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
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
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:
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.
have been on an oil production plateau for five years. Production has
world's net oil exports have begun to fall.
stagnation in oil production is driving oil prices up, which drives up
oil production begins to fall and exports continue to decline, food
production will begin to fall.
food production and rising oil prices will combine to create havoc in
the global food market.
are on the brink now, and the effects will probably begin to
materialize later this year.
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.
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.
a global problem, so we in the
West may not see frank food shortages for quite a while because
live in rich nations. What
we will see is continually rising
food prices, as will everyone else in the world. General food shortages
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
January 31, 2011