Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

Most of us have heard that Thomas Malthus made a forecast in 1798 that the world would run short of food. He expected that this would happen because in a world with limited agricultural land, food supply would fail to rise as rapidly as population. In fact, at the time of his writing, he believed that population was already in danger of outstripping food supply. As a result, he expected that a great famine would ensue.

Most of us don’t understand why he was wrong. A common misbelief is that the reason he was wrong is that he failed to anticipate improved technology. My analysis suggests that there were really two underlying factors which enabled the development and widespread use of technology. These were (1) the beginning of fossil fuel use, which ramped up immediately after his writing, and (2) a ramp up in non-governmental debt after World War II, which enabled the rapid uptake of new technology such as the sale of cars and trucks. Without fossil fuels, availability of  materials such as metal and glass (needed for most types of technology) would have been severely restricted. Without increased debt, common people would not have been able to afford the new types of high-tech products that businesses were able to produce.

This issue of why Malthus’s forecast was wrong is relevant today, as we grapple with the issues of world hunger and of oil consumption that is not growing as rapidly as consumers would like–certainly it is not keeping oil prices down at historic levels.

What Malthus Didn’t Anticipate

Malthus was writing immediately before fossil fuel use started to ramp up.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

The availability of coal allowed more and better metal products (such as metal plows, barbed wire fences, and trains for long distance transport).  These and other inventions allowed the number of farmers to decrease at the same time the amount of food produced (per farmer and in total) rose. On a per capita basis, energy consumption rose (Figure 2) allowing farmers and others more efficient ways of growing crops and manufacturing goods.

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

If it hadn’t been for the fossil fuel ramp up, starting first with coal, Malthus might in fact have been right. As it was, population was able to ramp up quickly after the addition of fossil fuels.

Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

A person can see that there was a particularly steep rise in population, right after World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s (Figure 3). This is when oil consumption mushroomed (Figure 2, above), and when oil enabled better transport of crops to market, use of tractors and other farm equipment, and medical advances such as antibiotics. The Green Revolution allowed agricultural production to expand greatly during this period. It used fossil fuels (particularly oil and natural gas) to enable the synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, hybrid seed, herbicides and pesticides, allowing increased food production.

It is likely that increased consumer and business debt following World War II (Figure 4) also played a role in the post-World War II ramp up.

Figure 4. US Debt excluding Federal Debt as Ratio to GDP, based on Z1 Debt data of the Federal Reserve and GDP from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Figure 4. US Debt excluding Federal Debt as Ratio to GDP, based on Z1 Debt data of the Federal Reserve and GDP from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The reason I say that debt likely played a role in this ramp is because at the end of World War II, people were, on average, pretty poor. The United States had recently been through the Depression. Many were soldiers coming back from war, without jobs. Without a ramp up in factory work and related employment, many would be unemployed. A ramp up in debt fixed several problems at once:

  • Allowed low-paid workers funds to buy new products, such as cars, that used oil
  • Allowed entrepreneurs funds to set up factories
  • Allowed pipelines to be built, and other support for ramped up oil extraction
  • Provided jobs for many coming home from the war effort

The debt ramp up, and the resulting increase in oil production, raised living standards. Figure 2 shows that the increase in per capita energy consumption was far greater in the 1950 to 1970 period when oil production was ramped up than in the coal ramp-up between 1840 and 1920. The long coal ramp-up period does not appear to have been accompanied by such a big ramp-up in non-governmental debt.

Tentative Conclusion

A tentative conclusion might be that as long as we can keep ramping up availability of energy products and debt, Malthus’s views are not very relevant.

Of course, things aren’t looking as benign today. World oil production has been close to flat since about 2005 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

Figure 5. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

The world has been able to increase production of other fuels to compensate so far. Unfortunately, the big increase is in coal (Figures 1 and 2). This mostly relates to growth in the economies of Asian countries, which are large users of coal.

The cost of oil has more than tripled in the last ten years. The higher cost of oil is a problem, because it leads to recession, unemployment, and governmental debt problems in oil-importing countries. See my posts High-Priced Fuel SyndromeUnderstanding Our Oil-Related Fiscal Cliff, and The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment, and Recession.

Continued increase in debt now seems to be running into limits. Federal government debt is in the news every day, and non-government debt seems to be contracting relative to GDP, based on Figure 4.

Looking Ahead

I am not sure that we can conclude that we are headed for catastrophe the day after tomorrow, but the graphs give a person reason to pause to think about the situation.

The reason I write posts is to try to pull together the big picture. If we only look at the latest new item  forecasting huge increases in tight oil production or talking about 200 years of natural gas, it is easy to reach the conclusion that all of our problems are past. If we look at the big picture, they clearly are not.

Debt problems are closely related to high oil prices in recent years. Debt problems are today’s issue, and they are not being considered in the huge oil and gas forecasts we see everywhere. The new tight oil and the new shale gas resources likely will need to be financed by increasing amounts of debt, so there is a direct connection with debt. There is also an indirect connection, through governmental debt problems, higher taxes, and the likely resulting recession (leading to lower oil prices, perhaps too low to sustain the high cost of extraction).

Also, it is interesting that the supposedly huge increases in US oil supply don’t really translate to any discernible bump in world oil supply in Figure 5.

We know that the world is finite, and that in some way, at some point in the future, easily extractable supplies of many types of resources will run short. We also know that pollution (at least the way humans define pollution) can be expected to become an increasing problem, as an increasing number of humans inhabit the earth, and as we pull increasingly “dilute” resources from the ground.

Based on earth’s long-term history, and on the experience of other finite systems, it is clear that at some point, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, the earth will cycle to a new state–a new climate with different dominant species.  It may turn out that these new species are plants, rather than animals. The new dominant species will likely be ones that can benefit from our waste. Humans would of course like to push this possibility back as long as we can.

At this point, my goal is to pull together a view of the big picture, in a way that other analysts usually miss. The picture may not be pretty, but we at least need to understand what the issues are. Is the shift in the cycle very close at hand? If so, what should our response be?

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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160 Responses to Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

  1. GermanStacker says:

    I’m glad that once again you put debt at the center of this story. From this and some earlier of your posts, I understand that after WW2 debt was rather being used as a tool to get growth, while more recently, it was more a reaction to the recessionary effects of high oil prices? It would be interesting to see a chart with the price of oil, US debt and some other numbers, maybe including development in the BRICS and some US income figures, indexed at 100 in a certain year (like 1973 or 1987) to see how they compare until today. I’m sure what would jump at your eyes is an exponential runup, with oil price and debt leading the pack considerably.
    I think it’s also fascinating to imagine what these mind-boggling rising levels of debt are really hiding from us. I don’t consider it worth much discussion that Malthus didn’t include industrialization into his forecast and therefore got the timing wrong. But imagine we wouldn’t have come up with exponential debt in the 20th century (yes I know, already ancient cultures had debt, but certainly not on this scale): we might be long into his forecast already.
    Also, we mustn’t forget that very high inflation as a result of dollar printing might not be showing up in the US yet, but it certainly is being exported to all countries that have a dollar peg (Argentina with 30% right now as one example). And inflation is one outcome that brings borrowing to an end.
    Then there is this endless repetition of the proposal of a “debt jubilee” to get rid of the problem. Good luck with all the pension funds etc. going bust – what do you do? Restart borrowing immediately? Let people starve? Yes, societies in the past had debt jubilees, but they didn’t have a financial system that implodes (taking the economy with it) the moment you take out government bonds.

    • Thanks for your ideas. Debt is part of our problem. GDP growth is “gross”, so there is no deduction for debt growth that gives rise to rising GDP.

      Part of the debt is “financial debt”. I am not quite certain whether it should be treated differently than mortgage debt or government debt. Extra financial debt would tend to bid up the price of whatever it is buying as well. I will have to think about these things some more, and perhaps do a little more reading.

      • GermanStacker says:

        A part of the problem now – and, as someone else said, really just a symptom. But as with an illness, the symptoms might really be what kills someone. Of course it’s not enough to think about the symptoms. But it may have the biggest impact on our life in the short and medium term. Others would say it will be social unrest or climate change – therefore it’s good to have an open discussion.

        It certainly is for a reason that everything related to debt is meeting so much controversy. Most people even don’t care or have a hard time grasping something like the concept of “selling debt”, i.e. passing on debt to a third party. Now we have a financial system where this is happening many many times over with huge leverage, derivatives, swaps etc. It’s a black hole. So anyway, you end up looking at big macro aggregates and correlations, trying to make sense.
        Economists think and talk about what will “happen” when we reach the limits of borrowing, like in Greece and Spain. Or, Heaven forbid, we even pay something back. Well nothing happens, the mask drops, reality sets in.

  2. robert wilson says:

    Norman Borlaug on population 1970 (from Wiki)
    “In his Nobel Lecture of 1970, Borlaug stated, “Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster’ …”

  3. Very well posted. You’ve done an excellent job like you always do. I’m going to gve you my biggest compliment, “today you’ve taught me something new.” The ideas on debt help round out a picture of our problems. If we hadn’t borrowed from the future we might hve been able to give ourselves more time to solve our problems.

    The big picture requires a lot of standing outside of your present thoughts and trying to learn something new. This why they use phrases such as ‘it’s hard to wrap your head around it.” It takes time to explain big ideas with mere words. Analogies, examples, history, and other formats have to be used to communicate the ideas properly. This time, here now, you’ve done that. Thanks. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing

    • Thanks! I actually started writing about something else (broader), then looked up the date of Malthus and a bell went off. I decided that rather than list a bunch of different authors and how things turned out, I should stick with Malthus. I have a very hard time planning what I will write for this reason. Once I discover a connection I hadn’t quite noticed before, I end up changing direction.

  4. Ikonoclast says:

    Malthus did not get it wrong. The “end game” has not played out yet. The “doom cake” is not baked yet. The “stew of troubles” is not fully brewed yet. Soon we hit the limits to growth and then Malthus is proved correct.

    We must limit our population and growth in some way or natural forces will do it for us.

  5. Mike says:

    You’ve completely ignored the correlation of human population and carbon output, the cause of Global Warming. You’ve also seemed to have missed the Global Drought. There’s a high correlation of population to carbon output, as humans make and burn it all. The effects of this massive carbon output are a key factor in what will destroy our population. These effects are growing exponentially, with multiplier effects being Underestimated by the Scientific models.

    Malthus, if we do nothing about carbon, will soon be right, and it’s happening This Very Moment, not in 100 years.

    • Ikonoclast says:

      I don’t think Gail has ignored or forgetten AGW. She just hasn’t put it in that particular article. I am a critic of Gail’s reflex rejection of renewable energy viability. Other than that, I think she get’s everything pretty much right.

    • Sorry, not room for everything in one post.

  6. mikkel says:

    I have read the population essay from one (not sure which) edition and I fail to see how the substance is wrong. [I would also say he didn’t make a ‘prediction’ as the language is very couched in ‘this is what we know about how things work until now’ caveats]

    As Wikipedia says,
    Despite use of the term “Malthusian catastrophe” by detractors such as economist Julian Simon (1932–1998), Malthus himself did not write that mankind faced an inevitable future catastrophe. Rather, he offered an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics as it had acted steadily throughout all previous history.[71] Eight major points regarding population dynamics appear in the 1798 Essay:

    subsistence severely limits population-level

    when the means of subsistence increases, population increases

    population-pressures stimulate increases in productivity

    increases in productivity stimulate further population-growth

    because productivity increases cannot maintain the potential rate of population growth, population requires strong checks to keep parity with the carrying-capacity

    individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children determine the expansion or contraction of population and production

    checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence-level

    the nature of these checks will have significant effect on the larger sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty

    Seems pretty accurate to me! He was most “wrong” about the type of productivity growth in farming and I entirely agree that is due to fossil fuels.

    That said, I “love” the Limits to Growth model that shows how the S-curve of population growth saturates at a level higher than the “intrinsic” carrying capacity, wherein productivity generates pollution at a rate sufficient to increasingly lower the carrying capacity and what looks “sustainable” on the surface is really not.

    • I am sure Malthus’ theory was pretty close to right, without fossil fuels.

      People associate Malthus with population collapse due to lack of food, whether or not this is precisely what he predicted for that timeframe. It is hard to make that distinction fully enough.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    New reply to avoid indent problem.
    Dear Gail
    I first became aware of The Five Whys when my sister started working for Toyota about 30 years ago. You identify some problem and then ask why it happened and then you ask why that cause happened and then why the cause of the cause happened and so forth until you have drilled down at least 5 times. Then, perhaps, you have an idea what could be done differently. I have seen two recent examples in the discussion of this post which were very superficial. I’ll stick to gardening and food and nutrition because that is something I know a little bit about. The statements were made that the Green Revolution saved us and that it takes hundreds of years to create soil. Neither of those statements frame the questions appropriately, so neither offers us any help in answering the Five Whys and exploring ways to do something about our plight.

    Since I have covered all these points before, I will try to be as brief as possible–but not briefer.

    The Green Revolution DID increase outputs, but it extracted terrible costs. And it was NOT the only way to do things. In fact, the alternative way would have been a much better choice. The first article below is Jason Bradford’s take on the Iowa State study which shows that very much lower input agriculture yields more food than ‘green revolution’ type farming.

    The Many Benefits of Multi-Year Crop Rotations
    by Jason Bradford PhD

    ‘Mark Bittman in the New York Times called this report “the most important agricultural study this year,” saying, “It’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals.” In addition, the report has been covered by Wired, Grist, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. We summarized the work leading to this publication over two years ago, including how it relates to Farmland LP. The Union of Concerned Scientists blog has a good overview (copied portion below):

    More complex systems enhanced yields and profits.’

    Bradford spoke at the ASPO meeting in Denver in 2009. Here is the link to his presentation and a few excerpts. Following up on the ‘more complex systems enhanced yields and profits’ statement above, Jason explains just what a more complex system looks like. In short, it is using a whole army of solar powered critters to do the hard work. Microscopic bacteria to fix nitrogren, for example. Earthworms to build soil.
    The death and dying in the soil food web to mineralize nutrients so that plants can use them. And so on. You will also note that renewable energy makes sense on a farm. My little community garden group is preparing to use a solar powered water pump to move water from our cistern on the low point up to a second cistern at the high point so that we can use gravity (as opposed to humans hauling buckets) to water our gardens. Running grid electricity would be prohibitively expensive. Lesson: don’t dismiss off grid…and pay attention to what Vera says below.

    Also, unbeknownst to me, Jason came pretty close to my words ‘the economy of an ecology’. If we think of the soil food web as an economy, it may open the doors of perception.

    The Food System and Resilience
    Posted by Jason Bradford on January 26, 2010

    ‘Instead of buying mechanized services or fertility inputs, the farm integrates the functional diversity of life to create synergies.

    Inherent diversity means no single crop failure will ruin the farm, and soil imbalances are prevented. The focus is on soil health, with all fields going through periods of planting in perennial and deeply rooted species to build soil organic matter and mobilize minerals such as phosphorus from deep layers. Fungi associating with roots locate source rock and solubilize minerals that are trans-located to leaves. Topsoil fertility is therefore built from below.

    Landscape structure is created to provide habitat for native and naturalized species that participate positively in the farm food web, such as pollinators and predators. No need to buy pesticides when raptors have homes in the trees, predatory wasps have nectar sources, frogs can breed in clean water, and ground beetles have zones of refuge from tillage, for example.

    While the emphasis is on letting the biology do the work, renewable energy infrastructure also creates resilience. Farms are often ideal places for wind and solar technologies, and on-farm biofuels are likely to have positive energy returns.

    What will this new food system look like? It will be organized akin to an ecosystem, or food web.’

    Finally, let’s look at Vera Bradova’s excellent articles on visiting Eco-Villages. Note her perception that ever-more ease is not desirable and the subtle reasons why grid electricity and water pipes from the county make us less resilient people. Notice how, for all the good they have done, Vera detects an ignorance of Pattern Languages which could have prevented some less than optimum architectural choices. Also note that in this degraded (the after-effects of the Green Revolution) part of Missouri, rotational grazing is rapidly restoring the topsoil. The myth that it takes hundreds of years to make topsoil should be put to rest. If we choose not to make topsoil (as our government has done), then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Perhaps a little Five Whys exercise might be in order?

    Ecotown Dancing Rabbit
    by Vera Bradova,

    ‘When did Babylon switch from helping us past some drudgery to pushing us toward exertion-free life? The two are very different; one is helpful, the other… not so much.

    Rains are lost to runoff instead of soaking into the topsoil and staying there — because little topsoil is left. The USDA program pays farmers to keep the land fallow, but that only prevents further major degradation through plowing; it neither stops the erosion nor does it help the land regenerate

    There is concern among the Rabbits that now the community is on the grid, the former hard-wired limits — like having to attend to electricity usage — are disappearing, and there seems to be a slippery slope in the direction of more gadgetry, inching toward the mainstream. It occurs to me that the big problem with running water and electricity is not that we have it, but that the mode of delivery allows us — even encourages us — to be oblivious not only to wastage, but also to the overcomplex, hidden, vulnerable and damaging cycles that make such delivery possible, and to the subtle effects of all this on the community.

    I was told that the Red Earth people broke off from DR because they wanted to run homesteads without having to go to meetings all the time.

    He showed us an electric-fenced paddock where most of the animals were, clustered together with two dogs to protect them at all times. They were nibbling down a very overgrown and neglected area next to a wash; once they were done — the goats eating poison ivy and creepers, the pig rooting out weed roots, and the rest grazing down the overgrowth so that fresh grasses can grow — he would move them over to the next area to be regenerated. The undulating, green land was a pleasure to behold. The difference between carefully grazed land and ungrazed at Red Earth (or DR) stands in stark relief: green, lush grasses vs dead weeds with grass clumps trying to poke through.

    The community of Red Earth Farms was created next door by dissidents of this vision — they wanted to permaculture-farm according to personal initiative, without having to wait for endless meetings to ok every step. So they sliced the land up, American style, into several disjointed parcels. Each lessee presents a proposal to the community which is then attached to the lease, and after that, each family does its own thing.
    In contrast, the European villages I know begin not with the dream of a house, but with the commitment to make a living from the land. A village starts with the ‘homesteading mind’ — with commitment to soil and landbase and critters, integrating humans into the land’s ecology. The early settlers created adjacent homesteads with the houses very close together, while each holding stretches back in a narrow strip where the utility buildings, gardens and orchards are located. Small fields separated by hedges and grassy margins follow. There are two patterns that predominate in central Europe: the ribbon pattern, and the circular ray pattern. I wonder: if the settlers of Red Earth Farms had been aware of the radial pattern, would they have been interested in creating a hamlet centered roughly in the middle, with each homestead raying out? When we did the Red Earth tour, Jack was stumped by my question as to why they did not build close together. My impression was that they were simply unacquainted with the possibility, and so did what Americans do. One of my fellow visitors commented that perhaps they wanted more privacy from each other. I just don’t know, and see it as an opportunity missed: they could have had the neighborliness of a hamlet along with homestead independence. ‘

    • Don Stewart says:

      I just realized I left out something I need to mention. Vera remarks that the Dancing Rabbit people are trying to restore some of the tall grass prairie–without much success after a whole lot of human labor. Here is a prime example of failure to understand a Pattern Language. Alan Savory in Africa has shown us with very practical demonstrations that the original scientific work in France on the ecology of grasslands was exactly on target. Grasslands and large herbivores and predators evolved together with synergistic effects. You can’t build a prairie without all three–or some reasonable facsimile such as electric fences and humans serving the role of predator. It is quite unlikely that all the labor of the Dancing Rabbit people will succeed because they do not understand the appropriate pattern language. The neighboring village using rotational grazing DOES understand the pattern language and is succeeding.

      More generally, we need to identify the optimum pattern language to solve particular problems in particular places. History will mislead us as often as it guides us. For example, consider the issue of firewood depletion. There is little doubt that enough humans in a given geography using firewood for heat can burn more trees than Mother Nature can grow–history proves that. What history does not prove is that burning lots of firewood is the only way. A different pattern language would involve putting more people into smaller spaces so that body heat keeps the temperature reasonable. I know a pediatrician who lives that way–totally without heat (she does burn candles for light, which give off a very little bit of heat). Summers she spends outdoors in the shade during the day and exposed to the sky at night for radiative cooling. Inability to think in any pattern language other than the one we are currently immersed in is likely to be deadly during a time of rapid change.

      Don Stewart

      • You make some good points. In the long-run, prairies (and probably other ecologies) need a full spectrum of predators.

        In the past, humans have killed off these predators, thinking they were good for food. Also, they posed a risk to humans’ well being.

        If we have fossil fuels, we can try to simulate the effect of top predators. It is hard for me to see a way that without fossil fuels, we could go back to letting top predators “rule the roost”. We want to be top predator, after all, and that is what is getting us into trouble, in the long run.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Relative to prairies. It may be that we need to train dogs to herd the animals rather than confine them with electric fences. Border collies have herded sheep for centuries. To my knowledge, nobody has really looked into the matter. A herd boy with one or two dogs taking the animals out of an enclosure to a specifically chosen small area to graze in a dense herd may be the way we do it. It seems to me that this problem would be a really fine project for some bright college kid.

          Don Stewart

    • donsailorman says:

      A good example of an earlier green revolution is Ireland. In 1800 the population of Ireland was about four million. With the planting of more potatoes the population rose to about eight million in 1845. Then came the potato blight. Two million Irish starved to death and two million emigrated, and the population of Ireland went back to four million, and it is still about four million today.

    • With respect to the making of soil issue, I probably need to research the issue more. David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, talks about the creation of dirt from the erosion of rocks being an extremely slow process. Typically only an inch of soil is added in 1,000 years. The big issue with erosion is that topsoil is removed. In some cases, bare rocks are exposed. The erosion of rocks adds fertile soil. A second issue he raises is that irrigation usually adds salinity and, over time, wrecks the soil from the point of producing the crops we want. He does not consider irrigation (except with natural river flooding, bringing in top soil from other areas) sustainable, as I read the book.

      You have raised the point that adding human and animal waste products can raise the fertility of soil. Carbon can be added to the top layers of the soil through the addition of organic matter of one type or another, raising the ability of the soil to hold water. You have also suggested that permaculture can use better methods for irrigation by changing topography.

      I am doubtful that your points completely negate his points. There is a need for topsoil (or at least subsoil) to begin with, in order for your techniques to work. If this soil is salty, it is a huge problem. Changing topography for better irrigation is not really very much of an option without fossil fuels. With dense populations, it is hard to have space for very many animals in the mix of humans and animals. (Think China without fossil fuels.)

      One issue that has been a problem throughout the ages, and I expect is a problem now, is the issue of “higher yields now” versus “higher yields in the long run”. It is pretty clear that forest gardens are better than traditional agriculture in terms of improved yields long run. I see two issues, though.

      (1) I would argue that the best yield, long-term, is really what nature provides because it optimally makes mutations to match changing climate. A forest garden has whatever species the gardener has supplied, which is more limited. It starts out at being close to optimal, but as climate changes, it will need continued updating to keep it in line with what is optimal. Without fossil fuels, and the benefit of research on what species might be moved and substituted, I am doubtful that forest gardeners could keep up with nature. A side issue is that in today’s world, food from a forest garden is very hard to harvest, and keeping predators (birds and squirrels, for example) from eating what is produced is a problem, if human population is to get a disproportionate share of what is produced.

      (2) Population pressure, and the need for current yield (for food, for income, etc.) exert a huge influence on what citizens are willing to do. No matter how much superior forest gardens are than other techniques over the long term, there aren’t too many that will wait 20 years for trees to grow, and for other crops as well. I know one video claimed that 4 or 5 people could be fed on the produce from one acre, but I would like to understand what assumptions go into this–how little birds and squirrels are expected to take, for example.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail
        You are correct that the weathering of rocks occurs over geologic time. What we mostly confront, however, is not bare rock but soil which is not suitable for supporting plant and small critter life. This is not an argument for encouraging soil erosion. It takes some years to restore soil. But it can be done if you begin with compacted soil from heavy agricultural equipment traffic, from plow pans due to years of plowing, eroded topsoil, or soil harmed by abuse. A recent review of a book in a Permaculture magazine was scathing because the author said that aspiring gardeners should look first for good soil. The point was to get soil you can afford and then build it up. Good topsoil is created by biological activity suitable to the specific location–temperate zone forest, temperate zone grassland, tropical seasonally dry grassland, etc. We now know how to encourage biological activity. It’s not about hauling in topsoil.

        As for salt. There has been reclamation in the Dead Sea valley in Jordan using biological activity. Geoff Lawton was involved, and made a YouTube. Quite amazing. But, again, this is not an argument for salting your land just so you can demonstrate how clever you are using heroic methods to reclaim it.

        As for terraforming. I agree that fossil fuels make it a lot easier. But it pays dividends even when it is done with human labor. There are many hilly regions around the world which were terraced long before we used fossil fuels. I hope we never have to do it by hand again. So I am in favor of doing it now while we still have fossil fuels.

        As for competition from birds, animals, and insects. A highly diverse garden farm (such as the Bioshelter Farm) is considerably less exposed to predation. The complex web of life keeps individual species under better control. You will note that the Bioshelter people build birdhouses so that birds settle in their gardens and eat the insects. Insects have higher calorie density than plants, and so are more attractive to birds. Birds do like seeds, but Mother Nature also makes seeds in very large numbers. Seed savers learn physical methods for keeping birds away from prized seeds. For a small diversified farm, a proliferation of life is a plus. For a monocrop, very large farm, the ideal is frequently sterility. Insects, for example, can multiply very rapidly in the absence of predators. The advantages of small and diversified as opposed to large and monocropped are one of the reasons I favor Garden Farming.

        Squirrels are a big problem for somebody like a pecan farmer with a hundred trees. For somebody with one pecan tree, squirrel stew is the solution. If you are in town and can’t shoot them with a squirrel gun, use a pellet gun.

        Deer are a huge problem anywhere east of the Mississippi. The ultimate solution is for everyone to get hungrier and go deer hunting. A local church asked deer hunters to kill and donate a deer. They can include one deer in 400 meals. In the meantime, most of us have to build deer fences.

        As for the long delay in getting a forest garden (or perennial garden in general) up to full production. I frankly don’t worry too much about that. Those who are capable of seeing that old Pattern Languages are failing and that new Pattern Languages must be adopted will get busy and do it. They will increase their likelihood of surviving. Thos who continue to pursue dead ends probably won’t survive. I guess we will find out how many people sustainable agriculture can feed. But it is pretty clear to me that what most people are doing now is a dead end.

        Wringing our hands about the inability to feed X billion people is not a very productive use of energy. Studying the ability of a political majority to form around the notion of sustainable agriculture is a useful thing to do–and probably leads one to decide that it’s going to have to be done by individuals and small groups. So…while nobody in DC will admit that the climate is changing, I will be attending a workshop on ‘adapting to climate change’ at the local community college in February. The idea is to get farmers and researchers together to test ideas. If there is to be progress, this is most likely where it will come from.

        Don Stewart

  8. Don Stewart says:

    What is a Pattern Language? So far as I know, the architect Christopher Alexander coined the term and you can find extensive writings by him and numerous books. Briefly, humans are pattern recognition machines and we think in patterns. I don’t know how you define what a pattern is–but I recognize one when I see it. One key to success in a changing environment is to be conscious of the patterns which have colonized our brains and then determine whether those patterns are still optimal. We can think of building a life or a garden or a building as putting together into a functional design smaller patterns.

    Here is a Pattern Language for a Garden Farm as described in the book Bioshelter Market Garden. The location is northwest Pennsylvania on what had been degraded farmland which was subjected to the Green Revolution. I think you will recognize this as a clear pattern with sub-patterns (turtles all the way down!). It isn’t the only possible pattern, but it is working and makes sense for this couple:

    ‘The bioshelter is the center of farm activities. It is where seedlings are started for the garden, tools and equipment are stored, and produce is processed for sale. The bioshelter is built on the highest and most level part of the field, roughly centered on the property. Its central location allows for easy access to the main production gardens. Each year since 1988, we have expanded our gardens and our production…Today, the bioshelter is surrounded on three sides by gardens. Each garden is composed of raised beds laid out on contour. Pathways between beds collect rainwater or can be flooded with water pumped from the pond. Wide central paths allow access to the contour paths. As we develop gardens, we allow uncultivated areas of goldenrod and wildflowers within or near them. These biological islands, together with herbs and flowers and other insectary plants, provide a healthy balance of predatory creatures. Birdhouses, rock piles, and perennial plantings of fruits, nuts, berries, vines, shrubs, and flowers are added each year. Plants create windbreaks and shade zones….we are enjoying filberts, hazelnuts, currants, grapes, plums, apples, pears, Juneberries, rosehips, and more. Other fruits are wild-crafted from neighboring properties. Our ten-acre woodland, with three diverse forest systems, provides forest products for farm use and contains some of our plant collections.

    Much of the sunlight entering the bioshelter is absorbed–by plants, surfaces and materials (as thermal mass)–to provide our primary heat source. We also capture the sun’s energy by using a PV panel to power an irrigation pump. All our gardens receive full sun. Adding shade trees and shrubs to compost areas and some gardens is a continuing endeavor. Along the bioshelter’s north wall, we have established a 2 foot wide shade garden of native woodland wildflowers, ferns, vine, and other useful plants.’

    Then he describes the problem posed by wind on this northwestern slope of the Allegheny plateau, and how they use successive plantings to break the wind. This is an example of diffusing excess energy.

    ‘The pond provides irrigation for the gardens via pumps and sprinklers. The pond also provides fish, cattails, duckweed, algae, and other useful plants. We continue to add useful species. Snakes, toads, turtles, dragonflies and many wild birds make the pond their home or feeding ground, as do muskrats. Roof run-off is caught in swales and contour paths to recharge our well. The 60 foot deep well provides water for the bioshelter and our home.’

    First, ask yourself why he makes rock piles in his garden. If you can figure that one out, you are on your way to understanding this pattern. Note that the use of a solar powered water pump which doesn’t work after the sun goes down is just not an issue. Also note that, by gardening on contours, he is sinking water. This not only waters the roots of his crops, it also recharges his aquifer. And since he is not using commercial fertilizers, he is not increasing the salt concentration in his soil.

    Look at Albert Bates article on collecting roof run-off for household water (http://www.resilience.org/stories/2012-12-13/collecting-rainwater). Now compare the strategy of the Bioshelter people using a well with a solar powered pump. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Now you are thinking in patterns.

    The bioshelter pattern is one version of what recovery from the disastrous Green Revolution look like…Don Stewart

    • It seems to me that irrigation has three potential problems that we can handle with fossil fuels, but I am not sure that we will be able to handle without fossil fuels.

      1. It leaches nutrients out of the soil faster than otherwise, in the absence of irrigation. I thought excessive rainfall (and heat) was the reason why fertility was so low in the tropics, for example.

      2. If the water used in irrigation is even slightly salty, it can add that salt to the soil over time, especially if evaporation is an issue. This might be a problem in areas near oceans, where there is salt-water intrusion in the aquifer, for example.

      3. In areas where salts (sodium sulfate and sodium carbonate) are present in the base rock, irrigation can raise the water table, and lead to wicking up of these salts, and greater amounts of salt in the soil where farmers are trying to grow food.

      While we have ways of dealing with these issues today (gypsum for salinity in soil seems to be one; soil amendments for fertility), I am not sure that we do for the long-term, unless we have fossil fuel energy. It seems like it takes a lot of energy to mine and transport the appropriate soil amendments.

      • donsailorman says:

        Several civilizations have relied upon irrigation without fossil fuels for thousands of years, for example, Egypt and China. The classic work in this area is “Oriental Despotism” by Wittfogel, who points out that by controlling the irrigation system a despotism can continue indefinitely. Egypt today is a sad case: They built the Aswan Dam, which turned into an ecocatastrophe, because before the dam was built the Nile flooded each year and brought new and rich topsoil sediment to the Nile valley. Today, Egypt is a vastly overpopulated basket case, totally dependent on U.S. aid for both weapons and food.

        • I don’t think that irrigation using water that overflows naturally from a river is a problem. It is the pumping from the ground that is a big problem. Montgomery says that in Egypt, the water table rose in the early 19th century, when Egyptians tried to put in year-around irrigation so they could grow cotton, instead of just using the natural flooding. This led to salinization.

          Of course, they now have a whole new set of problems with the Aswan High Dam.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I am no PhD on irrigation and salinity. But I will tell you what I think.

        If the irrigation model, or pattern language as I call it, is the one described in Bioshelter, then I doubt there is any problem. The area gets about 45 inches of rain a year. So it is not at all like irrigating a desert where most of the water evaporates. Permaculture practioners usually sink water as their first choice. At Bioshelter, they are directing soft rainwater into swales where it sinks and moves downhill under gravity, thus providing water to the roots of their crops. They also pump water with a solar PV pump from a pond, which again is rainwater which has had some contact with the soil. It might pick up some salt, but I imagine that the 45 inches of rain a year makes that a minor consideration.

        There are several reasons why irrigation in the ‘well watered’ East has become indispensable. First, rainfall has become erratic. It used to rain every three days in the summer…now we have 6 weeks with no rain followed by 6 weeks with rain most days. Someone remarked to me that in the summer of 2011 he was in Iowa for the record flooding, and in 2012 he was just in time to see the record drought. Second, people are growing more crops under plastic. The plastic permits year round growing in North Carolina and as far as the ‘sun coast’ of Maine with no supplemental heat. With solar mass heating (water barrels, masonry, etc.) in the greenhouse, year round growing with no supplemental heat is practical in Milwaukee. But the crops under plastic need to be watered. Third, summers are getting hotter and plants are using more water. Fourth, competition between farmers has intensified. The Carrboro farmers market shut down after Thanksgiving 35 years ago and restarted about the first of April. It now runs all year. Several excellent farmers specialize in winter produce right through January and February. Out of season crops can pay much better than yet another bushel of tomatoes in July. So farmers are incented to farm with methods which require irrigation.

        When I studied soil science recently, my PhD instructor said that salt is a big problem in North Carolina, and it is overwhelmingly a result of commercial fertilizers. She explained why the big fertilizer companies add salt…but I have forgotten. Small organic fertilizers generally don’t have salt.

        People used to use glass instead of plastic, but glass is much more expensive and heavier so it requires a substantial frame to hold it up. If industrial civilization collapses completely, then there won’t be any plastic, of course. And after a time one’s PV panels will degrade and one’s pump will need parts which may be unavailable. Meanwhile, climate is getting more erratic and generally hotter and drier in the US (maybe wetter in India). So we will have to rely on heavy mulching, sinking water and irrigating from ponds with terraforming, and drought tolerant plant species. It’s hard to tell if agriculture will still be practical. A low input farm works best with the abundant biological life I described earlier. Whether that biological life can cope with this human induced collapse remains to be seen.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        One more thought on the irrigation. A forest garden will be much more resilient in a drought. In the video from England the farmer explained that lack of rain immediately after planting can be disastrous for annual crops, but is only a minor concern for a forest. So anyone establishing a forest garden now is likely to be much better positioned in 20 years as rainfall dwindles and becomes even more erratic.

        Of course, if you are in eastern Kansas, you may be looking at becoming a grassland so a forest garden would not be a good idea.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        Out of curiosity, I did some more research. I found this:

        ‘In the case of irrigation reuse of the same water causes it to travels further through soil, and the water dynamic dictates that it will as a consequence pick up more salt. Irrigation causes more salinity the more the same water is used.’

        So pumping water out of the Ogallala and putting it on cotton or corn and letting it soak back down into the same aquifer would increase the salinity of the water. Same would be true of any pesticides such as DDT (and we used to drink out the wells!). Taking water out of the Colorado River and irrigating the Salton Sea area in California will increase the salt because the river has flowed for a thousand miles and then the water will evaporate in California and deposit its salt.

        An ‘East Coast Permaculture’ style irrigation is more about redistributing rainwater (which doesn’t have any salt) over time or increasing the ability of the soil to retain water by adding organic matter to the soil. So small ponds may be built and used for irrigation. The water has probably traveled less than a mile in a rivulet to get to the pond. It is true that the pond will be subjected to evaporation and thus any salt it has picked up in that mile will be concentrated. Capturing rainwater and then putting it on crops when they need it doesn’t provide any salt at all. Adding carbon to the soil so that the soil can retain more water doesn’t add any salt at all.

        In short, I suspect that small ponds, roof enabled capture, and sinking rainfall into carbon rich soil are all pretty benign. Irrigating from aquifers where significant amounts of the water end up back in the aquifer, irrigating out of long rivers, and irrigating in the desert with high evaporation rates are much more likely to be problems.

        As for the Mayans. I think that they irrigated because of seasonal dryness (like the Cubans). If they are irrigating from aquifers, then they will have a salt problem for the same reasons the farmers in Texas and Nebraska will have problems. If the Mayans had been farming under plastic, captured rainwater in big tanks, and then irrigated under the plastic–I can’t see why they would have had salt problems.

        Don Stewart

    • mikkel says:

      Don, is there a way I can email you or something?

      • Don Stewart says:

        I will give you a little used email address, so that I don’t get inundated with junk


        Don Stewart

        • A couple of alternative suggestions-

          1. If you post an e-mail address, use “at” for the at sign and dot for the period, with spaces in between. This makes the address harder to copy, and readers can still figure it out.

          2. If poster “A” wants to correspond with poster “B”, poster A can send me an e-mail at the address I have listed. I will then send Poster B, Poster A’s e-mail address. Poster B can choose to reply to Poster A, if he/she would like. I have done this in the past a fair amount on The Oil Drum, with reporters and others wanting to contact a particular poster.

  9. the ongoing general theme in this series of posts has reverted to the fantasy themes of food production among people of similar inclination
    I have no doubt that some on here are competent gardeners and food producers, and would freely give time help and advice to anyone who asked, but I fear you miss the crux of the matter, A cycle of harvest to harvest is one year, and we are discussing social collapse here, not a temporary closure of a supermarket.
    So can we get away from this bucolic bliss image of peaceful country dwellers and get real?
    At the start of any year, the vast majority might have a week of two of food in store. I have no doubt that Tverbergers are prudent souls with far more than that—much more, but we are not the average. Your Mr Average is the guy who quickly changes the subject if you try to touch on all this. Or as likely, someone without the means to acquire a lot of storable food. (and other stuff) 44 million on food aid right now think of a week’s worth of food as a survival horizon. Try to imagine that, if you can.
    that means that after a month at most, people are going to be hungry. Even with sufficient land, most would die of starvation between planting and harvest. I certainly would. As to storage–forget it.
    People kill for food, given the means. They are driven to do that by forces beyond their control.
    Those with the means to produce and protect food (energy) will control the lives of those who do not.
    With all the fantasies about home food production, this is the reality we face.

    • GermanStacker says:

      Exactly my opinion. This is the very most likely scenario. The countryside stuff is naive. It comes perhaps from positive personal experience which is a good thing, but without looking at the urban masses. And right, they will kill for food.
      My grandfather had an organic farm in northern Germany where they worked with young people (supported by the state), and I was often there. It’s unbelievable how much work goes into just some animals, some vegetables and some fruit trees. They had enough grass land to even sell hay for horses, just the right amount of rain, dozens of people working, but mainly without machines. They wanted to be as self sufficient as possible, but at the end of winter I guess they had to buy 80-90% of the food for all these people. And of course being just a little island in a FF world, using it’s support where necessary.

      I just watched the wonderful movie series “The count of Monte Christo” with Gerard Depardieu (around the 1830’s) – it all looks so coherent and natural with their sailships and horse carriages and french villages. But even this apparent genuine wealth (just at the beginning of the fossil fuel revolution) wasn’t sustainable in itself. It was levered up by new inventions scaled up by exploitation of the periphery.

      Today we are less fit, mentally as well as physically, to deal with a real downturn than any generation before. I would really like to know if many of us would be able to do things like sleeping in simple conditions over an extended time, without social chaos. But who knows – man has adapted many times.
      A great deal of the outcomes will be determined by how food production is organized and controlled. The government may not be providing many things in a long emergency, but this it will probably try to do. If not, they will be replaced. I don’t believe in the “elite” stories, that they plan to let everyone die but themselves. Serfdom is another story.
      But why forget storage? You can store concentrated staples for 10 year per capita demand in one little cellar?

    • I am afraid you are right. Water is likely to be a problem in a very short period as well. Russell 1200 provided some links to some books (including “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” and “Secular Cycles”) a couple of days ago, regarding reasons for modern wars. These analyses indicated that that it is population pressure that seems to be behind most modern wars. I would expect it is really the conflict between limited resources–food and energy–and rising population that is behind most modern wars.

      People who have access to the land, tools, and monetary resources needed to permaculture should not be discouraged from doing so. (In fact, I have planted a few things, borrowing some ideas from permaculture.) But my experience is that there is quite high personal energy input required, and the results usually fall far short of what a person would need to eat in a year. (Most gardens aren’t intended to provide all the food a person would need to eat, admittedly.) My impression is that in most cases, the gardens are just intended to provide supplements of the most perishable fruits and vegetables.

    • mikkel says:

      I am not really reading much of this in the comments on this post. There are “preppers” that certainly believe they can get by generating all their own food and protect it with guns, but the patterns that Don talks about could be implemented on the social level and mitigate most of the problems that will arise re: food, particularly when combined with longer rotations/grazing cycles of staple based land.

      Of course we’re about 20 years too late starting, but if there was a concerted effort on the scale of what the US puts into the military then who knows.

      I’m interested in these things not because I think I will be “saved” but in order to be in a position to help when/if the general populace is ready and also to have inner peace through action.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “Those with the means to produce and protect food (energy) will control the lives of those who do not.”

      Anyone want to put some money behind that?

      We’re struggling with trying to turn an exceptional piece of land in an exceptional location into a big food production system using Permaculture, but it’s getting old taking food out of the ground and giving it to the bank.

      We think we could support 50 people from our 43 acre site, but we need additional partners to do it debt-free.

      In the future, perhaps food will be king. But right now, servicing debt is king. When will the tipping point between the two happen?

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Jan
        All the prosperous small farmers I know bought their land 25 or 30 years ago when it was cheap. The editorial in the current issue of Mother Earth News talks about the insane run-up in land prices which mean real farmers can’t afford to buy it anymore. Land costs are the biggest barrier to becoming a farmer.

        And, of course, the Federal Reserve policies are aimed at keeping asset prices high–so that people who own them will feel wealthy and supposedly go out and buy lots of stuff at Wal-Mart.

        Don Stewart

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “All the prosperous small farmers I know bought their land 25 or 30 years ago when it was cheap.”

          … and many of them are losing their land because they “rode the wave” of the price run-up by mortgaging their land to buy equipment, etc.

          And of course, we jumped on an exceptional property right at the peak of the market, and are now paying for it.

          I don’t have an answer, except for the one that isn’t working for us: join in with others to buy land. But together with the run-up in land prices, our energy-rich culture has caused a run-up in independence, and most people can’t even agree on simple things, let alone how to run a shared farm.

          This too will change, as people find themselves forced by circumstances to collaborate. A well-known ecological principle is that energy-rich environments are dominated by Darwin’s competition, while energy-poor environments are dominated by cooperation. On the Origin of Species might have been a very different book had Darwin toured the arctic instead of the tropics. And our current competitive culture may begin to look very different as we settle down into energy decline, but probably too late for my venture.

          • Don Stewart says:

            I could have also added to my description of prosperous farmers that they
            squeeze that dollar till that old eagle grins…

            Don Stewart
            PS Friend of mine who has been farming successfully for 35 years says that his real job is building things and fixing things–growing things is just what he does in his spare time.

          • I expect it will take a little while to change behaviors, too. We have found what “works” for now. It is hard to “turn on a dime” to a new way.

  10. Don Stewart says:

    You asked about tropical soils and nutrient retention. I am not even a real soil expert on North Carolina soils, much less tropical soils. But I may be able to give you a few clues.

    The plains states in the US have less rainfall than evaporation. Thus, other things being equal, rainfall would not tend to leach out water soluble nutrients. In contrast, places in the Pacific Northwest, Maine, and southern Florida have more rainfall than evaporation, and so rain water will tend to leach nutrients out of the soil. Many places in the tropics also have high rainfall with lower evaporation and will tend to leach out nutrients. Thus, we have the commonly accepted principle that many tropical soils are nutrient poor below the few inches at the top which are constantly replaced by leaf litter.

    Permaculture attempts to ‘garden’ the world rather than just accept it as it is, as a hunter-getherer would do. There are a few arrows in the Permaculture quiver. One arrow is to deliberately add all the organic matter available. Thus, organic matter may be taken from an adjacent ‘vacant lot’ to add to a cultivated patch. This doesn’t change the large area very much, but it does concentrate nutrients where they may do the most good for humans. Organic matter works through the Cation Exchange Capacity, which is a measure of the electrical attraction between nutrients and the organic matter in the soil. Briefly, the humus attracts the nutrients (but not nitrogen) and keeps them from leaching away. A second arrow is to plant what are called ‘dynamic accumulators’. For example, if you have ever examined a daikon radish, you know that it is a rather sturdy pointed object which can penetrate pretty deeply into the ground. So it can break up subsoil. If the radish is turned under rather than eaten, the nutrients it has accumulated will be available to subsequently planted crops. If you examine a Permaculture manual, you will find many suggestions of plants which are capable of bringing nutrients from deep in the subsoil up to the topsoil layer to make them available to plants most useful to humans.

    While the plants used in the tropics will be different from the plants used here in North Carolina, the principles are similar.

    Then there is the peculiar nature of bio-char, which was popularlized by Albert Bates in his book The Biochar Solution. Albert believes that biochar in the Amazon had the power to change global climate several hundred years ago. After the destruction of the native population wrought by European diseases, biochar was forgotten. Now it has been rediscovered and is the subject of scholarly study. Here, for example, is one such report:


    I have chatted in the hall at a meeting with Albert about biochar. But if you really want to know about it, I think you should give him a call. Better to have two rich and famous people talking to each other rather than have some obscure, poverty stricken and not very intelligent guy trying to explain.

    At any rate, it seems to me that biochar is particularly applicable to the problem of tropical productivity–and may very well play an important part in terms of carbon sequestration.

    Don Stewart

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “biochar… may very well play an important part in terms of carbon sequestration.”

      Particularly if the wood is being carbonized for some other purpose. We sift our wood stove ash, incorporating the charcoal into potting soil and other amendments, making a solution of the rest for use in fertigation. (Combined with urine and ~8 parts water, it makes a lovely organic 1:1:1 fertilizer that can easily be run through your irrigation system.)

    • It never occurred to me that you could have different evaporation than rainfall. I can understand less evaporation than rainfall, especially for the short term–some of the extra water would go into the underground aquifer, at least for a while, until it got overfull. Or perhaps rivers in the area would be effective in carrying the water out to the ocean.

      To have more evaporation than rainfall, is it necessary to have irrigation (either pumped or river)? Or does the water in the aquifer “wick up”? If it did, it seems like it would deplete pretty quickly.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I see the bait but I am a wily trout that will not rise to it.

        This was all worked out between a biologist named Transeau and William Abrecht at the University of Missouri. I think this link will take you to a page of a book which contains a map of the United States and the degree of leaching of soil minerals they experience. You can see that the Southeast is highly subject. My own understanding is that adding more organic matter to the soil increases the ability of the soil to use its electrical properties to attact and retain minerals. Measured by the Cation Exchange Capacity which is revealed by a soil test.

        But if there are any real soil scientists in the crowd, they may wish to explain it all to us…Don Stewart


        • Don Stewart says:

          Well, on second thought, I will send my trout cousin to rise to the bait.

          Steve Solomon, a well known garden writer, has just published The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food. He relates (page 49) a story about Albrecht.

          ‘When lecturing, Albrecht often told stories. ..you have to first consider what the evapotranspiration map says about the state of Missouri. It shows a considerable difference along an imaginary line drawn from the norwest corner of the state to the southeast corner. There is annual rainfall of about 30 inches at St. Joseph in the norwest corner; there is more than double that amount in the Ozarks, which are southeast. Prior to WWII, the great majority of foods eaten by a great majority of Americans came from farms fewer than 50 miles from their homes. Thus, health and disease statistics of the era show profound regional differences. In 1940, preparing for war, the American government instituted universal conscription….In the northwest of Missouri, 200 young men per 1,000 were deemed medically unfit for military service; in the southeast of Missouri, 400 per 1000 were found to be unfit, and from the middle of the state, where rainfall was about half of the extremes, 300 per 1000 were unfit.

          Similarly, the Army collected statistics on dental health; the number of cavities in inductees was directly related to the evapotranspiration map…These days, when most people eat from supermarkets that bring food from everywhere, such differences have largely evened out–for the worse. And since all industrial farming is done using much the same economically rational soil-fertility management approach, our average health these days more resembles that of people from the Ozarks in 1940 than the people living around St. Joe.’

          Solomon characterizes Albrecht’s career on page 46:
          ‘In Albrecht’s day official ag establishment farming guidelines, the universities, and the government all asserted that farming required only NPK and sometimes lime to adjust soil pH. Soil organic matter was of little concern, and, in any case, deeply indebted farmers could not afford to do what it takes to rebuild soil organic matter….Albrecht’s work supports the belief that disease and insect problems are rarely seen if due attention is paid to soil fertility.’

          Nutrient retention in soil is complex and I quickly get over my head. I tend to follow the arguments of my betters and then remember the rather simple minded takeaways. What I have taken away is the message to increase organic matter to increase the Cation Exchange Capacity (and do a host of other good things, besides) and to slow down water so that it can sink into the ground. Steve Solomon has raised the additional point that if local soils are deficient in some plant nutrient (calcium, for instance), then just making compost in calcium deficient soils and putting it on your garden isn’t going to be a complete solution. In a worst case scenario, we would find ourselves stranded in the Ozarks (or equivalent) with no fossil fuel powered industrial structure to help us out with minerals mined elsewhere and processed to an appropriate level of purity and transported to our doorstep. As Solomon also observes, normal is now equivalent to the poor Ozarks of 1940. So mineral depletion has continued apace during the last 70 years. Another take away for me is the urgent need to stop mineral depletion both with soil management and by assiduous recycling.

          Don Stewart

          • THanks! I think I remember reading the Missouri story before, which is part of the reason I made the comment in response to your earlier comment.

            Also, living in Georgia, I have the distinct impression that the compost I bought was as nutrient deficient as the soil was to begin with. I am not entirely sure the soil is good for growing much other than trees.

            I know that my (now grown) children had more health issues than I did growing up.

        • I wonder if the lower nutrients in the areas with high leaching don’t go with poorer health and education outcomes in those areas, at least historically. There is a big disparity in test scores between the North and the South, with the difference breaking about where soils differ.

Comments are closed.