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Future Famine?

Life after oil

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Future Famine?

Seeing the abundance on display in our supermarkets–pyramids of multicoloured fruit piled skyward, bright green and yellow veggies crowding large bins, shelves brimming with canned goods–it’s tough to contemplate the prospect of global famine.

Seeing the abundance on display in our supermarkets–pyramids of multicoloured fruit piled skyward, bright green and yellow veggies crowding large bins, shelves brimming with canned goods–it’s tough to contemplate the prospect of global famine.

Yet, this is what a California academic is urging us to do–and the sooner, the better.

Richard Heinberg says it’s not his intent to incite panic over a coming food shortage. But such a shortage is imminent, and his aim is to have people organize and prepare in an orderly fashion for the crisis that looms.

The End of Oil

Heinberg is author of the recently published Oil Depletion Protocol (New Society, 2006), which calls on governments and industry to start developing a plan to grapple with the looming diminution of the globe’s oil supplies. The author and research fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, which has an office in Vancouver, has developed a novel specialty: sketching scenarios on the future course of societies in a world running out of petroleum resources.

He’s certainly on to something. There is no questioning the fact that oil and natural gas are finite resources, and the point at which more oil is consumed than is being discovered and produced globally is quickly approaching and may even be here. This phenomenon is known as peak oil, and best estimates put the peak date at between 2007 and 2010, according to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, based in Uppsala, Sweden. The organization is made up of a network of scientists affiliated with European academic institutions.

In 2006 Heinberg delivered a lecture in Massachusetts to the E.F. Schumacher Society, a 27-year-old, nonprofit educational group that promotes sustainability in all things. He warned his audience that the dynamics of food production are about to change. The era of huge, industrialized, multinational agribusinesses is coming to an end as the planet’s petroleum resources wane; more traditional trends, which have occurred over the millennia, will resume, and the notion of famine will re-emerge.

People tend to forget that through the ages famine has been commonplace. Cheap and plentiful food supplies are, historically, something of an anomaly. When we go to market to load up our buggies with food, few of us contemplate just how petroleum dependent the food system has become: think fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, transportation.

Heinberg’s research shows that agriculture currently consumes 17 percent of the US energy budget. Food intake per person accounts for nearly 10 barrels of oil annually.

Incredibly, agriculture is the largest industrial consumer of petroleum products. Even the US military uses less energy–half the amount that feeds the agriculture industry.

Fewer Farmers

Food production systems have become highly industrialized. Monocropping, agribusiness, and international food conglomerates have been taking over. Alas, we’re not just running out of oil, we’re running out of farms and farmers. In Canada the number of farms dropped by 10.7 percent in just five years, from 1996 to 2001.

Statistics Canada also reports that, in the same time period, the number of farm operators dropped by 35 percent, from 61,055 to 39,920. Farmers themselves are gradually getting older; the median age of a Canadian farmer is now 49.

Fresh water is also becoming more scarce, notes Heinberg, further threatening the sustainability of crop production. Then, of course, there’s climate change. “Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region,” warns Heinberg. Freak weather events, which are becoming more commonplace, have the potential to devastate crop yields.

Clearly, both environmental factors and human activity are taking an enormous toll on Planet Earth. Heinberg points to land erosion, deforestation, soil salination, fertilizer runoff, biodiversity loss, and agrochemical pollution of water and land. What can we do to prevent disaster?

It all comes back to sustainability, and his lecture is not without hints of hope, albeit through massive change.

“I believe we must and can de-industrialize agriculture,” says Heinberg. He predicts the face of food production in the future will, of necessity, be far more labour intensive, require far less in the way of energy inputs, and be located so that food production and consumption become more local in nature. “It’s intelligent management, driven simply by oil and gas depletion.”

The Future of food

It’s rather intriguing that Heinberg points to Cuba as a model for crystal-ball gazing. In the early 1990s when the Soviet empire disintegrated, the little Caribbean island–a Soviet satellite statelet–had to adapt in a hurry to a drastic decline in oil supplies. The Castro government proceeded to break up its big state farms into small farmer co-ops and private ventures. More Cubans started relying on urban vegetable gardens. Academic institutions in Havana suddenly featured agronomy courses.

Heinberg also highlights another model of adaptation, one used during the two World Wars: victory gardens. At their height, such indigenous endeavours produced about 40 percent of America’s vegetables.

There also are some relatively new crop-production approaches that have emerged. Permaculture, developed in the late 1970s by two Australian ecologists, relies on aquaculture, horticulture, mulching, composting, and small-scale animal operations. Its goals are self-sufficiency and soil building. Biointensive farming, developed around the same time in California, similarly focuses on sustainability and emphasizes organic methods and farming on a small scale.

Grow Your Own

But the biggest message Heinberg delivered in his Schumacher lecture was that a lot more people will need to think about becoming farmers themselves. In the future a farmer will be someone with access to perhaps three to 50 acres. He or she will use mostly hand labour and occasionally borrow a tractor fueled by ethanol or biodiesel that is produced on site. This is not such a radical concept. In 1900 nearly 40 percent of the US population farmed; today that figure is 1 percent.

Each of us needs to think more about how our food will be produced in future and how we can support the trend away from huge agribusinesses. Heinberg warns that we need to begin a transition to the future face of farming right now because another 40 to 50 million farmers will be needed in the US as oil and gas availability declines. Extrapolating his figures for Canada, another four to five million farmers will be needed north of the 49th.

Back to the Garden

Hey, this could all be a blessing in disguise, Heinberg posits. Think about what a re-ruralization of Canadian life might present. In smaller communities people tend to have more satisfying lives because they can exercise greater control over what goes on around them. Rural folk often relate to one another on a more personal level, and traditional values are nurtured.

Says Heinberg, “We will inevitably be building a new kind of culture, certainly very different from industrial urbanism but probably also from what preceded it. As always before in human history, we will make it up as we go along, in response to necessity and opportunity.”
Rather interesting food for thought.

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