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 â€˜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?