Peak Food or an Agrarian Ideal?

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. Thomas Jefferson

On March 30th, the Post Carbon Institute released their Food and Farming Transition document.  As I’ve come to expect from this organization, it is a carefully researched and offers both a clear and concise description of the current situation combined with a broad roadmap for a transition to a post fossil fuel food delivery system.  I’ll provide a brief summary, however I would encourage anyone to read the entire document.  You can download a PDF version by clicking here.

The document starts with premise that industrial agriculture and our global food delivery system, both of which are highly dependent on fossil fuels, is patently unsustainable.  We have managed to triple the world’s agricultural output in the last hundred years, but the entire system depends on the exploitation of fossils fuels which are non-renewable and whose extraction rates will eventually peak and decline.

This unprecedented achievement in humanity’s quest for food security and abundance was largely made possible by the development of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; new hybrid crop varieties; the application of irrigation in arid regions; and the introduction of powered farm machinery.

The leveraging of fossil fuels to create this tripling of food abundance has also supported and made possible an increase in human population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to about 6.7 billion today.  One way to look at this is that we have created an artificially huge increase in human carrying capacity based on a specious and temporary foundation of non-renewable and unsustainable resources.  In that context, the stakes become very high, as billions of lives will depend our ability to produce and deliver just as much food in the future without the leverage of fossil fuels.

Natural gas provides the hydrogen and energy used to produce most nitrogen fertilizers, and both gas and oil are the sources for other agricultural chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides. Meanwhile, oil fuels most farm machinery (often including irrigation pumps), and has enabled growth in the scale and distance of transportation of crop inputs and outputs. Today, food items are shipped worldwide and enormous quantities of food are routinely transported from places of abundance to sites of scarcity, enabling cities to be built in deserts.

The authors are hopeful but not certain that such a transition can produce sufficient food for the current and projected population, however under the best of circumstances the changes required will be both massive and disruptive.  They hope that these changes can be made gradually and proactively, but history suggests that they will be made reactively and in the clear face of a global food crisis.  There are many powerful vested interests dependent on the current system and agricultural giants like ADM and Cargil are not likely to quietly into the night.  If the powerful get their way, we are likely to revert to a version of ancient Rome’s latifundia, a crude industrialized agriculture dependent  on captive and abundant cheap labor and the huge land holdings of an agrarian oligarchy.

The Post Carbon Institute’s authors provide a more hopeful vision of the future than the slave labor model of ancient Rome and outline seven key elements that provide us with a transition roadmap:

  1. More or Mostly Locally Grown Food (follow this link to learn more about Food Miles)
  2. Smaller Farms Powered by Human, Animal, and Renewable Energy including bio-fuels grown to power a diminished fleet of farm machinery
  3. Natural Soil Fertility based on Composting, Animal Manure, and Crop Rotation
  4. Transforming the American Diet – Less Meat more Vegetables and Grains – A Diet that is Seasonal, Fresh, and Local
  5. Knowledge-intensive, Holistic Farming Systems – Reviving the Tribal Knowledge of our Great Grand Parents crossed with todays best Organic Farming Practices – PermaCulture versus Mono Culture
  6. Open-pollinated Seed Varieties adapted to Local Soils and Climates
  7. Decentralized Processing and Distribution

Ideally a post carbon agricultural and food delivery system will look like a modern version of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal married to business models like community supported agriculture (CSA) and using solar, wind, and liquid bio-fuel technologies to augment human and animal power.  With this new/old vision, the huge industrial farms of middle-america would be carved back into pre-industrial 100 acre operations and some 25-million americans would reverse migrate from the cities to re-populate the heartlands.  Imagine a section of land (640 acres) farmed by four well and newly educated families sharing 100 acres devoted to animal fodder, another 100 acres devoted to bio-fuels, and a few more acres given over to shared wind and solar power.  The balance of the acreage would be devoted to the free market ingenuity of each family.

None of this will happen quickly and as idyllic as it sounds, not without hardship and suffering.  It would have been interesting if the authors had devoted some space to what the transition might look like in crisis mode.  I can imagine victory gardens and backyard chicken coops to help build a tenuous food bridge to the future.  Homeowner associations turning the front lawns of suburbia into agricultural co-ops.  A massive natural agriculture training program to prepare us for the migration back to the heartlands.  A government sponsored mechanism to breakup large land holdings into smaller, family size parcels, along with government sponsored rationing, food relief programs, and the National Guard stationed in front of grocery stores and other food distribution centers.

Peak Oil makes this painful and hopeful transition not a question of if, but of when.  It may be sooner rather than later and it is likely that once in motion, events will unfold very quickly.

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5 responses to “Peak Food or an Agrarian Ideal?

  1. Thinking about this used to terrify me until I saw a documentary on how Cuba had to respond to U.S. embargos against them. They faced a crisis much like the one we anticipate, and they transitioned amazingly well. Yes, it was hard. Yes, most people lost some weight. But now they are a flourishing country when it comes to sustainable agriculture practices, community gardens, backyard gardens, & patio gardens.

    I expect that people see the signs coming (which is why seed sales are up 30% this year when compared to this time last year).

    I’d like to invite you to consider submitting this post to today’s Fight Back Fridays blog carnival. We’re a bunch of sustainable aggies, Real Food enthusiasts, etc. and every Friday we get together and have a link party where we share recipes, tips, news, analysis, anecdotes, etc.

    If that sounds like it may interest you, please visit my site and today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival post to read more about how you can participate.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

    • Thanks Kristen,
      Cuba is great example of how people can cope with what amounted to a Peak Oil event. Readers can find more about how Cubans changed to a healthier diet and lost an average of 30-lbs by clicking here.

  2. In some cities there is no need for a mass migration to the heartland. There seems to be a growing movement here in Cleveland toward urban agriculture. I am unaware of how advanced it is, but some public officials have grabbed onto the idea, desperate for ways to cope with the dwindling population and increasing vacant land. Two land banks are now established – one by the city and one by the county – making affordable land available to anyone with a competent plan for development. Additionally, ordinances allowing livestock, such as chickens, are currently under consideration. The Botanical Society also has a well-established educational program for urban youth growing and marketing organic fruits and vegetables. Your blog has refreshed my interest in this (I’ve been quite distracted by the healthcare issue lately) and I will redouble my efforts to learn more. Thank you. Also thanks for the comments pertaining to Cuba. Fascinating.

  3. Pingback: Peak Food or an Agrarian Ideal? | The Seed of the Tree of Tomorrow

  4. John

    Great writing. Have you delved into soil carbon sequestration? Most of the world’s soils are degraded. Soil organic matter can be the difference between life and death, and is 50% carbon. Each ton of soil carbon removes or retains 3.67 tons of CO2 form the atmosphere.

    Soil carbon sequestration is correlated with productivity, such that there are win-win opportunities for producers and the climate. In addition, soil carbon is a macronutrient into the soil ecosystem that drives many other nutrient cycle.

    Carbon cycles naturally through the biosphere, passing through the atmosphere and then, via photosynthesis, into plants and trees. Then portions of that fixed carbon become soil carbon or are re-released to the atmosphere as CO2 and CH4 (methane) through decomposition, combustion, metabolism in animals like humans and cows…and a portion moves into the soil in the form of soil organic carbon (within soil organic matter).

    The key with soil carbon sequestration is to alter the relative magnitude of these fluxes, so that, compared to Business As Usual practices, more of the carbon that would have been re-released is stably stored (sequestered) in the soil, over the lifetime of the credit.

    Given the critical state of soils and the fact that they are the very basis for life outside of the oceans, even if there were no positive effects on global warming from soil carbon sequestration, such restoration would be a worthy endeavor.

    US grazing lands alone have the potential to remove the equivalent of 3.3% of US annual CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels (Follett et al. 2001).

    The UN FAO, UNEP, and the World Bank are among the heavy weights now weighing in on the critical need and opportunity presented by the perfect storm created by climate change, land degradation and rural poverty (even in America); organizations like these have been formulating strong positions this year in preparation for Copenhagen.

    Expect soil carbon sequestration to be very big this year. The USDA has now been tasked with developing the methodologies and compensation systems for US producers and landowners.

    Andrew Fynn, C Restored LLC

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