A common trope in peak oil circles and other communities skeptical of industrial society’s long-term future is the assumption that the trouble society faces due to oil depletion will be addressed by a return to small-scale farms. Many people have embarked on permaculture projects, others have fled to the countryside to sit out the coming collapse of modern civilization.
The idea should be simple to understand: People need to eat to survive, everything else is secondary. Thus when all the excess layers of complexity enabled by fossil fuels are stripped away, we will be left with a situation where agriculture is the main potential source of employment. In addition to this, the fact that industrial agriculture depends on oil means that lack of oil will make methods of farming that were rendered non-viable by new technologies viable again.
I am skeptical of this suggestion for a number of reasons that I will aim to outline in this essay. The first issue I want to address is the fact that capitalism doesn’t per definition assign a fair market value to products that adequately conveys the underlying issues involved in their production.
Anyone who looks at fossil fuels should understand the issues involved here. The first problem we notice is that fossil fuels are sold at a price that doesn’t allow us to address the damage caused to our environment. The second issue we notice is that fossil fuels are not even sold to us at prices that cover the costs that companies incur to extract them.
As Gail Tverberg and others have noted, the limits to growth we have encountered express themselves in the form of low oil prices, rather than high oil prices. This is caused by the fact that consumers can no longer afford to pay high prices due to debt limits. As you might have noticed in the years since 2008, you’re not spending a significantly larger share of your income on food. In fact, as of speaking in 2016, world food prices are very low again. What has primarily risen in cost are insurance, college tuition and rent.
Societies where a large section of the population works in agriculture have one thing in common: The vast majority of people’s income is spent on food. In our society, regardless of whatever decline in standard of living we might have experienced, most of our income in the developed world isn’t spent on food, just roughly ten percent is.
It’s important to note, that most of this doesn’t end up in the hands of the farmer who grew the crop. A disproportionate amount of that share ends up spent by restaurants. Another large share of the price ends up distributed to the variety of participants in the logistical chain that leads to food entering the supermarket.
The big secret of small scale organic farms is that they’re economically non-viable. They’re kept alive through government subsidies on one hand and on the other hand, through consumer lifestyle choices. People are willing to pay a lot more for a product that can be marketed to them as being a “responsible decision”.
But what happens, when people end up in a situation of economic scarcity? As I will explain to you, the consequence of this will be that agriculture will merely become even more mechanized. The products that are cheap and affordable for us, are the same products that tend to require relatively little physical labor. The reason for this is because employees are expensive.
What makes employees expensive? A variety of factors. Employees are susceptible to accidents and sickness, that lead to costly medical expenses. Employees have to be paid regularly, even if circumstances prohibit you from making effective use of their labor. A hailstorm in the Netherlands recently confronted farmers with this problem. Their greenhouses had been destroyed, so they found themselves confronted with a situation where they had to continue paying their employees, despite being unable to make use of their labor.
Employees are also unpredictable. They could go on strike, they could make errors, they could become sick, they could steal from their employer or they could sue their employer for exposing them to conditions that render them infertile and give them cancer. For farmers, employees are a massive burden, one that they would happily get rid of if they could.
There are very few conditions imaginable that would render it financially attractive for a company to replace a machine with laborers. If we run out of oil, phosphate rock, water, fertile soil and other essentials to grow crops, companies won’t respond by hiring more laborers. Rather, what will happen is that companies will pass on the costs to consumers.
How will consumers react when costs are passed on to them? Consumers will start to cut down further on their food expenses. What this means is that they will cease to go out to dine as often, as this is the easiest place to cut down on expenses. Another option for them is to substitute more expensive food items with less expensive food items.
How could consumers cut down on their food expenses? One option will be for them to let go of their picky lifestyle choices. To eat only the flesh of animals who had a good life and saw sunlight in their lifetime is a decision that people can make who have excess money to spend. Similarly, to eat organic foods grown without the use of fertilizer and pesticides requires a position of choice that few people will have as their budgets are reduced. Organic foods require roughly twice as much labor input and as a result are more costly.
One important problem to understand when it comes to how agriculture will change is that the diversity of crops we eat today would amaze people who lived just a century or two ago, in a time when our diet was almost entirely dominated by cereals. Grain is cheap and simple to grow. As our medieval ancestors developed improved agricultural methods and saw their population grow, the dominance of grain in our diet merely grew. Between the eight and eleventh century, cereals grew from a third of our diet to roughly three quarters of a typical person’s diet.
By the 18th century, the European diet was almost completely composed of grains. Then, by the late 19th century, wheat yields began growing faster than the rate of population growth. As a result, per capita staple food consumption eventually reached a peak. Something unique happened: Regular people were left again with disposable income that they could begin spending on different food items that had been until then affordable to them and reserved for the upper classes: Meat, fruit, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, tea, etcetera.
Our health has improved drastically as a consequence of our reduced reliance on grains alone. Scurvy has practically disappeared, as have rickets and other disorders caused by our poor diet, which led us in much of Europe to have a lower life expectancy than hunter-gatherers until well into the 19th century. In the poorest regions in the world however, most people still have diets that consist for 80% or more of cereal grains.
The problem, as you might have anticipated, is the fact that the new foods we added or re-added to our diet, are luxury goods. We eat them, not because they are a cost-effective method to ensure our survival, but because they improve our quality of life. For a hunter-gatherer, these two motives roughly align. The foods he happens to have access to will also typically be foods that are relatively healthy for him.
For those of us living in civilization, these two motives have been opposed to each other for hundreds of years: What’s cheap and easy for us to produce (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes) is not what happens to be most healthy for us. The real risk we face now, if our standard of living continues to decline at its current pace, is a return to the type of diet we left behind. The free range bison meat and organically grown pesticide free blueberries you buy at Whole Foods don’t inherit the future, the big sack of potatoes and industrially produced white bread you buy for a fraction of the price will.
It’s important to understand that for the staple crops we eat, the advantages that industrial agriculture happens to have over any more sustainable forms of agriculture are much larger than the advantages it has when it comes to other crops. These advantages are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
As a result, collapse doesn’t lead to a break in the trend of industrial food production. It means a continuation, even as people begin to discover the major problems associated with it. We will merely grow more dependent on modern industrial agriculture. The scale advantages that it happens to have are too big for us to overcome.
What we should expect to see is that it will become increasingly difficult for people to live far away from major urban population centers. Many small rural towns and island communities are already dependent on government subsidies to keep them alive and in most of Europe, the countryside is being deserted. Hyper-urbanization is part of the process of collapse that we will witness in the decades ahead.
This is unfortunate, because most of the critique aimed at industrial agriculture is of course justified. It is destructive in nature and tolerates very little biodiversity in its surroundings. Many people would also rather maintain their traditional way of life, rather than being reduced to passive consumerism. The only unjustified critique is the idea that we have a viable alternative.
The other side of the coin would be that ecological damage will be relatively limited if urbanization continues. The decline in subsistence farmers and the increase in rural flight towards the cities has opened up vast swathes of land that were formerly under cultivation. Today there are large plots of land where trees are growing in new forests that were formerly used for subsistence agriculture. Whatever life manages to survive outside of the cities may face less competition from us.