The Road Towards an Oil Free AgricultureSeminar of the 12th of April 2013 by Pablo Servigne
We have passed the global peak of conventional fossil fuel production. Numerous other non-renewable resources will follow a similar decline. Hence, it seems very possible that within a few years, we will witness the collapse of industrial food systems. How should we organise a transition towards more resilient food systems that are completely disconnected from these limited resources, within a short time frame and on a large scale? Who knows how to feed himself without oil? What would a post-industrial food system look like?
If we want to tackle the issue of food supply, it is necessary to think about the entire food system (from field to plate) and not simply the problem of production (agriculture). Within an industrialised country, everything that concerns food supply will fully depend on fossil fuels. First of all, oil and natural gas are the primary ingredients for the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides used in fields and are the main source of energy for agricultural machinery (ploughing, harvest, treatment, etc.). As for transportation, oil is the fuel of globalisation, putting into motion cargos, planes and lorries that supply distribution centres, markets and supermarkets, but also the private vehicles that help us travel to them. Finally, oil and natural gas are also the fuels and raw materials of the processing and storage industries: heating, cold chain, cleaning, treatment, wrapping… without forgetting that they are essential to the functioning of our kitchens!
Fossil fuels have allowed for a considerable increase in the yields of industrial agriculture over the course of the 20th century. They have relieved the farmer’s workload (and consequently diminished their numbers) and provided consumers with an incredible diversity of products. To put things crudely, our industrial societies are converting oil into food and food into humans.
The proclaimed end of industrial agriculture
We would not be preoccupied with all this if fossil fuels were infinite and did not heat up the atmosphere, or if this whole system was based on renewable energies. However, not only do the latter only represent an infinitely small part of the energy mix injected into these systems, but we are fast approaching the end of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency, known for its optimism in terms of reserves, the global peak of conventional oil production was passed between 2006 and 2008. Conventional crude, or in other words the best quality and most easily extractable oil, represents a great majority of our consumption and no other alternative can replace it in the near future. Shale oil, heavy oils or biofuels are only ephemeral solutions that maintain our dependence, whilst continuing to destroy the ecosystems on which we will depend in the post-oil era. Natural gas and phosphorus (essential inputs for industrial agriculture) should also pass their peaks within a few years, probably in between 2020 and 2030.
The logical consequence (that is certainly difficult to admit) is very simply the imminent end of our industrial food systems. What is less certain is the date and speed of this collapse. Nobody can predict with absolute certitude and precision the date of a global collapse in oil and natural gas supplies. Even so, three clues allow us to think that the end of industrial food systems is imminent and likely to be swift. The first is the speed of global food flows and the great interdependence of distribution chains that transforms the smallest choc into a systemic crisis. The second is the strong correlation between the prices of food and energy, thus indicating the extreme sensitiveness of our stomachs to the variations in oil prices (after the 2008 crisis, 35 countries experienced food related riots). The third clue is the standard scenario found in the Meadows report (ordered by the Club of Rome) that is still standing and more credible than ever, even after 40 years of criticism, and describes strong instabilities before 2020…
Of course, it is necessary to kick start a rapid and efficient transition from this very instant. But what does transition mean? Transition to what? Who is in charge of starting it? Most certainly not agronomists, as to this day no European research program exists (nor specifically Belgium or French) that works explicitly to the development of a post-oil agriculture!
There is a scenario on the scale of the French territory that directly addresses this issue; this is the “Afterres2050” scenario (1), coupled with the energy scenario produced by Négawatt. Let us also note a prospective study produced by the French Ministry of Agriculture, “Energie 2030” (2), which considers a serious energy crisis followed by the regionalisation of agriculture. But neither of these two scenarios contemplate the end of industrial agriculture before 2030 or even 2050.
Organic Agriculture, whilst participating in the movement towards a more healthy agriculture, is absolutely not a model for transition towards post-industrial food systems. It is currently experiencing a move towards heavy machinery, long distance transportation (in France one can find organic kiwis from New Zealand!), delocalised and cheap work forces whilst paying no attention to questions concerning territorial planning. We must thus go much further.
Agroecology (the ecology of food systems) is a much more promising road as it is systemic. It includes pre- and post-industrial techniques (returning life to soils, crop rotations, green fertilisers, animal traction, the use of perennial plants, agroforestery, etc.) coupling them with economic, sociological, psychological, anthropological and political studies of human communities implicated in food systems. In other words, it allows conceiving the transition in its entirety without omitting the key factor: human beings. Thus, it is necessary to support agroecology to the maximum, whilst keeping in mind that its emergence is currently locked by the dominant socio-technical system (the current industrial and technological vision). This locking phenomenon is one of the key points in the transition.
Permaculture (3) is an even more accomplished vision of transition than agroecology, as it not only deals with food systems, but all other human systems simultaneously (habitat, energy, water, organisation, etc.). It’s a methodological conception of sustainable human systems. The large-scale application of permaculture is called the movement of Transition Initiatives (Initiatives de Transition). But even if permaculture affects millions of people around the world, it only represents a very small part of the effort we would need to supply in order to initiate a big transition before 2020. Hence, we have to go even further and at a faster rate to impact even more people and most importantly implicate more institutions and governments. However, these very institutions and governments are precisely the cause of the present locking of the system. No government from an industrialised country is ready to initiate such a transition. Even worse, they will use all available energy they dispose of to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, the transition lobbies (a few NGOs and associations) have for the past 40 years, proven to be particularly ineffective, even counter-productive as they maintain the illusion that the great machine can still “change direction”, thus pushing away the living forces from the true efforts required on the ground.
How to feed yourself in a post-industrial era
Without mechanisation or synthetic inputs, agriculture will most certainly be very difficult. We will just have to work! As did the Cuban people, who during the 1990s had to return to the fields by pure necessity. Whether we want it or not, urban agriculture will logically return to our cities (as in Detroit, post-industrial city par excellence). But this will not suffice. Following a process of inward-looking regionalisation, the farmers will diversify their agricultural production in the constant search for more autonomy. We will observe an exponential development in animal traction, perpetual soil coverage, a preference for perennial plants or even the integration of plant cultivation, livestock and forestry. Everywhere we will witness the inevitable (and surely difficult) change in eating habits: less meat, less tropical products, etc. On hearing these words our unconscious immediately thinks of Epinal images (image d’Epinal): a return to the peasantry of the Middle-Ages, to candles or even to the Stone Age (depending on the bad faith of the interlocutor), family farming, low yields, famines, rationing, etc.
By this stage a little perspective is required. The geological era that has just finished, the Holocene, lasted for 10 000 years and represented a period of exceptional climatic stability, thus allowing for the emergence of agriculture. In addition to a stable climate, human agriculture relied on healthy, diverse ecosystems and on a rich genetic and cultural heritage (know-how, species, rustic varieties created and conserved by peasants). However, these three pillars of agriculture (climate, ecosystems and heritage) have been destroyed by the short industrial era. The climate is deeply disrupted, ecosystems are polluted or degraded, genetic and cultural diversity have been almost obliterated. We have now fully entered the era of the Anthropocene. When oil comes to disappear, we will realise that we have destroyed the three pillars of agriculture. Hence it won’t be a return to the Middle Ages; It will probably be much worse.
Tomorrow’s food systems will be much smaller and less interconnected than those of today. They will depend almost exclusively on our knowledge of ecology and ecological complexity. On the other hand, agroecosystems (the place of production) will have to be much richer and diverse in species in order to be resilient in the face of climate change. The populations that lack oil and processing industries will have to learn how to cultivate perennial plants, polyculture, livestock rearing, picking and hunting, craftsmanship (conservation, tools, storage and transformation, especially in regions with a winter), as well as local social competences (conflict resolution, cooperation, etc.). Then again, these techniques cannot be acquired in a few days…
If a planified, large-scale transition is obviously ideal, we are far from undertaking it. Anticipation is not really part of our political culture. It is therefore realistic to imagine that emergency measures will be taken after the first serious systemic choc, or in other words much too late to initiate a peaceful and safe transition towards resilient food systems. By this time, all the knowledge and techniques related to agroecology and permaculture will be vital.
To put things simply, our industrial food systems have a formidable power but present a surprising fragility. They allow for extraordinary levels of production and distribution, but risk collapsing in the next 10 to 20 years. Even though the knowledge and infrastructure necessary to a post-oil food system are long to put in place, there is no sign of a move towards transition, whether from academic or political spheres. Luckily, the seeds of a post-industrial world have already been sown (agroecology and permaculture) throughout the world. Hundreds and thousands of diverse experiences are blooming in the breaches and margins of the industrial system, in rather inauspicious soils. Life is tenacious. This is what the transition looks like at present, weeds or pioneering and adventitious plants. For once, we will have to protect them, water them and cut them. Fast.
(3) Voir le séminaire d’Agnès Sinaï, La révolution permaculturelle, du vendredi 14 décembre 2012. Disponible sur https://www.institutmomentum.org/2012/12/la-revolution-permaculturelleseminaire-du-vendredi-14-decembre-par-agnes-sinai/