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Welcome to the 21st Century

Daniel Imhoff
Daniel Imhoff is a researcher, author, and independent publisher focused on farming, conservation, public policy, and design. He is the president and co-founder of Watershed Media, a non-profit publishing house based in California.

For those who stocked their pantry with emergency provisions, purchased a backup generator, or were otherwise underwhelmed by the seemingly uneventful transition to Y2K eight years ago, let it be known that the unraveling of events in 2008 have more than compensated. Food riots are erupting around the globe. Rising fuel prices are affecting the cost of everything. Snow packs are down throughout the American West, Australia is suffering its worst drought in decades, and violent storms are gripping Asia. Up and down the West Coast, salmon fishing has been suspended for the entire season due to collapsing salmonid populations. The bubble economy inflated by paving over U.S. farmland to make way for cheap subdivisions has burst, sucking along global financial markets in its tailspin. The shocking headlines keep piling up. And it’s not even summer.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

These crises no longer seem like isolated incidents, but more like strands of interwoven trends that are settling in for the longer term. In his recent conclusion for the Pew Commission report on industrial farm animal production, “Putting Meat on the Table,”* farmer and philosopher Fred Kirschenmann suggests three troubling issues facing the U.S industrial food and agriculture system in the years ahead: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate. “These changes,” writes Kirschenmann, “will be especially challenging because America’s successful industrial economy of the past century was based on the availability of cheap energy, a relatively stable climate, and abundant fresh water, and current methods have assumed the continued availability of these resources.” The only way ahead, cautions Kirschenmann, is the creation of a postindustrial food and farming system in which operations become localized and harmonized with the natural systems that support them.

The events of 2008 suggest that we inhabit a changed world. A great deal of the challenges we face in the 21st century no doubt arise directly as a result of the way we have conducted our lives and managed our societies over the course of the last 100 years. There really is no place to hide. No matter where we are, we can pick up a local or national newspaper and read about these issues of energy, water, and climate not as abstract concepts or far-off lumbering threats, but as harsh realities being brought right down to a human level. Here are just a few salient issues.

Feed versus Biofuels

More than 25 percent of the nation’s corn crop is now being used for ethanol production, despite the fact that it provides just a fraction of our overall liquid fuel consumption. This includes 10 million additional acres of corn than had been planted just a few years ago. Planting more corn means we have less acreage devoted to soybeans and wheat, and less acreage preserved through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollments. Using corn for ethanol directly affects the cost of animal products, because the feedstock used for ethanol is starchy yellow processing corn, not the edible white varieties. And as wheat or rice acreage is lost in favor of expanded corn production, the price of food staples rises.

Food as Speculation

With the recent crisis in financial markets, capital has swiftly shifted toward tangible commodities, including food, also contributing to rising food prices. Governments are stockpiling foodstuffs. The value of arable farmland is soaring. Futures traders are hedging their bets on ever scarcer supplies of basic grains and oilseeds. Meanwhile, citizens around the globe feel the sting of rising food prices. Money is amassed by the powerful; others are starving. The ethics of feeding the world, not just with daily calories but with sound nutrition as well, along with generating surpluses to compensate for crop shortages, will increasingly come into conflict with the larger forces that dominate food production and distribution across the globe.

Escalating fuel costs

Imagine our contemporary food system without its massive machinery and billions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, its energy and water inputs, all directly dependent upon fossil fuels. Consider that $200 per barrel oil prices are predicted to arrive perhaps as early as the end of this year. Now take your favorite food item and double its current price. Wipe the slate clean and begin to envision alternative ways to produce foods in your respective regions, communities, and backyards, in new ways that somehow deviate from our behavior patterns of the past, when we have literally been eating oil.

Climate challenges and droughts

The failure of the 2008 Australian harvest due to extreme drought sent a shock wave across world rice markets. Ripple effects have been felt everywhere. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Just this week, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a sobering assessment on the impacts of climate change on the country’s bioregions. Hold on to your hats, this is a government agency document forecasting that: 1) unpredictable precipitation and weather patterns will disrupt crop performance an ongoing basis; 2) broad and potentially radical changes will transform some of the country’s most valued landscapes.

Food versus Wild Nature

As food becomes more precious, and food crop agriculture competes with an emerging agrofuels industry for scarce soil and water resources, the threats to wildlife and threatened habitats will escalate. Already we are seeing this unfold in the Salinas Valley, as the leafy green industry attempts to regain consumer confidence after industrial spinach became contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. Never mind that wildlife probably had nothing to do with the E. coli contamination of spinach. The science now suggests that the most likely source of the pathogenic batcteria was from feedlot manure transported by windborne dust. Yet in response to marketing orders from the leafy greens industry—not on the ground biology—miles of Salinas Valley riparian habitat have been bulldozed, fences erected, and wildlife baited and poisoned in the name of making the food system safe and secure. Conventional agriculture continues to miss the point. Our fate will ultimately be determined by how well we learn to coexist with other species, not by our efforts to obliterate them.

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