What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out? by Richard Heinberg
“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. . . .” (Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO)
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 [fossil]-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 the degradation 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.
(Photo by trazmumbalde)