Peak Food and Peak Water

Peak Oil theorists such as Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Matthew Simmons, and others turn out to be correct. Petroleum supplies are declining as demand increases. This unfolding trend will radically change human habitation on the Earth. Among the consequences will be the drastic reduction of food and fresh water available to people, not only in poorer parts of the globe, but throughout the planet.

Industrial societies with their industrial agriculture are dependent upon fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal for many things, including transportation, electricity, and making plastics and other modern essentials. Oil is the main ingredient in conventional food. As the supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels decline Peak Water and Peak Food will follow. In recent months we have seen the return of food riots in the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa.

In April food prices in the United States saw their biggest jump in 18 years, according to the Labor Department. Prices are up an average of 41% from last year for commodities such as corn and cotton. Fertilizer prices are up a dramatic 65% from a year ago.

Saving Water: From Field to Fork” titles a new study reported in the article “Food Security Requires New Approach to Water” in a May 24 Inter Press Service (IPS) article. A growing scarcity of water threatens food supplies. Food production and agriculture are the largest uses of fresh water, consuming about 70% of water globally, according to the study by the Stockholm International Water Institute. In his book “Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines,” Heinberg says that over 80% of fresh water goes toward agriculture in the United States.

Scare supplies of water, according to the IPS article, “will be a key constraint to food production.” If there is no change in current practices in food production and consumption, according to a contributor to the Stockholm report, “it is likely that twice as much water as that used today would be required by 2015 to produce the world’s required food.” But that amount of water would not be available, indicating the possibility of widespread food fights and even famine.

“Peak Food” is a term that California farmer and author John Jeavons uses in workshops. Jeavons “says peak food is actually related to four other intertwined crises: peak farmable land, peak water, peak oil, and global warming,” according to the article “Monocrops Bring Food Crisis” by Alex Roslin in the Canadian publication www.straight.com.

A solution–according to Jeavons in his classic book How to Grow More Vegetables–is to revive small-scale farming, such as used to prevail in the United States. In addition to Jeavon’s biointensive farming, others advocate the system referred to as permaculture. Heinberg calls for the de-industrialization of agriculture. He says that a key will be getting more farmers and re-ruralization and re-localization.

Food Banks Face Rising Costs,” headlines a May 26 MSNBC article. “While demand is up, supplies and donations are down,” the article reveals. “The way it’s going, we’re going to have a food disaster pretty soon,” the MSNBC article quotes Phyllis Legg of the Merced Food Bank in the foreclosure-ravaged Merced County in California.

“If gas keeps going up, its going to be catastrophic in every possible way,” the article quotes Ross Fraser, a spokesperson for America’s Second Harvest—The Nation’s Food Bank Network. “The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else,” Fraser asserts.

A food bank in Albuquerque, N.M., runs out of food and turns people away. Public school students in Baton Rouge, La. bring home some of their lunches to have something to eat for dinner. A food bank in Lorain, Ohio, meets only 25 to 30% of the need for food. In Stockton, Ca., which has the highest foreclosure rate in the country, customers line up several hours before the food bank’s 10 a.m. opening.

“When people go to the gas pump and watch that dial roll over, there goes breakfast, lunch and dinner. People are living on the edge,” Don Lindsay is quoted in a May 26 article in the New York Times-owned daily Press Democrat of Sonoma County, where this reporter lives in Northern California. Lindsay is operations director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. It feeds 50,000 people in our semi-rural county of around 500,000. Such pantries are an essential aspect of the safety net that is diminishing.

“Present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest—famine,” writes Heinberg.

The electrical grid in Baghdad is not expected to be restored for many years and is already down in other parts of the world, making electricity and it many benefits unavailable. An increasing number of people in parts of Hawai’i, California’s North Coast, and elsewhere are planning for the future by making homes that are off the electrical grid. Industrial societies run on electricity powered by the cheap energy of fossil fuels. As the supply of those energy sources decline and world-wide competition for them through wars and other means heighten, more electrical grids will fail, and with them access to both food and water.

The pace quickens. The signs are more numerous. We need even more than food security; we need food sovereignty. Who controls your food? Growing at least part of one’s own food–and having something to trade–will be essential to survival.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on May 29th, 2008 at 6:42am #

    some of us have for ab. 50yrs noticed that the planet is getting poorer.
    most people took the stance: full ‘progress’ ahead; damn the regress.
    so, the settling the earth is not over for some tiny lands like israel and US.
    and what whether change can do to us, we don’t know. we’ve been ruled over for at least 30,000 yrs by the most cunning/dishonest people among us.
    most people, i deduce, don’t see it as i do. so, they won’t take any action against the greatest crooks that may lead us to more warfare, famines, subjugations, extirpations, etc. thank u.

  2. David said on May 29th, 2008 at 7:57am #

    Don’t anyone notice the 10 ton elephant sitting in the corner.

    Until we address the issue of population, we are going to continue to confront issues with resources, even “renewables.”

  3. Edwin Pell said on May 29th, 2008 at 8:07am #

    In the 1970s we read books like “The Limits to Growth” and thought boy the 21st century will suck. Well we were right but not surprised.

    Yes it is about the population. It will be stable (not increasing rapidly) again. There are only two way this will happen an increase in deaths or a decrease in births. The first is the traditional way. The four horsemen (disease, starvation, war, pollution induced illness). The human way would be to control the number of births to two or less.

  4. Bill said on May 29th, 2008 at 9:02am #

    Well David, funny you would mention the population issue.

    The top 10% have already thought about this. It’s called plague and famine. There are also concentration camps being built in secret places all over the midwest and Montana. They have the same model that the nazi’s had. They are just waiting for another manufactured national emergency to round up “dissidents” – but in actuality they will probably round up, Mexicans, illegal immigrants, gays…or any other scapegoated person..

    Whatever you can imagine happening – they are prepared to go much farther…you think the dollar collapse is just an accident? They are destroying it to align it with the peso to be one step closer to creating the north american union they want.

    Folks can call me a conspiracy theorist if they want…usually a person called that is just one who STILL questions the crap we are fed called news.

    Good Luck

  5. Deadbeat said on May 29th, 2008 at 9:16am #

    “Overpopulation” is a ruse”. The problem is not population. The problem is the maldistribution of wealth and power. “Overpopulation” is about victim blaming and is blantantly racist.

  6. halfjuden said on May 29th, 2008 at 10:12am #

    Overpopulation a ruse? Gosh, all I know is that there is sure a lot less elbow room than 30 years ago. Socialists make the mistake of dismissing overpopulation because indeed the issue has been used as a cop out for enacting any real change and also very racist in a third world context. Unfortunately, distribution of wealth and overpopulation are very real problems.

  7. Max Shields said on May 29th, 2008 at 10:19am #

    DB you are right. The issue of population has been debunked but still comes up on cue whenever “peak” whatever is discussed.

    The key is clearly uttered in the article by Shepherd Bliss when he mentions how these conditions will not change if we do not alter our production or consumption. It is the West and mostly the US and now as China and India jump in who are full bore gouging the natural resources. For China and India they are still primarily producers to the West’s (again mostly the USA) consumer societies.

    Put simply, production is not the real problem it is the other end we choose to ignore – consumption. The consumptive nature of GDP and capitalism is uneconomical. It is destroying the planet. We consume without need. That’s a deep pathology that is eating away at the planet. Change that, you change the equation and correct the course!

    That equation is not “overpopulation”. The poplulation has not contributed to the massive depletion of these resources. It is the industrial progress machine starting in the 18th century onward, and the technology which fosters this dilemma. Read 12 myths of hunger. Population as contributer to hunger is clearly a myth.

    The planet is no where near carrying capacity if humans would live within the constraints of the gift that gives us all life.

  8. bozhidar balkas said on May 29th, 2008 at 12:12pm #

    we need to be careful when talking ab. population and what it causes.
    a nepalese child mya use 1/100th of planetary wealth that a canadian child uses. a child in US may pollute/damage the planet hundred times more than a congolese child.
    we do not know if we could sustain even 30bn people on this planet. the crucial issue we need to deal with is, Can we progress w.o. zero regress?
    if we cannot avoid regress by innovations, then we can stop innovating.
    we’ve had enormous regress. which is ignored by our rulers. obesity, rage, suicide, drug and drink abuse/use, dirty air and water, divorces, unhealthy competition instead of heathly cooperation, huge military, corrupt clergy and politicos ( mind u, we’v always had these;which tells sm’thing) private aircraft, sport , going to moon instead of to earth, etc.
    thank u

  9. Annie said on May 29th, 2008 at 1:17pm #

    Thanks for this article. It has really made me think about my own habits of consumption. Please continue to encourage me on how to live in a more responsible way.

  10. Allan S. said on May 29th, 2008 at 5:34pm #

    Overpopulation is a problem. Even if you distributed the world’s wealth on an equal basis, the toll the earth pays for this is devastating.

    Carrying capacity includes more than just the human population.

    Being that we do have frontal lobes, it is time to consider this an issue. We must manage our own numbers intelligently. How many non-human species must we lose to our own species arrogance?

  11. anthony innes said on May 30th, 2008 at 2:51am #

    Carrying capacity is a fact . Anybody not up to speed on the Earth’s overpopulation is seriously out of it. Religous myths promoted by the priest parasites who have manipulated ignorant uninformed victims of authoritarian slave states and tribal infantile pathology are being challenged by events everywhere. Social engineering is delusional hubris writ large. Society based on money verses ecological values is hitting the wall. Go local ; keep your head down and good luck .
    Other species define our own boundaries , when we destroy their habitat we are not human but rather a free range mammal that is opting to pursue insect levels of self awareness and ultimate population collapse as a result. Placebo politics are a failed social experiment and
    like bad dressing on a wound only encourage the infection.
    Individuals dependent on the hive have no future. Life is too important to waste . There is no formulae or simple answer but population and ecological balance are the glimmering of the sustainable , humans who deny this have turned heaven into hell.

  12. Max Shields said on May 30th, 2008 at 4:14am #

    anthony innes,

    All due respect, I think you’re overstating human population as the central problem. I don’t disregard the fact that humans, even when they are simply subsisting, require more resources than most other creatures.

    Nevertheless, you have not made a case for human population as the cause of our environmental problems. You need to start with human needs. There are very few human needs that require resources, yet we have China and India who have joined the uneconomic fray of excessive resource intensive production along with the West with the US leading on the consumption side. The US only has 5% of the population and yet we are the major consumers (China is fast approaching). So the argument doesn’t come from how many people are in one spot or another. In fact, there are many cases of non-correlations between population size and hunger, for instance.

    I’m not saying the human species can go on endlessly procreating and populating the planet without significant consequences. I’m saying that it is not the core of our problem with the environment today or in the forseeable future. It was once thought that a few centuries ago that the billion or so on the planet would be the demise of the species. We now know that the are limits which far exceed – but must plateau – that number.

    Btw I don’t think your anger (at least it reads like that) helps your case.

  13. corylus said on May 30th, 2008 at 3:57pm #

    Max,
    Please explain this comment: “There are very few human needs that require resources.” Perhaps you speak of the emotional or existential, but even our minimal physical needs as organisms are dependent on what can be termed resources: clean air and water, space and materials for shelter and clothing and growing food, simple tools, and so on. No living organisms survive without use of “resources.” You need to clarify your point, otherwise I seriously question your credibility on this point.

    I agree with Shepherd that growing food is a critical component, not only for correcting economic injustice, but for reducing the rampant impacts of resource gluttony, production of useless consumer goods, distribution, and consumption. Also, farming and gardening are psychologically liberating and stress reducing activities.

    While I disagree with Deadbeat that the notion of overpopulation is inherently racist, the impacts of too many people in a finite ecosystem — the Earth — have been monstrously exacerbated by capitalism, including its nefarious tentacles of classism, racism, imperialism, warfare, and injustice. Thus, my first action as President will be to sterilize all males from families worth over $1 million, as well as CEOs of any corporation grossing over $5 million annually. Then, all their bank accounts will be impounded, with the proceeds returning to indigenous cultures to help them restore the loss of arable lands, native species, and intact ecosystems. Once able to feed, clothe, and house themselves on their lands again, people will re-evolve the awareness that population management is vital to species survival. Capitalism is the engine that drives overpopulation, and its destruction and demise are essential to long-term human survival.

    In closing, I don’t hear anger in Anthony’s post — though perhaps discouragement and disillusionment. I personally find the knee-jerk phobia of expressions of anger to be offensive, since what we really need in the U. S. are a lot more well-directed expressions of anger.

  14. Max Shields said on May 30th, 2008 at 5:18pm #

    corylus ,
    By needs I’m referring to what Manfred Max-Neef and others refer to as universal human needs. From this perspective we turn wants into needs. For instance, the car was not a need. It was a want that became a “need” because it supports some real needs now that we’ve distanced ourselves from one another. Nevertheless people will readily call the car a “need”.

    Such “needs” are consumptive usually pumped up by marketing and the vicious cycle begins and continues in much the same way as an addict of any kind, pulls the lever finding less and less value in it but hooked to the idea of what it once felt like.

    This kinds of “needs” are what consume natural resources at ever greater rates, creating what many economists (not mainstream to be sure) as uneconomic growth. Such growth (again using the faux term need) has been costing more and more than what it provides, hence, uneconomic.

    I think Manfred Max-Neef’s (he’s Chilean) work has provided extensive insights and direct application in developing areas. Needs are finite, but how they are satified are not. Satisfiers are frequently confused as needs (e.g., car). A satisfier may apply to multiple needs. The car can bring you to a job (funding for food a real need) and distant family and friends (the need for affection, a real need according to Max-Neef). Most of these universal needs do not require natural resources. That is why studies on “societal happiness” has Americans very low on most factors. Max-Neef has redefined poverty extending it to a poverty of one or more needs and most of those have nothing to do with financial wealth or material possession; and thus can be satified without gouging the earth.

  15. Max Shields said on May 30th, 2008 at 5:37pm #

    “Capitalism is the engine that drives overpopulation, and its destruction and demise are essential to long-term human survival.”

    How so?

  16. ashley said on May 30th, 2008 at 10:22pm #

    Long before capitalism populations have been growing steadily. China had cities of multi-millions many centuries, if not more than a millenium ago.

    Perpetual growth is impossible, of course. There are always limits. Having a more sustainable model is obviously advisable. A very interesting book I read related to this is called ‘Forty Centuries of Farming’. You can get the text for free on the web. Written at the beginning of the last century, the author details how Korean, Chinese and Japanese farming techniques could feed large populations without soil degradation. The advent of modern fertilizing techniques undermined this system. (Tip: the reason they didn’t have toilets in these countries was because they used human waste in the fields.)

    Peak Oil is probably another one of those neat-sounding theories that appeals to the hysterical apocalyptoid lurking in all of us. Until we know where oil comes from it remains a vague and simplistic guess at best. Many of the fields abandoned in the US in the 70’s have now replenished themselves. It appears that the source of the oil is from deeper sources than the relatively shallow lakes we have been tapping into. There is ZERO evidence that the fossil theory is true. No biological, chemical, transitional or anything else. A bit like evolution and the absence of intermediates currently living anywhere in any species or genus. Greaty theory, no evidence.

    Here is a reasonably argued piece from this week in ATOL:
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JE24Dj02.html
    Engdahl writes good stuff usually.

    One of the chief UN scientists involved in the (in)famous 2007 Global Warming report has recently managed to input accurate ocean current data showing that, even if global warming is ‘true’, we are in for cooling the next few decades for sure. So they change an input and: voila! New conclusion. That’s how shaky the whole ‘scientific’ foundation is. GIGO. Doesn’t mean global warming isn’t happening, but the chances that we have the ability to detect it accurately, let alone project into the future, range from 0.5 – 1% tops!

    I read an excellent article recently – unfortunately can’t remember the source – where the author said there were many valuable issues we could address and fix with our mercantilist-materialist (i.e. crass) modern cultural models on so many levels, but in general any time you read that X,Y or Z has to be done because otherwise the end of the world is nigh, best to ignore it.

    Sustainability is sanity in practice, prudence, discipline, intelligence, ingenuity, respect for life, respect for the earth, respect for being, and all the rest of it.

    Proper sane sustainable culture is not the product of hysteria.

    The serious and real food problems discussed in the article above are nearly all related to over-dependence on hydrocarbon inputs including fertilizer, transportation, mechanization, distribution, marketing, corporatization, militarization and so forth. The solution is to return to more local, human scale community structures. This does not necessarily mean dismantling large nation-states and so on but it does require that we begin to empower local government by giving them a vastly greater slice of the tax pie. My recommended formula is: 75% local, 20% regional, 5% federal/national. The main function of central governments should be legislative, not administrative, i.e. setting common laws and standards. That’s it.

    Anyway, that’s my little rant for the night!

  17. anthony innes said on May 31st, 2008 at 12:19am #

    Corylus took my defence in replying to Max Shields and said it better than i could have. While i have no illusions to lose re the population balance question he is right about my being discouraged . Max , Corylus is very correct in saying we need a bit more passion in the debate and this should not be construed as the same as a bunched five in the cakehole . But i digress
    Max thanks for taking the time to reply . You have catalysed a
    stiffening of my resolve. The “issue of population has been at the source of eco damage has beeen debunked ” has to be challenged . I’m sorry I did not make the case however I considered it a done deal . Correlations re hunger and human numbers are anthroprocentric nitpicking if you factor in species loss and the spread of disease . Hunger is an indication humans have made a bad habitat decision or overeached supply chains.
    Max human beings have bred themselves to the brink of catastrophy.
    Behavioural studies of lab rats (young breeding mammals ) have shown that we behave in the same way to overcrowding . The territorial imperative , colonisation have shaped our world . Ecocide is not too strong a word here.
    Your Chilean mate refers to underdevloped areas . Developing from infant mortality , education for women to walking distance from macdonalds ; what standards Max ? Civilisation come from the Greek to make city . How many before redundancy . Civilisation as it stands is a failed social experiment if the the number of cities with festering slums is anything top go by. The Greeks also were among the first conscious colonisers. They outbred Attica’s ability to feed them. Then again they gave us Plato ; the first elitist republican .
    Capitalism is the current social paradigm that sociopaths use to justify their penchant for the use of force and corruption of commerce. Try Dr Susan George on debt if this phenomenon has escaped your attention she’s a great start.
    Your arguement about the folly of the car needs no challenge but try the same line with domestication of the horse or even agriculture . Lets really rip into it with a discussion of the number of sexual partners .
    Fred Hoyle the Astro physicist in his “Decade of Decision ” (early 1950’s ) made a very reasoned case for a dramatically reduced carrying capacity that allowed for the present growth rate of technology. This while unfashionable did not mean war on indigenous peoples engaged with traditional landuse .
    Its about education , you me everyone . The breed – as -much -as- you- can litany is on a par with not Impeaching the shrub for war crimes ; a default on our duty as citizens of the Earth to think progressively. You know that old refrain about leaving it better for future generations .
    This overpopulation is historically determined . The obssessives who are besotted with the quest for power need counselling for their schizoid relationship with the environment. The manipulation of peoples sexual fecundity by opportunists out to exploit them will only end with empowering women to take control of their own biology .
    This is not an issue of class or racism . This sustainable population issue is about human hygiene , quality of life and is the essence of a dignified human experience .
    We are all just students among students here . Anybody who wants answers about this question can contact me .
    moc.liamtohnull@moc.sevilsuhtlam
    There is certainly a bibliography out there that will support and lead the honest enquirer unemotionally and logically to understanding that overpopulation is the wellspring that undermines all our efforts to move forward to a sustainable presence here on earth . Population balance is a choice each of us must realise if we want peace ,tranquility and some chance of a real experience of the magnificent mystery that is our lives .

  18. Max Shields said on May 31st, 2008 at 12:02pm #

    anthony innes

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me. My sole issue is with your stance on overpopulation as the central problem. I say it isn’t, you seem to be saying it is.

    First make a case if you are interested in persuading. If you choose to demagogue, well than I can’t take your statements as serious.

    As to my Chilean friend, I can only ask that you become acquainted with the works of Manfred Max-Neef. He and his work have actually made a difference!

    Max

  19. anthony innes said on May 31st, 2008 at 5:46pm #

    Max Shields point taken and will hook into the Max -Nef view point .
    Ashley ‘s post refer’s to the book “Farmers of Forty Centuries”. It helps make my point . Written inthe early 1900’s it is the work of one of the Leading Soil experts in the USA (when farming was about feeding people not just Coporate manipulation of futures etc) . He was sent to find out what Korea ,Japan and China had done to keep such dense cultivation viable .A USA government initiative ; it was apparent back then that the soils in the USA had become so degraded that action had to be taken. The issue stalled because the chemical fertilizers came on stream but the issue remains . The soil expert ‘s (cannot recall name) conclusion was that the three countries were all giant compost heaps .
    Max -Nef made a difference to what incidently ? Rhetorical one upmanship. Time for vehement demagogery . IMPEACHMENT agendas for corporate malfesance : hope i don’t lose you there.

  20. anthony innes said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:09pm #

    Ashley ; I am a fan of evolution as reasonable theory on how biology selects for niches in the environment. I subscribe to the view that we are descended from aquatic apes. There are compelling arguements for this but because of the dynamic nature of the tidal zone , climate change ( sea level rise /falls ) , geological action it would be unlikely we would ever find a fossil record of the transitonal apes. But then its academic what is the actual sequence . The reality today we are on the treadmill to stay where we are because we breed without restraint save for the old standbyes of war , disease , pestilence and famine while all resources are finite and really not guaranteed by clever techno fixes to be replaced. Life is a struggle but it does not have to be brutal.

  21. hp said on June 1st, 2008 at 9:42am #

    Here’s a cogent work…
    http://www.humandevolution.com/

  22. ashley said on June 1st, 2008 at 7:52pm #

    Anthony: well, I have no desire to provoke an evolution debate here, mainly because for some reason most people seem to assume that there are only two alternatives: ‘science-based’ evolution theory or biblical creationism and/or its modern offshoot ID theory etc. I come from a non-materialist point of view which is so out of fashion these days that it’s not worth getting into except to summarize by saying that apes, men, fish, bugs, rocks and plants all come from the same space-time origins and are fundamentally the same, much like different images on the same screen are fundamentally the same, much like different pixels in the same image are the same. Something like that. But that really IS a sidebar!

    I think the main point is that solutions will come from sane leadership which is a function of sane community/society. So the underlying basis of the social contract has to be addressed first. Once you have sane society, developing sane systems on all levels is an inevitable outcome. Without that basis, no simple legislative, scientific or political fix is of any fundamental significance, i.e. will not get to the root of the problem. A plant grows from the roots, or to say it better: without healthy roots a plant cannot live, let alone thrive as such. The root of human society is our experience as humans living together in collectives. This is a very immediate, real, earthy, tangible and small, particular situation, just as each moment is particular, unique and limitless. It all has to come down to everyday, bedrock moment-by-moment lived in experience. And there are sane ways of living and insane ways of living.

    The problems dealt with in this article are all the natural outcomes of essentially neurotic collective culture. This is a cultural aka spiritual problem which can only be addressed properly on that level.