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The EROI of agriculture, its use by the Via Campesina Origins of this paper: 1)Work on energy and agriculture (from Podolinsky 1880 to Pimentel 1973 and.

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Presentation on theme: "The EROI of agriculture, its use by the Via Campesina Origins of this paper: 1)Work on energy and agriculture (from Podolinsky 1880 to Pimentel 1973 and."— Presentation transcript:

1 The EROI of agriculture, its use by the Via Campesina Origins of this paper: 1)Work on energy and agriculture (from Podolinsky 1880 to Pimentel 1973 and beyond). 2)The CEECEC project: Teaching and Learning Ecological Economics with Civil Society Organizations ( )

2 Biofuels have a low EROI, energy return on energy input Biofuels contain much “virtual water” – the water used to grow them Biofuels increase the HANPP (human appropriation of net primary production of biomass) to the detriment of other species Are the following statements useful for agrarian activists?

3 History of social metabolism Haberl, Helmut (2001): The Energetic Metabolism of Societies, Part I: Accounting Concepts. In: Journal of Industrial Ecology 5 (1), pp Haberl, Helmut (2001): The Energetic Metabolism of Societies, Part II: Empirical Examples. In: Journal of Industrial Ecology 5 (2), pp

4 History of social metabolism Fischer-Kowalski, Marina & Walter Hüttler: Society's Metabolism. The Intellectual History of Material Flow Analysis, Part I and II. In: Journal of Industrial Ecology.

5 The EROI Energy return on (energy) investment Hall, Charles A. S., Cutler J. Cleveland, Robert K. Kaufmann (1986): Energy and Resource Quality. The Ecology of the Economic Process. New York. Wiley Interscience.

6 Applications of EROI E.g. the extraction of Alberta oil sands: what is the ratio between the energy obtained and the energy spent? Much lower than in average oil extraction. Agriculture can be seen as a system of transformation of energy. What are the energy inputs into agriculture (not counting sun energy, that is free) and what is the output?

7 The EROI of agriculture When Pimentel et al in 1973 calculated the EROI of agricultural systems (the acronym was not yet invented), they showed that the energy efficiency of modern agriculture was declining compared to traditional agriculture. Agriculture had been a source of endosomatic energy for humankind. Modern agriculture consumed more energy than it produced!!! There was already some research on energy in agriculture in traditional agriculture, by anthropologists (e.g. Roy Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors, 1967).

8 The first calculation of the EROI of agriculture As I explained in Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society (1987) and before that in an article in the JPS of 1982, S.A. Podolinsky ( ) had published in 1880 accounts for French agriculture on the energy input/output ratio in different systems (forests, natural pastures, sown pastures, wheat). In the input he included human and animal work, counted in kcal, comparing this to the output, also in kcal. He mentioned guano but did not give the energy-equivalent.

9 Podolinsky His main point was that the total kcal per hectare harvested increased when we put in more energy in agriculture in the form of human work and work of animals directed by humans. Agriculture was a producer of energy. He did not foresee that the energy input into agriculture would increase so much. He sent his work to Marx in 1880.

10 Podolinsky Podolinsky also mentioned the difference between using the flow of solar energy and the stock of energy in coal. The task of labour was to increase the accumulation of solar energy on earth rather than the simple transformation into work of energy already accumulated on earth. Work done with coal was inevitably accompanied by a great dissipation of heat-energy into space. The energy productivity of a coalminer was much larger than that a farmer could obtain, but this energy surplus from coal was transitory – he wrote.

11 Engels’ reaction to Podolinsky “if one chooses, one can translate into a physical language (ins Physikalische übersetzen) the old economic fact that all industrial producers have to live from the products of agriculture, cattle raising, hunting,and fishing – but there is hardly much to be gained from doing so”. Engels also wrongly wrote that “the energy value of a hammer, a screw or a needle calculated according to the costs of production is an impossible quantity”, concluding: “In my opinion it is absolutely impossible to try and express economic relations in physical magnitudes”.

12 A missed chance Engels’ negative reaction to Podolinsky’s work, and Marx’s silence from 1880 to the end of his life in 1883 may be seen as a missed change for an ecological-energetics Marxism. Actually Podolinsky’s work is relevant not only in the Marxist context.

13 A tradition of thought, Vernadsky Podolinsky’s work on energy and agriculture received Vernadsky’s approval. In a section of La Géochimie (1924) Vernadsky wrote about several authors (Felix Auerbach, John Joly) who explained life as a process which used energy and reversed or slowed down the dissipation of energy. He then added a memorable phrase: Podolinsky had studied the energetics of life and tried to apply his findings to the study of the economy (Vernadsky, 1924: 334-5).

14 H.T. Odum’s “farming with petroleum”, 1970 Since the 1940s, ecologists have published on the flow of energy in ecosystems. There was a Russian tradition before that. Raymond Lindeman's classic paper on energy flow in ecosystems of 1942, helped by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, at Yale Univ.

15 Arguments in favour of the peasantry Via Campesina is a peasant and small farmer International. Members: MST in Brazil etc, famous activists Rafael Alegría, José Bové, Joao Pedro Stedile… 17 April, first time there is a Peasants’ Day. Main objetive: Food sovereignty is the right of individuals and governments to choose the way they produce and consume food while respecting our livelihoods, and policies that support this choice.

16 Via Campesina and energy in agriculture “Faced with global warming, false solutions are promoted (such as agrofuels from monocultures including tree plantations), which undermine food sovereignty. In fact, industrial agriculture is one of the main drivers of climate change, carrying food around the world, imposing industrial forms of production (mechanization, intensification, use of agrochemicals, monoculture...), destroying biodiversity and its ability to capture carbon, transforming agriculture from a producer of energy into an energy consumer”.

17 Agrofuels Via Campesina is aware that agrofuels have a low EROI. Via Campesina is aware that agriculture has become a “consumer” of energy and not a “producer” of energy. They say that feeding cars instead of people is insanity. This is remarkable in a peasant movement that should be pleased with the increased demand of agricultural products for the new agrofuel market.

18 Via Campesina: solutions * Small scale agriculture, which is labor intensive and uses little energy and can actually help stop the effects of climate change. * A genuine agrarian reform to strengthen small-scale agriculture, promote food production as the primary land use, and consider food as a basic human right that should not be treated as a commodity. * Local food production that ends the unnecessary transport of food and ensure that what comes to our table is safe, fresh and nutritious. * Stop patterns of production and consumption that promote waste and unnecessary consumption by a minority of humanity, while hundreds of millions of people still suffer hunger and deprivation.

19 In summary Via Campesina does not quote Pimentel, nor Podolinsky, does not even quote Martinez- Alier or anybody else. Via Campesina clearly explains in its documents that the EROI of agriculture has decreased (not using -yet- the acronym), and this becomes an argument against agrofuels, one more argument in favour of the peasantry and “food sovereignty”.

20 Not only energy matters, matter matters too (N.Georgescu-Roegen) Via Campesina could use other arguments for Food Sovereignty, e.g. peak Phosphorous. They could also use not only the “pesticide threadmill” but the “transgenic threadmill” (R.Binimelis et al, in Geoforum, 2009, referring to newly developed resistance to Glyphosate from Sorghum halepense, a weed, in Argentina´s soybean fields).

21 A postcript on Guano, Liebig, Marx, and Neo-Malthusianism Marx and Engels were one generation younger than the agricultural chemists (Liebig, , Boussingault, ) who published their researches on the cycles of plant nutrients (phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium), influenced by the threat of decreasing agricultural yields and the wholesale imports of guano after 1840mainly from Peru. The analyses of the composition of guano, and also of other manures and fertilizers well known to farmers (bones, for instance), laid the foundations for agricultural chemistry.

22 Stoffwechsel Marx found Liebig’s writings interesting because because - he described the natural conditions of agricultural fertility and their undermining by capitalist agriculture - he foresaw the development of the productive forces by the fertilizer industry. This was useful for the polemics against Malthus.

23 Marx and Malthus Marx wrote to Engels on 13 February 1866 that Liebig’s agricultural chemistry was more important for the discussion on decreasing returns than all the economists put together. This must be interpreted in this sense: the economists talked about decreasing returns in the intensive margin but these could be overcome by fertilizers.

24 Was Marx right in dismissing decreasing returns? It would seen so, but energy accounting of agriculture shows that there is a decreasing efficiency in the use of energy in modern agriculture. Pimentel’s work of 1973 helped the birth of ecological economics. From a physical point of view, modern agriculture was less productive.

25 Was Marx right in attacking Malthus? Yes, in a way. (Malthus thought that improving the situation of the poor was counterproductive). No, because Marxists did not support bottom-up, feminist Neo-Malthusianism of the 1900s as much as they should have (e.g. Emma Goldman…). Cf. Francis Ronsin, La grève des ventres: Propaganda néo-malthusienne et baisse de la natalité en France, XIXe–XXe siècles (Paris: Aubier, 1980


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