Food and Oil

Greg Williams explains why Eastern Ontario needs sustainable agriculture right now


The way a society feeds itself defines that society in history. The onset of Peak Oil, climate change and global economic decline make it crucial for farmers across the planet, but especially in Eastern Ontario, to reach out to local eaters and each other. Fortunately, various organizations are helping to develop grassroots connections between farmers and eaters through farmer training and the building  of community. In Eastern Ontario, the New Farm Project in Kingston and the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) Ottawa Chapter are among those taking on this work.

Global Problems

Peak Oil refers to the apex of global oil production. (See graphic above.) After the peak, oil is still available, but extracting that oil becomes more difficult, more reliant on new infrastructure and more expensive. In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert predicted the peak of  the United States’ domestic oil production, and  fourteen years later he was proven right.   
After being largely ignored in the mainstream media for years, Peak Oil has finally been getting attention. The International Energy Agency in 2010 re-evaluated their statistics for 2006, confirming that the world had reached the predicted global peak.  Even the oil companies themselves have admitted Peak Oil has come.  The end of cheap oil is no longer a possibility; it is a reality.

Peak Oil, climate change and the end of the infinite growth economic paradigm will change our society, including how we eat. Industrial agriculture requires oil for transport, packaging, running farm machinery, and for the production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In Dale Allen Pfeiffer’s article, “Eating Fossil Fuels,” a shocking statistic is that “10 kcal of ... energy are required to produce 1 kcal of food delivered to the consumer in the U.S. food system.” In other words, “The U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy [his emphasis].”  Canada is part of this same system; oil feeds us. Because of this, oil prices and food prices are closely linked, as seen in the graph at right. Oil shortages will mean drastically high prices of both oil and food.That is, unless society adopts a sustainable way to feed itself.

Climate change is a wild card, but changing weather patterns are already disrupting crop harvests and will make feeding the world’s people (especially through industrial agriculture) increasingly difficult. We often hear about the vast amounts of natural resources in Canada, but this may not help farmers and eaters in Eastern Ontario. There are three main problems.

The first is the accessibility of oil reserves. Canada does have enough oil to be called an “energy super power”, but there is a difference between easily recoverable oil and oil that requires  greater energy and technology to extract. The majority of the world’s easily recoverable oil—in the Middle East and in pockets of oil and natural gas in other areas—has already been used up. The bulk of Canada’s energy resources are not easy to access, as they are in the tar sands and in the arctic. Extracting oil from the tar sands requires huge amounts of energy and water,  as well as land destruction.

A second energy supply problem is the aging pipeline infrastructure in Canada. Since the natural gas leak in Michigan in July 2010, there have been concerns on both sides of the border about the age of North America’s pipelines.  In December 2010, after over three decades , the National Energy Board granted approval of the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, which will start tapping into Canada’s arctic resources.  This is another sign of an increasing  reliance on oil and natural gas from non-conventional sources. When it comes to this pipeline project and others underway in Canada, it is clear that Eastern Ontario will not benefit from them directly.  

A third problem is the strong demand—even requirement—for the export of Canadian oil. There is little political motivation to keep energy resources within Canada, as exports to the United States are more lucrative.  Canadian energy is also a matter of “national security” to the U.S. government post-1945.  New pipelines are in the works to send Canadian crude to refineries in the Gulf Coast for U.S. distribution.  The American security establishment wants these pipelines to ensure a supply of Canadian crude in the face of rising demand in Asia.  Wherever the oil goes, the tar sands and arctic drilling are efforts to delay the inevitable. The bottom line is that these energy resources are not destined for Eastern Ontario.

One reason for this is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Under NAFTA, Canadians can buy Canadian oil, but must pay the global market price. “The only way a local shortage can exist,” according to this policy brief, “would be because there was a global shortage.”  We in Eastern Ontario must pay attention to the global oil situation because there will be a global shortage.

In 2011, we are seeing crisis after crisis emerge as the onset of Peak Oil, climate change and the end of the infinite growth paradigm collide with the global debt crisis.  Rising food prices are serving as catalysts for revolution,  and catastrophic weather patterns continue to arise.  The world is changing and time is limited. Canada itself is in a political stalemate, unable or unwilling to react as global events progress. Now the focus must be on how we in Canada—and especially in Eastern Ontario—will deal with these situations.

Local Solutions: Taking Action in Eastern Ontario

Given these global and now irrefutable factors, it is urgent that sustainable farmers and eaters work together. Food costs are rising across the globe.  As such, it is more important than ever to feed people locally through sustainable farming.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has encouraged this for many years through initiatives like the NFU Feast of Fields and Food Down the Road. The NFU also created the New Farm Project, which offers various workshops, and farmer mentoring through the CRAFT program, as a way of building skills and farm community.

COG Ottawa, which includes Kingston and area in its region, is one of many chapters across the country that actively supports farmers and raises awareness about organic agriculture. Some of their events include promoting the ECO Farm Day in Cornwall, Seedy Saturday/Sundays, and joining activists in supporting the failed bill C-474 to regulate genetically modified crops.

Farmers have to find ways to feed the people around them while  reducing  their use of oil and natural gas. The solution is sustainable farming. This is especially important in Eastern Ontario as new energy infrastructure is bypassing the region even as harsh winters and global factors push up the price of fuels. We must build bridges between communities of sustainable farmers and their eaters across Eastern Ontario, starting with the coming together of the active sustainable communities in Kingston and Ottawa. We must localize the connections.

The New Farm Project and the Canadian Organic Growers in Ottawa will continue farmer training while forming relationships in Eastern Ontario. Sustainable farming is not idealism, but a necessity. By reaching out to eaters, farmers are coming up with answers to a historical problem; how to deal with Peak Oil and climate change at the end of the age of unfettered growth. Fortunately, sustainable farmers and eaters in Eastern Ontario are working outside this paradigm and shaping their own history.

Greg Williams is dividing his time between following oil, economics, geopolitics, and food security and his desire to better understand small-scale organic agriculture.

Take Action on Peak Oil

There are many ways you can take action on Peak Oil in your own life and community:

  • Support farmers who are building sustainable farms.
  • Dwindling oil supplies means that we will need more people growing food in the future. You can join a community garden, start a garden in your yard or on your balcony, or take a full-season farm internship through the CRAFT program.
  • Heritage crop varieties are often hardier and well-suited to organic growing (which can take less energy). You can get seed from the Seed Sanctuary or buy heritage varieties at the farmers market.
  • Peak oil affects more than just food. You can cut your own energy use by doing things like making your home more energy-efficient or using more human-powered transport like bicycles.


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