Richard Heinberg has written a useful introduction to farming transition. It is excerpted from a larger document-in-process, a co-publication of the Soil Association and Post Carbon Institute, that will be released in somewhat different versions in mid-November.
I have extracted a summary below:
The Food and Farming Transition
The only way to avert a food crisis resulting from oil and natural gas price hikes and supply disruptions while also reversing agriculture’s contribution to climate change is to proactively and methodically remove fossil fuels from the food system.
If this transition is undertaken proactively and intelligently, there could be many side benefits—more careers in farming, more protection for the environment, less soil erosion, a revitalization of rural culture, and more healthful food for everyone.
To remove fossil fuels from the food system too quickly, before alternative systems are in place, would be catastrophic. Thus the transition process must be a matter for careful consideration and planning.
In recent decades the food systems of Britain and most other nations have become globalized. Food is traded in enormous quantities—and not just luxury foods (such as coffee and chocolate), but staples including wheat, maize, meat, potatoes, and rice.
The globalization of the food system has had advantages: people in wealthy countries now have access to a wide variety of foods at all times, including fruits and vegetables that are out of season (apples in May or asparagus in January), and foods that cannot be grown locally at any time of year (e.g., avocadoes in Scotland). Long-distance transport enables food to be delivered from places of abundance to areas of scarcity. Whereas in previous centuries a regional crop failure might have led to famine, its effects now can be neutralized by food imports.
However, food globalization also creates systemic vulnerability. While government has a significant role, it can do only so much. Consumers must develop the habit of preferentially buying locally sourced foods whenever possible, and they can be encouraged in this by "Buy Local" educational literature distributed by retailers—who can also assist by clearly labeling and prominently displaying local products.
Growers themselves must rethink their business strategies. Instead of growing specialty crops for export, they must plan a transition to production of staple foods for local consumption. They must also actively seek local markets for their food.
The transition of farms to renewable energy will require planning. Farmers, ideally with the assistance of regional and national agencies, should plan to increase energy efficiency, to reduce fossil fuel inputs, and to grow renewable energy production according to a staged, integrated program designed for the unique needs and capabilities of each farm. As a general guideline, the plan should aim to reduce oil and natural gas inputs by at least half during the first decade. Farmers could aim to apportion one-fifth of their cropland to production of biofuels for their own use.
In industrial agriculture, soil fertility is maintained with inputs provided from off-site. Of these inputs, the most important are nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen comes from ammonia-based fertilizers made from fossil fuels—principally, natural gas.
Phosphorus comes from phosphate mines in several countries. While sufficient low-quality phosphate deposits exist to supply world needs for many decades, high-quality deposits that are currently being mined are quickly depleting, which means that phosphate prices will likely rise within the next few years.
The consumer is as important to the food system as the producer. The advent and rapid proliferation of "fast food" restaurants has likewise fostered a diet that is profitable to giant industrial agribusiness, but disastrous to the health of consumers. However lamentable these trends may be from a public health standpoint, they are clearly unsustainable in view of the energy and climate crises facing modern agriculture.
A shift toward a less meat-centered diet should also be encouraged, because a meat-based diet is substantially more energy intensive than one that is plant-based.
During the past few decades farming has become more specialized which seemed to make economic sense in the era of cheap transport and cheap farm inputs.
With less fuel available to power agricultural machinery, the world will need many more farmers.
Currently the UK has 541,000 farmers, depending on how the term is defined. In the UK in 1900, nearly 40 percent of the population farmed; the current proportion is less than one percent. Today, the average farmer is nearing retirement age.
In nations and regions where food is grown without machinery, a larger percentage of the population must be involved in food production. For example, farmers make up more than half the populations of China, and India, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.
While the proportion of farmers that would be needed in Britain if the country were to become self-sufficient in food grown without fossil fuels is unknown (that would depend upon technologies used and diets adopted), it would undoubtedly be much larger than the current percentage. It is reasonable to expect that several million new farmers would be required—a number that is both unimaginable and unmanageable over the short term.
Today’s seed industry is centralized and reliant upon the very fuel-based transport system whose future viability is in question. Most commercial seeds are of hybrid varieties, so that farmers cannot save seed but must purchase new supplies each year.
What is needed instead is a coordinated effort to identify open-pollinated varieties of food crops that are adapted to local soils and microclimates, and a program to make such seeds available to farmers and gardeners in sufficient quantities. In addition, local colleges must begin offering courses on the techniques of seed saving - something has has already been done at Emerson.
Processing and Distribution Systems
The transition process will undoubtedly be fraught with challenges to food processing and distribution systems, which currently rely on large energy inputs and long-distance transport.
Resilience Action Planning
Building resilience into our food systems as we move toward a post-fossil fuel economy will entail all of the Elements of Transition detailed above. It will also require planning at four levels: Government, Community, Business, and Individual or Family.
The original article is here: