8 Dec 2009

Can we go 100 percent organic?

Since 40 percent of America's food supply goes to waste, it seems possible to switch all production to organics:
  • We can have enough, even with 40 percent lower yields.
  • Higher prices would reduce demand for food, and thus obesity. (They may cause people to switch to cheaper foods, but those tend to be better for you -- rice vs meat -- if you ignore the idea that steakhouse diners will switch to McDs.)
Of course, this will not happen through regulation or a wholesale change in people's demand for food. It could happen if water or carbon use was taxed: that waste uses 25 percent of fresh water and 300million bbl oil; that's not even counting methane resulting from rot.

Your thoughts?


  1. Apparently going 100% organic would require 30% more farm land, which we don't have, more water, which we don't have, and more money for food by the poor and unemployed, which they do not have.

    Now what?

  2. That's a good point, Eric. I sometimes think Organic is a bit overrated, or at least "certified organic." I believe pesticide-free is key, but if fertilizers are made synthetically, like vitamins, without anything toxic or harmful, I'm fine with that. There are actually a lot of emerging technologies for growing pesticide-free produce that required less land and less water, such as aeroponics.

  3. Eric, where do you get your 30% more land numbers? From the organic operations I've seen, the amount of land has been a wash, although I have read some research showing a five-fold increase in yield/acre with some small intensive practices. What I've seen is a labor increase, which I'm okay with.

    Jessica, fake fertilizers have been a bane on this world. Algal blooms & dead zones are often attributed to fertilizers washing into the oceans, and nitrates contaminate many watersheds in California, such that many folks can't drink their tap water (and boiling makes it worse).

    Certification programs may require tweaking, including a good 'locally produced' & 'soil enriching' label, but the idea is powerful and important.

    Aeroponics is an interesting way, as is aquaponics. Heck, I use duckponics!

  4. @Jessica,
    I did not know about aeroponics. Thanks. It seems that aeroponically grown plants are much more expensive than traditionally grown plants. Is this true? Also, as a biologist, I wonder about root growth. Most plants, I think, need to have roots underground for the roots to be healthy. Are there plants, large, heavy, or sensitive, that do not do well under aeroponics? Corn comes to mind. Especially miles and miles of corn.

    The 30% figure comes from an article through Google Reader in the last week. I can track it down if you want.

    Without fake fertilizers, chemically fixed nitrogen, I have read ("Eating the Sun," "Guns, Germs and Steel" and others)that more than half the people currently on the planet (about 6,750,000,000)would die. There would be no food for them. There is not enough natural fertilizer.

    What would you say to these people if 'fake fertilizers' went away. Others have proposed going back to being a hunter gatherer society. The planet's carrying capacity for hunter gatherers is 100,000,000 not 6,750,000,000 ("Guns, Germs, and Steel")

    What should we do to get to sustainability?

  5. Let's not forget to do our marginal analysis. According to USDA, 49.1 million people were living in food insecure households in 2008.

    So if prices go up (for whatever reason), more people near the margin of hunger will starve.

    That's not to say I object to Pigouvian taxes. But there will be all sorts of consequences. It won't be simple.

  6. I do believe that at one point, chemical fertilizers were vital to getting cheap food to folks. With the amount of total nitrogen and carbon currently in the system, circulating without being used, just being pumped into the atmosphere and washed downstream, however, I don't believe it is the case any more.

    I'll poke around for the article on land use, and thanks for that. Again, I don't think organic practices lead to less land, unless we try to shoehorn our current monocultural practices directly into an organic system, in which case it would be a catastrophe.

    I do not wish for everybody to become hunter-gatherers, although I try to be one, from time to time.

    Eric, you make a good point on Pigouvian taxes, which is why I haven't yet joined the club (not that they'd have me, anyway). However, the households you mention are often food insecure due to social pressures other than money, like a loss of traditional cooking methods & lack of fresh produce availability (deep in urban centers). Some of our poorest communities have lower levels of food insecurity, because they are one generation from immigration, and still maintain their cultural food practices.

    It's the current system of food subsidies that create an imbalance of nutrition.

  7. The best book that I have found on food subsidies and plausible ways to decrease them is "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The farm in Virginia is amazing in their ability to turn out sustainable, high quality food.

    While the farming methods presented in this book are great, the price of eating, per person, would go up subtantially.

  8. Eric, that author (and Cal. prof.) also points out that our cost for food is insanely low right now (about 8% of our income), and correlates to our insanely high medical costs (about 16%) and our nutrition-borne disease epidemics (obesity and diabetes). So, although not proven, it's very possible that as we increase the cost of our food, because of an increase in quality, we will also decrease our medical costs, which also relate to lost productivity.

    And this isn't even counting the decrease in cancer rates we'd expect to see through fewer pesticides, and the air quality improvements in places, due to better soil retention and the end of monocultural practices.

    I know it's pie-in-the-sky, but it's nice to think about.

  9. @Josh,

    Pie in the sky is fine. As you have seen in my other comments, I would really like to see economic and engineering spreadsheets to see how high the sky really is. If it is not too high, lets get some pie.

    For my companies, one of the first things that we do is pie in the sky thinking. Then we ask which of those pies we can actually produce. One of the big ones that one of my companies can get soon is doubling of energy efficiency. We already have the design for the right engine. Now we just have to make them and get them to customers.

    On coupling of numbers--healthy food, lower incidence of diabetes and cancer, etc.; I would like full lifecycle predictions. For instance, if we make healthier food (and since I am a biochemist I want real numbers), do we raise the cost of food so much that many people die of starvation but the remainder are more healthy. Do you know where to find these numbers?

  10. In this country I don't think too many people die of starvation due to lack of money. Too much pride maybe? I have friends who have no problem feeding themselves from dumpsters (and they aren't even desperate - a lot of that food goes into the compost pile), I've been on WIC, all of my neighbors recently got nice turkeys from the food bank. My work has adopted a family for xmas the last two years and each time every member of the family, down to the 3 year old has been size XXL. I don't know the solution for equitable distribution and making sure people grow or buy and eat 2000 calories of whole grains and veggies instead of 4000 calories of big macs and twinkies, but the simple questions David posed seems to demand a yes. If we ignore, for now, how the details work out here is how it stands: Even if organic does take 30% more land, we waste 40% of edible food so without the waste we can feed ourselves on the same land organically. Most of us overeat, so if we didn't do that we could buy less, but better and more expensive food. Some of us (me) overeat on purely healthy, organic, local, great food - and if we didn't do that, we could donate it to poorer people (we'd be healthier, as would the poorer people, none of us would be any poorer than we are now). More people would be employed due to the increased labor requirements of organic, polyculture farms, so the more expensive food would lead to better incomes for some poor people, leading to the ability to buy the more expensive food. Although, as has been mentioned, one could probably live pretty healthily on some cheap, bulk organic grains, beans and potatoes supplemented with some homegrown greens (grown in containers on the patio or dandelions gathered from the non-sprayed parks if nothing else!)

  11. @ Michelle,
    Very interesting.

    Do you have numbers to support your ideas?

    For instance, acres of locally available farmland for organic farming to support the Bay Area's residents, yield of produce during the winter and spring to feed these residents,yearly income per farm worker, and transportation resources from residential areas to the farm and back.

    If you can layout affordable economics, I and lots of others would like to see it.


  12. All I have now is a townhome with a 5 foot area around it. However, I hauled in organic material from the neighboring mushroom plant and grow veggies for many familes for a few months. If it were allowed, I could construct a makeshift greenhouse out of salvaged windows and provide veggies most of the year with very little additional energy. No transportation costs are involved and the additional water bill is about $5 per month.

    I do not mix the organic compost material with the native dirt. The tomatoes get 10 feet high and the bell peppers are 4 feet tall.

    I don't sell the produce as I receive numerous invitations to enjoy a bit of wine throughout the year.

    Cheers !


  13. I'm not an economist, is my snippy answer :) As we were discussing organic (not the better 'local and organic'), I will reiterate that if we waste 40% of food and you say organic requires 30% more land, if we don't waste food we don't have a problem going 100% organic (using the same land we already use in this very hypothetical argument). Why don't you tell me exactly how much more staple food items are going to cost if everything is grown organically, and I'll tell you how that's going to work for various socio-economic circles economically. There is a recent post on grist.org about our food system that talks about poorly paid farm workers, cheap food, etc. Obviously, when we get into this level of thinking, we are dealing with some issues like food subsidies and wages and other things that are politically sticky. It might be a few more comments until I have solved all of the world's problems :)

  14. 1) We could never get to the point of zero food waste, so the claim about being able to withstand a 40% yield loss is unrealistic. Organic farming takes land, water, labor, diesel, money, just as conventional farming does, it just wastes more.
    2) A great many people around the world depend on the US for a significant part of their food & fiber. What are they to do if we cut our output drastically?
    3) I commend "Enriching the Earth" by Vaclav Smil to the readers of this thread. Smil is a highly qualified academic, and no stooge of the chemical peddlers. I have read nothing other than a bunch of vague opinions to refute what he and many others (Borlaug, for instance) have said; namely that without inorganic nitrogen, two billion or more humans would die. Animal manures, legumes, and kelp alone won't hack it.
    4) It is possible to misuse fertilizer and pesticides under any regime. If American farmers, who are among the world's most efficient and responsible (though far from perfect) stop using these materials, farmers in other regions will make up the difference, or try to. Not only will these fail, they will make a hell of a mess trying.
    5) Of all the tenets of organic agriculture, the restriction on fertilizer is the weirdest. Plants care not about the heritage of the molecules they metabolize. Proponents today quote ancient frauds like Rudolph Steiner (who has all the scientific authority of Nostradamus) as an expert on soil science. If someone can make a living growing organic food, that's great. I buy a lot of it, not because of safety or ethical issues, but because I find the variety and quality often superior. I can afford to pay for it.
    5) The best way to keep food cheap is not to make lousy cheap stuff for people to eat too much of. Pollan gets this right. If we went back to teaching Home Economics, more people wold learn how to prepare nutritious and varied meals from inexpensive sources. That would support organic and conventional growers. What we need is food that is about 15% more expensive an twice as good. This can be achieved through both organic and conventional means.

  15. Mister Kurtz:

    re: 1 - how does organic waste more?

    re: 2 - maybe if they aren't under the threat of our taking their ability to live away, they will start to produce for themselves. This isn't just a 'tough love' idea, either, it's growing in popularity among folks in poor countries;

    re: 3 - I will look up Smil's work, because I'm interested in this notion. From the amount of fertilizer that we wash out, unused, I don't think our total nitrogen is a problem anymore. How old is his work? Does he consider the total load nowdays from carbon & nitrogen? These are honest questions, not rhetorical ones;

    re: 4 - that attitude (& #2) feels pretty paternalistic to me, and also an anti-NIMBY argument that I don't agree with. If we outlaw child prostitution, people will provide it in other countries, too, but that is no reason to therefore make child prostitution legal;


    I don't mean to be mean-sounding, these are my honest comments, and I respect your position and your intellect in these endeavours.

  16. WaterSource/WaterBank9 Dec 2009, 12:47:00

    I'm glad I'm not an economist... It never occured to me that I couldn't grow my own veggies by just using readily available materials. My neighbors marvel at & enjoy my garden, but they make no attempt to provide for themselves ... I suspect that soon lawns will be replaced by depression gardens ... naahh, too few know how to operate a shovel & rake, let alone carry a bucket of water or reuse waste materials.

  17. All,
    I like the discussion that we are having, but I am more comfortable when the problem of scale is addressed directly.

    The problem of scale comes in when we calculate how much food it takes to feed everyone. Paternalistically or not, we still need to feed everyone.

    Here are some scale related numbers that are worrisome. The numbers are close to correct but I do not have references handy.

    1. At 2,000 calories a day, 375,000,000 Americans need 750,000,000,000 calories on their dinner plates, every day, year round. This is 273,750,000,000,000 calories per year just to feed Americans. If a head of lettuce is 100 calories, we need a lot of lettuce.

    Americans are about 6% of the world's population but American farmers produce about 25% of the world's food. An American farmer feeds about 4,000 other people. This is many more people than are fed by a well done local garden. Farms need to be bigger than community gardens.

    Many of the places of high population, Sub Saharan Africa, India, the interior of China, and the Arabian peninsula do not have the rainfall or fertilizer to support the human population that already lives there.

    So, for me to listen intently to arguments about changing the agricultural system of the planet, I first want to know where the 4,562,000,000,000,000 calories per year necessary to feed the planet will come from and how expensive each calorie will be. I do not need fancy economics. Simple multiplication will do.

    The reason that I push on the total need is that few people, whether for organic produce, desalination, or renewable energy, ever talk about the total need and how to meet it.

    The problem seems not to be about the possibility of organic farming. The problem seems to be about doing it affordably on the scale that is required.

  18. Josh, you're not mean sounding at all. By the "waste" comment, which I meant to be provocative, I mean that for a given unit of economic input (land, water, capital, labor) organic systems generally produce less output. They can very well produce more *economic* output if they grow something very valuable like wine grapes, but I am talking more generally about calories and protein that people can eat. Many of us realize that sustainable, safe, and efficient food production systems are an essential component of human happiness. (The Earth, after all, could care less what happens to humans). But we are like a bunch of people in church squabbling about the liturgy instead of focusing on why we are there. I think conventional and organic system can co exist easily, and each can learn from the other. A conventional system using tools like IPM, and working under a strict regulatory regimen as in California can be as safe and sustainable as any organic system, while producing more with the limited amount of land and water we possess.
    And think carefully about production moving to other states or countries. Those cats burning down the Amazon forests and destroying the Aral sea have plenty of brothers and sisters waiting in the wings. Especially if people start to go hungry.

  19. Mister Kurtz, I really enjoy your comments and your style. I, too, appreciate IPM and some of California's regs., but even with those regs., California still has the worst air quality in the entire nation, and it occurs in its ag. region, the Central Valley. In addition, some 150,000 people in the Central Valley cannot safely drink their own tap water, due to ag. runoff. So, although I do understand and agree to attempts to cut down and use more responsibly, I have to say that due to the nature of the chemicals in question, and due to the political power wielded when it comes to incremental regulation, organic is safer.

    In regards to your waste comment, I believe that the current subsidies and unpaid externalities distort the yield/dollar picture to a great deal. It may prove to be true, but I'd like to see it with a level playing field (oh, I hate that metaphor, sorry).

    Eric, your numbers are important, and you are correct that we need to note the big picture. I do think your 2,000 calories is too high for health, and the U.S. consumes something like 2,200 on average right now, anyway. Also, calories aren't the only, or probably even the best, way to measure it. Fats are high in calories, so the nutritional picture could be very distorted in looking at it. That said, up to, I'd guess, about 1,800 calories (where I think a healthy diet would be for the average person), there is probably a strong correlation between calories and total nutritional intake, so I won't quibble too much with that.

    There are a couple of good sites that deal with food in the world, and right now, it looks like the per capital calories comes out to over 2,200 right now.

    The big concern for many is population growth. Not for me. Although we are still growing in population, that trend has slowed DRAMATICALLY, and is correlated only to development and women's education (even just through elementary school). So, by encouraging countries to develop and by educating women, we are turning the population tide. In fact, the UN estimates that 1.8/couple will be where human population will probably settle for a time. That's a population decrease.

    So, this all looks like good news. The only bad thing is that carbon emissions are inversely proportional to birth rates. But, that is an engineering fix for the pie-grabbers like Eric.

    By the way, Eric, I was really heartened by your description. It sounds like you do some really great work.

  20. Organic certainly is safer, the way never riding in a car will protect you from car accidents, and never taking prescription drugs will protect you from adverse reactions. Like all these decisions, it is a matter of judgment and risk tolerance.

    I think your numbers for people with polluted groundwater may be exaggerated. Nitrate residues (which I believe are the major culprit) can create problems for a small number of infants and for certain people with renal problems; but the hysteria over the problem is overblown. The main source of the nitrates are not field crops, but these two: illegal or poorly maintained domestic septic systems, and animal waste in stored in facilities that are not maintained or engineered properly. Those are both organic forms of nitrogen (although some confined animal facilities are not consistent with ethical standards for humane treatment of animals,and organic producers would probably not use them). Both organic and inorganic forms of nitrogen fertilizer can be over-applied, thereby polluting drinking water and public waterways. It is actually harder to manage nitrate runoff when you farm with animal manures (as I do) because manure contains nitrogen in many states, all available to the plant at different times and in different amounts; therefore you have to apply substantially more than the plant requires at the moment. The un-consumed nitrogen can create mischief while it sits int he field waiting its turn to ride the Nitrogen Cycle. Partly for that reason I augment manure applications with tailored applications of inorganic N to suit the growth stage and soil conditions of the crop. One is a shotgun, the other a rifle. Both have uses.
    There is little evidence (and lots of anecdotes) of pesticides and herbicides leaking into drinking water thereby causing human health problems, at least in California. There is evidence of these substances getting into public waterways and causing harm to animals, but the debate continues over amounts. It is not slam dunk science on either side. As far as air pollution goes, most of that is an export from our sisters and brothers on the coasts, borne by the prevailing westerlies. To the extent ag contributes to the problem, it is a combination of particulate stuff (dust) from tillage, and NOX. If anything, organic systems require more tillage, since they can't use herbicides for weed control. NOX formation results from applied fertilizers volatilizing into the atmosphere when nitrogen is applied incorrectly. Organic may have a small edge here, but it is not blameless as an NOX polluter. NOX is a greenhouse gas, 100 to 300 times more potent than CO2 (depending on the assumptions). BTW, the culture of alfalfa, which some consider wicked, releases no NOX forming compounds because it fixes its own nitrogen. There is some research going into GMO crops that might be given this capability, which would be pretty neat. However, the symbiotic relationship that legumes like alfalfa toil under comes at substantial metabolic cost to the plant.
    I know, too much information, but you seem interested.

  21. @all,

    I really like the amount of information we are sharing. If David gets tired of us and throws us off, we can continue on my blog, Getting There from Here, http://forwardintothepast-eric.blogspot.com/. We are not sticking to his 'economics and water only' dictates, but he has not complained yet.

    If it becomes important, I am a Ph.D. biochemist by training and could make some comments on natural and fake fertilizers as well as on the effect of pesticides at low doses.

    Thanks for the compliment. We are also doing other cool things, such as improved photovoltaics and working models of human memory.

    I am trying to get detailed answers even though I know that they will be long.

  22. Well, except rice ISN'T more nutritious than meat. If people want healthy foods (e.g. produce) to be inexpensive, the ag subsidies will need to be flipped.

    Besides, the presence of waste is a poor excuse to indulge in an unnecessarily wasteful form of ag to match. Instead of switching to organic and using just as much resources, why don't we use the most efficient technologies and use FEWER resources.

  23. Real quick, Mr. Kurtz, why do some consider alfalfa wicked?

    Also, thanks for the invite, Eric; I'll surely check out your blog. Mine is at http://enviroethics.blogspot.com
    I deal with ethics and the environment, or I try to, anyway.
    No ads, so I don't feel uncomfortable pitching it here.

  24. No, no, *I* do not consider alfalfa wicked; it is a valuable crop, a terrific insectary for IPM systems, and provides many water quality and habitat benefits. It's also very important in organic rotations, since it's one way to get some N back into the soil without any of the salt present in manures or kelp.
    I was just saying that a lot of the drive by experts condemn the stuff without knowing boo about the economics, water efficiency or culture of the crop.

  25. David, scratch that last post if you please. I misread Josh's comment and will respond in a sec.

  26. I think alfalfa gets a bad rap because people see it uses a lot of water, without realizing it has a very efficient and extensive root system, and produces an enormous amount of usable biomass for the water applied. The entire above ground part of the plant is harvested (four to eight times per season) not just the sex organs, which is what we do with most other crops, except leafy vegetables. Nor do they realize it's insectary value in IPM systems, the habitat benefits it presents, its importance as a source of N in organic systems, and the improved runoff water quality from irrigating stable fields instead of cultivated ones.

    Another howler is whines about growing alfalfa in the "desert". There is a reason the expression "make hay while the sun shines" came to be. Rain produces toxic molds and degrades the feed value. People come from all over the world to buy alfalfa grown in California, because of its superior quality. And if the Sacto and SJ valleys are deserts, they are damn strange ones, since they contain some of the largest wetlands in the US.

  27. No! Don't go! I am enjoying the dialogue, AND this topic fits the blog ("...and other stuff"), esp. since it addresses a policy and enviro issue.

    Carry on :)

  28. No! Don't go! I am enjoying the dialogue, AND this topic fits the blog ("...and other stuff"), esp. since it addresses a policy and enviro issue.

    Carry on :)

  29. Mister Kurtz, thanks for your description.

    With water as well as carbon, I'm seeing a lot of people wanting to throw the baby out with the bath water. Carbon prices, for example, are going to seriously distort land trust issues toward environments with high carbon sequestration rates. However, the role in places with lower rates may/probably do impact the natural carbon cycle.

    I'd never heard of alfalfa as a "bad" plant, but then again, the only context in which I've read about it has been in home gardens/very small farms, in particular M.G. Kains' "Five Acres and Independence." The only problem I've ever had with it was that the field we lived in was sprayed heavily. Very annoying.

  30. That is very annoying indeed. It's usually the noise from baling at 2AM that bothers people. It wakes me up, but Mrs. Kurtz says it's the sound of money, and that I should go back to sleep. Typically, alfalfa does not require much spraying, and the materials used are usually quite benign. One, going under the trade name of Steward, may actually be OK on an organic crop (I'm not sure); another, BT, is widely used by organic producers. But all crop protection chemicals are hazardous to some degree. At least in California, there are strong laws preventing the use of anything very dangerous near houses, and requirements that all sprayed fields (whether or not near houses) be posted, to protect workers and the general public. Since my employees and I spend a lot of time hopping into and out of fields, I am very happy we have these laws.

    As an aside, alfalfa requires a lot of potash, typically applied as potassium chloride or potassium sulfate. For some reason known only to Druidical experts and Talmudic monks, these substances are not considered OK for organic certification (I think) even though they metabolized directly and are often mined right from the earth in their native state. There are various extremely expensive organic potash concoctions that have been sanctified, but they're economic only for growing bud and such. You can get potash from manure, but it comes with a lot of added N that is is not only wasted, it encourages the growth of weeds. Incidentally, a lot of high-end Napa Valley vineyards are essentially farmed organically, since they don't want to bother the neighbors. They don't label themselves as organic, because they want to be able to use crop-saving chemicals in an emergency, and to be able to fertilize through their drip lines, which is quite problematic in organic systems. The static nature of a vineyard or orchard makes organic farming much simpler than it is for a field crop, where the environment is changing more rapidly and profoundly during the season.

  31. Great discussion!

    One thing about organic ag, it works much better if everyone around you is doing it. If you try to grow organically while surrounded by conventional monocrop farms or (worse) a bunch of people who don't know what they are doing, you will simply become a magnet for all the pests and diseases they breed. If you and your neighbors are all working in the same direction, you can establish a functional ecosystem that isn't as far out of equilibrium. This is partly why so many attempts to "go organic" don't work out - they are starting with a badly dysfunctional ecosystem and can't make any headway against their surroundings. (The main reason, though, is that it turns out to be way more work than people are really willing to tackle.)

    With regard to Borlaug, inorganic nitrogen, and feeding the world's population: I'm surprised to see no mention of population dynamics here. The "Green Revolution" seemed wonderful at the time, but it led directly to the population explosion that now makes the future look so scary. It would have been a wonderful world if we could have exported fertility control as aggressively and successfully as we exported pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and patented seeds... wonder why that didn't happen?

    The current system is overpopulating the world while making a lot of those people unhealthy. Ignoring the population implications of food policies increases the chance and magnitude of catastrophe.

  32. You're right, and in my limited experience, I find that keeping wild areas (organic, I suppose) intermingled with farmed areas (these are not not cultivated, just managed for habitat) is very beneficial in keeping healthy populations of predator insects, and in keeping breeding populations of damaging insects unmolested so that they prevent the field insects from developing resistance to sprays.

    The part of your post about overpopulating with humans is pretty horrible, however. I will leave it to you to explain to these inconvenient suntanned folks need to step aside in favor of the white folks' enjoyment of Mother Earth.

  33. Two quick comments

    My hypothesis about why America could export food, pesticides, guns etc. and not fertility control is that exporting the first set of items feels to Americans as 'doing good' while exporting fertility control feels like 'moral imperialism' and more importantly is politically suicidal for many Congressmen and Senators.

    As to Mister Kurtz's 'white folks' comment, I find it distasteful and completely beside the point. Americans are not responsible for, nor can they control, procreation choices made by people, no matter what their color, elsewhere on the planet.

    The bottom line (go David) is that there are too many people and too little food and water for them. Producing more food and water has been tried. More food and water, apparently, has only made the imbalance worse.

  34. I have to say, I'm with Mister Kurtz on the overpopulation comment, assuming you are being sarcastic.

    Population ain't the problem, & I'll lay it out quickly:
    1) Given our current population, and an assumed family of four, we could (hypothetically) give every family 1/8th acre for a house & yard (my family of 3 lives on 1/10th acre), and fit the ENTIRE global population inside Texas;

    2) Population growth will soon cease - the UN estimates that our global reproductive rate will settle at around 1.8/couple, and in every developed country, reproduction is either static (U.S.) or declining pretty dramatically (1.3/couple in Japan, 1.4 in Germany);

    3) The two biggest ways to reduce births are development (electricity at night is my guess) and women's education, and providing birth control without these does not necessarily work (and it looks very paternalistic/colonial/racist);

    4) Carbon footprint is directly proportional to development, not population growth - it's actually correlated to pop. growth reduction;

    Because of #4, we need to focus our energy on getting undeveloped and underdeveloped countries to develop in a non-carbon way, but we need them to develop, and we need to stay out of their bedrooms.

  35. The comment was semi-sarcastic.

    My point was if America chooses not to address growing population through education and better treatment of women and chooses not to invade the bedroom in other countries because it looks very paternalistic/colonial/racist and our decisions result in starvation abroad, we should not congratulate ourselves too much because the starvation was not paternalistic/colonial/racist.

    It seems that it would be better to act in a way that minimized the starvation.

  36. Starvation does not correlate to population, but to access to food.

    I agree, we should work to provide quality education to women all over the world (and men!), because it is good to do, in our best interests, etc. I'm also happy that it influences population growth and development.

    Tim in Albion, I loved your comment about the workload & organic. That's why a lot of people get out of a lot of professions, and farming ain't for the faint-hearted; like everything else, you have to love what you do.

  37. @Josh

    I am pretty sure that if you have 100 units of food and 50 people each person will have access to 2 units of food. But, if you have 100 units of food and 500 people, each person will have less access to food. It seems that population and access to food are correlated and are correlated with starvation.

    Am I missing something?

  38. Tim, I said "white folks" because the fastest rising populations, and those most in need of calories and protein are in the tropical areas. Access to contraception is widely available worldwide, and most adults understand how babies are made or not made. There have been innumerable studies trying to figure out why birth rates are so high in poor countries, and of all the causes, access to contraception is low on the list. Yes, world population is a problem if we lack the resources to feed and power ourselves. Yes, starving those teeming masses out by stopping agronomic progress would be one way to skin the cat. Even better, reintroducing smallpox and other communicable diseases would thin 'em out, and not affect those of us in the developed world, since we are vaccinated.
    Sorry, that just don't float my boat. All this stuff about "saving the Earth" is a lot of baloney. When we say that, we are talking about saving humans, and maintaining the environment in a manner that maximizes human happiness. The Earth itself will spin merrily along until the Sun swallows it up, heedless of whether warblers, walruses, or women occupy its surface for a bit.
    And I'm afraid we are getting even further afield. Let me throw out just one idea: fresh water aquaculture, using fish that eat algae or invertebrates. This technology has enormous potential, and may well be feasible under organic protocols. The waste water and fish guts make excellent organic fertilizer. Just a thought.

  39. @Mr. Kurtz -- access to birth control *is* a big problem in developing countries, either b/c of cost or machismo (AIDS fits in here too). We -- USA -- made a HORRIBLE mistake by pushing abstinence during the Bush-God-will-take-care-of-you years.

    Besides the bad impact of population on carbon production, there's the problem of more mouths with same resources. This is especially tragic in countries with heavy AIDS impacts, as dying middle aged people have left orphans in the care of elderly.

    Bottom Line: education/empowerment for women is good all-round.

  40. I had a reply to Mr Kurtz and Josh, but apparently it disappeared into the aether when I tried to publish... probably this ridiculous satellite Internet connection. Anyway, thanks to both of you for the compliments! My population remarks seem to have been misinterpreted - I'm not in favor of population control or dieoffs, I just don't see how they can both be avoided.

    Kurtz, I didn't say anything about saving the Earth - fergawdsake, I'm a geologist! The Earth is doing just fine and will continue to do so long after we, and 99% of all the species currently in existence, are long gone. Extinction is routine.

    @Josh - 1. So what? 2. Not soon enough - 9 billion or more by 2050. 3 & 4 - development = resource consumption => declining production => catastrophe. I don't like it, I just don't see how to avoid it.

    Economies that grow too fast lead to recessions; populations do something similar. The chances of managing that smooth leveling-off predicted by the UN seem awfully small to me. Better to have avoided the bubble in the first place, eh?


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