Debunking the Leap Manifesto – Demand #9: Local agriculture is not always better

I have been asked numerous times in the last couple days what I have against the “The Leap Manifesto”? My answer is simple: The Leap Manifesto is of particular interest to me because it touches so close to my intellectual home and it annoys me because it is demonstrably lacking in scientific rigour. As I have written numerous times before on this blog I am a Pragmatic Environmentalist who believes in evidence-based environmental decision-making. My personal goal is to help make demonstrable and tangible improvements in our country’s environmental performance. As a pragmatist I am not the type of person who would suggest that it is sensible to “leap and the net will appear”, nor am I a newbie in this field. As I noted in an earlier post Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – A blast from my past I wrote about my own personal “Pragmatist’s Rules of Engagement” back in 1995. So to further answer those questioners: having worked a lot, read a lot and seen a lot I figure it is up to people like me to inject some science and defensible data into a debate that seems mostly about politics and emotions. If we waste all our built-up moral capital on emotionally-charged and scientifically-indefensible projects (like the Leap Manifesto) then we won’t have any to spend when it comes to making real changes that can make tangible improvements locally, regionally and nationally.

Having addressed Manifesto’s Demands #2, #3 and #6 in my previous post I thought I should take another shot at this document by looking at another environmental fairy tale: Demand #9

We must develop a more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, absorb shocks in the global supply – and produce healthier and more affordable food for everyone

The “smaller is better”, “local is better”, “organic is better” memes in agriculture are some of the most pernicious myths to come out of the modern environmental movement and show a profound lack of understanding of how food is grown and energy is used. I would argue this goes back to the urban nature of most of our modern environmental activists but that is more of a personal opinion rather than a statement based in defensible facts. In a previous post Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: “Moving Back to the Land” and the 100 Mile Diet I discussed the modern “Arcadians” described by Martin Lewis in his 1992 book “Green Delusions”. These modern Arcadians seek to return us to a more pastoral time when we lived with a “more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system”. What they and their more recent confreres the Degrowthers and the authors of the “The Leap Manifesto” seem to have forgotten is why we migrated from that “pastoral” lifestyle in the first place. The reason is simple: during those “pastoral” times in our ancestral past people lived lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short“. Given our current human population density any attempt to move back to the land would be devastating to both the human population and to the ecosphere.

As I quoted out in my post Ecomodernism and Degrowth: Part II Future Scenarios

The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person. This does not allow for any land degradation such as soil erosion, and it assumes adequate water supplies. Very few populous countries have more than an average of 0.25 of a hectare. It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc.. In India, the amount of arable land is already down to 0.2 of a hectare; in Philippines, 0.13; in Vietnam, 0.10; in Bangladesh, 0.09; in China, 0.08; and in Egypt, 0.05. By 2025 the amount is expected to fall to: India, 0.12 of a hectare; Philippines, 0.08; China, 0.06; Vietnam, 0.05; Bangladesh, 0.05; and Egypt, 0.03 (ref).

As of the year 2000, the US Northeast had a population of 49.6 million people who live with a population density of 359.6 people/km2. This translates to 0.69 acres per person. If we returned to the land there would barely be enough land to support the population of the US Eastern Seaboard with a minimal vegetarian diet. Moreover, this “pastoral” lifestyle would not be conducive to centralized services like sewage and water. Without modern sewage treatment and water supplies the population would undergo massive “Degrowth” as diseases and weather slowly eliminated the majority of the population. As for electrical supply, under the 0.44 acre scenario, power would be supplied by solar panels. Solar panels will certainly supply a house in South Carolina with reliable power in summer, but the same cannot be said about those same panels in a northern winter. Consider the “Snowpocalypse of 2015” and think about how those solar panels would provide power in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record, while buried under two meters of snow?

As for nature, once you discounted the areas where humans cannot farm (bogs, lakes etc…) there would not be an unallocated acre on the Eastern Seaboard. There would be no room for growing crops for profit and more importantly there would be no room for nature of any sort. I don’t see that existence as being in harmony with nature as much as being utterly antithetical to nature.

As for the importance of “localized” food and food security, as I wrote in another blog post:

From an environmental perspective regional self-sufficiency in food is a loser. Large-scale farming, with its ability to maximize crop yields and thus reduce land needs, is a necessity in a world of 7 billion souls. Anyone really interested in this topic should read The Locavore’s Dilemma by Desrochers and Shimizu. They comprehensively deconstruct the environmental arguments for the 100 mile diet and the concept of “food miles”.

Activists point out that the food then needs to be moved by ship or airplane but Desrochers and Shimizu point out that 82% of the estimated 30 billion food miles associated with U.K.-consumed food are generated within the country, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48% and transport to stores/warehouses representing 31% of food miles. As for carbon dioxide equivalents, as Tasmin MacMahon notes in Macleans: research from the U.K. comparing local tomatoes with those imported from Spain showed the U.K. tomatoes, which had to be grown in heated greenhouses, emitted nearly 2,400 kg of carbon dioxide per ton, compared to 640 kg for the Spanish tomatoes, which could grow in unheated greenhouses.

As for the line from the Manifesto about this food being “healthier” the research is definitive on that score as well. Organic foods are no healthier than food from non-organic farms. Meanwhile, the widespread use of “natural” fertilizers in organic farms can lead to the contamination of groundwater supplies with nitrates and in exceptional cases animal wastes and e-coli. While factory farms have their own fertilizer/waste issues, they tend to be much more tightly regulated and have the financial wherewithal to invest in the most efficient treatment systems. Not to mention that in sufficient quantities/qualities, their outputs can actually have some value on the open market.

As for the suggestion that local food would be more affordable than commercially bought food can be demonstrated as false on its face. The primary driver for food prices are input costs and small, inefficient farms have higher costs/per bushel for virtually every foodstuff known to mankind. For proof I suggest you go to your local community market and compare the costs of the market vegetables as opposed to those at your local grocery store. Alternatively look at the charts in Desrochers and Shimizu or go look on the shelves of your local “Whole Foods” outlet.

As I describe above, locavores, 100-mile dieters, modern Arcadians and Degrowthers all continue to suggest that local is better for you, and better for the environment. The problem is that all the research on the topic says exactly the opposite. Local food may make you feel better about yourself, but it uses more energy and fertilizer per bushel to produce and deliver to your table; is no healthier than the alternatives; is less efficient necessitating more land per bushel to produce and every acre of nature carved out for a small, inefficient hobby farm is one less acre where nature can be allowed to flourish. For the authors of the Manifesto to suggest that localized food production be a goal would run exactly contrary to the idea that agriculture be ecologically-based. Modern agricultural practices are the only reason the earth can feed 7+ billion souls while still leaving any room for nature to have an opportunity to do its thing with minimal interference from humans.

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7 Responses to Debunking the Leap Manifesto – Demand #9: Local agriculture is not always better

  1. I bet most individuals who ask what's wrong with the leap manifesto lack math and analytical skills. And so the manifesto's authors.


  2. C Chadwell says:

    >minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare

    0.07 hectare = 0.173 acres


    “This translates to 0.69 acres per person. If we returned to the land there would barely be enough land to support the population of the US Eastern Seaboard with a minimal vegetarian diet.”

    .69 acres / .173 acres per person = 3.9 persons


  3. Blair says:

    That is the minimum possible and does not allow for generation of power or for any losses due to weather etc…but otherwise you are correct.


  4. Mark says:

    And, unwritten in the locavore thing is an implicit leveling of income and assets too.

    If we divided the land available in the US or Canada according to people's ability to pay for it, then the bottom half would starve to death pretty quickly.

    We're not even talking the leveling of Soviet Russia, since they were all for industrialisation, urbanisation and consumer goods. We're talking full on Pol Pot craziness.


  5. The leap manifesto authors are delusional. Green mentality in its logical progression seems to always arrive at a misanthropic xenocidal madness that fails to even “care” for Earth even as the greens destroy humans.


  6. Pingback: Why buying local food may not be the best for the environment. | Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

  7. Pingback: The Leap Manifesto: Mixing ice tea with bathwater | A Chemist in Langley

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