By Will Raap
Over thirty years ago as part of my graduate work I traveled to England to research the UK “garden city” movement where new cities were developed after WWII creating village centers surrounded by protected green belts. Gardening areas and small farms were planned into these new cities. British planners knew that gardens and local farms provided much of the wartime food and research in the UK showed gardens were about 3 times more productive per acre than commercial farms. Gardens and local farms have always been a key part of British food security.
I spent much of the past 3 decades promoting more food gardening and sustainable local farming in the US and Central America because of what I learned in the UK. Sometimes I felt this effort was irrelevant as food prices from our industrial system declined continually, outcompeting local food production until it nearly stopped. But recently we have become aware that industrial food has less nutrition, less flavor and can leave us vulnerable to food safety and security issues.
And now risks associated with our petroleum-based economy have become real overall and specifically for agriculture. Everything is connected in our global economy and any disruption in oil supply and prices ripples far and wide. This is especially true for food and agriculture. More than ever, cheap oil equates to cheap food…but the reverse is true for expensive oil.
Oil has allowed the development of modern society and economics. We are able to do about 100 times more work than we could do without it. An average 12 gallon tank of gas contains energy equivalent to about 4 years of human labor. Apart from uranium, oil has the greatest energy density of any other substance known.
Oil has allowed the human population to quadruple in 150 years as fewer farmers are needed to feed over 6.5 billion people. The average bite of food travels 1500 miles from farm to dinner plate. And every 1 calorie of energy from our food required about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy in farm machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, refrigeration, transportation and packaging. This level of energy dependency is the quintessential example of an energy economy that must be transformed as oil prices increase.
We have created a society and economy that depends on cheap petroleum to thrive. But the oil is running out and the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for cheap energy are catching up to us. We now are faced with responding simultaneously to two of the greatest challenges in human history: Climate Change and Peak Oil. And from my perspective, the good news is individually, and together, Climate Change and Peak Oil mark the shift back to more local food production.
Climate Change is a “Long Emergency”
From the cover of Time magazine, April 3, 2006: “The debate is over. Global warming is upon us-with a vengeance.” Over the past century humanity has taken vast amounts of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas from underground carbon reserves and by burning these fuels released immense amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” have upset the thermostat of the planet, triggering global climate change.
Climate change is an urgent and complex problem with a relatively simple cause but long term, likely severe consequences. Excess CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is raising temperatures around the globe causing dangerous new weather patterns, loss of plant and animal species, rising oceans and dislocated populations, declining forests and growing deserts.
Atmospheric CO2 levels are approaching 400 parts per million (ppm) and leading experts are now saying we need to reduce this to 350ppm to avoid environmental and economic catastrophe (see www.350.org). Because 85 per cent of world energy comes from burning fossil fuels, it is very difficult to reduce CO2 emissions quickly without economic disruption. And the food system is one of the major contributors of CO2 emissions. Food production, processing and distribution are estimated to be the source of over 20% of CO2 emissions in the US and about 15% globally.
There are only two things we can do to reverse global warming and avoid the consequences of climate change. First, we must reduce the amount of greenhouse gases – especially CO2 – that we are directly and indirectly responsible for emitting. Second, we must find ways to remove the excess carbon that has already been released into the atmosphere by increasing the earth’s natural carbon “sinks” — the forests, wetlands, grasslands and healthy farmlands that help regulate climate by storing CO2. (See www.earthcarbonoffsets.com)
Both of these solutions are necessary. We need to immediately slow the global increase in carbon emissions through gains in energy efficiency and the development of carbon-free renewable energy sources. This will slow the growth of atmospheric CO2 levels. But we also need to reduce the levels of CO2 that are already in the atmosphere to buy time for clean technologies to be phased in. Without reductions in accumulated concentrations we may rob ourselves of the time to reduce our ongoing emissions of CO2.
Can we retool our fossil fuel-intensive economy quickly enough to reduce emissions? Can we stop trashing existing healthy carbon sinks like tropical forests and wetlands and restore the earth’s natural carbon sinks fast enough? The feedback loops that will answer these questions are measured in decades, and the trends are not positive. But the impact and feedback loops related to Peak Oil are measured in the price of energy and felt in a matter of months.
Peak Oil to the rescue?
World discovery of oil peaked in 1964 and has been declining ever since. Despite considerable improvements in technology there is no prospect of any significant new large oil discoveries. We are currently consuming more than 4 barrels of oil for every one discovered.
Peak Oil overall means we have pumped half of all oil reserves. Many estimate we hit peak oil this year, plus or minus a few years. So, we have currently pumped and used about one trillion barrels of the estimated two trillion barrels of oil the earth produced millions of years ago.
There is still about a trillion barrels of oil left below ground. The problem is we are running out of cheap oil. The quality and accessibility of half of the remaining oil reserves is declining. Remaining oil is often found in areas like deep oceans and the Arctic, presenting technical extraction challenges and much higher costs. Extraction costs are increasing as demand is increasing meaning prices will increase as well.
Will Peak Oil solve the Climate Change problem because our use of oil and other fossil fuels will slow as prices most assuredly increase? CO2 emissions will likely slow as fossil fuel prices rise. But, there will still be a growing demand for oil, coal and natural gas, especially from China, India and other fast-developing economies. Fossil fuels still offer unparallel energy density value compared to other fuels. And remember, it is now believed by many experts that to solve climate change CO2 levels in the atmosphere must be reduced from current levels, not just slowed.
Our Future Food Economy
OK, so Climate Change is real and a growing problem with potentially dire consequences, but in the long term. And our petroleum-dependent industrial food system is a major source of greenhouse gases so there will be pressure to transform it with CO2 emission reduction incentives and penalties. I believe it is clear that Climate Change mitigation strategies will lead us back to more locally-produced food, both to reduce CO2 emissions AND also because local farming and gardening most often employ sustainable practices that build the soil by adding organic material (i.e. by creating a ecological “sink” to store carbon from the atmosphere).
Peak Oil is a real problem today. Our economy experienced the economic consequences this year as oil prices exploded to nearly $150 per barrel, immediately increasing food costs. We also experienced the social consequences as food riots broke out throughout the developing world earlier this year due to biodiesel competition for grain crops leading to supply shortfalls and price inflation.
Just as British urban planners created policies to support local food growing in gardens and small farms after WWII I believe we are seeing global conditions, led by Climate Change and Peak Oil, to encourage the same policy shift in the US.
In fact, for most of this decade there has been a quiet revolution developing in our food system. We are still getting most of our food from distant industrial farms. But more and more food is being grown in and around cities, towns and neighborhoods where we live. People want fresh and healthy food without chemicals and grown by people they know. They want some sense of control over food safety and security. This revolution is taking place in home gardens, community gardens, new organic farms, membership farms, abandoned farms brought back to life, and new residential developments designed to feed as well as house residents. I’m working on a range of these initiatives in Vermont and Costa Rica, and the ground swell of interest is building.
How can we foster this local food movement near our homes? First, grow a garden or help a friend to grow one. Second, buy locally grown and prepared food whenever possible. Third, support policies that help your local economy support the transition to more local food and energy independence. One good model I just discovered for comprehensive food and energy transition planning comes, appropriately enough, from a town in England and is explained on this web site: www.transitiontowns.org/totnes. And please help advance another great idea I just learned about as I write this article November 3, 2008, on the evening before the Presidential election. Let’s petition President Obama to show the way by adding a food garden to the grounds of the White House…please visit http://www.kitchengardeners.org.