“The Food and Farming Transition” report — a quick evaluation

"The Food and Farming Transition"

The Food and Farming Transition is a report from the Post-Carbon Institute which was posted in 2009. This report is interesting not just because of its content, but because it demonstrates what food issues are — and are not — important to the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) these days.

To be fair, this report does several things quite well.  It considers the impact of the coming decline in fossil fuel energy on agriculture. It urges that we free our agricultural system from fossil fuel dependence completely, and discusses energy, relocalization, and organic agriculture. There is even brief mention of shifting away from a meat-centered diet (pages 12 and 27).  Unfortunately, it also bypasses or minimizes other critical topics that we need to think about during the coming food transition.

The basic difficulty with this report is that it tends to deal with all of our food problems by responding only to one problem: the fossil fuels problem. The fossil fuel problem is huge, no doubt about it, and this is after all a publication of the “Post-Carbon” Institute, whose primary focus is on fossil fuels.

The mindset of this report seems to be that agriculture worked without fossil fuels until about a century ago.  Therefore, we need to go back to an agriculture that in many ways resembles nineteenth-century agriculture more than modern agriculture, perhaps keeping some of the knowledge and mechanization that we have developed recently, but ending our dependence on fossil fuels.  While this bias is understandable, it does slant the discussion towards topics that minimize the importance of vegetarianism.

A better way to look at agriculture is through the lens of “limits to growth.”  Depletion of fossil fuel is not the only resource problem, it is just the first problem to pose a significant threat.  At the very beginning of the report (p. 4-5), there is a brief catalog of other relevant agricultural problems, which are unfortunately largely ignored thereafter: fertilizer runoff, deforestation, lack of arable land, salinization of soils, monocrops, climate change, and soil degradation.

Just like the fossil fuels problem, these other problems are fundamentally a “limits to growth” problem: there’s just so much soil, so many forests, and so much air. Here is what this report leaves out:

— There is no discussion of scale, which should be the very FIRST consideration we should look at in discussing food and farming. Our agricultural system is already too big and is already unsustainable (soil erosion, deforestation, climate change, groundwater depletion, and so forth) even given our current fossil fuel supply.  The scale and impact of livestock agriculture is immense: 80-90% of all agricultural land is devoted to livestock agriculture in the United States, and most irrigation water can be attributed to livestock agriculture, as well as most soil erosion, fertilizer runoff, and monocrops. It also can take from 10 to 100 times as much energy to produce meat as an equivalent amount of plant food.

— The discussion of climate change is completely inadequate. The report doesn’t seem to be aware of the FAO report on “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which came out in 2006, several years previously. (The report could also have benefited from Goodland and Anhang’s article on “Livestock and Climate Change” in the November/December 2009 issue of WorldWatch, although the WorldWatch article didn’t appear until some months after the PCI report was issued.) Methane, a key problem with grass-fed beef, is not mentioned.

To its credit, the report mentions soil degradation and deforestation — but why do you suppose these are happening? There is no mention of the reasons we need so much land or are chopping down all those forests, but here’s a hint: it has something to do with livestock agriculture.

— And what about biodiversity, another subject which is mentioned only in passing? The report is apparently oblivious to the fact that 94% of all mammals on the planet (in terms of biomass) are humans and their livestock. Perhaps the livestock industry has something to do with this?

— And what about diet and health? The report devotes three entire paragraphs to this issue, rightly attacking fast food, advertising, and government policies. But there’s more to this that the report ignores; there is widely available and overwhelming evidence that animal foods create substantial health risks. More than one egg a day significantly increases one’s chance of dying, something the backyard chicken advocates might want to ponder. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008; 87:799–800). There is (brief) mention of the need for getting away from meat-centered diets, but no discussion of getting away from eggs and dairy, which are just as deadly. Refined foods can surely take much of the blame for the problems with the standard American diet, but they are hardly the whole story or even the most important part. We need some discussion of these points.

The report has not just missed some peripheral issues or questions of detail. It has missed issues which are central to the discussion of the future of the transition of our current food system to a sustainable food system. Instead of experiments with backyard chickens and “mobile abattoirs,” which are basically a way of continuing “business as usual” with a “green” label, we need a thoughtful consideration of a diet which is economically, ecologically, and nutritionally more sound than our current diet.

A move towards vegetarian and vegan diets is inevitable. Fossil fuel is important to agriculture, and we certainly need to talk about that. But land and water are indispensable to agriculture.  Land, water, forests, energy, and climate, not to mention our bodies and health, are precisely what are being degraded in prodigious quantities by production of animal products. Vegetarianism will not solve all of our food problems, but vegetarianism is an indispensable part of the approach that we need in the energy transition.

(slightly updated February 21)


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  1. Pingback: Is Economic Growth Over? | Compassionate Spirit

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