Oil, Heat, and Our Agriculture

Declining oil supplies will lead us toward local food production for local use.

by Colin Graham

In the last issue of this journal, David Fleming analysed the double speak of the International Energy Agency, and found it is putting out a coded message to the effect that world oil supplies are running out.

Colin Campbell, an oil consultant to the English parliament, agrees. He has found that for every four barrels of oil the world is using up today, only one new barrel is being found. Around 2001, Campbell believes, supplies will start declining and the mid-east OPEC countries will be sitting on the last remaining pools. Their whip-hand position will allow them, any time they choose, to hike prices and send shock waves through the global economy. By about 2040 the oil will all be gone.

While these analysts were publishing their conclusions, scientists in Britain and New York were announcing that the planet is heating up faster than anyone thought likely five years ago. At that time, it was believed that a 3% rise over the next hundred years was the maximum possible. Now NASA’s James Hanson (who has been right so often as to wear the mantle of a prophet) sees a rise of 5%F coming as early as 2075.

Backing him up were statements from the British government’s climate centre at Hadley that the latest computer simulations show the planet heating up “faster than at any time in the world’s history. It will be far too fast for natural systems to adapt.”

So how will all this affect British Columbia, a heavy importer of food?

The answer is, “severely, but far from devastatingly, if we play our cards right.”

Two years ago, the BC and federal governments jointly published a study by 110 scientists of the probable impact on our provincial agriculture of a scenario under which global atmospheric CO2 doubled over pre-industrial levels.

Their conclusions were that on the whole, and with certain provisos, such a scenario could prove good for our farmers.

Winters, though wetter, would have fewer damaging outflows of Arctic air. The number of frost-free days would grow, and there would be opportunities for double-cropping. More carbon dioxide in the air would enhance the growth of some plant species. In the province’s interior, fruit growing now limited to the Osoyoos- Oliver region would advance north to the Kamloops- Shuswap area. The winter period of feeding dried crops to livestock would be shortened by four-to-six weeks.

In the north of the province, large tracts of land could be opened to farming, provided new roads were connected to markets. And Peace River farmers would be growing a wider range of crops.

But as warming increased, there would be inevitable drawbacks. Pests hitherto killed by cold winters could survive into spring. New pests would arrive from the south. Water vapour sent into the upper atmosphere by climate warming tends not to precipitate evenly as rain, but as cloudbursts. Thus winter floods could increase.

In some areas, water for summer crops could be scarce. Farmers now counting on the runoff from summer snow melt might be in trouble, since most southern glaciers and snow caps would disappear.

But when it comes to the much greater warming promised by Hanson and the Hadley group, we are obviously in uncharted territory.

If the biologists at a 1997 conference at Villach, Austria were right, many of our ecosystems will be in trouble. Their conclusion was that the most many ecosystems can stand is a one-degree rise per century.

Nevertheless, as long as the water problems are solvable, farmers should be alright. Unlike fixed ecosystems, which cannot migrate quickly to a cooler, northern regime or to higher montane levels, farmers can plant whatever conforms to the parameters of their changing climate.

Still another issue to be faced is the rise in ocean levels. Seas expand as they get warmer. Hanson figures that in a very few decades, the US east coast and Gulf coasts will be at least partly inundated. Here on the west coast, the area most at risk will be the Fraser River delta. Sooner or later the provincial government will be forced to decide when to build protective dykes, and to what height, hoping it will never have to deal with the collapse of the unstable west Antarctic ice sheet, whose plunge into the sea would raise global levels five metres.

A final issue our agriculture will have to resolve is the change from vanishing oil to such renewable energy sources as wind, hydro, fuel cells, photovoltaics, and biomass.

For a while, fortunately, there will be Peace River natural gas and the Alberta tar sands to cushion the change.

But once they are gone, we shall find out whether industrial-scale agriculture will be viable without oil. It has evolved on the assumption that cheap oil would always be there to run its big machines, provide a chemical base for many of its herbicides and pesticides, and also for transport to markets.

It is usually argued that organic farming, being labour intensive, is too expensive for the average family. But what is apt to be forgotten is that organic farming is still largely unsubsidized, whereas industrial farming, according to the calculations of Edward Goldsmith of The Ecologist magazine, is today being subsidized globally by the astonishing sum of $300 billion a year. Transfer even half that sum to the organic field, and you get affordable food.

The current global system of food distribution is as bizarre as it is wasteful. The average morsel of food destined for the North American dinner table, for example, has travelled 4,000 kilometres to get there. It is difficult to imagine such extravagance continuing once oil has gone. Air transport will likely be prohibitive in cost, and rail transport will be favoured over shipment by truck. The signs, in other words, point to a new emphasis on local production for local use.

That being so, British Columbians, in a country where only 3% of the land area will grow food , have a lot of work ahead of them if the Saanich peninsula’s situation is typical. In spite of having a good deal of unused agricultural soil, Saanich imports almost 90% of its food. And it is chilling to realize how fragile are the sources from which it draws most of those imports.

If, for instance, the hurricane rains which last autumn drenched North Carolina, fall instead on central and southern Florida, it could be goodbye to that state’s fruit for a while. After consulting with climate scientists, the International Red Cross is getting ready for a stormy future. To quote its director, “countries that have not had a major disaster within living memory will start having them. Those that had one or two a year will have more.”

In 1988, the American Midwest, sometimes called the world’s breadbasket because of its huge grain exports, had a drought and failed to produce enough grain even to feed its own people. Luckily, it had some carry over stocks from the previous year. So what if the Red Cross is right and droughts come frequently? And suppose climate extremes begin hitting California’s Central Valley, from which come so many fruits and vegetables. It is worth remembering, too, that in 50 years Americans will have another 80 million of their own citizens to feed.

So, anyone who believes we will always have access to copious imports is not in full possession of the facts.


[From WS February/March 2000]

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