Living Dangerously: Food and the Future


Listen up! Year 2008 is going to be a difficult one, for reasons I have touched on in recent editions. We face unstable weather arising from global warming and unstable economies arising from speculation and resource depletion. Accompanying this is antidemocratic entrenchment in the U.S. and a reliance on threats, repression, and war as fundamental policies.

Locally, most food co-ops are thriving. They are a present example and a possible future. But the surrounding crises are deep, and the ruling direction promises further disaster.

Digging the hole deeper, the U.S. Senate rejected an opportunity to improve the outlook for agriculture and approved a $100 billion farm bill that perpetuates destructive commodity subsidies. Advocates of cleaner food production now have fewer opportunities to make clear to the Washington club just how dire the food and energy situation is and how much we need to transition to more sustainable production.

The present political environment, beyond its façade of democracy, can be summarized by one figure. While huge needs such as health care, pollution abatement, infrastructure improvement, and disaster recovery remain unmet, the current administration will soon have spent at least two trillion (two thousand billion) dollars on armaments and the full costs of war in Iraq (NYT 12/04/07).

On the larger picture of resource depletion, one of the best exponents I have encountered is Richard Heinberg, whose recent book, Peak Everything, is an accessible and well- researched overview.

Following are excerpts from Heinberg’s November 22, 2007 presentation of the Lady Eve Balfour Lecture, an annual Soil Association event named after the British pioneer of organic agriculture. (Footnotes omitted; Heinberg’s MuseLetter, and more at and

What will we eat as the oil runs out?

Our global food system faces a crisis of unprecedented scope, which threatens to imperil the lives of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of human beings. It consists of four simultaneously colliding dilemmas, all arising from our relatively recent pattern of dependence on depleting fossil fuels.

  • The first dilemma consists of the direct impacts on agriculture of higher oil prices: increased costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs.
  • The second is an indirect consequence of high oil prices—the increased demand for biofuels, which is resulting in farmland being turned from food production to fuel production, thus making food more costly.
  • The third dilemma consists of the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events caused by fuel-based greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is the greatest environmental crisis of our time. However, fossil fuel depletion complicates climate change enormously, and if we fail to address either problem properly the consequences will be dire.
  • Finally comes the degradation or loss of basic natural resources (principally, topsoil and fresh water supplies) as a result of high rates—and unsustainable methods—of production stimulated by decades of cheap energy.

Each of these problems is developing at a somewhat different pace regionally, and each is exacerbated by the continually expanding size of the human population. As these dilemmas collide, the resulting overall food crisis is likely to be profound and unprecedented in scope.

Structural dependency

The end result of chemical fertilizers and powered farm machinery, plus an increased scope in transportation and trade, was not just an enormous leap in crop yields, but a similar explosion of human population, which has grown over six-fold since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

In the process, conventional industrial agriculture has become overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. Approximately ten calories of fossil fuel energy are needed to produce each calorie of food energy in modern industrial agriculture. With globalized trade in food, many regions host human populations larger than local resources alone could possibly support. Those systems of global distribution and trade also rely on oil.

Today, in the industrialized world, the frequency of famine that our ancestors knew is hard to imagine. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is a far more widespread concern than hunger. The average mega-supermarket stocks an impressive array of exotic foods from across the globe, and even staples are typically trucked or shipped from hundreds of miles away.

All of this would be well and good if it were sustainable, but the fact that nearly all of this recent abundance depends on depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels whose burning emits climate-altering carbon dioxide gas means that the current situation is not sustainable. It must and will come to an end.

The worsening oil supply picture

During the past decade a growing chorus of energy analysts has warned of the approach of “Peak Oil,” the time when the global rate of extraction of petroleum will reach a maximum and begin its inevitable decline.

While there is dispute among experts as to when the peak will occur, there is none regarding its actuality. The global peak is merely the cumulative result of production peaks in individual oilfields and oil-producing nations, and these mini-peaks are occurring at an increasing rate.

Today, the majority of the world’s oil-producing nations are seeing reduced output. In 2006, BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy reported declines in 27 of the 51 producing nations listed. In some instances, these declines will be temporary and are occurring because of lack of investment in production technology or domestic political problems. But in most instances the decline results from factors of geology: while older oil fields continue to yield crude, beyond a certain point it becomes impossible to maintain existing flow rates by any available means. As a result, over time there are fewer nations in the category of oil exporters and more nations in the category of oil importers.

Meanwhile, global rates of discovery of new oilfields have been declining since 1964. These two trends-a growing preponderance of past-peak producing nations, and a declining success rate for exploration-by themselves suggest that the world peak may be near.

Clearly, the timing of the global peak is crucial. If it happens soon, or if in fact it already has occurred, the consequences will be devastating. Oil has become the world’s foremost energy resource. There is no ready substitute, and decades will be required to wean societies from it.

An authoritative new study by the Energy Watch Group of Germany concludes that global crude production hit its maximum level in 2006 and has already begun its gradual decline. Indeed, the past two years have seen sustained high prices for oil, a situation that should provide a powerful incentive to increase production wherever possible. Yet actual aggregate global production of conventional petroleum has stagnated during this time; the record monthly total for crude was achieved in May 2005, 30 months ago.

During these past two years, as oil prices have soared, food prices have done so as well. Farmers now face steeply increasing costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs. However, the linkage between fuel and food prices is more complicated than this, and there are other factors entirely separate from petroleum costs that have impacted food prices.

To be sure, higher food prices are good for farmers-assuming that some of the increase in price actually translates to higher income for growers. This is indeed the case for the poorest farmers, who have never adopted industrial methods. But for many others, the higher prices paid for food simply reflect higher production costs. Meanwhile, it is the urban poor who are impacted the worst.

Impact of biofuels

One factor influencing food prices arises from the increasing incentives for farmers worldwide to grow biofuel crops rather than food crops. Ethanol and biodiesel can be produced from a variety of crops including maize [corn], soy, rapeseed, sunflower, cassava, sugar cane, palm, and jatropha. As the price of oil rises, many farmers are finding that they can produce more income from their efforts by growing these crops and selling them to a biofuels plant, than by growing food crops either for their local community or for export.

Already nearly 20 percent of the US maize crop is devoted to making ethanol, and that proportion is expected to rise to one quarter, based solely on existing projects-in-development and government mandates. Last year US farmers grew 14 million tons of maize for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of corn.

Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, has said: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its two billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.” This is an opinion no longer being voiced just by environmentalists. In its twice-yearly report on the world economy, released

October 17, the International Monetary Fund noted: “The use of food as a source of fuel may have serious implications for the demand for food if the expansion of biofuels continues.” And earlier this month, Oxfam warned the EU that its policy of substituting ten percent of all auto fuel with biofuels threatened to displace poor farmers. Jean Ziegler, a UN special rapporteur, went so far as to call the biofuel trade “a crime against humanity.”

Impact of environmental degradation

Beyond the push for biofuels, the food crisis is also being driven by extreme weather events and environmental degradation. The phrase “global warming” implies only the fact that the world’s average temperature increases by a degree or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general (hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, hail storms)-in short, unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s national production for some crops. We have embarked on a century in which, increasingly, freakish weather is normal.

Irrigation is expanding fastest in China and India. Irrigated agriculture around the globe now accounts for almost 90 percent of global freshwater consumption, despite representing only 18 percent of global cropland. In addition to drawing down aquifers and surface water sources, it also degrades water quality, as salts in soils are mobilized, and as fertilizers and pesticides leach into aquifers and streams.

These problems all interact and compound one another. For example, soil degradation produces growing shortages of water, since soil and vegetation act as a sponge that holds and gradually releases water. Soil degradation also worsens climate change as increased evaporation triggers more extreme weather.

This month the UN Environment Program concluded that the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals, and fish stocks are all in “inexorable decline.” Much of this decline is due to agriculture, which constitutes the greatest single source of human impact on the biosphere.

In the face of all these daunting challenges, the world must produce more food every year to keep up with population growth.

What is the solution?

To get to the heart of the crisis, we need a reform of agriculture more fundamental than anything seen in many decades. In essence, we need an agriculture that does not require fossil fuels.

The idea is not new. The aim of substantially or entirely removing fossil fuels from agriculture is implicit in organic farming in all its various forms and permutations-including ecological agriculture, biodynamics, permaculture, biointensive farming, and natural farming. All also have in common a prescription for the reduction or elimination of tillage, and the reduction or elimination of reliance on mechanized farm equipment. Nearly all of these systems rely on increased amounts of human labor, and on greater application of place-specific knowledge of soils, microorganisms, weather, water, and interactions between plants, animals, and humans.

Critics of organic or biological agriculture have always contended that chemical-free and less-mechanized forms of food production are incapable of feeding the burgeoning human population. This view is increasingly being challenged.

A recent survey of studies, by Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley, titled “Can Organic Farming Feed the World?” concluded: “From the studies mentioned above and from an increasing body of case studies, it is becoming evident that organic farming does not result in either catastrophic crop losses due to pests nor in dramatically reduced yields.”

Moreover, it is clear that ecological agriculture could help directly to address the dilemmas we have been discussing. Regarding water, organic production can help by building soil structure, thus reducing the need for irrigation. And with no petrochemical runoff, water quality is not degraded. Soil erosion and land degradation can be halted and even reversed: by careful composting, organic farmers have demonstrated the ability to build humus at many times the natural rate. Climate change can be addressed, by keeping carbon molecules in the soil and in forests and grasslands.

What will be needed

How might we actually accomplish this comprehensive transformation of world agriculture? Some clues are offered by the example of a society that has already experienced and dealt with a fossil-fuel famine.

In the late 1980s, farmers in Cuba were highly reliant on cheap fuels and petrochemicals imported from the Soviet Union, using more agrochemicals per acre than their U.S. counterparts. In 1990, as the Soviet empire collapsed, Cuba lost those imports and faced an agricultural crisis.

Officials broke up large state-owned farms, offered land to farming families, and encouraged the formation of small agricultural co-ops. Cuban farmers began employing oxen as a replacement for the tractors they could no longer afford to fuel. Cuban scientists began investigating biological methods of pest control and soil fertility enhancement. The government sponsored widespread education in organic food production, and the Cuban people adopted a mostly vegetarian diet out of necessity. Salaries for agricultural workers were raised, in many cases to above the levels of urban office workers. Urban gardens were encouraged in parking lots and on public lands, and thousands of rooftop gardens appeared. Small food animals such as chickens and rabbits began to be raised on rooftops as well. As a result of these efforts, Cuba was able to avoid what might otherwise have been a severe famine.

If the rest of the world does not plan for a reduction in fossil fuel use in agriculture, its post-peak-oil agricultural transition may be far less successful than was Cuba’s.

Because ecological organic farming methods are often dramatically more labor- and knowledge-intensive than industrial agriculture, their adoption will require an economic transformation of societies. The transition to a non-fossil-fuel food system will take time. Nearly every aspect of the process by which we feed ourselves must be redesigned. And, given the likelihood that global oil peak will occur soon, this transition must occur at a forced pace, backed by the full resources of national governments.

Without cheap transportation fuels we will have to reduce the amount of food transportation that occurs and make necessary transportation more efficient. This implies increased local food self-sufficiency. It also implies problems for large cities that have been built in arid regions capable of supporting only small populations from their regional resource base. In some cases, relocation of people on a large scale may be necessary. We will need to grow more food in and around cities.

Successful traditional agriculture requires social networks and intergenerational sharing of skills and knowledge. We need not only more agricultural workers, but a rural culture that makes farming a rewarding way of life capable of attracting young people. Farming requires knowledge and experience, so we will need education for a new generation of farmers; but only some of this education can be generic-much of it must of necessity be locally appropriate.

It will be necessary as well to break up the corporate mega-farms that produce so much of today’s cheap food. Industrial agriculture implies an economy of scale that will be utterly inappropriate and unworkable for post-industrial food systems. Thus land reform will be required in order to enable smallholders and farming co-ops to work their own plots.

Finally, given carrying-capacity limits, food policy must include population policy. We must encourage smaller families by means of economic incentives and improve the economic and educational status of women in poorer countries.

All of this constitutes a gargantuan task. But the alternatives-doing nothing or attempting to solve our food-production problems by applying mere techno-fixes-will almost certainly lead to dire consequences. All of the worrisome trends mentioned earlier would intensify to the point that the human carrying capacity of Earth would be degraded significantly and perhaps permanently.

Organic farmers and their organizations have been promoting some of the needed policies for decades in a piecemeal fashion. Now, however, there is an acute need for a clearly formulated, comprehensive, alternative national and global food policy, and there is little time to communicate and implement it. It is up to the organic movement to proactively seek out policy makers and promote this coherent alternative, just as it is up to representatives of government at all levels to listen.

The transition to a fossil-fuel-free food system does not constitute a distant utopian proposal. It is an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity at all levels of society. What we do now will determine how many will be eating, what state of health will be enjoyed by future generations, and whether they will live in a ruined cinder of a world or one that is in the process of being renewed and replenished.


Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

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