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How resilient is the food system?

Given industrial food's dependence on petroleum, it's easy to conclude that peak oil poses a serious threat to our food supply. And it's likewise easy, given the importance of food in our lives, to conclude that making food peak-oil-resilient is one of the first things to worry about. So it's a nice surprise to hear permaculturist extraordinaire Toby Hemenway argue that food is in fact the last thing to worry about. Read the whole thing, as they say; but if you want an executive summary here's mine:

    The food system is perhaps least likely of all to collapse as peak oil puts pressures on our society, because:

  • of the many complex systems we operate, it's among the least complex, and has low transformity;
  • there's a lot of slack—we produce about twice the calories that the people living here need;
  • the supplies of oil and gas needed are politically secure, coming primarily from Canada and Mexico;
  • transforming land into farmland can happen fast (one season);
  • there's plenty of land available;
  • there are already a number of gardeners with the knowledge necessary for moving to a new food system;
  • and if there are serious problems with e.g. prices, the government will probably step in to help, since almost no regime ever lets its people starve.

To be clear, Hemenway is not saying we should continue to rely on industrial farming, nor that planting a garden isn't a good idea; he's only saying that we needn't worry that the food system will outright collapse. Still, this is the most optimistic take I've ever seen among writers who take peak oil seriously, and I can't resist some counterpoint.

For one thing, although there is slack in the system, this might not be good news. Hemenway says "the US could cut the amount of oil used by the food system in half and still provide a basic 2000-calorie diet," but that's true only if those calories actually get to people in the form of edible food. And there's some reason to fear that that won't happen; if market conditions favor other outcomes and policy supports the market, then people can starve even as food is exported elsewhere, as happened in Ireland in the 19th century and Bengal in the 20th. Export is not the only such competing use for food, either; industrial plant-based products like ink, biopolymers, paint, detergents, and cosmetics also have market value, and could commandeer a chunk of agricultural production at the expense of food. Furthermore, to the extent that U.S. land is currently devoted to growing stock for such products—which stock generally comes from non-edible varieties of e.g. corn—there is already infrastructure and investment sunk into that form of production.

Which raises Hemenway's claim that land can be repurposed for food production in a single season. I'm quite skeptical that this can be done so quickly. For one thing, there is infrastructure tied up in industrial production. This includes not just internal-combustion machines used in the production of plants—combines, crop dusters, etc.—but also the use of nitrogen fertilizers and other inputs, plus the transportation and processing system required to make industrial monoculture viable. So it's not only the choice of crops that needs to be changed as oil becomes a problem; it's the inputs, processing and distribution system as well. This challenge will be aggravated by resistance from market actors with a stake in any part of this system (witness, e.g., lawmakers preserving subsidies to such production rather than to feeding the hungry poor).

Gulf of Mexico dead zone

But that isn't the only problem, since the land that's used for industrial monoculture is basically infertile, and so requires the application of synthetic fertilizer. If we want that land to produce without the fossil fuel input, we need to return massive amounts of organic matter to the ground, pre- or post-decomposition, allow soil fauna and flora to return, reverse the compaction caused by heavy machinery, and dilute toxins and fertilizer salts—in short, to let the soil ecosystem flourish again. This will take more than a single season.

Who will make this transition happen? Hemenway appears to think that it will flow (ahem) organically from the knowledge and practices of the people who already garden. But the scale of such a transition is daunting, and not only because of the currently entrenched industry and its investment in industrial practices. How many of Hemenway's gardeners rely on, say, Miracle Gro? How many can acquire all (or even most of) their own inputs—seeds, soil, fertilizer, building supplies like wood and chicken wire—from non-industrial sources? How many gardeners know how to grow more than a handful of food plants? How many are able to handle large Midwestern plots without windbreaks, walls, shaded areas? How many can do any kind of permaculture, much less have the skills to transform new and unfamiliar sites? To make the transition Hemenway proposes, we need much more than what your average Home Depot gardener knows how to do. I'm optimistic about the proliferation of kitchen gardens in urban and suburban spaces, but transforming land currently zoned for industrial monoculture is a much more daunting task.1

Suppose, then, that the transition is difficult and takes more than one season. Could we count on the (U.S.) government to keep us from starving? Hemenway finds reassurance in the historical record, but it's easy to find discouraging examples as well, whether we look at governments in general or the U.S.'s in particular. Famines have indeed occurred since the inception of industrial farming—North Korea in the 90s is the most famous recent famine perhaps, but Wikipedia's incomplete list of famines lists 16 famines worldwide since 1950, and another 12 "food crises." Some of these are attributed to war, but others to simple drought, storms, bad land policy, or political acts like blockade. And here in the U.S. we don't do a great job helping people—especially the poor—through hard times. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is a dramatic recent example, but to listen to current politicians, animus against welfare programs and social spending is only on the rise.

Besides addressing Hemenway's arguments, I want to raise a couple further concerns about food's resilience. First, there are the effects of financial speculation on food. When speculation drives prices high enough, food can sit rotting while people go hungry, as happened to wheat during the 2008 global food crisis. Second, as global warming gets worse, the risk of unprecedented weather problems increases; and recent such problems don't bode well for agriculture—think of last year's drought in the southwestern U.S., the hurricane on the east coast, the Russian heat wave and fire. These things are poised to get worse.

Finally, it bears mentioning that there are bad possible futures for the food system that fall short of full-on collapse; indeed, even as of 2010 so-called food insecurity (a pretty ghastly label, if you ask me) in the United States was at 14.5% , and this while our food system is manifestly un-collapsed. Even if Hemenway is right that outright collapse is unlikely, lesser problems could result in great suffering, especially for the poor and (where this isn't simply coextensive) the inhabitants of food deserts.

1. The most recent numbers I've been able to find on U.S. gardening are from the National Gardening Association's 2009 survey, which claims that in 2008 36 million households did some food gardening (that's almost a third of U.S. households at the time). But they have no fine-grained information on how those gardens are run. About a third of those 36 million "use only all-natural fertilizer, insect, and weed controls," which is perhaps encouraging but not really informative. If anyone reading has better data than these, I'd be happy to see them.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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