Connecting the Dots:
Food, Fossil Fuel and Population
Ever since I started investigating the Global Predicament of interconnected problems with energy, the environment, global ecology and the global economy,  one of the issues that has interested (concerned, worried, terrified) me the most is the linkage between fossil fuels and our food supply.
It's well known that every calorie of food is created and delivered in a supply chain that contains between 7 and 20 calories of fossil fuels (depending on whether you're talking about grain or meat).  The implications of that linkage are enormous, especially now that our oil supply is showing incontrovertable signs of having peaked.  We have already had one episode of sharply rising food prices in 2007, and we may be about to face another price spike that could be even worse.
In this article I'd like to connect some of the dots that link the global energy situation and the global food supply.
A while ago I posted the chart below comparing food prices and oil prices.  The correlation between food and oil prices is glaringly obvious.  As oil prices rise, so do food prices.

What are the chances that we will face a sharp rise in oil prices in the near future?  Well, frankly, they're excellent.  And the reason I can sound so confident is because of what's happening in the global oil market.
First of all, global oil production appears to have peaked.  As you can see from the next graph, world oil production has been on a plateau for the last six years.  Even when prices tripled in 2007 the amount of oil being produced didn't budge.  We are now pumping oil as fast as we can.

Unfortunately our situation is even worse than this.  Not all of the oil that is being pumped makes it onto the world market.  Oil producing countries keep some of their production for their own use, and sell the rest.  This amount is known as their net oil export.  When you tally up the net exports of the world's oil producing nations, you get the amount of oil on the world market at any point in time.  The next graph shows what's been happening to the world's net oil exports.  As you can see, they have begun to decline since we hit the plateau shown in the previous graph.

As the amount of oil on the world market falls, the price naturally rises.  This is what happened in 2007, when the price of oil spiked to $147 per barrel.  It's important to note that this would happen whether or not there was speculation on the price of oil futures.  While speculation might make the price swings a little more dramatic, the underlying drivers are still our old friends supply and demand.
That is my explanation for the recent and imminent spikes in world food prices.  Now what about food production?  How tightly is the amount of food we are able to produce tied to the availability of fossil fuels?

To explore this question I created the next graph.  
I obtained USDA data on world grain production from Lester Brown's Earth Policy Institute, and once again used BP's excellent data set for the energy side of the question.  I added together the production data for oil, gas and coal.  Then I divided the two numbers (tonnes of grain and tonnes of oil equivalent) to get the ratio of grain produced per tonne of oil equivalent:

That flat line tells us that for the last 45 years it has taken a constant amount of fossil fuel to produce a ton of grain.  For every ton of fossil fuels we extract, we can produce just under a quarter of a ton of grain.  No changes in technology or efficiency have altered this iron-clad ratio since 1965.  While we produce about 2.5 times as much grain in 2010 as in 1965, this has been matched and supported by an identical 2.5 times increase in fossil fuel extraction.
To make it perfectly clear, here's how I interpret our situation:
  • The correlation of fossil fuel and food production strongly implies that if FF availability begins to fall, food production will probably begin to decline within a couple of years.
  • We have been on an oil production plateau for five years. Production has stagnated.
  • The world's net oil exports have begun to fall.
  • This stagnation in oil production is driving oil prices up, which drives up food prices.
  • As oil production begins to fall and exports continue to decline, food production will begin to fall.
  • Falling food production and rising oil prices will combine to create havoc in the global food market.
  • We are on the brink now, and the effects will probably begin to materialize later this year.
I don't see any good outcome for this.  It's probably time to secure your personal food supply, and it may be past time to address the problems in insecure regions of the world.

The final link in the chain is to population growth.  Ecologists have long known that the populations of non-human species are limited by their food supply.  However, it's a tenet of faith in modern industrial civilization that humanity is not subject to any such limits, that our ability to substitute and improvise allow us to wiggle around such inconsequential obstacles and keep on growing.

The truth is much more troubling.  Take a look at this graph:

For the last 30 years population growth has been linear, not exponential, at about 80 million people per year.  This means that in percentage terms our growth rate has been declining.

The pivotal year was 1980.  What else happened in 1980?  Well, as it happens, that was when the Green Revolution, the massive expansion of the world's food supply that began after WWII, petered out.  The expansion of our food supply and the expansion of our population ceased at the same moment.  Just an interesting coincidence?  I don't think so.

In my opinion, even human population levels are intimately tied to the food supply.  As I showed earlier, our food supplies are tightly tied to fossil fuel use, and the supply of our key fossil fuel - oil - is about to start declining.  As a result I expect that the human population will never surpass 7.5 billion people.  At the current (declining) rate of increase we have about 10 years of population growth left, and we will probably start to see the world population begin to decline around 2020.

This is a global problem, so we in the West may not see frank food shortages for quite a while because we live in rich nations. What we will see is continually rising food prices, as will everyone else in the world. General food shortages will only appear at the lower end of the economic spectrum, where poor people and nations can't afford to outbid others. There are likely to be localized shortages for one food or another (wheat, rice, corn, meat, oils etc) based on local conditions, but those shortages will become more severe and widespread over time.

In terms of what we can do to protect ourselves, my first advice is always the same: wherever possible begin to grow some of your own food however you can. If you can't do this, you are at the mercy of the markets. In that case join a food co-op if you can find one, to take advantage of combined buying power. Other than that, get used to eating lower on the food chain (the world is about to embrace vegetarianism in a big way), get used to eating lower quality food, buy as much of your food in bulk as you can, and shift to food that doesn't spoil easily.
Wishing everyone a day filled with growing awareness.

Paul Chefurka
January 31, 2011

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