“The American food system rests on an unstable foundation of massive fossil fuel inputs. It must be reinvented in the face of declining fuel stocks.”
-- Richard Heinberg and Michael Bomford, ‘The Food and Farming Transition‘ (http://www.postcarbon.org/report/41306-the-food-and-farming-transition-t...)
“The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades. ...[W]arming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.”
-- NCAR report, quoted by Joe Romm at http://climateprogress.org/2010/10/20/ncar-daidrought-under-global-warmi...
“If you're looking at how daunting a task is, you're looking at the wrong side of the equation and you will find the things that will limit you and prevent you from succeeding. Put roots in the ground. Grow your food. Build your shelter. Create a Permaculture enterprise and provide real Permaculture goods and services, then link up with others that are doing complimentary things. This is the way we will create a new culture and economy.”
—Mark Shepherd, farmer (http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-12/mark-shepherds-106-acre...)
Our fate as a nation in the post-carbon era hinges, to a great extent, on the fate of our agriculture. Unfortunately, US agriculture faces a slew of constricting limits (energetic, climatic, material, etc.) that gravely threaten the continued viability of our current annual-monoculture-based model. An alternative agricultural model based on polycultures of perennial crops will likely be more than just a ‘good idea’ in the coming post-carbon era – it’ll be a damn NECESSITY. So grab your shovels, America -- it’s time to begin the transition to an agriculture that stands a chance.
For those of you who are taken aback or unbelieving of the ‘doomish’ warnings I’ll be slinging about in the first part of this essay, check out the following sources for background:
I have some bad news: If you’re not at least ‘deeply disturbed’ about the prospects for US agricultural in the 21st century, you’re not paying nearly close enough attention to the trajectory of biophysical reality in this country.
Because despite the bountiful yields of food and fiber we currently extract from our soils, trouble looms really big and really scary in the coming decades for US agriculture. And I don’t mean just ‘fewer selections of canned soup’ in the local Stop-N-Shop; I mean NO soup in the Stop-N-Shop. Maybe no Stop-N-Shop. Maybe no shopping, period. I mean hunger. Maybe famine. Here. Soon. Perhaps of ‘biblical proportions’.
Huh? Doth he exaggerate? Coming troubles in the land of the ‘heaping corn mountains’? Food shortages in the republic of super-markets and super-sized bellies? These seeming incongruities are resolved if we acknowledge the scary truth about US agriculture: it’s about as fragile in its current fossil-fuel-dependent, annual-monoculture form as a trembling house of cards.
Examined closely, our current, record-breaking, industrial-agricultural yields are dependent on a tenuous combination of EACH of the following ‘pillars’: (1) OIL & GAS: cheap fossil energy for making nitrogen-fertilizer, mining phosphate, running farm machinery, transporting food, and maintaining a functioning growth-dependent economy where credit is available, (2) LAND & SOIL: ample acreage of currently-productive soils (threatened now by erosion, salinization, sea-level rise, and incipient shortages of key nutrients), (3) WATER: ample irrigation water from snowmelt and groundwater-aquifers, and (4) CLIMATE: a climate that is still passably stable, without too many severe droughts, storms, or temperature extremes.
My doomish leanings with regard to our current industrial food system derive primarily from the following two facts: (1) The failure of ANY ONE of the above four ‘pillars’ will bring our food system to its knees. This, of course, is the result of our food system being structured (as most industrial systems are) to maximize efficiency at the expense of robustness and resiliency. In other words, our sleek, streamlined, modern food system adheres to ‘Liebig’s Law of the Minimum’ – it only works as well as its weakest link. (2) One or more of these pillars will almost certainly disintegrate at some point in the next few years or decades over a large portion of the food-producing US. Of course, this disintegration is already under way -- all four of these pillars are eroding rapidly as we speak (literally & figuratively; see references above). And all four are highly vulnerable to a rapid ‘phase change’ in the near future – this decade, perhaps.
In short, you SHOULD be disturbed by our agricultural prospects – DEEPLY disturbed. Our industrial agricultural system is about to stop working. The house of cards that provides your food is trembling…swaying…ominously, while darkening skies and a skittering armada of little dust devils presage one helluva storm about to kick up.
So with industrial agriculture about to slam head-long into a score of biophysical limits all at once, plausible scenarios for epic failure of our food system in the next few decades are numerous indeed. But before I go into recommendations for an agricultural system that might actually stand a chance in the coming era of rapidly constricting limits, I’d like to briefly outline the most likely general scenario for the failure of our current industrial food system in the US.
I think we can neatly summarize the coming demise of our current agricultural model as a lethal one-two punch from the following executioners: peak oil and climate change. As discussed above, either one of these factors BY ITSELF would spell disaster for our food security under the current industrial model. But guess what? We’re getting BOTH at the same time. Interesting times indeed! (We are truly blessed in that sense, no?)
As presented in chilling detail at the 2010 ASPO conference, we have a few years (at the most, and probably less) before fossil energy that is both cheap and abundant is permanently a thing of the past. And even before that happens, our current growth-dependent economy is very likely to implode as it becomes increasingly starved of its key growth-enabling ‘nutrient’ -- cheap fossil energy. During such an economic implosion, much of the fragile logistical and energetic infrastructure on which our current industrial food system depends would very quickly evaporate.
Because, really, how are we going to run the tractors, combines, and food-delivery trucks on their necessarily-tight industrial schedules when fossil fuel supplies suddenly become undependable or outrageously expensive? The answer: We’ll have trouble. Supply lines will break down. Crops won’t get planted here and there (or everywhere) for lack of credit or lack of fuel. And all this would then very quickly translate into localized or national shortages of cheap food – and possibly even shortages of food at any price. There will be hunger and want in many an unfortunate region in the US. People will get cranky. People will lose their manners. People will lose their lives.
And while the government/military will likely assume control of the foundering industrial-agriculture ship in short-order, given the time-sensitive nature of most agriculture manipulations, it seems highly unlikely that severe food-supply ‘discontinuities’ could be avoided unless a crack emergency plan was ready and waiting to be implemented by the present government. But as Chris Martenson and Rick Munroe have discussed recently, there does not seem to be such a plan. (http://www.chrismartenson.com/blog/future-chaos-there-no-plan-b/46331)
So, with apologies to the National Beef Council: hunger, want, anger, and violence – it’s what’s for supper!
Unfortunately, looking even longer term, past the initial chaotic food shortages and socio-political upheaval, the picture doesn’t get any prettier. In fact, it becomes horrifying.
Our current industrial food system in the US is just not designed to produce food with limited energetic and material inputs. Like the industrial economy as a whole, it just doesn’t DO limits. And hard, constricting limits on these inputs will not only be a hallmark of the initial economic convulsions -- they will continue indefinitely into our Greer/Kunstler-illuminated future. There will be no energetic or economic recovery of our industrial economic system – no respite from these ever-constricting limits.
So then, what sort of industrial-agricultural yield trends might we expect in grain and vegetable-producing regions of the US with vastly-restricted N/P-fertilizer inputs that will surely accompany our energetic and economic difficulties? The answer: crap. And the next year: less than crap. And the next year…etc.
And this, of course, sets up the killing blow to our now-reeling agricultural system: climate change. For we have, through our knowing corruption of the atmosphere, already earned centuries of increasingly destabilized climatic conditions across our continent. We can almost certainly expect a dramatic increase in crippling droughts, destructive/flooding storms and hurricanes, farmland-destroying sea-level rise, and killing temperature extremes of both destructive magnitude and unexpected timing. (Oh, and did I mention the oceans are dying? i.e. There goes ‘Plan B.’)
Furthermore, evidence suggests that ‘slow’ positive feedbacks (melting sea ice, ice sheet decay, methane degassing from tundra and polar oceans, etc) are ALREADY kicking in. The repercussions of these feedbacks may push the climate system towards the ultra-deadly upper-end of current climate change projections within this century -- the ones heretofore largely based on suspect fossil fuel reserves. Tipping points may well be close at hand – in fact, they may have already been passed. Every second the CO2-belching industrial experiment continues diminishes our future and edges us closer to disaster. It is a VERY scary picture indeed that is revealing itself in climate-science-land. Horrifying, in fact. (See climate references above.)
So in light of these still-evolving climate change realities then, we are forced to ask ourselves the following questions: What sort of yields will we get in corn, bean, & wheat country (and vegetable country) when beset by the crippling ‘biblical’ droughts that are expected? The answer: crap. And what sort of yields will we get in the currently-productive irrigated regions (presently watered with depleting fossil aquifers and endangered mountain snow-packs) when the water is no longer flowing? The answer: virtually none. And what sort of yields will we get when freakishly-intense storms, ill-timed ‘weird weather’ temperatures, and climate-change-induced pest outbreaks attack our vast industrial monocultures? The answer: Well…you get an agriculture that increasingly resembles Russian roulette.
Now combine all this climate-related mischief with the coming energetic, material, and economic limitations from peak oil discussed previously. What kinds of yields might one expect then? Seriously, what would you get then, as we move into the middle decades of this century? With all these increasingly-likely depredations conspiring against our fragile industrial food system, what would you get? Would you get ANYTHING? (Note: A chilling shudder around the shoulder area and a pensive gaze out the window would be appropriate here.)
And so it goes. Because the bleak future of our current industrial agricultural system --pummeled as it will be by energetic/material shortages and climatic disturbances -- is ALREADY dialed-in. The fossil-energy and climate situations described above are, at this late date, no longer ‘problems’ to be solved with technological or social cleverness, but rather ‘predicaments’ to be adapted to as they inevitably unfold and degenerate. We have dallied too long at the ball, and the carriage is already turning back into a pumpkin -- no matter how skillfully we argue that it cannot possibly do so.
So, note to country: Our current food system is ALREADY condemned. It will fail in its current form, significantly or entirely. Guaranteed. And probably pretty soon – within the next several decades. And maybe very soon – perhaps within THIS decade. As such, it must be replaced as soon as possible with an agriculture that conforms to the new biophysical realities confronting us.
Simply put, it must be replaced with an agriculture that stands a chance.
But what might such a replacement agricultural system look like? And really, is agriculture even POSSIBLE under such dire biophysical limitations? To answer this, we must first examine the foundation of our current industrial system in a little more detail -- and with an ecologically-trained eye, at that. (Note: See Wes Jackson’s “New Roots for Agriculture” for a full discussion of this.)
Current industrial US agriculture is based primarily on ANNUAL crops – plants that must be planted anew every year from seed. The annual trait introduces several problems that have plagued agriculture since its inception, but which have taken on new and ominous dimensions as the ever-more-crowded industrial era draws to an end:
In the drought-stricken, fertilizer-limited agricultural era to come, these screaming limitations of annual crops are simply a recipe for famine.
But that’s not all! Our current industrial agricultural regime is also based on MONOCULTURES of these annual plants – large fields of just a single type of crop, and usually a very genetically-similar representation of that crop at that. This genetic homogeneity presents several significant problems in the coming energy-starved, climate-destabilized era:
Now combine the limitations of monoculture crops with the drawbacks of annual crops, and you quickly realize that relying on an agriculture of annual monocultures to get us through the coming energetic, economic and climatic limitations is simply suicide.
We flat-out need to find a better way.
OK, so we’ve established two things so far: (1) trouble’s a-comin’ in the form of severe energy limitations, economic collapse, material-input-limitations, and climatic destabilization, and (2) that our current agriculture based on annual monocultures is just not gonna cut it.
But knowing these uncomfortable truths brings up a host of difficult questions: Like, what then do we DO about it? Is there anything we CAN do? Because how do we “fix” an agricultural model that is almost 100% at odds with the constricting demands of biophysical reality in this country?
Well, a possible solution is already taking shape in various forms around the country – albeit at a much smaller scale and growth rate than we need. And while this new agricultural ‘movement’ has no official unifying name at the moment, all the strategies rely on POLYCULTURES of PERENNIAL crops. This strategy, of course, is the polar opposite of our current annual monoculture-based system. And, as we’ll discuss shortly, it just might work for the exact same reasons our current system will fail.
You can find these various efforts presently under names like Natural Systems Agriculture, Permaculture, Forest Gardening, Mixed-species Organic Orcharding, Holistic Pasture Management, and The Land Institute’s perennial grain program. But again, all these diverse strategies involve efforts to fashion a food system based on polycultures of perennial crops. As such, we can perhaps lump them all together under the name ‘Perennial Polyculture.’ And note that none of these strategies are really ‘new’ – they’ve just been increasingly marginalized and neglected throughout our species’ unfortunate 10,000-year infatuation with the short-term benefits of annual monocultures.
OK, so why, specifically, might this ‘new’ perennial polyculture strategy work – or at least give us a fighting chance in the challenging times ahead?
First let’s look at the ‘perennial’ aspect – i.e. the ability of these crops to survive multiple years -- sometimes decades, sometimes centuries -- without replanting. The Land Institute’s Jerry Glover summed up the advantages of perennial crops nicely in a June 2010 article in the journal Science entitled “Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains.” In it, he wrote: “Compared with annual counterparts, perennial crops tend to have longer growing seasons and deeper rooting depths, and they intercept, retain, and utilize more precipitation. Longer photosynthetic seasons resulting from earlier canopy development and longer green leaf duration increase seasonal light interception efficiencies, an important factor in plant productivity. Greater root mass reduces erosion risks and maintains more soil carbon compared with annual crops. Annual grain crops can lose five times as much water and 35 times as much nitrate as perennial crops. Perennial crops require fewer passes of farm equipment and less fertilizer and herbicide, important attributes in regions most needing agricultural advancement.” (http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/SEC/Publications%3E%3EScien...)
And now consider the ‘polyculture’ aspect – which we can define as the planting of a diverse mixture of crops in the same field, as well as the presence of a diverse genetic make-up within each individual crop. This multi-level diversity presents a host of advantages that mirror the disadvantages of monocultures discussed previously. Namely, polycultures would offer (1) a decreased likelihood of and vulnerability to pest outbreaks, (2) a more efficient holding and utilization of both water and soil nutrients, and (3) a decreased risk to catastrophic crop failure from weird weather events.
In short, both the ‘perennial’ and ‘polyculture’ aspects of this ‘new’ agriculture lend themselves well to the daunting biophysical challenges bearing down on us. And facing these challenges honestly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the rapid and extensive deployment of an agriculture based on perennial polyculture is probably our only hope for reliably feeding ourselves in the decades ahead.
OK, now that we’ve sung the praises of perennial polyculture, I think it’ll be helpful here to lay out the four main types of ‘perennial polyculture’ agriculture currently being practiced (or developed) in the US. I do this, of course, not to say that a given farm-of-the-future needs to pick just one type, but just to point out the key features of each.
As mentioned above, none of these perennial polyculture forms of agriculture are new, nor are they completely absent from our current agricultural mix in the US. But since none of them fits nicely into the current industrial model, they have been either (1) relegated to niche status by the subsidy-distorted market, (2) co-opted and debased to fit the industrial model, or, especially in the case of still-developing perennial grains, (3) denied their rightful share of national funding for research and development.
So here they are, the four smiling faces of perennial polyculture:
All right, lets take stock of what this rather long essay has attempted to accomplish so far: (1) establish that our current annual-monoculture-based industrial agricultural system has no future and is in danger of imminent collapse, (2) outline both the inherent ecological drawbacks of annual monocultures, and the corresponding virtues of perennial polycultures, and (3) give examples of (and references for) the four promising specific applications of perennial polyculture that can be implemented in this country.
So what’s left? Well...we just need to frickin’ DO it!
Now look, I was as cautiously-hopeful (shamefully-delusional) as anyone that Obama would somehow rise above the miasma of corporate toxicity in our nation’s time of need; that he would attempt to fix an obviously-broken food system headed for disaster; that he would channel his inner Jimmy Carter and tell us the damn truth. But he hasn’t. And he won’t. And I think it’s just a flat-out waste of time and energy to pretend, at this late hour, that ANYONE up top will ever get a clue.
So sure, it’d be great if the US Government wasn’t infected by a terminal case of corporatus suicidalis. And it’d be fantastic US Department of Agriculture was guided by thinking human beings who were serious and knowledgeable about agriculture and its tenuous ecological underpinnings. And it’d be super if the US citizenry were informed enough to recognize the dangerous insanity of our food system and demand a change. But sadly, none of these are true, nor will they ever become true in time to avert the coming food catastrophe in this country.
So then what can we DO about that? We do the only thing we CAN do: we do it OURSELVES. We call up our neighbors, lace up our boots, grab some shovels from the shed, load the seedlings into the wheelbarrow, and start building a sane fricking food system all by our damn selves. We say “f*%k off” to these ‘leaders’ whose short-sightedness and greed would doom our children and grandchildren to hunger and misery, and we get down to some good work -- some work that just might make a difference. That’s what we do.
We rebuild our local food systems OURSELVES, at the individual and community level, as best as we can in whatever time we have available. THAT’S what we do.
Now, I suppose if I’m turning you all out into your lawns and fields to build this new food system, you might want me to supply a few specifics, huh? OK, here’s a brief outline on what we need to get going. And note that you can begin TODAY -- in whatever season you happen to be reading this. For clarity, I’ll divide the necessary tasks into three categories: building our knowledge, gathering our tools, and honing our skills.
OK...Got all that? Hey, but even if you don’t have EVERYTHING yet, it doesn’t matter -- it’s OK to ‘wing it’. Just keep the trajectory moving forward. Plant a couple food trees this spring, and then even more in the fall…and then even MORE the next Spring.
And call me crazy, but all this learning, planting, observing, and community organizing actually sounds like a heap-load of fun to me. i.e. This stuff doesn’t need to be grim or oppressive – it can be a CELEBRATION if you make it so. And even if this stuff ISN’T your cup of tea, you can still help: consider letting somebody else plant stuff on your property, lend some tools or funds to a community effort, pass this message on to somebody who might be interested.
So let’s get this ball of perennial polyculture goodness rolling! Good luck!!!!!
From the author: "I'm a high school Chemistry teacher in NJ. I'm also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.