Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Why Agriculture and Forestry Are Dead or Obsolete the Way They Are Practiced Nowadas

A post by Greg Horrall


Dead if we keep doing it with our current dependency on mined finite-supply mineral fertilizers and obsolete if we hope to maintain even the current population... NO MATTER WHETHER IT’S DONE ORGANICALLY OR WITHOUT GMOs. Too little is now being done to respond to this. Our response options are to make some modifications to soil agricultural technologies, to develop new forms of food and fiber production and use more efficient ways of consumption that could support even higher human populations, or by default, to return to low-intensity soil agriculture + hunting and gathering that could support only a small fraction of our current population at much lower technological levels.

Why? All life on the planet (with a few very rare exceptions...organisms living on heat near underwater volcanic vents instead of using photosynthesis) depends on a very thin layer at the surface of earth’s topsoils and the photic zone of the earth’s surface waters to provide life-supporting minerals like K, P, Mg, Fe, etc. This layer, call it the life-support mineral nutrient layer (LSMNL), where photosynthesis occurs and where minerals are bioavailable (in ionic form dissolved in water)and physically accessible by photosynthesizers is where the food web begins. The soil agriculture that provides us with our endosomatic energy (food kilocalories) and our own life-support mineral nutrient needs is carried out in the LSMNL.

Agronomics as it’s done today...the selling of plant products without the return of mineral nutrients in human biowastes back to the growing soils, inevitably takes minerals out of the LSMNL much faster than they are replenished by natural processes...weathering of rocks (mechanical or biochemical) and volcanic ash deposition. Deposition of sediments in riverine flood zones can also act to replenish flood plain areas’ mineral nutrient supplies but only a small portion of the earth’s total agriculture occurs on such flood plains.

The overwhelming majority of food production today is only possible because farmers supplement soils too poor in naturally supplied minerals by applying mined (finite in supply) mineral nutrients at a high-enough rate to replenish losses due to non-return of mineral nutrients from our biowastes as well as losses to erosion and leaching which are often exacerbated by modern agricultural techniques. Modern farmers and even the simple peasant subsistence farmer are practicing nothing but another form of depletion-based technology, as is fossil fuel consumption for our exosomatic energy. Soil agriculture as we now do it consists in depleting the minerals of the LSMNL without return of the human biowastes that contain the minerals taken from the soils in our agricultural and forestry products. That’s a dead-end path, sooner or later.

Contrast the case of an ecosystem that’s running naturally. A natural forest or prairie ecosystem has virtually every sq cm of the soil covered with something that’s either growing or decomposing. No plant products are being removed. All the animals are depositing their biowastes fairly evenly over the soils. There are various species of plants with a wide range of root system depths and there are healthy micro flora and fauna in the soils capturing minerals that would leach down to lower not-root-accessible layers and also carrying out weathering processes on rocks and grains that make minerals from them bioavailable.

The monoculture of a crop growing field has mostly bare soils between plants, and also bare between growing seasons, exposed to erosional agents of wind and water. Its plants (our staple foods) have with only short depth root systems...very thin effective LSMNL. It has humans taking away mineral nutrients in the foods or fibers they harvest and never being returned to the growing fields from which they are taken.

Forestry has also become highly dependent on additions of mined mineral nutrients and is at this time our primary source of important products like wood and paper...things we need to replace with synthetic hydrocarbons. The orchard or plantation cultivation of trees is also a source of foods like palm oil and palm sugar and various fruits. The dependence of all types of tree cultivation on mined mineral nutrients has made it every bit as unsustainable as the soil agriculture that provides the bulk of our dietary needs.

(Note: Because they have deeper root systems trees have a deeper effective LSMNL but in the case of foods from trees, the yield of kcal per H-yr as well is much lower than our typical grain and legume staple crops.)

Natural forests and prairies are sustainable ecosystems.
Soil agricultural fields, “managed” forests, orchards, and plantations are not.

Sadly, and perhaps in only a few generations more, tragically, the problem of LSMNL soil mineral depletion has been getting little attention. Much more attention has been given to organic farming (stopping the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides and using natural N sources) and the fight to stop GMO technology...important matters but really secondary in comparison to LSMNL depletion.

Many people simply do not understand the situation and are unaware that virtually no agriculture or silviculture now being done is being done sustainably. Here we have the most basic and essential life support input, food, under threat of a supply collapse that could begin in just a few more generations and it’s barely registering in the public consciousness. Yes, compared to the time we have left to make an exosomatic renewable energy transition, we do still have a little bit more time left on the clock to deal with this, but it’s also a potentially far deeper and more complex problem requiring much more time to handle.

The first red warning light, and it only takes one to declare an emergency, on the LSMNL instrument panel is for our supply of the mineral P, phosphorus. Keep in mind that there are numerous life-essential minerals which means that the supply of any one of them could severely limit our food supply, but P is arguably the most essential as it is the only mineral element found in the structure of DNA. The P supply warning light is now on and, although there is no firm consensus, the range of time-left-to-exhaustion-of-economically-recoverable P-rich rock reserves is from ~70 up to 200 years at current rates of consumption. Remember, P is not a replacable commodity like fossil fuels that can be replaced by renewable energy sources, but is a non-substitutable life essential commodity., and so 70-200 years is not really much time when dealing with a supply problem for something like this.

(Note: In recent years, the P depletion problem has received a little bit of attention starting with a group led by Dana Cordell in Australia and called the “Global Phosphorus Research Initiative”. See )
We should be moving now with urgency equal to that we place on our exosomatic energy supply problems to be developing and implementing the next paradigm of food production, beyond soil agriculture, something I call EternaCulture (EC)...closed mineral nutrient loop hydroponics (with very limited soil based growing of selected crops that have very low mineral content). Along with transitioning to a semi-vegan diet, this technology, if implemented well by placing most of it in tropical zones could enable us to keep our current population fed (even a much larger one) on a fraction of current agricultural land and water use. It could allow vast areas of natural prairies and forest ecosystems to re-develop on lands that would be no longer needed for meeting human needs. It would put an end to the appearance of oceanic dead zones that form due to fertilizer run-off into rivers. It would also be much more amenable to zeroing-out the use of pest- and herbicides, and it simultaneously provides for sanitation and fertilization services. As an added bonus, it would give the Southern (industrially less-developed,tropical climate zone nations) a sustainable and substantial revenue source for trading with the North.

As with the transition to renewable exosomatic energy, a transition to renewable food and fiber technology like EC will require decades of time and trillions of dollars in start-up capital, but its potential payoff is to enable a truly sustainable economy that can even continue to grow so that all the world’s people can reach a decent and healthy modern standard of living. If we could achieve that, the demographic transition phenomenon could stabilize our populations and we could continue pursuing the human dream of ad astra. Failing to make the transition to truly sustainable food production technology like EC will virtually guarantee that we will be going back to a pre-agricultural-revolution economy. Without sustainable food, no economy is sustainable, and food supply tech is the primary determinant of all other aspects of any economy.

Man’s future is going to depend more on endo-energy (food) technology than on exo-energy technology.

Some references for this article and for additional research:

About this post’s author, Greg Horrall:

An American raised in the farmlands of Indiana and living for the past 11 years in a small subsistence farming village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a graduate of Purdue University where he majored in Mathematics and minored in Physics and Aerospace Engineering followed by some graduate studies in Nuclear Fusion, Atmospheric Science, Photogrammetry, and Remote Sensing, Greg followed a career path in aerial imagery and topographical mapping and then became a spirulina culturist. He is now a struggling entrepreneur focused on ideas that follow the principles of what he calls Sustetatek, sustainable and efficient technologies for mankind’s flight into the future, and is currently working on a number of small projects like closed mineral nutrient loop food growing, an emoped, and a PVC-steel composite microhouse.


  1. Dear Dr. Bardi,

    Again thank you for your hard work.

    I do hope we are doing the same in our own way as an attorney, accountant and a bit more here in Central America. It can become discouraging. My family, colleagues and I have devoted our careers to this process including in our time in Boston, Frankfurt and Caracas.

    You give us and others a bit of hope to carry on.

    So, again, thank you.


  2. I don't see why EC is necessary. If all biowastes and other organic matter (including dead bodies) from soil grown plants were returned to the soil the plants came from, the nutrient cycle would be closed and agriculture could continue indefinitely without mined inputs.

    The metabolic heat losses of the animals and people eating the food is more than replaced by sunlight, so mass and energy are both conserved in the right location, the farm field.

    Agriculture in the era before mined inputs did just fine and can do so again, although without mined fuels it would mean that virtually everyone would need to be a farmer.

  3. Greg
    There are lots of serious trend lines in play at the moment and your efforts are timely. Indonesia seems a kind of ‘make and’break’ place for globally related trends.

    I have an agricultural education and connected career and broadly agree with your framing of agro & forestry in terms of ‘exo’ and ‘endo-energy’. Hypothetically, I might also agree with quote: “Along with transitioning to a semi-vegan diet, this technology, if implemented well by placing most of it in tropical zones could enable us to keep our current population fed (even a much larger one) on a fraction of current agricultural land and water use.”

    My main reservation however is that urbanisation has been the big trend in the exo-energy world. It is very difficult to see how the soil nutrients cycle could be circular in such a world.

    I looked up “ad astra”. I take it you do not mean this phrase literally? I see there is an upcoming Sci Fi film and that Elon Musk has created a school of that name for his kids, but these are probably not what you have in mind?

    I get the point about soil phosphorus – and there is something more than a side issue involving insufficient labile P in many soils as a limiting factor – but soil N is traditionally the more usual ‘limiting factor’. I append an interesting quote below – North American historical predicament.
    Quote: “They applied manure as it was available, rotated legumes when it was convenient. But they had no strategy for the very long term. By the 1930s, Rooks County fields had been planted, cultivated, and harvested sixty times without rest. Soil nitrogen was about half what it had been at sod-breaking and crop yields declined steadily. And now no western frontier remained. From the vantage of 1930s, crop agriculture in Kansas does not appear very sustainable. All the arable land in Rooks County - and in the nation for that matter – had been identified and plowed. Soil nitrogen and organic carbon drifted steadily downward, and with them yields and profits. Faced with this dilemma, farmers implemented a dramatic innovation in soil nutrient management. Rather than adopt one or more of the ancient strategies, farmers (and the industrial nation behind them) created a new option. They appropriated abundant cheap fossil-fuel energy to import enormous amounts of synthetically manufactured nitrogen onto their fields. …” page 219, ‘On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment’, Cunfer 2005; preview in googlebooks

    1. Sorry Greg
      Like later commentators, I do not rate hydroponics. 'Traditional' cultivation, (by which I mean 'subsistence' farming, the default condition still in much of the world), often has the potential to double its sustainable yield of basic calories and other essential food even with very low inputs from outside the local system. We westerners misunderstand 'subsistence farming', and I would argue, this is one major fault line in what Ugo describes as "the modern empire we call 'globalization'". See his next post.

  4. As a once certified and then not certified (once the USDA special interests took over), i've been making many of these same observations for nearly 2 decades, and this article is excellent in that respect. One that is always 'missing' that no one dares mention either (among many others) is the use of F-1 'organic' seeds in organic ag. What a farce! Organic is meant to be sustainable. As an OSSI plant breeder--Open Source Seed Initiative (see Robert Schick under the plant breeders section--that's me) the idea that F-1s are sustainable is yet another insane 'OK' in organic. It's, of course, all about $$$ and talking organic growers into buying these seeds year after year instead of saving their own seed, trading them or buying non-hybrids...or god forbid: breeding your own seeds for your environment. Thanks for the excellent article. rs

  5. The age of civilizations is passing; because civilizations fundamentally rely on agriculture, and the age of settled agriculture is itself coming to an end.

    This is something which even well-informed and imaginative commentators like J M Greer just don't seem to get, with their comforting vision of a step-wise decline to an 1850's pattern of life.

  6. According to Larry Summers (Demi-god of economy) this is a non problem. If food production is low, we will just have to compensate by selling more derivates and I-Pods to make up for it.

    The stupid doomsayers just don't understand how the world, as a subsystem of our capitalist economy,works. Growth capitalism will fix everything.
    (That is really how these guys think=

  7. You all know that I am as much a doomsayer as any of you, but this problem is not that unsolvable described here. I see no cliff there, I only see short sighted governments and inhabitants of some countries.

    Here where I live in munich germany, our local (and municipally owned) waste disposal provider, sells back the recycled organic (human) waste from its sewage plants as top soil. It does so now for several decades. It is simply not true that there are no circulations of phasphate in place. I know that efficient waste disposal plants and sewage systems are not that common in the USA or Italy, but the technology is there and tested since the fifties and many countries have it.

    The rivers and lakes in germany are so free of fertilizers today, that some have evolved back to a pre industrial state. Fisherman at lake constance were complaining about low fish stocks recently. It turned out that due to decades of ring canalisation the lake is now missing the large amounts of phosphate from farming and sewage that had supported the higher fish stocks for many decades!
    (see here: )

    All that phosphate is gathered at the sewage plants around lake constance, and like in munich, added to the topsoil again.

    So the problem you describe is easily solvable with technology that is there and tested for over half a century now. The first ring canalisation (in bavaria at the Walchensee) was build in 1957! Its just that many countries and communities, all around the world, did not want to spend the money for modern sewage systems, in the case of Italy, with desastrous results for the mediterranean sea.

    Italy, for decades now, leads europe as the country with the least sewage systems and dirtiest rivers. Only the coastal cities and villages that that depend on tourism invested in modern waste disposal, but this is mostly for show. The Sarno, the Tiber, the Po River and the Adige are terminally ill and spill their filth uncleaned into the mediterranean.

    List of the top most polluted rivers in the World:
    Rank River Name Location
    1 Sarno River Italy
    2 Citarum River Indonesia
    3 Passaic River United States
    4 Ganga River India

    This is a list of shame. And the fact that Italy and the USA are in it should be such an embarrasment for any italian or american. I get that India and Indonesia as poor countries handling the sewage two billion people ar in this list, but Italy and the USA have no excuse whatsover.

  8. While I agree with big parts of the analysis of the failings of the prevailing agricultural and food system (please always see them as one and the same), I think the prescribed solution fully mistaken. Many people see agriculture as it is practiced today as destructive and not sustainable, and it is both. But the root cause is not that it is soil based, but that it is extractive and linear in its model. This is primarily a function of its market-orientation which drives farmers to produce just a few crops and specialise to a very huge degree. Fully in-line with prevailing economic theory and drivers whole landscapes are transformed into production of a few commodities, corn, soy, wheat, palm oil etc. Livestock and plant production is totally disconnected and so is food consumption and production. The solution is to recreate local foodscapes where nutriens circulate as much as possible. The hydroponic or aquaponic proposal is not at all feasible for large scale production of staple foods, and it's claim to be sustainable use little resources is mostly unsubsantiated. Tellingly it is only applied for luxury foods, microgreens, drugs and flowers. No wheat or potatoes are produced in that way.....Read more for instance at:

  9. As my informations were not up to date i want ot add this update to my previous rant about sewage in italy. It seems that italy finally build modern sewage systems after dragging its feet for decades and after several fines from the EU Comission. The last one 2016, see here : )

    Today even the notoriously polluted PO river is protected by sewage plants and phosphate and nitrate are mostly recycled sll across italy. The shamefull exception still is the Sarno River near naples. I still would not suggest swimming in the Tiber/Tevere near Rome or Ostia though.

    USA rivers are a still mess.

    1. Yes. I think that this position is overexagerated. Recycling is not only possible but in development.

      Plus, there is nutrients from sea to soil through fish and sea food consumption.

    2. Yes. I think that this position is overexagerated. Recycling is not only possible but in development.

      Plus, there is nutrients from sea to soil through fish and sea food consumption.

  10. oh gosh... the beginning was intriguing, but then the author's conclusion is hydroponic in the South?! seriously? such a big problem reduced to a technocratic solution?! and what about the politics that this solution would raise in the so called "south"? who'll force who? who'll win and who'll lose? I think the author should be a bit more humble and look around him to realise that there are cultures and human groups that still have the capacity to survive to the collapse without using any hydroponic fancy technology

  11. Phil, do you think that Permaculture or Biodynamics are viable solutions?


  12. This post really got me to hours of researching, so I guess thanks for the post, even if it is untrue in almost all aspects.

    I found this at the german ministry for ecology (Umweltbundesamt)

    The gist of it: about 75% of german P (phosphate) is today already recycled. The amount of recycled P is acually larger than the demand, but its more efficient (cheaper, meaning more profitable) for some farmers, to unsustainably waste mineral fertilizer from finite ressources instead of using recycling.

    So let me say that again, the only reason we mine P from finite ressources is for capitalist profit!

    The other thing where the above post is totally wrong is the "partially vegan" thing. Obviously a large part of our problem with unsustainable agriculture is due to the fact that we eat too much meat.

    But vegan agriculture is as unsustainable as is the industrial meat production we have now. Fact of the matter (see the linked report) is that for the recycling of phosphate you need the grazing animals. All grasses and grazing animals share a symbiotic relationship and with the top soil. You cant (sustainably) have one without the other and topsoil degrades without one or the other.

    In western europe the most sustainable form of agriculture is therefore mixed farming in small farms, producing both meat and arable crops. Today this form of agriculture can even compete in the amount of harvest per acre (but again, not in capitalist profits).

    The University of Weihenstephan calculated that if germans would reduce their meat consumption to 30% (about 20kg per year per head witrh the current population), german agriculture (reverted to small scale mixed farming)) could on itself nourish all germans sustainably. Sustainably here excludes all forms of mineral fertilizing with P and other non sustainable forms of agriculture.

    We could probably reduce this amount of meat consumption further, but not too much. Cows and crops need each other. Human evolution created this form of agriculture and symbiosis with farming animals BECAUSE it is the most sustainable.

    Agriculture became the problem it is today because of capitalism and industrialisation. Capitalism enforced more efficiency for more profit. Capitalistic efficiency in agriculture is often misunderstood, but it means one thing and one thing only, that is harvest per farmer (employee in agriculture), not harvest per acre as many would think.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)