Peak Food and the Coming Agricultural Crisis: California’s Leading Role

California’s Leading Role in Rehabilitating Our Nation’s Food System: As more Americans become further removed from the supply sources of their food, both in proximity and knowledge, they become less secure in its future procurement. This is because the current food system is wholly dependent on fossil fuels and petrochemical inputs; suffice it to say unsustainably. From growing – all of those 500,000 tons of toxic pesticides used per year are fossil-fuel based – to harvesting with large, labor replacing machines, to transporting produce the average 1,500 miles to point of sale, agribusiness runs on oil. It is estimated that some 100 billion gallons of oil are consumed annually to make and transport our food supply.

California is in a unique position to stem the tide by positioning itself as an exemplar in successful local food production and distribution systems. With proper policy on the municipal scale and cooperative sentiments in Sacramento and DC, it can be a model for food and thus economic security for the rest of the country.

We are now beginning to see the connection between inflationary fiscal policy and skyrocketing food prices. It wouldn’t be so bad if the rise in prices weren’t paralleled by a loss of farmland and topsoil to industrial interests at break-neck speeds. The once immanent specters of peak-oil and global warming will soon be replaced with the more immediate concerns of peak-water and peak-arable land. This new paradigm will bring with it its own haunting questions of future food security as a nation. Our agricultural policy is a house-of-cards that has just been exposed to the weather.

The global food cartel that has cropped up in the past few decades is a direct result of bad policy on a national scale. From “seedlings to supermarkets,” a handful of supranational corporations have a stranglehold on the nation’s food system. A sea change in the way America produces its food has occurred over the past sixty years. Prior to WWII, small farmers and ranchers dominated a food system built on local demands and catering to local distribution channels. After the war a petrochemical industry arose by way of war surpluses. Oil, being cheap, fueled a new industrial revolution, one that would decimate rural America and put most family farms out of business thanks to a complicit congress and huge subsidies that mainly benefited large industrial farmers. As the number of producers began to dwindle, and small holders increasingly consolidated into large industrial concerns, America became dependent on a centralized food system of an unsupportable scale. This system is disastrously vulnerable to collapse from a multitude of socio-economic and political factors since so many of them directly affect commodity prices on a world stage. Almost all of which are linked to the price of oil. What is needed is a return to smaller, more local and decentralized markets less affected by the spot price of oil and more influenced by consumer demand for healthy, sustainably grown food.

The global market concept of food production is especially burdensome for California and its large agricultural economy. According to the 2006 USDA agricultural census data, the state operates less than four percent of the nation’s farms and generating more than 13 percent of its commodities. It is the number-one agricultural producer with more farm cash receipts than the next two highest producing states combined. Roughly a fourth of the nation’s dairy products originated from California farms in 2006 while nearly half of all fruits, nuts and vegetables grown ‘domestically’ were grown in the state. By far the most diverse agricultural producer with more than 400 crop and livestock products, California owes this success to its generally long growing seasons and mild Mediterranean like climate. Unfortunately, about 40 percent of this bounty is exported to other states or abroad and approximately a quarter of the food consumed in the state is imported from foreign nations. This is so despite California’s theoretical ability to feed itself with its own homegrown food at current production rates.

In the coming days, I’ll be delving into the issue of California’s food security by first examining where we are as a nation on agricultural policy. After a clearer picture of the state of our national (in reality international) food economy emerges, we can take a cursory look at how we charted such a path. Finally, I will present practical steps (in many places already underway in California) that will build and reinforce a local food economy not vulnerable to the entropy of our current system.