Skip to content or view mobile version

Home | Mobile | Editorial | Mission | Privacy | About | Contact | Help | Security | Support

A network of individuals, independent and alternative media activists and organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues.

What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out?

Richard Heinberg | 04.12.2007 10:17 | Climate Chaos | Ecology | Technology | Sheffield | World

Our global food system faces a crisis of unprecedented scope. This crisis, which threatens to imperil the lives of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of human beings, consists of four simultaneously colliding dilemmas, all arising from our relatively recent pattern of dependence on depleting fossil fuels.

The first dilemma consists of the direct impacts on agriculture of higher oil prices: increased costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs.

The second is an indirect consequence of high oil prices - the increased demand for biofuels, which is resulting in farmland being turned from food production to fuel production, thus making food more costly.

The third dilemma consists of the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events caused by fuel-based greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is the greatest environmental crisis of our time; however, fossil fuel depletion complicates the situation enormously, and if we fail to address either problem properly the consequences will be dire.

Finally comes thedegradation or loss of basic natural resources (principally, topsoil and fresh water supplies) as a result of high rates, and unsustainable methods, of production stimulated by decades of cheap energy.

Each of these problems is developing at a somewhat different pace regionally, and each is exacerbated by the continually expanding size of the human population. As these dilemmas collide, the resulting overall food crisis is likely to be profound and unprecedented in scope.

I propose to discuss each of these dilemmas briefly and to show how all are intertwined with our societal reliance on oil and other fossil fuels. I will then argue that the primary solution to the overall crisis of the world food system must be a planned rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels in the growing and delivery of food. As we will see, this strategy, though ultimately unavoidable, will bring enormous problems of its own unless it is applied with forethought and intelligence. But the organic movement is uniquely positioned to guide this inevitable transition of the world's food systems away from reliance on fossil fuels, if leaders and practitioners of the various strands of organic agriculture are willing to work together and with policy makers.

Structural Dependency

Until now, fossil fuels have been widely perceived as an enormous boon to humanity, and certainly to the human food system. After all, there was a time not so long ago when famine was an expected, if not accepted, part of life even in wealthy countries. Until the 19th century - whether in China, France, India or Britain - food came almost entirely from local sources and harvests were variable. In good years, there was plenty - enough for seasonal feasts and for storage in anticipation of winter and hard times to come; in bad years, starvation cut down the poor, the very young, the old, and the sickly. Sometimes bad years followed one upon another, reducing the size of the population by several percent. This was the normal condition of life in pre-industrial societies, and it persisted for thousands of years.1

By the nineteenth century a profound shift in this ancient regime was under way. For Europeans, the export of surplus population to other continents, crop rotation, and the application of manures and composts were all gradually making famines less frequent and severe. European farmers, realizing the need for a new nitrogen source in order to continue feeding burgeoning and increasingly urbanized populations, began employing guano imported from islands off the coasts of Chile and Peru. The results were gratifying. However, after only a few decades, these guano deposits were being depleted. By this time, in the late 1890s, the world's population was nearly twice what it had been at the beginning of the century. A crisis was in view.

But crisis was narrowly averted through the use of fossil fuels. In 1909, two German chemists named Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a process to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen in fossil fuels. The process initially used coal as a feedstock, though later it was adapted to use natural gas. After the end of the Great War, nation after nation began building Haber-Bosch plants; today the process yields 150 million tons of ammonia-based fertilizer per year, producing a total quantity of available nitrogen equal to the amount introduced annually by all natural sources combined.2

Fossil fuels went on to offer other ways of extending natural limits to the human carrying capacity of the planet.

In the 1890s, roughly one quarter of British and American cropland had been set aside to grow grain to feed horses, of which most worked on farms. The internal combustion engine provided a new kind of horsepower not dependent on horses at all, and thereby increased the amount of arable land available to feed humans. Early steam-driven tractors had come into limited use in 19th century; but, after World War I, the effectiveness of powered farm machinery expanded dramatically, and the scale of use exploded throughout the twentieth century, especially in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Chemists developed synthetic pesticides and herbicides in increasing varieties after World War II, using knowledge pioneered in laboratories that had worked to perfect explosives and other chemical warfare agents. Petrochemical-based pesticides not only increased crop yields in North America, Europe, and Australia, but also reduced the prevalence of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The world began to enjoy the benefits of "better living through chemistry," though the environmental costs, in terms of water and soil pollution and damage to vulnerable species, would only later become widely apparent.

In the 1960s, industrial-chemical agricultural practices began to be exported to what by that time was being called the Third World: this was glowingly dubbed the Green Revolution, and it enabled a tripling of food production during the ensuing half-century.

At the same time, the scale and speed of distribution of food increased. This also constituted a means of increasing human carrying capacity, though in a more subtle way. The trading of food goes back to Paleolithic times; but, with advances in transport, the quantities and distances involved gradually increased. Here again, fossil fuels were responsible for a dramatic discontinuity in the previously slow pace of growth. First by rail and steamship, then by truck and airplane, immense amounts of grain and ever-larger quantities of meat, vegetables, and specialty foods began to flow from countryside to city, from region to region, and from continent to continent.

The end result of chemical fertilizers, plus powered farm machinery, plus increased scope of transportation and trade, was not just an enormous leap in crop yields, but a similar explosion of human population, which has grown over six-fold since dawn of industrial revolution.

However, in the process, conventional industrial agriculture has become overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. According to one study, approximately ten calories of fossil fuel energy are needed to produce each calorie of food energy in modern industrial agriculture.3 With globalized trade in food, many regions host human populations larger than local resources alone could possibly support. Those systems of global distribution and trade also rely on oil.

Today, in the industrialized world, the frequency of famine that our ancestors knew and expected is hard to imagine. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is a far more widespread concern than hunger. The average mega-supermarket stocks an impressive array of exotic foods from across the globe, and even staples are typically trucked or shipped from hundreds of miles away. All of this would be well and good if it were sustainable, but the fact that nearly all of this recent abundance depends on depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels whose burning emits climate-altering carbon dioxide gas means that the current situation is not sustainable. This means that it must and will come to an end.

The Worsening Oil Supply Picture

During the past decade a growing chorus of energy analysts has warned of the approach of "Peak Oil," the time when the global rate of extraction of petroleum will reach a maximum and begin its inevitable decline.

During this same decade, the price of oil has advanced from about US$12 per barrel to nearly $100 per barrel.

While there is some dispute among experts as to when the peak will occur, there is none as to whether. The global peak is merely the cumulative result of production peaks in individual oilfields and whole oil-producing nations, and these mini-peaks are occurring at an increasing rate.

The most famous and instructive national peak occurred in the US in 1970: at that time America produced 9.5 million barrels of oil per day; the current figure is less than 5.2 Mb/d. While at one time the US was the world's foremost oil exporting nation, it is today the world's foremost importer.

The history of US oil production also helps us evaluate the prospects for delaying the global peak. After 1970, exploration efforts succeeded in identifying two enormous new American oil provinces - the North Slope of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. During this period, other kinds of liquid fuels (such as ethanol and gas condensates) began to supplement crude. Also, improvements in oil recovery technology helped to increase the proportion of the oil in existing fields able to be extracted. These are precisely the strategies (exploration, substitution, and technological improvements) that the oil producers are relying on to delay the global production peak. In the US, each of these strategies made a difference - but not enough to reverse, for more than a year or two at a time, the overall 37-year trend of declining production. To assume that the results for the world as a whole will be much different is probably unwise.

The recent peak and decline in production of oil from the North Sea is of perhaps of more direct relevance to this audience. In just seven years, production from the British-controlled region has declined by almost half.

How near is the global peak? Today the majority of oil-producing nations are seeing reduced output: in 2006, BP's Statistical Review of World Energy reported declines in 27 of the 51 producing nations listed. In some instances, these declines will be temporary and are occurring because of lack of investment in production technology or domestic political problems. But in most instances the decline results from factors of geology: while older oil fields continue to yield crude, beyond a certain point it becomes impossible to maintain existing flow rates by any available means. As a result, over time there are fewer nations in the category of oil exporters and more nations in the category of oil importers.4

Meanwhile global rates of discovery of new oilfields have been declining since 1964.5

These two trends (a growing preponderance of past-peak producing nations, and a declining success rate for exploration) by themselves suggest that the world peak may be near.

Clearly the timing of the global peak is crucial. If it happens soon, or if in fact it already has occurred, the consequences will be devastating. Oil has become the world's foremost energy resource. There is no ready substitute, and decades will be required to wean societies from it. Peak Oil could therefore constitute the greatest economic challenge since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

An authoritative new study by the Energy Watch Group of Germany concludes that global crude production hit its maximum level in 2006 and has already begun its gradual decline.6 Indeed, the past two years have seen sustained high prices for oil, a situation that should provide a powerful incentive to increase production wherever possible. Yet actual aggregate global production of conventional petroleum has stagnated during this time; the record monthly total for crude was achieved in May 2005, 30 months ago.

The latest medium-term report of the IEA, issued July 9, projects that world oil demand will rise by about 2.2 percent per year until 2012 while production will lag, leading to what the report's authors call a "supply crunch."7

Many put their hopes in coal and other low-grade fossil fuels to substitute for depleting oil. However, global coal production will hit its own peak perhaps as soon as 2025 according to the most recent studies, while so-called "clean coal" technologies are three decades away from widespread commercial application.8 Thus to avert a climate catastrophe from coal-based carbon emissions, our best hope is simply to keep most of the remaining coal in the ground.

The Price of Sustenance

During these past two years, as oil prices have soared, food prices have done so as well. Farmers now face steeply increasing costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs. However, the linkage between fuel and food prices is more complicated than this, and there are other factors entirely separate from petroleum costs that have impacted food prices. I will attempt to sort these various linkages and influences out in a moment.

First, however, it is worth taking a moment to survey the food price situation.

An article by John Vidal published in the Guardian on November 3, titled "Global Food Crisis Looms As Climate Change and Fuel Shortages Bite," began this way:

Empty shelves in Caracas. Food riots in West Bengal and Mexico. Warnings of hunger in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. Soaring prices for basic foods are beginning to lead to political instability, with governments being forced to step in to artificially control the cost of bread, maize, rice and dairy products.

Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18 percent food price inflation in China, 13 percent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago and rice is 20 percent more expensive. . . .

Last week the Kremlin forced Russian companies to freeze the price of milk, bread and other foods until January 31. . . .

India, Yemen, Mexico, Burkina Faso and several other countries have had, or been close to, food riots in the last year. . . . Meanwhile, there are shortages of beef, chicken and milk in Venezuela and other countries as governments try to keep a lid on food price inflation.9

Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, said in London early this month, "If you combine the increase of the oil prices and the increase of food prices then you have the elements of a very serious [social] crisis. . . ." FAO statistics show that grain stocks have been declining for more than a decade and now stand at a mere 57 days, the lowest level in a quarter century, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis."10

According to Josette Sheeran, director of the UN's World Food Program (WFP), "There are 854 million hungry people in the world and 4 million more join their ranks every year. We are facing the tightest food supplies in recent history. For the world's most vulnerable, food is simply being priced out of their reach."11

In its biannual Food Outlook report released November 7, the FAO predicted that higher food prices will force poor nations, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, to cut food consumption and risk an increase in malnutrition. The report noted, "Given the firmness of food prices in the international markets, the situation could deteriorate further in the coming months."12

Meanwhile, a story by Peter Apps in Reuters from October 16 noted that the cost of food aid is rising dramatically, just as the global need for aid is expanding. The amount of money that nations and international agencies set aside for food aid remains relatively constant, while the amount of food that money will buy is shrinking.13

To be sure, higher food prices are good for farmers - assuming that at least some of the increase in price actually translates to higher income for growers. This is indeed the case for the poorest farmers, who have never adopted industrial methods. But for many others, the higher prices paid for food simply reflect higher production costs. Meanwhile, it is the urban poor who are impacted the worst.

Impact of Biofuels

One factor influencing food prices arises from the increasing incentives for farmers worldwide to grow biofuel crops rather than food crops. Ethanol and biodiesel can be produced from a variety of crops including maize, soy, rapeseed, sunflower, cassava, sugar cane, palm, and jatropha. As the price of oil rises, many farmers are finding that they can produce more income from their efforts by growing these crops and selling them to a biofuels plant, than by growing food crops either for their local community or for export.

Already nearly 20 percent of the US maize crop is devoted to making ethanol, and that proportion is expected to rise to one quarter, based solely on existing projects-in-development and government mandates. Last year US farmers grew 14 million tons of maize for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of corn. Both Congress and the White House favor expanding ethanol production even further - to replace 20 percent of gasoline demand by 2017 - in an effort to promote energy security by reducing reliance on oil imports. Other nations including Britain are mandating increased biofuel production or imports as a way of reducing carbon emissions, though most analyses show that the actual net reduction in CO2 will be minor or nonexistent.14

The US is responsible for 70 percent of world maize exports, and countries such as Mexico, Japan, and Egypt that depend on American corn farmers use maize both as food for people and feed for animals. The ballooning of the US ethanol industry is therefore impacting food availability in other nations both directly and indirectly, raising the price for tortillas in Mexico and disrupting the livestock and poultry industries in Europe and Africa.

Grain, a Barcelona-based food-resources NGO, reports that the Indian government is committed to planting 14 million hectares with Jatropha for biodiesel production. Meanwhile, Brazil plans to grow 120 million hectares of fuel crops, and Africa up to 400 million hectares. While currently unproductive land will be used for much of this new production, many millions of people will be forced off that land in the process.15

Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, has said: "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its two billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue."16 This is an opinion no longer being voiced just by environmentalists. In its twice-yearly report on the world economy, released October 17, the International Monetary Fund noted that, "The use of food as a source of fuel may have serious implications for the demand for food if the expansion of biofuels continues."17 And earlier this month, Oxfam warned the EU that its policy of substituting ten percent of all auto fuel with biofuels threatened to displace poor farmers. Jean Ziegler, a UN special rapporteur went so far as to call the biofuel trade "a crime against humanity," and echoed journalist George Monbiot's call for a five-year moratorium on government mandates and incentives for biofuel expansion.18

The British government has pledged that "only the most sustainable biofuels" will be used in the UK, but, as Monbiot has recently noted, there are no explicit standards to define "sustainable" biofuels, and there are no means to enforce those standards in any case.19

Impact of Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

Beyond the push for biofuels, the food crisis is also being driven by extreme weather events and environmental degradation.

The phrase "global warming" implies only the fact that the world's average temperature increase by a degree or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general (hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, hail storms) - in short, unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers' ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year's national production for some crops. Given the fact that modern agriculture has become highly centralized due to cheap transport and economies of scale, the damage from that freak storm is today potentially continental or even global in scale. We have embarked on a century in which, increasingly, freakish weather is normal.

According to the UN's World Food Program (WFP), 57 countries, including 29 in Africa, 19 in Asia and nine in Latin America, have been hit by catastrophic floods. Harvests have been affected by drought and heatwaves in south Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.20

Last week the Australian government said drought had slashed predictions of winter harvests by nearly 40 percent, or four million tons. "It is likely to be even smaller than the disastrous drought-ravaged 2006-07 harvest and the worst in more than a decade," said the Bureau of Agriculture and Resource.21

In addition to climate chaos, we must contend with the depletion or degradation of several resources essential to agriculture.

Phosphorus is set to become much more scarce and expensive, according to a study by Patrick Déry, a Canadian agriculture and environment analyst and consultant. Using data from the US Geological Survey, Déry performed a peaking analysis on phosphate rock, similar to the techniques used by petroleum geologists to forecast declines in production from oilfields. He found that "we have already passed the phosphate peak [of production] for United States (1988) and for the World (1989)." We will not completely run out of rock phosphate any time soon, but we will be relying on lower-grade ores as time goes on, with prices inexorably rising.22

At the same time, soil erosion undermines food production and water availability, as well as producing 30 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Each year, roughly 100,000 square kilometres of land loses its vegetation and becomes degraded or turns into desert, altering the temperature and energy balance of the planet.23

Finally, yet another worrisome environmental trend is the increasing scarcity of fresh water. According to United Nations estimates, one third of the world's population lives in areas with water shortages and 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. That situation is expected to worsen dramatically over the next few decades. Climate change has provoked more frequent and intense droughts in sub-tropical areas of Asia and Africa, exacerbating shortages in some of the world's poorest countries.

While human population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources has grown six-fold. According to Bridget Scanlon and colleagues, writing in Water Resources Research this past March 27, in the last 100 years irrigated agriculture expanded globally by 480 percent, and it is projected to increase another 20 percent by 2030 in developing countries. Irrigation is expanding fastest in countries such as China and India. Global irrigated agriculture now accounts for almost 90 percent of global freshwater consumption, despite representing only 18 percent of global cropland. In addition to drawing down aquifers and surface water sources, it also degrades water quality, as salts in soils are mobilized, and as fertilizers and pesticides leach into aquifers and streams.24

These problems all interact and compound one another. For example, soil degradation produces growing shortages of water, since soil and vegetation act as a sponge that holds and gradually releases water. Soil degradation also worsens climate change as increased evaporation triggers more extreme weather.

This month the UN Environment Program concluded that the planet's water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks are all in "inexorable decline." Much of this decline is due to agriculture, which constitutes the greatest single source of human impact on the biosphere.25

In the face of all these daunting challenges, the world must produce more food every year to keep up with population growth. Zafar Adeel, director of the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (INWEH), has calculated that more food will have to be produced during the next 50 years than during the last 10,000 years combined.26

What Is the Solution?

International food agency officials spin out various scenarios to describe how our currently precarious global food system might successfully adapt and expand. Perhaps markets will automatically readjust to shortages, higher prices making it more profitable once again to grow crops for people rather than cars. New designer-gene crop varieties could help crops adapt to capricious climactic conditions, to require less water, or to grow in more marginal soils. And if people were to simply eat less meat, more land could be freed up to grow food for humans rather than farm animals. A slowdown or reversal in population growth would naturally ease pressures on the food system, while the cultivation of currently unproductive land could help increase supplies.

However, given the scale of the crisis facing us, merely to assume that these things will happen, or that they will be sufficient to overcome the dilemmas we have been discussing, seems overly optimistic, perhaps even to the point of irresponsibility.

One hopeful sign is that governments and international agencies are beginning to take the situation seriously. This month the World Bank issued a major report, "Agriculture for Development," whose main author, economist Alain de Janvry, appears to reverse his institution's traditional stance. For a half-century, development agencies such as the World Bank have minimized the importance of agriculture, urging nations to industrialize and urbanize as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the Bank has not featured agriculture in an annual report since 1982. De Janvry says that, since half the world's population and three-quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas where food production is the mainstay of the economy, farming must be central to efforts to reduce hunger and poverty.27

Many agencies, including the INWEH, are now calling for an end to the estimated 30 billion dollars in food subsidies in the North that contribute directly to land degradation in Africa and elsewhere, and that force poor farmers to intensify their production in order to compete.28

In addition, there are calls for sweeping changes in how land use decisions are made at all levels of government. Because soil, water, energy, climate, biodiversity, and food production are interconnected, integrated policy-making is essential. Yet policies currently are set by various different governmental departments and agencies that often have little understanding of one another's sectors.

Delegates at a soils forum in Iceland this month took up a proposal for a formal agreement on protecting the world's soils. And the World Water Council is promoting a range of programs to ensure the availability of clean water especially to people in poorer countries.29

All these efforts are laudable; however, they largely fail to address the common sources of the dilemmas we face - human population growth, and society's and agriculture's reliance on fossil fuels.

The solution most often promoted by the biggest companies within the agriculture industry - the bioengineering of crops and farm animals - does little or nothing to address these deeper causes. One can fantasize about modifying maize or rice to fix nitrogen in the way that legumes do, but so far efforts in that direction have failed. Meanwhile, and the bio-engineering industry itself consumes fossil fuels, and assumes the continued availability of oil for tractors, transportation, chemicals production, and so on.30

To get to the heart of the crisis, we need a more fundamental reform of agriculture than anything we have seen in many decades. In essence, we need an agriculture that does not require fossil fuels.

The idea is not new. The aim of substantially or entirely removing fossil fuels from agriculture is implicit in organic farming in all its various forms and permutations - including ecological agriculture, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Biointensive farming, and Natural Farming. All also have in common a prescription for the reduction or elimination of tillage, and the reduction or elimination of reliance on mechanized farm equipment. Nearly all of these systems rely on increased amounts of human labor, and on greater application of place-specific knowledge of soils, microorganisms, weather, water, and interactions between plants, animals, and humans.

Critics of organic or biological agriculture have always contended that chemical-free and less-mechanized forms of food production are incapable of feeding the burgeoning human population. This view is increasingly being challenged.

A recent survey of studies, by Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley, titled "Can Organic Farming Feed the World?", concluded: "From the studies mentioned above and from an increasing body of case studies, it is becoming evident that organic farming does not result in either catastrophic crop losses due to pests nor in dramatically reduced yields. . . ."31

The most recent publication on the subject, by Perfecto et al., in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, found that "Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as [conventional] methods on the same land. . . ."32

Moreover, is clear that ecological agriculture could help directly to address the dilemmas we have been discussing.

Regarding water, organic production can help by building soil structure, thus reducing the need for irrigation. And with no petrochemical runoff, water quality is not degraded.33

Soil erosion and land degradation can be halted and even reversed: by careful composting, organic farmers have demonstrated the ability to build humus at many times the natural rate.34

Climate change can be addressed, by keeping carbon molecules in the soil and in forests and grasslands. Indeed, as much as 20 percent of anticipated net fossil fuel emissions between now and 2050 could be stored in this way, according to Maryam Niamir-Fuller of the U.N. Development Program.35

Natural gas depletion will mean higher prices and shortages for ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizers. But ecologically sound organic-biological agricultural practices use plant and manure-based fertilizers rather than fossil fuels. And when farmers concentrate on building healthy topsoil rich in beneficial microbes, plants have reduced needs for nitrogen.36

The impending global shortage of phosphate will be more difficult to address, as there is no substitute for this substance. The only solution here will be to recycle nutrients by returning all animal and humans manures to cultivated soil, as Asian farmers did for many centuries, and as many ecological farmers have long advocated.37

What Will Be Needed

How might we actually accomplish this comprehensive transformation or world agriculture? Some clues are offered by the example of a society that has already experienced and dealt with a fossil-fuel famine.

In the late 1980s, farmers in Cuba were highly reliant on cheap fuels and petrochemicals imported from the Soviet Union, using more agrochemicals per acre than their US counterparts. In 1990, as the Soviet empire collapsed, Cuba lost those imports and faced an agricultural crisis. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds of body weight and malnutrition was nearly universal. The Cuban GDP fell dramatically and inhabitants of the island nation experienced a substantial decline in their material standard of living.38

Several agronomists at Cuban universities had for many years been advocating a transition to organic methods. Cuban authorities responded to the crisis by giving these ecological agronomists carte blanche to redesign the nation's food system. Officials broke up large state-owned farms, offered land to farming families, and encouraged the formation of small agricultural co-ops. Cuban farmers began employing oxen as a replacement for the tractors they could no longer afford to fuel. Cuban scientists began investigating biological methods of pest control and soil fertility enhancement. The government sponsored widespread education in organic food production, and the Cuban people adopted a mostly vegetarian diet out of necessity. Salaries for agricultural workers were raised, in many cases to above the levels of urban office workers. Urban gardens were encouraged in parking lots and on public lands, and thousands of rooftop gardens appeared. Small food animals such as chickens and rabbits began to be raised on rooftops as well.

As a result of these efforts, Cuba was able to avoid what might otherwise have been a severe famine.

If the rest of the world does not plan for a reduction in fossil fuel use in agriculture, its post-peak-oil agricultural transition may be far less successful than was Cuba's. Already in poor countries, farmers who are attempting to apply industrial methods but cannot afford tractor fuel and petrochemical inputs are watching their crops fail. Soon farmers in wealthier nations will be having a similar experience.

Where food is still being produced, there will be the challenge of getting it to the stores. Britain had a taste of this problem in 2000; David Strahan relates in his brilliant book The Last Oil Shock how close Britain came to political chaos then as truckers went on strike because of high fuel costs. He writes: "Supermarket shelves were being stripped of staple foods in scenes of panic buying. Sainsbury, Asda, and Safeway reported that some branches were having to ration bread and milk."39 This was, of course, merely a brief interruption in the normal functioning of the British energy-food system. In the future we may be facing instead what my colleague James Howard Kunstler calls "the long emergency."40

How will Britain and the rest of the world cope? What will be needed to ensure a successful transition away from an oil-based food system, as opposed to a haphazard and perhaps catastrophic one?

Because ecological organic farming methods are often dramatically more labor- and knowledge-intensive than industrial agriculture, their adoption will require an economic transformation of societies. The transition to a non-fossil-fuel food system will take time. Nearly every aspect of the process by which we feed ourselves must be redesigned. And, given the likelihood that global oil peak will occur soon, this transition must occur at a forced pace, backed by the full resources of national governments.

Without cheap transportation fuels we will have to reduce the amount of food transportation that occurs, and make necessary transportation more efficient. This implies increased local food self-sufficiency. It also implies problems for large cities that have been built in arid regions capable of supporting only small populations from their regional resource base. In some cases, relocation of people on a large scale may be necessary.

We will need to grow more food in and around cities. Recently, Oakland California adopted a food policy that mandates by 2015 the growing within a fifty-mile radius of city center of 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in the city.41

Localization of food systems means moving producers and consumers of food closer together, but it also means relying on the local manufacture and regeneration of all of the elements of the production process - from seeds to tools and machinery. This again would appear to rule out agricultural bioengineering, which favors the centralized production of patented seed varieties, and discourages the free saving of seeds from year to year by farmers.

Clearly, we must also minimize indirect chemical inputs to agriculture - such as those introduced in packaging and processing.

We will need to re-introduce draft animals in agricultural production. Oxen may be preferable to horses in many instances, because the former can eat straw and stubble, while the latter would compete with humans for grains. We can only bring back working animals to the extent that we can free up land with which to produce food for them. One way to do that would be to reduce the number of farm animals grown for meat.

Governments must also provide incentives for people to return to an agricultural life. It would be a mistake to think of this simply in terms of the need for a larger agricultural work force. Successful traditional agriculture requires social networks and intergenerational sharing of skills and knowledge. We need not just more agricultural workers, but a rural culture that makes farming a rewarding way of life capable of attracting young people.

Farming requires knowledge and experience, and so we will need education for a new generation of farmers; but only some of this education can be generic - much of it must of necessity be locally appropriate.

It will be necessary as well to break up the corporate mega-farms that produce so much of today's cheap food. Industrial agriculture implies an economy of scale that will be utterly inappropriate and unworkable for post-industrial food systems. Thus land reform will be required in order to enable smallholders and farming co-ops to work their own plots.

In order for all of this to happen, governments must end subsidies to industrial agriculture and begin subsidizing post-industrial agricultural efforts. There are many ways this could be done. The present regime of subsidies is so harmful that merely stopping it in its tracks might be advantageous; but, given the fact that rapid adaptation is essential, offering subsidies for education, no-interest loans for land purchase, and technical support during the transition from chemical to organic production would be essential.

Finally, given carrying-capacity limits, food policy must include population policy. We must encourage smaller families by means of economic incentives and improve the economic and educational status of women in poorer countries.

All of this constitutes a gargantuan task, but the alternatives - doing nothing or attempting to solve our food-production problems simply by applying mere techno-fixes - will almost certainly lead to dire consequences. All of the worrisome trends mentioned earlier would intensify to the point that the human carrying capacity of Earth would be degraded significantly, and perhaps to a large degree permanently.42

So far we have addressed the responsibility of government in facilitating the needed transformation in agriculture. Consumers can help enormously by becoming more conscious of their food choices, seeking out locally produced organic foods and reducing meat consumption.

The organic movement, while it may view the crisis in industrial agriculture as an opportunity, also bears an enormous responsibility. In the example of Cuba just cited, the active lobbying of organic agronomists proved crucial. Without that guiding effort on the part of previously marginalized experts, the authorities would have had no way to respond. Now crisis is at hand for the world as a whole. The organic movement has most of the answers that will be needed; however, its message still isn't getting through. Three things will be necessary to change that.

  1. The various strands of the organic movement must come together so that they can speak to national and international policy makers with a unified voice.
  2. The leaders of this newly unified organic movement must produce a coherent plan for a global transition to a post-fossil-fuel food system. Organic farmers and their organizations have been promoting some of the needed policies for decades in a piecemeal fashion. Now, however, there is an acute need for a clearly formulated, comprehensive, alternative national and global food policy, and there is little time to communicate and implement it. It is up to the organic movement to proactively seek out policy makers and promote this coherent alternative, just as it is up to representatives of government at all levels to listen.
  3. I have just called for unity in the organic movement, and to achieve this it will be necessary to address a recent split within the movement. What might be called traditional organic remains focused on small-scale, labor-intensive, local production for local consumption. In contrast to this, the more recently emerging corporate organic model merely removes petrochemicals from production, while maintaining nearly all the other characteristics of the modern industrial food system. This trend may be entirely understandable in terms of the economic pressures and incentives within the food industry as a whole. However, corporate organic has much less to offer in terms of solutions to the emerging crisis. Thus as the various strands of the organic movement come together, they should do so in light of the larger societal necessity. The discussion must move beyond merely gaining market share; it must focus on averting famine under crisis conditions.

To conclude, let me simply restate what is I hope clear by now: Given the fact that fossil fuels are limited in quantity and that we are already in view of the global oil production peak, we must turn to a food system that is less fuel-reliant, even if the process is problematic in many ways. Of course, the process will take time; it is a journey that will take place over decades. Nevertheless, it must begin soon, and it must begin with a comprehensive plan. The transition to a fossil-fuel-free food system does not constitute a distant utopian proposal. It is an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity at all levels of society. A hundred years from now, everyone will be eating what we today would define as organic food, whether or not we act. But what we do now will determine how many will be eating, what state of health will be enjoyed by those future generations, and whether they will live in a ruined cinder of a world, or one that is in the process of being renewed and replenished.


1. See Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1982)
2. See Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (Boston: WIT Press, 2004)
3. David Pimentel, "Constraints on the Expansion of Global Food Supply," Kindell, Henry H. and Pimentel, David. Ambio Vol. 23 No. 3, May 1994. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
4. See also Roger D. Blanchard, The Future of Global Oil Production: Facts, Figures, Trend and Projections (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005)
5. Longwell, "The future of the oil and gas industry: past approaches, new challenges," World Energy Vol. 5 #3, 2002
6. Energy Watch Group, "Crude Oil - The Supply Outlook,"
7. "Oil Supplies Face More Pressure," BBC online, July 9 2007
8. Energy Watch Group, "Coal: Resources and Future Production" (April, 2007).
9. John Vidal, "Global Food Crisis Looms as Climate Change and Fuel Shortages Bite," The Guardian, Nov. 3, 2007
10. Jacques Diouf quoted in John Vidal, op. cit.
13. Peter Apps, "Cost of Food Aid Soars As Global Need Rises, Reuters, October 16
14. See Jack Santa Barbara, The False Promise of Biofuels (San Francisco: International Forum on Globalization, 2007)
15. Vidal, op. cit.
16. Lester Brown quoted in Vidal, op. cit.
17. "IMF Concerned by Impact of Biofuels of Food Prices," Industry Week online, October 18, 2007,
18. Ziegler, quoted by George Monbiot
19. Monbiot, op. cit.
20. Vidal, op. cit.
21. Vidal, op. cit.
22. Patrick Déry and Bart Anderson, "Peak Phosphorus,"
24. "Agriculture Consuming World's Water," Geotimes online, June 2007
25. "Unsustainable Development 'Puts Humanity at Risk'," New Scientist online, October 17 2007,
26. "Between Hungry People and Climate Change, Soils Need Help," Environmental New Service, August 31, 2007,
27. Celia W. Dugger, "World Bank Puts Agriculture at Center of Anti-Poverty Effort," New York Times, October 20, 2007,
28. Stephen Leahy, "Dirt Isn't So Cheap After All,"
29. Ibid.;
30. See, for example, William M. Muir, "Potential environmental risks and hazards of biotechnology,"
32. (vol 22, p 86) University of Michigan, July 10, 2007
33. "Organic Agriculture," FAO report, 1999,
34. Ibid.
35. "Between Hungry People and Climate Change, Soils Need Help," Environmental New Service, August 31, 2007,
36. FAO, op. cit.
37. F.H. King, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan, (New York: Dover Publications, 1911, ed. 2004)
38. The story of how Cuba responded to its oil famine is described in the film, "The Power of Community,"
39. David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock (London: John Murray, 2007), p. 15
40. James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency (Nerw York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)
41. Matthew Green, "Oakland Looks toward Greener Pastures," Edible East Bay, Spring 2007,
42. Peter Goodchild, "Agriculture In A Post-Oil Economy," 22 September, 2007

Richard Heinberg
- Homepage:


Hide the following 5 comments

Funny (strange)

04.12.2007 18:48

It's precisely one of the discussions I have with "ordinary" people every now and then. The model we have at the moment is extremely bad even it weren't a pollution issue. Supermarket monopolies, centralisation of distribution and public health (foot & mouth etc.), the health benefits of fresh local produce, better for the local economy.

As I understand it. Britain has more than enough land to turn back to a pre-modern model of local production and subsistence economics. Much of our farmland is lying fallow and a lot of what was once farmland is used for leisure.

I've always argued that it makes more sense in so many way, but have never dwelt long on the fuel aspect.

I think ultimately we are very likely to "regress" back to something approaching traditional community structures.

A muse

Check out

05.12.2007 17:23

Check out this documentary, 'How Cuba Survived Peak Oil'. It's all about how, when Cuba had no oil for fertilisers, they converted to organic agriculture, and city gardens. Most of the food in Havana is actually grown, organically, IN THE CITY. Although we may not agree with everything from Cuba, they had a pretty good solution to this problem.

'How Cuba Survived Peak Oil'


The Power of Community - How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

06.12.2007 12:02

Get the DVD via bittorrent, check out their web site here:

Essential viewing.

- Homepage:

Agriculture In A Post-Oil Economy

06.12.2007 16:08

The decline in the world’s oil supply offers no sudden dramatic event that would appeal to the writer of "apocalyptic" science fiction: no mushroom clouds, no flying saucers, no giant meteorites. The future will be just like today, only tougher. Oil depletion is basically just a matter of overpopulation — too many people and not enough resources. The most serious consequence will be a lack of food. The problem of oil therefore leads, in an apparently mundane fashion, to the problem of farming.

To what extent could food be produced in a world without fossil fuels? In the year 2000, humanity consumed about 30 billion barrels of oil, but the supply is starting to run out; without oil and natural gas, there will be no fuel, no asphalt, no plastics, no chemical fertilizer. Most people in modern industrial civilization live on food that was bought from a local supermarket, but such food will not always be available. Agriculture in the future will be largely a "family affair": without motorized vehicles, food will have to be produced not far from where it was consumed. But what crops should be grown? How much land would be needed? Where could people be supported by such methods of agriculture?


The most practical diet would be largely vegetarian, for several reasons. In the first place, vegetable production requires far less land than animal production. Even the pasture land for a cow is about one hectare, and more land is needed to produce hay, grain, and other foods for that animal. One could supply the same amount of useable protein from vegetable sources on a fraction of a hectare, as Frances Moore Lappé pointed out in 1971 in Diet for a Small Planet [12]. Secondly, vegetable production is less complicated. The raising of animals is not easy, and one of the principles to work with is, "The more parts there are to a machine, the more things there are that can go wrong." The third problem is that of cost: animals get sick, animals need to be fed, animals need to be enclosed, and the bills add up quickly. Finally, vegetable food requires less labor than animal food to produce; less labor, in turn, means more time to spend on other things. A largely vegetarian diet is also the most healthful, but that is a separate issue.

With a largely vegetarian diet, one must beware of deficiencies in vitamins A and B12, iron, calcium, and fat, all of which can be found in animal food. Most of these deficiencies are covered by an occasional taste of meat; daily portions of beef and pork are really not necessary. Animal food should be used whenever it is available, but it is not a daily necessity.

Of vegetable foods, it is grains in particular that are essential to human diet. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors took various species of grass and converted them into the plants on which human life now depends. Wheat, rice, maize, barley, rye, oats, sorghum, millet — these are the grasses people eat every day, and it is these or other grasses that are fed (too often) to the pigs and cows that are killed as other food. A diet of green vegetables would be slow starvation; it is bread and rice that supply the thousands of kilocalories that keep us alive from day to day.

In general, the types of crops to grow would be those which are trouble-free, provide a large amount of carbohydrates per unit of land, provide protein, and supply adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. Most grains meet several of these requirements. Winter (not summer) squashes are also high in kilocalories. Parsnips rate high in kilocalories, whereas carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets are slightly lower on the scale. Beans (as "dry beans") rate fairly well in terms of kilocalories, and they are the best vegetable source of protein, especially if they are eaten with maize or other grains with complementary amino acids.


The amount of land needed for farming with manual labor would depend on several factors: the type of soil, the climate, the kinds of crops to be grown. The highest-yielding varieties are not necessarily the most disease-resistant, or the most suitable for the climate or the soil, or the easiest to store. The weather also makes a big difference: too little rain can damage a crop, and too much rain can do the same. Unusually cold weather can damage some crops, and unusually hot weather can damage others. Without irrigation — relying solely on rain — the yield is less than if the crops were watered.

But here are some rough figures. Let us use the production of maize (corn) as the basis for our calculations, and for now let us pretend that someone is going to live entirely on maize. "Maize" or "corn" here does not mean the vegetable that is normally eaten as "corn on the cob," but the types that are mainly used to produce cornmeal; these are sometimes referred to as "grain corn" or "field corn." Maize is very high-yielding and can be grown easily with hand tools, but it is only practical in areas with long periods of warmth and sunshine; even in most parts of North America it is not easy to grow north of about latitude 45.

A hard-working adult burns about 5,000 kcal per day, or 1.8 million kcal per year. David Pimentel [14] mentions a study of slash-and-burn maize culture in Mexico that produced 1,944 kg of maize per hectare, or 6.9 million kcal. Under such conditions, then, a hectare of maize would support approximately 4 people.

Potatoes require about 50% less land than "grain-corn" maize, but they are troublesome in terms of insects and diseases. Wheat, on the other hand, requires approximately 50% more land than maize to produce the same amount of kilocalories. Beans require about 100% more land than maize. "Root crops" such as turnips, carrots, or beets have yields at least 10 times greater than maize, but they also have a much higher water content; their actual yield in kilocalories per hectare is slightly less than that of maize.

To determine whether a country can feed itself with manual labor, we need to look at the ratio of population to arable land. With manual labor, as noted, a hectare of maize-producing land can support only 4 people. Any country with a larger ratio than that would be undergoing famine. The problem might be relieved to some extent by international aid, but without fossil fuels for transportation such international aid would be negligible. And this ratio is for maize, a high-yield crop; we are also assuming that crops will not be wasted by feeding them to livestock in large amounts.

In the present year of 2007, the world as a whole has a population-to-arable ratio of slightly over 3:1. Conversely, less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries actually pass that test, and many of those are countries that have relatively low population density only because they have been ravaged by war or other forms of political turmoil. The Arabian Peninsula, most of eastern Asia, and most of the Pacific islands are far too crowded. Even the UK scores badly at 11:1. If we meld UN figures [17] with those of Gordon and Suzuki [9] and assume that the world population in 2030 will be about 11 billion, then even fewer countries will be within that 4:1 ratio. There might be serious conflicts between the haves and the have-nots, and isolationism might be a common response.


Most of the world’s land is not suitable for agriculture. Either the soil is not fertile or the climate is too severe. In most areas, if the soil is really poor to begin with there is not much that can be done about it, at least with the resources available in a survival situation.

Soil science is a complicated subject. Roughly speaking, however, good soil contains both rock material and plant material (humus). The rock material includes 16 elements of importance: boron, calcium, carbon, chlorine, copper, hydrogen, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and zinc. (Actually the C, H, and O are mainly from air or water.) The plant material (humus) acts in 3 ways: (1) mechanically — it holds air and water; (2) chemically — it contains a large amount of C, H, and O, and a little (frequently too little) of the other 13 elements; and (3) biologically — it contains useful organisms.

Of the 16 elements, the most critical are phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and especially nitrogen (N); calcium and magnesium are probably next in importance. These elements might be abundant in the virgin soil before any cultivation is done, but wherever crops are harvested a certain amount of the 3 critical elements is being removed. The usual solution is to add fertilizer, which can be artificial or can come from such sources as rock dust.

As Donald P. Hopkins [10] explained in 1948, (a) organic matter is not an ideal substitute for (b) fertilizer (i.e. the 16 elements), nor is (b) fertilizer an ideal substitute for (a) organic matter. A few centuries ago, animal manure was high in N-P-K etc., but that is rarely the case today unless the manure itself originates in feed that was artificially fertilized. Nevertheless, in a survival situation, organic matter may be the only available source of the essential elements.

Native people in many countries had a simple solution to the problem of maintaining fertility: abandonment. No fertilizer was used, except for the ashes from burned undergrowth and from burned crop residues. As a result, of course, the soil became exhausted after a few years, so the fields were abandoned and new ones were dug. Sometimes such a technique is called "slash-and-burn." On a large scale the technique would mean leaving behind a long string of what used to be called "worked-out farms." For a large population, such a method would be impractical, in fact catastrophic. On a very small scale, however, it might be all that is possible; in any case, the abandoned spot would, over many years, revert to reasonably fertile land, at least in terms of humus content, and there might be wild legumes to replace the nitrogen.

Actually, if abandoned land is taken up again at a later date, the practice of abandonment tends to overlap with that of fallowing, another practice to be found in many societies. With the traditional European method of fallowing, part the land is left to revert to grass and weeds for perhaps a year before being plowed again.

A common partial solution to the N-P-K problem has been to turn crop waste into compost and put it back onto the land. The problem with that technique, however, is that one cannot create a perpetual-motion machine: every time the compost is recycled, a certain amount of N-P-K is lost, mainly in the form of human or farm-animal excrement, but also as direct leaching and evaporation. One could recycle those wastes, but the recycling will always have a diminishing return. Of the 3 most important elements, nitrogen is by far the most subject to loss by leaching, but to some extent that can also happen with phosphorus and potassium.

In the original "organic gardening" movement pioneered by Sir Albert Howard in the early years of the 20th century, nothing but vegetable compost and animal manure was allowed. In modern organic gardening, on the other hand, a common technique is to replace lost elements by adding powdered rock, particularly rock phosphate and granite dust. For "non-organic" gardeners and farmers, the usual response to the problem of soil replenishment is to apply artificial fertilizer, N-P-K largely derived from those same types of rock used in organic gardening. (In fact, the use of rock powders in present-day organic gardening sounds suspiciously like a drift toward artificial fertilizers.) If the fragile international networks of civilization break down, however, then neither rock powders nor artificial fertilizer will be readily available. They are very much the products of civilization, requiring a market system that ties together an entire country, or an entire world.

Writing early in the 20th century, F.H. King [11] claimed that farmers in China, Japan, and Korea were managing to grow abundant crops on about 1/10 of the cultivable land per capita as Americans, and that they had done so for 4,000 years. What was their secret? The answer, in part, is that most of eastern Asia has an excellent climate, with rainfall most abundant when it is most needed. More importantly, agriculture was sustained by the practice of returning almost all waste to the soil — even human excrement from the cities was carried long distances to the farms. Various legumes, grown in the fields between the planting of food crops, fixed atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. Much of the annually depleted N-P-K, however, was replaced by taking vegetation from the hillsides and mountains, and by the use of silt, which was taken from the irrigation canals but which originated in the mountains. The Asian system, therefore, was not a closed system, because it took materials from outside the farms, and these materials came from areas of naturally high fertility.


One way of determining when oil-based agriculture will be abandoned is strictly economic: when it costs farmers more money to use machinery than to use hand tools, they will go back to hand tools. In the study of Mexican labor mentioned by Pimentel, "a total of 1,144 hours of labor was required to raise a hectare of corn." Pimentel then compares that labor with the mechanized corn production in the United States, telling us that "600 liters of oil equivalents [for fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides] are required to cultivate 1 ha of corn." The ratio of hours to liters therefore seems to be approximately 2:1.

Modern grain-corn production in the US, however, results in yields of about 6,000 kg/ha, about 3 times as great as in the Mexican example. If we include that factor of higher yield, the previous 2:1 ratio of hours/liters must really be regarded as 6:1.

To discover whether mechanization is cost-effective, we must insert a number for hourly wage. If the laborer is self-employed, however, the figure for hourly wage seems purely imaginary: If costs are rising, for example, can the laborers not simply pay themselves less? Only to a certain degree. The laborer’s wage is often as little as it takes to keep body and soul together, but anything less than that subsistence wage would make farming impossible.

The rise in the price of fuel, combined with the hourly wage, then, determines the cut-off point for mechanized labor. When farmers pay themselves a certain amount for 6 hours of work, but the price of fuel is equal to that amount, the 6:1 ratio has been reached, and it would be reasonable for the farmer to give up mechanization.

Two other factors must be included if we are to compare manual labor with mechanization. Capital costs are higher with mechanization: a tractor must be paid for, there are repairs to consider, and eventually the tractor must be replaced. For now, however, let us assume that the laborer is working with a minimum of equipment. Secondly, in spite of what was said above about subsistence wages, farming income is higher in some countries than in others, and the same can be said of fuel costs. Farmers in Mexico, with high fuel costs and low wages, might be inclined to abandon mechanization sooner than farmers in the United States.

Food, of course, can also be produced with the labor of horses or oxen, and in fact many hours of human labor can thereby by saved. Even if animals are fed only on forage, however, a good deal of land is needed for that purpose. It is also questionable whether large numbers of horses or oxen could be bred and distributed in the next few decades. There is also the question of "alternative energy," in the sense of solutions involving advanced technology, but such innovations would probably serve little purpose without fossil fuels to provided at least an infrastructure [7,8].

What will be the price of gasoline in a few years’ time? ("Current dollars" are used here; it is misleading to speak of "inflation-adjusted energy prices," since it is mainly energy shortages that cause inflation in the first place [3].) US gasoline prices increased over the quarter-century before 2003 only at the same rate as the median income [16], with the exception of some small deviations during periods of warfare. In recent years, however, prices have risen by 18% per year [6]. With such a growth trend, a gallon of US gasoline will cost $60 in 2025, and $140 in 2030, although number-juggling of that sort soon becomes highly speculative.

For the sake of a thought-experiment, however, we might take a closer look at those price projections. Let us recall the 6:1 ratio of hours-versus-liters at which it is no longer cost-effective to use mechanization. A cost of $140/gallon in 2030 would equal $36/liter. If 6 hours of labor should also happen to cost $36, a sensible farmer would decide to give up mechanization at that point. In countries poorer than the US, that cut-off point would actually arrive well before the year 2030.

The other way of estimating a cut-off date for oil-based agriculture, of course, is to look at predictions of the decline in global oil production. According to the latest annual report of BP Global [1], "proved reserves" are only 1.2 trillion barrels (excluding a little from Canadian tar sands), although that figure inches up slightly from one annual report to another. A trillion barrels of oil is not enough to stretch more than a few decades. A continuation of an 18% annual increase in the cost of gasoline may seem absurd, but that figure closely matches the likely bell curve for global oil production: a decline from 30 billion barrels (5 barrels per person) in the year 2000 to 11 billion barrels (1 barrel per person) in 2030 would be an average annual decrease of 22%. It is not only gasoline prices and estimated oil reserves that have an ominous chronological relationship: it is surely not merely coincidental that there has recently been a spate of legislation, in several countries, for ethanol and other biofuels, in spite of the economic and ecological absurdity of such forms of "alternative energy."


1. BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.

2. Bradley, Fern Marshall, and Barbara W. Ellis, eds. Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, Pennyslvania: Rodale, 1992.

3. Chin, Larry. "Peak Oil and the Inflation Lie." Global Research, May 19, 2007.

4. CIA World Factbook.

5. Davis, Adelle. Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

6. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy. "Retail Motor Gasoline and On-Highway Diesel Fuel Prices, 1949-2006."

7. Goodchild, Peter. "Peak Oil and the Myth of Alternative Energy." Countercurrents. Sept. 6, 2006.

8. -----. "Peak Oil and the Problem of Infrastructure." Countercurrents. Sept. 29, 2006.

9. Gordon, Anita, and David Suzuki. It’s a Matter of Survival. Toronto: Stoddart, 1990.

10. Hopkins, Donald P. Chemicals, Humus, and the Soil. Brooklyn, NY: Chemical Publishing, 1948.

11. King, F.H. Farmers of Forty Centuries. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Organic Gardening, n.d.

12. Lappé, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine, 1971.

13. Logsdon, Gene. Small-Scale Grain Raising. Emmaus, Pennyslvania: Rodale, 1977.

14. Pimentel, David, and Carl W. Hall, eds. Food and Energy Resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic P, 1984.

15. Thompson, Paul. "Which Countries Will Survive Best?"

16. United States Census Bureau. "Historical Income Tables — Families." US Government Printing Office, annual.

17. United Nations Population Fund. The State of the World Population. Annual. New York: United Nations.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (Chicago Review P, 2nd ed., 1999). He can be reached at

Peter Goodchild
- Homepage:


07.12.2007 10:01

While generally agreeing with the last comment, I'm not so sure about

'With a largely vegetarian diet, one must beware of deficiencies in vitamins A and B12, iron, calcium, and fat, all of which can be found in animal food. Most of these deficiencies are covered by an occasional taste of meat; daily portions of beef and pork are really not necessary. Animal food should be used whenever it is available, but it is not a daily necessity. '

I haven't touched meat in years, and I'm practically vegan, and I don't suffer any of these deficiencies, you just need to know how to balance all the different grains and vegetables and stuff correctly. Iron and Calcium are in loads of vegetables, vitamin B12 is in yeast products, like marmite.

Still, if people went back to occasionally eating organic or hunted meat, it would be a whole lot better than eating the chemical and hormone filled, disgusting battery farmed meat we eat these days. And I imagine its quite difficult to be vegetarian if you are, for example, an Inuit living in Alaska.


Upcoming Coverage
View and post events
Upcoming Events UK
24th October, London: 2015 London Anarchist Bookfair
2nd - 8th November: Wrexham, Wales, UK & Everywhere: Week of Action Against the North Wales Prison & the Prison Industrial Complex. Cymraeg: Wythnos o Weithredu yn Erbyn Carchar Gogledd Cymru

Ongoing UK
Every Tuesday 6pm-8pm, Yorkshire: Demo/vigil at NSA/NRO Menwith Hill US Spy Base More info: CAAB.

Every Tuesday, UK & worldwide: Counter Terror Tuesdays. Call the US Embassy nearest to you to protest Obama's Terror Tuesdays. More info here

Every day, London: Vigil for Julian Assange outside Ecuadorian Embassy

Parliament Sq Protest: see topic page
Ongoing Global
Rossport, Ireland: see topic page
Israel-Palestine: Israel Indymedia | Palestine Indymedia
Oaxaca: Chiapas Indymedia
All Regions
South Coast
Other Local IMCs
Bristol/South West
Social Media
You can follow @ukindymedia on and Twitter. We are working on a Twitter policy. We do not use Facebook, and advise you not to either.
Support Us
We need help paying the bills for hosting this site, please consider supporting us financially.
Other Media Projects
Dissident Island Radio
Corporate Watch
Media Lens
Earth First! Action Update
Earth First! Action Reports
All Topics
Animal Liberation
Climate Chaos
Energy Crisis
Free Spaces
Ocean Defence
Other Press
Public sector cuts
Social Struggles
Terror War
Workers' Movements
Major Reports
NATO 2014
G8 2013
2011 Census Resistance
Occupy Everywhere
August Riots
Dale Farm
J30 Strike
Flotilla to Gaza
Mayday 2010
Tar Sands
G20 London Summit
University Occupations for Gaza
Indymedia Server Seizure
COP15 Climate Summit 2009
Carmel Agrexco
G8 Japan 2008
Stop Sequani
Stop RWB
Climate Camp 2008
Oaxaca Uprising
Rossport Solidarity
Smash EDO
Past Major Reports
Encrypted Page
You are viewing this page using an encrypted connection. If you bookmark this page or send its address in an email you might want to use the un-encrypted address of this page.
If you recieved a warning about an untrusted root certificate please install the CAcert root certificate, for more information see the security page.

Global IMC Network

satellite tv


estrecho / madiaq
la plana
northern england
nottingham imc
united kingdom

Latin America
chile sur
cmi brasil
cmi sucre
puerto rico


South Asia

United States
hudson mohawk
kansas city
minneapolis/st. paul
new hampshire
new jersey
new mexico
new orleans
north carolina
north texas
rogue valley
saint louis
san diego
san francisco
san francisco bay area
santa barbara
santa cruz, ca
tampa bay
united states
western mass

West Asia


fbi/legal updates
mailing lists
process & imc docs