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Food And Farming: The Hub Of Planetary Transformation

Carolyn Baker Interviews Michael Brownlee

20 August, 2010

For several years, Michael Brownlee and Lynnette-Marie Hanthorn have pioneered relocalization in Boulder County, Colorado. Their latest project is the Boulder County Eat Local Campaign beginning August 28 through September 4. Last week I caught up with Michael who generously gave an hour out of his packed schedule to talk about the desperate need for promoting local food and farming in our communities.

CB: So Michael, as a subscriber to Truth to Power's Daily News Digest, I know that every day you see the headlines regarding skyrocketing food prices. Can you say a bit about why you think this is happening?

MB: Well, I think what we're seeing with food prices, with spot shortages and commodities in various places around the world is just the beginning of a much larger situation. Fundamentally, what's happening is that as the cost of fossil fuels goes up, then the whole agricultural production system is affected because the whole system is dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers for fuel, pesticides, and herbicides. The cost of all of these is going up, and we're just now reaching the point where, as the era of cheap fossil fuels ends, and as fossil fuels continue to become increasingly expensive, the entire global industrial agricultural system is going to collapse. We are seeing the very beginnings of that right now, and for most people, especially here in America, it seems very remote, but it will have tremendous impact here in this country within the next two or three years.

CB: What would you say to people who would argue that actually the price of oil has gone down and doesn't seem to be rising much?

MB: Well, the price of oil fluctuates a lot, but the trajectory is steadily upward. Since we've reached the point on the planet where we're beyond Peak Oil, that is, we've burned more than half the oil that's on the planet, it is inevitable that oil from here on out will be harder to get out of the ground and more and more expensive. This is not a bullet we can dodge.

CB: Currently Transition Colorado is working very hard at finalizing your first Eat Local Campaign for Boulder County. You have the Boulder County Commissioners on board and the Boulder City Council as well. Transition Colorado could have chosen to focus on a number of other issues this year. Why is this event so urgent, in your opinion, and what do you hope to accomplish by organizing it?

MB: As we've been emphasizing the need for relocalization and our community's needing to be able to meet our most essential needs locally instead of being dependent on globalized systems, we've seen that the area where we are most vulnerable here in Boulder County is food. At the moment we're spending about $700 million a year on food. From all that we can tell from the limited data that's available, less than 1% of that is being spent on food being grown in Boulder County. That's a tiny, tiny amount. So currently, our food shed, which is kind of like a watershed, stretches across the globe. We're bringing in food from China, South America, Europe, and as the industrial agricultural system begins to fail, we have no choice but to shrink our food shed to be much, much more local. And it looks like we don't have much time to do that. The impact on industrial agriculture will begin to unfold within the next two-three years, so we need to quickly rebuild local food and farming.

Fortunately, there has been a tremendous amount of work done by people like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Joel Salatin-people who have been working on these issues for years and have helped to educate millions and millions of people about the importance of local, organic food. So there's a great readiness and a rising demand for locally grown, organic food. So what that means is that this is an area where we can have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time. It's not everything that we need to do in terms of relocalization, but it is maybe the most important thing.

There are lots of reasons for this besides needing to meet our food needs locally. There's a benefit to health that comes from local, fresh, organic food. One of the most important but perhaps least recognized issues in the transitioning from an industrial, fossil fuels agricultural system to a localized organic system is that the latter will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We're beginning to understand now that the way we grow and process our food, the way we ship it-all of that, contributes about 31% to our greenhouse gas emission. So here in Boulder, while there's a lot of effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through pretty advanced climate action plans, there is no discussion of the impact of food and farming and greenhouse gas emission. So this is one area where we can make a huge difference in a very short period of time. And since no one else locally is taking that issue on, we will and we are because we must. This is also an area where Transition initiatives around the country can demonstrate leadership.

CB: This leads me to ask the next question which is: What should individuals be doing in terms of creating their own food security? And what should neighborhoods and communities be doing to create food security for their place?

MB: For a long time now we've been saying that it's a good idea for everyone to learn to grow at least some of their own food. This is something that everyone can do, no matter where they live, even if they live in a high-rise apartment building. They can grow at least some of their food. Initially it's not so much about how much food they might each produce, but it's about learning the skills. It's about reconnecting with the natural processes and cycles of life and beginning to understand soil, how to build it and restore it. These are skills we have become very disconnected from and that will be essential for all of us in the future.

So we think that those kinds of skills are going to be more important to food security than storing up lots of food. We can always grow food. As we're compelled increasingly to eat seasonally again, we're going to have to learn how to preserve food from harvest so that we can consume it during the winter months. So we get to learn all those things like canning, drying food-ways that we can feed ourselves year-round. We've gotten so accustomed to being able to eat whatever we want anytime we want it. We just go to the grocery store. We've become totally dependent on this system, and we've lost those basic skills. That's the more real aspect of food security.

On a neighborhood level, I think one of the most important things we can do is to organize as neighbors to support each other. A lot of people can't have their own gardens. They might be able to have a window box garden or some tomato plants on their porch, but they can't really produce much. But community gardens can easily be organized. Again, it's not so much about the amount that's grown, but rather about the process of people working together and rebuilding those fundamental connections between people. Those kinds of connections have been at the heart of civilization from the beginning, and they have eroded away the last two hundred years or so.

On a broader level within a local food shed, let's say an area of a couple hundred miles or so, such as in Boulder County, we need to focus collectively on greatly increasing food production. 75% of our agricultural land here in Boulder County is being used either for pasture land for animals or to grow crops to feed animals. We need to be using much more of that land to grow food for our own people. Agriculture has gotten focused over the last century on exporting commodity crops to other countries and has totally lost site of the need to feed our own people. We need to reverse that priority and make the purpose of local farming and the whole food system to feed our own people first, then export surplus once those local needs have been met. It's a huge transition we have to go through, but that's ultimately where our food security will come from.

CB: One of the presentations you frequently do is entitled "The Extent of Our Predicament". In a few words, what is the extent of our predicament, and what should we be doing to deal with that predicament?

MB: First of all, what inspired me to talk about this is Gus Speth's book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability where he concludes that we will never do what is necessary until we understand the full extent of our predicament. So I've been speaking more and more about our predicament in terms of first of all, the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels-the reality that we will never be able to replace the amount of energy we're burning in fossil fuels today and that we will have no choice but to dramatically reduce our energy consumption. That's the first realization that we have to come to.

The second is that climate change is going to change the face of the planet and will certainly change the trajectory of the human presence on the planet, and this will happen much more quickly and much more painfully than almost any of us is willing to think about. But we need to begin. Primarily because of our use of fossil fuels and our profligate burning of fossil fuels, we've unleashed profound changes in our climate that are probably going to give us the equivalent of a species near-death experience. The near-death experiences for many individuals will be a profound wake up call and will produce a shift from an aimless, dissipated, wasted life to a focus on purpose and service. Climate change is likely to be affording us as a species, that kind of opportunity.

The third aspect of our predicament is the reality is that our economic system will not recover but will go into a steeper decline, eventually plunging into an irreversible global depression that will last beyond our lifetimes. Of course, it's because our entire global economic system has been based on cheap fossil fuels and the American dollar. The whole system now is beginning to collapse. So we need to understand that the global systems on which we've come to depend are already failing, and they will fail dramatically in the future. So we have to rebuild from the ground up our capacity to live well, to live meaningfully, in a healthy and productive manner on this planet.

CB: Michael you often speak of the "evolutionary threshold" on which humanity stands in the present moment. What do you mean by this?

MB: I think that where we are as a species and what gives me hope perhaps, is the realization that we are a very young species in the universe. We are living in a time where we are beginning to emerge from our species adolescence into adulthood. It's not a very comfortable time just as is often the case for adolescents when they begin to shift into early adulthood, but that's what's up for us, and as we shift into adulthood, we'll have to live very, very differently. But seeing it that way is very good news because it means that as a species it means that we're not doomed, we're not fatally flawed-it just means that it's time for us to grow up together. Of course, in order to do that, we're going to have to make some pretty significant changes. We're going to have to put behind us our childish way of living, our very selfish way of living, but we certainly have an opportunity to begin to realize the potential and destiny of the human species.

There's no guarantee that we'll make this transition. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to doubt that we'll be able to do this. In our adolescence, the problems we've created for ourselves are so overwhelming that if we don't make the course correction very quickly, the window of opportunity will have passed, and we will not survive. But right now, the window is still open, and if enough people can wake up to our predicament and put into place the basic processes and structures that will enable what's best about the human species-what's the most important, what's the most precious about our species in order to survive beyond this transition, then ultimately humanity will fulfill its purpose and destiny.

CB: Thank you Michael for taking this time to talk about the crucial role of local food and farming. For readers in Boulder County, please attend the Eat Local Campaign. For readers elsewhere, check out the Eat Local website and think about how you might implement a local food and farming campaign in your place.

Michael Brownlee is the Co-Director of Transition Colorado, Boulder County