Food Issues Book Club - Energy in Agriculture from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Energy in Agriculture, 1979


Family farms built upon agrarian patters that kept energy economy separate from money dwindled away in the Twentieth Century.  This dwindling was the result of a "change in cultural value."  That shift involved the devaluing of manual labor such as farming, and a preference for city over countryside.  The desire for monetary profit over any other kind of success was of course also a factor.

The cultural shift away from small farms was enabled by "cheap" fossil fuel, our use of which was enabled by "a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use."  A new culture was built on energy stolen from future generations.  "That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence.  The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth - you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much.  The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity."

It can be said, then, that small farms were given up because "[t]hey did not lend themselves readily to exploitation to fossil fuel technology."

"The industrial economy grows and thrives by lengthening and complicating the essential connection between producer and consumer."  {This is the concept of food miles that is so popular today.}  Local food economies require far less energy.  This is important given the industry's near-complete dependence on an ever more scarce supply of fossil fuels.  Prior to industrialization, agriculture relied almost completely on free and ever replenishing solar power.  We have thus turned an energy-neutral pursuit to one that gluttonously consumes non-renewable energy sources.  For one reason only: profit.

The shift away from solar power and toward petroleum is wasteful in a number of ways:
  1. solar power is wasted
  2. human energy is no longer being utilized - "We now have millions on some kind of government support, grown useless and helpless, while our country becomes unhealthy and ugly for want of human work and care."
  3. energy is wasted in bringing {the wrong} food to livestock when the animals would rather go forage for themselves
  4. waste of soil via improper use that leads to erosion
In these ways, our current system of farming is really more like strip mining.


I always tell the young folks that it's important to understand the historical contexts of writings, even for fiction.  In the case of this essay, I don't think it's a coincidence that energy and petroleum products were weighing heavily on Berry's mind.  A decrease in oil supply resulting from unrest in Iraq and Iran caused a panic in 1979, particularly as it followed so closely on the heels of a major shortage in 1973.  Depressing / alarming / baffling, then, is the fact that 35 years later we apparently all go buy trucks and SUVs when gas prices dip for long enough.  We still don't get it.  One wonders whether we'll figure it out before irreversible, civilization-destroying catastrophe strikes.

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