Fossil Food & Agriculture – Richard Heinberg Q&A

Food aisle

While researching the topic of sustainable agriculture for a paper, high school junior Rhian Moore came across the work of PCI Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg. Rhian reached out to Richard for more information on the topic. Below are Rhian’s questions and Richard’s brief responses. We think they make for a nice primer of sorts. 

Rhian: Is there a correlation between the use of oil and fossil fuels and the imbalance of food (the fact that some countries waste a lot of food while in others, the majority of the people are starving) in the world? 

 
Richard:There are many factors leading to food imbalance: per-capita incomes, soil quality, and rainfall are all important. Globally, the use of fossil fuels per capita correlates fairly well with incomes per capita, and this can be seen as a chicken-or-egg issue: the use of fossil fuels generates wealth (we use oil, for example, to power machinery to do all kinds of work that creates wealth), while wealth is required in order to purchase fossil fuels. The combination of access to fuels and access to technology creates a kind of wealth pump that suctions resources from the environment, transforms them into products, and produces jobs and incomes. Countries that have the wealth pump in place can afford food, even if it’s imported. Of course, a big part of that wealth pump often consists of industrial agriculture: with fuel-fed farm machinery, and fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and chemicals, people can effectively pump food out of the land. In some countries in Africa there is oil, yet the people starve—how can that be? It’s because the oil is exported, with revenues going to a very small clique who control the country. Technology isn’t present to use fuel domestically to create the wealth needed to buy enough food for everyone.
 
Rhian: What are some monumental steps, especially from policymakers, taken recently to create a more sustainable global food system? What needs to be done in the future?  
 
Richard: I do not know of any monumental steps that have been taken recently—mostly only small ones. Some agencies (such as UNCTAD) are advising localization of the global food system, promotion of organic production, and an end to policies that disadvantage subsistence farmers. However, those recommendations fly in the face of most national policies (including those of the USDA here in America), which promote giant agribusiness and fuel-dependent farming. Probably the most important work is being done by small organizations and independent farmers who are working to build local food systems and who are growing on an ecological model (Permaculture, Biodynamics, Bio-intensive, etc.) that seeks to build topsoil rather than destroying it, using a minimum of fossil fuel inputs.
 
Rhian: Do you believe there are any positive sides to industrial agriculture that prolong its existence? As for the negative sides, what are the most severe consequences?
 
Richard: There are two significant advantages to modern industrial agriculture: (1) it produces an enormous amount of food, relatively cheaply; and (2) it is very profitable for seed, chemical, fertilizer, and equipment companies, and for large-scale farmers.

The negatives: (1) it destroys soil and biodiversity; (2) it relies upon depleting, non-renewable resources such as oil and rock phosphate; (3) it contributes to climate change through use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and de-carbonization of the soil; (4) industrial food is often low in nutrients (especially true if the food is highly processed), contributing to the problems of obesity and degenerative disease; and (5) industrial agriculture tends to favor large-scale growers, so that millions of self-sufficient small growers are forced into poverty.
 
Rhian: You say that in order to take steps toward solving the problem, we need to get more people involved in the process of food production. How is this re-ruralization going to help our situation?
 
Richard: As oil becomes more expensive, and as we reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to avert catastrophic climate change, we will have to re-localize our food systems and grow more organically. We will also need many more growers, as we currently use oil to substitute for human labor. With more people involved in food production, more people will have a daily interaction with weather, soil, and biodiversity; they will therefore take better care of the environment. We will also process our food less (as that takes energy), and as a result we will eat more nourishing food—and with more exercise and better food our health will improve.
 
Rhian: What is the role of business in our effort to create a more sustainable global food system?
 
Richard: Many hundreds of small businesses are already involved. These include organic farms, restaurants that use local and organic foods, food wholesalers and retailers that specialize in local and organic foods, schools that train young farmers in new organic methods, companies that sell organic open-pollinated varieties, companies that sell farm equipment appropriate for use on small organic farms, and so on.
 
Rhian: How can we take steps to make consumers aware of the consequences of a fossil fuel-dependent agricultural society, and how can they take action?
 
Richard: The organic food industry does a fairly good job of communicating the issues; unfortunately, organic food is more expensive, and so many people cannot afford to contribute to its social and environmental benefits. Therefore food policy is important. Some cities have school food policies that favor buying food from local producers, even local organic producers. And many schools have school gardens that contribute food to lunch programs. When students understand what it takes to grow food, and feel the benefits of eating minimally-processed foods, they are likely to make food choices that benefit both themselves and the environment.

Food aisle mage via shutterstock

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  • tahoevalleylines

    Missing from honorable Richard’s reply to Mr. Rhian et al is discussion of the heritage US railway matrix which resided, weblike, in the agricultural fabric of America before 1950.

    Sacramento was truly a cornucopia of food packing and processing plants and large refrigerated warehouses devoted to food canning and shipping. The American Co. at the North East end of the downtown made millions of cans annually, from 6 oz. up to gallon size.

    Ten railway lines radiated from Sacramento’s downtown, all bringing in foodstuff for cleaning, cutting, boxing and canning for shipping to far places. Dormant rail lines as seen around Sacramento can be rebuilt, providing example of Energy Emergency mitigation for public and corporate planning offices. Professor Heinberg resides on the remains of the Northwestern Pacific rail lines, likewise a crucial element in California’s return as a rail oriented food processing giant. Wonder of wonders, there remains an intact steam locomotive turntable at Healdsburg… Is this transport mode durable or what?

    Railway is more than a quaint memory in the brave new world of e-mail and driverless cars. The strategic elements inherent in railway technology assure rail’s place in the new age of renewable and local/sustainable economic systems.

    Even the most efficient rubber tire methodologies fall short of certain elements of railway mode: Second Dimension Surface Transport Logistics Platform. In plain talk, railways are a stand alone transport tool, apolitical and with in-house capability for repair and continued operations regardless of unforeseen events manmade or natural. EMP will impact railway the least of US transport systems.

    Rolling efficiencies of steel wheel on steel rail and ability to propel heavy loads using all known forms of energy make railways dependable without globalized fuel dependencies. See “Aleklett’s Blog” (Upsalla University) for exhaustive analysis of motor fuel supply problems on the horizon.