Arable land is useful not just for food production but potentially for fuel production, and manufacturing.
Farms for Food
Recent headlines illustrate why farmland is an asset worth protecting. A market prediction made on January 21, 2011 estimated that oil would reach $200 a barrel in the coming years. This would affect all world trade and the price of commodities. Even if this turns out to be unlikely, the volatility of oil prices is frustrating anyone who is trying to plan ahead. Our mechanized agriculture is heavily dependent on oil for fuel increasing the cost of production and the price of imported food has an additional transportation cost.
Another headline, (EU seeking to lower risk of food price crisis) provides a warning that, even if we could afford to transport food at $200/barrel, population growth and environmental catastrophes are affecting the supply of food. (Drought and fire in Russia damaged crops so severely last year that wheat exports were banned in August). The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said “its measure of food prices had hit its highest level since records began in 1990 … even after 2012 when prices come down to a more normal level we are left on a different plateau”.
Under these kinds of economic and environmental pressures, preserving and protecting local sources of food is increasingly essential. Developing local market garden sources of production and distribution should be a priority.
Farms for Fuel
In Britain, serious debate is taking place concerning a rationing scheme called Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) which “boiled down to the basics is a system advocating giving every citizen a set number of vouchers so when they buy fuel or energy they pay in cash as well as those vouchers.”
A great deal of research is being done on renewable crops that can be used for biofuel. A Danish study published in 2007 modelled the impact of changes to organic farming practice and concluded that, “Growing rapeseed on 10% of the land could produce bio-diesel to replace 50–60% of the tractor diesel used on the farm. Increasing grass-clover area to 20% of the land and using half of this yield for biogas production could change the cash crop farm to a net energy producer, and reduce GHG emissions while reducing the overall output of products only marginally.”
Closer to home, Energy Innovation Corp is opening Toronto’s first biodiesel manufacturing facility this spring. The facility will meet the demand of the new Government of Canada regulation, which requires diesel fuel and heating oil to contain a percentage of biodiesel. The facility is capable of producing over 10 million litres of biodiesel per year, made from Ontario-grown flax seeds and locally collected, used coffee grounds.
Farms for Manufacturing
Yes, you did read that correctly. In the not too distant future, farms may be producing a crop for use in manufactured goods. A company in Calgary, Motive Industries Inc., is designing an electric vehicle that would use industrial hemp fibre for the construction of the vehicle shell. Hemp is thought to have more than twice the strength of other plant fibres. In addition to not requiring much water and little pesticide, the crop is high-yield. Compared to fiberglass, for the same performance, it’s 10% lighter and 20% less expensive (in the current market). According to the company, “the auto industry’s steel dependence existed largely because it was thought to be the strongest material to use in vehicle production. Hemp bio-composite’s specific merits may well alter this traditional thinking. It has the impact resistance of fiberglass, but its bio-composite is cheaper to produce and presents fewer health risks for workers.” The first 20 electric ‘Kestrel’ vehicles were said to be under construction at polytechnic schools in three provinces in 2010.
As a renewable resource, the use of hemp for structural panels would give Canadian manufacturers an advantage over American competitors since hemp production is not allowed in the US. Elsewhere, the European Union mandates compulsory levels of recycling for automotive components.
With a local market for food, a farm and regional market for biofuel and a national or international market for natural fibre for manufacturing, farms in Innisfil may well be able to resist pressures for urban development on arable land.