Food For Thought for Agriculture and the Future

A Farm for the Future, a BBC documentary about the prospects of agriculture after peak oil, is now available online. The program, which was made by the wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking, begins on a conventional farm owned by Ms. Hosking’s father in England’s South Devon region. The documentary goes from there to explore other low-energy, low-impact farming methods that Ms. Hosking says might be necessary in an energy-starved (and food-starved) future.

The documentary should be compelling viewing for anyone involved with campus sustainability and food projects. We’ve recently discussed the importance of teaching agriculture at colleges and the fact that many colleges have become interested in local foods, along with agriculture and community gardens. Some colleges, like Green Mountain College, Sterling College, and Goshen College, have programs to teach students how to farm in a post-oil era.

Peak oil — the concept that oil production will crest and then decline, leading to all sorts of trouble in society — is of course a controversial topic, and the associated movement of so-called doomers attracts its share of ridicule. In a recent book, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years (MIT Press, 2008), Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, says that the alarmism of peak-oil proponents is “based on a lack of nuanced understanding of the human quest for energy” that disregards economics, innovation, and adaptability. (In his book, he seems more concerned about human interference in the global nitrogen cycle, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion — all of which affect agriculture, by the way.)

Planning for a post-oil era is at least a prudent thing to do. Agriculture, which has been one of the most important disciplines of the American university system, will certainly face a number of pressures in the future, peak oil or no. Ms. Hosking’s documentary might provide food for thought for the future of sustainable food production.

Sterling College, in Vermont, is one of a handful of institutions that continue to teach traditional farming methods. (Photo courtesy Sterling College)

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