17 May 2005

When food production passes its peak

When the oil is gone
Suburbs will collapse into slums. Farmhand will be a more viable career choice than public relations executive. And avoiding starvation will replace avoiding boredom as the national pastime.

Those are just a few of the predictions that James Howard Kunstler makes in his new book. "The Long Emergency" paints a dystopic view of the United States in the wake of what Kunstler dubs the "cheap oil fiesta." It's a future the author insists is not apocalyptic. Calling it the end of the world would be too easy.

No, Kunstler believes the human race will survive as we slip down the other side of Hubbert's Oil Peak. But the high standard of living we've built by gorging on cheap oil will not. America, as a political entity, will be history too.

Kunstler is apocalyptic, but then so are the consequences of an oil-based world falling over the peak and down the other side. Oil is not, principally, about transport. Oil is about food.

The oil we eat
The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There’s a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

Measuring Food by the Mile

Now researchers in Britain and Germany have started to investigate the composite distances travelled by food, taking into account their ingredients and the materials for their packaging. To produce a small glass jar of strawberry yogurt for sale in Stuttgart, strawberries were being transported from Poland to west Germany and then processed into jam to be sent to southern Germany. Yogurt cultures came from north Germany, corn and wheat flour from the Netherlands, sugar beet from east Germany, and the labels and aluminium covers for the jars were being made over 300 km away. Only the glass jar and the milk were produced locally.

In counting the yogurt's environmental costs, the lorry emerged as the main culprit. contributing to noise, danger and pollution. The study found that to bring one lorry-load of yogurt pots to the south German distribution centre a 'theoretical' lorry must be moved a total of 1005 km, using some 400 litres of diesel fuel.

But there are a whole range of further hidden miles that these calculations ignore. To grow the strawberries for the jam for the yogurt, the farmer uses fossil fuels to plant, spray and harvest the fruit, and the sprays he uses have themselves been manufactured and distributed at some environmentat cost. The aluminium for the yogurt jar lids has come from mines many thousands of miles from the packaging plant. Then there is the machinery used for packaging the yogurt, which had to be brought in from Switzerland, perhaps, or Britain, to say nothing of the transport of the workers in the yogurt processing plant going to and from their homes every day. And the transport of shoppers from their homes to the shops, in order to buy the yogurt.. So the circle widens, at every point adding to the real costs of the yogurt, but which do not get added to the price and instead must be paid for in other ways at other times.

It's hard not to be apocalyptic about the prospect of collapse in the production and distribution of food. It perhaps requires a slightly more dynamic policy approach than foreign invasions or repealing environmental laws.

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