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Twin peaks

Written By: - Date published: 3:31 pm, April 22nd, 2008 - 50 comments
Categories: economy, Environment, International, science - Tags: , , ,

We have all heard of the peak oil crisis that is already manifesting itself in fuel prices. Now, consider peak food, the point where our ability to produce food peaks even as demand grows.

Wheat was the first plant to be domesticated, around 10,000 years ago. Our civilisations are built on the excess calories available from wheat and other domesticated grasses. We remain essentially a grain-eating species; 50% of humanity’s calorie intake is from grains.

Now, the price of grains is skyrocketing. This is not ‘food price inflation’- inflation is just a change in numbers on pieces of paper- this is the demand for humanity’s basic food sources not being met by supply. This is people rioting and starving for want of food. Why?

  • There are too many people: Every year the population of this planet grows by 75 million people. Even if that additional population was met solely by increasing calorie-intense wheat production, 20 million extra tonnes would be needed each year; production is not keeping up.
  • There is not enough fertile land: The demand for arable land is insatiable. That 20 million tonnes of wheat would require more land than all the crops grown in New Zealand each year. And the land already being used is losing its fertility, meaning more and more (less productive) land is needed. On top of this, the climate is changing. There are more droughts and storms, weather patterns are shifting, temperatures are rising, and farmlands are losing fertility.
  • There is not enough water: as the demand for food grows so does the demand for water, mostly to grow crops and water animals but also for industrial processes. A large part of the world’s fresh water supply is being sourced from underground aquifers and these are drying up, which impedes the growth of food production and makes land less fertile.
  • There is not enough oil: oil is needed throughout the food production process to power farm vehicles, for fertilisers, for transport, in mills, and in the final stage to the supermarket. There isn’t enough oil to meet demand and its price is rising, which makes food more expensive. Talk to people worried about peak oil and their post-peak planning revolves around how to grow enough food.
  • Grain is being turned into meat: in most of the world, farm animals are fed primarily on grains. Around a third of the world’s grain production is used for this purpose. Feeding an animal 100 calories results in 5-15 calories of meat for humans to eat. As demand for meat and other animal products (including dairy) grows, more grain is diverted from human consumption to animals and more calories are wasted.
  • Food is being turned into biofuel: if turning grain into milk and meat is the rich indirectly eating the poor’s food, then biofuel is the rich burning the poor’s food in their cars. Biofuel is ethanol (alcohol) made from fermenting grains. Farmers are following the dollars, perversely encouraged by government incentives, and converting from producing grain for food to grains for biofuel. And up goes the price of grain for food (and for animal feed, meaning higher dairy and meat prices).

Too many hungry mouths need grains and too much of the grain that is being produced is being diverted from those mouths, even as our ability to increase production falters. Other types of food (seafood, meat, dairy) are also facing more demand than can be supplied. As oil production peaks we are, partially as a result, facing peak food. And, as with peak oil, there is no planning at national or international level to confront a problem that is global in its causes and effects. These two, sparsely-populated, well-watered, fertile islands can feed themselves easily but the ride is going to get rougher for the world we live in and trade with.

Our civilisation is built on cheap energy: cheap energy for our machines through oil and cheap energy for our bodies through grains. In both cases, demand is still growing while supply is peaking. What awaits us on the other side of these peaks?

50 comments on “Twin peaks ”

  1. Steve Pierson 1

    I left that last question hanging because it’s cooler rhetoric but I see two options:

    A capitalist/nation-state centric world, where the rich can afford to steal from the mouths of the poor

    Or a world of social democracy with better international integration, where we organise our production and consumption logically, sustainably, and fairly.

    This is a massive systemic problem. It cannot be saved by individuals looking out for themselves.

  2. Patrick 2

    Key’s solution: Soylent Green.

  3. randal 3

    thats right steve…and as the capitalists say, nobody ever guaranteed anyone a living and humanity despite its neurotic illusions of omnipotence is not immune to extinction… there ya have it dude! I-Way to ‘ell.

  4. Steve, Steve, Steve – what are we going to do with you? You obviously haven’t been reading your Chicago school of economics gospel enough lately. You just “demand” more resources, and the magic hand goes “poof” and “supplies” them – see easy isn’t it? Just sit back, watch some motor sport, drink some more beer and everything will be just fine …

  5. higherstandard 5

    Why do you detest the USA when they are one of if not the largest of the food donor states in the world.

    Perhaps you’d like to see socialist/communist China take over world affairs and institute their one baby per family policies throughout the world.

  6. oh, I feel a self-righteous vegan vegetarian plug coming 🙂 What we really need is for everyone to go vegan/vegetarian. At the moment over half of our grains are consumed by animals for meat and dairy production – which only gives back about 5-10% of the calories originally consumed.

  7. r0b 7

    What’s this – more obsessive Key bashing? Oh no – wait…

    Excellent post Steve. This is the Big Picture. And do you know, I despair sometimes, because I wonder if democracy is the right system to cope with looming disasters. A message of personal sacrifice doesn’t win many votes.

    Disclaimer – I am not proposing that we abandon democracy / elect Helen as president for life (just in case some RWNJ takes my musing above as proof of a secret left wing agenda).

    Take home message? I’d like to see Labour moving much much faster on Green issues.

  8. higherstandard 8


    If you want to foresake a nice steak every now and again feel free. I will continue consuming the occasional steak and roast lamb.

  9. Steve Pierson 9

    roger nome. i know, i know. And I’m such a hypocrite for not doing it but here we are.

    hs. it’s not about individual countries, and it’s certainly not ‘yay China, boo America’… this is about how we meet growing needs on a finite planet.

    captcha: Naturally concerned

  10. “Why do you detest the USA when they are one of if not the largest of the food donor states in the world.”

    HS – where do we start? The US food aid program started back in the 60s with Public Food law 480 as a way to use excess, subsidised wheat production to create future markets for the said grain, and displace land used for indigenous food production with cheap cash crops (tobacco, coffee, etc) for domestic American consumption. Nothing altruistic about it.

    Also – the US is biggest culprit when it comes to the inefficient use of grain – i.e. pretty much all the meat is produced using grain, and they consume twice as much meat per capita as the EU.

  11. higherstandard 11

    Steve I agree and know where you are coming from which is why I find the comment

    A captalist/national state centric world, where the rich can afford to steal from the mouths of the poor particularly emotive and unhelpful.

  12. Matthew Pilott 12

    This feels like a game of Chicken, with the world leaders refusing to do anything (“not in our economic interests”) while no-one knows how close we really are to the cliff edge and how hard and soon we might need to hit the brakes in order to avoid going off.

    Steve – I’d make a distinction over a point – our wealth is built upon cheap energy – and it’s hard not to fault developing nations for wanting to use their equivalent share of that cheap energy.

    My my isn’t cap being clever today: $1 republicans…

  13. Steve Pierson 13

    hs. ah. my mistake. it should read ‘capitalist/nation-state centric’. I’ve changed it.

    the problem being you’ve got 200 countries competing with each other and millions of companies competing with each other for their own self-interest and that creates a tragedy of the commons situation, when what is needed is overall resource management.

  14. Firstly, current fuel prices have nothing to do with peak oil.
    Secondly, less grain is being grown. Why? because of the climate change nutters forcing the US farmers (amongst others) to switch to growing corn via massive subsidies. A fuel that is far worse for the environment and very bad for starving african babies.
    Oh, the comment about Soylent green was gold. Perhaps it’s time has come.
    Personally I would process all the vegetarians and vegans first.

  15. slightlyrighty 15

    This situation is not being helped by Labour initiatives. Take for example the policy of 10% biofuel. Biofuel is IMHO the biggest con job in history with the potential to be one of the greatest evils in history.

    The conversion of arable land from food crops to crops to run internal combustion engines while the third world riots over food is fundamntally evil.

    The problem is not fossil fuels, the problem is the internal combustion engine.

    Personally, I’d like to see more deveopment in this direction
    leaving arable land for things like growing food, not fuel.

    I’ll leave now and let you guys launch with a number of “small penis” comments.

  16. Scribe 16

    The Labour-led Government signed up to the Millennium Development Goals several years ago but have done VERY little to work towards their promised target of 0.7% of gross national income going to overseas development assistance by 2015.

    After constant nagging from aid and development agencies there are now some intermediate targets, but if we’re going to point fingers, the Government benches are a place to start.

    National probably would not have done any better, but they weren’t the ones who made the commitment. And you would have expected Labour to be interested in this initiative.

  17. Steve Pierson 17

    “Firstly, current fuel prices have nothing to do with peak oil.”

    well if barnsleybill says it true, I guess there’ nothing to worry about. phew.

    That said, I agree about biofuel from grain being a shitty idea, and it’s attracted a lot of criticism from the environmental movement right from the start. It only really got going because Bush gave huge subsidies to producers, thereby winning himself votes in crucial grain-porducing states.

    Ironically, the first leader to speak out against it was Fidel Castro – in pretty much the same terms we’re using here: the rich turning the poor’s food into their car’s fuel. I seem to remember he got mocked.

  18. I actually agree with you about biofuel, SR but not on electrical individual transport. I’m a motorhead myself but I can’t get past the argument that it is simply unsustainable. Especially in light of the fact that so much energy is used just to build cars (by some estimates 80% of the energy used over an average car’s life). I’m afraid that taking the electric train is going to become a way of life for most Kiwis.

    I know the right don’t like that idea (probably something to do with their phobia of society) but I don’t think it’s too bad. In fact I’m quite looking forward to the inevitable slow-down.

  19. Agree with your last post steve. What we need is government which is strong enough to stand up to selfish rich interest groups who have no interest in the efficient use of the world’s finite resources – we need to create incentives to use scarce and precious resources efficiently, and disincentives for using them inefficiently. Sadly however, the right will fight that tooth and nail because the cling to 19th century economically liberailst notions which have an inherently short-term “me, me, me” focus.

  20. Matthew Pilott 20

    Biofuel, if managed correctly, could significantly reduce global greenhouse gas problems. For this to work, you need to believe greenhouse gasses are a major problem, one that takes precedence over pretty much all others, and understand the carbon cycle (natural and unnatural). It’s a short term fix while alternatives are implemented – or at least it should be.

    NZ easily has the potential to internalise all our biofuel production. The capitalist system has managed to stop the third world from getting food for near on half a decade at least, so it’s a bit rich to blame it on biofuels!

    slightlyrighty, the problem is not the internal combustion engine – I don’t have a reference handy, but I think that transport emissions account for less than 10% of the golbal greenhouse gas output. Energy production is far worse. As at 1990, the Russian Federation’s electricity generation accounted for 2% of global emmissions – a truly staggering amount.

    I’d like to see a lot more work thrown at hydrogen fuel cell technology as it can tackle both transport and electricity generation – a genuine ‘two birds with one stone’ solution.

  21. “Why? because of the climate change nutters forcing the US farmers (amongst others) to switch to growing corn via massive subsidies.”

    Think you’ll find that’s actually the US corn industry Bill – go to “the oil drum” blog for more details

  22. Scribe 22


    What we need is government which is strong enough to stand up to selfish rich interest groups who have no interest in the efficient use of the world’s finite resources – we need to create incentives to use scarce and precious resources efficiently, and disincentives for using them inefficiently. Sadly however, the right will fight that tooth and nail because the cling to 19th century economically liberailst notions which have an inherently short-term “me, me, me’ focus.

    The irony is that this left government has seen emissions jump drastically under its watch, yet you’re suggesting the right are going to be the problem.

    Nice try though, fella.

    It’ll be interesting watching Labour toot its horn over its climate change policies despite the evidence that it’s been an abject failure on that score.

  23. Rocket Boy 23

    Steve this issue is a 3rd world problem largely due to over population. In the 1st world populations are mostly just replacing themselves or with a declining birth rate actually going backwards. The only thing stopping most 1st world countries populations actually falling is immigration.

    It is a different story in Asia and Africa with rapidly increasing populations. With China one of the few countries actually doing something about this problem.

    If you are serious about finding the solution to the issues you raise maybe you could suggest how places like India and Africa are going to control there populations rather than suggest it is the greedy 1st world stealing from the poor or the fact that most of us eat meat.

  24. Oh yes Rocket Boy – they should take people in hand for breeding too much. As China does. Are you a pinko Rocket boy?

  25. Rocket Boy 25

    What’s a ‘pinko’ Robinsod? Someone who has been out in the sun too long?

  26. r0b 26

    It’ll be interesting watching Labour toot its horn over its climate change policies despite the evidence that it’s been an abject failure on that score.

    I agree that Labour is moving far too slowly on climate change. But at least they are moving. I see no evidence to suggest that National would move any faster. In fact what I see is evidence that National would dearly love to stop, stick it’s head in the sand, and repeat “not our problem, not our problem, not our problem” until drowned by the rising seas.

    I repeat – democracy is not well suited to addressing the looming crises. Within the democratic framework the only way I can see to really address these issues (peak oil, peak food, climate change) is a truly binding multi-partisan process. Take it off the table as a political issue. Get an all party working group (based on sound scientific advice) to work out what needs to be done. Do it. No politics.

    In my dreams eh?

  27. slightlyrighty 27

    What do you think of the Policy announced by Key today, to invest up to 1.5 billion to roll out fibre-optic cable nationwide by 2014. Virtual meetings and telecommuting would also cut down on fossil fuel consumption would it not?

  28. higherstandard 28


    In my dreams eh

    Sadly yes – case in point the UN.

  29. Matthew Pilott 29

    Rocket Boy – a one (simplistic) sentence explanation:

    People breed more when they are poor because it is considered a sign of security to have many children, thus the developed world’s deprivation of the developing world is to blame for population growth; it is not a ‘third world problem’ because the developing world accounts for a miniscule proportion of historical global greenhouse gasses which are the cause of current food shortages…

    slightlyrighty – it sure would, maybe 0.0002% in the forseeable future. As said – it’s energy production, not transport.

    r0b – National enthusically received the ‘fast follower’ recommendation, did they not?

    While I wish the issue could be de-politicised, while politics continues to have some influence on the matter this cannot occur.

  30. “Firstly, current fuel prices have nothing to do with peak oil.”

    Bill – non-opec production is going to peak around 2010 – no experts doubt that. OPEC is a cartel and wants top dollar for its non-renewable resource. So we’re seeing the beginning of an artificial peek now with constrained supply, both geological and political. And of course it’s driving prices up.

  31. r0b 31

    HS, MP – I agree – the chances of depoliticising this and taking real action are effectively nil. My only conclusion is a pretty depressing one. We get to ride the big slide, and it’s not going to be pretty.

    Please, someone, convince me that the glass is half full?

  32. higherstandard 32


    Don’t give up on the human race it can always surprise for the good as well as the bad

  33. “The irony is that this left government has seen emissions jump drastically under its watch, yet you’re suggesting the right are going to be the problem.”

    This Labour government is more right-wing than any government which existed during the 60s or 70s. It’s hardly a left-wing government.

  34. Harrison 34

    Luckily we live in a benign strategic environment, so that NZ will never feel threatened by our near (and not so near neighbours eh?)

    Anyone recall the Club of Rome report back in the 70’s?

  35. r0b 35

    Don’t give up on the human race it can always surprise for the good as well as the bad

    On a small local scale yes. On a global scale? I’d like to hope so, and I admire your optimism, but I don’t share it.

  36. Rocket boy:

    “Steve this issue is a 3rd world problem largely due to over population. In the 1st world populations are mostly just replacing themselves or with a declining birth rate actually going backwards.”

    It’s equally as much about the way in which resources are being used as it is about population – i.e. even if population stays stable in the US, the way in which they’re using their land is unsustainable.

  37. Edosan 37

    A widescale shift to vegetarianism *would* solve much of the food problem plus a number of problems involving environmental degradation. Growing crops takes far less water and produces far more calories per acre (around 200 times) than raising livestock. If everyone was vegetarian the world could easily support a much larger population. Whether this is a good thing is open to debate obviously.
    I don’t think people in food scarce parts of the world need to be convinced of this, rioters in Haiti or Egypt would, I’m sure, prefer grains/beans/vegetables over…. well nothing. The problem is that more money can be made selling grains to livestock farmers who can then get more money shipping their product to the rich world. The result: less actual food available on the ground in many parts of the developing world.
    If you remove the drive for profit by (some) farmers, and improve the situation with less emphasis on the production of meat, the picture starts to look a lot better.
    As Amartya Sen said: There was never a famine in the world that was not man made.

  38. higherstandard 38


    “There was never a famine in the world that was not man made.’

    Now that really is poppycock.

  39. Hillary 39

    Perhaps climate change will create the kind of conditions required to move away from our present form of capitalism, to a more sustainable economic system that does not encourage greed and selfishness the way capitalism does. The answer is clearly not communism, but it is not capitalism either, unless it is dramatically adapted.

  40. Monty 40

    For a hundreds years they have been talking about the world’s food production not being able to match population growth. That has turned out to be a crock. The issue never has been capability of production, but rather supply – to the areas where food is needed – the the corrupt countries of the world such as is found with too much abundance on the africian continent the food never gets to where is it needed.

    On the other hand capitalist countries that reward effort never go hungary. Farmers are incentivised to produce variou products to meet national and international demand.

    Reward for effort means farmers will grow as much as they can. And of course there are always being developed better seeds that can produce more in a wider variety of conditions. Those efforts are the result of research by big Multi-nationals. Their incentive may be profit (and I think that is a good thing) but the profit can also go (and is multiplied many times over) by the farmers who grow the product, the processing factories, the transport lines and even the consumer. T

    The problem with th eleft and socialists is that they do not have any understanding of macro-economics. Socialists are inward looking, and tend to blame everyone but the utopian societies they strive but always fail to deliver.

  41. r0b 41

    On the other hand capitalist countries that reward effort never go hungary.

    You mean like America during the Great Depression?

  42. infused 42

    There is no oil problem. Peak oil is a load of shit. Maybe you should read about the new oil fields being drilled at the moment. Everytime you post Steve it hurts my brain. Not because I can’t understand you, but because of how stupid you really are.

  43. r0b 43

    Infused, your pronouncements on scientific matters shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than that which comes out of the South end of a North bound bullock.

    You know three fifths of bugger all about depleted uranium:

    Five years of hell

    and I’ll venture that you know less about peak oil.

    Go read this post here:

    Guest post: Simon Tegg on Peak Oil

    then go check out his website:
    download and read his two papers.

    Then come back to us and talk about peak oil.

  44. Ren Stimpy 44

    Someone called Malthus made a very similar claim several hundred years ago. He was, and still is, wrong.

  45. r0b 45

    Yes of course, because I have never broken my leg, my leg is therefore unbreakable.

    In short, no RS, Malthus will have the last laugh on you.

  46. Matthew Pilott 46

    Monty, your problem is that you maybe (don’t quote me here) know nothing but macroeconomics, and think that ‘the economy’ can do everything.

    Try a bit of cultural anthropology, and look at the evolution of civilised societies – where did they occur? River valleys. Why? Because people weren’t scratching a subsistance living out of the earth – they had crop surpluses. This enabled them to barter surplus food to others, who could spend their time doing non-food production tasks.

    Fast forward to now. Food doesn’t get to where it’s needed because the inhabitants of the starving areas are doing just that – starving! It’s a bit hard to get a buck making funky bookends to export to wealthy nations when you’re counting your ribs.

    Given these people can’t grow food due to massive drought, and too hungry to do a hell of a lot, and have nothing in the way of resources – you can take the planet to hell in a handbasket with your macroeconomics or learn how the real world works. What the hell this has to do with ‘the left and socialists’ is beyond me. The invisible hand doesn’t exist, or it fucked up. ‘The left and socialists’ aren’t exactly the biggest fans of your failed economic theories.

  47. Edosan 47

    Matthew: Food doesn’t get to where it’s needed because people are starving.

    Actually, people are starving because food doesn’t get to where it’s needed. I think I’ll have to defend my statement about famines above. Even a couple of years ago in Niger, during a huge famine, there was plenty of food around. The problem was that most people couldn’t afford it. In Niger, like most areas that experience famine, it is only a certain sector of society that is affected. When a large group of people (the poorest) suddenly find themselves without the ability to aquire food, famine occurs.
    It can start with a drought or other natural disaster, which initially depletes some of the supply and drives up prices, but the amount of people that starve to death doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of food left, rather their ability to afford it.
    This happens in third world countries because of the lack of social safety nets and the inneficiant way that land is used. Most crops turn into cash crops for the developed word (at the behest of the IMF), and in times of crises are not very helpful because many are inedible (i.e. coffee or tobacco).
    Yes macroeconomics plays a part. If it’s the type that western countries would like developing countries to have, it usually plays a bad part.

  48. Matthew Pilott 48

    Edosan, you are, of course right, but so am I… It’s a vicious circle – no food, no work. No work, no money. No money, no food.

  49. Draco TB 49

    Someone called Malthus made a very similar claim several hundred years ago. He was, and still is, wrong.

    No, he was just a little early.

    There is no oil problem. Peak oil is a load of shit. Maybe you should read about the new oil fields being drilled at the moment.

    New oil field discoveries peaked in the 1960s when we were finding 6 barrels of oil for every one we used. Now we using 6 for every one we find and the number we are finding is still going down. Several oil companies are spending less on oil discovery today than they were last year.

    A capitalist/nation-state centric world, where the rich can afford to steal from the mouths of the poor
    You mean what’s been happening for the last several centuries then ie, more of the same.

    James lovelock The person who put forward the Gaia hypothesis that all climatology is now based upon. He says we live in interesting times.

    My own take on the matter is that all these things (Peak Oil, Peak Food, Climate Change) will combine into a ‘perfect storm’ sometime in the next 10 to 20 years. There’s nothing that we can do about it except to try and ride it out.

    Even if there was something we could do about it we don’t have the political will to do so either as a democracy or as a dictatorship. There are too many people so a few billion need to be got rid of (any volunteers?). Our supply of cheap energy has run its course so transport and food will become more and more limited. Those with the oil supplies will start to keep it to themselves to keep their own people happy. Peak Food – well, there just isn’t any more land available and what is growing food is losing it’s capability of doing so.

    New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world that can support it’s population but that comes with a price as well. We will have to stop others from coming in otherwise we will lose that ability.

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