Thursday, January 24, 2008

Faraway food production

...That we “eat” a lot of oil is without question. As Smith and MacKinnon note, citing an Iowa State University study, the food we consume “now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate”, with the distance increasing in the 1980s and 1990s by about 25 percent.

Without doubt, there are enormous implications for our warming world as we move foodstuffs farther and farther. There are also economic consequences, as highlighted in recent weeks when oil prices temporarily broke past US$100 per barrel, a psychologically important event that many energy analysts believe signals the beginning of an inexorable climb in fossil-fuel prices as we approach peak oil. Higher gas prices mean higher costs to bring goods to market.

But transportation isn’t the half of it when it comes to oil and most present-day food production, as Sharon Ellis will tell you. Seed costs are climbing because of both the distance the seeds are transported and the fuel used to grow them, whether it’s the fuel burned in the machines that cultivate the land and bring in the crops or the petroleum-based fertilizers used in so much present-day crop production. Ellis is the fourth generation in her family to farm on Westham Island or nearby farmlands in Delta, and she grows a lot of pumpkins. A package of just 100 Prize Winner pumpkin seeds costs her $42. Five years ago it was $30, and back just 10 years ago the sticker price was half what it is today.

“I’m way more careful with my planting now because the seeds are so expensive,” Ellis says, adding that the costs have risen commensurate with the sheer number and variety of crops grown on the farm. Her pumpkin and squash varieties alone number 35 or more in any given season.

Rising fuel costs also loom large in other ways. The rapid rise in production of hothouse tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in B.C. was predicated on heating massive greenhouses with natural gas. But continental gas reserves are declining, prices are generally tracking upward, and in the absence of construction of liquid natural gas terminals on B.C.’s coast that would bring gas from Russia or some other gas-rich region here, pressure on North America’s remaining natural gas reserves will continue.

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