Norman Pagett writes:
Food production of grain staples is hitting a plateau at just about the same time as oil has hit its production plateau. There is little doubt that global food producers have reached maximum output. Japanese rice production has not increased in 17 years, European wheat production has not increased in any meaningful sense for a decade. China is fast approaching the same inescapable conclusion, that land will only give so much, and then no more. Oilwells that delivered an energy return of 100:1 70 years ago, now give perhaps 17:1. Much publicised tarsands give no more than 4 or 5 to 1. The correlation between farmland and oilwells is clear: our lives depend on both in equal measure, and we are having to work the land harder and harder to maintain the equilibrium of our living standards. Our economists politicians and religious leaders reassure us that everything is fine, that our food energy sources are secure in the same way that we are being told that our oil energy sources are secure and plentiful.
They are not.
The geopolitics of energy and food are fusing into a single catastrophe.
Falling water tables, ferocious weather patterns, the struggle for control of productive land, rising temperatures, the relentless march of the newborn hungry is compounded by the denial that there’s anything wrong, and everyone is being drawn into the trap of national food protectionism and an outright scarcity that will affect all of us, not just those with the misfortune to live in the deserts of Africa.
The staple commodities that were warehoused into food mountains in the last quarter of the 20th century were the equivalent of the oil gushers of the 30s and 40s. They imprinted our collective memory with images of abundance, a certainty that prosperity was to be infinite. Such colossal food outputs were the result of farming being turned into an intensive profit focused industry, but maximizing output and reducing food prices on that scale had to be guaranteed by government subsidy to maintain the solvency of the farming industry itself. As with our oil production, we got used to cheap and apparently infinite plenty.
But we were not getting cheap food, we were (and are) paying for food twice, once through our taxation (subsidy) system, and again at the supermarket checkout. Neither were we getting cheap oil, the world’s biggest military machine has had to range across the world to protect its own oil supply in a cycle of self-perpetuation. Like farming subsidies, the cost of the military that protects its oil lifeline is paid out of taxation. It costs a $1 trillion a year to police the oil lanes of the Gulf, (and fight a permanent war to keep the bad guys from blocking it altogether) when that is factored in, the real price of oil is at least double, maybe more. So you pay for gas twice.
All that helps to prop up the global Ponzi scheme, where we suck in natural resources at the bottom of the pyramid and pay ourselves cheap food and oil from the top. Like all Ponzi schemes, everyone has to be convinced of its stability, or it collapses. It will collapse anyway when we can no longer afford that military support.
When the food production boom kicked off, the world had around 3 billion inhabitants. ‘Improved’ farm outputs meant cheap food and we ate well. But we also reproduced well, and just like any other species our numbers expanded to gobble up that excess food; we now have over 200,000 new people arriving every day.
This put pressure on food supplies so grain prices doubled in 2007/8, when world production lagged behind demand, and became a major driving force that fuelled the discontent of the Arab spring. Like every other revolution in history, the cost of bread ultimately topples dictators; Thailand rice farmers began guarding their fields at night because their crop had so much value, Mexicans rioted over the cost of tortillas, Russia closed its export markets. This is not a phenomenon that is going to go away because the inescapable reality of global warming will reduce global grain yields by 10% for every 10C in temperature rise. Already falling USA corn yields confirms this.
At the very minimum global temperature is going to rise by 20C, it could well rise by 60C by the end of the century. A forecast rise in population of 25% and a food reduction of 40% makes for some pretty violent arithmetic in whichever part of the world you call home.