Food production: efficiency is the straightest road to hell

Michael Connolly

As Ireland’s food exports and greenhouse gases surge, Michael Connolly of Transition Monaghan considers the threats posed by our dependence on non-renewable resources and the over use of renewable ones. Although his focus is on food he says there are no separate issues and everything is interrelated.


Statistics show that we tend to spend about 20% of our average income on food and this is an historic low and much lower than those in the third world spend. While this food production system appears highly efficient at least in monetary terms it is attained at a cost to people who are neither involved in the production or consumption of the food.

The food system has become dependent on a constant flow of non-renewable resources and the unsustainable use of renewable ones. While many of those involved refer to the ‘efficiency’ of food production it disguises some very large vulnerabilities, namely depletion of non-renewable resources and limits to renewables, at the heart of these vulnerabilities is energy.


Research shows that we expend ten calories of fossil energy for each calorie of food we produce. Depletion of, or disruption to the flow of non-renewable resources, such as oil, that enable the production of food on the current scale and financial cost would be disastrous for dependent populations. As bad as this is, our food production system is also contributing to the damage our biosphere is currently undergoing.

Industrial farming’s methods including the use of pesticides, herbicides and GMO’s are causing damage to the wider biosphere and human health. It is in this energy intensive system that our greatest vulnerability lies because with efficiency come fragility which robs the system of redundancy for it is redundancy that creates resilience. The situation is far from hopeless – there are solutions and mitigation.


Fortunately for us, some solutions and mitigations to our difficulties already exists. Nature has solved many problems over the course many millions of years of evolution and we have learned from nature. By working with nature rather than against it we have found solutions. One such is Permaculture which is an ecological design system that enables humans to live with natural / holistic systems, but it is much more than this. Permaculture utilities a systemic approach to how we live on the earth. Bill Mollison the co-originator of Permaculture described it as integrated design science. It is firmly grounded in the ecological understanding of nature and the holistic integration of people with their ecosystem, this is no woolly or wishful approach to the world and it has proven itself many times in solving problems that the current reductionist approach is incapable diagnosing let alone solving.


Permaculture: earth care, people care and fair share

All this being said Permaculture has spiritual and ethical dimension that is inseparable from its science base. As we gain a greater understanding of the world and the biosphere through the lens of system thinking and ecology the more wisdom we see in the head and Heart Integration approach. Values increase in importance with the growth in our destructive capabilities.


The extent of our current food production systems dependence on a vast flow of cheap non- renewable energy creates a vulnerability without historically precedence. Given how our current system operates, disruptions to this will show up as, and be interpreted as, economic / money issues. The 2008 financial crisis was a portent of this and its next iteration is already playing out now.

For the many who conflate money as the problem rather than the symptom, no resilience is possible. It is to this subject of money that we will turn to next time and it is the most wicked of problems as it exists almost entirely in people’s heads. In the meantime why not start your journey to resilience by beginning a garden – where and how matters not, dig over a few square feet in preparation for spring or look for some fruit or nut trees to plant.

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