10 03 04 Efficiency in Food Production

I recently heard a radio commentator responding to the Haiti earthquake. Not only has Haiti experienced this overwhelming earthquake, he said, but the nation is also extremely poor. He suggested that one reason for the poverty was lack of technology. As an example he compared the Haiti average corn yield of 10 bushels per acre to the US average corn yield of 100 bushels per acre.  


There is no doubt that industrialized agriculture has been hugely successful in two respects: the amount of food grown per person and the amount of food grown on a given piece of land. “So what else is there,” you might say. “Clearly industrialized agriculture is superior. Our task then, as compassionate individuals and responsible global citizens, is to share our production technology with the world, including Haiti, as quickly and effectively as possible. It this way we can make an impact on hunger and poverty.” We have all been conditioned to think in this way.


Unfortunately there is a serious flaw in this thought process. The flaw is our tunneled understanding of efficiency. We are conditioned to think that if John makes three widgets an hour he is more efficient than Pete who can only make one widget an hour. But that is not the full story. The whole story is that John, working for one hour AND using one litre of gasoline makes three widgets, whereas Pete, working for an hour and using NO gasoline makes one widget. So who is more efficient?


That depends how you look at it. The common view is to consider market prices only. A person’s hourly wage is $25.00, and a litre of gasoline costs $1.00, so it cost $26.00 to make three widgets John’s way ($8.67 for one), and $25.00 to make one widget Pete’s way.


But there is another way of looking at it. Humans, at moderate effort, expend about 320 cal per hour. One litre gasoline creates about 7 million cal of energy. So John used over 2 million calories to make one widget, whereas Pete used 320. So now who is more efficient?


Crop yield in industrialized agriculture is totally dependent on nitrogen fertilizer – fertilizer derived from natural gas. In industrial agriculture, it takes 13 lbs urea fertilizer to increase wheat yield by one bushel. The total amount of energy in a bushel of wheat is about 135 MJ (you don’t need to know what that means). The amount of energy it takes to manufacture 13 lbs. urea is about 200 MJ. So the amount of energy going into producing the fertilizer needed to produce our crops is more than the energy we get out.


Producing food in this way would be reasonable if the available natural gas on this planet were unlimited. But this is not the case. Although we may disagree as to how much natural gas is available, the amount available is not unlimited.


The approach would also be reasonable were we to consider our current time of plenty (because of fossil based fertilizers) as a window of opportunity. We could use this window to find ways of maintaining crop yields without fossil derived fertilizer. But we are not doing that.

 We need to change the way we think.