Readers of this blog will know that I have mostly focused on peak oil and export land modeling, as well as the relationship between petroleum production/consumption and food production, and the implications this has on the prospects for global starvation and population decline.
For the next several posts, I plan to shift my interests directly towards examining the food supply.
Petroleum’s key role in food production
While petroleum is important to many facets of modern civilization, in my opinion, its impact on the modern food production system has been its most critical role.
As I have being harping on for a few months now (see e.g., The relationship between hunger and petroleum consumption-Part 1), at a country or regional level, the critical level of petroleum consumption necessary to sustain the food production system appears to be about 1 barrel of petroleum per person per year (1 b/py).
Some countries, like the
use more petroleum per capita per annum that this, e.g., so that food can be overproduced and exported abroad, or, so that a broader than necessary variety for food types can be provided (strawberries in January is an often used example). USA
Just consider the amount of equivalent human or animal labor embodied in 1 barrel of oil:
Although different grades of crude vary, the average energy of a 42-gallon barrel of oil is 5.8 million Btu, or British thermal units. By definition, one Btu of energy will raise 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit, so about 75 Btu are needed to boil a cup of water to make your morning coffee or tea.
The 5.8 million Btu figure was established by the IRS for energy tax purposes and is called a Barrel of Oil Equivalent, or BOE. One barrel of oil has the same energy content as 5,800 cubic feet of natural gas. A cubic foot of natural gas contains about 1,000 Btu. For electricity, 1 barrel is 1,700 kilowatt hours.
So, is oil really worth $100 a barrel? Another way of looking at it is to compare oil to a horse. A horse laboring a standard 40-hour work week (eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year) would have to labor for more than one year to produce the energy in a barrel of oil. Do you think a horse could be fed and maintained for a year for $100? Not likely.
Human labor is even worse. A fit human adult can sustain about one-tenth of a horsepower, so a human would have to labor more than 10 years to equal a barrel of oil.
From: How much energy is there in a barrel of oil? Peak oil news message board May 2011
One barrel is equivalent in energy to one horse, or, ten humans working for one year, as “energy slaves” just to produce food for one person. Just incredible.
I think that very few people appreciate that gasoline and diesel fuel oil, the refinery products of petroleum and liquid fuels of extremely high density, have no practical replacement on any foreseeable time horizon.
In my opinion, this presents the key human predicament of the 21st century: how will humans deal with the ending of this incredible resource of energy for food production?
For the reasons presented in many of my previous posts, I believe that over the next 10-20 years, sharply declining petroleum production, and even more rapidly declining petroleum exports, will strongly limit the modern food production system.
Other key factors in food production
Despite the importance that oil presently plays, there are several other key resources or environmental factors that equally, or perhaps more importantly, could limit food production.
Julian Cribb’s presentation, previously discussed here spelt out several of these other factors: declining resources of fresh water, farm land encroached by urban sprawl, soil depletion of nutrients, declining fish stock and climate change. Any one or a combination of these could cause the food supply system to decline more rapidly than I have predicted by considering only one of those factors: peak oil.
That is to say, petroleum might be the rate limiting ingredient for food production, but it doesn’t have to be. Any one of these other factors could cause the food supply to be more limited than the decline in petroleum production eventually will cause.
One could try and study these factors individually, similar to what I have done for petroleum in previous series. The critical factor that peaks and declines first will be the one that limits food production first—unless there is some way to overcome this limitation.
For instance, declining areas of farm land and soil depletion have, up to now been compensated for by inputs of machinery and fertilizer, made possible by petroleum and natural gas. For instance, the depletion of “fossil” ground water maybe can be compensated for by desalination, made possible from the energy supplied by burning fossil fuels.
I think that it would be very difficult to study each of these factors, and assess how one factor might be compensated for by petroleum, some other fossil fuels, or something else.
Would it not be more expedient to just look at food production and consumption directly?
It was the discovery of a means that might allow me to do this that caused me to shift in this direction.
Some background videos and other resources
As this is an "orientation session," I have no heavy data analysis for you to sift through, today.
But I do recommend that you take at look at the material below to better appreciate what the food production system has become. As you watch or read these background materials, try to keep track of the number of times petroleum and the other factors are mentioned.
First, I direct you to Paul Robert's talks on the “End of Food” (short version here, longer versions here, here, and here). Roberts gives plenty examples of how well intentioned solutions to problems associated with making the food production system more efficient end up having negative consequences.
For instance, Robert talks about how the discovery that feeding low levels of antibiotics, like tetracycline, can greatly increase the size of livestock, helped solve the problem of post WWII meat shortages. Unfortunately, this practice has contributed to the new problem of promoting the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For instance, the food production has been centralized, industrialized, and due to cheap petroleum, made into a highly efficient inexpensive just-in-time delivery system. Unfortunately, this practice has made the food system highly susceptible to cross-contamination by one animal of batch of plants that contain E. Coli bacteria, or other contaminants that gets mixed with thousands of other animals or plants. For instance, the breeding of larger chicken, has become a potentially more health replacement of beef. Unfortunately, this practice has reduced the profit margin for raising chickens to be so little, as to put smaller chicken farmers out of business, there decreasing the resilience of the food production system.
Also, the movie, “Food, Inc” (short PBS review and interview with the producer here or long versions, here, here, or here), and the movie, King Corn paint a picture of what large-scale industrial farming in the USA has become (producer interview and preview here; background here; longer versions here or here). The follow-up film to King Corn “
” covers the waste water produced by industrial-scale corn production (producer interview here; preview here). Big River
If you watch these, I predict that it will change your outlook on the modern food production system.
I don't expect the declines in water, land, soil depletion etc .... to occur evenly throughout the world. This is analogous to my thesis, presented in detail previously (Part 10: Peak oil exports, peak oil and implications for population change), that different regions in the world will run into major food production problems at different times as their petroleum consumption (as a sum of domestic production + imports) drops below 1 b/py.
My hunch is that the same thing is likely to happen to these other factors important to food production, and, the food supply itself.
Some examples of problems to come: declining ground water and land grabs
A case in point is the rapid depletion of ground water resources that occurred in
when the Saudis tried to use their considerable oil wealth to develop their own domestic dairy and wheat production food systems: Saudi Arabia,
But since the mid-1990s, the signs of groundwater depletion have become all too clear. One aquifer under Riyadh has become too deep to pump,76 and the kingdom continues to use groundwater for large-scale agricultural projects—such as the world’s largest dairy farm, where 2,300 gallons of water or more are needed to produce a gallon of milk.77 Overall, the kingdom now uses as much as 20 billion cubic meters of nonrenewable groundwater every year for agriculture—the equivalent of almost three months worth of water crashing over Niagara Falls.78 As these abuses of groundwater have become clearer, the government has begun to respond. As early as 1993, it cut many of the subsidies for wheat cultivation and ordered a halt to the export of fodder crops.79 Since then, food imports have increasingly been used to complement domestic production,80 and in 2008 the Saudi government pledged to phase out domestic wheat production entirely by 2016.81 At the same time, groundwater use continues at an alarming rate, and some farmers have merely switched to planting fodder crops that require anywhere from 4 to 16 times the amount of water that wheat does.82 Clearly, the old champions of domestic agriculture still hold some sway with the king. But with the lines between the two camps more blurred than ever, the stakes of groundwater loss are higher than before. As Saudi groundwater continues to disappear, the old pro agriculture guard could fear the end of its influence over senior officials.
from: Water A Strategic Middle East Resource p. 21
In light of these water resource limitations,
and many of other economically booming developing countries have adopted a new strategy: Saudi Arabia
Such fears would not be unfounded: without groundwater, the kingdom’s only option at home would be to pump desalinated water into crops that are far from the sea, and that contribute only 3 percent of the country’s GDP.83 In light of this, and with desalination for domestic consumption already straining the country’s energy and electricity infrastructures,84 it would be hard for pro agriculture elites to continue making a convincing argument. They may increasingly vie for influence over Saudi efforts to invest in agriculture abroad, but the current paradigm of agricultural patronage will continue only with difficulty. Many of the kingdom’s foreign agricultural investments are being made in volatile countries that lack the security to feed their own populations,85 and the practice will only become more controversial on the international scene as investment increases. In such an uncertain and sensitive context, using agriculture to sustain feelings of Saudi political loyalty could prove challenging.
from: Water A Strategic Middle East Resource p. 21
Not just the Middle East, but
India, and other Asia Pacific countries, have turned to the practice of so-called “Farm Land Grabbing.” These regions have been busily buying millions of acres of fertile land in poorer developing countries in Africa, Central and China South America. This land is then designated to produce food for the home country, or, for global exports markets.
The recent film, Planet for
– The New World Agricultural Order has covered some aspects of this (long preview here). To me the strategy is clear: industrialize global food production following the same model and practices as done in the Sale USA and other developed countries, in the hopes of feeding the expected booming populations in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions. In short, the same unintended problems with the modern food system, discussed in the “End of Food,” “Food, Inc” and in “King Corn” are being exported and spread world-wide in a last-ditch effort to feed the expected 9-10 billion people in the world by 2050. And what then, you might ask, but this question never seems to get addressed.
Food as a global export commodity
The analogies here to petroleum production, consumption and export land modeling I think are also pretty striking. Each country, region and the world will eventually go through a peak in domestic food production. We can divide countries or regions into two broad classes: net food importers and net food exporters. As a country or region’s population grows and/or per capita food consumption increases, and domestic food production can no longer meet the demand, the country or region has to become a net food importer. Just like we are addicted to oil, as President Bush admitted, we are addicted to the cheap food made available by that oil.
Analogous to the transition from being a net petroleum exporter to importer, I expect that the transition from being a net food exporter to net food importer would have negative economic consequences, and, decrease a country or region’s resilience and independence.
Just like having a reliance on foreign oil, a reliance on food imports means that wealth has to be sent to the foreign countries that supply the food. The food exporting countries therefore can have political leverage over the food importing countries. Disruptions in the supply of exportable food put the food importing countries at considerable risk of social and political upheaval.
For instance, although the “Arab Spring” is often portrayed as a democracy movement (The Arab Spring; Arab spring an interactive timeline of Middle East protests), others have suggested that food shortages were the root cause of the protests
When these ingredients mix in a way that sends the price of bread soaring, politics enters the picture. Consider this, for instance: The upheavals in
lay at the heart of the Arab Spring. Egypt Egypt is also the world's single largest wheat importer, followed closely by Algeria and . Keep in mind as well that the Arab Spring started in Morocco when rising food prices, high unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country's autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali. His last act was a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk, and bread -- and it was too little too late. Tunisia
The Arab revolutions, in turn, have tanked the local economies as investment capital flees these countries, making the payment for imported food even more difficult (The Revolution Blows Up).
I think that examining the changing annual trends in food production, consumption and exports could give some valuable insights into which countries and regions will fair the best and worst over the coming decades.
It is my intent to explore these issues in greater detail in coming posts. This should be an interesting trip, so I hope that you will join me.