There’s a common perception that as our society reaches a peak to the degree of complexity it can sustain, we will gradually return to a lower level of complexity that preceded it. However, for us to be able to return to a lower level of complexity typically requires us to have maintained the technologies that enabled the previous level of complexity, as well as relevant knowledge of the skills we utilized to sustain the previous level of complexity.
What are some of the problems that civilization encounters, if it has to cope with a sudden transition to pre-industrial agricultural conditions? There are a wide variety of problems that are relevant and I will aim to outline some of them here, to illustrate that the back to land perception probably isn’t going to unfold in the way that most expect it will. I will also aim to outline a scenario that I personally consider to be more likely.
One major problem we face is that most people simply don’t live in those places where food is grown to feed them. Saudi Arabia imports 80% of its food, Kuwait 91%, Qatar 97%. Japan’s caloric self-sufficiency is estimated at 39%. It’s simply not possible without mass migration across continents for people to live in those places where their food is produced and participate in food production. This would require mass migration to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Russia.
An estimated 49 percent of people lived in cities in 2005, up from 13% in 1900. This figure continues to rise. It’s questionable whether people are better off in cities or outside of them. It might seem self-evident that the countryside would be preferable, but it’s likely that critical infrastructure in cities can be sustained longer than it can be in more rural places.
Economic decline so far seems to lead to a rise in urbanization, rather than the opposite, as rural places become increasingly expensive to inhabit. What causes urbanization is a reduction in dependence on physical labor in agriculture. So far there seems to be no reversal in this trend.
The Dutch Method: Greenhouses
The Dutch method of food production is characterized by its complete unsustainability. The Netherlands produces 17% of its own need for grains, but a massive 241% of its own need for vegetables. Incredibly, this country produces 290% of its own need for tomatoes, a tropical crop native to central America, where it grows as a perennial. The vast majority of this (80+%) is exported to other countries
How is all of this achieved? Through the use of greenhouses. In the Netherlands yield per hectare of greenhouses lies almost ten times higher than in similar greenhouses in Spain, allowing this country to be a world-leading food producer, despite its lack of farmland.
Various unsustainable technological methods are used in this process. Rest-heat and captured CO2 from fossil fuel based power plants is routed to the greenhouses, to keep tropical crops like the tomato at the temperature needed for optimal growth. At least 90% of greenhouses are artificially heated.
Other greenhouses burn their own fuel, raising temperatures and creating an environment of elevated carbon dioxide in the greenhouse, typically of 1000 parts per million, to further stimulate growth beyond what heat alone can accomplish. An estimated 7% of natural gas use in the Netherlands is used directly by greenhouses to deliver carbon and heat to plants. A fuel crisis, whether through logistical problems or fossil fuel depletion, thus inevitably also means a food crisis.
Other nations are heavily dependent on greenhouses too, though few of these greenhouses are as completely dependent on modern technology as the Dutch ones. Globally, 473,466 hectares of greenhouses are used, out of which slightly more than 10,000 hectare is found in the Netherlands. A stagnation in greenhouse production is visible in the Netherlands, whereas on a global scale growth continues very rapidly.
Even the windows of the greenhouses are dependent on petroleum. An estimated 90% of greenhouses in the Mediterranean don’t use glass but transparent plastic instead that allows the desired wavelengths to pass through the greenhouse.
Individual studies tend to find a relatively small decrease in yield for farmers who don’t use pesticides. These estimates can’t be reliably extrapolated however, as such farmers inevitably benefit indirectly from other farmers who do use pesticides on their crops, thereby never allowing pests to gain a foothold in the first place.
Because of the international scale of modern agriculture and our industrial food system as well as a drastic reduction in biodiversity in our plants, a variety of plant pathogens have managed to spread to different species and continents. This has necessitated a growing cocktail of a wide variety of different pesticides, the health effects of which are largely unknown.
For us to grow plants in greenhouses in particular is nigh impossible without the use of pesticides, due to a variety of factors. Ultraviolet light, which is blocked by glass, harms certain pathogens, but also causes plants to produce compounds that reduce their sensitivity to pathogens. The reduced day-night temperature variation and relatively high humidity also makes greenhouse plants more vulnerable to a variety of pathogens than traditional food production systems.
Irrigation as we see it today is a big problem. Places like Israel depend on desalination for water, which is only accomplished by use of high amounts of energy. Israel also depends on water that is relatively high in salt, to avoid salt building up in the soil, sprinkler installations are used that require very little water to effectively treat the plants.
Using pre-industrial methods instead, like building irrigation canals, would cause salt to build up in the soil due to evaporation, whereas a lack of irrigation would drastically reduce yields and require a switch to completely different crops.
Nitrogen and Phosphorus
The two main nutrients we use as fertilizer are nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is removed from the atmosphere through the Habers-Bosch process, which consists for 80% of nitrogen. This requires the use of natural gas, an estimated 3-5% of global natural gas production is used for this purpose alone. Nearly 80% of nitrogen found in our body originates from this process.
Phosphate is mined from phosphate rock. Because the world’s grasslands are losing phosphorus through various processes, it’s estimated that phosphate application on grassland will have to quadruple between 2005 and 2050, to increase production by the 80% expected to be necessary over that time period.
In total, it’s thought that phosphorus production will have to more than double by 2050 compared to 2005, just to keep up with demand. It’s not clear how much further phosphate rock production can grow. Some estimates are that phosphate rock production will peak by 2027, even as depletion of our soils will merely get worse.
Because rising CO2 concentrations increase the growth rate of plants, places that are currently in phosphorus balance may become gradually depleted as a result and ultimately dependent on phosphorus application by humans. This happens to peripheral regions, where the fertility of land is extracted as the land is valued less than in regions that are highly populated and seen as economically valuable.
While many regions witness phosphorus depletion, places like the Netherlands are victim to overnourishment. Crops are shipped from marginal lands in places like Brazil to factory farm animals in the Netherlands, where animals defecate and the phosphorus is released in excessive amounts into our soils and waters. This is enabled by industrial agriculture’s international orientation, without which minerals like phosphorus would be recycled in a local ecosystem in a more sustainable fashion.
Today we have less fertile land around the world, due to factors like those outlined above. Some places that used to be farmed have become burdened by too many heavy metals and other pollutants to still be capable of reliably producing food. In China, 19.4% of arable land is estimated to be contaminated with heavy metals. This share will continue to rise in the coming years, as well as the degree of contamination.
It is estimated that the world lost a third of its arable land between 1975 and 2015. Factors that are important here are not just chemical contamination, but also erosion of fertile soils by wind and water, as well as the covering of fertile farmland with human infrastructure. Climate change also contributes to making soils more vulnerable to erosion
Thus today we find ourselves having to feed more people, with less arable land. What proved possible for our ancestors won’t be possible for us, simply because you can’t go back to farming arable land that no longer exists.
Soil compaction is a harmful process that damages the fertility of our soils. Depending on the depth at which the compaction takes place, the compaction is often practically irreversible.
Unfortunately, governments have a tendency to use poor metrics to estimate soil compaction. It’s estimated for example, that individual humans lead to greater soil compaction than large machinery, simply because the weight of such machinery can be spread out further across the soil through use of big wide tires.
The difference here however, is that topsoil compaction is far less harmless than subsoil compaction. The impact of humans and other animals takes place mostly at the topsoil, because humans and other animals put high pressure at small locations.
Heavy machinery like tractors on the other hand, execute far higher pressure when measured over a broader area. The average tractor has increased in weight from 2 ton in 1950 to 7 ton today, which is more than the largest elephants. The broad tires of the machinery might lead to less harm to the topsoil, but causes greater harm to the subsoil.
The topsoil is quite rapidly restored by earthworms, moles and other lifeforms, who dig through the ground and loosen the soil, allowing roots to penetrate the soil again. The subsoil on the other hand takes much longer to recover when compacted, because the subsoil is home to comparatively few lifeforms.
This prohibits roots from growing into the subsoil and redistributing scarce nutrients up into the higher soils, as well as preventing the subsoil from retaining water, often creating puddles of water above the soil that end up damaging the plants.
In the short term (up to around six years), yields are greatly reduced by subsoil compaction, but there are also smaller more persistent effects that linger for decades. One study estimated a permanent reduction in yield for wheat of 1.5% and 6% for two different fields respectively, as a result of the use of heavy machinery.
Effects are likely to be worse today, due to the even heavier machinery now in use. In addition, plants that naturally root deeper than wheat, like many edible nut species, would have even worse effectively permanent reductions in yield than wheat. Subsoil compaction represents a long-term reduction in the diversity of life that a plot of land could harbor otherwise.
The problems seen above are a consequence of the general rule of thumb with most technologies that it’s easier to adapt to them than to let go of them again. Our innovations in agriculture are no exception, they’re schoolbook examples.
This transition to modern technology in agriculture produces long-term consequences, that can be concealed in the short-term through use of more new technologies. For example, rising CO2 concentrations make plants more vulnerable to pathogens, but farmers who happily spray pesticides probably don’t realize this until they suddenly have to return to growing crops without pesticides.
The number of farms in existence today has decreased drastically, as many people have quit the farming business due to scale advantages that effectively allowed just a few farm business to survive.
Whereas formerly people would have guarded the crops growing in their backyard, today farmland is often in the hands of nameless corporations. In the event of a food shortage, the theft of food crops will thus be increasingly difficult to prohibit.
A scenario for the future: Marauding 21st century Hunter-Gatherers
Ownership and control over food producing resources will probably prove difficult to enforce in many places. Even people who own small plots of land will have difficulty growing crops and keeping the harvest for themselves if they do not live on the land.
A scenario where people grow their own food appears to be far less likely than a scenario where nomadic groups of people begin to plunder the countryside. This is what effectively seems to have happened in the Roman empire, where nomadic tribes invaded and local bands of Roman citizens known as Bagaudae began pillaging the countryside.
Eventually, as food that can be plundered from homes and fields begins to run out, people would be forced to depend solely on whatever grows in the countryside. Our changing climate means that this may prove to be a more viable strategy than we might expect.
In Europe, some Middle Eastern refugees already appear to be adapting to a migratory lifestyle, incorporating wild foods into their diet. A spike in mushroom poisoning cases has been seen in Germany as a consequence of refugees eating wild mushrooms.
It seems to me that we should expect to see a lot more of this in the years ahead. Our food production system has evolved in a fashion that is difficult to roll back even when it becomes necessary. It appears more likely to cease working altogether than to become less complex.