Friday, October 14, 2005

That Food Problem

Recent articles and personal observations have once again got me contemplating the issue of agriculture and food production. The simple fact of the matter is that virtually everyone today is dependent on a food system that is built on an unsustainable foundation. This sobering problem has been well documented by a number of forward-thinking researchers over the past few years, with warning signs now beginning to appear.

One of the best articles was Eating Fossil Fuels. Others have been published that confirmed or reiterated the seriousness of the situation.

The question is what the heck are we going to do about it? Our whole agricultural cultivation and allocation system has been severely distorted by cheap energy and big business so much so, that any change before a crisis will run right into economic (and some cases legal) road blocks. Shifting to past or alternative forms of cultivation at this point will at least will raise eyebrows. More likely, the low-cost, high-volume demands of today’s food distributors will force prospective farmers (if they want to have any hope of surviving) into higher-cost distribution networks. These alternative networks—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s), direct selling to restaurants or one of the larger organic food processors—do make non-conventional agricultural practices possible at this time. This arrangement comes at a cost. Unlike the conventional arrangements that result in a flood of caloric bounty, the non-conventional players occupy little more than a niche in the global supermarket.

This leaves the non-conventional (organic or otherwise) agricultural players open to the criticism that they little more than an upper-class source of food and not a viable option for feeding the masses. Tom Philpott, a small-scale, non-conventional farmer (Maverick Farms) describes it succinctly.

Welcome to the era of roast farmer. Micro-farms dot the areas outside metropolises, producing hand-picked, highly nutritious, and pungent microgreens to be plopped on lawyers', accountants', and high-tech professionals' plates for astronomical prices. Meanwhile, the people who staff the vast services economy get the dreck served up by thriving companies like Smithfield Foods.

He explains as follows:

The problem is essentially structural. Small-scale farming is labor-intensive. We charge chefs $20 a pound for salad greens; but our produce is meticulously hand-picked and rinsed, "graded in the field," which means chefs can take our greens from the bag to the plate without culling bad leaves. From a business perspective, it's a bad model. Despite our $40 dinners and $20 bags of greens, no one here gets paid a dime beyond room and board. We'd be much better off selling the farm and buying a McDonald's franchise.
The labor-intensive nature of non-conventional agricultural systems is one aspect that big Ag never fails to belittle in their quest to deem organic, localized or hand-grown cultivation as unfit to feed humanity. How can we hope to feed the masses with an agricultural system that is expensive, labor intensive and not easily scaled up is a question frequently pointed at conventional agriculture’s detractors and opponents.

What Big Ag and most others fail to realize is how much the use of fossil energy distorts the economic playing field to their advantage without assessing any sort of cost to their use to the end user. It really is an unfair comparison on economic terms. The small scale organic farmer has to utilize natural processes (intercropping, composting, etc) along with significant amounts of human labor to produce a relatively small yield. The large scale corporate farmer can substitute out labor and replace it with capital investments that can be financed over a longer period of time (and written off in taxes). That capital equipment for the most part is powered by fossil fuels, a form of energy that historically been sold for far below its true value (when compared to a similar value of human energy) and without any consideration to its external costs (such as the pollution created or military costs required to protect its access). The picture does not improve at the farm gate. Huge processors and distribution firms work together to exact the best deals (read: lowest prices) while the retailing sector is locked in a race to the bottom in the quest to sell the most amount of food for the lowest price. Government action further distorts the market by providing huge subsidies to the largest producers, removing the last vestiges of sanity to the market place.

There is no way a small scale farmer could participate in this system, which is why most have either left the profession or grew to become big agricultural producers in their own right. Only by dropping out of the system altogether and alternatively marketing their products have some small farmers survived.

What is worse though, is conventional agriculture’s seemingly complete ignorance of the true role of energy in the production of their products. Auto makers are at least cognizant of the fact that more efficient cars and trucks will have to be produced in the future. No such contemplation is being undertaken when it comes to reducing the amount of energy required to produce and transport food. There does not even seem to be any concern to major producers that available energy may begin to become increasingly scarce, leading to shortages in key farming inputs (fuel, fertilizer, pesticides). That in-turn, could reduce yields or leave crops rotting in the fields due to an inability to ship products from where they are produced to where they are processed and consumed.

The long history of stable food supplies has bred complacency among most people in the world that famine and scarcity are a thing of the past or relegated to hard luck countries like Niger. Recent evidence argues otherwise. The fact of the matter is that energy shortages have triggered food crises in just the past decade in such places like North Korea and Cuba when their source of fuel was cut off. What’s more, when you look back into history, entire civilizations have fallen for a lack of food brought on by systematic agricultural failure.

This is really frightening to think about.

Most of us are dependant on an unsustainable system in which even the chief players are unwittingly perpetuating. At the same time, the attempts underway that seek to alter this arrangement mostly cater to a limited number of the well-to-do. A far greater effort is needed truly rectify the situation.

To many, a wholesale restructuring of the food production system is what is called for, from initial cultivation to human consumption and all steps in between. Such efforts would see most settlements grow as much of their own food as possible, utilizing low-energy (no mechanization or chemicals), labor-intensive methods. The crops produced would be processed, stored and consumed close to where they were grown. The average diet would shift from being meat and animal product dominant to more vegetarian in nature, though smaller animals (chicken, rabbits) and a limited number of grass-fed cows would continue for some time to come. People would eat whatever was in season in their area and can or dry the rest for later. If out-of-area crops were desired, the use of green houses would be required. From a land use perspective, more areas near to or within settlements would be put into production. Zoning requirements would be loosened to encourage small farm sizes (five acres or smaller) rather than today’s behemoths. Quite conceivably, some land reform would have to be undertaken as well. The whole marketing and distribution system should be shuttered in favor of local farmers, millers, bakers, canners and vendors.

Start revamping the agricultural system ahead of the peak and just maybe, most of us will survive. Not live well, mind you, but survive. Hard questions will have to be asked of the residents of the Desert Southwest and other arid climates, but other than that, most of us could make it. Failure to revamp the system will condemn many to starvation.

I just do not see any other any other possibility to maintain the status quo arrangement, absent a newer, better form of energy.

Unfortunately, I do not believe big Ag willing to take themselves out of business before there is a crisis, nor do I envision government attempting to step in to force a change of any kind. This is one element of civilization that requires proactive-top down intervention to initiate in order to be successful on a regional or national basis. Similar efforts at a smaller scale would probably also be successful, though their long term future would be subject to how their neighboring settlements fared. After a crisis sets in it is too late.

Our whole way of feeding ourselves has to be reformed and soon. We can live without the cheap imported Chinese crap. We can survive without the ability to take winter vacations to the Caribbean. Recreational vehicles are not essential to our existence. Food, on the other hand is vital. Shouldn’t this be our first priority?


Blogger AJ said...

Cuba got through it - after some really terrible years aka the Special Period - and now grow food EVERYWHERE. rooftops, former parking lots, former city parks, vacant lots. Chicken and rabbit coops on balconies, etc. The diet is pretty vegetarian, and they focus on preventive medicine. It's not paradise, but it shows that, at least in reasonable numbers, we can survive this. With some planning, not too many people will starve - but we won't get through this without at least some "die-off."

10/14/2005 8:25 PM  
Blogger monkeygrinder said...

This problem will strike us in full effect after this winter. The lack of natural gas will directly affect food production in the next grow season.

I'd buy a years supply of food, if I were me.

10/15/2005 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Joerg Daehn said...

Excellent post! But unfortunately nobody in control will read it or listen. That's our dilemma. We know but anybody else is blissfully ignorant.

10/17/2005 3:32 AM  
Blogger nulinegvgv said...

A top down approach towards restructuring our agricultural system won't work. ADM, Monsanto and the like will not allow it. The reason it was possible in Cuba was because they have a one party police state that dictated change. Even if that happens here in America, it won’t happen until we already have a problem. I don’t think a dictatorial regime in control of the entire United States could effectively implement the types of reforms seen in Cuba. We are a much larger nation.

As is the case with many of the problems of the post-peak oil era, we will run head first into the wall before we'll be willing to deal with the problem. It is important therefore to have as much of the possible solution worked out ahead of time so as to be able to present the idea(s) as soon as people are willing to listen i.e. after their first few trips to an empty grocery store. This is not to say that we shouldn't lean on our local elected officials now but it's reasonable not to expect much cooperation until the food crisis is upon us.

So how do we have the answers ready? We must begin to experiment with and support local production in all its forms. I think it's silly and perhaps foolish for anyone who understands the coming post-peak crisis not to be growing a "peak garden". You don't have to plow under your entire front lawn and plant corn but it makes sense to begin to understand the natural cycles and systems that will dominate the food production of the future. The more you practice the better you'll be at growing your own food and the better you’ll be able to explain the processes to others. Also important is support of local farmers. CSA organizations do not have to be complicated. Even just buying most of your fruits and vegetables from the farmers market will help those who are already producing locally to be able to survive. Ultra-local is where I think the most growth is possible right now. By ultra-local I mean neighborhood gardens. You can grow a fair amount of food on an undeveloped ½ acre lot down the street. Involving your neighbors will spread out the workload and provide an excellent educational tool with which to begin a dialog concerning local food production. When I read about Cuba’s response this neighborhood approach seems to have been crucial in their effective response to the shift.

10/17/2005 9:41 AM  
Blogger Big Gav said...

I found this article to be a better example of the oil (or gas) to food problem - "The Oil We Eat" by Richard Manning, who is an excellent writer.

One of the pieces that convinced me peak oil was worth worrying about...

10/20/2005 6:56 AM  

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