Peak food is an inevitable consequence of peak oil

Tomas Martin @ 05-11-2007

Vertical farming may save the cityCurrently for every 1 calorie of food, some 10 calories of energy are used to make it. As George Monbiot said in the Guardian last week, it is increasingly unclear where future supplies of water and phosphates will come from. After world war two the world population was around 3 Billion. Using newer techniques and fertilisers we have increased the amount of food an acre produces. The population has risen to match. Fertilisers are almost entirely all oil-based on large scale, however. With biofuels taking away land and oil prices rising as well as increased transportation costs, the current system of food from around the world is becoming a danger to supply. If the recent survey of 155 oil experts saying peak oil will come before 2010 turns out to be true, we will have to downscale very quickly indeed.

Two ways to combat this would also reverse many of the social changes of the last thirty or so years. Firstly, the reduction of food miles by producing stuff closer to home will bring down fuel needed to transport the food, often a massive contribution to the energy cost. The second involves fertilisers and other fuel-intensive techniques. As the amount of machinery and fertiliser brought into farms decreases due to prices, manual labour becomes increasingly important again. Eating less meat, particularly red meat, will reduce the amount of calories an acre of land can produce, as well as boosting our health. Large farms currently operating with few employees will need to split into smaller units and introduce nitrogen fixing vegetables between grain crops. On a social level this could increase the number of people making a small living for themselves off a plot of land, selling most of their produce locally. Using more varied crops, utilising the seasons and even vertical farming mean we could have good food even without shipping it in from abroad.

[photo by Chris Jacobs for The Vertical Farm Project]

Note: edited to attribute the photo to Chris Jacobs, who says: ‘For all of you out there…this illustration is NOT how a real vertical farm would be…it would be 100% hydroponic. This was just created to “show” growing food.’ – thanks for keeping us informed Chris!

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11 Responses to “Peak food is an inevitable consequence of peak oil”

  1. Luke Price says:

    Just a few points of contention – The concept of ‘food miles’ has been widely discredited, a study at Lincoln University has proven that it is more energy efficient for European consumers to purchase New Zealand products than food produced locally. This seeming absurd result is due to the overwhelming efficiency in which commodity products are produced in countries with little or no subsidies, contrasted with the high subsidies received by European farmers. Secondly, it is only due to our large scale food production since the green revolution that we are able to feed everyone in the world, going back to the localised labour intensive production would result in mass starvation for all but the very rich.

  2. Tomas Martin says:

    I don’t suggest localised labour intensive production because I feel it is the most efficient, obviously it is not. However, with greater and greater constraints on the price of both oil for transport and oil used in fertilisers the current model may become far more unstable, leaving us with no choice but to return to the previous model. Whilst you might be right about food miles in the present and very near future, the effect of increases in oil price creates an altogether different economic reality. I agree that this will cause starvation. My suggestions of moving to more local production (and in particular less use of fertilisers and producing less red meat) are prudent ways of setting up a more sustainable food model before, rather than in response to a resource-related crash.

  3. Larry says:

    There isn’t going to be any resource-based starvation. Despite limitations on every resource you can think of, including far more expensive energy, as a fraction of the global household budget, food is cheap, getting cheaper, and getting better.

    There are vast supplies of potential food-producing energy out there, waiting to be tapped, most notably sunlight falling on seawater.

    Unless we find something better (like manufacturing food from organic chemicals), expect us to accelerate the already rapidly proceeding transformation of our use of the seas from “hunter/gatherer” (aka fishing) to aquaculture. Current trends alone will push the poundage of farmed fish above that of caught fish in a decade or so. If things get tight, it’ll just happen faster.

    Your suggestions are fine, and they’ll adopted automatically insofar as they allow farmers to become more successful. I don’t think that will happen, at least not on a large scale, because I don’t expect energy prices to go so high that they dominate production costs. But perhaps the effects of this decade’s energy price explosion are masked by the ridiculous subsidies your other comment mentions.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean noone will go hungry. Stupid economic policies, corruption and war will keep bellies distended in lots of places for a long time to come.

  4. ZZMike says:

    Please pardon my ignorance, but
    isn’t he just making the same old claims as the Club of Rome (“Limits to Growth”)?

    More than that, what Monbiot writes is a review of a book which the author, Cormack McCarthy “makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences”.

    Monbiot’s agenda is fairly well-known. (I’ll spare you the epithet his detractors use.) He wants “zero emissions by 2030” (search for that phrase). To get that, we’ll simply have to do away with cars, trains, and planes. Busses will take us everywhere we want to go. Make that “need to go”. We’ll decide where you need to go.

    Electric cars, but only for in-city use. If you want to go to Newcastle, you’ll have to take the bus. Or in Monbiot’s way of looking at things, get to take the bus, where you can chat on your moby, watch a movie, etc.

    Planes are anathema to him. “… you take one flight to another continent and you’ve blown it.” (all the savings you made during the last 12-months.

    In a speech delivered to Australia (by cable – at least he’s consistent), he claims “Its up to you work out how you are going to turn your government around from being one of the great climate criminals of the world, part of the access of evil…”. I guess he’s never heard of China.

    Nuclear power is of course out of the question. Nuclear = nasty, and we don’t want that sort of thing in our carbon-free future.

    There may be a few germs of good ideas in his sack, but on the whole, he seems just another doom-sayer who wants to convince us that HE has the solution to our problem.

    And if we don’t listen carefully, we’ll all be wearing rags, living in mud huts, spending most of our days grubbing for water.

  5. Luke Price says:

    Yes, I agree, local production makes a lot more sense, as hard is that for me to say coming from New Zealand (60% GDP in export commodities), but only when the local production is more efficient than shipping goods from all the way over here and that is never going to happen while Europe sticks to its policy of subsidies and export controls, as an example the average dairy herd in Europe is 40 cows. 40! The average herd in New Zealand is 320.

    There is no push to innovate and introduce efficiency’s in the production process when up the 70% (Denmark) of your farms receipts come as handouts, keeping food expensive for Europe.

    Farming in New Zealand is a science, the technology behind it is amazing, every cow in NZ’s gene’s are in a databank and 90% of fertilization is done via invitro so that farmers know the genes of the offspring before they are born, there are farms with totally automated milking machines, the cow walks up when it wants to be milked, computers control everything, with no human involvement. This compared to European farmers milking by hand – What is this? 2000BC?

    And Larry, have you read ‘8 Easy Steps to Conquering the Galaxy’? It spells out almost exactly your thoughts.

    Monbiot is a facist, and the only real solution to the global warming problem seems to be carbon sequestion.

  6. Michael Roberts says:

    Bah. There will be no starvation. You can already grow everything you need to survive in a greenhouse on the back of your house — if necessary, supplementing with tilapia, which eat anything from algae to the worms you make from your garbage. With a little invention, it’ll all be automated, even.

    Food production has come a looong way in the last twenty/thirty years; it’s a science. Nobody knows about it because there’s little market yet. But when there is — we will deal with it.

    The major question in this entire post: where will the phosphates come from? Well, from the standpoint of efficiency, you can dig up liquified dinosaur bodies in Saudi Arabia, or you can use your own kitchen waste. I know which one sounds more convenient to me.

    And let’s not even mention things like being able to make plastic from your compost with some slightly modified bugs.

    No, peak oil means weakened central economies, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a Good Thing. New tech is always going to be there. There’s no need to panic about the coming buggy whip crash.

  7. Tomas Martin says:

    Good comments by all. Efficiency is indeed the key and many new technologies help us with that. The point I want to make is not that we’re all going to be in mud huts but that we need to be enouraging this kind of increased efficiency. I have to say I agree with Monbiot about cars, though. The personal vehicle is not a trend I see staying longterm, from a resource basis. Air travel has some very promising developments with new airships.

    New tech will always arrive, and we aren’t going to turn back to 1600 overnight. That’s what annoys me about a lot of the online discussion of peak oil and global warming. There seems to be two sides – ‘it doesn’t exist’ and ‘it will cause the end of civilisation’. Neither is true, of course. What I want to promote in talking about it is not needless pessimism or arguments about whether it is happening. I want suggestions about new tech and new solutions like those above, so that we can start imagining what the new high-tech low-energy future will be like.

  8. chris jacobs says:

    Please credit the illustration of the interior… Design by Chris Jacobs of http://www.chrisjacobs.com.

  9. chris jacobs says:

    Can you please credit the vertical farm interior illustration to Chris Jacobs of http://www.chrisjacobs.com. For all of you out there…this illustration is NOT how a real vertical farm would be…it would be 100% hydroponic. This was just created to “show” growing food.

  10. Tomas Martin says:

    No problem Chris, I’ll do that now. Keep up the good work and thanks for getting in touch.

  11. Crafty says:

    For noobs who want to grow their own herbs & veggies out of season with out pesticides but have ‘brown thumbs’ there’s a goof proof hydroponic garden. It’s called the AeroGarden. It’s a high efficiency means of dropping your food miles to steps and idiot-proofing hydroponics.