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The Industrial Food System Depends To Its Peril On Cheap Oil

The Industrial Food System Depends To Its Peril On Cheap Oil thumbnail

With a gallon of gasoline in America now averaging almost $4.00, the topic of oil dependence is timely.

Cheap oil and other fossil fuels have helped create the modern American economy, and to a lesser extent, the economies of other industrialized cultures around the world.  Big industry totally depends on them.  Naturally, this includes the food industry.

Let’s list some of the ways in which cheap fossil fuels sustains the conventional food system in America.

  1. Factory farm grain is sown and harvested using enormous tractors that run on fossil fuels.
  2. Factory farms depend on fertilizers, which are made using fossil fuels.
  3. Factory farm chemicals are dispersed with vehicles that run on fossil fuels.
  4. Factory farm corn and soy are transported long distances to industrial feeding operations in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  5. Factory farm animals are transported to industrial feeding operations in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  6. Factory farm manure is managed with vehicles using fossil fuels.
  7. Factory farm animals are transported to slaughterhouses in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  8. Factory farm corn and soy are transported long distances to industrial processing facilities in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  9. Industrial processing facility workers are transported long distances to and from work in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  10. Factory farm dairy, meat, vegetables, and processed foods are packaged with materials made from fossil fuels.
  11. Factory farm dairy, meat, vegetables, and processed foods are transported long distances to supermarkets using fossil fuels.
  12. Factory farm consumers travel to and from supermarkets in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  13. Industrial food products are shipped around the world in vessels using fossil fuels.

According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivor’s Dilemma, in the industrial food system, “it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food, ” and that’s before the food even leaves the farm!  Pollan states, “from the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink the petroleum directly.”

According to Polyface Farms farmer and author Joel Salatin, the current industrial food model that fossil fuels made possible is revolutionary, but not in healthy way.  In his new book, Folk, this ain’t normal, he explains that, prior to the modern age, energy was a precious and rare commodity.  He states:

Not very long ago, the average person was responsible for his own energy. … [A person] had to maintain a horse to travel somewhere.  That horse required care and feed.  [The person] had to cut wood with an ax and crosscut saw to feed the woodstove and, before woodstoves, the incredible inefficient fireplace.  Waterwheels often powered grain mills and sawmills.  Later, steam engines powered these things, as well as trains.  Coal gradually replaced wood.  Lights came from candles made from animal fat.  All of this took lots of time.

Joel then goes on:

Because energy was precious, people tended to live close to their work.  Driving to the office was too expensive and laborious. … Craftspeople tended to live over their shops.  Communing into work was not only impractical, it was undesirable and inefficient.  Suburban developments only became possible, and will only remain so, as long as energy is cheap. … Food had to be grown close to consumption because transporting it was too expensive.  Feedstuffs for animals, whether it was grain or grass, had to be grown and consumed on the same farm; nothing else was possible.

Joel then explains that cheap energy is what allowed for the development of the current large-scale industrial paradigm.  He explains that, with the arrival of cheap energy:

The butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, formerly embedded in the village, were summarily removed from the community because with cheap energy, their businesses could grow beyond local energy carrying capacity. … Ordinary industries that had been shackled to a village scale could suddenly grow unimpeded. … The huge industrial factories could not be nestled into the village.

Joel argues that this bigness had serious downsides.  First, removal of industry, including the food industry, from villages and towns where consumers could interact with producers removed transparency from the industrial process and fostered ignorance and complacency among consumers on the topic of industrial processes.  Joel states:

These mega-industries actually became repugnant to neighbors, so much so that the businesses erected large security fences to keep out curious eyes that could testify about pollution or worker abuse.  Whenever an economic sector cloisters itself behind opaqueness, it will begin taking environmental, social, and economic shortcuts.  Integrity occurs when people can see what’s going in at the front door and what’s coming out the back door.  Absent that accountability, you lose integrity.

Second, large industry’s dependence on cheap oil leaves it very vulnerable to destruction in the event that cheap oil ends.  In other words, large-scale industry made possible by cheap oil is not only revolutionary, it is temporary and may someday disappear.  According to Joel:

The reality is that bonanzas don’t survive for very long, and that is what cheap energy is: a bonanza.  I don’t know how long it will last, but the way to bet is that we will return to a more normal energy cost sometime in the future.

Energy costs could skyrocket for many reasons.  An increasingly discussed reason is the arrival of “peak oil”, the point at which the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached, after which the supply of oil will enter permanent decline.  Debate exists on whether peak oil has already occurred.

Regardless of whether peak oil has occurred, the question remains.  When fossil fuel is no longer affordable, and therefore, food is no longer affordable, who will have food to eat?

I’ll put my money on those who eat local.

19 Comments on "The Industrial Food System Depends To Its Peril On Cheap Oil"

  1. sheilach on Mon, 26th Mar 2012 11:07 pm 

    Reality is that when cheap oil is no more and energy is scarce, there won’t be seven billion people around because without abundant cheap oil, we cannot feed seven billion people and our excess numbers will collapse just like those dumb bacteria in a petri dish.

    Even eating local won’t save us because there are just too many of us.

  2. DC on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 12:03 am 

    Thats true enough, but the idea that we even CAN eat local is itself problmatic. Indust-Ag didnt just turn food into one huge fuel gobbling exercise, it also all but eliminated ALL compeition while it was at it. So, you want to eat local? Good luck, Corporations and govt subsidies have made sure you HAVE no local food to eat, or if you do, its very limited both in scope and scale.

    Bottom line is, when we need that local food system., it just wont be there for us. Us urbanites lack not only the land, but more importantly the skills and the attitude required to grow our own, except in the most limited way. The idea that we could quickly convert our clapboard and plastic subdivisions, golf courses and sports fields parks w/e to do the job, is a fantasy. I dont know how many of the 172000 people crammed into this sh*thole of strip-malls, low-end casinons and over-priced retirement ‘developments’ would be able to actually survive on local resources, but it wont be many. The area used to actually have very good and fertile soil, now covered in poorly built houses and big box stores, acess to water too, except those 170k ppl use it for a toilet and run there gas-powered ‘pleasure’ boats in it constantly. The paper mills discharging there toxic crud it not helping any either.

    Same story everywhere it seems…

  3. Ken Nohe on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 12:40 am 

    I concur with the comments: the last 100 years have seen the destruction of the “local” economy and agriculture. It was simply not competitive enough to survive. The process is over in most developed economies and at different stages of advancement in developing ones. But in doing so, we ignored other essential factors: flexibility and ability to recover from external shocks (climate, virus, etc…), diversity and complexity of the ecosystems (itself a factor of resistance), efficiency and ability to “produce” with limited resources (water, fertilizers, etc…)

    We always hear about the maximum population the earth can bear, but we should rather be obsessed with the minimum that can survive in a very bad year, (What about 2 in a row without summer following a large eruption as happened in 1815?)

  4. Beery on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 12:48 am 

    Come on folks, it’s not like this is all going to happen overnight. Prices will rise very slowly and people will have time to learn how to grow food etc. Meanwhile, companies will sprout up that want to cash in on the locally grown food industry and various other industries based on the new paradigm will become more and more successful. And all this will happen organically, as the prices of food get higher, with poorer people transitioning first, while the richer people are still able to afford the mass produced crap.

  5. BillT on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 1:26 am 

    I just read an article that stated that without petroleum and natural gas, the earth could maybe support a continuous population of less than 100,000,000 or one hundred million spread across the habitable areas of the globe. Even if we are smart enough to be able to increase that number ten fold, that means that 6 billion of us have to die off and not be replaced.

    There was about one billion people on the earth when the age of petroleum began, and that will probably be the max that will exist when it ends.

  6. BillT on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 1:31 am 

    Beery, yes, it could ‘happen overnight’ if the system that makes it possible collapses and cannot be rebuilt. That is the financial system. The petroleum trade is like any other and maybe even worse. It all depends on a very involved financial system that is already balancing on the edge of a knife of debt.

    If the major banks of the world were to collapse, the trade of goods would also stop. It took a long time for the dollar to become the world’s trade currency. But, it is more insecure than most other currencies today. That is why the BRICS are moving away from it to other trade currencies. They see what is coming. Do you?

  7. Alan Cecil on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 3:28 am 

    I’m leery of Beery. Yes, it COULD happen suddenly. Iran does something stupid to close the Straits of Hormuz, or someone sinks a few large ships in the Strait of Malacca…badda boom, badda bing, our Ponzi economy collapses. Add to this a natural or man-made catastrophe (war in the Middle East, sabotage of Saudi pipelines, another Carrington Event, etc.) and our goose will be cooked. There was a billion and a half people living in 1859 when Drake hit oil in Pennsylvania. That’s about tops for what the ol’ earth can support without fossil-fuel agriculture. And things can get bad mighty quick. Just ask the folks in New Orleans.

  8. PETE on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 6:13 am 

    10 units of energy for every 1 that you consume on your plate. The US gov is attacking co-ops and everything not manufactured by big AG. I dont have a front yard anymore, I dug it out 18″ down and removed all the clay,rocks and shit. then I refilled it mixing a garden party mix and peatmoss with my topsoil and some manure/dirt I got free from a farm. Covered it in black plastic and told my neighbors it’s for a great lawn in 2 years. I wonder what they will think after this summer when I put the cheap bolt it together ornamental 5′ fence around it?

  9. Arthur on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 9:03 am 

    Do not be too pessimistic. Remember that Russia experienced a total systemic collapse. Life was extremely hard, yet as far as I know few people died of hunger. When I was a kid I had a vegetable garden with my father for two years, 100 m2 in size. It was amazing how much diverse food you can get from this small piece of land with relatively little effort. Beans, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, onions, sprouts, strawberries, the whole lot. The problem was to bring production and consumption in balance. My mother thanked god when my father and I gave up on the hobby and she could fall back on shops again.

  10. BillT on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 9:17 am 

    Arthur, Russia was also mostly rural and not concentrated in cities so they had access to farms and room to grow their own. If you live in the colder parts of the Us, you would need acres to feed a family, not a backyard. You would also need the implements to preserve and store all that food if you could not go to the store regularly. It would take some real farming knowledge and experience to grow a balanced diet for 4-6 people yourself. Perhaps a mule or horse and the equipment to go with them. Digging and preparing a few acres by hand would not be possible.

    I too had a garden at many times in my 67 years and it was a learning curve. I think I might be able to survive until I sharpened them, but it would be hard work. I currently live in the Philippines where you can grow crops all year long and the soil is not depleted. That is one reason I moved here rather than Florida.

  11. DC on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 9:22 am 

    Sorry Russia did not suffer a total systemic collapse, you should read Re-inventing collapse. If the Russia had suffered the total systemic collapse you seem to think they did, then a lot of people likely would have. Russia is more resliant in the ways that actually matter is what got them thro. We have far less of that, and almost zero ability to tolerate or endure anything like hardship.

    FYI, total systemic collapse would be like, say…Somalia, or parts of Yugo-slavia during the civil war there.

  12. Arthur on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 10:04 am 

    DC, the communist system collapsed in 1991, hence by definition it was a systemic collapse, read Dmitri Orlov, he is an expert on collapse, he lived through it.

    Russia might be rural, but they also have several mega-cities whose citizens did not starve either. The standard scheme was that city dwellers had a simple datcha in the countryside, or a grandma or neighbours with one.

    Running a vegetable garden basically consist of fighting weed and not much else. I went to the garden with my father every saturday and worked for a few hours, that was enough. The harvest was enough for a family of 6 in kilo terms, but the problem was that in Holand you harvest everything at once. So you need to take measures to conserve the food, which we did not.

    America, that is flyover country, has always been a major food producer and will remain so, probably for decades to come, long after Joe Sixpack has abandoned his car and lives in dark unheated homes. It is a matter of priorities and since fossile fuels are going to be available for decades for essential activities like farming, I do not foresee mass starvation happening in the US or Europa, in line with predictions of the German army peakoil study group, who acknowledges the reality of peakoil.

  13. Arthur on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 10:09 am

    Map of global food security according to said peakoil study group.

  14. BillT on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 11:32 am 

    Arthur, if you think raising your own food is just fighting weeds, you will starve…lol. And, yes, mass starvation WILL happen in the Us.

    Do you realize that less than 2% of the population still own or work on farms in the Us? That of those, most are over 50 years old? That few of the younger generation even know what a shovel looks like or how to use it? That without oil powered machinery and manufacturing, we cannot produce enough to feed 315 million plus mouths. That seeds will not be available to buy every year and if you don’t raise enough to save the seeds, you will not have a crop the next year.

    Most soil in the Us is burned out and the water levels are low. With climate change there will be less and less growing areas to plant. You have a very naive idea of survival.

  15. george on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 12:20 pm 

    plants need water.
    one week of no rain and bye bye.

  16. pinger on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 1:37 pm 

    I.m asking how are countries like the Arab states,Japan,UK,Korea going to survive when they import more that half of their food.In the Arab world that figure is 90%.

  17. BillT on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 2:28 pm 

    pinger, they won’t survive, but the bloodshed will be terrible.

    george, you are correct. Plants need water, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and humus to hold that moisture. Plus the millions of bacteria per cubic inch to make the soil healthy. We have depleted all of those with our chemical farming. Then there are plant diseases, and insects, not to mention what damage a severe storm can cause.

    Raising your own food is more challenging than getting up and going to the office every day.

  18. Grover Lembeck on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 4:14 pm 

    BillT, I can personally guarantee you that every one of the younger generation I have met (hundreds) knows what a shovel looks like, and would not try to use the handle to dig. Things are bad enough without such absurd exaggerations.

    Don’t underestimate the kids- they know what’s coming, most of them. They are far more aware than their parents and grandparents.

    To find out what the future of agriculture looks like, try reading Farmers of Forty Centuries.

  19. Arthur on Tue, 27th Mar 2012 4:30 pm 

    Bill, the weed thingy was in the context of maintining a vegetable garden as a hobby. I am aware that running a year round reliable food production system involves a lot mora than picking weed.

    George, Holland is one of the few countries where skywater is present in abundance. Usually watering by hand is not often necessary.

    Pinger, have a look at the link to the food security map.

    Currently there too many brainworkers and too few manual laborers, it is a luxury problem. Market and salary conditions will change that. There is nothing mysterious about farming. Becoming a farmer is less an act of desperation than going into the military out of poverty.

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