Impacts of Energy Uncertainties on the Food System in the Upper Midwest–Joseph Stinchfield


I’m going to take this opportunity, in my second book discussion of this blog, to geek out a little. Last week, my partner brought this report which he helped to create, and which has survived a house fire, storage in an old rabbit barn, and other travails of time, and gave it to me to read. It was published by the Upper Midwest Council out of Minneapolis in June of 1977.

What, you ask, would a report published 30-odd years ago have to say to us in our ultra-modern world of today? As it turns out–plenty. Its discussions of possible scenarios for energy use in the food system, food/energy supply and demand, processing, transportation, and consumption are pretty much on target, though there is no inkling of the rise of ethanol-based fuels or the complex issues of bio-engineered crops, which seem only to have accelerated the problems outlined in the report.

From the “Scenario #2: Inadequate Supply/High Cost Energy” section: “Most nations will suffer economic damage from rising energy prices, especially for petroleum. National debts will increase, imbalance in national payments will occur, inflation will continue and real economic growth will be constrained.”

Another great tidbit from this section (emphasis mine): “The most serious problem of long-term reduction in farm income may be the increased tendency to “mine” the resource. In this case, farm producers, especially those with marginal production units, may resort to production practices that cause long-term damage to soils resources…. As a result, farmsteads deteriorate, damaging their economic viability.”

There are some parts of these scenarios that haven’t developed–or at least not on a large scale yet. On the consumption side: “…[C]onsumers may place lower priority on convenience and higher priority on economy. Away-from-home food consumption in fast-food outlets may be little affected but consumption of convenience and highly processed foods may decline significantly.”

The report links this possible outcome to high energy use in food processing which would lead to a higher price for these products when energy prices rise (though wouldn’t it be nice if people just ate less processed food because it’s better for them?).

And lastly, this warning: “…[I]ncreasing energy prices may interfere with adequate nutrition, lower living standards, and even erode social stability. Public policy makers must be cognizant of this potential when establishing energy and food policy.”

The report, coming only a few years after the OPEC Oil embargo of 1973-74 (which likely was a major reason for the report), also mentions the “continuing curtailment of Canadian energy supplies” as a problem affecting the Upper Midwest especially.

Considering the let-no-safety-regulation-stand-in-the-way push to get that heavy Canadian crude piped our way, I found this prediction verrry interesting: “Some form of deregulation will occur for both natural gas and petroleum industries. This may increase supply but it also will cause prices to increase significantly faster than the cost-of-living index.”

Ah-hem.

Have you hugged a local, sustainable farmer today?

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