[permaculture] Yield comparisons with industrial farming?

Steve Bonney steve at sustainableearth.net
Thu Apr 26 23:25:23 EDT 2012

It is very difficult to wade through the statistics of the agriculture 
sector and come up with meaningful data. In 2011, 33 million hectares in 
the U. S. were planted in corn and produced 316 million metric tons of 
which 50 million metric tons were exported. That same year 31 million 
hectares were planted in soybeans yielding 91 million metric tons of 
which 40 million metric tons were exported.  The  U. S.  Department of 
Agriculture brags that we exported $136 billion of farm commodities 
(includes non-food commodities, e.g. cotton and tobacco) in 2010. 
However, it's hardly mentioned that we imported $98 billion of 
agriculture products. It's still cold war propaganda.

I have quit using yields as a measure of any comparison of agricultural 
systems. It's always an apples vs. oranges comparison. Yields are touted 
by industrial agriculture as a measure of success, but eco-farmers never 
measure success in terms of yields. We simply do not farm for maximum 
yields, rather for optimum yields. Dieter, you are correct that 
economists do not denominate fertile soil. This is because the high 
yields of industrial agriculture are achieved by adding huge amounts of 
NP and K. Two million tons of mined phosphorus are added to U. S. farm 
ground per year. The list goes on. It's all madness. It is difficult to 
convince unknowing people that cheap food is not cheap.


On 4/26/2012 7:47 PM, Dieter Brand wrote:
> Many thanks for your suggestions.  I have only had a cursory look at the various documents so far.  I think the reports written from an economist’s point of view will be valuable to convince non-farmers, but I have the impression that economists find it hard to fully appreciate the value of fertile soil.
> In the meantime, I have found the reference I was thinking about on my bookshelf.  In a book about humus and farming entitled “Humussphäre” (in German), the author Herwig Pommeresche quotes page 116 of the Szech author Vaclav Smil’s “Cycles of Life”, published by the Scientific American Library in 1997.
> According to the quoted passage, 1 hectare of land was enough to feed 4 to 5 people in Egyptian, Chinese and Mexican farming 500 years ago, while in modern US farming, 1 hectare can only feed 1 person.  The author goes on to show that modern farming is even more inefficient if all the external inputs such as fertilizers and fuel are included in the equation.
> I wonder can this information be accurate?  That would mean that there would have to be nearly 300 millions hectares of farmland in the US.  That seems a lot.
> Did anyone read “Cycles of Life” by Vaclav Smil?
> Here are some biographical data:
> Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.
> He has published more than 30 books and some 400 papers on these topics. He completed his graduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Carolinum University in Prague and at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University and until 2011 he was a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy), the first non-American to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, and in 2010 he was listed by Foreign Policy among the top 100 global thinkers. He has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions, has been an invited speaker in nearly 300 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, and has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia. His wife Eva is a physician and his
>   son David is an organic synthetic chemist.
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Steve Bonney
Sustainable Earth
a 501(c)3 not-for-profit membership organization
to promote sustainable farming and food systems

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