It was a different world in the 1940s. Nearly half of Canadians and 40% of Americans lived outside urban areas. People grew much of their own food. During the war many had “victory” gardens and my parents had a farm in the Fraser Valley. As a boy my memories were that some things just were not available “out of season”. No one expected that the full range of fruits and vegetables now exported from California and beyond should be provided as a matter of right. One other memory, when you ate a tomato or orange, you almost had to eat it over the sink. They were rich and obviously dense with nutrients.
That was a Canada of 10 million people (18 by 1960). Could a Canada of three times that number be fed that way? What happens to agriculture when it must serve an artificially high population base? When 18% of Class 1 farmland is covered with subdivisions to house more people, two-thirds of whom are imported? When to increase the productivity of that farmed land the soils are stripped of nutrients and filled with chemicals? What happens to our food? Thomas Pawlik answers that question in his book The End of Food.
Pawlik notes that since 1950 supermarket potatoes in Canada haven’t contained Vitamin A and their iron content has been reduced by 57%, along with their Vitamin C. Tomatoes have lost 61.5% of their calcium, 35.5% of their iron and 50% of their Vitamin A while gaining 200% more sodium. Of course, what’s got into livestock is an entirely new chapter. Bottom line: I have to eat five times as much of what I did in the 50s to get the equivalent amount of vitamins and minerals. We’re over-weight and yet under-fed.
We must ask some serious questions about agriculture in the face of runaway population growth and the collapse of the oil economy. We expect to feed a country like Canada which has only 5-7% of its land base as legitimately arable, with comparatively poor quality soil in relation to America, Britain and France and a population of 33 million that is currently growing faster than any G8 country. When the oil runs out, Canada and the United States might expect between one half to one third of its population to starve. (cf. Eating Fossil Fuels, Dale Pfeiffer).
According to an analysis by J.R. Wakefield of Komoka, Ontario, a typical Canadian city like London, population 400,000, in the heart of farm country, could not feed itself, despite conscripting all of its labour to replace petroleum dependent farm machinery. 200,000 draught animals would be needed, but even then, productivity per acre would drop dramatically, and of course, food could not be frozen for storage. “Relocalization” for the population we have is, as Wakefield has shown, a joke and a pipedream.
If that scenario is not to your liking, try climate change. James Lovelock says that the United Kingdom, to survive global warming, will have to confine human habitation to one-third the island’s land surface, devote one-third entirely to wilderness, and the last third to intensive agriculture. Here’s the trade-off. One can deliver low-nutrient food to a high volume of people, or high-nutrient food to a low volume of people. It is unlikely that 61 million British people, or more if current immigration rates persist, are going to fed by mechanized, oil-based, soil-depleting methods, so strike off the first option.
Whenever one warns of global warming, of course, Mary Poppins chimes in that this is good news for northern countries who could use a longer growing season. Yeah, but could we use the tropical pests and droughts? Australia is an object lesson on the dangers of letting land developers and politicians determine your population level without bothering to notice how climate change and water shortages will affect agricultural productivity.
In Canada Post-carbon agriculture should give us a better product, but not for the market that has been built up the last 50 years. Agribusiness and its criminal mistreatment of the land is but the inevitable creature of the population explosion, not simply an extension of wicked capitalism. Its welcome demise with the death of oil and the re-emergence of small farming and backyard gardens will, like renewable energy sources, not even begin to save the day for the masses. Instead more labour-intensive farming that relies on manure and crop-rotation will provide nutrient-dense food for far fewer people.
We have been living on borrowed time. And some of us will survive to eat the way we were meant to----eating local produce, and eating it in season. Others, like myself, will likely succumb to disease, malnutrition or illness untreatable by a medical system that has collapsed under the weight of too many foreign passengers that developers, cheap labour employers and human rights activists have lobbied to bring to our shores.