Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.


For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities




















Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5


In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity




















Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5


By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.


  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.


61 thoughts on “Of scarcity and scale

  1. A nicely done exposition of ‘sufficiency first!’. Diversity second? Very much looking forward to October.

    • Whoops! That should read ‘subsistence first’.
      I wonder if the pessimal forecast, particularly with something non-perishable like grain, might lead some farmers towards specialism and monocropping, not that that’s always a bad thing, depending on scale.

    • In my view, you need diversity to achieve subsistence, other wise you are always at the market place trying to acquire what you have not produced. Usually losing out on the deal (transferring wealth), because you are selling wholesale while buying retail. For commodity produces it was ever thus. The trick is to find a happy balance to between trade and subsistence which is difficult in current times.

      • I agree generally. I later thought I could have added ‘and depending on context’. My experience in a village where many grow a lot of their own veg, fruit, nuts and animal feed, is that one or two people deciding to grow grain for the local market, and answering that important need, is actually great (I tried once growing and hand threshing a smallish bed of spelt, and though I’ll try again one day, it’s good to be able to buy einkorn flour that’s grown and milled in a neighbouring village). That particular grower sells locally but mostly now in the capital 200km away, since artisanal bread became fashionable and since more are turning to baking at home now we’re all locked down. He also sells cheese and products made from his flour, like biscuits. I doubt he has enough time to grow much veg, but could be wrong. But I’m with you on the strengths and advantages of mixed/diverse growing, and can see the somewhat ironic drawback of spending time growing and selling wheat to be able to buy one’s daily bread.

        • Hello Simon
          Grain growing is wider than just western field grains. I grow quinoa, amaranth, sweet corn and pop corn as part of my allotment crop rotation. The allotment is 500 square metres in size so quite large. Though this supplies only part of my grain requirements it is still significant. Quantities are roughly a large bucket of quinoa, and plus a bucket of sweet corn (de-husked), plus large bowls of amaranth and popcorn per year. They go a way to meeting my carbohydrate needs. The rest I make up with root vegetables plus bought buckwheat flour and rice (I grow buckwheat but usually as a green cover crop as it requires grinding into flour for use). What led me to this combination is an intolerance to wheat type grains and the cost of the alternatives and the difficulty of finding them at times past. They are not that difficult to grow, and they do not need that much processing to use compared to wheat-flour-bread.

          One element of my small holding I have found invaluable in keeping me away from the market is the coppice. It provides beanpoles, pea sticks, kindling, stakes, wattle (Hazel), fence posts, exterior furniture, building timber (oak and sweet chestnut), baskets, wattle, bindings (willow) , bench/stool seats (white poplar), tools (ash), charcoal/hugelculture/sawdust/bark mulch/firewood (any wood). These are relatively easy to work with hand tools and the occasional chainsaw.

          The key question to ask is whether the level of skill and time required to produce each product for one self is greater than the cost of exchange in the market. There is a balance to be chosen, by one self and by society. After the current crisis I think the balance will change, both by desire and by need.

          Regards Philip

          • Hello Philip, a pleasure to hear back from you. You are right that other grains have a lot to offer and deserve a look-in. I have tried amaranth and quinoa and they are a lot easier to thresh and winnow by hand than wheat. A short row, like you say, can produce a bucketful, which might well see you through to the next harvest. I guess I still find wheat more appealing as we eat bread almost every day, and the idea of growing a mixed population of old varieties has again piqued my interest (hull-less oats is another one on the list). Most old ‘peasant’ houses in Eastern Europe have a wood-fired bread oven built in, often with an open chimney for smoking meat. I hope to use ours more often but it would require, ideally, a small coppice to fuel it – and what a wonderful direction to go in that would be!

      • I agree that you need diversity for subsistence, but how much? Those of us who have enjoyed a lifetime of a wide variety of foods sometimes find it hard to live without that variety. (I wonder how those poor folks in medieval times managed to subsist on pottage for three meals a day and a little meat now and then). Even so, the main thing is to grow the calories. No one is going to starve themselves to death because they find their food boring.

        My wife and I are trying to grow as much of our own food as possible, which should be easy since we can grow a pretty good variety all year round. Here’s how our diet would break down if we had to live entirely off our land from what we currently produce on it:

        Carbs: Taro, sweet potato, squash.
        Fat: Sheep fat, mac nuts (also protein), avocado
        Protein: Mutton and lamb, chicken, eggs, wild game (turkey, pheasant)
        Veg: Tomatos, carrots, mustard greens, green beans, kale, Swiss chard, parsley, onions,

        That’s it.

        We could live off that if we had to, but the lack of variety would get old very fast. We don’t have a milk animal so no milk, cream, cheese or other milk products. No vegetable oil, nor a wide variety of spices. No bread or anything made with wheat. We could produce our own tea and coffee since I have a camillia sinensis plant next to the house and we could gather coffee beans from wild plants along the county roads, but we don’t.

        Then there are all the products needed to grow food, even by hand: shovels, hoes, trowels, axes. Add in cookware and other household gear and it becomes pretty clear that subsistence is always going to involve a lot of trade with others, if only in the local community. It would take a very large household with lots of live-in help for a farm to subsist entirely off their own production. It really takes a pretty good sized village to do it all, where “all” is still very basic.

        I’m pretty sure that even a 100% small farm future is going to involve at least one market place and probably several. And then there are taxes.

        • I forgot the fruit section: Bananas, a variety of citrus, guava, loquats, waiawi.

          We also have two hives of bees for honey.

          • I’d miss salt, ifonly for the bread, though there are salt mines in Poland and Romania (several days’ horse ride).

          • Hello Joe
            A good diversity of foods you produce, much wider than the average industrial diet; potato, corn flour, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, CAFO beef and lard, sugar, synthetic flavourings, coffee, alcohol and processed cheese. Most people don’t eat a wide variety of foods, but a wide variety of synthetic foods made from the same few ingredients.

            As for pottage there is a variety of recipes! Our European ancestors ate a much wider variety of foods than we do today, many that we would not even consider food today! The establishment media of today likes to portray the past as miserable, the less so that they are questioned about todays miseries!

            I agree we will continue to have markets, they are useful! Though I think they will be more on the model of medieval times when they occurred once a week in a market square, with big seasonal fairs supplementing them. Otherwise we will go direct to crafts people for the goods we need. I see a large part, if not the majority of the population combining a trade/craft with subsistence production for the home. The craft/trade will produce the specialised goods that it is not efficient to produce at the household level due to the skill, tools, and time required. The time split between the two, well that depends!

            As for taxes, the colonial powers deliberately introduced hut taxes to force the natives into the cash/market economy, and this is part of there function today. Under feudal economies taxes were paid in kind or in labour to the local lord. These disappeared as land was privatised/enclosed, the lord excepting a single large cash sum for the annulment of feudal dues in perpetuity (Chris knows a lot more about this than me). As the contraction progresses it may pay to offer the local tax takers a large lump sum for the annulment of future taxes in perpetuity? Obviously you have to have the cash to start with, but corporations have been doing this for decades!

            Regards Philip

        • And then there are taxes.

          It’s been suggested – two things are certain, death and taxes.

          With all the roll back in what we might make for ourselves, the taxes would roll back to some extent as well. The proportion of our “daily bread” that must go for taxes would remain a topic of contention.

          The health treat of this pandemic might open more eyes to how spoiled we’ve become. Our expectations of comfort and security are challenged. As we gain an upper hand against the virus’ spread we’re making plans to re-open, and move back to “normal”. But my hope is that some thought is directed toward the design of a new normal, and not just a new normal where more PPE is stocked, more emphasis is placed on health systems (don’t get me wrong – we do need these)… but value chains should be reexamined and made more robust, externalities in production and for global travel should be better accounted.

          There will be incredible financial burdens in front of us as we tip toe back from this ledge. Plenty of lessons to absorb. Pottage sounds pretty good about now.

  2. The larger farms can be less resilient due to higher levels of debt service (for all the equipment and land).

  3. I see the purpose of using that chart, but I am wondering what grain we are talking about.
    It wouldn’t be wheat.
    I have raised wheat on an acre scale, and the numbers are wrong for that. I will not claim to be much of a farmer, but I could easily get more than 10 bushels of wheat per acre with the application of one bushel. Mechanized farmers rely on a minimum of 40.
    And the on-farm consumption of 50 bushels per year? Who is doing the eating? Are we feeding the grain to livestock? 50 bushels of wheat is 3,000 pounds. That is more than 8 pounds per day!
    For reference, when my wife is baking regularly, a 4 pound loaf will last the two of us most of a week. Of course, we eat other things as well, but each of us eating 4 pounds a day is impossible. Maybe if we had a half dozen teenage boys…

  4. ‘…there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.’

    I think this is right, and you demonstrate it nicely with your revision of Overton’s table. But I think it’s worth noting that you do this by assuming that all the labourers on both the small and large farms are supported equally by those farms, at least as far as grain is concerned (at least, they are if we assume they all contribute about the same amount of effort, and thus that their number increases proportionally with acreage). This seems fair enough if you are comparing different sizes of household farm, as you are here.

    From a historical point of view, the comparison helps think about the development of capitalist farming. The tables make very clear that creating an economy of scale relies on reducing the number in column 6. There are many ways of doing this, and big tech is perhaps the most recent way (i.e. by reducing the number of labourers required). Overall, all efforts to reduce the number in column 6 involve denying other people the benefit of the farm’s products in order for the farmer to keep more of it, either by outsourcing their sustenance elsewhere, or by denying them any role at all (as with their replacement by machines).

    Historically it was probably done in other ways. For example, if some of the Labour required could be provided by seasonal labourers, this would reduce the number of people directly supported by the farm all year round. Some of the money raised by sale would have to go to their wages, and in that case a farmer with an eye on maximising income had an interest in promoting a more flexible and abundant workforce, of the kind produced by enclosure, in order to pay them as little as possible.

    My point is that the creation of economies of scale by whatever means should be viewed not merely as a result of specific technical circumstances, but more generally as a way of disciplining labour in order to keep more of a farm’s produce for the farmer. These points presumably form part of the ‘social’ circumstances in the quote at the top of my comment, but I thought they should be made more explicit.

    Of course, from the point of view of those who consider competitive profit maximisation a ‘natural economic law’, the creation of economies of scale would then appear so too. The most important implication of your argument against economies of scale is, in my view, that it promotes the development of farms in which all labourers are entitled to equal shares of its produce, and in which profit maximisation has no place.

  5. But if you have a ‘mixed’ farm there are other staple food crops that can take the place of ‘grain’ – potato’s being the obvious example that may do better when grain does badly and of course you can grow different sorts of grain – oats, barley & rye instead of wheat that may do better or worse as conditions vary

  6. sacrcity and scale .
    this is what a centeralised system gets you , one packing plant producing 5% of the countries pork , 80 % of the plastic bottles used in the usa are made in china therefore milk being thrown away because there is nothing to put it in , the same with eggs , there is a coming drastic shortage of plastic wrap to put “conveniance” foods in , NO ONE sells direct from a fifty pound sack into a paper bag anymore .
    as for scale ( get your head round this ) one dairy farm in this county milks 22000 cows every day , yes twenty two thousand ! ,average size is between eight and ten thousand cows here and in surounding counties .

    • It’s not just the scale and centralization of food production, it’s the scale of two different markets for food. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, half of all food was eaten outside the home in restaurants, schools and other institutional settings. As the article you linked to points out, it is difficult to completely revamp a supply chain that served one market (food service) over to another market (retail) as rapidly as necessary to keep the calories flowing from farm to table.

      I have been wondering for many weeks how long it would take to redirect half the calorie supply from food service to retail. Without that redirection, I suspect that the retail supply chain won’t be able to keep up with demand and that the first inklings of food scarcity will result in panic purchasing and result in retail turmoil.

      This whole episode shows that the benefit of having a globalized market for food (in terms of making up for shortages in one locale by surpluses in another) can be undercut by rapid changes in supply chain structure. Perhaps the answer is to maintain a global market for bulk dry staple foods so as to prevent localized famines, but re-localize everything else to keep supply chains very short.

      We would probably trend that way anyway as the energy cost of long distance freight for perishables keeps going up, but reducing the scale of farms to reduce supply chain fragility could easily become a lesson learned from this epidemic. Increasing scale has economic advantages, but at the disadvantage of higher risk from disruptions. We might want legislation to limit the size and concentration of many aspects of food production and distribution just to reduce that risk.

      • yep agreed .
        I wonder how an outbreak of say foot and mouth would play out on the scale of todays livestock farming .
        Cheap energy is at the bottom of the problem , three weeks ago is the last time i went shoping i bought bread made in a factory in Puerta Rico , how the hell does that work ? delivered to a mom&pop mini mart in podunk texas .

  7. Thanks for the comments, and sorry I’ve got limited time to engage at the moment.

    I just copied out Overton’s figures from his book without thinking overly about them, especially since a bushel doesn’t mean much to me, now being obsolete in British measures. But yes it does sound like a large amount – possibly there’s provision there for farm servants (though you’d have thought not on a 10 acre farm), or the various other theories above may have weight. Possibly Overton just dreamed them up. I did try to contact him, but he seems to have long since vanished into retirement – perhaps he’s tending a small farm somewhere…

    The yields also sound low … but then yields were pretty low in the 18th century. And John is right that there’s a lot to be said for mixed farming…

    Interesting as these points are, though, I don’t think they affect my overall arguments regarding what happens when a small farm falls short of feeding itself, and how labour productivity assumptions bear on this.

    Andrew extrapolates the implications of my analysis very nicely and persuasively. Much to mull over there. He’s surely right that casualizing the workforce is a classic strategy for increasing (farm) income, though I’m not entirely convinced that the devilishly complex history of enclosure in England entirely fits that narrative.

    Nice points about food system dynamics from Diogenese and Joe. Puerto Rican bread in a Texas mini mart. How the hell does that work, indeed – as good a question as I’ve ever heard for probing the absurdities of our world. Hopefully the truth is dawning on more of us that it doesn’t work…

    • Isn’t that your criticism of the ecomodernists, Chris, that they use data incorrectly to back up their arguments?

      • Well, it’s more that I find their arguments rather than their data unpersuasive. But I’m not quite sure what you’re driving at…

  8. west texas crude oil went negative today , well owners are paying refineries / tank farms $36 to get rid of it .

    • Thanks for this link. Even though I am aware of most of the facts presented, video is powerful, and I hope it gets wide viewership.

      There is co-option everywhere, and we each must craft our own part of the solution, it will not be coming out of the political systems we have.

    • Moore’s documentary is clearly raising some hackles. A recent piece at Gizmodo (linked below) raises red flags on the filmmaker’s treatment of renewables (“much of the issues the film takes with solar and wind are based on anachronistic viewpoints”) and population control (“It’s got a bit more than a whiff of eugenics and ecofascism”). Additionally, filmmaker Josh Fox (‘Gasland’) has penned a scathing open letter (co-signed by Michael Mann, as well as other scientists and activists) in which he characterizes the film as “a blatant affront to science, renewable energy, environmental activism and truth itself.” Strong words.


      • Thanks for the link Ernie. When I watched it the other day I imagined there’d be some serious push-back. On the matter of their solar bashing I’ll agree they should have come closer to today’s tech, and though it might soften their case I think it would have made it more balanced if they’d have talked to innovators about current research progress and near term possibilities for solar. The renewables may not match the hype, but progress is being made.

        • I watched it the other day. I was surprised to see how much of the commentary on renewables and EV’s was out of date, unsubstantiated, random irrelevant quotes etc Much of it was rehashed nonsense used to bash renewables by uninformed commentators over the last 30 years. There’s some good informed critiques on the Interweb that point out where the film got it wrong.

          In the real world, I’m doing the initial analysis of pathways to take a community of 50k people to 100% renewable within 5 years, there are already substantial regions and even countries that have already achieved this – to be fair, often with a fair bit of it from large, traditional hydro or localised geothermal – parts of Germany and Australia are 100% renewable for increasingly long periods using intermittents etc

          The resilience benefits from decentralised energy resources – generation, storage and load management – are receiving attention at the moment with Covid.

          Commercial hydrogen electrolysis from water – the technology that I’ve been watching since I was a young chemistry student in the 80’s – is scaling downwards and becoming commercial. As PV has got so cheap – levelised energy costs of a few cents/KWH – and electrolyser technology is becoming commercialised a bunch of opportunities are opening up from cheap, clean hydrogen from water. The Finnish protein manufacturer mentioned here some time ago and one of the semi-finalists Clem mentions in the Food Vision contest is an interesting application. Conventional fertilisers, liquid fuels, iron ore reduction and a load of other stuff.

        • A quick comment and request on this:

          I haven’t watched the Moore film so can’t comment on it. But in terms of energy transition to renewables, my view is that while the wealthy countries are partially transforming their electricity generation to low carbon methods, no global energy transition out of fossil fuels is underway. If you compare global energy consumption between 1965 and 2018 we’re now using more nuclear & renewables to the tune of about 1,900 million additional tonnes of oil equivalent, but also more fossil fuels to the tune of about 8,300 Mtoe.

          My view is that the world is not currently transitioning out of fossil fuels, but we need to do so immediately to avoid climate breakdown. If we achieve that and transition to only low carbon energy sources, all present indications (rather than straws in the wind of possible future technologies) are that we’ll have to live in a world of much lower per capita energy consumption, certainly in the rich countries.

          I’m currently revising this part of my forthcoming book – so if anyone would care to convince me why my view is wrong, I’d be appreciative.

          • In the film they do make the point that in the future we’ll need to get by with less energy use per person.

            My view is that the world is not currently transitioning out of fossil fuels, but we need to do so immediately to avoid climate breakdown

            I realize this is a quickly made point… but I’ll beat on it anyway… By “the world” you mean “we”. The planet cares not. But more salient is that the number of “we” is changing pretty rapidly (esp from 1965 to 2018). If the proportion of total energy consumed is broken out into fossil vs renewable (and low carbon) then set against the number of human consumers – is there then even the tiniest evidence that some transition is taking place?

            And climate breakdown? Immediate? At least you avoided using ‘meltdown’ in a paragraph following a mention of nuclear power. Ask for Jason Hickel as a reviewer and you’ll sail through.

            These are serious issues and I don’t mean to belittle them or offer even the slightest cover for deniers who may be lurking. But where there is nuance to grab hold of – please, have a helping.

          • Well … I agree with your strictures against use of the word ‘planet’, but for me the word ‘world’ is more ambiguous and I don’t think misapplied in the context above. But if it helps to be more clear, I’m suggesting that a look at the electricity sectors of the wealthy countries gives a misleading impression of how reliant humanity in general still is on fossil fuels – 84% of our total energy consumption, in fact. That’ll go down with Covid-19, but will increase again unless we invent a different economy – the discussions I’m seeing of this point aren’t very … nuanced.

            Expressed in per capita terms, humanity averaged 1.05 tonnes of oil equivalent fossil fuel consumption per capita annually in 1965 and 1.55 in 2018.

            ‘Climate breakdown’ – following the usage adopted by the likes of The Guardian, which I’d endorse over a phrase like the rather pleasant sounding ‘global warming’. Yes, I think it’s plausible to argue that the climatic and other earth systems on which humanity has built its castle are starting to break down, and that if we don’t start transitioning out of fossil fuels immediately it’ll become progressively more implausible to argue otherwise.

            I know you’re not a fan of Jason Hickel, and I don’t agree with everything he writes either. But I find the confirmation bias of those he’s engaging like Steven Pinker or Ted Nordhaus far more egregious … and you haven’t yet convinced me that anything I wrote above lacked appropriate nuance or was inappropriately tendentious.

          • As someone who spent much of his adult life researching and deploying renewable energy systems (solar, wind, hydro, OTEC), it pains me to copy below what I wrote about renewables in response to some comments about a post by Mary Wildfire on Resilience. Energy supply transitions take many decades and require a great deal of change in physical infrastructure. Since the 1970s I have been waiting for the developed world to get serious about transitioning away from fossil fuels only to be disappointed year after year. It is now far to late.

            My comment at Resilience:
            “Restructuring the physical layout of our communities” or “rebuilding US society away from automobiles”, as Michael Dawson suggests in his comment, would be even more energy intensive than replacing the existing transportation fleet with EVs. As Wildfire notes in her post, these kind of wholesale reorganizations of physical infrastructure take “gargantuan” amounts of energy, most of which would now need to come from fossil fuels.

            Since carbon emissions need to be decreasing rapidly, we can’t just add a big new pulse of carbon to existing emissions. To make headroom for that carbon pulse and still reduce overall emissions it would be necessary to shut down much of the energy consumption that is now keeping industrial civilization going. Even the emission reductions from Covid-19 shutdowns are not enough to allow us to rebuild most of our infrastructure and housing without adding too much additional carbon to the atmosphere. These Covid-19 reductions are in line with what we should be doing anyway.

            It’s time to recognize that we have waited too long to take the steps needed to built a carbon-free energy system and industrial civilization. Our waiting until our carbon budget is almost gone before taking the transition seriously has put us in a no-win situation. It’s just too late for an energiewende via renewables. To get the emission reductions needed, all we can hope for is rapid de-growth of the industrial world. Covid-19 has given us a decent start for 2020-21 by shutting down much of the world economy. We just need more of the same for every year thereafter until industrial civilization is almost completely gone. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

          • I’m not sure when tendentiousness is appropriate and when inappropriate 🙂 I’ll avoid both.

            There’s some drivers for energy use and renewables/storage/load management uptake which are relevant to why energy emissions might decline.

            a/ It’s cheaper. PV in particular and wind at many sites are down to a few cents/KWH. These are prices that new black coal, gas and nuclear can’t approach.

            b/ Northern hemisphere fossil fleet is aging and needs replacing.

            c/ It’s understood. Most of the nonsense sprouted about renewables is now revealed to be nonsense by existence proofs. In the time I’ve been involved I’ve seen engineering estimates of how much intermittents can be accommodated in a grid within reasonable upgrades climb from ~20% to 70%+. This may be conservative.

            d/ There’s a significant multiplier of fossil reduction with renewables. Operating Steam Rankine Cycle coal systems are around 30%+ efficient on higher heating value. They can be made a lot more efficient but with increased cost due to materials needed to cope with high temps and pressures. So replacing SRC coal with renewables knocks off roughly 3x the coal otherwise used.

            e/ Storage is becoming more widely understood and cheaper. Putting excess PV into behind-the-meter (BTM) hot water is simple, cost-effective and supplies an energy use that makes up a significant quantity of a developed nations’ primary energy consumption. It’s astonishing how much energy is used across a developed nation to heat water to 40-80C. Battery costs and technologies are also improving. passenger vehicle EV’s were a toy a few years ago. Some of them are now reaching 500km range. There’s a lot more opportunity for small-scale pumped hydro than is generally realised.

            f/ My speciality – smart grids optimising distributed energy resources – is now much more accepted. Compute power and memory cost makes this much more tractable at all levels from individual controlled device through home energy management systems to platforms running virtual power plants, microgrids and larger grid sections.

            g/ Cheap green hydrogen is a game-changer. GHG neutral fuels, despatchable power, assists fuel cell uptake (which are still a bit pricey) and a bunch of other stuff as I mentioned earlier. Excellent way to soak up excess intermittent generation. I’m astonished at how quickly green hydrogen production is commercialising and dropping in price.Although perhaps not surprising as a lot of money being spent and the underlying technology is straightforward and already used in other places.

            And perhaps most important there’s a lot more concern and gov/corporate/individual action about GHG issues. Over 2m rooftop PV systems in Australia on 8m+ houses. Drive through parts of Germany and Austria and there’s PV on everything.

            So I dunno. Maybe the apocalyptic path will be the outcome. But there’s clearly a confluence of cost-effective technology and demand that could support other paths.

            FWIW I’m more concerned about what a Carrington event/EMP/sovereign cyberattack/supervolcanic upper atmospheric aerosols would do than I am about renewable energy technology cost and capability.

          • Thanks David. Those indeed all seem interesting developments which may prompt an energy transition – it’s just that when you look at the actual figures for global energy use, total and per capita fossil fuel use keeps increasing year on year, so it’s clear that the transition hasn’t started yet – and it needs to.

            When you say that renewables are cheaper, it strikes me that it may be necessary to distinguish between marginal cost and total present cost. If the question is ‘What is the cheapest form of energy to use in this particular new installation?’ then I think you’re right that very often the answer will be renewables. If the question is ‘Is it cheaper to junk the entire global fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with low carbon energy sources?’ I suspect the answer is no – at least in the short-term, which is the term energy policy fundamentally concerns itself with.

            Another consideration is that while of course any transition from fossil fuels to renewables is welcome, electricity generation is low hanging fruit. Are you suggesting that metal smelting, fertilizer production, international transport etc. can be sustained at present levels and prices with only low carbon energy? I’m not convinced that’s so.

            When it comes to apocalypticism, I’d suggest we don’t face a binary choice between present levels of energy use or apocalypse. It seems to me likely that in the rich countries we’ll have to get used to using less energy in the future (on which note, any comments on this article? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0301421519303003), and a major part of that will be adopting local agrarianism. Some might see that as apocalyptic, but I don’t. However, if we don’t get GHGs under control pretty damn quick then, yes, I think we face some potentially apocalyptic outcomes – and at present we’re not getting GHGs under control.

            As to tendentiousness, I think every truth claim is more or less tendentious. Maybe the trick is to try to cultivate a regard for the counterarguments to one’s own position – always harder than cultivating it for the arguments. For whatever reason, humans seem to cleave towards ‘optimism’ that present problems can be solved within present parameters. No doubt it’s an admirable trait, but I’d argue it’s worth considering the view that present problems can’t be solved within present parameters, without dismissing it as ‘apocalyptic’. And on these issues, coming back to Clem’s comment, if we must dismiss Jason Hickel for tendentious lack of nuance, then I’d suggest we need to invent a whole other order of magnitude of dismissal for the lack of nuance in the ‘everything’s getting better and better’ school represented by the likes of Pinker, Nordhaus, Ridley etc.

            Anyway, thanks for the contributions here. If anyone wants to throw in further thoughts the window for me to amend my book text is still open…but only by a crack…

          • If it’s not too late, I would add that while we are headed for a low energy future, any proposal or suggestion for a strategy should acknowledge the strong likelihood that this transition will NOT be intentional or planned, and thus chaotic and less predictable. How one as an individual, or as part of a local community changes their cultural programming and goes to a low energy lifestyle, should recognize that their will be no facilitation from above.

            This does not prevent the small farm further, it just means it will be done by swimming against the tide, and quite varied in how each individual and community figure things out.

          • Thanks Steve. Yes, agreed. I try to wrestle with some of the implications of that in Part IV of my book.

            Maybe one issue to home in on in this side debate is Joe’s implicit political angle vs David’s technical angle. Suppose David’s right that the technology is available to swap out fossil fuels completely with clean fuels. Yet Joe is surely right historically that this has barely been happening at scale in the 30+ years since we’ve known that GHGs are a global problem. Are we about to witness an unprecedentedly rapid energy transition globally out of FFs that involves junking the existing FF infrastructure? I’m doubtful, but maybe I’m wrong… Certainly, I’d want to know how the politics behind thatttransition are going to work, because that’s far from obvious from where I sit.

  9. Thanks for the various new comments above. I’m a bit wrapped up in the book editing again at the moment so can’t really respond, but I appreciate the various interesting lines of thinking charted above. I might be able to sneak out another blog post in a week or two.

    Meanwhile, of some relevance to this post, I’ve been listening to the six-part Farmerama podcasts on Cereals, which I think are excellent and cover many of the issues examined on this blog accessibly, but with nuance:


    • Over the Pond the response to the crisis had a familiar result, with smaller food producers and suppliers losing out to a handful of big retailers, and this was critically discussed for three minutes yesterday morning (starts at 9 mins 20 sec) by Professor of Food Policy, Tim Lang.

  10. As Chris dives into book editing there have been a few links offered here for
    deeper dives into related materials. Chris’ own link to farmerama above is pretty cool. And Diogenese has offered a couple good links as well (I’ll second steve c’s recognition that the Michael More video link is very nice).

    So here’s a link to a short piece – but within it are a handful of other links to futuristic food scenario research projects being looked at for funding by the Rockefeller Foundation:


    On a historical note – the Rockefeller Foundation funded much of the early stages of Norman Borlaug’s research starting the Green Revolution. On a personal note, the Rockefeller also put up some seed money that helped put in place some infrastructure at the University of Nebraska which became a lab where I was able to study for my Master’s Degree. So if I sound a bit biased toward the Rockefeller, this is why.

    In the article linked here the author highlights four of the projects being considered. At the moment, the second one is my favorite.

    • I agree with you theres nothing like hands on experiance .
      I remember the ground nut scheme started up by the uk to grow peanuts in east africa as animal feed , they grew like weeds the only problem was that peanuts fed to dairy cows made the milk carcenogenic .

    • The second one – is it really so radical? – sounds very similar to the Citizen Science Projects, particularly the Soil Health one, run by SARE in the US and others elsewhere, which teams scientists with a field of volunteers collecting data worldwide, some of it beamed up to satellites via soil probes. I prefer the shift in emphasis of the one you link to though.

      • I agree – not so radical. Further, I agree the emphasis shift is more compelling than the overall approach. There appears to be some backstory here that I wasn’t aware of when leaving the link comment above. Even if this particular project gets left on the cutting room floor, there have been more and more moves in this general direction. Hope springs eternal.

  11. Flat out getting a draft out this week of the report I mentioned but a few comments on Chris’s response.

    a/ What time value of money or other investment metric to use. Investors in smaller scale systems tend to use ROI/simple payback. Investors in larger systems use IRR/NPV/LCOE or other time value of money metric. My preference is levelised cost of energy (LCOE). From an investment perspective – as against an economists’ analysis – you stack up the cashflows for the options over the system lifetime or investment lifetime if shorter (typically investment, operations and maintenance, fuel if relevant, grants/subsidies/carbon pricing etc if they exist, revenue from energy sold or BAU external consumption avoided), work out an interest/discount rate/weighted cost of capital with risk-weighting and do the financial analysis. The risk weighting can be complex, assumptions about fuel cost are why plants like to lock in feedstock prices, energy sales prices again encourage offtake/Power Purchase Agreements but the fundamental approach is well-known and has been used for project techno-economic analysis for a long time.

    As I mentioned earlier, FF generation kit is aging and being replaced continuously. There’s a large northern hemisphere generator fleet approaching end-of-life. Replacing existing kit before asset end-of-life can be analysed using the same approach above. A lot of infrastructure is common between FF and renewables.

    b/ Energy policy is short-term. I think what you’re saying is that policy decisions have tended to ignore long-term consequences like climate change impacts. Energy system investment decisions at scale are usually over long periods. Smaller system decisions are typically over a few years. The drivers I mentioned earlier favour investment decisions in renewables without including externalities like carbon change. These systems increasingly stack up on financial grounds. There will be policy decisions that are driven solely to protect FF interests. But this gets harder if the FF energy is more expensive.

    c/ Electricity is the low hanging fruit. This is starting to sound a bit like the “What have the Romans done for us.” speech from Life of Brian. Sorting electricity is a good start 🙂

    d/ Metal smelting, fertiliser production etc Well, I specifically mentioned them as consequences from cheap, green hydrogen. A Norwegian plant has made fertilisers from hydro off-and-on for some time. A German steel maker has already trialed using hydrogen for steel and says they plan to move the plant to hydrogen.

    If there’s any bright young chemical engineers/chemists/metallurgists reading this post, a very interesting area to examine is the underlying chemistry driving processes such as coke-reduction of iron ore, Haber-Bosch fertiliser and others and to consider how the outcome can be achieved using cheap hydrogen/electricity.

    Re liquid fuels for usecases that are harder to electrify such as long-distance trucking and air-transport, as I mentioned earlier green hydrogen has a role to play here. The fundamental chemistry to take atmospheric carbon dioxide and put this through various processes with hydrogen to make liquid fuels is well understood and amply demonstrated at lab-bench and some pilot scale systems. This is making its way through larger pilot and early demonstration. The chemical engineering is a lot simpler than biomass-to-liquids, no feedstock limits, cost drivers electricity and green hydrogen, GHG neutral … and attracting a lot of venture capital. I suspect this will be more expensive than FF liquids but what the cost delta will be is the focus of considerable interest.

    e/ Lower energy use. FWIW we’re incredibly wasteful of energy in developed nations. This has been driven by cheap fossils over the last 140 years. We could run advanced economies on much less energy. Moving that energy to about 80% renewables IMO is straightforward from a technical and cost perspective. The last 20% appears to be harder. But what we learn on the way to 80% will inform the last bit.

    And also FWIW I think we need enough energy from other than human and traction animal to support health systems, education, universities, research, Internet, communications, computers etc

    f/ Tendentiousness. I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I used to spend a lot of time reading the Oil Drum and similar. Sometimes useful information sources mentioned but my primary aim was to examine the arguments put forwards for why renewables won’t work. Absolutely fascinating to read arguments put forwards that often didn’t do a bad job for much of it but would then make a crucial error due to a bodgy assumption, relying on some crappy data or analysis, vested interest support, lack of familiarity with energy systems, technology, science, finance etc

    Chris and Joe are right in questioning political will in this area. Whether technical and financial realities will prevail is TBD. I think the kit and systems engineering is already available to cost-effectively move to dramatically reduced emissions. It’s just about handle cranking to some extent. Will we get on with it? Dunno.

    • Thanks for that David. I’ve got to focus on book editing for the next few days, but will try to respond properly after that – probably in my next blog post.

      My feeling is that, politics aside, you’re underestimating the technical challenge of a swift transition. Global energy consumption currently is 85% fossil fuel, 4% nuclear, and 11% renewables. Of that 11% wedge of renewables, 63% is hydro – and most of that is from vast dam projects in just a handful of countries (China, Canada and Brazil account for about half global hydro consumption). TBH I think the technical challenges and cost challenges are greater than you suppose. You’re right of course that that’s not an argument not to endorse an attempted transition – but to the question ‘what have low impact renewables ever done for us?’ I’m afraid the answer at the moment has to be ‘really not very much’.

      • If you think Orban is bad just look at the US democrat goveners , Cuomo sending infected patients to nursing homes then providing no ppe ,( 49% of New York deaths are in nursing homes some lawyers are thinking of chargeng cuomo with genoside against the elderly ) Maryland banning the sale of garden seeds , the closing of food packing plants , if the shutdown carries on more people will starve than die of wuhan flu .

        • Where are these closing food packing plants? The Midwest States where the majority of packing plants are located (and have had closures) are evenly split between Democratic and Republican Governors. [Governor’s party affiliations are easily found on Wikipedia]

          So you needn’t take my word for it, have a look at:

          At this site you can also note that many plants are coming back on line. Your assertion that more will starve than die from the virus seems ridiculous on its face.

          • And as long as some might wish to gripe about US State politicians by their party affiliation, have a look at this site:

            Yes, correlation does not imply causation… but I still find it interesting that Red states tend to be more dependent upon the Federal Government than Blue states. This might make the Senator from KY appear to be a hypocrite… but again – I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

          • farmers are culling their breeding stock round here 50,000i personaly know of , , two years from now the calves alive now will start producing more calves then 18 months to two years they will be ready to turn into beef , six to nine months for pigs , I have steers that will be ready next spring , i have allready had offers of $2500 on the hoof for them ( double what I got last fall ) , I said no ,they will be worth more come next summer .
            There is no sorgum seed to be had at any price we are still awati g conformation for winter wheat and oats , I normaly have delivery and price locked in by now , there is one rail car load of 40, 000 pounds of soybean meal in the county , that car holds 124 000 pounds 40,000 is what we got ! the county uses 14 to 16 car loads a week , no one admits to knowing why there is none to be had . milk production is dropping like a stone with no high protein feed .

          • Corn and soybean futures are trending less than last year’s. Most all of the western corn belt corn and soy crops are in the ground. Dairies here are facing steep hay costs – but the cows are still fresh and there are some substitutes for hay. There is food to eat. Beef isn’t the only source of calories. So again, starving won’t kill more folks than the virus. In fact, I might be persuaded that stupidity will kill more folks than starvation.

          • Forgot to address your soybean comment. And I’m not sure why you’re having trouble with meal procurement. We have plenty of beans here in Ohio. Our company ships soy for human foods (soymilk, tofu, etc) and we’ve been shipping at record rates for our small company. Colleagues in the I states (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana) report similar soy movements. There may be some issues with your suppliers. I’d be making some calls.

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