Farming’s future is going to change big time as the supply of oil shrinks, or becomes pricier.
A presentation last week by Kent Mullinix, with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says that many farm products require a five-to-one or sometimes, even a 10-to-one ratio of a unit energy returned – from the energy invested, where as before industrialization, agriculture was a net producer of energy.
“Some food is actually 50 to 1 – beef,” Mullinix said.
And if the energy inputs keep becoming more expensive, the whole system could come crashing down.
While input costs grow, profit margin drops, requiring a get-big or get-out mentality. That’s resulted in 25 per cent fewer farms in the southwest B.C. in the last 10 years.
Sometimes it doesn’t even make economic sense.
He cites pesticide use that’s increased 10 times, while crop losses have increased up to 13 per cent.
They work in the short term, not in the long term, he explains.
The points came from Mullinix’s presentation, Toward a Viable 21st Century Agri-food System, that he gave last week to Maple Ridge’s Agricultural Advisory Committee.
He notes that while farming becomes unprofitable for those who actually till the soil, the food sector usually brings a 20-per-cent return on investment to agricultural corporations.
Add to that, the dwindling supply of oil which fuels agriculture and Mullinix sees calamity ahead.
If oil production has peaked, or is about to peak in the next few decades, so too will come the end of cheap food and the transnational global food system. That will produce a resurgence in local farming and food processing, that will require 50 million new farmers in North America.
To forestall the effects of that, Mullinix sees farming developing in bio-regions, where growing conditions determine the optimum crops for that area. Those regions would then trade with others. These community-based agricultural systems would operate parallel to the global agri-food system and would become more viable as global prices and energy costs rose.
“You spend a dollar in the global agricultural system and the majority of that dollar leaves your community.”
Spend it locally and it remains in the community and has a multiplier effect, he says.
“This is absolutely an ecological way of thinking. Nature tells us this is the way it needs to be.”
Food price increases have already started, he points out.
“It’s happening. Food prices are going up and it’s all largely related to oil.”
And cities can play critical roles in advancing such local, community-based food systems, a concept which he says is still in its infancy.
But Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Horticulture is already engaged in projects with local government. The school is working with the Squamish-Lilloett Regional District to develop a regional food strategy and also doing research for Surrey on local community agriculture.
“This agriculture holds the promise of being a substantial economic and employment driver.
“And that’s exactly why Surrey is having us do this research.”
Another project with Langley is to develop a 20-acre research and demonstration farm. Delta, in cooperation with Kwantlen, is considering “community trust farming,” which would see a village of 5,000 people built adjacent to a 250-acre farm that would supply food directly to residents.
Coun. Al Hogarth liked the ideas. But he still wonders about how global warming affects the optimum rainfall and temperatures needed for growing plants in the soil. Drought or floods could all affect or eliminate field production, he said.
“Nobody can tell me what the effects of global warming … will we be able to grow crops on open fields?” That’s why he wants roof-top greenhouses required on large-scale developments, such as might happen in Albion flats.
“The more production we have, the better.”
People will have to be more creative in growing food, he added.
“I don’t think food production in open fields is necessarily going to be achievable in the future or economical in the future. Let’s not get stuck on this, ‘We’ve got to save the land,’ “ he added.
Instead, rooftop agriculture in greenhouses that use a regional network of geothermal power for heating, or solar power, should be considered.
“We need to have some dialogue. It’s not about land that we might be able to use some day.”
But Coun. Linda King supported all of Mullinix’s points. “I don’t think it’s nonsense.”
With such prospects, it’s important to be creative and do other things to balance the huge agri-food system that’s been created, she said.
Just because one system is in place now doesn’t mean it will remain that way. “I think we need to do some things differently.”
That means preservation of farmland in Maple Ridge so it can serve the huge urban market of Vancouver nearby. She doesn’t buy the argument that soil or weather conditions make it unprofitable to farm.
“We live on the Fraser River delta. We’re not talking about north of Lake Superior.”
She said Maple Ridge has discussed with Kwantlen polytechnic the possibility of a farm school in Maple Ridge that would use local ag land as the outdoor campus and lease classroom space.