From the Pump to the Plate: Rethinking & relocalizing our food and fuel systems

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01 May 2008
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[Originally published in HopeDance Magazine]

By Julian Darley

‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’. It looks like the severe food problems long predicted by some agriculture, climate and peak analysts are arriving more or less on cue, with tragic results. Some of the problems are more obviously connected to the growing energy crisis, some apparently not. But the underlying drivers of all the problems are energy and population, and that means there is something the West can do about it, provided we make the right connexions between our dinner plates, the gas pump and the plight of the global poor.

Deadly rice riots have broken out in Haiti and bread shortages are causing chaos in Egypt, to name just two of the more unfortunate examples of encroaching famine and food fatalities. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice till the mid 1980s when it began to be flooded with subsidized US rice, and Egypt was once a legendary agricultural producer. More and more countries have become, by force, accident or design, more and more dependent on staple imports generated by the so-called Green Revolution, but as Kazakhstan and Indonesia join the growing list of countries banning grain exports, we may be seeing the beginnings of the unraveling of the global agricultural system that has developed since the Second World War.

This is an extraordinarily complex and far-flung system and depends both overtly and covertly on petroleum, as well as predictable weather, stable economies, and artificially fertilizing the soil. The system has many critics, but it has, until now, just about every year produced more and more food – or something that resembles food, and has certainly allowed, perhaps even propelled, the human population bloom that now reaches seven billion. Food news has even made it to the top of the agenda of a recent G8 meeting, and food shortages are in news broadcasts almost every day.

The mainstream media are connecting climate and food, especially in the case of former rice exporter Australia, which has seen most of its rice harvest wiped out this year, following six years of drought. Even if Australia suddenly began receiving endless rain, it wouldn’t make much difference any time soon, since many rice growing areas have become grape producers. Grapes take far less water and can yield almost ten times more money per acre than rice. But wine is not a staple energy crop and rice is – when we buy Australian wine, are we condemning some people to starve while we enjoy a pre-prandial snifter?

Of course this is not about Australia, it’s about all of us and our clever but fragile complex supply chains. The first analytical questions we need to ask are where does our food come from and how is it produced. The answers invariably involved large amounts of oil and gas, whether for diesel in tractors, oil and gas in chemical additives, natural gas in nitrogen fertilizer, or the immense quantities of energy used in storing and transporting food. When we analyze our food more holistically, from a systems perspective, we find some embarrassing truths, in particular that our personal and public transport choices affect global food prices and availability.

One obvious and increasingly unfortunate connexion between transport and food, is the rise of industrial biofuels. For a while, biofuels were going to be the savior of the global transport system, now they are roundly cursed both by many environmentalists and have even begun to worry economists and policy makers, because biofuel is converting human food into machine fuel. But industrial biofuels production is not the only cause of high grain prices. There is climate as noted above, and also energy itself, since so much agricultural production is dependent on it, food prices are bound to go up. And as the globe demands ever more oil - for more jet-fuelled holidays, more middle class drivers in China, more mouths in just about all of the Third World, not to mention North America, while the global oil supply stagnates before its inevitable decline, prices of petroleum products will continue to shoot up.

Whatever happens regarding climate and biofuels, rising energy prices are likely to continue pushing food prices higher, and that will cause more and more mayhem in poorer nations heavily dependent on importing staple food such as wheat and rice. One of the most important – if unwelcome – ideas that peak oil analysis can bring to supply chain thinking is that of intermittent spot shortages: the realization that it isn’t just high prices that will cause problems, but actual breaks in supply. And food supply chain breakdown is happening now from Haiti through Senegal to Australia. People and animals are dying because of it, right now. Food and energy security have always been intertwined, but now as both food and energy come under pressure, the connexion is becoming clear.

I suggested that we can do something about this situation, but surely that is absurd? We can’t send rain to Australia and we can’t refill the oil fields of Texas, but we can think about our own food and fuel supply chain, and by making that more secure and resilient we can directly and indirectly help those farther away because what works for us can work for others, namely reducing our own food-energy consumption and producing at least some of our food and energy locally – part of what we call relocalization.

There are many ways of reducing energy consumption in food so that there can be more food for others in faraway places. Those who eat a mainly plant-centered diet can try to source their food from as locally as possible, provided that the local food production techniques require fewer imports of fossil energy and far-off nutrients. The latter obviously reinforces organic growing, but reducing fossil fuel inputs means balancing the use of machines against muscles – a balance that is going to be fraught with problems given the low wages of most agricultural workers.

Those who eat meat can usually quite easily reduce the total amount consumed and where possible, local organically grown meat can be chosen – provided the animals themselves are not receiving feedstock that itself consumes lots of energy to produce and transport. The price of local meat may well be higher, but if less is consumed, the overall price tag for a family may even be less.

Whilst we are reducing the energy used in food by making direct choices, we can indirectly reduce our overall energy demand by reducing the amount we drive to buy food – and by reducing the miles we drive and fly, period. In the US, about half of all oil consumed is gasoline for private vehicles, and when diesel trucks and aircraft are included, transportation consumes more than two thirds of all oil used in America.

Whilst we make the long transition to a post carbon world, we could decide to let the Third World have more of the dwindling supply of oil to help them cross the bridge from oil dependence to self reliance, but we’ll all have to use much less at home. This is one of the clearest links between transport for ourselves and food for others.

Ultimately, the most obvious way to source your food – and energy – more securely, resiliently and locally is to grow some of it yourself. And this is the part that could apply to every able bodied human being – if only they have access to some fertile land and the tools and knowledge to work it. After all, if we lived within our local carrying capacity and had fair access to fertile land, we would be able to feed and provide for ourselves without relying heavily on a vast and increasingly unreliable food and fuel system. That however, will involve us rethinking land use, land ownership and how we should live. The sooner we are ready for that, the sooner we’ll start building a sustainable food system, and much else besides.

Julian Darley, MA, MSc.
Julian Darley is founder and director of Post Carbon Institute and Global Public Media. He is the author of High Noon for Natural Gas: the New Energy Crisis (2004). Julian has an MSc in Environment and Social Research from University of Surrey in the UK, an MA in Journalism and Communications from the University of Texas at Austin, and a BA in Music & Russian. Julian currently lives in Sebastopol, California.