Friday, December 13, 2019

Fast noodles or resilience?

Two years ago we visited the village Songai rotan in the Jambi province in Sumatra, Indonesia. The farm families had almost totally converted their farms to palm oil. Patma, who runs a school canteen tells us that basically all food she cooks is made from stuff bought from the closest city, despite the fact that there are good conditions for the cultivation of many fruits and vegetables, tubers, upland rice. Chicken. Pigs or cattle could probably even graze between the palm trees. Farm families tells us that their staple food these days are noodles and canned mackerel. The canned mackerel is probably from the coast off Indonesia and the noodles are made from wheat. Wheat can hardly be grown in Indonesia and still has wheat noodles become a staple in this nation, with the fourth largest population in the world.

In the road we meet several “car plastik”, pickups filled over the top with colorful plastic cans, baskets, buckets and toys. In the houses people sleep on plastic mats and the chairs are also made of plastic.  Meanwhile, the name of the village means “rattan river” indicating that the area was famous for its native rattan and the products thereof. 
Car plastik, Sumatra, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

By specializing in oil palm and shunning rattan and food production the villagers have become totally integrated into the global food system, for the better and the worse. The better, means in this case primarily higher income, less toil, a motorbike and the possibility to send the children to the university (from where they will never come back).  The worse, is lower quality of food, disintegration of village life and families and the simplification of the landscape.

The visit gave a good picture of how the global market integration works. A recent article in Nature, Anatomy and resilience of the global production ecosystem a team summarizes:

“that the simplification and intensification of these systems and their growing connection to international markets has yielded a global production ecosystem that is homogenous, highly connected and  characterized by weakened internal feedbacks. We argue that these features converge to yield high and predictable supplies of biomass in the short term, but create conditions for novel and pervasive risks to emerge and interact in the longer term.”

The high connectivity express itself in many ways. Pork production in China and in the EU use huge quantities of soy which change the landscape and ecology in parts of Latin America. A few actors control the supply chains for the main commodities. An economic, climatic or other shock in one part of the system works its way rapidly across the globe. The African Swine Fever has caused a drop in annual pork production in China by an estimated 20 million tonnes this year. That means that European pork producers enjoy a bonanza. Which in turns means that they will buy more soy from Brazil or the USA. The scale of ecosystem transformation also means that what is done in one place of Earth has ramifications in other places, or everywhere. Global warming, acidification, changing rainfall patterns are all examples of that.

Agriculture, fisheries and forestry have dramatically reduced its variation and diversity. While most landscapes earlier had multiple functions for humans and many more for other species, humans have created a few highly specialized and homogenous production systems where we nurture one species on the expense of almost all others. Through global trade, the affluent can enjoy a rather vast choice of global foods, but within each food category the variation is rapidly shrinking.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the hyperconnectivity in the global food system, important feedback is lost. The effects of consumption is not visible for those who consume. The loss of fertility of soil is not causing a shift in production methodology as farmers can compensate for the loss by using more fertilizers. Depletion of resources is compensated for by imports from elsewhere or the use of a similar resource from another ecosystem. Thereby depletion and loss of resilience is hidden.

The researchers, most of them associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, points to the substantial risks and the vulnerability of the system. They suggest that “the limits of the global production ecosystem in satisfying demands for harvested biomass may be set by the potential consequences of these emergent risks, as opposed to hard upper limits to production per se”. 

This is a very important observation. Far too much time and energy has been spent on the question of how will we feed 10 billion people in 2050 without expanding agriculture areas further. Researchers have made models of dietary shifts, use of fertilizers, improvements in seed breeding etc. to calculate how this can be accomplished. In reality, it is much more relevant to look into the resilience of the system, the buffers, the safeguards, the stocks and perhaps most of all the human society which manages the food system. After all, there are 800 million people under-nourished today despite a global crop production system that produces 6000 kcal per capita and day.

Unfortunately, the last part of the article, where the researchers tell us what to do falls short of challenging the basics of the system and merely suggests minor improvements. Those are redirecting finance for sustainability; radical transparency and traceability and keystone actors (i.e. transnational corporations) as global actors of change. This triad is an already well known - and quite well tried - part of a “business as usual sustainability” narrative, mainly relying on the assumed benevolence of big companies.

But it is hard to see that they could make any major change. While it is all commendable to divest from guns, fossil fuels or palm oil, these companies mostly earn enough money to expand organically. Oil and gas companies have huge profits, currently bigger than most sectors. Transparency and traceability has been the talk of the town for decades already, but a quick survey of most food online services show that they have little interest in making more solid information available, than what is required by law. And to expect that transnational companies will take the lead towards a sustainable, just and equitable society is dangerously naïve. If anything we need to reign them in rather than giving them even more power over our destiny.  

A much more profound transition is needed. It goes beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on how such a transition will look like. But it must certainly change or eliminate those drivers that have forced the current development, such as the use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers, global trade and the commodification of food, man and nature.

In the village Songai rotan we also meet Gharnamnen and his family. They are one of the few choosing another path. For sure, they also have some oil palm, it is hard to refuse that source of income, but they have also planted garu, an incense, citrus, lychee and even rattan.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

There is no such thing as a business as usual scenario

The discussions about how much it will cost to mitigate climate change is a smokescreen. What constitutes a cost is not an objective fact, but laden with assumptions and subjective values.
How much does it cost to stop climate change, to keep within the target of the Paris agreement?

The answer depends on who asks and what is meant by costs. In the normal case we would say that something costs when we have to pay for something that we buy or possibly that we make ourselves, counting our work as a cost. In the mainstream discussion of climate change mitigation, cost can also mean loss of income or a lower GDP compared to a business as usual scenario. There are very small costs for the Brazilian government in protecting the Amazon. But the contribution of a protected Amazon forest to the Brazilian economy is small compared to the timber that could be sold, the hydroelectricity and minerals that could be extracted, the soy or beef that could be produced.

There are many pits to fall into when discussing the cost of climate change mitigation.

First, to compare mitigation measures with business as usual scenarios that omit the increasing cost of climate change is simply misleading. The costs of inaction are certainly bigger than the costs of action.

Second, the business as usual scenario is based on that existing goods and services are desirable and that not doing certain things incur a loss of sorts. But there is no such relationship. If the US cuts spending on its military in half it would be just fine. If I skip a trip to Bangkok nobody will suffer. The most efficient way to reduce the use of fossil fuels is not to replace them with renewable energy, but to reduce the consumption of those goods and services which are dependent on them. Which, to a varying degree, means all goods and services. By earning less money and consuming less (to some extent, I walk the talk) I can probably make my biggest contribution to climate change mitigation. Of course, what one person does has mostly a symbolic value but if many people do it, it can make a real difference. It will decrease the GDP considerably, and therefore it is considered a cost in the daily talk of “climate economists” (if such a profession exists).

Third, the calculations are based on social discount rates and assumptions of technological progress, assumptions which more or less determines the results. But they are highly uncertain and are based on values such as how do we value our comfort compared to the opportunities of future generations.

Fourth, the assumption that one can replace fossil fuels with various renewable energy sources at no additional costs than the cost of producing that energy are unrealistic. Many people falsely believe that solar energy is now on par, or even cheaper than, coal. And in a very limited sense that might be the case. But already when you add a battery pack to those solar panels the cost is increasing a lot. The world without fossil fuels will simply look quite different than the world with fossil fuels. In turn, this also means that the economic logic will shift, global trade will shrink, new resources will become more valuable and some assets will be stranded. 

One of the firm rules of systems is that you can’t change just one thing. Why do we keep on discussing options compared to a business as usual scenario? There will be no business as usual scenario when climate change hits and there will be no business as usual scenario if human society takes appropriate action. There is no such thing as a business as usual scenario.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The peasant and the washing machine

It is now two months since I wrote my latest article about small farms, where I promised to write another one on labor productivity and its implications for the space of consumption for small holder farmers and its capacity to generate surplus labor for other societal purposes. The main reason for the silence is the writing of a forthcoming book about the evolution of the trinity cattle, grass and humans. The manuscript is now sent to the publisher, Ordfront, and the book (in Swedish) will be launched in May. 
The author in early days with primitive tools
Admittedly, another reason is that the subject is difficult. It is not a trivial thing to do to define options for productivity of smallholder farming and there are many issues to consider. And the interaction between a smallholder economy and the economy at large is also not straight forward. Do we talk globally or locally?

And why bother anyway? Isn’t smallholder farming doomed as the previous posts have demonstrated? Is it desirable? Do people really want to be peasants?

I have written about these issues many times and there are many reasons for me to conclude that the current civilization is not sustainable and that commodity farming drives destruction of the environment and, ultimately, also destroy farm communities and rural areas. I will not repeat those arguments here, you will just have to take them at face value. In my view, society is bound to move towards simplification and less use of external resources. Will people revert to farming as a result of those external factors as they done many times before, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or during the financial crisis in Greece or Spain?

One can be a small-holder farmer and use very modern technology and have high labor productivity. When I farmed in the county of Värmland, not so far from Norway, we were all envious of Norwegian farmers with 10-20 hectares because they had more and better machinery than their Swedish counterparts with 60-100 hectares.  This was a result of the very farmer-friendly Norwegian agriculture policies. But, on the flop side, by and large, it is not sustainable or realistic to have hyper-mechanized small farms. The resource use per person and per unit produced on highly mechanized small farms is, by and large, not justifiable. Unless there are special policies favoring small farms, competition and economy of scale will still favor the bigger. Another version of small scale farmers are those, like myself, who buy used machinery of their more industrious colleagues. It is only because they buy new and bigger equipment that I can have a tractor (well I even got two!), a grass mower, a rotavator, a manure spreader and many other mechanical tools. Our production would never carry such investments if those were new.  

Remember that I discuss labor productivity. It is well established that productivity of land or productivity of other employed resources on small farms can be high and higher than on big farms. But, by and large, labor productivity is so important for farm economy that it makes very little difference if your yield is ten percent higher if your labor productivity is low. Compared to pre-industrial times, yield of grain per hectare has increased perhaps five times and a cow gives six, seven times more milk. But, more importantly, the work time spent to produce one ton of wheat has gone from a few hundred hours to a less than 10 minutes according to Swedish data. One person on a large scale corn farm in the US can manage some 400 hectares of land, while a small scale farmer in Africa manage only a thousandths of that area. In addition, as the yield per area unit is five times higher the labor productivity of such an ultra-mechanized farmer is five thousand times higher than a totally manual farmer.

Clearly energy play an enormous role in this. Most of the increase in productivity is a result of technical applications of energy in the form of fossil fuels. Some applications were, and are, also possible with other fuel sources. Wood-fueled steam engines were used in an early stage for stationary threshers, and tractors could also be driven with gasified wood (I once bought a WWII wood gas set for my old Ferguson tractor, but never came around to install it). But by and large, oil has been the main energy source for the raise in labor productivity. In Chris Smaje’s grass-mowing experiment the Middle Ages actually win the productivity race if productivity is measured in energy units instead of man hours.        

In the current economy the enormous productivity of large scale farming using humongous quantities of fossil fuels both for machinery and fertilizers has depressed agriculture prices to levels where it is totally unrealistic to survive as a small scale farmer producing mainstream foods. Clearly, some farms are still profitable despite being small, but they don’t compete in commodity markets for staple food but have totally different kinds of production. This can be a successful strategy for a few farms, but has nothing to do with my discussion about an agrarian economy dominated by small scale farms.

Is there any sweet spot between the 10,000 hectare or 2,500 cow farm and the manual toil where one can combine some measure of mechanization with a level of labor productivity which is sufficient for maintaining an industrial structure to mass produce those tools needed for that? Is that sweet spot in the Middle Ages, in the 1890s, in the 1930s or in the 2050s?

Currently there are expectations that new robotics and artificial intelligence will be a boon for small scale farms and allow them to have as high labor productivity as large farms. I will not totally rule out that it might happen, but so far I am not at all convinced. Even if those robots materialize it is not clear to me how that will work out taking agriculture markets into account. Ultimately, it is the relative competitiveness of small versus big that matters, not if robots can ease work for small farmers. There has been many similar wishful claims earlier of how new technology would make small guys more competitive (remember the internet?). Anyhow, that is a separate discussion.

Will there be washing machines – and will smallholders afford them?

The bigger question is also how much surplus labor and resources can be allocated to other things than food production and the tools necessary for it. Already in medieval times farming generated surpluses which were used to erect magnificent cathedrals and castles and support arts and other acts of culture as well as devastating and endless wars. The life of a peasant was often grim and a failed harvest or illness could mean starvation or transfer to various forms of servitude (at least this is how the story goes). Some of this was caused by the huge inequality in societies and lack of access to resources rather than by low labor productivity.

Let us assume a fair peasant based society where the peasants are free and not under the pressure of church, king and lords. Can there be hospitals, will there be antibiotics, hot water and electricity? Or, as expressed by Hans Rosling, will people be above the “wash line”, i.e. will they have access to a washing machine? In 2010 when he made his TED talk about the magic washing machine he calculated that around 2 billion of the world´s population could wash their clothes in a washing machine. The others had to wash by hand.

In 2010 the magic wash line represented a daily income of US$40 US dollars per day. While only 2 billion people had such an income, at the same time the average global income was actually almost on that line. It crossed it 2013. Hans Rosling didn’t comment upon that, apparently more interested in the narrative of development than the narrative of equality and fairness.

Let´s compare the Rosling wash line (14 000 US dollars GDP per person) with the proportion of people working in agriculture. In 2018 the average income in the group of middle income countries were just below the line. Countries close to the line are Colombia, Peru, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongolia, South Africa, Paraguay and Sri Lanka. United States passed it during WW II 1942, Sweden 1959, England 1963, , Japan 1969, China passed the line in 2015. When countries passed the wash line they had the following share of the work force employed in agriculture:

Year crossing the wash line
Percent of work force in agriculture
Share of agriculture of GDP
United States
United Kingdom
Data sources: World Bank and Our world in data

Some of the countries were food exporters and others importers, I guess the UK imported a lot of food at the time the crossed the line, while the US was a large exporter. By and large a situation where between 10 and 20 percent of the population is engaged in farming seems to be conducive to a situation where people can have washing machines, there are hospitals, trains, universities and most of the things we associate with modernity.

Sweden passed the wash line 1959, two years after I was born. The combined power of fossil fuel and competition had not, as yet, totally transformed the agriculture system. In addition, until 1949 Sweden had a small-farmer friendly agriculture policy. With increasing demand of labor for the factories and a linked “need” for cheaper food those policies were abolished.

How did an average Swedish farm look like at that time? It had 13 hectares of arable land and 2 hectares of pastures and permanent grasslands (abandonment of grasslands started much earlier). There were 148 000 tractors (coincidentally more or less the same number as today!) and 26 000 combine harvesters on a total of 230 000 farms. Horses were still in rather frequent use as the number of work horses were the same as the number of tractors. 190 000 of the farms had cattle, almost all of them were dairy cattle. Today, there are just 3,500 dairy farms left with an average of 100 milking cows. More than 100 000 farms raised pigs and most of the farms had a few laying hens.

While Sweden could be seen as a small farm haven 1959, it had already entered the fossil fuel era, especially with the use of fertilizers (which by and large are fossil fuels in disguise), which was even bigger than today. So Swedish farming or society was in no way sustainable 1959 as little as China is that today.

One can of course argue that agriculture had at that stage already shrunk so much that its importance for the general development in the country was small. If you study the table it seems that the agriculture share of GDP has a stronger linkage to the wash line than the share of the population employed in agriculture. I guess this means that people’s access to washing machinery is a result of industrialization rather than agriculture productivity. Washing machines are after all industrial products. As the example of China show, people can have washing machines despite a rather low labor productivity in the farm sector. My guess is that most Chinese farmers can’t afford a washing machine even today, while most Swedish farmers probably bought one in the 1960s. 

Perhaps, we need to go back further to find the sweet spot. Recent research shows that Vietnam is the country that best has managed to balance social development and welfare within planetary boundaries. It only transgress one biophysical boundary while achieving six out of eleven social development indicators (similar to Italy, Chile and Greece which transgress five, six and seven biophysical boundaries). Vietnam has 41 percent of its workforce in agriculture and agriculture makes up 14 percent of the GDP of US$7,400, i.e. half of the wash line. Almost everybody has electricity and most have access to clean water. Vietnam has radically reduced poverty and is also a fairly equal society with a Gini coefficient around 0.35. Women also have a strong standing in Vietnamese society.    

I am not sure of this detour to macro-economics made me or the readers any wiser?


Sooner (preferably) or later societies and farming will have to adjust to a renewable energy economy. None of the renewable energy sources will be as efficient as oil and, therefore, the level of mechanization, and labor productivity might be “lower” in an inevitable non-fossil future. But the drive for more mechanization, more specialization and bigger units will most likely be the same in a market economy. Well, it could even be stronger as some alternative fuels would favor bigger units. For example, while very small scale biogas digesters are a realistic alternative for gas for cooking for millions of small farms in China, farm scale biogas production for tractor fuel assume very big farm units.

By and large, it is impossible to disentangle agriculture from society at large and as long as farming is mainly operating as a producer of commodities it will inevitably follow the logic of industrialization with ever increasing labor productivity, be it driven by fossil fuel, solar energy produced hydrogen or wood gas. If farming is seen as something else, as planetary stewardship, maintenance of ecosystem or cultural services or as a lifestyle then the logic of labor productivity plays out differently, which is clearly visible even in our oil-soaked universe.