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The Oil Drum is one of the best internet sources for information about peak oil and resource depletion in general, as well as some of the very creative ways that people are planning to cope in a world with declining sources of fossil fuels.

Some of the posts on the Oil Drum are very complex and detailed and may contain too much math and too many graphs for the average reader. (Although the quality of information and discussion that you will find at TOD is as high as anywhere I know of on the internet.) Recognizing this, back in December the editors of the site started up a new department of The Oil Drum, which they called The Oil Drum: Campfire. Here is some of what they said about this new forum:

We intend this forum to be akin to a summer night sitting around a campfire, dreaming, hoping, and tossing around ideas that might bring about positive change. The types of discussions we would like to foster are where there are no right or wrong answers, just shared experiences, advice and wisdom. Topics will relate to wide boundary issues surrounding energy descent, including local food production, small scale energy production, experiments in living with less, or just general information and ideas to be shared with the online community.

On May 20, 2009, Jason Bradford published a Campfire post titled “Ecological Economics and the Food System“, which looks hard at the fossil-fuel consumption of the present system of industrial agriculture. There are some very interesting statistics on the relative levels of carbon-dioxide emission stemming from various food sources (meat, fruits/vegetables, chicken/fish/eggs, etc.) and lots of information about how the various parts of the industrial food system contribute to energy consumption. Here are some of Bradford’s conclusions:

The bottom line is that every measure must be taken to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel consumption and dependency in every component of our lives. The key word is “rapidly.” Don’t passively assume inexpensive alternative energy substitutes will arrive to replace fossil fuels-we may have waited too long to respond to have a smooth transition. Therefore, focus most attention on reducing energy demand rather than substituting a new energy supply. And finally, in the context of ecological economics, fossil fuel depletion and climate change, ask whether what you do in your life, vocation, hobbies, and habits, contributes to the long-term function (or dysfunction) of society.

Here are some of the things we should be doing, or agitating for in our food system, according to “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System: a summary of existing research and analysis”, a paper by John Hendrickson cited by Bradford:

It appears that some of the greatest saving can be realized by:

  • reduced use of petroleum-based fertilizers and fuel on farms,
  • a decline in the consumption of highly processed foods, meat, and sugar,
  • a reduction in excessive and energy intensive packaging,
  • more efficient practices by consumers in shopping and cooking at home,
  • and a shift toward the production of some foods (such as fruits and vegetables) closer to their point of consumption.

All of this meshes nicely with many efforts underway on the Upper Sunshine Coast. The eat-local movement; workshops on growing, preserving, and preparing healthy local food; preservation of our lands in the Agricultural Land Reserve; Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) and other small-scale urban farming projects such as the various community gardens; the Open Air Market and other markets to give small producers a place to sell their goods — these are all beginning steps towards a local food economy which serves the needs of local producers and consumers and also helps us move towards a radically lower regional carbon footprint.

Bradford moves on to a discussion of Brookside Farm, a one-acre farm in Willits, California, which functions as a working farm with a fifteen-share CSA and strong connections to a local elementary school and the wider community. Here are some of the ways that Brookside confronts the challenge of reducing fossil-fuel inputs and overall energy consumption, conveniently broken down into the various areas in which energy consumption occurs “from farm to fork”:

Type of Work Common Fossil-Fuel Inputs Alternatives Implemented
Soil cultivation Gasoline or diesel powered rototiller or small tractor Low-wheel cultivator, broadfork, adze or grub hoe, rake and human labor
Soil fertility In-organic or imported organic fertilizer Growing of highly productive, nitrogen and biomass crop (banner fava beans), making aerobic compost piles sufficient to build soil carbon and nitrogen fertility, re-introducing micro-nutrients by importing locally generated food waste and processing in a worm bin, and application of compost teas for microbiology enhancement.
Pest and weed management Herbicide and pesticide applications, flame weeder, tractor cultivation Companion planting, crop rotation, crop diversity and spatial heterogeneity, beneficial predator attraction through landscape plantings, emphasis on soil and plant health, and manual removal with efficient human-scaled tools
Seed sourcing Bulk ordering of a few varieties through centralized seed development and distribution outlets Sourcing seeds from local supplier, developing a seed saving and local production and distribution plan using open pollinated varieties
Food distribution Produce trucks, refrigeration, long-distance transport, eating out of season Produce only sold locally, direct from farm or hauled to local restaurants or grocers using bicycles or electric vehicles, produce grown with year-round consumption in mind with farm delivering large quantities of food in winter months
Storage and processing at production end Preparation of food for long distance transport, storage and retailing requiring energy intensive cooling, drying, food grade wax and packaging Passive evaporative cooling, solar dehydrating, root cellaring and re-usable storage baskets and bags
Home and institutional storage and cooking Natural gas, propane or electric fired stoves and ovens, electric freezers and refrigerators Solar ovens, promotion of eating fresh and seasonal foods, home-scale evaporative cooling for summer preservation and “root cellaring” techniques for winter storage

There’s more to the article, including a slightly cheeky demonstration that Americans could spare some of their average daily viewing time of four hours and thirty-five minutes (!) to tend a productive home garden and become more self-reliant. Go read the whole thing.

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is one of the most inspiring thinkers and speakers on the subject of food sovereignty, which refers to the right of all people to control their sources of food according to their own social, cultural, and political needs and not according to the requirements of transnational corporations.

This article, an excerpt from Shiva’s 2008 book Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, is a great introduction to her thought. The core of it is in this paragraph:

We need an alternative. Biodiverse, organic farms and localized food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more food, producing better food, and creating more livelihoods. The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil; biodiverse, organic, and local food systems are based on living soil. The industrialized system is based on creating waste and pollution; a living agriculture is based on no waste. The industrialized system is based on monocultures; sustainable systems are based on diversity.

And if you just can’t get enough of Vandana Shiva, here is a talk she gave back in March of 2007, titled “Defending Food Freedom in a Period of Food Fascism”. Unfortunately, the links to the video files appear to be broken, but there is a working link to the audio.

Had the last meeting of the year last night, and (I think) the first meeting of the second year of meetings… meaning, if I remember rightly, that the first meeting ever was in December 2007, back when we had no name for these monthly gatherings.

About 8 people showed up, which is not bad for a December evening. The food was great: a delicious curry and rice, some mashed (local) potatoes with parsley & smoked salmon, deviled backyard (illegal!) eggs, and yummy shortbread and other treats for dessert.

Conversation was, as always, fairly free-wheeling. But we did do a go-round and give everyone a chance to talk about what they’re up to, what’s going on in the garden, and all that good stuff. I handed out copies of the first draft of the seed-saving plan and we talked about that. I’m pretty certain that this is a project that will really spark people’s imaginations and lead to good conversations about the importance of local seed-saving, the fragility of the global food supply, backyard gardening in hard times, and all sorts of other topics near and dear to the heart of the Kale Force.

For anyone interested in getting more involved, the seed-saving project — which badly needs a jazzy name — has a blog. There’s not a huge amount of information there now, but this is the place on the web where we will be creating and following this local project, answering questions, sharing information and results, and all that.

See you in the new year!

I just submitted this to the editor of the Vancouver Sun in response to Cernetig’s really lousy piece on the 100-mile diet:

To the editor:

Miro Cernetig’s May 17, 2008 piece on the 100-mile diet (“Worship the 100-mile diet, eat at the world’s table”) manages to miss the point in its trendy haste to name-drop Capers and Lulu Lemon.

The 100-mile diet is a response to the global food system that Cernetig celebrates so lustily. This system is based on the consumption of enormous amounts of fossil fuels, in the form of fertilizers, packaging, fuel for farm equipment and transportation. Crude oil production is in crisis, and its price is at unprecedented levels and rising fast. Extraction and consumption of these chemicals contribute to atmospheric CO2, the main cause of global warming.

The 100-mile diet is based on the observation that this global food system is dependent on an environmentally destructive resource whose future availability and affordability are in question. We need to start developing strategies for reducing our use of fossil fuels. We all love mangoes and bubbly, but we need to be aware of the true cost of getting those mangoes and that bubbly to our table. The 100-mile diet is a method for starting to understand and talk about the true cost of food.

Sincerely,
David Parkinson
Powell River, BC

I feel slightly better, but the 200-word limit is a tough constraint. There’s a lot to say about journalism this slack-ass and complacent.

The Vancouver Sun is running a feature this week called “Feast or Famine”, all about the global food crisis, local eating, urban farming, organic farming, and other related topics. Unfortunately they got one of their regular columnists, Miro Cernetig, to write a ‘contrarian’ piece about the 100-mile diet, which is truly awful. I guess a backlash is a sign of success, but they could have tried harder to find someone willing to investigate the really interesting problems with relocalization and trying to eat locally.

The argument seems to be something like:

  1. Privileged people with money can buy food and wine from everywhere; therefore that is a good thing.
  2. Eating locally hurts small farmers in the third world. (I don’t want to talk about agri-business.)
  3. Hey, I thought we were all about fair trade. You guys changed the rules again! Miro is confused.
  4. Eating ethically is hard; so why bother trying?
  5. As soon as food travels more than 100 miles, it becomes evil.

Here’s the peroration:

But if eliminating CO2-heavy food from our diet is the new imperative, it also means you have to feel guilty about buying anything not grown within a 100-mile radius. How is that going to help the world’s peasants trying to sell their beans to us?

So, to be honest, I’m not into the 100-Mile Diet and never will be. I love my 40,008-Kilometre Diet. I don’t even feel guilty about it. In fact, I celebrate eating a mango and drinking a glass of bubbly from the other side of the planet as one of the heights of human achievement.

I mean, didn’t we spend millennia getting to this point as a species? From Alexander the Great to Rome’s Caesar to the British nabobs, building global empire was often about expanding the food chain, as much about finding tea as gold.

Global epicureanism is part of human evolution. And now it’s here.

Horrible, horrible, horrible.

This story from the Washington Post really tells you a lot about where we’re at these days:

Three companies — BASF of Germany, Syngenta of Switzerland and Monsanto of St. Louis — have filed applications to control nearly two-thirds of the climate-related gene families submitted to patent offices worldwide, according to the report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, an activist organization that advocates for subsistence farmers.

The applications say that the new “climate ready” genes will help crops survive drought, flooding, saltwater incursions, high temperatures and increased ultraviolet radiation — all of which are predicted to undermine food security in coming decades. 

On the one hand, you have to think that, if you were running a corporation intending to produce profits from food under any circumstances whatever, then it’s only prudent to plan for the possibility of climate and other factors getting in your way. On the other hand, this just sounds like something dreamed up by a misanthropic science-fiction author.

And as long as we can pretend to be finessing our way out of disaster, we don’t have to confront the disaster. I’m sure that the PR flacks for these corporations would respond that they’re not in the business of solving global warming; they’re just trying to make an honest buck. But if this is what “making an honest buck” looks like, then we’re in a bad bad place. It’s hard to believe that anyone can really believe that we’re going to engineer our way out of the problems created in large part by technology… by applying more technology.

The global situation is becoming more frightening on all fronts. Frightened people make bad choices. Decisions based largely on financial outcomes are often short-sighted. Short-sighted decisions have bad consequences.

That’s where we are and that’s where we’re heading, as fast as the ever-toiling machine of industrial capitalism can take us. We have no real say in all of this; we’re just along for the ride. All we can do is try to stay sane and build better solutions in our backyards.

From HopeDance Magazine:

“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.”

His comments about meat consumption underscore how truly idiotic the meat inspection regulations are that we are facing in BC. A wise government would be doing everything it could to encourage small-scale meat production and local consumption. Instead, the small-scale is under threat, and we will have to rely increasingly on trucked-in meat. It’s madness.

If you can’t get enough of Julian Darley, here‘s a link to a conversation between him and David Holmgren, one of the co-founders of permaculture.

From the CBC’s Sunday Edition: This week, host Ramona Dearing talks to Frances Moore Lappé about the world food shortage and the future of our supply. But first, Frank Faulk takes a documentary look at a new breed of farmers.

The segment with Lappé begins at 26:47, but the earlier story about young people getting into farming is well worth listening to.

MP3 here.

(H/t Mercedes.)

From the Independent UK: “Multinationals make billions in profit out of growing global food crisis.”

Cargill’s net earnings soared by 86 per cent from $553m to $1.030bn over the same three months. And Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agricultural processors of soy, corn and wheat, increased its net earnings by 42 per cent in the first three months of this year from $363m to $517m. The operating profit of its grains merchandising and handling operations jumped 16-fold from $21m to $341m.

And:

Cargill says that its results “reflect the cumulative effect of having invested more than $18bn in fixed and working capital over the past seven years to expand our physical facilities, service capabilities, and knowledge around the world”

David's recent links of interest

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