This is the text of a presentation we gave, representing Transition Guelph, to a food security roundtable discussion, co-sponsored by The Council of Canadians Guelph chapter and Frank Valeriote, Liberal MP for Guelph. Representatives were present from The Canadian Farmers Union, C-BAN, KAIROS, The University of Guelph, EFAO, Guelph-Wellington Local Food, FarmStart, Food Secure Canada, the CoC, and others. It was a lively discussion, with lots of good information.
I represent Transition Guelph, the Guelph region Transition Town initiative, which is one node in a large and rapidly growing grassroots movement that is spreading across Canada and around the world. Guelph is Canada’s second official Transition Town, of which there are now eighteen, and hundreds more Canadian communities are in the initial organizing stages.
As a transition initiative, our primary focus is building community resilience and sustainability, particularly in response to two significant challenges that our a global society is now facing: the first is the strong possibility of energy shocks post-peak oil, the likelihood that the availability of the energy we consume, certainly energy in the form of fossil fuels, may soon fall well short of our demand. The second is the growing potential for significant climate shocks, due to the increasing instability of our climate under the impact of accelerating global climate change.
Obviously, one of our primary concerns is food security, given that our food system has the potential to be severely impacted by both of these threats.
To those of us who, like myself, grew up in the 1960s and later, a time when the cheap oil party was in full swing, so to speak, it may be hard to picture a world of energy scarcity; nevertheless, it’s a fact that oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one upon which are highly dependent–not just for transportation but for literally hundreds of other important products and services as well–and evidence is quickly mounting that we may be at, or at least close to, the cusp of the beginnings of a terminal decline in its availability, a point usually referred to as “peak oil”.
Oil and food are intimately connected in our industrial civilization. Here in Canada we consume something like 10 barrels of oil per person per year to produce food, and oil availability and food production are very much in lock-step. A change in one would likely mean a change the other by a commensurate amount.
Our current food system is highly centralized. Seed storage, food storage and processing, distribution centers, food retailers and so forth, all are in discrete locations, and our reliance on monoculture farming practices also places the sources of certain foods at some distance from their respective markets. Fertilizers and pesticides are manufactured from fossil fuels, stored centrally and shipped via a largely oil-driven transport system. All of this puts us, the consumer, at the end of a series of long, complex supply chains that are–because of their dependence on cheap fossil fuels for transport–also potentially very fragile.
It’s clear that the biotech industry is just that: an industry. As such, it relies on a large and complex technological infrastructure that is predicated on the assumption of continuing availability of cheap, abundant energy, for manufacturing and transport, to run laboratories, for storage facilities, and so forth. And, because of that reliance on an energy-intensive infrastructure, it too is, of necessity, centralized, and therefore also vulnerable to energy shocks.
As we become reliant on specific technologies to provide us with essential food system components (and I’m thinking here of things like GE crops, terminator seeds and so on), that reliance may preclude the adoption of alternatives, should those technologies later prove to be un-viable, say, due to energy or climate shocks. In other words, you build into the system a single point of failure. And that, we believe, is foolhardy.
We in the transition movement believe that any initiative that increases the dependence of our food system on a depleting resource such as oil places it at vastly increased risk. It is very possible that a failure or disruption of any one of the essential components, again perhaps because of an abrupt energy shock, could trigger a cascading collapse throughout the system, and all that that implies.
The NEF (New Economics Foundation), a British-based social and economics think-tank, warned in a 2008 report that the food system is vastly more vulnerable to collapse than previously thought. In it, foundation policy director Andrew Simms states:
“Nothing reveals the thin veneer of civilization like a threat to its fuel or food supply, or the cracks in society like a major climate-related disaster. Yet perversely we’re making a breakdown of our life support systems more, not less likely. Our current direction seems designed to increase our economic vulnerability and undermine the resilience we urgently need to build.”
The report lists climate change, peak oil, dwindling agricultural resources and increasing competition for what’s left, multiple food chain stresses, financial instability, and the large-scale shift to centralized infrastructure and “just-in-time” delivery logistics as key threats. In the conclusion, it states, “Continued dependence on short-term, market-oriented decision-making heightens vulnerability to shocks and creates an obstacle to building the economy’s resilience, as short-term price considerations repeatedly trump long-term security.” (The report ends with a plea to, among other things, “support the Transition Town movement.”)
We feel that a more resilient food system model is achieved through relocalization, and would instead focus on de-centralization of resources and supplies, with seed storage, food storage, food processing, etc. closer to the farmer–forming smaller, and largely self-reliant agricultural “islands”–and those in turn closer to their respective markets. In doing so, we might lose some economies of scale, but gain robustness through redundancy and reduced dependence on transport.
In our view a resilient food system also means that the preservation of biodiversity in our food crops is essential-again reducing single points of failure. We also believe that a more sustainable food system must also decrease its reliance on fertilizers and pesticides manufactured from fossil fuels-and instead adopt locally produced organic alternatives.
This direction may be considered somewhat radical, I suppose. And it would certainly involve a major shift in focus, and in agricultural practice. But we do believe it is achievable, given adequate preparation time, effort, and of course, the will to do so.
The timing of peak oil, and the impact it is likely to have on our food systems, once global demand for oil begins to outstrip supply is still very much a matter of educated speculation. And nobody knows for sure exactly what impact climate change will have, either. In fact, there are probably almost as many opinions as there are people expressing them.
Should the post-peak decline in oil production be abrupt and steep, coupled with any significant climate instability, this would likely throw our civilization into chaos, despite the best efforts of transition towns and other similar initiatives. But that’s not inevitable by any means. We need to hope for a gentler decent, one that will give us the time and resources we need to implement mitigation strategies that are both effective and long-term. We believe that building a strong, resilient and robust food system is a key first step in this process.
To wrap up, in order to build that resilient, secure food system, we believe it is vital that we begin phasing out those components that rely heavily on fossil fuel dependence, particularly those heavily industrialized elements, and begin phasing in alternatives. And–perhaps somewhat ironically–we need to do so now while fossil fuels are still relatively abundant, so that the necessary infrastructure can be designed and built using that energy.
In closing, I would like to quote Ben Brangwyn of the Transition Network, who says, “Sooner or later, we will be transitioning to a lower energy future, whether we want to or not, and it’s far better to ride the wave than be engulfed by it.”