How Will We Eat When Peak Oil Hits? Tofu, Tree Farms and Electric Tractors

peak oil and agriculture photo

Image credit: Bountiful Backyards

As the wonderful BBC documentary A Farm for the Future has shown us all too clearly, modern agriculture is woefully dependent on fossil fuels, and oil in particular. And with International Energy Agency (IEA) whistleblowers suggesting peak oil may be nearer than we think, and even the IEA chief saying time is not on our side, we'd do well to start designing our way out of an oil-based food system. So what might that transition look like? Many activists are putting time into community nut and fruit tree plantings as a source of food security. (The image above comes from an orchard planted in my town last week.) And those cutting back on meat consumption, and especially grain fed meats, are undoubtedly doing their part to move away from oil-intensive food.

But the chances are that farms will continue to supply the majority of our meals for some time to come. So how do we wean them off the oil that keeps them running? Minimizing tillage to sequester carbon and reduce the need for mechanized labor seems like as good a place as any to start. But George Monbiot has been looking into other ways that farmers can kick the oil habit, and it looks like it's harder than you might think.

Monbiot talks to a farmer who has replaced tractor-driven irrigation with electric pumps; brought hay drying indoors to cut back on in-field turning; and has taken to pumping slurry rather than spreading it in his fields. Having worked at cutting consumption since 1977, says Monbiot, the man has only managed to reduce oil use by 25%.

It's obviously hard to tell from one anecdotal example what the potential for fuel savings really are, but if these figures are in any way illustrative, then it's clear we need to think beyond more efficient ways of doing what we have always done. From aquaponics to vertical farming, there are definitely new technologies and techniques that are changing the concept of what a farm should look like. So let's keep dreaming outside the traditional models of agriculture.

Sadly, one of Monbiot's own attempts at shifting the paradigm by arguing that "there are no obvious barriers to the mass production of electric tractors and combine harvesters" met with incredulity from other quarters. In fact, John Hewson described the idea that electric tractors and combine harvesters could be viable or even desirable, as being "informed by a concern for the pollution caused by motor transport rather than a knowledge of how farming machinery is actually used." From insufficient power loads or battery storage, to the idea of running and maintaining a "100KW, 500V system in a damp and muddy farmyard, let alone carrying out running repairs in the middle of a 50-hectare field, in the rain" were dismissed as utterly ridiculous.

Hewson does conclude that Monbiot is right to argue that we need new, cleaner technologies, and that we desperately need new farming systems that minimize the need for labor or machinery, but he pleads that we don't reject the diesel engine just yet.

As he says, we've all got to eat.

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