American agriculture has been described as the conversion of fossil fuel into food. In fact it takes on the average of 10 oil and natural gas calories to produce just one food calorie. The math has never been close to sustainable. But as we know, the party is ending. Transition is beginning and with it our concern about how we will feed ourselves in the post carbon era. Locally grown food sounds good, tastes even better. Everyone acknowledges that we are a long way from being sustained by a local food shed. Our farmers are too few and too near retirement. What will we need going forward to feed the population of the Clearlake region with a local agriculture. That is a tall order which I hope to address in a series of future articles here in The Shift.
To begin with I want to talk about legacy. What are some of the ecological lessons and challenges inherited from a history of pioneer agriculture through the conventional pear, grape and walnut plantings of today? In the last 10 years we have seen many pear and walnut orchards torn out. Some land has been replanted to grapes, but much remains as abandoned fields. What has years of conventional farming left behind? Unfortunately, heavy metal and other pesticide contamination remains as the legacy of chemical farming. DDT and its relatives remain detectible. Annual use of synthetic fossil fuel based fertilizers has left the soils low in organic matter, the only sustainable source of plant nutrition. Before this ample acreage of fallow land can join our food shed of the future it will require bioremediation to make it suitable for vegetable production. Fortunately, with patience and a new attitude toward the land that sustains us, abused land can be made sustainably fertile again.
Beyond chemical contamination there remains one more potential barrier to building a local agriculture. There is a new type of contamination that threatens Lake County, the genetic contamination brought by planting patented genetically engineered crops, also referred to as GMO seeds. The very nature of these “frankenfoods” is to spread their genes to non-GE crops and disturb the ecology of the soil. The massive use of herbicides that accompanies these “herbicide tolerant” plants has already created over 130 super weeds in parts of the country where these plants are extensively grown. After farmers stop planting the GE crops, the super weeds remain as part of the legacy of the foolish adoption of a technology that should have never left the laboratory.
As part of the Transitions movement, the GE Free people want to limit the damage current agriculture can inflict before the reality of peak oil brings them to a halt. Any region that can remain GE Free during the transition will be that much further along the road to launching a new and vital local agriculture.