How many farmers will we need to feed Ottawa's population of roughly 1 million people? Some experts suggest we may need as many as 50,000 to 100,000 new farmers. Currently, there are only 4,800 people employed in agriculture in Ottawa according to Statistics Canada.
Most food travels 2,000-3,500 kilometers before reaching our grocery shelves. Which is why when oil prices spiked in 2008 there was an almost automatic increase in food prices. If oil prices are sustained at $150+ per barrel, then either we will be paying double, triple or quadruple the price we're paying now for food , or we will need to acquire signifcantly more food that is local in origin. The latter option is more likely given the world's growing demand for oil and limited capability to make new sources of hydrocarbon fuels quickly available. Expect people to try and drastically cut back on their use of oil and its derivatives such as gasoline.
This means that the handful of large food chains will want to buy local instead of using the central supply systems currently in place. Today the food system accounts for approximately 10% of overall energy use (US statistics). Oil products are involved in tilling the land, fertilizing the fields, harvesting the crops, transporting crops to wholesalers, processing the foods, packaging the foods, distributing the foods, and obtaining food. In addition, fears of oil scarcities have diverted large quantities of crops like corn and sugar cane into the production of biofuels, something that was a major factor in the food shortages felt in developing world in 2008 and that led to food riots in over 34 countries including Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines and Indonesia.
If we consider that a couple of spoonfuls of oil are the equivalent in energy as 8 hours of human labour, cutting back on oil use may mean a greater application of human effort in agriculture than we see today. One might aniticipate that a less oil dependent society is likely to have more people involved in food production than we the 1% of the population we have in Ottawa today. But how much more human effort?
If we think about our pre-oil society, even as late as 1931, then roughly 1/3 of Canada's population worked in agriculture. Today that ratio is more like 1 in 46 (Statscan 2008) Authors such as Richard Heinberg and Sharon Astyk If we compare national energy consumption and the percentage of a country's population involved in agriculture we can see that there appears to be a relationship (see the a downward sloping curve in diagram below) between energy use and agricultural population. Using this we might consider that if Canadians move from consuming 450 GJ/person/year to 300 GJ/person/year, our agricultural population may have to grow to 5 or 10% to provide our population with sufficient food. Jason Bradfordwrites in the Oil Drum that this increase of 5-10 times current agricultural employment levels is not unrealistic. In considering just Ottawa then, that translates into 24,000 - 48,000 new people in the agricultural sector. Complicating this is the fact that the median age of Canadian farmers was 51 in 2006 and more than 40% of farmers were over 55. (The Daily, Statistics Canada, 2008). That implies a need to train roughly the same number of people as are currently employed in the health and social services industries in Ottawa.
So the answer to the question, 'what do we do when food prices for foods produced in far off places begin to sky rocket', is not simply 'grow more local food'. There just aren't the people with the knowledge and skills of farming to take up the task. Many of those who have the skills are about to retire. So what do we do to mitigate the risk?