End of cheap energy could reshape agriculture

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The end of cheap energy could mean a resurgence of interest in small-scale farming, says award-winning Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of dramatic events in the next five years,” he told the annual National Farmers Union conference in Saskatoon.

The decline of fossil fuels is having a direct impact on western nations, their economies and their societies, he said.

“You know the middle class is suffering and experiencing contractions,” said Nikiforuk, sharing details of a recent trip to Arizona where he noticed motorists filling their gas tanks with $4 or $5 of fuel one at a time.

He added the present unrest in Europe is another sign of things to come, noting Spain’s youth unemployment rate has hit 40 per cent.

Governments should prepare people for shrinking economies and changing lifestyles now to lessen the risk of social unrest when the inevitable happens, he stressed.

Like any addiction, withdrawal from hydrocarbons won’t be easy, but Nikiforuk said there are examples to turn to, including Cuba.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the small island nation saw 60 per cent of its oil imports disappear overnight. As a result, food production and caloric intake dropped to dangerous levels — until the old farm equipment came out.

“There were still some small farmers left, and the government opened it up to them and said, ‘you guys save our asses,’ which is what they did,” said Nikiforuk.

Far-reaching effects

Agriculture, arguably more than any other industry, has been affected by the advent of fossil fuels, and the ramifications have been far reaching.

In 1900, 70 per cent of North Americans farmed, but not so today.

“This industrial revolution — cheap oil combined with the combustion engine — changed all that, and began this massive, almost unending exodus that has reduced the rural population that farms to an amazing one per cent,” he said.

That’s not all fossil fuels did.

As the mechanization of farming eliminated the need for labourers and horses, it also sped up the rate at which the natural landscape could be transformed.

“You plow up 40 million acres in the space of 10 years that was once grassland… and then we had the extreme dust storms,” said Nikiforuk, referring to the prairie dust bowl of the 1930s.

But it didn’t stop with mechanization. The author said the next hydrocarbon-assisted step made by agriculture was chemical fertilizer, which allowed greater food production aimed at export, larger human populations and intensified urban centres.

“Oil is the Viagra of the species,” he said. However, like the effects of Viagra, this existence is not sustainable.

Nikiforuk said the move away from hydrocarbons will result in a return to more sustainable practices — particularly small-scale farming — as North America works to feed itself in the face of less available energy.

This isn’t the first time the world has gotten hooked on cheap energy though. In his book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, Nikiforuk compares the use of fossil fuels to the use of slaves.

“Slavery I think, has conditioned many of our attitudes about energy and how we use energy without us even thinking about it, so there is one of our first experiences with a concentrated form of energy — human muscle shackled,” he said.

When slavery ended in the United States, there was the equivalent of one slave per citizen. But if you were to convert the energy provided by an enslaved individual and quantify it in terms of the fossil fuels used today, every American would use energy equivalent to 39 slaves.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist with the Manitoba Co-operator. She has previously reported for the the Metros, Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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