A friend once suggested to me that the three worst things we could be doing for the environment are, in order of destructiveness, 1) drive cars, 2) eat meat, and 3) eat vegetables.

I’d consider listing the car third. Industrial agriculture is, far and away, the most destructive practice humans have so far inflicted on the biosphere. Apart from sunlight; soil, climate, biodiversity and water are the fundamental ingredients of a healthy life on this planet. Our agricultural system is brutally polluting, depleting and/or dangerously altering all four.

In searching for a green alternative to fossil fuels, everyone from Willie Nelson to the Governor of California , from prominent environmentalists to General Motors and Monsanto, has promoted ethanol or other biofuels. While it’s true that we desperately need alternatives, biofuels based on industrial agriculture, are in no sense ‘sustainable.’

As the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announces massive grain shortfalls after summer heat waves hit Europe and the US, I want to look closely at the crises in the global food system, and consider further challenges it may face as we start running out of cheap petroleum. (This will serve as a backdrop for a discussion on biofuels in a follow up article next week.)

Post-war technologies made possible the so-called ‘Green Revolution,’ or industrialisation of agriculture. From chemical warfare came the pesticide and herbicide industry, from military vehicles came the technology for improved farm machinery. They proved very effective. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased a remarkable 250 per cent, while farm labour dropped, enabling the rapid rise in human population over the same period.

Unfortunately, the relationship between food and war does not end there.

The rise in agricultural production was particularly suited to grains. Grains are a special type of food. Excluding fossil fuels, they represent some of the most densely packed chemical energy in the natural world. As Richard Manning writes in his essay ‘The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq ’, grains also lend themselves to very destructive farming methods.

Grains are adapted to disaster. In nature, they dominate land only after catastrophic events such as floods. Their short lives are devoted to putting as much energy as possible into their seeds, so that they may spring up first, as pioneer species. In order to grow them, year after year, we turn over the topsoil and spray for weeds to artificially create the conditions of catastrophe they favour.

Every time we plough, it is like a high stakes game of Russian roulette. Plants and soil organisms can (very slowly) create topsoil from the subsoil below. But, truly revitalising fertility on a large scale requires geological assistance in such forms as ash from volcanic eruptions, or rock-crushing glaciers. When we say Australia has the oldest soils on the planet, it is because we have neither of these two geological revitalising systems, and haven’t had for millions of years. If a rainstorm washes a mere millimetre of topsoil off a hectare of land, 15 tonnes is lost. Our rivers flow grey and turbid as this fertility flows out to sea.

A handful of good soil contains more living creatures than there are human beings on the earth. The little we know about these creatures reads like an Alice in Wonderland adventure — amoeba with temporary feet, vampiric protozoa, fungi with elaborate communication systems and symbiotic relationships with trees. When we pour nitrogen-based fertiliser and agricultural poisons onto the soil, or expose it to the sun, we destroy this life.

As the life dies, we lose the humus, the organic component of the topsoil. As it rots it releases methane, becoming a major contributor to global warming. Without the ecosystem services provided by the soil life, the soil is left as nothing more than a dead medium to hold plants upright in. We then have to supply more fertilisers artificially – and the sad cycle continues.

In this extremely dry continent of ours, agriculture accounts for two thirds of all our water use. This irrigation causes salination, draws life from our rivers, and depletes our aquifers.

Our monoculture system of farming invites attack from ‘pests.’ Such an unnatural system must be protected from insects, birds and animals with sprays, traps and ammunition. As such, I don’t think anyone who feeds from the industrial food system can truly claim to be vegan.

Thanks to Emo.

Each year, more and more virgin forested land and fossil fuel energy must be fed into the agricultural system simply to maintain current levels of production. Yet, each year, insects are becoming more resistant to pesticides, water must be pumped from deeper down in the earth, weather conditions are becoming less stable, and less ecosystem services are being provided by soil organisms, without cost. We are facing diminishing returns.

Despite the rapid growth in agricultural production over the past 35 years, per-capita levels of grain production peaked in 1985. Distribution politics aside, it is only this century, however, that the problem has become critical. In every year bar one since 2000, the world has consumed more grains than it has produced . Less than two-months worth of grains are now in storage around the world. Last time stores were this low, in the early 1970s, global wheat and rice prices doubled.

How do we come to terms with these facts? How are we supposed to feel when we realise that one of the most intimate facets of our lives — a source of culture and meaning, enmeshed in the most nurturing relationships between family and friends, something which we take into ourselves, which quite literally becomes part of our flesh – embodies, in a word, violence? And self-destructive violence at that.

I don’t really know. But I believe we will all benefit from beginning to disengage from it.

The promise, and perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by our species, is that these destructive forms of agriculture cannot continue. The Green Revolution has increased energy inputs to agriculture to levels around 50 times those of traditional agriculture. Yet energy availability will soon fall. The decreasing availability (and therefore increasing cost) of oil and gas means that we will need to begin to de-industrialise and re-localise our food systems.

To succeed is to survive – to avoid more widespread hunger, and develop sustainable, healthy food systems. We need great efforts to enable farmers to produce food with less energy and less destruction to their own land, encouraging innovative designs and techniques inspired by permaculture, incorporating traditional systems and modern science, such as keyline ploughing and swale building. We need to produce more food in and around the cities, while changing our relationship to food so we eat it fresh and in season.

We are lucky that one country has been through such a process and survived already: Cuba. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost most of its oil and fertiliser imports virtually overnight. With research, institutions turned over to low energy food production techniques, and organic food production encouraged in the cities, Cubans’ life expectancies and infant mortality rates now rival or better the United States, while using around one eighth of the energy per capita.

Success is possible because re-localising the food system has a solutions-multiplying effect. If our food is grown locally, some of it by ourselves, we can recycle the nutrients on site, we can radically decrease the water and energy inputs of food production, we eat more nutritious food and get more exercise.

This type of vision, perhaps the only practical direction left to us, does not allow much spare agricultural capacity for biofuels.

Next week I will address how significant biofuel production might nevertheless be possible, although it too will challenge some deep-set habits and convictions.

About the author
Adam Fenderson is founder and co-editor of international peak oil news clearinghouse EnergyBulletin.net, a permaculturist and co-producer of 3CR’s Food Fight program.