Posted by: terrapraeta | January 21, 2010

The Politics of Food


I’ve got a spade and a pick-axe
And a hundred miles square of land to churn about
My old horse is weary but sincerely
I believe that he can pull a plough
Well I’ve moved into the jungle of the agriculture rumble,
To grow my own food
And I’ll dig and plough and scrape the weeds
Till I succeed in seeing cabbage growing through

Now I’m a farmer, and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging
Now I’m a farmer, and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging
It’s alarming how charming it is to be a-farming
How calming and balming the effect of the air

The Who, Now I’m a Farmer

The other day I was bored and looking for something to read that would inspire me. I ended up over at Tobey Hemenway’s site, patternliteracy.org. He’s done some writing since the last time I went by there. Or at least, there were some things I had not read before.

Now, I’m a big fan of Tobey. Not only did I find a lot of usefulness in Gaea’s Garden, but back in the old days of Anthropik.com, Tobey came by and joined into some of our discussions. I found him to be quite eloquent, intelligent and very much down to earth. Its a good combination. In the aftermath of those conversations, he wrote Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron. I like to think that we may have had some influence. 🙂 Of course, during the same period, he spent some time in the Amazon and came to understand the nature of tradition forest gardening. So I am certain that this also played a role.

So I spent some time reading Tobey’s more recent articles. He has obviously become more optimistic, less “doomer” in the years since those discussions. In some ways I have, too… not because I have any less sense of impending catastrophy, but because I have gradually been able to develop a view of a path through the darkness. In some ways, that path requires that civ not hold out much longer. As a result, I am quite aware that I need to not allow my hopes to blind me to reality. Some days I am certain that I do succumb to hope, but with a little due diligence, I think I am managing to hold onto some sort of rational-intuitive sense of what is really going on. (I started to write that I hope I am. Doh!!!)

Several of Tobey’s articles challenged me on this. Today I want to talk about the first one to catch my attention. Is Food the Last Thing To Worry About? In the article Tobey challenges the concerns we all have over conventional agriculture failing due to the processes of Peak Oil. As the “breadbasket of the world”, the US is unlikely to face real food shortages, even with our current reliance on petroleum products. He claims that the powers that be are rational enough to accept trotsky’s admonishment “that every society is only three meals away from a revolution.” Assuming that he is correct, then his argument as a whole makes sense:

The US is a net exporter of food, and produces roughly 4000 calories of food per person (5). To stock this larder, the US uses roughly 3 million barrels per day of petroleum, or 15% of our total consumption (6). Thus the US could cut the amount of oil used by the food system in half and still provide a basic 2000-calorie diet. That requires 1.5 million barrels per day or its equivalent, which should be available for some time. This means that neither complexity nor oil are likely to be limiting factors on food production in breadbasket nations until after the failure of other more complex, energy-intensive elements of our lives.

Even at this point, though I have a couple of more questions. Or rather, there are assumptions here that I question. First, and this is very basic. If the US food production system is growing just enough food to provide a 2000 calorie diet to every resident (let’s assume we are talking residents and not just citizens, knowing that this in itself is a stretch), we know from historical precedent that these calories will be unevenly distributed. Just as a given. There is no precedent anywhere in our history to suggest otherwise. Likely that uneven distribution will present itself through cost. As the price of oil increases, the government can – and probably will – provide subsidies to offset those price increases, but if recent history holds true, those subsidies will go to international agribusines, further driving small farming operations out of business and therefore decreasing localized food production. As a balancing force, this will help localized, organic operations to compete more effectively. What is unknown is where along the spectrum this balance point will be reached.

Next assumption. That the Us Govenrment wil be able to maintain enough solvency (or, literally, enough validity) to provide subsidies of fuel and agriculture on a full, national level. In other words, that this government we have will be able to continue to exert full control over the entire landmass that is the current US of A. I have no doubt that they will continue to claim all of it, but I have some question over their ability (and eventually, even effort) to maintain control over the “edges” — places that are not both easily accessible and economically viable. Like where I currently live.

Third: that as oil peaks, the production levels will remain smooth and gradually decrease. I don;t know what to expect here. But I know enough to not make this assumption. As production levels decline, will we see resource wars that effectively “shut off” the spigot for weeks or months? Will we see increasing global warming disasters, destroying refineries and pipe lines? I don’t know. But it certainly does not seem impossible. And part of the fragility of conventional agriculture is timeliness. All of the subsidies in the world will not prevent crops withering and dying from a lack of timeliness.

Forth assumption. Back to the initial one mentioned above: that the leadership in this country will truly be foresighted enough to pro-actively act to prevent food shortages and skyrocketing prices. First, they will need to understand that the current subsidies in place (like subsidies for corn-ethanol) will need to be rethought. That subsidies designed to reduce production will need to be eliminated. That the entire support structure of Multinational Food Corporations will need to be reconsidered. And above being foresighted enough, they will need to have the political will to actually challenge these institutions. Over the past few years, we have seen the inability of the system to reform itself. Challenging the status quo of corporate america very quickly leads to political “retirement.”

What will the future hold? What effect will Peak Oil have on agriculture? Perhaps Tobey is correct and “breadbasket” nations will have something of reprieve in the case of agriculture and food shortages. But I am not quite ready to bet my life, or my community’s, on it.

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Responses

  1. Well, there is a slew of panic-mongers on the web who say we’ll have food shortages imminently. I don’t think so. But last harvest was not so good because of the wet year out east. That’s gotta show. I am expecting food prices to keep going up… and basic food storage is always a good idea. But no shortages yet. I think the U.S. is still fairly insulated from that.

    It will come, though. U.S. ag is very vulnerable with everything on the farm dependent on oil and natural gas. And debt.


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