What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out? (Pt. 1), by Richard Heinberg

Saturday, Aug 23, 2008

The first dilemma consists of the direct impacts on agriculture of higher oil prices: increased costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs.

The second is an indirect consequence of high oil prices - the increased demand for biofuels, which is resulting in farmland being turned from food production to fuel production, thus making food more costly.

The third dilemma consists of the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events caused by fuel-based greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is the greatest environmental crisis of our time; however, fossil fuel depletion complicates the situation enormously, and if we fail to address either problem properly the consequences will be dire.

Finally comes the degradation or loss of basic natural resources (principally, topsoil and fresh water supplies) as a result of high rates, and unsustainable methods, of production stimulated by decades of cheap energy.

Each of these problems is developing at a somewhat different pace regionally, and each is exacerbated by the continually expanding size of the human population. As these dilemmas collide, the resulting overall food crisis is likely to be profound and unprecedented in scope.

I propose to discuss each of these dilemmas briefly and to show how all are intertwined with our societal reliance on oil and other fossil fuels. I will then argue that the primary solution to the overall crisis of the world food system must be a planned rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels in the growing and delivery of food. As we will see, this strategy, though ultimately unavoidable, will bring enormous problems of its own unless it is applied with forethought and intelligence. But the organic movement is uniquely positioned to guide this inevitable transition of the world's food systems away from reliance on fossil fuels, if leaders and practitioners of the various strands of organic agriculture are willing to work together and with policy makers.

Structural Dependency

Until now, fossil fuels have been widely perceived as an enormous boon to humanity, and certainly to the human food system. After all, there was a time not so long ago when famine was an expected, if not accepted, part of life even in wealthy countries. Until the 19th century - whether in China, France, India or Britain - food came almost entirely from local sources and harvests were variable. In good years, there was plenty - enough for seasonal feasts and for storage in anticipation of winter and hard times to come; in bad years, starvation cut down the poor, the very young, the old, and the sickly. Sometimes bad years followed one upon another, reducing the size of the population by several percent. This was the normal condition of life in pre-industrial societies, and it persisted for thousands of years.1

By the nineteenth century a profound shift in this ancient regime was under way. For Europeans, the export of surplus population to other continents, crop rotation, and the application of manures and composts were all gradually making famines less frequent and severe. European farmers, realizing the need for a new nitrogen source in order to continue feeding burgeoning and increasingly urbanized populations, began employing guano imported from islands off the coasts of Chile and Peru. The results were gratifying. However, after only a few decades, these guano deposits were being depleted. By this time, in the late 1890s, the world's population was nearly twice what it had been at the beginning of the century. A crisis was in view.

But crisis was narrowly averted through the use of fossil fuels. In 1909, two German chemists named Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a process to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen in fossil fuels. The process initially used coal as a feedstock, though later it was adapted to use natural gas. After the end of the Great War, nation after nation began building Haber-Bosch plants; today the process yields 150 million tons of ammonia-based fertilizer per year, producing a total quantity of available nitrogen equal to the amount introduced annually by all natural sources combined.2

Fossil fuels went on to offer other ways of extending natural limits to the human carrying capacity of the planet.

In the 1890s, roughly one quarter of British and American cropland had been set aside to grow grain to feed horses, of which most worked on farms. The internal combustion engine provided a new kind of horsepower not dependent on horses at all, and thereby increased the amount of arable land available to feed humans. Early steam-driven tractors had come into limited use in 19th century; but, after World War I, the effectiveness of powered farm machinery expanded dramatically, and the scale of use exploded throughout the twentieth century, especially in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Chemists developed synthetic pesticides and herbicides in increasing varieties after World War II, using knowledge pioneered in laboratories that had worked to perfect explosives and other chemical warfare agents. Petrochemical-based pesticides not only increased crop yields in North America, Europe, and Australia, but also reduced the prevalence of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The world began to enjoy the benefits of "better living through chemistry," though the environmental costs, in terms of water and soil pollution and damage to vulnerable species, would only later become widely apparent.

In the 1960s, industrial-chemical agricultural practices began to be exported to what by that time was being called the Third World: this was glowingly dubbed the Green Revolution, and it enabled a tripling of food production during the ensuing half-century.

At the same time, the scale and speed of distribution of food increased. This also constituted a means of increasing human carrying capacity, though in a more subtle way. The trading of food goes back to Paleolithic times; but, with advances in transport, the quantities and distances involved gradually increased. Here again, fossil fuels were responsible for a dramatic discontinuity in the previously slow pace of growth. First by rail and steamship, then by truck and airplane, immense amounts of grain and ever-larger quantities of meat, vegetables, and specialty foods began to flow from countryside to city, from region to region, and from continent to continent.

The end result of chemical fertilizers, plus powered farm machinery, plus increased scope of transportation and trade, was not just an enormous leap in crop yields, but a similar explosion of human population, which has grown over six-fold since dawn of industrial revolution.

However, in the process, conventional industrial agriculture has become overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. According to one study, approximately ten calories of fossil fuel energy are needed to produce each calorie of food energy in modern industrial agriculture.3 With globalized trade in food, many regions host human populations larger than local resources alone could possibly support. Those systems of global distribution and trade also rely on oil.

Today, in the industrialized world, the frequency of famine that our ancestors knew and expected is hard to imagine. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is a far more widespread concern than hunger. The average mega-supermarket stocks an impressive array of exotic foods from across the globe, and even staples are typically trucked or shipped from hundreds of miles away. All of this would be well and good if it were sustainable, but the fact that nearly all of this recent abundance depends on depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels whose burning emits climate-altering carbon dioxide gas means that the current situation is not sustainable. This means that it must and will come to an end.

The Worsening Oil Supply Picture

During the past decade a growing chorus of energy analysts has warned of the approach of "Peak Oil," the time when the global rate of extraction of petroleum will reach a maximum and begin its inevitable decline.

During this same decade, the price of oil has advanced from about US$12 per barrel to nearly $100 per barrel.

While there is some dispute among experts as to when the peak will occur, there is none as to whether. The global peak is merely the cumulative result of production peaks in individual oilfields and whole oil-producing nations, and these mini-peaks are occurring at an increasing rate.

The most famous and instructive national peak occurred in the US in 1970: at that time America produced 9.5 million barrels of oil per day; the current figure is less than 5.2 Mb/d. While at one time the US was the world's foremost oil exporting nation, it is today the world's foremost importer.

The history of US oil production also helps us evaluate the prospects for delaying the global peak. After 1970, exploration efforts succeeded in identifying two enormous new American oil provinces - the North Slope of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. During this period, other kinds of liquid fuels (such as ethanol and gas condensates) began to supplement crude. Also, improvements in oil recovery technology helped to increase the proportion of the oil in existing fields able to be extracted. These are precisely the strategies (exploration, substitution, and technological improvements) that the oil producers are relying on to delay the global production peak. In the US, each of these strategies made a difference - but not enough to reverse, for more than a year or two at a time, the overall 37-year trend of declining production. To assume that the results for the world as a whole will be much different is probably unwise.

The recent peak and decline in production of oil from the North Sea is of perhaps of more direct relevance to this audience. In just seven years, production from the British-controlled region has declined by almost half.

How near is the global peak? Today the majority of oil-producing nations are seeing reduced output: in 2006, BP's Statistical Review of World Energy reported declines in 27 of the 51 producing nations listed. In some instances, these declines will be temporary and are occurring because of lack of investment in production technology or domestic political problems. But in most instances the decline results from factors of geology: while older oil fields continue to yield crude, beyond a certain point it becomes impossible to maintain existing flow rates by any available means. As a result, over time there are fewer nations in the category of oil exporters and more nations in the category of oil importers.4

Meanwhile global rates of discovery of new oilfields have been declining since 1964.5

These two trends (a growing preponderance of past-peak producing nations, and a declining success rate for exploration) by themselves suggest that the world peak may be near.

Clearly the timing of the global peak is crucial. If it happens soon, or if in fact it already has occurred, the consequences will be devastating. Oil has become the world's foremost energy resource. There is no ready substitute, and decades will be required to wean societies from it. Peak Oil could therefore constitute the greatest economic challenge since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

An authoritative new study by the Energy Watch Group of Germany concludes that global crude production hit its maximum level in 2006 and has already begun its gradual decline.6 Indeed, the past two years have seen sustained high prices for oil, a situation that should provide a powerful incentive to increase production wherever possible. Yet actual aggregate global production of conventional petroleum has stagnated during this time; the record monthly total for crude was achieved in May 2005, 30 months ago.

The latest medium-term report of the IEA, issued July 9, projects that world oil demand will rise by about 2.2 percent per year until 2012 while production will lag, leading to what the report's authors call a "supply crunch."7

Many put their hopes in coal and other low-grade fossil fuels to substitute for depleting oil. However, global coal production will hit its own peak perhaps as soon as 2025 according to the most recent studies, while so-called "clean coal" technologies are three decades away from widespread commercial application.8 Thus to avert a climate catastrophe from coal-based carbon emissions, our best hope is simply to keep most of the remaining coal in the ground.

The Price of Sustenance

During these past two years, as oil prices have soared, food prices have done so as well. Farmers now face steeply increasing costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs. However, the linkage between fuel and food prices is more complicated than this, and there are other factors entirely separate from petroleum costs that have impacted food prices. I will attempt to sort these various linkages and influences out in a moment.

First, however, it is worth taking a moment to survey the food price situation.

An article by John Vidal published in the Guardian on November 3, titled "Global Food Crisis Looms As Climate Change and Fuel Shortages Bite," began this way:

Empty shelves in Caracas. Food riots in West Bengal and Mexico.

Warnings of hunger in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. Soaring prices for basic foods are beginning to lead to political instability, with governments being forced to step in to artificially control the cost of bread, maize, rice and dairy products.

Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18 percent food price inflation in China, 13 percent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago and rice is 20 percent more expensive...

Last week the Kremlin forced Russian companies to freeze the price of milk, bread and other foods until January 31...

India, Yemen, Mexico, Burkina Faso and several other countries have had, or been close to, food riots in the last year...

Meanwhile, there are shortages of beef, chicken and milk in Venezuela and other countries as governments try to keep a lid on food price inflation.9

Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, said in London early this month, "If you combine the increase of the oil prices and the increase of food prices then you have the elements of a very serious [social] crisis..." FAO statistics show that grain stocks have been declining for more than a decade and now stand at a mere 57 days, the lowest level in a quarter century, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis."10

According to Josette Sheeran, director of the UN's World Food Program (WFP), "There are 854 million hungry people in the world and 4 million more join their ranks every year. We are facing the tightest food supplies in recent history. For the world's most vulnerable, food is simply being priced out of their reach."11

In its biannual Food Outlook report released November 7, the FAO predicted that higher food prices will force poor nations, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, to cut food consumption and risk an increase in malnutrition. The report noted, "Given the firmness of food prices in the international markets, the situation could deteriorate further in the coming months."12

Meanwhile, a story by Peter Apps in Reuters from October 16 noted that the cost of food aid is rising dramatically, just as the global need for aid is expanding. The amount of money that nations and international agencies set aside for food aid remains relatively constant, while the amount of food that money will buy is shrinking.13

To be sure, higher food prices are good for farmers - assuming that at least some of the increase in price actually translates to higher income for growers. This is indeed the case for the poorest farmers, who have never adopted industrial methods. But for many others, the higher prices paid for food simply reflect higher production costs. Meanwhile, it is the urban poor who are impacted the worst.


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