Future-ready Food Policy
Current farming methods show more and more cracks, and turn out to be a dead end. It is possible to grow our food in another manner, and the sooner we move to it, the gentler the transitiont will be.
Our current system of agriculture is based on uniform fields, for example filled with wheat. These fields are called monocultures, because only a single race grows on them. Although efficient to harvest, these systems are highly unnatural. A lot of effort goes into suppressing nature's tendency to turn it into something chaotic. As a result, a food calorie in the supermarket has cost us about ten times as many fossil calories.
This systems feeds the world, but it cannot sustain its pace because fossil fuel is running out. This means that the price for food grown under the current system will be ever more expensive. This is why it is, in effect, a dead end.
There is a method that works along with nature to grow food, and that method is known as Permaculture. By understanding how nature works and how to exploit what it does, much less energy is needed to grow our food. What Permaculture does require, is careful preparation.
As the effects of Peak Oil become evermore noticable, food grown under the current farming system will steadily increase in price. Making the change to Permaculture sooner rather than later can help to avoid the problems of this trend, and protect civilians from poverty and starvation. Good government policies, notably from local governments, would foresee and suppress these problems.
Like any other resource extracted from the Earth, fossil fuels exhibit a maximum peak in their production, about halfway their extraction. After this peak, the production cannot be increased anymore, and any remaining extraction is only possible thanks to fairly heavy technical innovation. This is because the remaining resources are thicker, buried deeper, or otherwise harder to get at.
In a graph, this looks a bit like this:
The peak of oil production is estimated to fall around 2010. As soon as our economie is back to its full strenght, oil prices are bound to get higher and higher. Prices that will greatly influence the price we pay for our food.
An additional problem is that the worldwide demand for oil still rises, as a result of more people on Earth demanding a Western lifestyle. This makes the total picture even worse:
The precise timing of this peak is actually not a real concern at all. What matters is the result, namely that our current system for food production is on a dead end. Food that people give to their children, and that keeps us all alive.
As soon as food becomes too expensive to buy people will start growing their own. This is not a bad development in itself, but it takes up a lot of time. Time that would otherwise help to make our economies grow. A country that spends most of its time growing food will slow down its development. This is the reason why food should because an important issue on the agendas of policy makers worldwide.
The solution to this problem is not to practice organic growing principles, as these are also dependent on fossil fuel. Changing to local farming is also just part of a solution, as farmers still expend a lot of fossil fuels. The major problem to tackle is the large scale at which our farms operate.
The major problem introduced by large-scale farms is mechanisation. Heavy machinery works on the fields, and compact the soil each time they pass over it. Compacted soil is a difficult medium for plants to grow in, so ploughing becomes necessary. But ploughing destroys the life in the soil, life that is a requirement for organic and natural processes. Once the soil is dead, it will take years to recover. This time is not available in everyday agriculture, so instead the crops are fed by artificial fertilisers, and the soil is reduced to a medium that provides roots with handle bars to support a plant's position.
The combination of dead soil, artificial fertilisers and monoculture make a crop vulnerable to natural predators. These fulfil nature's desire to clean up the weakest plants, certainly when there are so many of them that some compensation is called for. The agricultural answer to that is to spray poison, even if predators will develop immunity over time so that more or stronger poisons are needed. Long-term effects aside, this system has been very succesful to increase production over a limited number of years.
Ploughing, sowing, fertilising, poisoning and harvesting all cost a tremendous amout of energy. Added to that, food is often transported over great lengths, it is processed by machinery and packaged in plastic (yet another use of oil). All these actions taken together result in the statistic that a single calory of food takes 10 calories of fossil fuel. This is a sharp contract with how much energy would need to produce the same amount of food, namely 0 calories. To nature, solar energy is sufficiently abundent to grow it all.
Permaculture is a agricultural technology that observes nature. It takes note of plants that produce lots of edible crops without much human labour. It aims to understand how a system can support itself now and forever, in much the same way as a forest is selfsustaining. Permaculture gives nature its right of way, and will only occasionally make it change course.
The best construction for growing food is a forest garden. This is built up in layers, from canopy all the way down to root crops. This setup can be highly selfsupporting. Falled leafs for example, serve to feed the soil, as they do in a forest. And crops keep each other under control, aid each others chemical processes and attract the bees that are vital to obtain fruits and nuts. Such structures celebrate biodiverstity, and support spontaneous growth.
Fields that produce food in a forest garden exist, and have shown to be a great success. They are operated on small scale by enthousiastic permaculturists, who now literally pluck the fruits of their deliberations. Those deliberations are usually centered on design and guidance, rather than on hard labour. They generally are left with enough time to be economically productive. This is an agricultural side track that leads us to a future that enables us to have sufficient food as well as a rich, developing culture.
The main problem about forest gardens is that they take many years to mature. In the short term, such fields can be used to grow annuals, while awaiting the growth of the trees and hedges that will feed us later on. If the demand for food is large enough, then these annuals will at least provide us with a means to avoid a famine.
This means that good government policy in the short term is to clear grounds for gardening work. Next to that, it is wise to encourage the use of techniques from Permaculture, for example by informing citizens about it or by actively initiating projects based on Permaculture. Only if this is done soon enough will a sufficient amount of people stay available on the job market, and help us to accellerate our culture and economy.
Click on the contact link on this site to discuss the ways that GroenGemak sees to roll out Permaculture in a government. We generally offer our knowledge, if desired in English, but please realise that we are based in the Netherlands.
A movement that is getting active in a growing number of cities is that of Transition Towns. If a department exists in your city, contact it; otherwise, consider initiating one. A Transition Town is usually a movement that is started by citizens who welcome support from local govenments.