Peak oil & agriculture

by Robin Krabbe

Oil depletion will impact heavily on Tasmania’s farm sector. Rising prices of inputs will translate to increased food prices and decreased supplies of food through the market, worldwide. The cost of chemicals and fertilisers – a major cost for many farmers – is directly linked to the price of oil.

Fertilisers are the biggest consumers of fossil fuels in agriculture and, if they cannot be produced commercially using renewable energy in amounts sufficient quantities, oil depletion will ultimately have a major impact on the price and availability of virtually all foodstufs.

Understanding the impacts
A huge amount of information relating to the non-sustainability of large scale monocultural agriculture from a number of aspects can be accessed on the internet , including the impacts of peak oil and climate change.

To help understand the implications of peak oil and climate change on agriculture, it will be helpful for we citizens to discuss these issues with each other and to get involved with local groups – in particular environmental groups who are concerned about these issues. Sustainable Living Tasmania Tasmania in the South, the Launceston Environment Centre in the North and the North-west Environment Centre in the North-West are examples. They are all helping communities understand the impacts of oil depletion.

Building resilience
The good news about addressing peak oil and climate change is that our responses can deliver positive effects for individual and community health and well-being. And for environmental health. Even if peak oil and climate change did not exist, there are many other spin-off benefits to building reliance at the individual and, very importantly, at the community level too.

Producing food communally has many social, environmental and economic benefits.

In the agricultural sector there are two key responses in agriculture to peak oil and climate change. Both involve win-win processes for both human health and environmental health.

    1) A transition to agricultural production methods that don’t use petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers

    2) A focus on local production, to reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting food and other agricultural products.

Local production (you will start to hear the term relocalisation being used) involves much closer feedback loops – meaning that we have vastly increased knowledge of what inputs are going into our food production, and therefore enhanced control over how our food is grown.

Sustainable agricultural techniques also have the benefit of reducing external inputs. For example, organic, regenerative, low-input, and/or closed loop farming, is typically more labor-intensive, and one way of sourcing the increased labour is from urban areas, necessitating a shift of the workforce from highly populated urban areas – eg from Hobart to less populated rural areas, such as Western and North-Western Tasmania.

In addition, carbon sequestration tends to occur at particularly high levels in organic systems, therefore agriculture is one of the most effective strategies for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply by Richard Heinberg. This is an excellent summary of how unsustainable agriculture evolved, and gives some good pointers on restoring sustainability.

(Robin has worked for the CSIRO and the Department of Primary Industries Victoria for 17 years. She is completing a PhD at the University of Tasmania, investigating the impact of community food networks and community currency systems on socio-ecological sustainability.)