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wildhobo (Agricultural) (OP)
30 Aug 99 21:41
What charcterizes best today the relationship between sustainable agriculture and chemistry ? What is the most significant progress made in the US during the last year in the substitution of organic resources for inorganic substances ?
gvd (Civil)
23 Feb 00 18:51
Most of the sustainable agg techniques in use today were around many years before modern chemical/high tech methods. Crop rotation, cover cropping, mechanical cultivation, etc. Don't look for green revolution type progress 'cause it doesn't exist except maybe for drip irrigation which saves water and nutrient resources by concentrating them where they are needed instead of supporting weeds and other pests. IMO there is no relationship between organic agg and chemistry. Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which attempts to minimize chemical use is IMO a land grant university/chemical industry conspiracy to make people think they care.
goldmandm (Agricultural)
14 Jun 00 9:27
How interesting. Drip irrigation is the only exception you cite, but the very material drip tubing is made from is a plastic. This is not only the product of chemistry, but it is a non biodegradable material (this should change soon with the new plastics coming from corn).  I believe the contributions of chemistry and other forms of technology to agriculture, even organic agriculture, are poorly understood and quite under rated. These contributions should be judged by the true assets (healthier plants, soil and people) and drawbacks (pollution, waste proliferation, toxicity issues, etc.) not by whether them come from
Helpful Member!  wildhobo (Agricultural) (OP)
17 Jun 00 0:42
The original question sought to define the relationship between chemistry and sustainable agriculture. Both terms are evidently subject to varied interpretations but the second is perhaps more likely to arouse controversy because of the potential impact that the practice of sustainable agriculture has upon well established sources of income for vast numbers of people. I have defined "sustainable agriculture" as that sector of science and industry of biological substances, from the molecular level to the finished product, derived from natural and organic sources, including also substances used as substitutes for those derived from non-renewable, usually inorganic resources.   The last part of this definition was added not because the antecedent part was insufficient to define the limits of the sector, but because I felt it necessary to emphasize what I thought was its salient characteristic, the use of agriculture as a vector to a stable state where exhaustible inorganic resources are gradually replaced by virtually inexhaustible organic ones.

Plainly, agriculture may be practised in a manner such that it harms the environment and depletes its resources. Just as plainly, if not more so, chemistry can be exploited in ways that have the same effect. Environmentally sensitive chemistry and agriculture are relatively new sciences, arising from an increasing awareness and sensitivity among even the least educated people, that quality of life and eventually sheer survival depend upon a sound environment. Unfortunately those sciences have been slow to yield profits for investors and are somewhat mysterious, and therefore suspect, to many.  As a result, these sciences have been characterized by marked differences of opinion between those who make their living from them and those who perceive they are otherwise affected by them. People continue to be polarized, no matter how much lip service may be paid to the need for preserving the environment.

So as better to focus the issues, the qualifying adjective "sustainable" was intended to mean that the activity to which it was attached was one that could be carried on virtually indefinitely, maximizing significant benefits for mankind and minimizing significant damage to the planet. What is significant is evidently a matter to discuss, but the goal should be clear. It was therefore my intent, as a person interested in reconciling these polarized positions and move forward on environmental issues, to garner comments from the community at large, from people in all walks of life, professional or not, using a medium which hopefully will not look threatening to anyone, regarding the relationship between sustainable chemistrty and sustainable agriculture.
Helpful Member!  DanCo9 (Mechanical)
10 Oct 00 9:36
A good position.  I have a 50 acre farm, my goal is to establish a sustainable system on it using a combination of animals, tree crops, and field crops, including pasture. (but first, I have to work to pay for it, no homestead act here anymore )  I have just read a book titled simply "Organic Farming and Gardening"  I can't remember the author's name, but can get it.  It was written by a farmer and wife who did just this, in order to minimize the energy inputs to their farm.  One of the examples is a field that has been continuously corn cropped for 12 years (as of publishing, early '80s).  The chemistry involved in maintaining the life of this soil (composting) and to provide enough nitrogen for corn would be very interesting to know.  Taking that type of applied chemistry to the level of common chemistry useage in everything is a worthy challenge.  I am assuming that by 'sustainable chemistry', you mean in almost every chemical application, you desire to invent a minimum energy input system.  The key to most sustainable systems is knowing first what the total energy input is, and where it comes from.  Example: a metal/plastic electric car which uses massive amounts of petroleum to manufacture, or the composite blades on a windmill which take more energy to make than the windmill will produce in 4 years. (a facetious example, not based on real data....)  Many times we rationalize the devices we use, because we get time and energy confused.  We think that if we save time to complete a process, we are saving energy, no matter what the real inputs end up being.  We also tend to forget about the ecological efficiency of human inputs.  Our whole system is concerned with eliminating drudgery or hard labor in people's lives, forgetting that muscles were made to do work.  So we invent machines to take the hard labor away from us, only to invent machines to excercise our muscles after work.  Now there is an interesting excercise in sustainable chemistry .....go figure.
DanCo9 (Mechanical)
10 Oct 00 9:50
I didn't actually address the original question of what has been done in the last year.  I would suggest that you go to www.countrysidemag.com , or do some searching for sustainable living/simple living groups.  The progress to be made will not be in technology, except to step back and apply human labor in good work to produce tools and food with sustainable energy inputs.  In other words, the best progress is in the homesteading communities, and their advancement through the internet in order to help each other, establishing more local production of food, tools, and services to sustain local economies and local ecology.  To expect sustainable chemistry on a global scale by peer-reviewed specialists is actually impossible.  Sustainable systems can only act locally, since to build a global system requires global transportation, which must be (by nature of the concentrated power levels for engines) provide by hydrocarbon fuels.  We can produce some minute amount of the current demand in the form of alcohol, but not anything like the economy state is demanding.  
wildhobo (Agricultural) (OP)
10 Oct 00 17:27
I appreciate the reply (particularly that part relating to what has occurred in this field during the last year) but my question was intended to elicit a specific response to a common criticism of the sustainability issue, namely, that sustainability is illusory, that absolutely everything we do, no matter how careful the husbanding of resources, is a zero sum game.  It was designed to find support for the idea that agriculture and chemistry can so be oriented as to demonstrate that sustainability is not only good for mankind but an achievable reality with great promise.
 The example of the electric/plastic car is a symptom of the criticism. Why bother to invent, people say, and develop an electric car, if it will only result in a shifting of resource utilization and not a savings. It goes on to say that, if a zillion cars use up a gadzillion barrels of gasoline, then building gasoline-free cars to run on electricity will only shift the use of fossil resources from the likes of Exxon and Shell to companies set up to supply fuel to the power companies. The idea is that any drop in the price of oil due to a lesser consumption by car drivers will be offset by the greater demand for the same or other fossil fuels by the generating companies. Therefore, the argument goes, why bother ?

Why bother, inded ? To begin with, the criticism fails to address the potential savings resulting from a more efficient use of the fossil resources. This begs the question: can one be more efficient in producing electricity to provide the power to move electric cars than in producing gasoline to move internal combustion engine cars ?  I should like to see that question ansered positively.
Second, the criticism ignores the possibility that sources other than fossil fuel may be developed to create electricity. Nuclear power has a bad name these days but who is to say that new technology will never fully address the concerns surrounding the production of nuclear energy ? Who's to say that fusion power will never exist or that solar energy will always remain a miniscule factor in the total energy production.  I should like to see answers to those questions too.
Third, the criticism ignores the possibility that the production of centralized power from fossil fuels should result in tighter control of emissions. Despite many advances in anti-pollution system technology, cars are still one of the main polluters, and because of their ubiquity and fragmented ownership, are they not the least susceptible to control and therefore the least likely to yield a major reduction  opportunity in the future ?  If we are able to shift the cause of pollution from individual cars to the energy providers, can we not regulate and therefore better control such pollution ?

I believe it is not a zero sum game. I believe there are things that can be done to make energy consumption not only less polluting but also more efficient. Who's to say whether we are half-way up the efficiency curve or at any other point ?  Whether or not efficiency improvements are doomed to failure because, after all, fossil fuels are in limited supply and will run out, no matter how efficient we may be with them is a question stemming from defeatist attitude I cannot accept,  since it impliedly rejects as ultimate folly any attempt to create energy use efficiency.  Sustainability does not necessarily have to be 100% effective at the start. Evidently, the discovery of an inexhaustible, or near-inexhaustible source of energy would be an ultimate goal of sustainability but just slowing down the consumption of fossil fuel is also sustainability, albeit somewhat incomplete and temporary.
I believe similar arguments may be made with respect to agriculture and its sister science, chemistry.  Human ingenuity can grapple with pollution problems stemming from unregulated agricultural practices. The production of biomass on an ongoing, perpetual basis is an example that comes to mind.  The recycling of animal excrement, in place of its raw disposal into the environment, is another.  Sound fishery practices, as opposed to unregulated depletion, are a third.  Centuries old practices such as reforestation and crop rotation can be optimized. And so on.
  Intelligent chemistry can guide agriculture so that it also becomes more sustainable.  That guidance can take the form of creating agricultural outlets - new products - that chemistry can use in one of more of its myriad forms so that agriculture no longer need to be solely oriented toward the production of food and textiles, but can extend far more than has so far been attempted into other fields, such as pharmaceuticals, lubricants, surfactants, fuels, adhesives, preservatives.  

So, I believe all that but there are a lot of skeptics and I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt, any of these beliefs. I also believe the proof exists and chose chemistry and agriculture as just one battlefield where it may be found. This then was the "relationship" about which I sought comments.
DanCo9 (Mechanical)
11 Oct 00 9:43
I am not one for conspiracy theories, as I think that most government conspiracies usually are just the symptom of some bozo in a free money-for-nothing job trying to cover his own ass.  However, if you are interested, you can go to www.infinite-energy.com and get the latest scoop on the new energy situation and the stubbornness of the peer-reviewed scientific community (especially MIT et al).  There is hope for energy for the future.  We just have to live long enough for science to advance "funeral by funeral".  
  If you want proof that a sustainable system can exist, you just have to look at the previous eras in Earth's history.  Living simply is not necessarily primitive.  It is what you make of it.  People can get along with a LOT less entertainment.  Problem is, they are taught to waste so much.  If you could convince people that thinking and hearing your own thoughts isn't a bad thing, maybe you might get some usefulness out of them.  Until then, if you want to educate people into conservation or sustainability, you better make it a TV show or a video game, or you won't get their attention.  If you subscribe to the expansionist theory, and want something to pump your ego, go to the space frontier foundation and join up.  It's o.k. to waste resources because there is an infinite amount in space.

Now, as far as what you believe about chemistry guiding agriculture, well, you have to decide where the leadership lies, where the needs are, and who will determine the course of action.  I am a pessimist (not a skeptic).  I believe that our food production system is on thin ice by virtue of the massive amounts of input energy used (natural gas to produce nitrogen, petro for equipment and heat and processing).  Shortages of safe food in the future will cause more people to seek out government intervention.  Government intervention will concentrate more and more production into centralized facilities, accelerating the decay because of the rule by 'The Economy'.  This will exacerbate the problem of food recalls, large scale contamination, and disenchantment with the system.  The ownership of people by the economy will cause them to be unable to cope by taking time to get involved.  Sooner or later, someone will figure out that they can control the world through the food supply (the more centralized, the easier it is to do), or destroy it and put an end to the 'capitalist beast'.   In those terms, the food supply becomes an issue of national security, and we should really be concerned with maintaining the rural communities, not by moving urban jobs to rural areas, but by recreating the rural resources of human, solar (life), and ecological chemistry.
If you want to look for the relationship between chemistry and agriculture, don't overlook the soft white underbelly of people looking for an easy job.  Few people want to actually work hard anymore, including me.  I am getting too old for this crap .  But, how much of the system of seeking better pay or automating factories is done to save "real" energy, and how much is done for "the economics".  Keep in mind how short-sighted most economists are, and you find very little being done to truly save energy.
wildhobo (Agricultural) (OP)
11 Oct 00 13:13
That is too pessimistic for me, but even if realistic, shouldn't we at least try to stem the tide with "sustainable" solutions. Thank you for your referrals, I'll do some more study and come back later perhaps.
DanCo9 (Mechanical)
11 Oct 00 13:37
Have fun reading.  Another fun one is www.dieoff.org for us pessimists.

If a path to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst.
Thomas Hardy
What becomes of the surplus of human life? It is either, 1st. destroyed by infanticide, as among the Chinese and Lacedemonians; or 2d. it is stifled or starved, as among other nations whose population is commensurate to its food; or 3d. it is consumed by wars and endemic diseases; or 4th. it overflows, by emigration, to places where a surplus of food is attainable.
James Madison, 1791

Most people can't handle my pessimism because they don't want to believe that there is a low ebb to the flow of humanity every once in a while.  We haven't changed the fundamental nature of people, only the economy changes, and people seek different lives than they do in poor economies.  Morals are expendable.

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