Monday, March 28, 2005

Protecting our food supply

On a few occasions Unplanning has discussed the challenges of keeping everyone fed in the future. Currently, agriculture as we know it refers to the use of land and sunshine to convert natural gas and oil into large amounts of edible food at the lowest possible price. In the process, it allowed a wholesale reworking of the rural landscaping as well. With a stable subsidy of cheap energy providing unlimited plant fertilization and easy access to global markets, whole areas became dedicated to supplying a certain commodity in the greatest quantity at the lowest price. Rather than produce a mix of locally consumed products, farmers shifted to growing one of only a handful of locally prevalent cash crops.

You probably already have a general concept of agricultural geography: Iowa corn, Nebraska wheat, Georgia peanuts, Florida Oranges, Louisiana sugar, and California lettuce. The list could just go on and on. Each of those regions had the optimal climate and soils to permit the level of intensification that would give them an edge up over anyone else. The end result would usually be large crop yields and low prices. A few enterprising farmers would try to sell some locally, but most ended up selling to wholesalers for domestic and international sale.

But commodity sales are just half the picture. It is just as important to consider the end use for these products as well. Many are sold to food processor firms for production into pre-packaged convenience goods or sold to livestock operations for animal consumption. Eventually, the (poultry) eggs and the cow milk will be collected with the livestock being sold to meat packers or food processors. The end result is a food system that delivers food to the local grocer from the most economical supplier instead of the nearest. And the average shopper is not the wiser.

However as many of you know, this whole arrangement is predicated on the continued availability of oil and natural gas. Without it, the whole setup falls apart. Remove the energy subsidy and you will lose the ability to:

· artificially supply the soil with nutrients
· kill weeds and pests
· till, sow and harvest large scale yields with limited labor or time inputs.
· dry (certain crops) and ship crops across the country or around the world
· process, package and reship to end retailers anywhere in the US.

To give you an idea of the insanity of the food supply system, milk that I buy in my local grocery store most likely came from a cow in my county. That milk however took a 300 mile trip to a Los Angeles area packager in a diesel powered tanker truck only to get packaged into an individual plastic container and shipped right back nearby grocery store. That cow incidentally, was most likely fed corn grown in Iowa courtesy of natural gas-based fertilizers and shipped out here by diesel pulled rail cars.

This nonsense cannot be sustained. From an energetic standpoint, the modern food supply system is perhaps one of the most wasteful contraptions humans ever came up with. It is only by virtue of economic subsidies and a temporary rush of fossil fuels that this system even works.

Once the subsidies dry up and fuel costs skyrocket out of control, we better have another system ready to go. As suggested in recent posts, mankind needs to shift back to a localized system of production and consumption. We also need to stop moving energy in a linear pattern and return energy (and nutrient flows) to a circular flow.

Instead of growing crops where there is an economic advantage, try growing them close to where they will be consumed. The nearer the better. The movement of locally grown crops to market consumes little energy in the process. But proximity is only part of the solution. Farming itself, must ditch all mechanical implements of production. This step, while radical on its face, must be done. Additionally, agriculture must rid itself of the dependence on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Too much energy, all of it fossil in origin, is embodied in the food that is yielded by their continued use. And that use is ultimately not sustainable.

Now, without fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization how are we going to continue farming sustainable manner without suffering a drastic drop in food availability? Moving to BioIntensive or ecologically synergistic means of production is one option. Use raised bed agriculture instead of row cropping. Utilize small animals for both protein production for you and waste production for fertilizer and compost. Return your wastes whether they are you kitchen scraps or the toilet flushings back for nutrient recovery (albeit not directly back into the food supply). Try to maximize all nutrient or energy flows and eliminate any waste or export out of the local system. (Small quantities may be tolerable). Growing crops in as small of batches that can be consumed by the local residents while staggering the plantings will ensure a steady flow of crops will also help. Practicing climate modifications such as greenhouses or screens can allow the extended or out-of-season production of many plants, while permitting those that ordinarily could not have been grown in that locale to thrive ensuring a more diverse arrangement of locally grown food.

Eliminating mechanization will result in the decrease of the speed of planting and harvesting of row crops. On the other hand, mechanization is not practical with raised bed agriculture. Never the less, the future promises less technology, not more. The number of people engaged in agriculture will have to increase and by a pretty significant margin. Throughout human history, most people engaged in agricultural activities. We simply had no other choice. Human life simply existed courtesy of that slight energetic surplus we glean off of cultivation. And that cultivation occurred primarily by hand and animal traction. In an era of cheap energy it does not make any sense to compete with a machine. When that energy is no longer cheap and is in short supply, the continued use of machines makes little sense, if it is even possible.

Cultivation changes are only part of the solution. Altering what happens with the food once it leaves the farm is just as important. We will have to move away from the model of food packaging and production by conglomerates like Kraft or Morningstar and returning to the local canning and handling of agricultural products. Likewise the proportion of cultivated crops diverted to livestock use needs to decrease. At the moment, a significant proportion of grain production goes to fatten up cows, pigs and other livestock for eventual consumption. This is a poor use of energy.

Changing the food supply system is only half the battle. Changing dietary expectations is equally important. We need to eat fewer calories worth of food and make sure more of them are derived from produce and grains. Meat and dairy can continue to be a part of our diets, however in drastically reduced quantities. Food will also need to be prepared at the time of consumption by the person doing the eating, rather than mass-produced and packaged in factory far away. Our expectations of food preparation, like everything else post petroleum, needs to slow down. Finally, we need to get used to eating what is in season. That may clash with the current arrangement, but the absurdity of flying grapes from or Chile to the US so your average Joe can always eat fresh will vanish once the cheap energy subsidy is removed from our civilization.
We have our work cut out for us. Expecting to continue with the status quo will not cut it. As a civilization we will have to rework our food system or many of us will go hungry waiting for the trucks to keep pulling into the local Albertson’s or Safeway’s loading dock.

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