Grow your own

July 24, 2006

I talked briefly about food issues in my overview post, but recent news items has caused me to look at the issue in more detail. To recap, our ability to produce food is tied in to our ability to harness cheap energy. Modern industrial agriculture relies on massive inputs of energy for the following steps (among others):

  • Chemical fertilizers (aka the “Green Revolution”) are produced from natural gas using the Haber Process.
  • Petrochemical feedstocks are used to help produce the pesticides & herbicides to increse crop yields.
  • Gasoline is used to power the farm machinery and truck that sow, harvest and transport the food.
  • More energy is used in preparation of the food, whether it’s canned, flash-frozen, or otherwise processed.
  • More energy is used to ship the prepared food to the wholesaler, to the grocery store, and home to your freezer/pantry/refridgerator.

In his article “The Oil We Eat,” Richard Manning estimates that 10 calories of oil are used to produce one calories of food. It stands to reason, then, that if we are so dependent on oil for food production, any fluctuations in the price of oil will have a direct impact on our grocery bills. Ben Bernanke, in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, indicated that oil prices rising by another $10 – $15 per barrel will have “significant consequences” for the US economy, and he’s referring to the rate of inflation which inexplicably doesn’t include food and energy prices in it’s “core rate.” Needless to say, one powerful hurricane hitting the Gulf of Mexico this year could easily drive the price of oil up $10. If that happens, get ready to pay even more for your hamburger and bread at the local food market, for the volatility that the food sector is famous for won’t absorb the higher costs of oil well at all.

Another area that is starting to get some press is food shortages. Because everyone other than the poorest subsistence farmers relies on energy other than the sun, oil scarcity will have dramatic consequences for world food production that most people are totally unaware of. has an interesting page on news articles related to food shortages that is worth reading.

Without access to electricity, water pumps and irrigation systems will fail.

Without access to cheap oil and natural gas, the costs of making fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides will rise. Most farmland in the US and elsewhere has been turned into a biological dead zone through years of pesticide and herbicide use. Without heavy use of fertilizers, crop yields in these areas will plummet.

As America and the rest of the world embraces ethanol as a fuel source, decisions will have to be made about how to use our fields. Food or fuel? Relying on market controls to make the decision will likely mean the poor people being priced out of both options.

One option I expect to see becoming more popular is home gardening. Out here in suburbia, many developments place restrictions on how much (if any) of your yard you can use for gardening. I’d expect these rules to be challenged or simply set aside as food prices rise. I personally am looking at starting some stealth permaculture design on my property, filling in some of the blank spaces around the house with perennial herbs, some raspberry bushes, and other things like that. You’re seeing more news stories about watering bans around the Twin Cities metro area, and sooner or later, that will allow enterprising homeowners to turn their formerly barren lawns into productive gardening patches.

Here in the Minnesota area, I’ve recently spotted the website for the Permaculture Research Institute – Cold Climate. It’s still in it’s formative stages, from the looks of it, but I’m excited to see that there’s starting to be an established permacluture presence around here, and I’m looking forward to taking some classes here soon. I think that both permaculture and green building/remodeling will become large industries at some point in the USA’s future for no other reason than that it’s the most practical way forward. Other high-tech ‘solutions’ will sooner or later suffer from energy scarcity, while permaculture shows us a way to truly thrive. I believe that the suburubs will survive in one fashion or another, and like David Holmgren states, it’s a perfect fit for permaculture, since we’ll have the land, and people have to both eat and live somewhere.

In the meantime, I’m looking at acquiring a cache of open-pollinated vegetable and herb seeds, and learning how to save seeds from harvest to harvest. Putting in some small garden beds and prepping them for organic gardening methods will be a wise investment over the next few years, and gaining the knowledge and experience at doing so will make you a more valuable member of society, no matter where you’re living now, and/or where you’ll end up.