Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on February 24, 2014

Bookmark and Share

Tackling food security with a growing population, climate change and peak oil

With a growing population and improving diets there is a need to double our food supply by 2050. Identify three measures you would take to meet this demand. Identify one of your measures from your list and post your solution into the discussion – be prepared to defend your choice!

That is a big question to throw in a climate change course. I am presently doing an online course – Climate Change: Challenges and solutions – offered by the University of Exeter (UK). So please indulge me as I also use this blog for some climate course work. This article is for week 6, section 6.5 of the course on ‘Tackling food security’.

Food security is one helluva big area to try and come to terms with. Earth’s population is just over 7 billion people. It is projected by the United Nations in a June 2013 report on global population to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, although some commentators like David Merkel think it may peak at 8.5 billion around 2030 due to officials underestimating the fall in the fertility rate.

Currently, at least one billion people are constantly hungry or living under the threat of hunger.

Agricultural productivity of the last century has been brought about by the energy input from fossil fuels. There is a strong recent correlation between soaring food costs and soaring oil costs. With Peak oil, energy costs can expect to increase much further, placing further costs on food production. A FAO 2011 report says: “Commodity prices tend to be linked with global energy prices. As energy prices fluctuate and trend upwards, so do food prices”.

”Feeding a growing world population will require a 60 percent increase in food production by 2050, but we are not going to be able to meet that goal the way we did during the Green Revolution, relying on fossil fuels,” said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources and the Environment. “A very different approach is required.”

The food sector accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and
accounts for around 22 percent of total Greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Most of the big productivity gains of the Green revolution ocurred due to substantial intensification of energy inputs into agriculture through fossil fuels. From non-organic fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation of farming practices, increased processing, refrigeration, packaging and transport to more distant markets and more urbanised consumers.

Ten measures to increase food production sustainably

So I sat down and brainstormed ten measures to increase food production, keeping in mind the increasing problem of peak oil and need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for climate change. Yes, I know, the course only wanted me to list three and argue for one! I got carried away.

We are now facing the prospect of increasing productivity to feed a growing global population, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, and fossil fuels becoming progressively more expensive due to peak oil. The large easily accessed oil fields are now in decline, and to maintain production we are more reliant on fossil fuels both harder to access and more expensive such as Arctic oil, deep sea oil, coal seam gas and tight shale oil. Some of the methods of accessing fossil fuels are either far more polluting, risk chemical contamination of groundwater and can impact agricultural productivity.

So here is my quick list of 10 measures we should be implementing to tackle food security and reducing fossil fuel use in the food sector:

  • 1. Reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy for agricultural production to counter the threat of peak oil and reduce agricultural production of carbon emissions. Reduce non-organic fertilizers and pesticides by adopting integrated pest and weed management techniques, and shifting to crop varieties and animal breeds that require fewer inputs.
  • 2. Reduce ruminants for food and emphasise health importance of a dietary change to less red meat, enabling increased water efficiency and crop production for human consumption. This also reduces agricultural methane production.
  • 3. Reduce food waste (About one third of food produced each year – 1.3 billion tonnes – is wasted) Better logistics and energy efficiency in food manufacturing, processing, packaging and transport would help to reduce this, but increased regulation and prevention of food dumping and waste practices in the food chain from producer to end retailer needs to be enacted. Composting food waste by consumers needs to be encouraged to reduce decomposition and methane production in landfill sites.
  • 4. Encourage consumption from local production rather than long distance and out of season imports (Awareness of food miles), which reduces transport CO2 emissions. Encourage Urban agriculture.
  • 5. Natural Water retention and water storage needs to be enhanced to enable greater crop productivity. The health of river ecosystems needs to be carefully managed and not over allocated for agriculture, especially wetlands which provide important ecological services especially in times of drought as a biodiversity refuge. Ground water aquifers need to be protected from contamination or water table alteration by mining (eg open cut coal mining, fracking for coal seam gas or tight oil deposits)
  • 6. Adopt more intensive organic and agroecological practices, including greater permaculture, companion planting practices, agroforestry, crop rotation and land for wildlife.
  • 7. Reduce monoculture practices.
  • 8. Encourage preservation and production of heritage plant species for their genetic diversity, enabling the crossbreeding for producing new varieties tolerant to specific threats in the future.
  • 9. Develop closed cycle aquaponics for intensive horticultural production and aquaculture to supply fish protein.
  • 10. Greater emphasis on soil carbon farming to both enrich soils and act as a carbon storage sink. Reduce soil erosion. See FAO on Greater focus on soil health needed to feed a hungry planet

None of these will be easy to do, but I suspect all will need to be done to lift agricultural productivity while reducing fossil fuel energy input.

Transitioning industrial agriculture to organics and agroecology

In my search for some answers and solutions I stumbled upon a seminar held by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) on 25th April 2012 in Stockholm: 100 % Agroecology Can Feed the World. The presentations were videoed and the powerpoint slides published.

Johanna Björklund, Teaching Professor of Agroecology, Örebro University, argues in her presentation that “To feed an increasing global population and in the same time cope with climate change and ecosystem degradation the large-scale, low productive and extensive mode of food production in industrial countries needs to be abandoned.”

Björklund puts forward some Non negotiable demands on the future food system:

  • More food with less use of water and without fossil fuels
  • Agricultural areas needs to sequestrer carbon
  • Drastically reduced input of new nitrogen fertilizers
  • No more phosphorus which ends up in the oceans
  • Extinction of species need to be halter to at least 10 per cent of today
  • Decreased meat consumption in developed countries

Björklund presentation on The potential of a productive, fossil fuel free agriculture based on ecosystem services is worthwhile watching on Youtube or below. Slide Presentations are also available for viewing. She also emphasised that urban agriculture can play an important part of ensuring food security.


At the same session in Stockholm Hans Herren, Director of the Millenium Institute, gave a presentation on Action plan for changing course in agriculture in which he outlined the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) global assessment reportAgriculture at a Crossroads. This report was prepared by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) by the Division of Early Warning and Assessment. Watch the video, or slide presentation:

Herren has done agricultural modelling to show that transitioning our industrial agriculture to more organic and sustainable agro-ecological methods is possible to feed a larger population with increased productivity, greater employment, increased soil quality, reduced water use, reduced deforestation, providing a more than adequate calorie supply to each person on the planet. A matter of changing agricultural policies and methods and consumer behaviour.

In 2013 Dr. Hans R. Herren, and Millenium Institute partner Biovision Foundation, were selected as a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, “for his expertise and pioneering work in promoting a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply.”

One of the concerns with organic methods of agriculture is that yields are substantially less than conventional agricultural methods, although often this is made up in social, ecosystem and biodiversity benefits. On the same day as the symposium in Stockholm Natasha Gilbert outlined in a news article in Nature magazine that Organic farming is rarely enough with Conventional agriculture giving higher yields under most conditions. This article draws upon the research by Verene Seufert et al (2012) in Nature who say in their study – Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture:

Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

FAO: Energy Smart agriculture needed

Since the 2011 UN Durban Climate change conference the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been pushing for Energy-smart agriculture to escape the fossil fuel trap.

“There is justifiable concern that the current dependence of the food sector on fossil fuels may limit the sector’s ability to meet global food demands. The challenge is to decouple food prices from fluctuating and rising fossil fuel prices,” said an FAO paper published during the Durban UN Conference on Climate Change in 2011.

According to the report, the food sector (including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation marketing and consumption) accounts for around 95 exa-Joules (1018 Joules), approximately 30 percent of global energy consumption, and produces over 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

On-farm direct energy use amounts to around 6 exa-Joules per year, if human and animal power are excluded — just over half of that is in OECD countries. On farms, energy is used for pumping water, housing livestock, cultivating and harvesting crops, heating protected crops, and drying and storage. After harvest, it is used in processing, packaging, storing, transportation and consumption.

“The global food sector needs to learn how to use energy more wisely. At each stage of the food supply chain, current practices can be adapted to become less energy intensive,” said FAO Assistant Director-General for Environment and Natural Resources, Alexander Mueller.

At the farm level this includes more fuel efficient engines, use of compost and precision fertilizers, irrigation monitoring and targeted water delivery, adoption of no-till farming practices and the use of less-input-dependent crop varieties and animal breeds says the FAO report.

After food has been harvested, more efficient transport and logistics, better insulation of food storage facilities, reductions in packaging and food waste, and more efficient cooking devices offer help to reduce energy use in the food sector.

Losses and wastage in the food system presently amount to around one-third of all food produced, which includes the energy that is embedded in it. Reducing this loss also saves substantial energy.

Agriculture also has some potential for providing some of it’s own energy through processing wastes to produce biogas which can supplement solar, wind, hydro, geothermal or biomass energy resources where they exist.

“Using local renewable energy resources along the entire food chain can help improve energy access, diversify farm and food processing revenues, avoid disposal of waste products, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, and help achieve sustainable development goals,” the FAO report says.

The FAO energy smart food for people and climate program is based on three pillars:

  • (i) providing energy access for all with a focus on rural communities;
  • (ii) improving energy efficiency at all stages of the food supply chain; and
  • (iii) substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy systems in the food sector.

Watch a September 2013 youtube video of Peter Holmgren from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation on climate smart agriculture


Food miles and food transport

We live in a globalised economy where food is often transported over long distances, often to places where it is out of season. But this uses transport which utilizes primarily fossil fuel energy. Much food is transported over long distances by road, rail and shipping. The FAO report says “Air transport is costly in terms of energy intensity and economic costs, therefore rarely used. For example, only 0.5 percent of the fresh fruit imported to the USA is shipped by air (Bernatz, 2010).

Globalization in the past two decades appears to have increased the average distance travelled by food products by 25 percent.” This has lead many aware consumers in the developed world to look at ‘food miles’, although some point out that Food miles can mislead and total carbon footprinting may be more important for analysing the food we buy.

The report does suggest better labelling on retail food packaging to display the energy used in the production, processing, packaging and distribution of the product so that consumers could consider the energy and GHG implications when making purchases. But this would require development of international standards for measuring energy consumption using standardized Life Cycle Assessment methodologies to assess each stage of the food chain.

“The key question at hand is not, ‘If or when we should begin the transition to energy-smart food systems?’ but rather ‘how can we get started and make gradual but steady progress?” said Mueller in the 2011 FAO media release.

There is at least one example of a country being forced to make the transition to low fossil fuel input into agriculture: Cuba.

Cuba’s transition to permaculture with early onset of peak oil

When the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union reduced it’s fossil fuel subsidies to Cuba in the 1990s we saw a taste of what Peak Oil might mean for a fossil fuel dependant economy. Cuba embarked on fuel rationing which entailed transforming their energy and agricultural systems. The film The power of Community. How Cuba Survived peak Oil provides lessons for us all when the oil starts running out. Watch the Youtube video below


The impact of reduced availability of fossil fuels on Cuban life was transformative. It entailed a major shift in agricultural practices to organic and permaculture methods with much more labour intensive small farm activity, along with urban permaculture. Transport was also shaken up with more emphasis on living locally, using public transport and cycling. It wasn’t an easy transition to make for most people.

Are we ready for such a transition? The earlier we start, the more preparation we make, the easier it will be on the communities we live within. The threat of peak oil and climate change has sparked the Transition Towns movement, a global movement to build community resilience and sustainability to the threats posed by climate change and peak oil. Another small part of the solution.

Climate Citizen

13 Comments on "Tackling food security with a growing population, climate change and peak oil"

  1. rollin on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 4:11 am 

    These have been the best of times when cheap and easy to get fuels have combined with high tech and extreme communication. If during the best of times we really only feed 6 billion, how can we expect to feed 10 billion in the future?

    Take a look at Cuba now.

  2. andya on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 5:50 am 

    •1. Reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy for agricultural production to counter the threat of peak oil and reduce agricultural production of carbon emissions. Reduce non-organic fertilizers and pesticides by adopting integrated pest and weed management techniques, and shifting to crop varieties and animal breeds that require fewer inputs.

    Easier said then done. The reason we use energy and fertiliser is because that’s the easiest way to get the big yields. Output = input – entropy, moar inputs means more output, less inputs = less output. That’s why nitrogen fertilisers are so widely used, because it works. Add it to any major crop, instant yield increase.

  3. andya on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 5:57 am 

    In 2013 Dr. Hans R. Herren, and Millenium Institute partner Biovision Foundation, were selected as a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, “for his expertise and pioneering work in promoting a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply.”

    Note well, He is a promoter, not a doer. I am a doer, and he has NFI what he is talking about. If organic had a higher output then non organic Big Ag et al would be doing it, organic has been around for thousands of years, yet in terms of yield cannot compete with fertiliser, herbicides and insecticides.

  4. Northwest Resident on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 6:50 am 

    andya — I believe on a square foot by square foot basis, you get much more yield out of organic if it is done right. That’s based on several books I’ve read on permaculture written by experienced farmers. And the food grown in that square foot contains more nutrients when grown organic. But of course, growing organic is not possible to do on the industrial scale that is required to feed billions of people. To do that, you need fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides — and more.

    9.6 billion people by 2050 — I doubt it.

  5. Steve French on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 8:47 am 

    While I certainly agree with most issues raised here, there is one point (well actually point 2 in the quick list) which says “reduce ruminants”. This is a very common misconception amongst those who have only looked at ruminants as it applies to USA where most beef is produced with by feeding steers grain. This is what produces the methane that is some often referred to. Beef raised on grass produce very little methane. It is not natural for cattle to eat grain. Grain fed beef, as is the norm in USA, is unnatural and is pretty much a way to turn oil into second rate beef. Pasture feed beef is a great way to manage land and restore it to a healthy state. It is also extraordinarily healthy to eat.

  6. Davy, Hermann, MO on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 12:27 pm 

    absurd futile hopeless impractical inconceivable insurmountable preposterous unattainable unimaginable unreasonable unthinkable unworkable

    OK, That is what I think about doubling the food supply by 2050.

    10 measures responses
    1 reduce fossil input
    The unintended consequences of this could be less food and a serious disruption to a huge business segment in the global market. Long term productivity would go up but with less production
    2 reduce cattle
    Cattle have their niche in huge areas of land only properly used for grazing. Cattle grazed on grass and not fed corn are not a handicap although water may be an issue.
    3 reduce waste
    This is a no brainer but at some point diminishing returns are reached.
    4 local food
    No brainer excellent ideas. Yet, we must not discount long distance food grown with comparative advantage delivered by large ships by water in or out of season.
    5 Water management
    No brainer excellent ideas
    6 Permaculture
    No brainer excellent ideas
    7 reduce monoculture
    Excellent idea but of course certain areas have a comparative ecological advantage in monocultures. Wheat and rice come to mind in certain sweet spots.
    8 Heritage species
    Very important idea that is seeing a comeback in gardening but must move into production AG varieties that will need to no longer be crafted for large fossil driven monocultures.
    9 fish farms
    I would say yes on land but not sure how good it is in the ocean. The ocean fish stock needs to be better managed and not exploited.
    10 Soil carbon farming
    Excellent idea along with all those other practices that build top soil.

    Some great ideas we have seen so many times. It is plain to see over population will not be overcome with the three critical inputs to life that of energy, water, and food production. These inputs make up the triangle of tradeoffs. Each corner if increased adversely effects the other corners. You can’t have more of each without reducing the other corners. One or both of the other corners must be reduced for other activities. These is also the inverse relationship. More water use means less of the others. All corners currently are depleting.

  7. andya on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 2:44 pm 

    NR, keep in mind most organics still use fertiliser and insecticides and FF. While experts may be able to match yields for certain products, my observation of people who go organic is that there is a reduction of a good 30% in production. These people are not experts, but neither are they noobs. Fukuoaka was producing in the top 10% of rice and barley farmers in Japan without fertiliser, herbicides, insecticides or tilling. Which is incredible, what is more incredible to me, is how truly unique he was.
    Organic food may be more nutrient dense then conventional, though there are more then a few studies that question this. I can see how it is possible if you add a more nutrient rich fertiliser, but long term unless you have a closed nutrient cycle you will deplete the nutrients all the same. The nutrients in soil are finite, but they have an infinite lifespan. They can be infinitely recycled if we choose to do so. They tried irrigating some land with a liquid from the local sewerage treatment plant near me. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the smell. Haven’t done it again after 6 months and counting.

  8. Northwest Resident on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 3:14 pm 

    andya — I can’t really speak from a depth of experience because this is going to be the first year that I actually implement what I have been learning. But there is an excellent book which out of all the others I have read is the one I picked to be my “bible”. The book linked below teaches absolute “closed system” nutrient recycling, with composting be a critical factor in the quality of food grown. No pesticides or herbicides are used — if done right, the soil and proper crop rotation eliminates most of the pest problems. The soil is a key element — undisturbed soil seems to take on a life of its own and is a big contributor to the ability of the crops to take nutrients from the ground. The writer sure seems to know what he’s talking about, and it is a best-selling book. He gets as much or more produce out of his quarter acre than a regular style farmer gets out of seven acres — if I remember correctly. Read it yourself, if interested:

  9. ghung on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 5:03 pm 

    Here’s a pretty good article on getting better production from your soil: Rule #1 – quit beating up on the organisms already in the soil (no/reduced till).

    “Soil improvement is a matter of providing the right nutrients and letting nature take over. Using compost, mulching deeply, and limiting tilling will nurture the microorganisms — such has root fungi — that make garden soil productive.”

    h ttp://

  10. GregT on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 9:22 pm 

    Seems like a no brainer to me.

    In order to avert the consequences of catastrophic runaway climate change we need to stop burning fossil fuels. The end of fossil fuels means the end of modern industrial society and therefore hundreds of millions of jobs. Cities become death traps for lack of food. People move from the cities to rural areas and grow their own food. Those that are able to sustain themselves in the new world without excess cheap energy survive. Those that cannot make a go of it solve the overpopulation problem.

    Or, we ignore the reality of our situation and keep trying to find ways to sustain a population that is in overshoot. We continue to burn all of the fossil fuels available to us, and keep searching for technologies to promote population growth. Eventually we render the Earth past the point of no return, and we kill most, if not all life on the planet.

    The end.

  11. Northwest Resident on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 9:55 pm 

    GregT — That is a hardcore assessment, and a very accurate one IMO. Every day that BAU continues we push enormous volumes of additional CO2 and other pollutants into the air, we wipe out more irreplaceable species, we mow down more forests, we poison more water, we burn up more of EVERYTHING that will be needed for future generations of humanity to make a decent go of writing another (and hopefully better) chapter in the book of human existence. We are wasting everything, just to keep the 7 billion and their small group of masters going for another day. What’s the point? If I knew for a fact that every day I lived my son’s life would become increasingly worse, then I’d be going full hari-kari mode, and it wouldn’t take a lot of deliberation. If we know for a fact that we’re making life for subsequent humans — our children and their children — worse every day by keeping BAU going, then doesn’t it make sense to pull the plug? Just a rhetorical question. End of rant.

  12. andya on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 10:23 pm 

    NR that’s 28x more yield. I am sincere when I say the author is a lying sack of shit. That’s like saying a regular farmer grows 10foot corn, and he grows 280foot corn.
    A top farmer may outproduce an idiot by maybe double possibly a little bit more, but comparing a top farmer to an idiot is hardly a fair comparison anyway.
    I have had some discussions about till/no till and it seems that tilling alters the microbial/fungal balance in favour of microbes. Forest systems are fungal systems, while annual crops prefer microbial systems. So while you are beating up the fungal systems, you are helping the microbial systems. No till is better in terms of soil conservation ie erosion, but tilling is helpful in certain situations.
    It’s funny how Ghung’s article assumes that it’s the microorganisms that make the soil more productive, not the nutrients it receives from the compost et al. It’s all part of it, compost = fertiliser. Compare compost with tilling to compost with no tilling for a more accurate assessment.

  13. Northwest Resident on Mon, 24th Feb 2014 10:33 pm 

    andya — That 7 acres was a guess based on best recall from reading the book cover to cover a few months ago — don’t hold me to it. Much of the increased productivity comes from how the seedlings are handled and planted much more precisely via the author’s method, versus the wider spread from mechanized approaches. You can call this author a lying sack of shit and an idiot if you want, but the farming methods he employs are well known, respected, and derived from self-sustaining peoples in the past who had to feed themselves and their families with very little land. I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe andya — laugh and call names at your own peril — I’m just trying to add a little perspective to your claim that industrial farming out-produces organic farming, which it doesn’t on a square foot by square foot basis if the organic is done right — if not for your benefit since you already know everything you need to know apparently, but for the benefit of others who might be reading this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *