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What Will Grow without Oil?
by Art Myatt
Production and distribution of food are driven by the economy. Very few of us grow our own food, or find it supplied by nature. We buy almost all our food. If industrial farming fails, we can either create a new system to deliver food or we can starve.
When the economy is functioning normally, the failure of food delivery is an absurd improbability. With a failing economy, the absurd idea becomes less amusing; the improbable becomes possible.
The United States produces its annual surplus of food with less than 1% of the population working as farmers. This is very different from the age of Jeffersonian democracy, when 90% of the nation worked in agriculture and people living in cities were a small minority. The difference is industrial farming.
Even what today we call a "small family farm" is typically committed to industrial farming, a system that uses up 10 calories of fossil fuels for every calorie of food produced. 
...industrial farming...uses up 10 calories of fossil fuels for every calorie of food produced.
In addition to being the source of diesel to power tractors in the fields and trucks hauling away the harvest, oil is the feedstock for herbicides and pesticides. Natural gas becomes the ammonia fertilizer that replaces nitrogen depleted from the soil by most crops. Some crops are processed into animal feed, and then the animal parts are processed into food. Fossil fuel energy powers processing, packaging and distribution between the farm and the grocer's shelf or the cafeteria line.
At current rates of consumption, world reserves of oil will be exhausted by approximately the middle of this century. Protestations that we should have faith in new technology to extract oil, new fossil sources to substitute for oil, fusion power, windmills on kites in the jet stream, or the imminent intervention of benevolent space aliens are smoke, mirrors and useless distractions.
Realistically, as depletion advances, it won't be possible to maintain the current rate of oil production, and the rate of consumption will necessarily drop long before the middle of the century. We're going to need a different approach to survival.
For all the plans involving possibilities for nuclear power, hydrogen, photovoltaics, alternative fuels and so on, the three fossil fuels still supply 85% of the energy we depend on.
Oil is used as the source of liquid fuel (diesel, jet fuel, gasoline) because it starts out as a liquid (easy extraction, easy transportation) and it can cheaply be turned into useful liquid fuel. Coal and natural gas can also be made into these same liquid fuels, but these are dirty and expensive processes, not the best use of coal and natural gas.
In any case, to replace oil with liquid fuels made from coal and natural gas we'd have to double or triple our production of coal and natural gas. That's probably not possible, and it's certainly not sustainable.
Bitumen (the organic material in "oil sands") and kerogen (the material in "oil shale") can also be turned into liquid fuels. Those processes are also dirty and expensive. The process for extracting and using kerogen, in particular, is so expensive that, although huge deposits of oil shale have been identified for more than a century, nobody has figured out how to make a profit from turning it into fuel. Squeezing the lifeblood of industry from stones is not easy.
Making liquid fuels from sources other than oil is an act of desperation. The fuel so made will be expensive, the rate at which it can be made is limited, and the plants to make it are far more destructive of the environment than oil wells, ships and refineries.
Energy independence has been a goal of the United States government at least since President Nixon's 1974 State of the Union address, the speech in which he was responding to the "oil shock" of 1973. Then, the USA was importing 1/3 of the oil it consumed.
Making liquid fuels from sources other than oil is an act of desperation.
Now, 2/3 is imported. Oops, wrong direction. If the supply of foreign oil is cut off for any reason, we will experience an abrupt and drastic reduction of transportation, no matter what the effect is on the economy. We will experience an abrupt and drastic reduction of food production and distribution, regardless of the effect on our waistlines, our health, and the stability of our political system.
President Bush II characterized this dependence on oil as an "addiction," but the term is not accurate. Today's industrial society can no more function without oil than a person can function without food. That's not addiction, that's dependence.
While it is not possible to create a person who lives without food, it is possible to construct a society that functions without oil. It just won't be the salvation of the old industrial society. We should keep that in mind as we watch repeated failures in the supply of cheap oil. A historical trend of higher prices for each unit of energy from fossil fuel is already visible.
Availability and price are not the only problems with fossil fuels. A century or two of burning carbon and hydrocarbon mined from the earth has resulted in an unnatural increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the oceans (in addition to the incidental pollution from mercury, sulfur and so on). In the atmosphere, the effect of increased carbon dioxide is an intensified greenhouse effect disturbing the climate. In the oceans, the effect is acidification, eroding the base of the ocean's food chain. And of course, population growth and economic growth are possible only if the growing population can be adequately fed.
Dependence on fossil fuels is not the only problem for industrial farming. Agribusiness also depends on credit financing, which is neither reliable nor cheap because of multiple failures of financial institutions. The common practices of agribusiness such as large area monocultures, heavy use of pesticides and genetically modified crops are suspected of contributing to the honeybee's colony collapse disorder, which means pollination of many crops is problematic. Nitrates from fertilizers decrease human fertility when they get into the local ground water, and cause extensive dead zones downstream when they run off. Mechanization of planting leaves many harvests depending on migrant labor, which does not work well with aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.
No practical substitute for oil may be possible, just as there is not a practical substitute for water and sunshine.
With industrial farming, increasing prices for fossil fuels mean decreasing affordability of food. Decreased availability of fuel means decreased availability of food. For now, there is a lot of fat in the food system that we can afford to lose. Still, the distance between surplus and starvation is not so great that starvation is not imaginable.
We don't need a comprehensive plan for seven generations before we deal with these questions. We do need the ability to take some steps in the direction of surviving the coming breakdown of industrial farming without stepping in the sinkhole of more wars for oil.
Homesteads close to the new electric interurban railways will have the easiest time marketing their surplus.
Industrial farming, which minimizes the use of labor, is energy intensive. Energy-intensive agriculture will be shrinking for the foreseeable future, because the energy available for agriculture will also be shrinking. Growing food will become more local and more labor-intensive. The food we eat will be less processed and will contain less meat. The meat we do eat will come more from free-range animals and less from confined animal feeding operations.
Urban and suburban gardening is already becoming more common. Michelle Obama's garden at the White House is very much in tune with the times. Kitchen gardens are just the first gesture in the direction of the future of food.
As agribusinesses fail and jobs in the city remain in short supply, we should plan ways to smooth migration from the cities to the countryside. Perhaps agricultural land coming to state and local governments as a result of non-payment of taxes could be used to establish community-owned farms. Perhaps the community farms would benefit from some similarities to the best elements of Israel's Kibbutz movement.
Rehabilitating land nearly beaten to death by tractors and chemicals won't be easy or quick. When the choice is between rehabilitating the land or starving, perhaps the government can subsidize the new homesteads with a New Homestead Act providing a few years of free tools and tax breaks to community- owned farms. It's a small cost to lower unemployment and increase food production at the same time.
Homesteads close to the new electric interurban railways will have the easiest time marketing their surplus. These will be the choice locations. Now, if we can also get busy building the new interurban routes instead of rebuilding highways that will be useless when nobody can afford cars or the gasoline to run them, we might create a sustainable society before the old one is burned to ashes.
Art Myatt is with the Michigan Greens.
1. "The Oil We Eat", Harper's Magazine 2004. The whole article is available on the web at: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2004/02/0079915.
[26 oct 09]