Monday, June 12, 2006

"Peak Food"?

I have referred to "Peak Oil" and alluded to "Peak Gas" and "Peak Uranium", but alarmingly it appears that "Peak Food" may be on its way too. In fact these issues are all connected. The profligate use of hydrocarbon resources to simply be burnt in internal combustion engines is a deplorable and unsustainable practice. In the U.K. alone, 54 million tonnes of oil (equivalent) is burnt for transportation, and almost a quarter of that is consumed by the burgeoning aviation industry. Although I fly far less than I used to, I am not a saint, and when I do, I look for the cheapest flights the same as everyone else. For example, when I fly to Bratislava in Slovakia, I can get a return from Luton airport for around £40 ($72) which is less than the return train fare from Reading to Luton. I realise, however, that I am not going to be able to do this for too much longer - and moreover, neither will anybody else be able to, which is going to hit the world tourism industry soundly hard.
The prognosis is that beyond the maximum in oil production "Peak Oil", fuel and all other hydrocarbon based products will become increasingly expensive. This includes, in fact, everything that I can think of, and since pesticides and fertilisers are manufactured on a huge scale using oil or gas both as chemical feedstock and fuel, food production is heavily reliant on hydrocarbon resources, and so its price will initially rise, and its production level may ultimately become compromised. These are all complex issues, and before the ultimate "Armageddon" or "Mad Max" scenario of "post-Peak Oil" might occur (the Mad Max films represented a post-apocalyptic world in which the survivors would kill one another for a can of gasoline, such was its limited supply), we are likely to see price rises, potential panic on the stock markets, businesses and whole countries becoming bankrupt - in short a crash of 1929 proportions or worse. Most likely worse, since in all previous "oil-crisis" episodes, the cause was political; this time around, the precipitating factor will be the lack of the resource itself, as it becomes more costly in terms of energy to draw from the Earth. And there is no way around that - no more "gushers" certainly, and no more giant fields from which the black gold might be pumped in the quantity that the world and its population of around 6.5 billion has grown and fed upon.
For these and other reasons, principally concerns about global warming, alternative fuels are being sought, in an attempt to break our dependence on oil. A major alternative fuel is bioethanol, formed by fermenting sugar derived from plants such as sugar-beet and sugar cane, although other more highly yielding crops are under current investigation, and also from corn. Growing "corn" for bioethanol production immediately pits "food production" and "fuel production" at odds with one another. Moreover, there has been considerable speculation as to the viability of "bioethanol" as a fuel, in terms of the energy required to make it as accounted against that provided when it is burned, the details of which I shall consider in a forthcoming posting; however, it is obvious that turning arable land over to fuel production (either biethanol or biodiesel) leaves less available on which to grow food. In the U.K., we grow around just 70% of our own food while the remainder is imported. Growing "fuel-crops" limits this further, and while security of supply, i.e. becoming less dependent on foreign states to supply our fuel, is a commendable goal, even were we to turn all our arable land over to biofuel production, we could still achieve no more than a fraction of the vast quantities used for transportation. I calculated in a previous article "Biofuels - How Practical are They?" that such use of our arable land entirely for fuel production could only provide around 20% of what is actually used by the U.K.
In the U.S., bioethanol is big business, and around 15% of corn grown is, or is set to be, turned into "corn-ethanol". This is a large proportion of the food available to a nation which like the U.K. imports a large quantity of what is actually consumed, and potentially is central to security of supply in terms of food, should the politics of the world turn unusually maverick and food supply, like that of oil, become short. As the bioethanol business booms, there are sufficient putative bioethanol facilities planned in the U.S. to consume anywhere up to 40 % of its entire corn crop, which makes that unwelcome situation worse. It would be a supremely devastating combination of drivers: lack of oil, lack of imported food, and a shortage of home-grown corn turned into bioethanol, if all three cards were to show up in the same hand. Then the game would slip down the costly side of a Hubbert Peak on food provision..."Peak Food" would be with us.

1 comment:

Kirk Sorensen said...

There is a flip-side to this argument, one that was investigated to some degree by Alvin Weinberg and his colleagues at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1960s.

If you had inexpensive nuclear power plants, and you were to use the waste heat from the plant to desalinate seawater, then large areas of coastal desert could be irrigated and serve as cropland.

The solid-core light-water reactors that Weinberg thought might be suited to this task did not turn out to be as inexpensive as he needed for the scheme to work, but that doesn't mean that another nuclear technology might not be up to the challenge.