Industrial Agriculture and Food Security

Food is the cornerstone of our society, and in fact, all life. As such, it is paramount that our food supply be secure and resilient, even in uncertain times. An inability to provide a stable food supply would certainly drive hungry people into civil unrest, and could lead to the failure of the state to maintain power and order, creating a power vacuum that would be filled by whoever has the most might.

Imagine this:

A brutal summer heat wave, the new normal thanks to climate change [14], bakes the soil of industrial farms and causes the crops to wilt. Irrigation helps some to hold out, but a depleted water table [15] means resources are scarce, and farmers have to choose to let large parts of the fields die in order to have enough water to sustain what’s left. Then comes a huge storm, pouring down a months worth of precipitation in a week, flooding the fields and causing the roots to rot. The hot and humid conditions and a week-long downpour cause molds and mildews to set in, with the leaves too wet to apply any kind of pesticide. Rising seas and stronger storms bring huge surges to the coasts, flooding coastal farms with saltwater and rendering them unusable [16]. The result is a near total crop failure of America’s corn, soy, wheat, and hay fields, which account for more than 80% of all crop production [17]. Prices of goods rise in the markets, but enough food is stockpiled that only the poorest people go seriously hungry.

Runoff from the fields leaches millions of pounds of nitrogen-rich fertilizer into the watershed, causing immense algal blooms that suck all the oxygen out of the water, destroying populations of fish and other aquatic species that people rely on for food [18]. There is already today a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico because of runoff from the Mississippi river [18].

Winter comes in late but fast, dropping quickly into freezing temperatures without much warning [19]. Most trees held onto their leaves, missing the crucial period of cool weather that triggers them to drop [20]. The wetter-then-usual winter brings a heavy snowfall that, because of the warmer air, is extra sticky and gets caught in the leaves that never dropped. Damages are immense [21], with limbs and entire trees strewn across every street. Power companies scramble to get the grid back online, but progress is hard and slow, and many are without power for weeks at a time.

After a Christmas where you’d be more comfortable in a bathing suit then huddled by the fire [22], the temperature fluctuates erratically between warm and very cold, and warmer air means less insulating snow on the ground, which causes the ground to freeze and thaw more frequently [20, 23]. The soil microbial activity is significantly reduced as a result [20, 23], and the trees that are symbiotic with these microbes suffer consequently. Industrial orchards are hit the hardest, with the bare, depleted soils just about useless when it comes to regulating temperature. Between root damage and the carnage from the snow, America’s fruit and nut production drops to a mere fraction of what it was previously.

An untimely frost in late spring devastates crops that were already in the ground and sets the growing season back significantly [19]. Just as winter stayed late, summer comes early and with it, more heat and drought [24]. The cycle repeats, only getting worse with each iteration.

A few years of significantly less than average food production, and prices are higher than most can afford. People are getting angry, and the government isn’t able to quell the masses. The government turns to the Big Agriculture Corporations for a solution, and they say the only solution is a massive government bailout; the companies make huge profits and reinstate the same system that failed us in the first place while the rest of us go hungry (see US response to 2008 financial crisis). People demand help from the government, but between the bailout of Industrial Agriculture and the billions of dollars in infrastructure damage from rising seas and stronger storms [21], there’s nothing left in the budget. Riots break out as people raid grocery stores all over the country. The national guard is deployed in the largest cities were violence is the worst, but in smaller cities, suburbs, and rural towns, the police and gangs, whoever is stronger, takes control.

This dooms day scenario is not so far-fetched, and in fact, it’s already happening in many regions of the world. Many attribute the rise of radical militant groups in the middle east to instability caused by food insecurity that resulted from climate change [25].

Even if climate change doesn’t cause widespread failure of industrial agriculture, eventually the oil will run out, and seeing as how it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of processed grain in America, and how extreme drilling methods mean extracting that oil uses almost as much oil as you get out [26], sometime very soon we are going to run into serous problems with our agricultural system, and many people will go very hungry… That is, unless we do something about it.

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The Southside Permaculture Park is designed to be a part of the solution to this problem. By building physical, digital, and social infrastructure we will create a resilient, decentralized, community-owned food system capable of withstanding and negating the effects of climate change, all without the use of fossil fuels. The park itself will serve as an example of what this system could look like, and the website and apprenticeship programs will make the information and techniques available to the community at large.

The gardens beds are designed to use swales to catch rainwater during times of flooding and store it for times of drought. They can also be modified to redirect water during prolonged heavy rains, and the raised beds provide good drainage that prevents the roots from rotting. The perennial focus means plants will have deeper, more established root systems and will be better able to withstand periodic droughts.

A deep topsoil rich in organic matter also helps to hold water, and has the added benefit of a diverse soil ecology that keeps pest and disease populations in check. Integrating flowering plants and multiple different habitat types attracts predatory and beneficial insects/arachnids that mitigate the need for toxic pesticides.

Built-in fertilization techniques keep polluting runoff out of the watershed, protecting aquatic ecosystems and their associated populations of fish and other species.

Designing the garden to be like a forest – with elements occupying niches in all layers from the canopy to the fungal network below the soil – helps to regulate the local microclimate, protecting the garden from erratic temperature fluctuations. Thick soils and mulch also insulate and protect the roots from irregular freeze/thaw cycles, keeping the garden healthy even if the larger climate is not.

Systems like these not only make our food supply more resilient to climate change, but they also negate the very effects of climate change itself.

Industrial agriculture contributes about 10% of all US emissions [27], excluding the associated transportation which is a significant additional source of emissions. What’s more, one third of all emissions from agriculture are in the form of methane [27], which is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide! [28] 

On the contrary, the practices employed at the Southside Permaculture Park don’t require massive fossil fuel inputs and actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the form of soils and perennial plant biomass [29]. Their decentralized nature means little to no emissions are required for transportation. If implemented on a large-scale to replace much of industrial agriculture, these systems have the potential to offset a large amount of greenhouse gas-related climate change.

Bringing back forest-like systems to urban and suburban environments can also help significantly to regulate the climate of those environments. The ‘urban heat island effect’ is well documented [30], and infrastructure like the Southside Permaculture Park could help keep cities cool in the summer, reducing the energy requirements for air conditioning, further reducing total emissions and improving quality of life for people living there.

Decentralized, community-operated food systems that are regenerative and stable in nature will prove invaluable in maintaining order in a climate change- or oil-related catastrophe. If communities have local, sustainable food production, it will significantly reduce tensions and pressures within the community in the event of a widespread food shortage, and will help prevent the situation from descending into chaos. Collaborative projects like this also get people working together, building community connections and relationships in times of plenty, so that when times get tough people are more likely to work together as a group rather than turn against each other in an everyone-for-themselves frenzy. This social capital is highly undervalued in our capitalist system of economics because it cannot be easily monetized, but when it comes to long-term community stability, it is one of the most important things.

With climate change, extreme weather, the current state of government, and increasing privatization of all things, the outlook for the future may seem bleak. But fear not, because the Southside Permaculture Park, and projects just like it all over the country and the world, are sowing the seeds of tomorrows society. It is one of stability and autonomy, where people are connected to a community – of people and all life – from which each derives purpose and pleasure. We are creating a regenerative system for providing for the needs of people, repairing the damages to the Earth, and making life worth living. And just by reading this, you too have joined the revolution.

 

References

  1. USGCRP, 2016: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins et. al. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp.  http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0R49NQX
  2. https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html
  3. Cornell University Cooperative Extension. November 2012. Saltwater Inundation: Implications for agriculture. Professor Harold M. Van Es, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Cornell University.  http://eden.cce.cornell.edu/disasters/Documents/PDFs/saltwater%20innundation%20fact%20sheet.pdf
  4. Classification and Mapping of Agricultural Land for National Water-Quality Assessment. Robert J. Gilliom and Gail P. Thelin. National Water-Quality Assessment Program. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR. https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1131/pdf/circ1131.pdf
  5. Biello, David. “Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Streams and Rivers–Creating Vast ‘Dead Zones.’” Scientific American, Scientific American, 14 Mar. 2008, www.scientificamerican.com/article/fertilizer-runoff-overwhelms-streams/.
  6. http://climatechange.lta.org/climate-impacts/shifting-seasons/
  7. Feltman, Rachel. “Where the Heck Is Autumn?” Popular Science, Popular Science, 11 Oct. 2017, www.popsci.com/autumn-late-climate-change.
  8. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/
  9. https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/70-Degrees-Weather-Christmas-Eve-Rain-Showers-363249021.html
  10. Sorenson, et. al. 2018. Winter soil freeze-thaw cycles lead to reductions in soil microbial biomass and activity not compensated for by soil warming. Soil Biology and Biochemistry (116): 39-47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2017.09.026 
  11. Konstantinos and Leetenmaier. “Trends in 20th century drought over the continental United States.” Geophysical Research Letters, 33.10. (2006).
  12. Mansharamani, Vikram. “A Major Contributor to the Syrian Conflict? Climate Change.” PBS. PBS, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
  13. Manning, Richard. “’The Oil We Eat’ Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq.” Resilience, Post Carbon Institute, 23 May 2004, www.resilience.org/stories/2004-05-23/oil-we-eat-following-food-chain-back-iraq/.
  14. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions
  15. IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science BasisContribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom 996 pp.
  16. Mudge, Ken, and Steve Gabriel. Farming the Woods: an Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.
  17. https://www.epa.gov/heat-islands