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Will the End of Oil Be the End Of Food?

American agriculture is fatally dependent on oil. A few forward-thinking farmers are trying to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
 
 
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Farmer Richard Randall doesn't believe in the notion of "peak oil," the argument that civilization will soon experience an acute -- and irreversible -- petroleum scarcity that will fundamentally alter our way of life. A 61-year-old wheat and sorghum grower from Scott City, Kan., Randall says he's seen high oil prices before, and that today's expensive petroleum is just part of a natural market cycle that will eventually adjust itself, leading to lowered fuel costs.

"I think there's plenty of oil there," Randall said recently. "I feel that if we allow the marketplace to work without interruption in the supply, we will find a level. It's not going to be as low as it was, but it will come down. We do need to produce oil where we can."

Randall may not be certain when oil prices will level out, but it's abundantly clear to him that $70/barrel petroleum is taking a huge bite out of his business. Nearly every part of his farming operation is being impacted. The price for the diesel fuel that runs the tractors and trucks on his 4,500-acre farm have more than tripled in the last four years, rising from 80 cents per gallon to close to $3. Fertilizer prices are also up sharply. Since synthetic fertilizers are made from natural gas, they too are impacted by higher fossil fuel prices; the cost of fertilizer has gone from about $160 per ton to $460 per ton in the last three years. Smaller, organic growers are also feeling a pinch from costlier petroleum. The price for the plastic drip irrigation tape commonly used on organic fruit and vegetable farms is up 20 percent from two years ago.

Because farmers operate in a commodity market where buyers and brokers dictate the price of the harvest, high oil costs have been particularly painful. Unlike other businesses, farms have no way to pass their rising costs on to consumers.

"All of our expenses have gone up pretty well, but we can't put on a surcharge for fuel like everyone else can." Randall said. "It's made it a lot tougher."

Tomorrow's crises

For farmers like Randall, today's challenges may be tomorrow's crises. The problems of coping with high oil prices reveal how utterly dependent our food production system is on nonrenewable fuels. As long as oil is plentiful, that dependence isn't a concern. But in some circles fears are growing that if global petroleum production begins a steady decline, our entire food system will be strained, testing our ability to feed ourselves.

"How dependent on oil is our food system?" Richard Heinberg, a leading "peak oil" scholar and the author of The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies said in an interview. "Enormously dependent. Fatally dependent, I would say."

Of course, you won't find any oil on your dinner plate, but petroleum and other fossil fuels are inside of every bite you eat. About one-fifth of all U.S. energy use goes into the food system. The synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that are essential for high crop yields are a byproduct of natural gas. Gasoline and diesel fuels power the combines that rumble through the grain fields. Countless kilowatts of electricity are burned up in the factories that process all of the packaged goods that line the supermarket shelves. And then there's the gasoline required simply to get food to market. We now have a globalized food system, one in which the typical American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to fork. Organic products -- though they may have a more sustainable veneer -- are in many respects no different; 10 percent of organic products come from abroad. Without oil, we would all be on one harsh diet.

"We've created an agricultural system where, on average, for every energy of food calorie we produce, we need to expend about 10 calories of fossil fuels," Heinberg said.

Such an imbalance would not be worrisome if there were an inexhaustible supply of oil. But, as every child learns in elementary science class, petroleum is a nonrenewable resource. A heated debate is under way about when that resource will begin to decline. Some say that we have already passed the summit of peak oil and point to a leveling of global petroleum production as proof. The U.S. government argues that we have decades before oil extraction begins to decline. Others calculate that we will hit the peak oil mark sometime in the next 10 years. Regardless of when exactly oil production starts to drop, it's clear that in this century humanity will have to learn to live without cheap, abundant oil.

What this means for our food system is also up for debate. At the very least, costlier oil will lead to more expensive food, especially for processed and packaged goods. At the very worst, peak oil could seriously disrupt agriculture, especially in highly industrialized nations like the United States, where food systems are heavily reliant on oil.

"This era of increasing globalization of our food supply is going to draw to a close here in the next decade or so," Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, said. "I think it (eventual oil scarcities) is going to mean the end of importing billions of dollars of food from overseas. It's going to mean the end of relatively cheap food in the U.S. And it's going to mean a significant increase in starvation and malnourishment across the world."

Fuel vs. food

In response to alarms about the fragileness of the food system, some farmers are taking initiatives to wean themselves from petroleum and find more sustainable ways of growing food. One of the most popular approaches is biofuels. For farmers, it's a solution to high oil prices that makes intuitive sense, as it raises the possibility of growers cultivating their own fuel, just as most farmers did a century ago when they harvested oats to feed their horse teams.

Phil Foster is one farmer who has made a commitment to reducing his farm's reliance on fossil fuels. A prominent California organic fruit and vegetable grower who is a supplier to Whole Foods, Foster runs nearly all of the trucks and tractors on his 250-acre farm on B100-pure biodiesel. The remainder of his machines -- older tractors with more finicky engines -- operate on B30, which is a blend of biodiesel and conventional petroleum diesel. At the same time, Foster is trying to reduce the amount of electricity his farm pays for. Several years ago he installed a bank of solar panels to help power his packing shed, refrigerators, irrigation pumps, and sales office. He calculates that the sun provides about 20 percent of his energy.

For Foster, using biodiesel and employing solar technology isn't just an effort to be environmentally correct. It's simply smart business, he says, a way to ensure that his farm will be economically sustainable over the long run.

"It was kind of a no-brainer for me to move in that direction," Foster said. "Especially in a business like ours, customers that buy organic would tend to like their growers to be kind of on the forefront. As a business that wants to think about longevity, I want to know how we can position ourselves."

Organic growers aren't the only ones bullish on the future of biofuels. Large, conventional grain farmers are also looking at biofuels as a way to reduce their costs, and many corn growers are hoping to make money by selling their surplus harvest to ethanol processors.

"Diesel fuel used to be a minor cost, but now it's become a major cost," said Paul Penner, who farms 1,000 acres of wheat north of Wichita. "It looks like biodiesel is going to become a long-term solution. So I think we are going to be seeing some bigger switches across the country."

Some people, however, caution that biodiesel is unlikely to evolve into a permanent fix. Though biofuels may be useful in reducing petroleum dependence in the near future, it's doubtful that fuels made from plants could completely unhitch us from oil. Why? For the simple reason that making biofuels requires lots of land, and at some point -- were biofuels to become widely popular -- the nation would face a choice between growing food and growing fuel.

"As good as it sounds, you're taking crops that initially were being used as a food source and now are being used as fuel sources," said a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who asked to remain anonymous. "So where will all the additional food crops come from to feed the demand from American consumers? I expect some problems coming."

Problems involving the trade-off between cultivating food and cultivating fuel are already appearing. According to Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, last year farmers in North Dakota sold a large portion of their corn harvest to ethanol processors. But that left local cattle ranchers short of grain to feed their cows, and so they had to import corn from Canada to beef up their herds, corn that was more expensive that the locally grown stuff.

Freewheelin'

As the North Dakota experience shows, there are no simple solutions to agriculture's deep reliance on oil. The fundamental challenge facing farmers -- and, by extension, everyone who likes to eat -- is how to reduce off-farm inputs and make farms more self-sufficient. That will likely require a dramatic overhaul of the food system, a wholesale restructuring that would return agriculture to a system of local production for local consumption.

"The only good thing about this is that there will be a massive stimulus for rebuilding local and regional food and farming systems, and a big increase in organic and sustainable farms, which are less energy intensive," the Organic Consumer Association's Cummins said.

Amy Courtney is a farmer who is pioneering less energy-intensive ways of farming. Courtney is the owner and sole employee of Freewheelin' Farms, a tiny operation on California's Central Coast. Four years ago Courtney, 31, started farming by herself on a one-acre plot just a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean. On her oceanview parcel she grows strawberries, blackberries, hothouse tomatoes, cabbage, squash, leeks, and a range of other vegetables. Her produce goes to 16 households in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and some restaurants in a nearby town, all of which she delivers on her bicycle after a seven-mile ride.

"I was a bike activist and chose not to have a car in my life," Courtney said on a recent sunny afternoon as she stood near the chicken flock that supplies eggs to her CSA members. "Then I got involved with agriculture and saw how much we were spending on diesel and oil spills on the fields, and the whole thing was kind of gross to me. I don't want to support that with my life. Or at least I want to unplug as much as possible. And now, with everything in the Mideast, it's like, duh."

Courtney does use some petroleum. She employs a gasoline-powered rototiller to supplement her hand digging of the soil, and she has a biodiesel truck for hauling manure from a nearby ranch so that she can make her own compost. But she estimates that her farm's annual fuel use is less than 30 gallons. She also tries to be more sustainable by using as many recycled materials as possible. She inherited her greenhouse, and the bike trailer she uses for delivering her produce was scavenged from a junk pile.

"There's stuff out there that people aren't using, including land and equipment," she said. "I'm amazed how much food you can grow on a little piece of land. I don't care if they can't make Pez as cheap as they used to. I don't care if GM can't keep it together anymore. If we can't feed ourselves, we're fucked."

Freewheelin' Farms may not be scaled to feed a country of 300 million people. But it is an illustration of the basic principles that will be required to grow food in a post-oil age: Muscle-powered, localized, dependent on personal relationships. Courtney's model -- in which it takes one person to feed about another 20 -- also reveals one other change that will likely have to occur with the agricultural system: More people will have to start growing their own food. Currently less than two percent of the U.S. population are farmers. If we can no longer rely on the muscle of carbon energy, that number will need to grow.

Author Heinberg says the island nation of Cuba offers a model for how such a transition can occur. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist nation found itself cut off from the subsidized petroleum it had long depended on. In order to feed itself, the government launched a sweeping program to enlist citizens in urban gardening and composting. In the last decade, the country has become an internationally recognized model of sustainable agriculture.

"[Cuba] basically had an oil famine in the early '90s, and they had to break up the big state-owned farms and start smaller farms," says Heinberg. "They included farming as part of the curriculum in our schools. They raised the salaries of farmers.

"And they had to do these things, or otherwise they simply would not have survived as a society."

Jason Mark lives and works on an organic farm in California. He is the coauthor, with Kevin Danaher, of "Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power."