Thursday 3 March 2011

Transition Suffolk - Climate Change and Food Security - But What About Peak Oil?*

* Originally published as Peak Oil! Peak Oil! Oil! Oil! Oil! on Transition Norwich Blog 25th Feb 2010

Today I had planned to write about the Suffolk Agricultural Association’s Regional Conference on Climate Change and Food Security, which I attended last Friday at Trinity Park in Ipswich. But I’m finding it difficult.

There were probably 150 people at the conference, made up of farmers, lawyers, county councillors, politicians and transitioners. Although agriculture is not my subject, I am getting used to the flexibility that being in transition is requiring of me, so when I was invited to go and write about the conference I accepted immediately.

Professor Ian Crute of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board was clear and informative about climate change, although he ended his talk in what I thought was a very odd way. He showed us two pictures, one a detail of the Amazon rainforest before being cleared for agribusiness, and one after. He then said there was an argument for the second picture (a typical crop field which could be part of an industrial farm anywhere) being ‘better’ than the first. But didn’t tell us why.

The Agriculture Manager from Waitrose showed us how the company were going to increase their profits from £5 billion in the last year to £8 billion by 2016.

Then there was the unabashed and rampant display of pro-GM and biotech marketing by two speakers from the Conservative party.

But these are not the reasons I find it hard to write about the conference. I think it’s because the realities of Peak Oil were almost entirely absent from the proceedings. Representatives of several Transition groups in the region ( some of whom manage farms themselves) raised the subject.

The Waitrose man was unable to answer questions on oil price volatility, and how that would affect the supermarkets, it wasn’t his area. Other speakers just didn’t seem to hear the questions about Peak Resources. At least when (Lady) Caroline Cranbrook, who has worked closely with East Anglia Food Link, spoke out about phosphates already having peaked and asked “Is there a national larder in case of sudden food scarcity? ” she received the one direct reply I heard in the whole conference.

“No,” said chairmen John Gummer (former Secretary of State for the Environment), “is the simple answer to that question.”

Which means the just-in-time lorries serving the supermarkets are our only larder.

The conference was very much focused on the 'big picture' (the how will we feed the 9 billion people in the world by 2050? scenario), although one speaker, Lucy Wyatt, did tell us about her small mixed-farm, where she has set up an oilseed rape bio-fuel plant, providing her with electricity, and fuel for the farm machinery.

But there was no spokesperson for organic production and no representative of one of the community, small-scale projects that are happening all over Suffolk and East Anglia, like the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm CSA, Joanne Brannan (Transition Ipswich) has set up. John Taylor, Suffolk's Climate Change officer, did ask about the small scale projects, but the question was not properly addressed.

And although I'm only a member of the mere hoi polloi, I'm inclined to say that a conference about climate change and food security that avoids the questions of Peak Fossil Fuels and small scale food projects is not really a conference about climate change and food security.

Well, I really didn't think I had anything to say about the conference, but there you are.

Just two more things for today. One is if you haven't read "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century" by James Howard Kunstler, and you want a solid, readable, intelligent book which brings climate change, peak resources (especially oil) and the follies of economic globalism together in a coherent manner, then this is the book for you. Don't let his occasional coarseness put you off, it's just his manner.

Secondly, The Waveney Greenpeace Winter Fair is taking place in Southwold tomorrow - 11am - 11.30pm. Donations in the day and £5 in the evening. It's usually fun with good food and stalls. Maybe see you there.

Pic: Sprouts and Clover at Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm by Richard Mudhar