Issue 261: January 2009


 Growth, Energy and Food

by Brewster Kneen

The first issue of The Ram’s Horn appeared in November, 1980. That means we are beginning our 29th full year of publication. Much has changed. Not enough has changed. Our governments and the economic wizards still believe in the mindless magic of ‘productivity’ and ‘economic growth’ (growth of the money economy as counted by the Gross Domestic Product). They appear to actually believe that economic growth is both good and absolutely essential if we are to survive as energy-bloated competitive individuals. They don’t evidence much concern about the destruction of society and environmental collapse.

In 1989 my first book was published – From Land to Mouth: Understanding the Food System. After two sold out print runs I revised and expanded the book to take into account the changes that had occurred between 1989 and 1993, when From Land to Mouth: Second Helping came out. Since then, the distance between the ‘family-community’ side and the corporate side of the food system has grown into a grand canyon.

On the local food side we are seeing the construction of energy efficient, ecologically sensitive food systems that observe our slogan, ‘feed the family and trade the leftovers,’ while on the corporate side we now have three mega-corps (not the same three in all cases, and 20 years ago it was six) dominating and determining on a global scale seeds, fertilizers, agrotoxins, processing (from commodity to consumer end) and distribution-retailing. 

While this corporate side claims to be efficient, it does not take more than a world map to observe the geographic distances that agricultural commodities move, from field to terminal (inland or seaport), from export terminal to import terminal to central distribution warehouse to retail. All this travel in high-energy transport (except by sea) is anything but efficient, nor are all the warehousing and processing facilities unless you really do believe in efficiencies of scale and ignore all the externalized costs of environmental destruction, energy source depletion, pollution, and social disruption and community destruction – worldwide.

Next time you visit  – or drive by – a shopping mall plus superstore (or two), pause to consider the parking lot and what it contains and represents, besides a huge public subsidy for the mall owner.


‘Distancing’ was the term I came up with to describe the global food system in 1989, and it is distancing that I just described. When I finished the first draft of From Land To Mouth, our son Jamie said, so what’s the alternative? 

I thought about that and came up with ‘proximity,’ and that is obviously descriptive of what is guiding developing local food systems around the world, from Japan’s million-member Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative (SCCC) to the farmers’ markets in Ottawa. We can all be encouraged by the changes taking place on the one side even as we work against the consolidation and domination on the ‘Dark Side’.

Now with the spectacular failure of the economy of capitalism, it should be easier to think about efficiency and sufficiency – what Maria Mies termed “the subsistence perspective” – or what we might describe as an economy of enough for all. This is the alternative to the global social and physical destruction being wrought by economic growth and the industrial food system. We – the world – can no longer afford to operate such an incredibly inefficient economic system that requires so much energy to produce too much for too few while profoundly disturbing the atmospheric climate we all live in.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the current government of Canada has any understanding of all this – that we must halt economic growth and instead start building a society based on sufficiency, (‘enoughness’), greatly reduced energy consumption in any and every form, and ecological sensitivity.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has insisted (when he was last addressing Canadians publicly) that environmental issues could not be dealt with at the expense of the economy: “we cannot separate environmental and economic policy.” His new Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, said that “balancing our responsibilities as stewards of the environment, on the one hand, and our responsibilities to protect and enhance the Canadian economy on the other” are the most challenging issues he’s seen. A couple of weeks later he brightly said, “climate-change pressures are unlikely to fade.” Of course this does not mean that he will let those pressures affect government policy of putting economic growth first. – G&M, 31/10/08, 30/12/08

“Sticking with an economic model that is driving toward ecological catastrophe will kill us,” wrote Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver in the Toronto Star, “so it is essential to address the financial and ecological crises together.” They came to a rather different conclusion than Prentice, though: “We must recognize that the economy is part of the biosphere” and that “the global economy is a subsidiary of the natural order. . . Economic policy must promote not more affluence as currently defined, but more sufficiency for all Canadians.” – 26/12/08

Noise output is one way to measure efficiency.  Think of the noise a bicycle makes on its way to the farmers’ market compared to that of an automobile – or the 18-wheeler full of produce from California headed to the supermarket. Of course, walking (especially barefoot) need not make any noise at all and does not require any equipment that consumed energy in its manufacture. In between the bike and the truck there could be electric trams and a subway. Remember, noise = energy. Can you hear your garden growing? Now think quietly about the energy it will produce when eaten.

Now, as our growth-economy crumbles, we are faced with a tremendous opportunity to trade it in for a model that works for everyone, not just an elite at the globe’s expense. But we face a huge lobbying effort by energy interests, such as the Alberta oilsands investors and the automobile industry, including, sadly, the leaders of the auto workers union.

Offering bailouts to keep the dinosaur auto industry alive so it can continue to destroy our cities and pollute the environment, while offering massive subsidies to the oil sands to supply fuel for the cars may appear to serve the purposes of the growth economy, but we would all be better off if no new automobiles were produced for at least one year, and then only cars that meet the most stringent pollution controls and fuel economy standards. The ‘buzz’ about the new electric cars conveniently ignores where the electricity is generated. It’s really only moving fuel consumption somewhere else. What we have to do is radically reduce it.

dino auto

In the meantime, the auto workers could learn to repair machinery (including cars) and build interesting and useful new equipment just like farmers have always done. On the side, the auto workers – along with their neighbours – could engage in non-profit food production in their own backyards and community gardens.

The federal government, for its part, could redirect the corporate bailout funds to community projects such as all-weather bike paths so the former autoworkers could keep their aging autos in storage while auto-recycling facilities are developed with some of the federal funds.


#261: January 2009 TOC
Growth, Energy and Food: Brewster reflects on distancing in energy policy
The Seed Policy Project: a new initiative towards seed sovereignty in Canada
GMO-free Ice Cream: an opportunity for an Irish dairy
Guns and Peanut butter: a BMJ article on misguided food policy regarding allergens
Global sourcing: shipping by sea is cheaper than overland, even if it means importing from overseas
GMO-free food and feed: Japanese seek non-GMO seeds, while the Western Canadian Wheat Growers tout GMOs
Seaweed shortage: due to over-exploitation or climate change?
Financial Crisis: Monsanto loses in recession
Cargill goes public, sweetly: the company is advertising its new sweetener to the public
Stevia gets USFDA go-ahead: stevia extract is classified as 95% purity
The ABCD of Global Agriculture: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus in China
Need to Stretch: laying hens in cages
GM crops only a fraction of primary global crop production: despite claims by Monsanto et. al. GM crops are not widely popular