Oil-dependency and food: Livelihoods at risk

Published on Pambazuka, by Tanya Kerssen, Sept. 9, 2010.

Tanya Kerssen explores how the ‘global pursuit of fossil fuels’ is impacting on communities across oil-rich regions in Africa, and the prospects for food and fuel sovereignty in a world without cheap oil. ‘Ironically, those with the smallest ecological footprint on earth have born the highest cost,’ writes Kerssen, but these ‘beleaguered people – the small farmers, herders, fishers and artisans of the world – could hold the key to a more energy-efficient future.’

The high cost of cheap oil was brought abruptly to light last April when Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (contracted by BP) exploded 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Lost amidst the speechifying and PR, however, have been the voices of those directly affected: The thousands of families who inhabit some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Louisiana is the largest supplier of domestic seafood in the continental United States, providing shrimp, blue crab, oysters, crawfish and a variety of marine finfish[1].  

For the primarily African-American fishing towns South of New Orleans – struggling for decades to compete against large fishing operations and hit hard by Katrina – the BP spill portends the loss of a traditional, and sustainable, way of life on the water: ‘Take a look out there,’ offered 71-year-old retired oysterman Roger Moliere to the New York Times, ‘See what they’re doing? Sitting, talking, nobody working…Was a time if a man lost his job he could always come down to the bayou and feed his family. But this here, what you got happening now, this here might finish us off.’[2]

Ironically, those with the smallest ecological footprint on earth have born the highest cost of our global pursuit of fossil fuels. These beleaguered people – the small farmers, herders, fishers and artisans of the world – could hold the key to a more energy-efficient future.


… Food sovereignty, the political project put forward by the international peasant movement Via Campesina, offers a promising road map. Food sovereignty emerged in the 1990s as a critique to the neoliberal vision of ‘food security’ promoted by the World Bank and others, who view agriculture primarily as a source of export earnings – as opposed to local nutrition, livelihood, biodiversity, culture and community well being. This model – which farmer-activist José Bové has called ‘food from nowhere’ – cares little about the displacement of small-scale food producers from their land by oil companies or industrial farms, since cheap food imports are expected to feed the masses. Food sovereignty, by contrast, privileges sustainable, local food production for local consumption, arguing that international trade must come second. And while some will argue that organic production can’t feed the world, numerous studies prove otherwise. [41] [42] [43]

Industrial agriculture may be more ‘efficient’ in terms of labour (output per worker), but its productivity is achieved through massive applications of fossil fuel-based inputs such as tractor fuel and agrochemicals. Small organic farms, however, are generally more efficient in terms of land (output per acre), since they grow a variety of plants and animals, taking full advantage of each ecological niche. Organic farms are more energy efficient, since they rely primarily upon ‘closed-loop’ nutrient cycles – for example, crop nutrients consumed on site by animals may be returned the soil as crop residues or manure to restore fertility. Finally, small organic farms produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and could even reverse the trend of global climate change through carbon sequestration in trees and soil.[44]

By producing more food with less energy, promoting small-scale organic agriculture may be our best bet for kicking the cheap oil habit, providing livelihoods for millions of smallholders around the world, and cooling the planet for all. This undertaking will require immense political will and a monumental global shift from oil-dependent, export-driven development to a focus on environmental stewardship and food sovereignty. Meanwhile, the small farmers, fishers and herders of the world – those with the smallest ecological footprint – are fighting a multi-front battle for their right to sustainably produce food on the land and waterways. (full long text and Notes 1 to 44).

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