Change Alley

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Peak Food

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'Peak Everything' Richard HeinbergRichard Heinberg is an American writer who is probably best known for his work on Peak Oil, the proposition that global oil production has reached, or is about to reach, a maximum from which the only way is down. The cocktail of declining output and rapidly growing demand has dire consequences for all aspects of our economies that rely on plentiful supplies of cheap energy. If you seriously think there’s any component of our way of life that’s immune to Peak Oil, you might consider a change of medication.

In his 2007 book ‘Peak Everything: Waking Up To The Century Of Decline In Earth’s Resources‘, Heinberg widens his scope to embrace not just energy, but other crucial areas such as agriculture, water, population and climate stability. In a chapter entitled ’50 Million Farmers’, he postulates that the era of abundant, cheap food is ending, and discusses four key factors that will reacquaint the well-fed West with the old spectre of famine. Although written from an American perspective, this analysis is relevant to all developed economies.

Looming fuel shortages

Agriculture accounts for about 17% of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries.
“About 1500 litres of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year.
“Every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil fuel inputs.”

A shortage of farmers

“The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60.
“The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9% in 1982 to 5.8% in 2002.”

An increasing scarcity of fresh water

“Over 80% of water consumed [in the US] goes toward agriculture.”

Global Climate Change

” ‘Global warming’ …. implies only that the world’s average temperature will be increasing by a couple of degrees 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 … unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a clmate 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 production.”

Heinberg rejects 21st Century techno-fixes such as GM crops, on the grounds that they are still heavily dependent on a fuel-fed industrial system. He believes that we must de-industrialise agriculture, reducing fossil fuel inputs, increasing labour inputs and reducing transport, with the emphasis on production for local consumption. Citing examples such as Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, WW2 Victory Gardens (the equivalent of British allotments) and the Permaculture movement, he argues it is possible in principle for industrial economies to move to smaller-scale food production systems that don’t depend on fossil fuel inputs.

But we need more farmers. This implies people who aren’t afraid of hard physical work and who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. I just wonder if, collectively, we’re up to the task.

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Written by Pete Smith

April 29, 2008 at 10:06 am

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  1. […] put forward as to what is causing the crisis.  Pete from Change Alley has a good post up here but even so, it seems so wrong that the traders are allowed to worsen the situation and play […]


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