Peak Oil, Food Security and Urban Agriculture

T. Vijayendra

Peak Oil refers to the point when oil production reaches a peak, and henceforth can only fall. This has already happened. This has enormous implications for food security. It raises cost and prices of food because farm inputs – primarily fertilisers and pesticides are petroleum based products. Also the cost of transport goes up. This has resulted in food prices going up and within the present system it will only go up further. The alternative is socialism with local food security based on organic food production. Urban agriculture, particularly for perishable foods like vegetables and fruits is becoming a must.

Peak Oil and Food Security
What exactly is ‘Peak Oil’- which is likely to lead to the end of the industrial era? At the present rate of consumption, all available oil will be used up within this century. But Peak Oil is not about when we run out of oil, but rather, when the production of oil starts to decline, and this is much closer. While expert opinions differ, many of them seem to agree that it is already behind us (2006 2008) and we are witnessing the effects in the global crisis of capitalism! On the other hand, many people believe that Peak Oil is a few years or decades away. But all agree that it is round the corner. In either case, it does not change the main argument that follows below.

Transport and power are the backbone of an industrial society and a crisis in either or both can lead to a general breakdown. The rise in transport costs increases all commodity prices. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based products. A rise in their prices may reduce food production leading to increase in food prices. These processes lead to decrease in relative purchasing power of the poor, fall in demand, and recession. Famines, as is well known, are not caused by fall in food production alone. It is mainly caused by inability of the poor to purchase food because prices rise much more than warranted by fall in food production alone. Or in other words, hoarding by traders and other market mechanisms of capitalism is the real cause of suffering of the poor during a famine. In India the poor are in a permanent state of famine. Some 50 odd percent are officially facing lack of food security. Many people argue that this figure could be as high as 70%. Peak Oil will only exacerbate this situation of the poor to crisis level.

A fossil fuel-free society based on equality and decentralization is the socialist solution to this situation. This is a vast revolutionary project involving the whole of mankind (1). Here we look at only urban agriculture in India. Even that has to be seen in the overall context of food security.

Food and Water Security
Food security begins with water security. Evolutionary biologists call the human species an aquatic ape or water loving ape. No other ape needs as much water as we need. In the world there are only a handful of these water loving land mammals like pig, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and a few others. These biologists also argue that our main food initially came from water –crab, mussel, fish, frog etc. Later we developed traps for hares and small slow moving ground birds like quails, partridges and pheasants. Group of males chasing a deer with spears is largely a romantic fiction for it required more organization which came later. Food, as normally conceived today in terms of grains, pulses and oilseeds are relatively recent and started with agriculture around 12000 years ago. Domestication of animals, assured meat, dairy products, poultry etc. also have similar date lines. And these also need water!

All human settlements are near water bodies–sea, rivers, tanks and wells. Historically this water supported both the human personal needs, those of domesticated animals and agricultural needs. In India, the monsoon rains are a big source of direct water for agriculture and for recharging the water bodies.

Capitalism and urban development have changed all these radically. Since capitalism implies alienated labour, it tends to alienate labour from means of production and creates a physical distance between them. Capitalism ultimately aims to control all resources, including water and food. In food production, the Green Revolution combined these two and made agriculture dependent on capitalism. Through surplus food production in Green Revolution, the Public Distribution System and neglect of rain-fed agriculture in vast stretches of India, the whole country has now become dependent on market mechanisms. In turn, it has led to neglect of water bodies like tanks and wells and introduction of power and money dependent bore wells in these regions. Today, both the Green Revolution and cotton production in Deccan by these methods have reached their limits technically and two thirds of the farmers want to give up agriculture!

Cheap oil fuelled much of this ‘revolution’. It provided inputs to Green Revolution by way of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; it provided cheap transport to move the surplus over vast distances and enabled a Public Distribution System based mainly on wheat and rice. It killed local food self sufficiency based on millets in the vast regions of the Deccan and many remote areas in the hills. It alienated peasants from land and created a vast surplus labour (which is half starved), lowering the cost of labour.

It killed local water bodies of tanks and wells, replacing them by bore wells, denuded forests and devastated the river system. It also built dams on rivers to supply power to the industry and in some cases provided water for irrigation to help the Green Revolution. Coupled with climate change, it has created a situation of food insecurity, particularly for the poor.

Capitalism has always been accompanied by waste. While the arms industry is the biggest example of waste, the waste in food is the most poignant. The extent of wastage is so great in India that in 2010, the Supreme Court had to direct the government to supply food free to the poor instead of letting it rotting in storages. Estimates of waste vary, but it is significant and is probably around 20%. In the case of perishables like fruits and vegetables, it is even higher and probably close to 30%. The capitalist solution to these problems is typically creating more and better storage facilities, meaning more investment.

The socialist solution to this situation is a combination of the old and new. The old consists of security of land ownership or land to the tiller or land reforms. The new is decentralization, local food security and knowledge based restoration of ecology and agriculture that has been degraded due to the processes mentioned above. Local food security implies growing local foods as per local ecology. For example, in the Deccan it would mean millets, pulses and ground nut. The cash crop here is cotton and not sugar cane and soya bean which are popular today. Finally, in a fossil fuel-free society, agriculture will have to be organic as chemical fertilizers and pesticides are both petroleum based products. Agro ecology is the key science of the 21st century and rebuilding local communities is the key social task.

This does not mean going back to olden, golden and simpler times. Human society has grown increasingly complex and knowledge-based. But this does not necessarily mean greater exploitation of natural resources. It can also mean more sophisticated and wiser use of them at a lower scale. Again, societies based on equality are not necessarily simple, they can and will be far more varied in skills in fine arts, arts and sciences. All talk of the fact that hunter-gatherer society was the real leisure society, working only two hours a day, does not mean that going back to it will be the acceptable goal for future. And there will be urban society as centre of human knowledge-based activity, albeit at a lower and local level.

The Urban Scene Today
I am afraid once again we have to begin with water. What is the viable size of any urban agglomerate? It is solely dependent on its water resources. Today a large number of urban settlements in India have overgrown and have become unviable. They have become unviable not just due to growth – population, roads and cars etc. They have become unviable because their needs of water are not satisfied by local bodies and rainfall. In fact many of them have destroyed their local water bodies, rivers and tanks. Be it Delhi, Indore, Pune, Hyderabad or Bangalore, all have witnessed devastation of their water bodies. They are importing water and this is bound to lead to water based conflict, some of it already happening. And along with water, they are also importing food.

Again, it was not always like that. Historically, there was always adequate water for human populations. In any case, without cheap oil and power one could not import vast quantities of water. There was a continuum between rural and urban areas. Perishable goods like vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, eggs and meat did not travel long distances. Many poor people in slums grew some vegetables, had some fruit trees like papaya and had some poultry. The local butchers had good relationships with the local sheep and goat herd communities. In the urban areas, wherever possible, there were cows and local dairies in every neighbourhood. This is not ancient history; many people living today have seen this in their childhood. And in many small towns one can still see this. There were and still are horticulture societies which catered to ‘bungalow wallahs’ the predecessors to today’s upper middle classes. They had ornamental gardens and some of them also grew vegetables, kept cows, horses, poultry, dogs and cats. The servants took care of them.

Capitalism and cheap oil has changed all this. Easy transport meant that food could travel longer distances and urban land prices rose and began to displace dairies, fill up tanks and eliminate local urban agriculture. Gardens and trees vanished and parks started getting converted to ornamental islands for the morning walker who can pay. A whole generation has emerged which has not touched a tree for years, let alone dirtied hands growing vegetables! It has destroyed the urban landscape in a very short period, i.e. 20 years of neo liberalism. The use of low grade plastic for carry bags has created an enormous problem of urban waste management. All municipalities are groaning under this problem and are having conflicts with villages where they are trying to dump the waste. The reason we are talking about it is that the solution to this problem is very much linked with urban agriculture.

The poor in the city by and large have been migrants from the rural areas and retain agricultural skills. Many of them managed to grow some vegetables and have a fruit tree in the back yard. Recent development in urban land markets have repeatedly displaced them from one locality to another and much of this tradition has vanished in big cities where even the poor have to buy vegetables.

Presently Peak Oil and the attendant crisis are slowing down these processes. Meanwhile, one has to plan a restoration of the urban ecological and social situation. Given the impending energy crisis, cities will not have the necessary energy surplus to sustain themselves. They will not disappear overnight, but will perforce shrink. If such shrinkage is not to be chaotic, it is better to plan it from now.

Some of the fundamental issues on the agenda could be:

  1. Cities should plan their shrinkage so that they do not exceed a population of 500,000.
  2. Cities should distribute energy evenly across all its residents to avoid the risk of conflict between various sections of its residents.
  3. The difference in the per capita energy consumption of city and rural people should be narrowed significantly.
  4. Cities must plan to configure themselves on the future energy source, i.e., solar energy.
  5. Cities in developing countries will never have the resources (energy and financial) to complete the transition to becoming cities based on fossil fuels. It is best to abandon the attempt to make that transition right away and begin the transition to becoming solar cities. For example, plans to widen streets, to have a metro, build a new airport, bring more water from distant rivers etc. should be abandoned.


Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture is a subset of this. The logic of urban agriculture is reducing food miles, particularly those of perishables like vegetables and fruits. So how do we go about thinking about urban agriculture? We read a lot of news about urban roof top agriculture. There are web sites on this in India (2-13). These people represent a tiny section of educated upper middle class who have time and space to do these experiment. Some of them are very committed and have done very important work. Undoubtedly, there is much to learn from them by way of technique. The most important lesson being that soil can be created even in a concrete jungle. Also some of them are also looking for ways to involve the urban poor in these activities. So, it is very important to join hands with them.

However the great need is that of the urban poor and lower middle class, who are groaning under the price rise. Individuals have little time, they are stretched for everything. As socialists, we always first think of organizations and rights. This is almost always the correct beginning. The urban slum dweller first needs security of tenure. We have been fighting a large number of battles on these grounds. Secondly, water security is of the highest priority. Only then can we think of some vegetables and fruit trees in the urban slums.

There are a large number of urban spaces which can be used for urban agriculture. There are the parks and gardens within the municipal areas and there are large tracts of land in the university and cantonment areas. In the late sixties, during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, which has the largest acreage among embassies, grew all its food inside the embassy grounds. The point is that there are all sorts of land and water sources that exist in a city that can be utilized for urban agricultural pursuits. How does one do it? As they say, the long term solution is abolition of capitalism and short term solution is unionisation. Urban citizens’ associations in local areas along with horticulture societies and urban farmers’ associations have to take lead. We can certainly get small successes by coordinating with municipal authorities, cantonment boards and agriculture departments at an everyday level. We have to learn to use the spaces available.

The technical part of urban agriculture can be learnt easily, because there are a large number of NGOs already dealing with it in terms of making seeds available, teaching composting and the use of garden tools etc. The difficult and the important task always is organizing the human element.

One important issue is linking urban farming with waste management. There are two connected issues – first is the use of plastic carry bags in disposing waste. These must be immediately banned and all urban citizens’ groups have to give this a high priority. There is a positive climate for this today and hard work will definitely give results. This will also make the next task, that of separation of different kinds of waste at source easy. Again, this is possible only with the help of social organization, particularly involving children. Once this is achieved, composting of the biodegradable at home or within the community becomes possible and adds to the agenda of urban agriculture. (14)

What Can I Do?
Abolishing capitalism and building socialism is the main agenda to be carried through people’s organizations. Having said that, what can one individual do? Each individual is different with different aptitudes and abilities. But there is space for everyone to do positive work. In fact, there is space even for those who do not necessarily agree with the main agenda.

Working with mass organizations at one’s workplace or within the community is important. Working with specialized NGO-type of organizations dealing with urban agriculture is also very important. Finally, given the will, anyone can carry out some amount of urban agriculture in almost any situation. To be able to do so, gives one an enormous satisfaction and moral courage and conviction to talk about it and work in larger contexts