How Can Food and Farming Transition to a Post Carbon World?

"The American food system rests on an unstable foundation of massive fossil fuel inputs. It must be reinvented in the face of declining fuel stocks." This is the conclusion of a report entitled The Food & Farming Transition: Toward a Post Carbon Food System, that the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) have published online.

The document begins:

During the past century world annual agricultural production has more than tripled. 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.
Central to most of these strategies for intensifying farm productivity were fossil fuels ...

As we know those fossil fuels are finite. They will run out. That time is soon upon us and this excellent paper poses suggestions on how we might deal with that stark reality. What Will We Eat When Farms Have No Oil to Drink?

This an exceedingly well written booklet. Although citing its scientific references as footnotes, it avoids alienating jargon and academic language, opting instead for easy-to-read layman speak. A critically important consideration, because it has a vital message to impart.

[The] application of fossil fuels to the food system has supported a human population growing from fewer than two billion at the turn of the twentieth century to nearly seven billion today. In the process, the way we feed ourselves has changed profoundly.

The advent of cheap oil has had a dramatic impact on the agricultural landscape, not least in the lives of farmers. In 1900 nearly 60% of the US population were involved in farming. By the end of WWII there were about 30 million, yet currently the USA has fewer than two million full-time farmers, the average age of whom is near retirement. This change has come about for a variety of reasons. Farms are now an agribusiness, with less farmers working larger tracts of lands. And they now only work the land, outsourcing all other jobs like processing, sales and distribution to national and multi-national conglomerates.

Food has, for the most part, become intrinsically linked to oil. Although other factors, like drought, also had some impact, the 2008 oil price spike contributed to a doubling of food prices, resulting in over 30 nations experiencing food riots that year. A portent of tomorrow, as Peak Oil is reached.

And although total energy used in farming has declined over the years, it is still calculated that approximately 7.3 calories are used by the U.S. food system to deliver each calorie of food energy.

And you have to wonder about the quality of that food energy. For in 2005, the average US family spent under 12% of their income on food. Yet 50 years ago, double that amount of income was allocated to food. Has the dirt cheap 'meal deal' from fast food giants allowed families to erroneously believe they were being fed for less? Because alas, as waistlines have increased, health has declined.

But the report, Food & Farming Transition, instead of only pointing to the flaws in food production and consumption, clearly lays out a pathway to transition from the current oil dependent model, to a more robust food system.

There are reasons for hope, however. A recent report on African agriculture from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage that comes with it.

The report's authors, include Richard Heinberg. (He penned Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Decline, as well as The Oil Depletion Protocol, Powerdown, and The Party's Over. He was also one of the key talking heads seen in the seminal documentary; End of Suburbia.) He, and Michael Bomford, Principal Investigator, Organic / Sustainable Vegetable Production at Kentucky State University, believe that a "decentralization of the food system will result in greater societal resilience in the face of fuel price volatility."

They make the point that:

The food and agriculture transition ultimately comes down to choices made at the market and meals consumed at the dinner table. Therefore actions by individuals are just as important to the success of the transition as anything that can be done by farmers, governments, or food businesses.

While the report clearly articulates the trouble confronting a food system that has developed an addition to cheap oil, it also intelligently details what the US can do to survive when the drug is withdrawn, as it soon will be. However, we won't cover those positive points here, because we'd really rather you download a free copy and digest the full scope of the report for yourself. It is very easy to read and understand. Even the graphic design and typography is well done. We recommend it to anyone interested in where their food will come from, in the the not too distant future.

::The Food & Farming Transition

Photo and Image credits: Post Carbon Institute

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Tags: Africa | Agriculture | Carbon Emissions | Farming | Oil | United States