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Agriculture: the price of adaptation

One of the great gifts of crisis is supposed to be the way it helps sort out the difference between what’s essential and what’s not. As we move deeper into the crisis of industrial civilization, that particular gift is likely to arrive in horse doctor’s doses. Those who insist that the first priority in an age of declining petroleum production is finding some other way to fuel a suburban SUV lifestyle, or who hope to see some favorite technology – the internet, say, or space travel – privileged in the same way, risk finding out the hard way that other things come first.

At the top of the list of those other things are the immediate necessities of human life: breathable air, drinkable water, edible food. Lacking those, nothing else matters much. The first two are provided by natural cycles that industrial civilization is doing its best to mess up, but so far the damage has been localized. There are still crucial issues to consider and work to be done, but the raw resilience of a billion-year-old biosphere that has shrugged off ice ages and asteroid impacts is a powerful ally.

Food is another matter. Unlike air and water, the vast majority of the food we eat comes from human activity rather than the free operation of natural cycles, and the human population has gone so far beyond the limits of what surviving natural ecosystems can support that attempting to fall back on wild foods at this point would be a recipe for dieoff and ecological catastrophe. At the same time, most of the world’s population today survives on food produced using fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources such as mineral phosphate and ice age aquifers. As the end of the fossil fuel age approaches, other arrangements have to be made.

This poses a challenge, because nearly every resource currently used in industrial agriculture, from the petroleum that powers tractors and provides raw materials for pesticides, through the natural gas and phosphate rock that go into fertilizer, to the topsoil that underlies the whole process, is being depleted at radically unsustainable rates. Some peak oil theorists, noting this, have worried publicly that the consequences of declining petroleum production will include the collapse of industrial agriculture and worldwide starvation.

Still, this is one of those places where one of the central themes of recent Archdruid Report posts – the theme of adaptation – is particularly useful. If today’s industrial agriculture were to keep chugging away along its present course into the future, the results could be disastrous. One of the few things that can be said for certain, though, is that this sort of straight-line extrapolation is the least likely trajectory for the agriculture of the future.

The certainty here comes from two sources. First, the industrial agriculture we have today did not pop fully formed out of a John Deere plant like Athena from the head of Zeus. It evolved as farmers and agricultural corporations took advantage of the abundant energy supplies made available by the exploitation of oil reserves in the 20th century. At that time, increasing energy inputs into agriculture was adaptive; it made use of an abundant resource – cheap fossil fuel energy – to make up for other resources that were more expensive or less available. That same equation, though, works equally well the other way. As energy and other fossil fuel products become more expensive, farmers have a strong incentive to use less of them, and to replace them with other resources.

The second source of certainty comes from the simple fact that adaptations in the other direction are already taking place. The organic farming revolution, the most important of these, may be the most promising and least often discussed of the factors shaping the future of industrial society. It’s not a small factor, either. In 2005, the most recent year for which I have been able to get data, some four million acres of land completed the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, about a million acres over the previous year’s figure.

Because it uses no chemical fertilizers and no pesticides, organic agriculture is significantly less dependent on fossil fuels than standard agriculture, and yet it produces roughly comparable yields. It has huge ecological benefits – properly done, organic agriculture reverses topsoil loss and steadily improves the fertility of the soil rather than depleting it – but it also translates into a simple economic equation: a farmer can get comparable yields for less cost by growing crops organically, and get higher prices for the results. As the prices of petroleum, natural gas, phosphate rock, and other feedstocks for the agrichemical industry continue to climb, that equation will become even harder to ignore – and in the meantime the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary to manage organic farming on a commercial scale is already solidly in place and continues to expand.

As fuel prices continue to climb, tractor fuel and transportation costs are likely to become the next major bottlenecks. The adaptive responses here are already taking shape, though they’re back further in the development curve – more or less where organic agriculture was in the 1970s.

The renaissance of horsedrawn agriculture is one adaptive response moving steadily toward the takeoff point. After a long period when diesel was so much cheaper than feed that horses no longer made economic sense, the balance is swinging the other way, and farmers are waking up to the advantages of “tractors” that run on grain and hay, rather than expensive diesel fuel, and can be manufactured in a horse barn by the simple expedient of letting a stallion in among the mares. The percentage of North American acreage farmed by horsedrawn equipment is still very small, but it’s many times larger than it was even a decade ago, and the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to expand further are coming into being.

Transportation, at least in North America, is a thornier problem. The railroad system that once connected North American farmland to the rest of the planet, and enabled it to become the world’s breadbasket, was effectively abandoned decades ago, and it’s an open question whether enough of it can be rebuilt in the teeth of catabolic collapse to make any kind of difference. In the meantime, though, another set of adaptive responses is taking shape. All over the US, though it’s especially common on the west coast, local farmers markets have sprung up over the last decade, and much of the produce sold in them comes from small local farms.

In cities where the farmers market movement has set down strong roots – I’m thinking particularly of Seattle, where five weekly farmers markets and the seven-days-a-week Pike Place Market supply local shoppers with produce of every kind – the economics of modern farming have been turned on their heads, and truck farms from 10 to 100 acres located close to the city have become profitable for the first time in many decades. Once again, the infrastructure and knowledge base needed for further expansion is taking shape.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – up more than 20% on average in the United States over the last year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all. Rising prices and shrinking supplies will pinch budgets, damage public health, and make malnutrition a significant issue all through the developed world; actual famines are possible, and may be unavoidable, as shifting climate interacts with an agricultural economy in the throes of change. All this is part of the price of adaptation, the unavoidable cost of changing from a food system suited to the age of fossil fuels to one that can still function in the deindustrial transition.

The same process can serve as a model for other changes that will be demanded of us as the industrial system moves deeper into obsolescence. Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

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