Running on empty - Page 6

The San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force explores life after fossil fuels — an era that may be coming sooner than most people think

This past December the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations urged governments to take immediate steps to mitigate "dramatic food price increases" worldwide. Meanwhile, a recent cover story in the New York Times ("A New, Global Quandry: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories," 1/19/08) cited "food riots" in more than half a dozen countries and asserted, "Soaring fuel prices have altered the equation for growing food and transporting it around the world."

In the US, the Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index cited a 5.6 percent increase of national grocery store prices in 2007, echoing sizable domestic price spikes in milk, corn, and wheat supplies.

"In a situation where you have sharp increases in the price of fossil fuels, you are going to see spikes in the costs and perhaps even the availability of food," explains Jason Mark, a former employee of Global Exchange and a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz's renowned ecological horticulture program.

Mark now splits his time between editing the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal and comanaging Alemany Farms. In his task force research, Mark plans to focus on two key challenges: increasing food production within San Francisco and improving both production in and distribution from the farms in the Bay Area.

"The city is pretty lucky because we are surrounded by all of this incredibly productive agricultural land," Mark explains. "If you were to draw a 100-mile radius around Potrero Hill, you could still have a pretty amazing diet."

Of course, the situation is far from simplistic. Climate change has proven to be a wild card in the equation, periodically negating dependable food supplies. Most recently, the entire Australian wheat crop collapsed due to a massive drought, affecting food imports around the world.

Less noticeable, though equally problematic, is the strain that biofuels are putting on food supplies. As increases in oil prices are stimuutf8g demands for alternatives, governments must decide whether crops should be used as food or fuel.

"Increasing our production of ethanol or biodiesel means direct competition with the food supply," Heinberg says. "In other words, we may see millions of people around the world going hungry so that a small percentage of the population can continue to drive their cars."

While such factors translate into a predicament as delicate as it is complex, Mark manages to elude pessimism. "I'm not one of these apocalyptic fetishists inciting for some sort of Mad Max scenario," he explains. "[The task force] is going to come out with a document that, although cautionary in scope, will be really optimistic about how SF can exist as an oil-free city."


Amid a vast disparity of opinions from scientists and industry experts expounding both sides of the debate, the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force plans to release its final report in October.

As with the issue of climate change almost two decades ago, the task force members face a long climb toward making an impression on an American population that has shown considerable reluctance to alter its lifestyles.

And while the deliberation over the onset of peak oil is likely to see little decline among skyrocketing energy costs and increasing geopolitical hostilities, the underlying truth may already be far less complicated.

"The era of cheap oil is over," Lundberg says. "Period." *

The next meeting of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force will be on Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. in room 421 of City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, SF.