Organic farmers ponder the future of food

They weren’t shying away from the big issues at the recent Organic Connections conference here: one renowned sustainable farming expert declared the days of "cheap" energy to be coming to an end.

"It’s not a question of exactly when we run out of oil, natural gas, or coal — it’s when it’s no longer going to be affordable," said Fred Kirschenmann, who has a 2,600-acre organic farm in North Dakota, and is also the distinguished fellow at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a professor of religion and philosophy at Iowa State University.

He framed the issue in a much wider context spanning virtually all of human history.

Back in the hunter-gatherer days, humans garnered an excellent return on the energy they "invested" in feeding themselves, said Kirschenmann. He estimates people expended only 1,000 calories for every 20,000 calories of energy they gathered or hunted.

That efficiency ratio fell by half about 10,000 years ago, when mankind adopted animal-powered agriculture and herding, but the real sea change was when it began tapping into "old calories" in the form of fossil fuels, mined mineral amendments such as rock phosphate, and water pooled in underground aquifers.

Today, it takes 10,000 calories to produce a single calorie of food, he said.

Kirschenmann, who adopted organic production methods on his farm more than 35 years ago, said he was disturbed by the realization of how dependent he is on fossil fuels. From the transport of organic inputs such as manure to the shipping of his production to market, "everything is based on fossil fuels," he said.

But the bad news doesn’t end there. Agriculture in his area also faces a critical shortage of water, mainly because the Ogalalla aquifer that feeds irrigation across much of the central U.S. has been drawn down by half since 1960.

"We are still drawing it down by six to eight feet a year, and in 20 years from now, it won’t have any water left for irrigation," said Kirschenmann. "What happens then? Finally, it turns into a kind of buffalo commons."

It’s time humans confronted the biggest question of all, he said.

"What is the next era of food production for us as a species?"

Rob Avis offered a partial answer to that question.

The former mechanical engineer in Alberta’s oil and gas industry has become an advocate of permaculture, and trumpets the idea that urban farms could produce significant amounts of food in the decades ahead.

Avis and his wife, also an engineer, formed Verge Permaculture, a Calgary-based company that specializes in a systems-design approach to creating "sustainable human habitat" via interconnected elements such as low-energy buildings, water management, waste reuse, and renewable energy and food production. (Information on their projects and seminars is posted online.)

Misallocation of resources

Citing the need for radical change, he points to the ruined landscape left behind by humans in the Middle East. The cradle of civilization, and formerly one of the most abundant places on Earth, it is now largely a desert.

"There’s a pattern of human settlement that we don’t want to follow," Avis told conference attendees. "If they had been told they would end up in a desert, they would have laughed at you."

Like Kirschenmann, he marvelled at how cheap energy has been, noting a single 160-litre barrel of oil represents the equivalent of 10,000 hours of manual labour.

"When in history has one person had 150 horses at their disposal at the turn of a key?" he asked.

Avis said he hopes the days of peak oil are far off.

"I have a two-year-old son — I hope it’s 50 years," he said. "It will take that long for us to transition our culture to one that can use renewable energy."

In the meantime, Avis is promoting the merits of sustainable habitats. Among his projects is a mobile tool "library" for gardeners to share; mapping 150 apple trees in Calgary that can be harvested on a one-third basis for the owner, the picker and the local food bank; and a community edible reforestation program.

Urban farming can play a major role in food production, he said.

"They say we can’t feed the world. I call that B.S.," he said.

One of his next targets is the urban lawn. There are 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. alone, something he describes as the greatest misallocation of resources on the planet.

"It turns out that we can feed every person in the country a 2,000-calories-per-day diet for two years off of one crop," he said, adding that two crops could be sown in many areas.

"There’s more than enough land to feed the world. We just have to get out of this disempowerment concept, and start moving forward with our lives."

– Daniel Winters writes for the Manitoba Co-operator at Oak Lake, Man. A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 19, 2012 edition of Alberta Farmer (page 29).