A Front Yard Gardener's Tales and Adventures

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Peak Oil and the Disaster that is Industrial Agriculture

Richard Heinberg, Sharon Astyk, and Aaron Newton write a lot about the connection between peak oil and the disaster that is industrial agriculture. They write articles called 'Fifty Million Farmers' and books titled 'A Nation of Farmers.' The buzzword 'peak oil' makes people worried about the future of our planet, but it is too big of a subject for people to really grasp. There is too much information to absorb and too many opinions that it is difficult to figure out who is right and who is just writing a blog. Instead of trying to figure out this mess, perhaps it would be better for people to focus on a smaller, more specific matter: the petroleum based industrial agriculture and the negative affects that this 'advancement' has had on the world.

It is thought that about 17% of all fossil fuel consumption in the United Stated goes towards agriculture, the single largest consumer. Peak oil signals the climax of the industrial agricultural movement as it will be impossible to continue to produce food without soaring food prices. Soaring food prices come from soaring energy prices.

I have read that one day soon, most of the food that Americans eat will be grown overseas where labor and land costs are significantly cheaper. That means, our dependency on the rest of the world will only increase, something that we have fought wars to mitigate. However, I have also read that argument that rising energy costs will force agriculture back to America. So, which one is correct? I hope that most of our food will again be grown in our backyard.

Heinberg sites the Cuban Special Period as a specific example of how a nation can change it's food system when necessary. Below is what he wrote about this topic in his article 'Fifty Million Farmers':

"In some respects, the most relevant example is that of Cuba's Special Period. In the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its source of cheap oil. Its industrialized agricultural system, which was heavily fuel-dependent, immediately faltered. Very quickly, Cuban leaders abandoned the Soviet industrial model of production, changing from a fuel- and petrochemical-intensive farming method to a more localized, labor-intensive, organic mode of production.

How they did this is itself an interesting story. Eco-agronomists at Cuban universities had already been advocating a transition somewhat along these lines. However, they were making little or no headway. When the crisis hit, they were given free rein to, in effect, redesign the entire Cuban food system. Had the academics not had a plan waiting in the wings, the nation's fate might have been sealed.

Heeding their advice, the Cuban government broke up large, state-owned farms and introduced private farms, farmer co-ops, and farmer markets. Cuban farmers began breeding oxen for animal traction. The Cuban people adopted a mainly vegetarian diet, mostly involuntarily (meat eating went from twice a day to twice a week). They increased their intake of vegetable sources of protein and farmers and decreased the growing of wheat and rice (Green Revolution crops that required too many inputs). Urban gardens (including rooftop gardens) were encouraged, and today they produce 50 to 80 percent of vegetables consumed in cities.

Early on, it was realized that more farmers were needed, and that this would require education. All of the nation's colleges and universities quickly added courses on agronomy. At the same time, wages for farmers were raised to be at parity with those for engineers and doctors. Many people moved from the cities to the country; in some cases their were incentives, in others the move was forced.

The result was survival. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds of body weight, but in the long run the overall health of the nation's people actually improved as a consequence. Today, Cuba has a stable, slowly growing economy. There are few if any luxuries, but everyone has enough to eat. Having seen the benefit of smaller-scale organic production, Cuba's leaders have decide that even if they find another source of cheap oil, they will maintain a commitment to their new, decentralized, low-energy methods.

I don't want to give the impression that Cubans sailed through the Special Period unscathed. Cuba was a grim place during these years, and to this day food is far from plentiful there by American standards. My point is not that Cuba is some sort of paradise, but simply that matters could have been far worse.'

'Urban gardens (including rooftop gardens) were encouraged and today they produce 50 to 80 percent of vegetable consumed in cities.' That is an amazing fact. What if that happened in America? Think about how much better this world would be if the government encouraged urban gardens. What if every university student had to take a course or two on 'how to farm?' Heinberg worries about the average age of most farmers (over 55) and how some practices and techniques of farming will simply be lost.

The Cuba example has happened in America: Victory Gardens. Thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt (or Michelle Obama, Sr), Victory Gardens produced about 40% of America's vegetables at the height of the movement!(Heinberg) Again, I ask, why was this abandoned. I assume people were caught up in the moment, they were excited about being patriotic and doing their part to help America win the war. And, when we actually did win the war, their gardens were forgotten and 'normal life' began again. Pitiful. Just like after 9/11, a major world event that put the lives and future of Americans at risk, patriotism was at an all-time high. The 'gardens' of freedom have once again been left behind for the desire to drive Hummers and shop at Wal-Mart.

Small-scale farming that relies on human labor rather than petroleum is one answer to the growing energy crisis. The local and organic movement will not only be looked at as a fad or something that hippies think about, but it will be seen as a way to change our food system. It will cut down on the transportation costs and encourage people to eat what is grown locally and to change their diet to coincide with what is in season. Of course, this won't be easy. Just last night I was eating the third or fourth helping of carrot ginger soup that Julia made. I wish she would make cucumber melon soup instead, but she reminded me that it was January.

Through government policies, education, a shift away from petroleum fueled agriculture and a push back towards small-scale organic farming, America can cut down their dependence on Middle East oil. By cutting up the huge agribusiness farms and returning the land to the hands of the people, America can change its food system. In Cuba's example, it was thrust upon the country by necessity. However, one could argue, that necessity has arrived to America as well.

Read Richard Heinberg's article 'Fifty Million Farmers' here: http://www.energybulletin.net/node/22584.

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