and underplaying our extreme dependency of fossil fuel. It is like we found an enormous bag of candy that someone left, and we just eat and eat. How important energy is, is also reflected in the substantial subsidies that are directed to fossils fuel, which are calculated by IEA to US$ 650 billion in 2008 (UNEP 2011)

Energy use and supply

Since the first oil crisis in the mid 1970s, the energy consumption per capita in high income countries has stagnated. Transport energy is an exception and has almost doubled in the high income countries. Globally, the supply of energy has doubled in the same period. The transportation sector accounts for over a quarter of total world energy use, and the proportion has increased since 1973. Cars, trucks and air transport take most of the transport energy; in the EU, road transport represents 82% and air transport represent 14% of the transport energy. Transport of people both for work and for leisure increase dramatically as people become wealthier. A flight from England to Mallorca was a big thing, and very costly in the 1960s, now it is almost like catching a bus, and would be a lot more so if it weren’t for all the security measures. Unless there is a major shift away from current patterns of energy use, world transportation energy use is expected to grow at 2% per year, with energy use 80% above 2002 levels by 2030 (UNEP 2009, IEA 2009, EU 2010).

With increasing awareness about problem with climate and political and economic uncertainties about oil and gas supplies there is a renewed interest in bio-energy and renewable fuels. It should be noted that the supply of energy from biomass is double the supply of energy from nuclear power and that in developing countries biomass represents a much higher proportion than in the high-income countries. Still fossil fuel represents 80 percent of all supplied energy as can be seen from the graph below.

The energy input per GDP unit is decreasing in most countries and, perhaps surprising, most in China.

The poorest people have very limited access to energy; it is largely limited to firewood that is collected by household members, often women and children, manure or other combustible waste products[2]. Approximately 2.6 billion people live with these as their main energy source (UNIDO 2008). There is a strict energy hierarchy for household energy in the sense that with increasing income people move from wood to coal (charcoal or mineral coal), kerosene, PNG and finally electricity. Around 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. Apart from the comfort and health advantages of electrical light compared to kerosene or firewood, electrification can lead to substantial economic development. In the Philippines, it is estimated that electrification of the rural areas would have a value of between 81 and 150 dollars per household per year. More than any other factor, access to energy can explain the difference in productivity between poor and rich.

[1] The origin of the EU is actually as a “Coal and steel union”.

[2] In the 1990s, I met farmers in China who used cotton straw as their source of energy for cooking.

The text is an extract from Garden Earth, my forthcoming book