The Food and Farming Transition

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    The Food and Farming Transition

This latest article (below) from Richard Heinberg is just too good to miss.
It has advice for how to transition to a sustainable food future at family
to national level. An extended version of this will, apparently, be released
this month. Methinks Heinberg (with Campbell and Aleklett) will hopefully be
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize one day.

Regards, Mike


Richar Heinberg’s MuseLetter: The Food and Farming Transition

November 2008 by Richard Heinberg

The only way to way avert a food crisis resulting from oil and natural gas
price hikes and supply disruptions while also reversing agriculture’s
contribution to climate change is to proactively and methodically remove
fossil fuels from the food system.

The removal of fossil fuels from the food system is inevitable: maintenance
of the current system is simply not an option over the long term. Only the
amount of time available for the transition process, and the strategies for
pursuing it, can be matters for controversy.

Given the degree to which the modern food system has become dependent on
fossil fuels, many proposals for de-linking food and fuels are likely to
appear radical. However, efforts toward this end must be judged not by the
degree to which they preserve the status quo, but by their likely ability to
solve the fundamental challenge that will face us: the need to feed a global
population of 7 billion with a diminishing supply of fuels available to
fertilize, plow, and irrigate fields and to harvest and transport crops.

If this transition is undertaken proactively and intelligently, there could
be many side benefits-more careers in farming, more protection for the
environment, less soil erosion, a revitalization of rural culture, and more
healthful food for everyone.

Some of this transformation will inevitably be driven by market forces, led
simply by the rising price of fossil fuels. However, without planning the
transition may be wrenching and destructive, since market forces acting
alone could bankrupt farmers while leaving consumers with few or no options.

The Transition

To remove fossil fuels from the food system too quickly, before alternative
systems are in place, would be catastrophic. Thus the transition process
must be a matter for careful consideration and planning.

In recent years there has been some debate on the problem of how many people
a non-fossil fueled food system can support. The answer is still unclear.
But we will certainly find out, because there is likely to be no
alternative, given that substitute liquid fuels-including coal-to-liquids,
biofuels, tar sands, and shale oil-are all problematic and cannot be relied
upon to replace cheap crude oil and natural gas as these deplete.

There are reasons for hope: a recent report on African agriculture from the
United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) suggests that "organic,
small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to
be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social
damage which that form of agriculture brings with it."

Nevertheless, given that we do not know whether non-fossil fuel agriculture
can in fact feed a population now approaching seven billion-and given that
current fuels-based agriculture cannot be relied upon to do so for much
longer, given the reality of fuel depletion-the prudent path forward would
surely be to tie agricultural policy to population policy.

Indeed, coordination will be essential also between agriculture policies and
education, economic, transport, energy policies. The food system transition
will be comprehensive, and will require integration with all segments and
aspects of society.

This document is intended to serve as the basis for the beginning of that
planning process. Our aim is to develop a template that can be used to
strategically plan the transition of food and farming across the world,
region by region, and at all scales (from the farm to the community to the
nation), beginning here in the UK.

Elements of Transition

The following are some key strategic elements of the food systems transition
process that will need to be addressed at all levels of scale, from the
household to the nation and beyond.


In recent decades the food systems of Britain and most other nations have
become globalized. Food is traded in enormous quantities-and not just luxury
foods (such as coffee and chocolate), but staples including wheat, maize,
meat, potatoes, and rice.

The globalization of the food system has had advantages: people in wealthy
countries now have access to a wide variety of foods at all times, including
fruits and vegetables that are out of season (apples in May or asparagus in
January), and foods that cannot be grown locally at any time of year (e.g.,
avocadoes in Scotland). Long-distance transport enables food to be delivered
from places of abundance to areas of scarcity. Whereas in previous centuries
a regional crop failure might have led to famine, its effects now can be
neutralized by food imports.

However, food globalization also creates systemic vulnerability. As fuel
prices rise, costs of imported food go up. If fuel supplies were
substantially cut off as the result of some transient event, the entire
system could fail. A globalized system is also more susceptible to
accidental contamination, as we have seen recently with the appearance of
toxic melamine in foods from China. The best way to make our food system
more resilient against such threats is clear: decentralize and re-localize

Re-localization will inevitably occur sooner or later as a result of
declining oil production, since there are no alternative energy sources on
the horizon that can be scaled up quickly to take the place of petroleum.
But if the transition process is to unfold in a beneficial rather than a
catastrophic way, it must be planned and coordinated. This will require
deliberate effort aimed at building the infrastructure for regional food
economies-ones that can support diversified farming and reduce the amount of
fossil fuel in the British diet.

Re-localization means producing more basic food necessities locally. No one
advocates doing away with food trade altogether: this would hurt both
farmers and consumers. Rather, what is needed is a prioritization of
production so that lower-value food items (which are typically staple
calorie crops) are mostly sourced from close by, with most long-distance
trade left to higher-value foods, and especially those that store well.

This decentralization of the food system will result in greater societal
resilience in the face of fuel price volatility. Problems of food
contamination, when they appear, will be minimized. Meanwhile,
revitalization of local food production will help renew local economies.
Consumers will enjoy better quality food that is fresher and more seasonal.
And transport-related climate impacts will be reduced.

Each nation or region will need to devise its own strategy for re-localizing
its food system, based on a thorough initial assessment of vulnerabilities
and opportunities. The following are some general suggestions that are
likely to be applicable in most instances:

The process will benefit enormously from policy support at both national and
regional levels. This could include, for example, the provision of grants to
towns and cities to build year-round indoor farmers’ markets.
Food-safety regulations should be made appropriate to the scale of
production and distribution, so that a small grower selling direct off the
farm or at a farmers’ market is not regulated as onerously as a
multinational food manufacturer. While local food may have safety problems,
these will inevitably occur on a smaller scale and will be easier to manage
because local food is inherently more traceable and accountable. Governments
can require that some minimum percentage of food purchases for schools,
hospitals, military bases, and prisons are sourced within 100 miles of the
institutions buying the food. Channelling even a small portion of
institutional food purchasing to local growers would greatly expand
opportunities for regional producers while improving the diet of people whom
these institutions feed.

Cities and towns can rework their waste management systems so as to collect
food scraps that can then be converted to compost, biogas, and livestock
feed-which can in turn be made available to local growers.

But government can do only so much. Consumers must develop the habit of
preferentially buying locally sourced foods whenever possible, and they can
be encouraged in this by "Buy Local" educational literature distributed by
retailers-who can also assist by clearly labeling and prominently displaying
local products.

Growers themselves must rethink their business strategies. Instead of
growing specialty crops for export, they must plan a transition to
production of staple foods for local consumption. They must also actively
seek local markets for their food. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
movement provides a business model that has proven successful in many
communities. Small producers can also create informal co-ops to acquire
machinery (such as small threshing machines for cereal and oilseed
processing or micro hydro turbines for electricity).

The strategy of re-localizing food systems will be more challenging for some
nations and regions than others. Given that the food footprint of London
encompasses essentially all of England, the challenge for Britain is greater
than is the case for many other nations. More urban gardens and even small
animal operations (with chickens, ducks, geese, and rabbits) within London
and other cities should be encouraged, but even then it will be necessary to
source most food from the countryside, delivering it to the city by rail.
Thus re-localization should be seen as a process and a general direction of
effort, not as an absolute goal.


As society turns away from fossil fuels, the energy balance of farming must
once again become net positive. However, the transition process will be
complex and problematic. Farms will still need sources of energy for their
operations, and will need to provide much or all of that energy for
themselves. Meanwhile, farmers could also take advantage of opportunities to
export surplus energy to nearby communities as a way of increasing farm

Farms must be powered with renewable energy. However, many energy needs on
farms-such as fuel for tractors and other machinery-are currently difficult
to fill with anything other than liquid fuels, which currently come in the
form of diesel or petrol made from crude oil. Farmers should first look for
ways to reduce fuel needs through efficiency or replacement of machines with
animal power or human labor. This is most likely to be economically feasible
in dairy, meat, vegetable, fruit, and nut operations. Where fuel-fed
machinery is still required, which is likely to continue being the case for
grain production, ethanol or biodiesel made on-site could supplement or
replace petroleum. Farmers could aim to apportion one-fifth of their
cropland to production of biofuels for their own use.

Many other farm operations require electricity, and this can be generated
on-site with wind turbines, solar panels, and micro-hydro turbines. Effort
first must be devoted to making operations more energy-efficient. Because
these technologies require initial investment and pay for themselves slowly
over time, assistance from government and from financial institutions in the
form of grants and low-interest loans could be instrumental in helping
farmers overcome initial economic hurdles toward energy self-sufficiency.

Eventually farmers are capable of being not just self-sufficient in energy,
but of producing surplus energy for surrounding communities. Much of this
exported energy is likely to come in the form of biomass-agricultural and
forestry waste that can be burned to produce electricity. While farmers can
also grow crops for the production of biofuels, the ecological and
thermodynamic limits of this energy technology require that the scale of
production be deliberately restricted. Otherwise, society’s demand for fuel
could overwhelm farmers’ ability to produce food-and food must remain their
first priority. In exporting biomass from the farm, growers must always keep
in mind the productive capacity of sustainable agricultural systems, and
they must strictly monitor soil health and fertility.

The transition of farms to renewable energy will require planning. Farmers,
ideally with the assistance of regional and national agencies, should plan
to increase energy efficiency, to reduce fossil fuel inputs, and to grow
renewable energy production according to a staged, integrated program
designed for the unique needs and capabilities of each farm. As a general
guideline, the plan should aim to reduce oil and natural gas inputs by at
least half during the first decade

Soil Fertility

In industrial agriculture, soil fertility is maintained with inputs provided
from off-site. Of these inputs, the most important are nitrogen and
phosphorus. Nitrogen comes from ammonia-based fertilizers made from fossil
fuels-principally, natural gas. Phosphorus comes from phosphate mines in
several countries. While sufficient low-quality phosphate deposits exist to
supply world needs for many decades, high-quality deposits that are
currently being mined are quickly depleting, which means that phosphate
prices will likely rise within the next few years. [Phosphate Primer]

Both nitrogen and phosphorus are essential to agriculture. And our current
ways of supplying both are clearly unsustainable. Unless alternative ways of
maintaining soil fertility are quickly found, a crisis looms.

The long-term solution will surely depend on a two-fold strategy: designing
farm systems that build fertility through crop rotations, and recycling

Crop rotation can help with maintaining nitrogen levels. Simply planting a
cover crop after the fall harvest significantly reduces nitrogen leaching
while cutting down on soil erosion. Meanwhile, introducing leguminous crops
into the rotation cycle replaces nitrogen.

Cleverly designed polycultures can sustainably produce large amounts of
food, as has been shown not only by small-scale "alternative" farmers in
Britain and America, but also by large rice-and-fish farmers in China and
giant-scale operations (up to 15,000 acres) in Argentina. There, farmers
employ an eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after
five years grazing cattle on pasture, farmers then grow three years of grain
without applying fertilizer. The need for herbicides is also dramatically
reduced: weeds that afflict pasture cannot survive the years of tillage, and
weeds of row crops don’t survive years of grazing.

Most industrial farmers have left behind the practice of cover cropping
because commercial fertilizers have become the cheaper option. That cost
equation is about to shift. It is therefore important that farmers begin
planning for higher fertilizer prices now by gearing up their rotation
cycles and building natural soil fertility ahead of the immediate need.

In industrial agriculture, the soil is treated as an inert substance that
holds plants in place while chemical nutrients are applied externally.
Without efforts to maintain natural fertility, over time organic matter
disappears from the soil, along with beneficial soil micro-organisms. In the
future, as chemical fertilizers become more expensive, farmers will need to
devote much more attention to the practice of building healthy soil. But
rebuilding nutrient-depleted soil takes, at minimum, several years of

Traditional farmers increase organic matter in topsoil through the
application of compost-which not only builds soil fertility, but also
improves the soil’s ability to hold water and thus withstand drought. There
is also mounting evidence that food grown in properly composted soil is of
higher nutritional quality. Currently, in typical modern cities, consumers,
retailers, wholesalers and institutions discard enormous quantities of food.
Some communities have already instituted municipal programs for composting
of food and yard waste; such programs could be expanded and made mandatory,
with compost being given free to local farmers. This would reduce the amount
of garbage going to land fills, as well as farmers’ needs for fertilizers
and irrigation, while improving the nutritional quality of the British diet.

In addition, recent research with "terra preta" (also known as "bio char"),
a charcoal-like material that can be produced from agricultural waste,
suggests that its introduction to soils could reduce plants’ need for
nitrogen by 20 to 30 percent while sequestering carbon that would otherwise
end up in the atmosphere.

The potential of composting and the use of terra preta to mitigate the
climate crisis is hardly trivial: a one-percent increase of soil organic
matter in the top 33.5cm of the soil is equivalent to the capture and
storage of 100 tonnes of atmospheric CO2. per square kilometre of farmland.

Ultimately, there is no solution to the phosphorus supply problem other than
full-system nutrient recycling. This will entail a complete redesign of
sewage systems to recapture nutrients so they can be returned to the soil-as
Chinese farmers learned to do centuries ago. But if sewage systems (or
simpler variants) are to become primary sources of phosphorus and other soil
nutrients, they cannot continue to be channels for the disposal of toxic
wastes. It is essential that separate waste streams be developed for the
disposal of all pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, and industrial wastes.
Thus the problem of soil fertility is one that farmers cannot solve on their
own: it is a crisis of the food system as a whole, and must be addressed
contextually and holistically.


The consumer is as important to the food system as the producer. During
recent decades, consumer preferences have been shaped to fit the industrial
food system through advertising and the development of mass-marketed,
uniform, packaged food products that, while often nutritionally inferior,
are cheap, attractive, in some cases even physically addictive. The advent
and rapid proliferation of "fast food" restaurants has likewise fostered a
diet that is profitable to giant industrial agribusiness, but disastrous to
the health of consumers. However lamentable these trends may be from a
public health standpoint, they are clearly unsustainable in view of the
energy and climate crises facing modern agriculture.

Because processed and packaged foods and fresh foods imported out of season
add to the energy intensity of the food system, rich and poor alike must be
encouraged to eat food that is locally grown, that is in season, and that is
less processed. Public education campaigns could help shift consumer
preferences in this regard.

A shift toward a less meat-centered diet should also be encouraged, because
a meat-based diet is substantially more energy intensive than one that is

Government can help with a shift in diet preferences through its own food
purchasing polices (see "Re-Localization," above). The process can be helped
even further by a more careful official government definition of "food." It
makes no sense for government efforts intended to improve the nutritional
health of the people to support the consumption of products known to be
unhealthful-such as soda and other junk food.

Farming Systems

During the past few decades farming has become more specialized. Today, a
typical farm may produce only meat of a single kind (turkey, chicken, pork,
or beef), or only dairy, or a single type of grain, vegetable, fruit, or

This narrow specialization seemed to make economic sense in the era of cheap
transport and cheap farm inputs. But because nature is diverse and
integrated, the deliberate elimination of diversity on the farm has led to
problems at every step. For example, animal feedlot operations (also known
as concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFOs) produce enormous amounts
of waste that end up in massive manure lagoons that pollute ground water and
foul the air. Meanwhile, grain diets fed to the animals result in digestive
problems requiring the large-scale administration of antibiotics that find
their way into both the human food system and ground water, and that lead to
antibiotic resistance among disease organisms that afflict humans.

Farm specialization also impacts the grain or vegetable grower: soils that
annually produce these crops need a regular replenishment of nitrogen; but
if the farmer keeps few animals, there may be no option other than to import
fertilizers from off-site.

By switching to multi-enterprise diverse systems, farmers can often solve a
range of problems at once. Feeding much less grain to livestock while giving
them access to pasture that is in rotation with other crops maintains soil
fertility while leading to better animal health and higher food quality. The
farmer, the environment, and the consumer all benefit.

The post-hydrocarbon food transition may also compel a rethinking of the
size of farm operations. The mechanization of farm operations and the
centralization of food systems favored larger farms. However, as fuel for
farm machinery becomes more costly, and as farming once again involves more
labor, smaller-scale operations will once again be profitable. In addition,
a smaller scale of operations will be needed as farms become more diverse,
since farmers will have more system elements to monitor. Agriculture will
thus become more knowledge-intensive, requiring a curious, holistic attitude
on the part of farmers.

In urban areas, micro-farms and gardens-including vertical gardens and
rooftop gardens that in some cases include small animals such as chickens
and rabbits-could provide a substantial amount of food for growers and their
families, along with occasional income from selling seasonal surpluses at
garden markets.

Farm Work

With less fuel available to power agricultural machinery, the world will
need many more farmers. But for farmers to succeed, some current
agricultural policies that favor larger-scale production and production for
export will need to change, while policies that support small-scale
subsistence farms, gardens, and agricultural co-ops must be formulated and
put in place-both by international institutions such as the World Bank, and
also by national and regional governments.

Currently the UK has 541,0001 farmers, depending on how the term is defined.
In the UK in 1900, nearly 40 percent of the population farmed; the current
proportion is less than one percent. Today, the average farmer is nearing
retirement age.

In nations and regions where food is grown without machinery, a larger
percentage of the population must be involved in food production. For
example, farmers make up more than half the populations of China, and India,
Nepal, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.

While the proportion of farmers that would be needed in Britain if the
country were to become self-sufficient in food grown without fossil fuels is
unknown (that would depend upon technologies used and diets adopted), it
would undoubtedly be much larger than the current percentage. It is
reasonable to expect that several million new farmers would be required-a
number that is both unimaginable and unmanageable over the short term. These
new farmers would have to include a broad mix of people, reflecting the UK’s
increasing diversity. Already growing numbers of young adults are becoming
organic or biodynamic farmers, and farmers’ markets and CSAs are also
springing up across the country. These tentative trends must be supported
and encouraged. In addition to Government policies that support sustainable
farming systems based on smaller farming units, this will require:

Education: Universities and community colleges must quickly develop programs
in small-scale ecological farming methods-programs that also include
training in other skills that farmers will need, such as in marketing and
formulating business plans. Apprenticeships and other forms of direct
knowledge transfer will also assist the transition.
Financial Support: Since few if any farms are financially successful the
first year or even the second or third, loans and grants will be needed to
help farmers get started.
A revitalization of farming communities and farming culture: Over the past
decades UK rural towns have seen their best and brightest young people flee
first to distant colleges and then to cities. Farming communities must be
interesting, attractive places if we expect people to inhabit them and for
children to want to stay there.

Today’s seed industry is centralized and reliant upon the very fuel-based
transport system whose future viability is in question. Most commercial
seeds are of hybrid varieties, so that farmers cannot save seed but must
purchase new supplies each year.

Worldwide, a growing proportion of the commercial seeds that are available
are genetically modified. GM seeds have primarily been developed by chemical
companies to support the sale of their proprietary herbicides. The promise
of more nutritious foods, or crops that can produce biofuels more
efficiently, is years from realization. Given that the need for transition
is immediate, efforts to build a post-fossil fuel food system cannot wait
for new technologies that may or may not appear or succeed. In any case, the
GM seed industry is based upon current systems of transport, and fuel-based
inputs such as chemical fertilizers and herbicides, that are all
inextricably tied to the wider fossil-fuel based provisioning systems of
society. Thus GM crops would be unlikely to be of much help in the
transition in any case.

What is needed instead is a coordinated effort to identify open-pollinated
varieties of food crops that are adapted to local soils and microclimates,
and a program to make such seeds available to farmers and gardeners in
sufficient quantities. In addition, local colleges must begin offering
courses on the techniques of seed saving.

Processing and Distribution Systems

The transition process will undoubtedly be fraught with challenges to food
processing and distribution systems, which currently rely on large energy
inputs and long-distance transport.

For example, the meat industry now depends upon centralized facilities for
slaughtering livestock-which must be transported long distances to these
facilities. Re-localizing food systems will entail creating incentives for
the emergence of smaller, more localized slaughterhouses and butcher shops.
One interim solution would be for a fleet of mobile abattoirs to go from
farm to farm, processing animals humanely and inexpensively.

Many health regulations were originally designed to check abuses by the
largest food producers, but such regulations may now inhibit the development
of smaller-scale and more localized processing and distribution systems. For
example, farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their
neighbours without making a huge investment in nationally approved
facilities. A small producer selling direct from the farm or at a farmers’
market should not be subject to the same food safety regulations as a
multinational food manufacturer: while local food may occasionally have
safety problems, those problems will be less catastrophic and easier to
manage than similar problems at industrial-scale facilities.

Food processors must look for ways to make their present operations more
energy efficient, while government, consumers, and retailers find ways to
reduce the need for food processing and also for food packaging. This
gradual shift will require institutional support for families in storing,
processing, cooking, and preserving food within the home.

Meanwhile, in view of inevitable problems with existing transport systems,
national and regional food storage systems must be reconsidered. Reserves of
grain, sufficient to provide for essential needs during an extended food
crisis, should be kept and managed to avoid spoilage.

Packaging of food should be regulated to minimize the use of plastics, which
will become more scarce and expensive as oil and gas deplete-and which are
implicated as sources of toxins in any case.

Government should institute policies that prioritize the distribution of
food within the nation by rail and water, rather than by road, as trucks are
comparatively energy inefficient.

Supermarkets are currently the ultimate distribution sites for food in most
instances. However, this model presupposes near-universal access to
automobiles and petrol. A resilient food system will require smaller and
more widely distributed access points in the forms of small shops and garden
or farm markets. Government regulations and tax incentives can help
accomplish that shift.

Wholesalers and distributors will have a changed role in a transitioning
food system. They will still be needed to manage the supplies of various
seasonally produced foods moving from producers to consumers. However,
rather than favoring large producers and giant supermarket chains, they must
alter their operations to serve smaller, more distributed farms and gardens,
as well as smaller and more distributed retail shops.

Resilience Action Planning

The transition process will succeed by creating more resilience in food
systems. Resilient systems are able to withstand higher magnitudes of
disturbance before undergoing a dramatic shift to a new condition in which
they are controlled by a different set of processes. One quality of
resilience is redundancy-which is often at odds with economic efficiency.
Efficiency implies both long supply chains and the reduction of inventories
to a minimum. This "just-in-time" delivery of products reduces costs-but it
increases the vulnerability of systems to disturbances such as fuel
shortages. As more attention is paid to resilience and less to economic
efficiency, redundancy and larger inventories are seen as benefits rather
than liabilities. Other resilience values include diversity (as opposed to
uniformity), and dispersion (rather than centralization) of control over

Building resilience into our food systems as we move toward a post-fossil
fuel economy will entail all of the Elements of Transition detailed above.
It will also require planning at four levels: Government, Community,
Business, and Individual or Family. At each level the planning process will
necessarily be somewhat different. The purpose of this section is to
delineate the main planning steps that will make sense at each of these
levels. In some instances, steps within an action plan can or should be
undertaken concurrently. In any case, what is offered here is merely a
skeletal outline for a process that must be developed to fit unique needs of
those it will serve.


The following steps are applicable at any level of government-national,
regional, or local. At the highest level of scale (the nation), each step
will itself be the subject of planning and delegation. At the lowest level
of scale (small villages), government may lack the capacity to undertake any
of these steps and can do more than offer symbolic official support to
volunteer citizen initiatives.

1. Assess the existing food system. Begin with a study of current systemic
vulnerabilities and opportunities. How are farm inputs currently sourced?
How much food is currently imported? What proportion of those food imports
are staples, and what proportion are luxury foods? What are the
environmental costs of current agricultural practices? How would the current
food system be impacted by fuel shortages and high prices?

2. Review policies. How are current policies supporting these
vulnerabilities and environmental impacts? How can they be changed or
eliminated? Are there policies already in place that are likely to help with
the transition? How can these latter policies be strengthened?

3. Bring together key stakeholders. Organizations of farmers, food
processing and distributing companies, and retailers must all be included in
the transition process. Many will wish simply to maintain the existing
system; however, it must be made clear that this is not an option. Many
companies involved in the food system will need to change their business
model substantially.

4. Make a plan. The transition plan that is formulated must be comprehensive
and detailed, and must contain robust but attainable targets with timelines
and mechanisms for periodic review and revision. A scoping exercise must be
undertaken to assess the impact of the plan on agricultural output and to
quantify the changes in kinds of commodities produced and in their volumes
and prices. Simon Fairlie’s paper, "Can Britain Feed Itself?", is an initial
attempt at such an exercise, and can be used as a model to be built upon and

5. Educate and involve the public. The public must not only be informed
about the government-led aspects of the transition process, but must be
included in it to the extent that is practical. Citizens must be educated
about food choices, gardening opportunities, and ways to access food from
local producers. Their successes and challenges in adaptation will inform
new iterations of the plan.

6. Shift policies and incentives. This is the key responsibility of
government, as it either limits or enhances the ability of community groups,
businesses, and families to engage in the transition process. Policy changes
must reflect stakeholder input, but must nevertheless be designed primarily
to further the Elements of Transition, rather than the short-term interests
of any particular stakeholder group.

7. Monitor and adjust. An undertaking of this magnitude will inevitably have
unforeseen and unintended impacts. Thus it is essential that progress be
continually be reviewed with an eye to making adjustments to pace and
strategy, while maintaining absolute adherence to the central task of
methodically removing fossil fuels from the food system.


The following are action steps for adoption by voluntary community groups,
as opposed to governments (see above). The Transition Network provides an
excellent model for this kind of community action. Such efforts seem to work
best when the scale of community is such that meetings are manageable in
size and meeting participants need not travel long distances. Thus in large
cities, neighborhoods could apply Resilience Action Planning while sending
delegates to occasional city-wide coordinating meetings. The overlap and
mutual support between community organizations and local government efforts
must be a matter for discussion and negotiation.

1. Assess the local food system. This assessment process should be
undertaken in cooperation with government, so as not to duplicate tasks.
Volunteer citizen groups are in position to provide perspectives that
otherwise might elude government assessment efforts-such as opportunities
for community gardens, or problems with access to food from local producers.

2. Identify and involve stakeholders. Local growers, shop owners, public
kitchens, restaurants, schools, and other institutions that produce or serve
food should all be contacted and invited to join a voluntary re-localization
initiative and to offer input into the process.

3. Educate and involve the public. Community groups can stage public events
to raise awareness about food transition issues. "Buy local" brochures and
pamphlets, paid for and distributed by a consortium of local businesses (but
organized by volunteer groups), can list local producers, farm markets,
restaurants, and shops.

4. Develop a unique local strategic program. This can include farmers’
markets, CSAs, school lunch programs, and public kitchens, networked with
local producers, including community gardens. The program, based on input
from stakeholders, should feature targets and timelines developed through a
"backcasting" process, beginning with a collaborative exercise aimed at
envisioning the local food system as it might look in 2025 after fossil
fuels have ceased to play a role.

5. Coordinate with national programs. Local volunteer efforts can play a
significant role in informing national government policies, and in
implementing the national transition strategy. However, this will require
the maintenance of open channels of communication, which in turn will be the
responsibility of both government and the local groups.

6. Support individuals and families. Individuals are likely to change food
habits and priorities only if they see others doing so as well, and if they
feel that their efforts are supported and valued. Community groups can help
by establishing new behavioral norms through public events and articles in
local newspapers. Practical help can be offered via canning parties, garden
planting and harvest parties, and gleaning programs. Local food and
gardening experts can be made available to answer questions and concerns.
Neighborhood food storage facilities can also be created to supplement
household cupboards.

7. Monitor and adjust. All of these efforts must be continually adjusted to
assure that all segments of the community are included in the transition
process, and that the process is working as smoothly as possible for all.


Relevant businesses include farms, shops, processors, wholesalers, and
restaurants. However, the following steps could also be useful to
organizations such as schools, colleges, and hospitals that dispense food as
an ancillary part of their operations.

1. Assess vulnerabilities. Every business or organization that is part of
the food system must take an honest look at the inevitable impacts of higher
fuel prices, and fuel scarcity, on its operations. Examine scenarios based
on a doubling or tripling of fuel costs to highlight specific

2. Make a plan. Develop a business model that works without-or with
continually shrinking-fossil fuel inputs. Then "backcast" from that imagined
future condition, specifying time-related targets.

3. Work with government and community groups. Given the fact that government
will be developing regulations to reduce fuel use in the food system, and
that community organizations will be offering support to local farmers and
food shops that spearhead the transition, it makes good business sense to
lead the parade rather than lagging at the rear.

4. Educate and involve suppliers and customers. No business is an island.
The transition will flourish through strengthened relationships on all

5. Monitor and adjust. For businesses, one obvious and essential criterion
of success is profitability. The bottom line will help indicate which
adaptive strategies are working, and which ones need work. However, negative
financial feedback is no reason to abandon the essential goal of transition.

Individual and Family

1. Assess food vulnerabilities and opportunities. Whether at a family
meeting or by oneself over a cup of tea, take a long honest look at your
typical monthly food purchases and give careful thought to the implications.
How much of your food comes from within 100 miles? How much is packaged and
processed? How many meals are meat-centered? Where do you shop? How would
you be impacted if food and fuel prices doubled or tripled?

2. Make a plan. Create an ideal food scenario for yourself, including diet,
shopping habits, and gardening goals. Then "backcast" a series of
time-related goals. Write these prominently on a calendar and attach it to
the front of your refrigerator.

3. Garden. Even if you don’t have access to a plot of land, you can still
grow sprouts in a jar or a few food plants in a window box. Look for
opportunities to contribute work to a community garden. Develop your skills
by seeking out gardening mentors.

4. Develop relations with local producers. Even if you have a large garden
you probably can’t grow all the food you eat. Rather than shopping at a
supermarket, begin to frequent your local farmers’ market, or join a CSA.

5. Become involved in community efforts. Get to know your neighbors and
compare gardening experiences with them. Together, form a "tool library"
from which members can check out garden tools and gardening books. Organize
or participate in planting, harvesting, food-swapping, gleaning, and canning

6. Monitor and adjust. At the end of each month, revisit your plan and
revise it if necessary.

(This essay is excerpted from a larger document-in-process, a co-publication
of the Soil Association and Post Carbon Institute, that will be released in
somewhat different versions in the UK and in the US, both in mid-November.)

  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 03:53am


    joe bender

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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

great post matrix

  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 05:14am

    James Wandler

    James Wandler

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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

Thanks for the excellent post.  I’m sure you’ll post a link when the full paper comes out.  (Hey, I notice you don’t sign off with your name lately so I’m not using your name to address my post to you – too bad – I like the feeling of community it provides – but I’m sure you have your reasons).

There is a bit of fear at the beginning of the article suggesting that perhaps we can’t feed ourselves in a post fossil fuel environment.  My understanding of current farming is that $ per acre is maximized, not the quantity of food produced per acre.  However to increase the quantity of food the percentage of farmers in the population will have to increase from the current less than 1%. 

Mohammed Yunus is quite confident that Bangladesh can feed itself even though its population to land mass is quite high and they are subjected to terrible floods every few years or so.  Thus even in a world of rising world population it will remain possible to feed the world (I’m not saying we do now – just that it is possible to do it now). 

On the other hand, easing the transition as outlined in the article is enormously important.  One would have hoped, as economists would be eager to tell us, that it would just simply be a matter of high fossil fuel prices translating into higher food prices which would translate into local sustainable food production.  However this neglects to consider subsidies supporting the status quo – or the fact that something easy to do on paper is much more difficult to do in real life – or that transitions take time – or the other issues that complicate our future as Chris has pointed out.

If humanity were truly forward looking we would embrace the message in the article and set to work.  Since achieving higher food quantity per acre requires more labor, then in light of the current economic conditions, and what is to come, putting people back on small diversified farms would be the way forward.  This sounds a lot more promising than vast numbers of people falling off unemployment assistance without prospects of a brighter future.  While some governments will embrace this message the grassroots approach will be much more important.

I’ll be living the message of this article in the very near future.  Individual, community and nation.

All the best,


  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 08:54am



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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition


Thanks for the excellent post. I’m sure you’ll post a link when the full paper comes out. (Hey, I notice you don’t sign off with your name lately so I’m not using your name to address my post to you – too bad – I like the feeling of community it provides – but I’m sure you have your reasons).

There is a bit of fear at the beginning of the article suggesting that perhaps we can’t feed ourselves in a post fossil fuel environment. My understanding of current farming is that $ per acre is maximized, not the quantity of food produced per acre. However to increase the quantity of food the percentage of farmers in the population will have to increase from the current less than 1%.


Hi James,

I didn’t put my name to this one because I didn’t write it….

Re fears of food shortages, you should be made aware that 90% of store bought food calories come from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas for fertlisers, and oil for the machinery and pesticides/herbicides.

I grow my own organic food, and you better believe that it is no easy job.

Read this for further info on the problems we face feeding ourselves post Peak Oil/Gas, Eating Fossil


  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 10:20am



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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

Oh and I meant to post the link to that essay, it’s


  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 12:43pm



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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

Nice post as food is kinda a basic neccessity! Unlike gas and oil, which are only absolutely neccessary if they provide food, heat and shelter.

We recognised the need to be more self-sufficient a few years ago but we’ve always had a garden and a few birds for eggs. We expanded that to add goats for milk stuff and more birds.

Since we started expanding our gardens and perma-gardens a few years ago I found that building a thick layer of mulch reduces most of my tending the gardens, that leaves me to concentrate on the rewarding part -planting and harvesting. Mulching to a minimum depth of 8" means no weeding and very little watering. Then leave the mulch sit on top and plant into it. This doesn’t work well for "field crops" like the soy beans and corn, wheat grass is hard to manage this way too. We did buy an electric tractor to help with the heavy work (it presently runs off a battery system). It tills, plows, mows and hauls. We have an electric chainsaw and other tools we plug into it to do work in the woods. I’m always shopping for more tools to plug into it -chippers, hedge trimmers, sweepers,

We’ve gotten to the point where we are able to grow enough for ourselves seasonally and we feed the animals off the land and the next step is to add year-round greenhouses for fresh food year-round, grow a living fence around the property and work on energy conservation on the buildings (insulation and dc connections).

I have more information on:

Feel free to ask questions – or add comments about the website since we are in process of learning our way through this.


  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 01:12pm

    James Wandler

    James Wandler

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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition


Re fears of food shortages, you should be made aware that 90% of store bought food calories come from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas for fertlisers, and oil for the machinery and pesticides/herbicides.

I grow my own organic food, and you better believe that it is no easy job.


Thanks Mike,

I know that sustainable farming and labor can improve the land itself to produce more food than is currently produced now per acre.  However your comment emphasizes the importance of the transition – thanks for refocusing me.

All the best,


  • Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - 09:30pm



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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

Good on you Sherry……  we do exactly the same thing, right down to the goats!


  • Thu, Nov 06, 2008 - 07:07am



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    Re: The Food and Farming Transition

I am there with you. I could see this crisis coming, plus opted for the lifestyle of running an organic farm. Cows, sheep, chickens, vineyard, orchard, greenhouse, and gardens. It has taken 5 years to get it running well, and the work is enormous, not something that can be rushed into. We can get along quite well with permaculture. No debts.

The big benefit is for the children, it beats the city lifestyle. Getting out of stocks was the easy part a year ago.

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