October 22, 2007

After Peak Oil, Peak Food

A new report based on oil industry production data says that we're past peak oil as of 2006:

World oil production has already peaked and will fall by half as soon as 2030, according to a report which also warns that extreme shortages of fossil fuels will lead to wars and social breakdown.

The German-based Energy Watch Group will release its study in London today saying that global oil production peaked in 2006 - much earlier than most experts had expected. The report, which predicts that production will now fall by 7% a year, comes after oil prices set new records almost every day last week, on Friday hitting more than $90 (44) a barrel. ...

Forget about how you'll afford gas to put in your car to get to work as declining production, increasing demand, and the devaluation of the dollar push us towards $100/barrel oil. What needs to be understood is that peak oil likely means peak food. About 17% of US energy use goes into agriculture. The food in the grocery store that you buy traveled a long way to get to you, and it was probably grown with fossil-fuel intensive fertilizers and pesticides. As of 1994, it took 400 gallons of oil and equivalents to feed each US citizen, and that number has probably gone up.

Our current agricultural system depends on having an abundance of cheap energy with which to make up for growing plants in places where they ought not to be grown. In places where there isn't naturally enough water for them, in places where the soil can't maintain enough organic matter or other nutrients to support them, in climates that put them under stress, or in places where they've got no resistance to the pests. All these conditions can be somewhat overcome by fossil-fuel powered irrigation along with fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides.

Farming used to require the careful selection of plant breeds that worked well with local conditions. Now, it makes use of breeds that have been designed (often literally designed in a lab) for high yields of edible plant parts, with the understanding that local variation in soil and wildlife conditions will simply be obliterated to allow them to do well. That takes a lot of energy. When farms are commonly measured in the hundreds of acres, very little of that energy is in the form of elbow grease.

Alternative energy is about more than finding a new way to keep the lights on and the commuters moving, it's about making sure we can continue to feed ourselves. As much as I'd very much like a full, rapid transition to organic agriculture, it isn't likely to happen fast here. The faster fossil fuels can be replaced with climate-friendly alternatives, the longer a window we'll have to keep our current mode of agriculture on life support until it can gradually be replaced.

So, when you tell people that looking for alternatives to oil is good for the climate, be sure and add that it's also good for ensuring a food supply farther into the future. Everybody eats, even people who don't care about the weather.

(h/t to a ManfromMiddletown)

Posted by natasha at October 22, 2007 12:43 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

I can show you how to harness a horse someday, if you want.

Posted by: Huskarl at October 23, 2007 10:22 AM