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An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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20 Dec 2006

Applying Energy Descent Plans to Food and Farming – an article in Living Earth magazine.

samag1The Soil Association is the UK’s organic certification body, and they are making peak oil and the relocalisation of food the focal point of their 60th Anniversary conference in Cardiff in February. I am editing a report that will accompany the conference, which explores this deeper, and to introduce this, I recently wrote an article that appears in Living Earth Magazine, the organisation’s publication. It suggests that the concept of Energy Descent Plans could be applied to food and farming in the UK, an idea that will be explored in more depth in the report. Here is the article followed by some additions from within the Soil Association.

**Energy scarcity is an opportunity for a better world, says Rob Hopkins**

I used to think that one day the world would literally run out of oil. A driver in Leicestershire would use the last drop and that would be that, similar to the felling of the last Truffula Tree in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. It turns out that scarcity kicks in earlier than that. It’s not the last drop that is the problem but the mid-point of production, when all the oil that is easy and cheap to extract has been used up. It looks as if we are reaching that point soon.

The peak oil argument is grounded in the study of oil wells, the first of which was drilled in 1851. At first the oil comes out easily and under pressure. Then, as exploitation continues, more pressure, as gas or water, is needed to maintain extraction rates. Around the halfway point, production goes into a decline that cannot be reversed, and oil prices start to soar.

Predicting the peak is hard as the date can only be seen in the rear-view mirror, once it has passed. Geologist Dr M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak in 1970 but that year the US produced more oil than ever. In 1971, however, US domestic oil production went into a decline and has never recovered.

Another reason why predicting peak oil is hard is that only some of the data required is in the public domain, and much of that is questionable. There is evidence that some OPEC countries have hugely inflated their reserve figures, to boost their export quotas. Earlier this year the Kuwaiti Oil Company revealed in a leaked memo that Kuwait had less than half its stated reserves. If proved correct, the world would lose 5% of its total oil reserves overnight.

It may well turn out we have been living in a fool’s paradise. The political journalist hopes of a soft landing rest on just two propositions: that the oil producers’ figures are correct, and that governments act before they have to. I hope that reassures you.”

Although accuracy is a challenge, a number of independent analysts argue that, globally, oil production will peak in about 2010. Already fuel prices are rising, as we see in the UK at the petrol pumps or in last winter’s gas bills.

The challenge of building an economy, in the next 10 years, able to withstand the impacts of peak oil, is, according to Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, akin to “wartime mobilisation”. Post-peak, the volatile prices of oil will lead to poorer people being priced out of the fuel market, increased disruptions to supplies and geopolitical tensions around the remaining oil reserves.

As the end of cheap oil looms and climate change intensifies, we must take the opportunity to create another world: one that both addresses these problems – and realises our dreams.

**Energy Descent Plans**

To my mind, our Achilles heel is transportation. Over 95% of it depends on oil-based fossil fuels. Reducing fuel use will not solve the problem of a centralised distribution system that depends on transportation. The only answer is to rethink the system. As James Howard Kunstler puts it in The Long Emergency, the future will be “increasingly and intensely local and smaller in scale”.

Economist and past Soil Association chair David Fleming agrees: “Localisation… has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative”.

It is essential that we build an infrastructure which is resilient and which places regional self-reliance at its heart. But where to begin?

In October 2004, I designed a college project at Kinsale, Ireland, to help the town plan for a low energy future. In consultation with local green practitioners, and using community participation techniques, my students and I began by identifying people’s visions, through a variety of media. We then backcast from these visions over a period of about two decades, and set out a year-by-year timetable for getting there.

The result, Kinsale 2021 – an Energy Descent Action Plan, was subsequently approved by Kinsale Town Council and won the prestigious Cork Environmental Forum award. Since its publication, the Energy Descent Plan has inspired initiatives round the world. Last September I launched Transition Town Totnes, an attempt at creating a similar, more thorough, plan for Totnes in Devon.

The essential concept of an Energy Descent Plan is that the future without oil and gas could, if sufficient imaginative preparation is put in place, be a better place than the present, with a higher quality of life. But that this is not a transition that can be achieved overnight – it takes planning and preparation.

Building accord is hard if the horizon is only five years; vested interests block any sense of consensus. But a 20-year time scale produces far more common ground than we can imagine. All kinds of different organisations are now talking about local food, food miles, carbon lock-up and food security.

While the green movement has been articulate at identifying problems, it has been less successful at setting out a vision of a sustainable society. The impending nature of both peak oil and climate change mean that we need to start doing so with great urgency.

**A vision for farming**

Until now the energy descent model has only been applied to communities seeking to relocalise and develop practical responses to peak oil and climate change. Could it be used as a tool for focusing on how food and farming can also prepare for problems ahead?

The first stage of the plan involves creating an ideal vision for a low energy world. Here’s mine. In 20 years’ time I see the mixed farm as a central hub of local activity. As one of the main providers of food (along with a resurgence of urban agriculture, school farms and allotments), the 2026 farm would grow a wide variety of produce, including trees for nut crops, high value timber and carbon storage.

saRising fuel prices would lead farmers to become local energy producers of firewood and gas, from wood gasification or methane digestion. Thanks to planning regulations banning high-energy materials (like cement), farms would also produce low-energy building materials such as timber, lime, clay blocks and clay plasters.

In my 2026 vision, the building of organic matter in soils would be a national priority. Feeding the soil the organic way, through green manures and compost, would both maintain food productivity in the absence of artificial fertilisers, and support the country’s drive to lock up carbon. The focus would be on local food for local markets, leading to higher rural employment and a more diverse countryside.

Your picture of the future may well differ from mine but the power of the Energy Descent plan is that it articulates visions from a wide spectrum of stakeholders.

The Soil Association can set out more ably than anyone else a practical programme for UK agriculture over the next 20 years, thus playing a key role in ensuring that UK food and farming has an abundant future beyond peak oil.

The alternative is blundering headlong into an increasingly uncertain future.

For more information on Rob Hopkins’ daily blog and his work on energy descent planning, visit


**The Soil Association’s policy position**

Organic farming offers a wide range of benefits, but it has not been generally considered as the more affordable option for consumers, writes Gundula Azeez, our policy manager. Well, rising energy prices could change all that. For the first time overtly, economic forces could start to work in our favour.

Consider the aspects of the current food system that are energy intensive. Interestingly, these are all aspects that the organic movement has long opposed.

Peak oil will in particular affect the viability of using artificial nitrogen fertiliser, the basis of industrial agriculture. This is because the raw material for making artificial fertiliser is ‘natural gas’, so its price tracks the price of gas. Nitrogen fertiliser accounts for 37% of the energy used by UK agriculture. Detailed ‘life cycle’ analyses for the Government show that organic farming is generally more energy efficient, as it does not use artificial fertiliser. For example, organic farming uses 29% less energy for wheat, 38% less for milk, and 35% less for beef.

But industrial agriculture is based on the manufacture and transport of a whole range of farm inputs, not just fertiliser, such as pesticides and animal feed. A large proportion of these are imported. In contrast, organic farming is a genuinely localised production system as most of its resources are produced in situ through natural processes on the farm.

Often overlooked is the large indoor section of UK agriculture, that produces most of the country’s pigs and poultry and out-of-season vegetables (such as all UK tomatoes). As the cost of the electricity used for heating and ventilating the nation’s factory farms and glasshouses rises, these foods should become more expensive, favouring a return to outdoor livestock production (all organic livestock are free range) and seasonal foods.

Therefore the rise in energy costs should make all aspects of industrial farming steadily less viable compared to organic farming. At some stage, organic food could become cheaper than non-organic, which would then significantly increase sales.

Food processing and packaging, also use huge amounts of energy. So the rise in energy prices should lead to a gradual re-interest in healthier, wholesome food, another ideal of the organic movement.

Energy Descent Plan for farming

Every community, whether village, town or city, could:

* Invite local authorities and media for educational organic farm visits
* Make an inventory of its current dependency, for food and animal feed, on the rest of the UK and other countries
* Calculate the energy involved in above, including the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser, and how much energy must be saved
* Estimate how much agricultural and horticultural land is needed – and is available
* Prohibit any new industrial farming businesses by ensuring all farms sold are converted to organic management
* Secure funds for farm investments and technical advice to support wide-scale transition to organic farming
* Identify on-farm electricity uses, including for indoor production and cooling/refrigeration of produce
* Plan to convert on-farm electricity to renewable sources such as solar panels, wind turbines or ‘combined heat and power’ units
* Identify the farmers’ transport fuel use and support the development of on-farm fuel production such as methane digestion, t processes animal waste to yield methane gas
* Study electricity used in food processing and packaging and convert to renewable energy and biodegradable material
* Increase the resources for organic farming through community composting
* Develop new planning laws to reclaim brown-field sites for inner-city agriculture and protect farmland around urban areas
* Support self-growing in gardens, allotments, schools and retirement homes
* Encourage economic engagement between local communities and farmers, with schemes such as Community Supported Agriculture
* Invite people to work on farms to foster a local food culture and promote an appreciation of farming

The theme of the Soil Association’s 2007 annual conference is One planet agriculture. It addresses how to prepare practically for a post-peak oil world including how to get local food to local markets. For more information and how to book or visit

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