If we look at calories of energy in (usually in the form of petroleum) versus calories of energy out, conventional ag sits at roughly a 10:1 ratio. I've heard 8:1, 10:1, and 14:1 from different people. Either way, for me this is the clearest indicator of how unsustainable conventional ag is. Really, I think putting in ten times more than you get out is, mathematically, exactly what unsustainable looks like.
That's why I love permaculture. I think 1:1 is easily achievable. Ten times better than conventional ag! I think with a little effort, and some clever thinking, most people could achieve 1:10. And with a lot of work and a lot of really clever thinking, I think it might be possible to achieve 1:100, which would be 1000 times more efficient than conventional ag.
I imagine the math to be pretty good for anyone who uses only hand and animal labor. But then there's the tricky part about getting stuff to market. I've seen some very small operations that have a huge amount of petroleum burned. Some people who only have two dozen eggs to sell, will put up a sign and induce 50 people to stop their cars so that they can learn that there are no more eggs today.
I've always thought the most efficient agriculture is the kitchen garden, because it not only produces food without consuming resources, it reduces the number of times a ton of metal travels down the road pick up 5 lb of something.
Of course, at 1:1 over the long haul, you'd slowly starve. But permaculture encourages many traits, such as stacking functions, which mean that a small amount of your own labour is effectively magnified. So I'd reckon that in most cases a 1:10 ratio is easily achievable and 1:20 is a good standard to aim for (because we all should have more leisure time).
As a completely loose PDOOYA sort of example, if I spend 10-15 minutes with my scythe, pile up the cut grass and let it sit for a few weeks, then stick a bunch of potatoes under it, I've expended very little effort. Maybe the energy in half a medium-sized potato. If all goes well, I could expect at least ten times as many spuds as I planted, and that's a high-energy crop.That could put me into the 1:100 club right there. Letting animals graze pasture is another one, once we amortise all the fencing, water, shelter. The only real effort would be in the slaughter and processing.
Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
posted 1 month ago
People have produced far more calories than required, through hand methods, for millennia. That's how cities and industrial society was able to develop. It has been by no means equal in all parts of the world.
Someone living on a tropical island surrounded by a reef might be able to gather all of the resources required to sustain life in a short amount of time. Someone living in the far north would have to struggle to do so. But I guess that's hunter-gatherer and not agriculture.
I saw a study once that showed the labor cost of producing a given amount of potatoes which was considered enough for a family of four. To get the same caloric value of rice, six times more labor was required. The arrival of the potato in Europe helped to Spur the Industrial Revolution. I know from my own experiences that if I put 1/4 of my time into growing food, it would be vastly more than I could ever eat.
One of the worst calorie trades I know of is the harvest of fish from the ocean. On a worldwide basis, approximately one kilogram of diesel fuel is burned for every kilogram of landed fish. Of course there are many more calories in the diesel fuel. The guy paddling out to sea in his dugout canoe, doesn't contribute to that diesel burning. But there are boats running around the ocean chasing tuna, that burn 5 and 10 kg of fuel per kilogram of fish. Based on this knowledge, I think the most environmentally sensible fish to eat, would be those that are caught in inshore waters and the mouths of rivers, where it's done with minimal expenditure of petroleum. Farmed Fish like tilapia and other vegetarian fish grown by tropical farmers are probably the most sustainable fish of all.
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