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.

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Responses to “how resilient is the food system?”

  1. Adam,

    I think you missed the point of the article, which was not that the food system is unlikely to fail. Of course it could fail, and I list reasons why it might. The point was, it is more robust than many other systems we rely on, and we should be looking at those.

  2. . . . And the last 5 points of your summary are fairly distorted from what I wrote; did you not understand, or are you just going for debater’s points?

  3. Hi Toby – thanks for the replies. I write my posts in all sincerity, and any inaccuracies are due to my own misunderstandings; I’m not a sophist. I’ll read over your essay again and comment again here.

  4. I read your article, Toby, and found it a weak argument.

    I’m not so interested in which system collapses first but what happens after that. It’s unlikely that systems will collapse in isolation.

    One of your examples was the financial system and you compared the emergy of finance with that of agriculture. Well, modern agriculture depends on finance, which would make agriculture inherit the complexity of finance. You should expect it to collapse soon after finance in spite of heroic government efforts.

    Sourcing our basic needs directly is part of finding alternatives to large, complex systems. If I pick a tomato from my garden I no longer need cash to purchase it. Nor a bank to store the cash. If the tomato has no toxic residue I may save myself a visit to the hospital.

  5. Adam–thanks for that. The main thing I see is that you don’t address the central point of the article: The whole US food system only requires about 15% of our oil consumption, so keeping that–or a large fraction of that–flowing should be possible given the importance of food. That means that our current stupid food system should stay functional for a long time. Thus the arguments about the challenge of going organic, changing crops, the need for new land, etc, seem not compelling to me. Also, I don’t argue for new cropland–there is plenty, and commodity corn and soy are edible—especially if you are hungry. And I really do think that the average lawn-tending suburbanite could grow a good crop of potatoes, corn, or other hi-calorie crop if they needed to.

    I am flattered that you saw fit to rebut the article, at any rate. And your comments about food deserts are spot on–much of my day-to-day work is on that issue. Thanks for your good work.

  6. Hi Toby – reading over your essay again, I see that I’ve misconstrued some of it and invented some disagreement where there isn’t any. For example, you do point out the possible menaces of financial speculation and bad policy. Also, I see that although I begin by stating your claim as “the food system is perhaps least likely of all [complex systems] to collapse,” I end by treating the issue as one of collapse simpliciter. So I was not as careful a reader as I could have been, sorry.

    However, I do think that it’s a little tough to see exactly what the main claim in your essay is. There are places where you state the relative claim that the food system is less likely to collapse than many others (e.g. finance, health care, auto manufacturing), but also places where you state the non-relative claim that food collapse is unlikely (5th paragraph). And there is a related but distinct idea raised a couple times: the question of whether things look so bad that we all ought to become subsistence farmers asap. (That, I agree with you, is not the only alternative to industrial farming, and it’s not a smart one, either.)

    I think we agree about quite a bit. You’re right that my remarks about the challenges of going organic, changing crops, etc, aren’t really germane if the current stupid food system continues to function; and so it looks like maybe the really important question to ask is not “how resilient is the food system against lack of fossil fuel,” but rather “how long can we keep the fossil food system going even as oil prices rise and petrofuel becomes scarce.” I’d been thinking about the former, and you were already thinking about the latter.

    Which raises your point about the U.S. using only 15% of its oil consumption on the food system. Here I have only speculative things to say, since I don’t really know about economics, much less how energy matters in economic systems. Your claims here seem sound to me if we think about the U.S.’s petroleum use as analogous to a personal budget—we’re spending a lot on relatively frivolous matters, so it should be possible to tighten our belts and devote less oil to luxuries and a greater fraction to food production. But I am concerned that our oil use is disanalogous in that the way we spend oil matters for the rest of the economy. I suppose my concern is much like the one Tim Auld raises in his comment here: our complex systems are interconnected, and fossil energy enables most of them to run. What happens to the food system, for example, if oil price spikes cause relentless economic recession? What happens if higher-transformity systems are dealt serious blows by peak oil? We were repeatedly told during 2008 and ’09 that finance must be kept afloat in order for the rest of the economy to survive; if that’s correct then it’s not reassuring to know that finance will collapse before food.

    This is very hand-wavey, I know—I’m not enough of an expert to make anything more than general qualitative claims about the tenacity of industrial food. So I’m afraid I’ll have to punt. But I should add that I’m also (because of that same inexpertise) not willing to endorse Tim Auld’s confident pessimism, either. (Sorry, Tim.)

    One last thing to add: In some ways I’m not happy about the possibility that the “current stupid food system” will persist a ways down the descending side of the Hubbert curve. Keeping people fed is of course a good thing, but allowing stupid practices to persist is not. Perhaps like many who are interested in energy and climate, I harbor a secret hope that energy decline will force us to collectively shape up and stop doing the things that are warming the planet, polluting the earth, and poisoning ourselves. This is a hope I should be on guard against when trying to make a sober assessment of such issues.

  7. Toby, In actuality the national food system needs far more than the esitimated 15%. I believe the number you are refering to is food transportation at more the 14% as indicated by the USDA. This does not include petro-chem treatments, nor does it include the actual cost of production, it also fails to include the cost of short and long term storage. I mean this to only include the costs to of petro. I also think you missed the main point of Adams article, food economics and its collapse is tightly intwined with so many other aspects of our day to day economics. Another thing you may wish to consider is the amount of non-food agriculture that is overtaking our farmlands. Now I may not be a sophist but I am a farmer (dairy, feed, and Sweet Corn our primary crops) so I just say tred lightly upon the ground which feeds and shelters you.