The future of food; dealing with collapse

Did you know that almost one billion people are hungry – another one billion are chronically malnourished –  and still another one billion others are overweight due to poor eating habits?

This is a global food crisis!

Last week, I explored the root causes of this crisis.  Isn’t it strange to think that the structural cause of the food crisis is actually the industrial food system itself!  As fossil fuel becomes increasingly expensive, the system that is so dependent on petroleum for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation technology, packaging and shipping, is unraveling at the seams and triggering political unrest.

But before you accuse me of being one of those “door and gloom” bloggers, I think there are realistic solutions to this crisis (especially for food exporting countries like the U.S.).  Other aspects of industrial societies are likely to experience more severe disruption than the food supply as oil prices rise.  This is at least partly because there are steps that individuals and local communities can take to respond to increasing food prices and potential shortages.  Today’s blog post examines some of those steps.

Last week I made the bold claim that we need to think creatively about;

  1. tax incentives for small, integrated farms committed to selling within their own community,
  2. public investment to support bioregional food systems (within a specific foodshed),
  3. changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution”and
  4. education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

These social structures are needed to help us build much-needed resilience into the current industrial food system, which is vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world and already in collapse in many developing countries.  It is time to take action!

Of course the skeptic in me still wants to ask “how likely are those of us who are well-fed (perhaps overfed)  to take action“?  Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, in their book Empires of Food: Feast Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, state that we are unlikely to get serious about a new food system until we have “a public outcry for tax incentives directed at promoting sustainable agriculture.”  Are you willing to cry out?

In previous posts, I wrote that we need to shift our way of thinking before we are likely to create those necessary social structures.  But until we can imagine a future different from the past, it is unlikely we will see such a shift of thinking.  Imagination is key.

Lots of people today are interested in talking about solutions.  We are planning a public event in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts that might be an example.  This sort of event is not difficult to organize.  There are good resources and models within the Transition Towns movement and some communities have done their own research, such as Feed Northampton.  The important thing right now is to imagine a future different from the past, because peak oil changes EVERYTHING.

So, drawing from the experience of others (and my own imagination), here are some ideas to consider that might be applied to your own community:

  1. If you live in an urban area, consider growing food on rooftops, especially of public buildings which may have large flat expanses of roof.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.  Look to re-configure parking lots with raised beds such as the organiponicos in Cuba.
  2. If you live in a suburban area, tear up that lawn and just grow food now! Don’t forget to consider hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  3. If you are in a rural area, ask if there are more human food crops that can be grown.  Much of the farmland in New England, for example, is still used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  4. And no matter where you live, think about ways your community can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle.  Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps food artificially cheap.  If we want more local food, we may need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.  The Feed Northampton report, for example, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.

We need to begin by imagining possibilities and then get to work.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.  Think about:

1. Slow Food

2. Fair Trade

3. Bioregionalism

3. Public commitment to human right to a nutritious diet

4. Public commitment to insure food producers earn a living wage

5. Zoning laws that allow urban and suburban families to raise their own food (including animals) – a right to survival law

6. Decent wages and training for farm labor

7. Education for young farm managers

8. Research into appropriate technologies

9. Programs to bring local food into the workplace

10.  And of course, grow our own!

These are a beginning.  Lets dream together about the world we want to create….. and then lets get to work!

What suggestions do you have for creating a more sustainable food system?  Please post them below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in taking college courses in Sustainable Food and Farming online this summer, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

8 thoughts on “The future of food; dealing with collapse”

  1. Last months “crisis of the month” was global warming, and this months “crisis of the month” is the obesity crisis. Give me a break! One crisis is as fake as the next. Read on and get the skinny on the “Obesity crisis.” The truth is that there is no obesity crisis; peoples weight is just a naturally occurring phenomena. There is no definitive scientific poof linking human behavior and obesity. We need to do more studies, but they can wait until after I finish dessert. And obesity levels in the industrial world have leveled out; while in the developing world obesity is growing. Why should we cut back until those other countries do?

    This isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity. The “world wide epidemic of obesity” is really the global acceptance of the American way of life. Fighting obesity hurts the finical interests of some of America’s biggest corporations. And think about all the heart surgeons and diabetic nurses who will lose their jobs. We just can’t afford to end obesity in the middle of a recession. We don’t want people to eat less, that hurts profits. We want people to eat more. So forget drill baby drill, now it’s swill baby swill!

    But if there is a problem it should have a market-based solution, not a super market-based solution. I’m suggesting a “carb and trade” program. After each meal you can sell your leftovers in the open market to hungry people. This gives you incentive to eat less, but if you can afford it, you have the freedom to chow down until you drop dead. What’s more American than that?

    This “crisis” is a conspiracy between the government and Michelle Obama who want to ban your favorite foods and force you to adopt her healthy lifestyle. They want to take away your right to act irresponsibly. But that’s just the thin end of the cheese wedge. At first they’ll single out double bacon triple cheeseburgers. But then, the next thing you know, you’re being force fed flavorless fat free food and drinking bean juice instead of Budweiser. The first thing Hitler did in Germany was force people to become healthy. Don’t let the scales in America tip toward fascism. The government telling me how to eat? Fat chance.

  2. Great post and great links, John! Thank you for your emphasis on how urgent the situation is, and how it demands immediate action. I'm going to try to come to the event in Amherst on March 31.

    For people in and around Northampton, Mass., I encourage you to get involved with Grow Food Northampton (many of us leading GFN were also "clients" for the fabulous Feed Northampton report referenced above). We're a grassroots non-profit focusing on food security through local, sustainable agriculture, and currently mobilizing volunteers. Our website is We just completed a huge campaign to raise funds for 120 acres of prime farmland, and succeeded! Onward to education, outreach, a new community garden, the veggie CSA (Crimson & Clover Farm), and all the other amazing ideas the community wants to implement!

  3. It's a little late for commenting…but I agree completely, my friend's children are often sick, but she fails to make the correlation that it's the crappy food she's feeding them….
    I think our biggest problems will be municipalities like the one i live in which is very survivor unfriendly (think lawn measuring)….big agri-business influencing government, and government (who has their own selfish interests at heart)

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