Megan Quinn Bachman – Peak Oil and the Case for Local Food Systems
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, January 11, 2006


Good afternoon. It is an honor to be a part of this powerful and groundbreaking event. To be able to connect with such wonderful organizations and people, those who I firmly believe can – and will – have an impact on the future of Ohio, and through its example, the rest of the country.

This may seem like a bold statement, but I hope by the end of my presentation all of you will see the tremendous opportunity that Columbus and the entire state of Ohio has to create a model that is so desperately needed in this country – a self-reliant local food system.

There are many reasons why local food is the best option. Today we have heard about some of them: high rates of obesity and heart disease from manufactured foods; soil depleting 10 times faster than its being replaced; fresh water resources being pumped for irrigation faster than they are being recharged; noxious smells and wastes from large scale livestock operations; the accumulation of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in ground and surface waters.

I am here to add one more reason to this ever-growing list: The depletion of non-renewable fossil fuel resources, primarily oil and natural gas, upon which industrial agriculture, industrial food processing, and long-distance food transport are dependent. This dependence has made the system unsustainable from the beginning and now desperately vulnerable with the end of cheap, abundant fossil fuels near.

I will explain what I mean by the end of cheap abundant fossil fuels, and question the future of our energy intensive food system. Then I will describe an example of a post-peak oil food system. Finally, I will outline our vision of a local food system, highlighting the opportunity that the energy crisis presents for the local food movement.

Cheap Abundant Fossil Fuels in Society and Agriculture

To begin with – who here is familiar with the concepts of peak oil and peak energy? For those of you who have heard about this, you know that I am not referring to the possibility of us running out of oil, natural gas and coal. I'm talking about the peaking and irreversible decline in production of these fuels. This occurs when we're about halfway through the resource, and its only a problem because the demand for these fuels continues to rise.

So the peak of production of these fuels is really more important than when they run out. Because the peak is when it will impact society in remarkable ways. After the peak, fossil fuels are no longer cheap and abundant, but scarce and expensive.

So why does this matter? Because our society and way of life are dependent upon fossil fuel energy. Fossil fuels provide more than 90 percent of the world's energy. Our most important fossil fuel, oil, which has the highest energy concentration and the most value as a transportation fuel, provides more than 40 percent of the world's energy, more than any other source, and accounts for more than 95 percent of all transportation fuel. After oil we have natural gas, a valuable feedstock for artificial fertilizers and manufactured products, and the number one source of energy for space heating.

Both oil and natural gas are invaluable resources for our industrial food system. Ten calories of fossil fuels are used in the production of each calorie of food today. Of that about one-third is in production, one-third is in processing and packaging, and one-third is in distribution and cooking.

Let's start with oil. About one fifth of all petroleum used in the US is used in agriculture. This accounts for nearly 400 gallons of oil equivalent per person per year. First of all, oil is the basis of all commercial pesticides – whose use, as you know, is ubiquitous in industrial agriculture.

More than one billion pounds of pesticides are applied each year in the US alone. Less than one hundredth of a percent reaches the target pest and the remaining 99.9 percent pollutes the environment. More than 90 percent of US corn farmers rely on herbicides and many of you are no doubt also aware of the use of certain strains of crops that are bred to be used with pesticides. Environmental effects also include increased health risks to agricultural workers exposed to pesticides, including a possible correlation between high rates of lung cancer in farmers and pesticide use.

On the farm oil is also used to fuel tractors, combines, harvesters, and other large machinery. This allows larger plots to be farmed and encourages mono-cropping, mostly corn and soybeans in this part of the country. These crops are then likely fed to livestock or processed into the oils used in packaged food.

Now onto natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers. Natural gas is a critical feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer production through the Haber-Bosch process, and accounts for 70 – 80 percent of the cost of fertilizer. It has been said that 40 percent of the world's population is alive today because of the Haber-Bosch process and the use of natural gas in fertilizers. The environmental effect is that fertilizer run-off accumulates in bodies of water, resulting in eutrophication and algal blooms.

Another use of oil in agriculture is in the transportation of food, and perhaps this is its most vital role in the industrial food system. For the large mono-cropping operations that use oil-fed machinery and massive amounts of petroleum-based pesticides and natural gas-derived fertilizers would not be viable if the crops couldn't be transported to processing facilities and national and international markets, then finally to wholesale and retail outlets, restaurants and consumers' homes.

Cheap, abundant oil gave us cheap, abundant transportation and cheap, abundant food. Today you can go into any grocery store and see products from thousands of miles away, from all over the globe. Apples from New Zealand sit next to locally-grown apples. Lettuce from Arizona is shipped in in the dead of winter. The average calorie of food travels 1500 miles from the farm to our plate.

The results are our energy-intensive industrial food system are clear.

The first is cheap food. The average household in the U.S. only spends about 11 percent of its income on food, about half of what it was 20 years ago.

The result is unhealthy food: food that is highly processed, utilizes partially hydrogenated corn and soybean oils; food that is bred for long-distance transport rather than nutritional content; food that has been exposed to chemical pesticides and fertilizers, with dubious effects on our health.

The result is a globalized food system, where Ohio "feeds the world" but imports much of its own food.

The result is a food system that is entirely unsustainable. Over the last century, the cultivated area in the world increased by one third, the harvest of edible crops increased by 6 times, the people per cropland acre increased by 2.7 time and fossil fuel use in agriculture increased by 150 times. And the 1960s green revolution brought the industrialization of agriculture to the rest of the world.

So the industrial system is unsustainable. And is also extremely vulnerable. Over the next few years, this vulnerability will become more and more apparent.

The End of Cheap, Abundant Fossil Fuels

Oil is projected to reach its peak of production sometime between now and 2015. Increasing evidence is pointing to sooner rather than later. Today we are using 5 barrels of oil for every barrel that we discover. In fact, world oil discoveries have been declining since the mid-1960s, despite great improvements in the technology used to find oil and higher prices to stimulate investment. Seventy percent of world oil production is being met by oil fields that were discovered prior to 1970. World oil production today is barely keeping up with consumption, which continues to rise at about 2 percent per year and is expected to accelerate with the increasing demands of China and India.

The world's major oil companies are responding. Chevron recently began a campaign called, "Will You Join Us?" touting that "It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We'll use the next trillion over the next 30 years. The age of easy oil is over" - An obvious allusion to peak oil. BP is now "Beyond Petroleum." The Exxon Mobil graph shown here shows the peak and decline clearly. And amidst record profits, oil companies are spending less and less on finding new oil as the cost of exploration has begun to exceed the revenue from the oil discovered. Goldman Sachs, the international investment firm, recently reported "The great merger mania is nothing more than a scaling down of a dying industry in recognition of the fact that 90% of global conventional oil has already been found."

The price of oil in recent years is perhaps the best indicator. Just as recently as 1999, oil cost around $10 per barrel. By the end of that year it reached $25. A year ago it was $45 and today it is $64, after reaching a peak in September 2005 of $70. VERIFY

The situation for natural gas is in some ways, worse. Whereas oil is traded in a global market, natural gas is mostly traded regionally. This is due to the difficultly in transporting diffuse natural gas. In fact the US gets 99 percent of its natural gas from domestic supplies, Canada, and Mexico. The US only has a few ports to accept liquified natural gas from around the world, and terrorist fears have kept more from being built. Natural gas production in North America started to plateau in 2000, the year the wellhead price went up 400 percent in a matter of months.

The cost of natural gas in 1999 was in the range of $2-3 per million cubic feet. A year ago it was $7 per million cubic feet. Today prices are around $10 per million cubic feet after reaching as high as $15.50 last month. Fertilizer prices have rose commensurately and home heating bills, which we are all most acutely aware of, are soaring.

Furthermore, there are no viable, immediate alternatives to oil and natural gas. Dr. Robert Hirsch, who wrote a report for the Department of Energy last year entitled, "The Peaking of World Oil Production: Mitigation and Risk Management" said that we don't have an energy problem - we have a liquid fuels problem." Now coal is abundant and can be liquefied as a substitute for oil but it is about half as energy dense, a lot more polluting, and could further accelerate global warming. Also, while we often hear that there are about 250 years of coal left at current rates of production, if we used it to fill the gap caused by declining oil and natural gas, then production could peak in about 50 years and begin declining.

Bio-fuels are another often touted option. But, as we saw with the amount of energy conventional agriculture uses, they may take more energy produce with than they ultimately yield, and have been referred to as the unsustainable burning of food. If we converted all of the arable land in the U.S. to bio-fuel production, it would only replace 30 percent of our oil consumption and we'd have to import 100 percent of our food.

As was recently said by Representative Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican of Maryland, there is no "ready substitute" for oil.

So as the crisis nears, there appears to be no feasible short term alternatives. As a result we must begin to prepare by transforming the ways that we use energy, reducing our energy use in all areas, and creating a new low-energy infrastructure for the post peak oil world.

A Case Study: Cuba

Now there is one nation that we can look to understand what happens to agriculture when the supply of oil starts to decline. And that is Cuba.

We visited Cuba with a documentary crew in October 2004 and will be completing the documentary, entitled, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" this month. We went to study its response to the Soviet Union collapse in 1991, when Cuba lost 50% of its annual oil imports overnight. The crisis was severe, with the country's Gross Domestic Product dropping by more than one third, and imports and exports both falling by 80 percent. And perhaps no where was it felt more strongly than in its food system.

Before the Special Period, as the Cubans call it, Cuba had the most industrial model of agriculture in Latin America. They had more than 20,000 Soviet tractors and factories for making pesticides and fertilizers.

When the crisis hit, Cubans could no longer fuel their tractors, or produce chemical pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, yields dropped and the country experienced a dramatic food shortage. The average caloric intake was reduced by a third. The average Cuban lost 30 pounds. There were cases of malnutrition and blindness.

Cuba was forced to create "a survival agriculture." According to a report from Oxfam, an international development and relief agency, "Obtaining enough food for the day became the primary activity for many, if not most, Cubans." So every vacant lot in the city was turned into food producing gardens.

Doctors, engineers, people who had no previous farming experience began working in urban farms. At this organic farm we visited in Havana, a workers' collective runs a farm, market and restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace oil-driven machinery. Drip irrigation conserves water.

Worm cultivation creates productive soil, and diverse produce provides the community with a variety of healthy foods.

In other Havana neighborhoods, lacking enough land for such large projects, residents installed raised concrete garden beds on parking lots and planted vegetable gardens on their patios and rooftops.

This is the rooftop of an urban permaculture center in Havana that has trained more than 400 people in the neighborhood in sustainable agriculture.

One permaculture student, Nelson Aguila, raises food for the neighborhood on his integrated rooftop farm. An engineer-turned-farmer, on just a few hundred square feet he has rabbits and hens and several large pots of plants.

There are farmers' market in every neighborhood and more than 1,000 kiosks located throughout Havana, providing food to their local community. It is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of Havana's vegetables are grown within the city limits.

The five kilometers around each municipal town is also considered an urban agriculture area and is designated to produce for local consumption. This national system of urban agriculture employs more than 140,000 people and is a growing sector of the economy.

And of course, the way that agriculture was practiced changed when Cuba underwent the Special Period. Due to the lack of oil and natural gas for chemical pesticides and fertilizers Cubans were forced to convert to organic agriculture.

They also developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers, which they now export all over Latin America. In the 1980's Cuba used 21,000 tons of chemical pesticides per year, and now is using less than 1,000, or 21 times less.

Cubans are also replacing petroleum-fed machinery with oxen. Older farmers, who still remembered how to raise and train oxen, began training schools. We were told that oxen not only save fuel, but also do not compact the soil the way a tractor does.

Though the transition to an low-energy, organic, local food system was necessary, we were constantly told of its benefits. We were told that while the soil was so degraded from industrial production, the soil is now healthy and yields are as high as they were before the crisis, with no where near the level of fossil fuel inputs as before.

We were told that Cuba's conventional, 'green revolution' system never was able to feed the people. It had high yields, but was oriented to the plantation agriculture where Cuba exported citrus, tobacco, and sugar cane and imported the basic necessities– 55 percent of the rice, more than 50 percent of the vegetable oil and lard that they consumed. Today they are proud to produce most of their own food as a nation of 11 million, roughly the same population as Ohio. If Cuba can do it, why can't we?

The Future of Food So what does a post-peak oil food system look like here in Ohio? Well there is much to be learned from the Cuban example, as well as from our own history.

Just as recently as 150 years ago, Columbus residents lived locally, traded locally, got nearly all of the goods and services they needed to survive locally, including and, most importantly their food.

So how do we regain local food production for local consumption? Well, we have two options – try to change the existing system or create a new system and encourage people to detach from the old and connect to the new. I prefer to use my skills not to fight an existing system, but to create a new model, so that is what I will suggest.

So what does this new food system look like? Well, it looks very different at all levels – from production, to processing, to distribution, and finally consumption. We need a new concept of farmer, of processor, of distributor, and of consumer.

The New Consumer

Let's start with the consumer – you and I. Currently we consumers are awash in abundance and tempted by convenience. But we need to look more closely at how we spend our grocery money and kitchen time. For we must be local food consumers by eating seasonally, preparing meals from basic ingredients, growing and storing our own food, and designing our meals.

We are so accustomed to having the same selection of foods all year round. But to have a local food system we must start eating with the seasons. Winter eating should be different from summer eating.

Secondly, we must prepare meals from basic ingredients. This may not seem as convenient as prepared and packaged food, but the extra time in preparation saves money which balances the typically higher local food prices.

While supermarkets seem convenient with everything you could ever desire in one place, think about how ridiculous and inconvenient our habits of using are. We drive to the supermarket, hike across a 5 acre parking lot, navigate a crowded and poorly-laid out store, wait in the checkout line, hike back across the parking lot and drive home, just to pick up a few things for dinner.

The real key to convenience is having a well-stocked home pantry and freezer, preferably with foods you canned, dehydrated, and froze yourself. Store what you eat and eat what you store. Also, growing some of this food yourself is a very educational experience. Do not aim for self-sufficiency, but grow foods that produce a lot of value for the space they need.

And finally, the local food consumer plans the menus, then acquires and prepares the ingredients. The key question is not "What do I have for dinner tonight?" but "What am I eating this season?" and "Where does the food come from?" Planning your meals for the week can be very helpful and can help you avoid the temptation to order out.

So how do we go about creating this new local food consumer? Well, its important to realize that supermarkets gather knowledge for customers. You don't have to do any research – you just look on the shelf. Local food systems need to gather knowledge for their customers as well. I have seen several regional internet databases, and that is a great start.

Structures of Local Food

Now, local food systems look very different from conventional food systems. We're not going to have local food supermarkets. So what are the distribution mechanisms of local food systems?

Well, a variety of structures is a good way to go. We have on-farm and in-town vegetable stands operated by farmers, farmers' markets, fairs, CSA or Community-Supported Agriculture farm subscription programs, cooperatives, and direct sales from farmers to consumers, to name a few. Importantly, there is a human element in local food systems. Direct relationships are developed between those who grow the food and those who eat it. We should embrace that. Local Food Processing Next is food processing, a massive, international, energy-intensive, and wasteful process. For a local food system to be viable across all seasons, its needs to create its own local food processing. I recently heard the suggestion that the ideal place for local food processing facilities is in big box stores, which are sure to be abandoned when fuel costs get too high.

Before we can develop large processing facilities, neighborhood or community food processing is a good option. Equipment can be purchased and shared together, and it can be a valuable way to train people in how to process and preserve their own food. A New Farmer Finally, we need farmers to produce food locally. In Greene county, where I live, I am surrounded by seemingly endless fields of corn and soybeans. In this overwhelmingly agricultural county less than one half of one percent of the land used for agriculture is planted in vegetables.

Yet sometimes I do see small farms raising livestock and growing vegetables – but then there's another challenge. I heard a quote recently to describe it: Local food can be maddeningly close yet simultaneously inaccessible. So communication, developing relationships with these farmers and helping them find the local markets for their food is key. I believe that there are many farmers out there who would grow food for local consumption if they knew there was a market and a way to get the food to people.

But before we even do that, we need to make sure we still have some farmers left. The land preservation movement is one of the important mechanisms we have to keep farmland in production and, more importantly, in the hands of farmers. Yet training new farmers should also be a priority. Bringing agriculture back into education by working with schools and universities may be one way to achieve this.

And finally, a local food system is not sustainable without a commitment to sustainable agriculture. I often go through the dilemma of either buying locally and non-organic or buying organic, but from across the country. Local, organic food is the best long-term option and will be critical to develop due to the decline of chemical pesticides and fertilizers from peak oil and peak natural gas.


Peak oil will be a great challenge for this country, and especially our energy-intensive industrial food system. But peak oil is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to return to a more local way of living. A way of living that values strong relationships. A way of living where we share our common, local resources and conserve them for future generations. A way of living that is sustainable.

Peak oil will not create local food systems, but preparing for peak oil will. For that reason, peak oil could be a valuable tool for the local food movement.

Thank you.

– Megan Quinn Bachman is the outreach director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, a non-profit based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA which provides knowledge and practices to support low-energy lifestyles, with a primary focus on reducing energy consumption in the household sectors of food, transportation and housing.