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)

14 Responses to “After Peak Oil, Peak Food”


  1. 1 David Oct 22nd, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    While I agree that world oil production shows definite signs of peaking, I don’t feel that US citizens are in any danger of starvation. When oil prices rise, where will we first see demand destruction? In the poorest parts of the world, places where people cannot hope to outbid the US consumer for a barrel of oil.

    They will be unable to afford whatever little oil they currently import. The US can weather exorbitant prices for much longer, and so I predict we will see the effects of severe oil shortages in other countries long before we see it here.

  2. 2 Amy Ortiz Oct 22nd, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    I don’t agree that all US citizens will be able to afford higher food prices. There are already people who find it difficult to feed their families, and they will definitely be affected by rising food prices. I think that realizing how intertwined our food supply is with fossil fuels, especially oil is essential, so that we can work on ensuring food security even when there isn’t any oil left to use (hopefully we will quit the habit before then). China is much more food secure than we are, producing large amounts of food in their cities, and discouraging the shipping of food for long distances. Makes a lot more sense than when I go to a grocery store here in Florida and buy lettuce grown in California. Thanks for this post.

  3. 3 Dennis Brumm Oct 22nd, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    One of the travesties as we search for renewable energy to offset the implications of peak oil is the plunder of our food supply (already) in the use to “grow gasoline.” Biofuels are a short-sighted “solution” that is no “solution” at all and promise even more worldwide misery as we use up available farmland en masse so that we might continue to use our cars. We need to consider paradigm shifts that will take us into a different mindset about how we “use” the planet, how many people it can adequately sustain (especially once fossil fuels are declining; they simply mask a problem of biological overshoot temporarily) and where we really want to be headed as a species…toward something that resembles “sustainable” or toward extinction of the biosphere.

  4. 4 Tony Oct 22nd, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Finally, a realistic forecast of peak oil!

    Here is another forecast of oil, from The Oil Drum, that may be of interest

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3064

    It shows a peak oil plateau starting in 2006 and ending in the middle of 2009

  5. 5 Evan Oct 23rd, 2007 at 12:37 am

    indeed, industrial agriculture is an energy hog (though why are pigs getting a bad rap, when it’s really people… an energy human?). from my understanding the haber process, which is used to take nitrogen from the air and put it in compounds like ammonium nitrate… which are then used for fertilizer, uses 1% of the total energy used by the world annually. this compound, coincidentally, is also heavily used for explosives like in west virginia where its employed for coal mining and mountain top removal…

  6. 6 Amy Ortiz Oct 23rd, 2007 at 12:48 am

    The connection between MTR and industrial farming don’t end there with nitrate being used for fertilizer and explosives. In Florida (and other places) the lovely practice of phosphate mining rips of the top of the earth to access resources.
    A paradigm shift is what is really needed to solve climate change, not solutions that cover up the issues and maintain the status quo.

  7. 7 Alex Maddox Oct 23rd, 2007 at 8:00 am

    Read the articles about this in World Energy Magazine. You’ll find some of the items discuss fascinating.

  8. 8 AaronG Oct 23rd, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Actually, with all the land we have, and much less pollution than other countries, we’re in a pretty damn good position when oil hits $200 per gallon, all things considered.

  9. 9 Thaddeus Dombrowski Oct 23rd, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    David says, “The US can weather exorbitant prices for much longer, and so I predict we will see the effects of severe oil shortages in other countries long before we see it here.”

    I would like to point out that this only holds true if the dollar doesn’t collapse in value.

    “The head of the International Monetary Fund, Rodrigo Rato, warned Monday there are risks of an “abrupt fall” in the dollar, linked to a loss of confidence in dollar assets. ” http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=071022154152.yz1uni1v&show_article=1

  10. 10 NormE Oct 23rd, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    We will be in terrible shape long before we reach $200 per barrel. As the world’s biggest fuel importer and biggest debtor nation already, we already have a falling standard of living: soaring fuel costs will drive up the cost of virtually EVERYTHING. Look forward to national bankruptcy, a forsaken US dollar as a foreign reserve currency, high interest rates, high inflation, massive layoffs and regrets about our choices for national leadership since Jimmy Carter. Buy a bicycle and learn how to garden! We used to be the manufacturing leaders of the world – much of it is now dismantled and gone. It will be very difficult to rebuild in an era of energy descent.

  11. 11 R Margolis Oct 24th, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Even the more conservative Cambridge Energy Reasearch Associates (cera.com) places the oil plateau between 2030 and 2050 which is soon enough in energy timeframes (historically energy transitions take about 30 years). The oil plateau, combined with climate change and the economic changes in the developing world are a triad that could trigger serious changes.

  12. 12 Dan Dixson Oct 24th, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Little recognition let alone analysis has been given to the economic aspect of peak oil. The demand destruction in the poorer countries has been proceeding since the actual oil peak in the spring of 2005. This explains why there has been fuel in our domestic gas tanks. However, once we begin to feel the pinch in the U.S. all of the rules of economics change. Our entire economic structure depends upon an ever increasing supply of oil to support the petro dollar system. It is the only thing propping up the dollar. The world assumes that the decline of oil supplies will be an orderly phenomenon, economically. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is more akin to a colossal global ponzi scheme that will unravel. Once the cracks in the world economic structure begin, they will be unmendable.

    The other aspect receiving little attention is the peak in oil exports. The primary oil suppliers for the U.S. are ALL near or past their ability to maintain their exports to us. The rest of the world’s oil supply is only relevant to the US indirectly. Mexico our second largest supplier will run out within five years. At present rates of domestic consumption increase Saudi Arabia will be unable to export oil within ten years. We are teetering on the edge, enjoy it while it lasts.

  13. 13 Chuck Oct 25th, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    CERA are really “cornucopians” – of all the credible individuals and organizations predicting the date of the onset of Peak Oil, CERA’s date is always the farthest out. I wouldn’t call them conservative. Considering the consequences, CERA are the most optimistic, unrealistically so.

    Our economic system also requires constant growth. The opposite will happen after Peak Oil. If there is less and less energy available each year, economic growth is impossible. Remember that even during the Great Depression, energy supplies were increasing.

  1. 1 SMALL STEPS | Little Homestead in the City Trackback on Jun 4th, 2008 at 10:55 am
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