Throughout history people have had to eat, it is just a fact of life. Long ago humans started out as hunter-gathers eating meat, fish, nuts, wild plants and roots. This diet consisted of everything the human body was evolved to eat. Along the highway of history, people became more clever and tried out many new ideas. One of these ideas that has stuck around with us for the last ten thousand years or so is the idea known as agriculture.
Most historians agree that the birth of agriculture was in the fertile crescent valley between the Euphrates and Tigris river in modern day Iraq. There is also a convincing argument in the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, that advanced agricultural societies also sprang up in North, Central, and South America at relatively the same time. As agriculture spread to new lands, peoples’ lives and diets started to change. No longer were the days of nomadic-seasonal migration, following herds of wild animals; but a sedentary life consisting of raising crops and animal husbandry. This trend has continued through today.
The modern face of agriculture scarcely resembles those early days of farming. Up until very recently, the work on the farm was human and animal powered. The majority of people in those early civilizations had a direct part in the production of food. Eventually animals were implemented for plowing, fertilizing, and harvesting. Constantly evolving and engineering, we have ended up where we are today. Giant machines powered by petroleum can now work thousands of acres. Manure from the animals that were once part of the mixed-use family farm are no longer used as fertilizer; instead corporate farms rely on commercially manufactured fertilizer made from petrochemicals. We now have poisons that we can use on our food to kill the weeds and pests. Instead of sowing seeds that have been saved for generations; we now have genetically modified seeds, manufactured in a lab that will only grow with the aid of a manufactured poison, that have to be purchased every year, and if that seed is saved, you are breaking international patent laws and will be prosecuted appropriately.
Food distribution is another aspect of agriculture that has changed throughout it’s history. In the days of the hunter-gatherers, food was most likely distributed and shared throughout the clans and family lines to ensure group survival. But as life moved towards agriculture; food, especially grains ( wheat, corn, and rice) could be used as wealth, leverage, and power. Starting in the early days of agriculture and continuing through today, the ones who control the food supply, control the people. This is important to note in today’s world. The richest, most powerful countries in the world are the ones who grow the most food/grain and dictate how it is distributed.
Finally, industrial agriculture has done a wonderful job of polluting the planet. Run-off from over fertilizing has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Use of pesticides and herbicides have poisoned drinking water supplies and have led to many diseases in humans. These same chemicals that have been over applied to crops have also led to the creation of super weeds and pests that have built up a tolerance to these poisons and are no longer affected by their use.
As we enter the age of Peak Oil, farming as we know it today will start to change. Every aspect of industrial agriculture is dependent on abundant supplies of cheap oil. When that supply of oil is no longer cheap or abundant, the ripple effects on industrial agriculture will be felt throughout the whole world. Before we actually see shortages of fuel or inputs, we will see drastic price increases on these necessary components for industrialized food production. This then leads to skyrocketing prices in the grocery store which we have already started to see. Along with increasing prices on farm inputs and the commodity food products, when food grain is diverted away from people, and instead used in the production of bio-fuels, you start to see food riots in third world countries. The system we know as modern agriculture rests on a very delicate balance, and when one piece of the equation starts to become unreliable, the whole system can come toppling down.
For as bleak and serious as this situation is, we do have options on how we move forward and deal with this monster. We have the model of the mixed- use family farm. Small homesteads that use crop rotations of many different grains and vegetables, animals for work, meat, and fertilizer, orchards and other perennial crops, wild crafted food, and the woods, prairies, and wetlands that can be used for hunting, recreation, and relaxation. These farms not only provide food and other goods for the family and workers, but also for the surrounding community. With a network of many small, diversified farms, we keep our soil healthy and our people fed. A more recent development in food distribution is the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. This allows people in the city to invest in a farm and share the risk of growing food with the farmer. Specifics differ from CSA to CSA, but the basic idea is that you will receive produce each week throughout the season. Some CSA’s offer meat, cheese, and eggs along with vegetables and fruits, and some also offer winter shares that might include root crops and squash. For those of us who do not live in country or have access to a CSA, we can bring the rural life to the city and suburbs. Urban Homesteading or Urban Farming are terms that are gaining a lot of popularity right now. The Great Recession has changed peoples minds and perspectives about the way we interact with our food and communities. People have started to garden again evidenced through seed sales. Families are starting to keep backyard chicken flocks regardless of what city ordinances might say. Support of local farmers markets is at an all time high. People care about their food and some are starting to get their hands dirty again.
There are no easy answers or guaranteed solutions to the problems we are challenged with concerning Peak Oil, industrial agriculture, and food security. The system we currently rely on is huge and fragile and it only takes one brick to fall out of the wall to make the whole thing topple. The best we can do is be prepared and learn as many skills as we can to take care of ourselves. Whether we live in the country or in the city, we all have something to contribute and share. Good Luck Everyone!