Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Relocalization and Hawaii

There has been a bit of a dust up going on around the peak oil blog community over the past couple of weeks over relocalization. Relocalization is the idea that food and other production will cease to be global and return to being done in the local communities where the items are consumed. Due to a scarcity of fuel, the high cost of transporting grapes from Chile, toys from China, and even corn in Iowa will make it feasible again to do this production regionally. Authors such as Richard Heinberg and James Kunstler postulate that in the future much production of goods will be done within 100 miles of where they’re used. This is in stark contrast with today where food for example travels thousands of miles before we eat it. We in Hawaii typically must add close to 3000 more miles to whatever the mainland average is.

The whole thing started when Stuart Staniford, one of the editors at The Oil Drum posted this post, titled "The Fallacy of Reversibility." The article is long, and somewhat technical, but it comes down to this: as fuel gets scarce and expensive, big agriculture won't collapse and we won't return to local production. In fact, big ag will flourish:
I've argued in this piece that industrial agriculture is likely to be stronger and more profitable when oil prices are high, not weaker. So the reversalist future of local food production on smaller farms with higher labor input will not come to pass as a result of peak oil. The industrial agricultural sector owns most of the land, and will be in an excellent position to increase their land holdings as remaining subsistence farmers fail or consolidate in the face of high food prices. Industrial farmers will have no reason to sell out to improverished urban dwellers. Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon - it is a fallacy to think so. The reversalists are expressing wishful thinking and nostalgia for the past, not a reasoned analysis of how the future is likely to play out. And urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems - industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.

I have a few comments about this. First, Stuart isn't postulating anything radical. When any given industry hits a downturn, consolidation occurs: smaller players fail since they don't have the resources to weather the storm. Bigger players buy them up at bargain prices. This will happen in farming, too, when skyrocketing fuel costs cause smaller farms to fail and they're absorbed by corporate agriculture. Second, Stuart isn't saying that this is how he'd like things to play out, he's just calling them like he's seeing them. Third, the agriculture industry consumes about 10% of the fossil fuels we consume to produce and bring the food to market, so we can cut back on a lot of other things and prioritize fuel use for food before big ag starts to feel the pinch. Fourth, Stuart says, "Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon" but he fails to define "soon." Obviously at some point severe scarcity comes into play, and you just can't maintain 2000 mile supply chains any longer. It would be nice to see that timeline and scenario addressed. Fifth, it's too bad that Stuart labeled those advocating a return to localism a bit derisively as "reversalists" and expressed a bit of disdain for them. I think that both parties are right: Stuart in the short term, and Heinberg, et.al. in the long term.
Immediately a raging debate began in the comments. This comment by Jason Bradford did a good job of summing up the counter arguments: localism promotes food security, prevents soil depletion, maintains crop variability instead of monoculture, and is more sustainable long-term. An "official" response was posted a few days later by Sharon Astyk. Still more responses showed up on The Oil Drum and the Energy Bulletin here, here, and here. Dmitry Orlov gave another response here.

How does this affect Hawaii? Of any place on Earth, Hawaii is a prime candidate for relocalization. We need to be more self-sufficient because we are so isolated. We import 90% of both our food and our energy. Even though big ag may continue to do well for the next decade or so, the Hawaii government and other groups need to begin today to encourage more local production, especially of food.

Food security
Hawaii imports 90% of its food and over 90% of its energy. Promoting small scale organic farming will help Hawaii weather any shortages or interruptions. It has the added benefit of employing people who formerly worked in the shrinking tourist industry (when oil hits $200 per barrel, who will afford to fly here?). A strategic reserve of gasoline, diesel, and other essential supplies can be stored by the government and dispersed during an emergency. Already, we're seeing fuel supplies affect farming in remote places like North Dakota and South Africa. It's only a matter of time before it happens here. So, while in a perfect world of constant, perfectly declining energy sources, we would see big ag continue to operate, the world doesn't work that way, and it only takes a few missed tankers of fuel to ruin a harvest or a few missed shipments of food before Hawaiians start starving.

The transportation system of the entire world is based on diesel: cargo ships, train locomotives, and eighteen-wheelers all run on the stuff. As energy prices rise and energy becomes scarce there are two effects. The first is that because we import so much the price of Hawaii's food increases in proportion with the cost of fuel. This is already reflected in Hawaii's high prices compared to most of the US mainland. Now imagine living in a world where all food prices were doubled. The second effect is reliability. As fuel supplies dwindle scarcity results. It's entirely possible that food shipments from the mainland will be missed or delayed, causing panic buying and hoarding. This can be mitigated if much of our food were produced locally. It's a much easier task to get food from Hamakua to Honolulu (30m by truck, 100 by ship) than it is from Kansas (1500m by truck, 3000m by ship).

Organic Farming
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all produced from oil and natural gas. As those products become more expensive and less available, we'll have to move to a method of farming that is less reliant on fossil fuels to produce foods. As fossil fuels become scarce their use will have to be prioritized for transport and possibly refrigeration. That means organic farming. Organic farming fits in with Hawaii's emphasis on nature and the environment. It's healthier. And it produces the same amount of crops on average over time as fossil fuel-based agriculture.

We may have nothing to trade for food at some point. The backbones of our economy are tourism and luxury agricultural items (Kona coffee, mac nuts, fresh pineapples, etc.). In a world where energy is both expensive and scarce, both tourism and luxury agriculture will collapse, especially 3000 miles from the nearest market. We will have to produce for ourselves, if we want to eat.

Global Warming
As global warming becomes more severe, one of the consequences is the desertification of formerly productive farmland through prolonged drought. I saw a computer simulation (although I was unable to find the original link, this article describes the phenomenon) where by 2050, the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas had crept north almost to the Canadian border. The simulation postulated that almost no crops would be able to be produced the bread basket of the US. Most of the North American food production would have to be moved to Canada where there was still rainfall. If the US cannot produce food, there won't be much to send us. The effects of global warming are milder at the tropical latitudes, so we shouldn't see as much change as mainland of the US.

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