Our modern food system is especially-fossil fuel dependent. On a typical, conventional, industrial farm, the fertilizers come from natural gas, the pesticides come from petroleum products, the equipment is all manufactured from petroleum products. As we reach the point of peak global oil production and start to experience the increased costs, our lifestyle is going to change. And alternative fuels are not going to decrease costs very much because of the amount of energy it takes to make that energy.
When the cost of oil and natural gas goes up for farmers, it will be extremely difficult to manage under those conditions. Because we have insisted, in our food system, that raw materials and labor should come as cheaply as possible, we have now squeezed farmers’ economic returns to a point where they can’t make ends meet without government subsidies.
In my view, we’re going to be pressed pretty quickly to come up with alternative farming systems that are much less energy intensive. The organic movement has helped us understand how to work with nature’s cycles instead of dominating them.
Unfortunately, we are not doing enough in organic now because we’ve gotten used to cheap energy like everybody else; much organic agriculture uses energy-intensive processes. We need to create systems based on agro-ecological principles and biological synergies—how they feed on one another without a lot of energy input, and how they can increase productivity at the same time. I believe we can begin to address the issue of hunger in the developing world if we give a little bit of capital to farmers in resource-poor areas, so they can buy their seed stock and get these kinds of systems going.’
Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a longtime leader in sustainable agriculture, is distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University (www.leopold.iastate.edu), and its former director. He also manages his family’s 3,500-acre certified-organic farm in North Dakota.