Gwynne Dyer: Forget peak oil; we've reached peak everything

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      Peak oil is so last year. Now we can worry about peak everything: peak food, peak soil, peak fertilizer, even peak bees.

      Let’s start small. We depend on bees to pollinate plants that account for about one-third of the world’s food supply, but since 2006 bee colonies in the United States have been dying off at an unprecedented rate. More recently the same “colony collapse disorder” has appeared in China, Egypt, and Japan.

      Many suspect that the main cause is a widely used type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, but the evidence is not yet conclusive. The fact remains that one-third of the American bee population has disappeared in the past decade. If the losses spread and deepen, we may face serious food shortages.

      Then there’s peak fertilizer, or more precisely peak phosphate rock. Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and it is the eightfold increase in the use of fertilizers that has enabled us to triple food production worldwide from about the same area of land in the past 60 years.

      At the moment we are mining about 200 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, and the global reserve that could be mined at a reasonable cost with current technology is estimated at about 16 billion tonnes. At the current level of production it won’t run out entirely for 80 years, but the increasing demand for fertilizers to feed the growing population means that phosphate production is rising fast.

      As with peak oil, the really important date is not when there are no economically viable phosphate rock reserves left, but when production starts to fall. Peak phosphate is currently no more than 40 years away—or much less, if fertilizer use continues to grow. After that, it’s back to organic fertilizers, which mainly means the urine and feces of 10 or 12 billion human beings and their domesticated animals. Good luck with that.

      Peak soil is a trickier notion, but it derives from the more concrete concept that we are “mining” the soil: degrading and exhausting it by growing single-crop “monocultures”, using too much fertilizer and irrigating too enthusiastically, all in the name of higher crop yields.

      “We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, director of the Sustainable Systems Program at Rothamsted Research in England. “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less...by around 2050.”

      The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 25 percent of the world’s soils that are currently under cultivation are severely degraded, and another eight percent moderately degraded. (Even “moderately degraded” soil has lost half its capacity to store water.) And the only way to access new, undamaged soil is to deforest the rest of the planet.

      All of which brings us to the issue of peak food. And here the concept of “peak” undergoes a subtle modification, because it no longer means “maximum production, after which yields start to fall”. It just means “the point at which the growth in production stops accelerating”: it’s the peak rate of growth, not actual peak production. But even that is quite ominous, if you think about it.

      During the latter part of the 20th century, food production grew at around 3.5 percent per year, comfortably ahead of population growth, but the dramatic rise in crop yields was due to new inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, much more irrigation, and new “green revolution” crop varieties. Now those one-time improvements have largely run their course, and global food production is rising at only 1.5 percent a year.

      Population growth has slowed too, so we’re still more or less keeping up with demand, but there are signs that food production in many areas is running up against what researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in a report last year called “a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question.” Production of the food in question stops rising, then may even fall—and extra investment often doesn’t help.

      The “peak” in this context is an early warning that there will eventually be a complete cessation of growth, possibly followed by an absolute decline. Peak maize happened in 1985, peak rice and wild fish in 1988, peak dairy in 1989, peak eggs in 1993, and peak meat in 1996. (The numbers come from a recent report by scientists at Yale, Michigan State University, and the Helmholtz Centre in Germany in the journal Ecology and Society.)

      More recent peaks were vegetables in 2000, milk and wheat in 2004, poultry in 2006, and soya bean in 2009. Indeed, 16 of the 21 foods examined in the Ecology and Society report have already peaked, and production levels have actually flattened out for key regions amounting to 33 percent of global rice and 27 percent of global wheat production.

      So we are already in trouble, and it will get worse even before climate change gets bad. There are still some quick fixes available, notably by cutting down on waste: more than a third of the food that is grown for human consumption never gets eaten. But unless we come up with some new “magic bullets”, things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s.

      Comments

      23 Comments

      Sky

      Feb 2, 2015 at 12:10pm

      great article, pressing topic.

      Ronnie

      Feb 2, 2015 at 12:11pm

      The solutions to these problems exist, but the political will is lacking to coordinate, employ, and protect the work of the experts who know what to do. For businesspeople/1%ers, who are hard-wired to quarterly and annual report cycles and infinitely malleable strategic plans driven by profit, the long-term trend of growing food insecurity represents an opportunity, not a problem -- prices will go up. Because politicians are basically the puppets of business (like the Conservatives and Liberals) or subject to the status quo that business money buys (like the NDP), we have a serious fucking intractable problem on our hands when it comes to food, as opposed to a complex but manageable engineering challenge. If people don't get off their asses and get involved in politics in the precarious democratic arena we are still privileged to have, the solution we finally resort to will be worse than the problem. What can be worse than starvation, you ask? Let's not find out!

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      paul

      Feb 2, 2015 at 2:29pm

      The combination of climate n food disruption is going to come in around the 2020s easily. Its already here in africa and the middle east area. How much longer can CA last if the drought continues or deepens. That will have a knock on effect in NA for sure with I predict food riots when you add in the disruption due to flooding and chaotic weather we are seeing in the plains.

      We're screwed...

      Feb 2, 2015 at 2:42pm

      Good luck Humans..

      Paul

      Feb 2, 2015 at 3:24pm

      HIGH PRICED OIL DESTROYS GROWTH
      According to the OECD Economics Department and the International Monetary Fund Research Department, a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices. http://www.iea.org/textbase/npsum/high_oil04sum.pdf

      THE PERFECT STORM (see p. 59 onwards)
      The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and growth in output (and in the global population) since the Industrial Revolution has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy. But the critical relationship between energy production and the energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel. http://ftalphaville.ft.com/files/2013/01/Perfect-Storm-LR.pdf

      Richard

      Feb 2, 2015 at 4:22pm

      Another reason to vote Yes. Cycling and walking are much less energy and resource intensive than roads and driving. Pledge your support at The plan sounds great! Please pledge your support at: http://www.bccc.bc.ca/vote_yes

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      One Good Idea

      Feb 2, 2015 at 7:42pm

      Would anyone come to a meeting / conference entitled

      "If You Have Only One Good Idea"????

      The purpose is to create a list of all the simple things that everyone can do - in order to live an Ecologically Sensible Life.

      My favorite idea is Cloth Table Napkins - I used to think that cloth napkins - cotton or linen - were a sign of wealth. With paper towels at $1.50 / roll at Costco, a family of 5 could save anywhere from $50.00 - $150.00 per year and save part of the Environment as well.

      Again - Would anyone be willing to attend a meeting where every idea would be listened to and evaluated - The purpose is to Listen - Learn and Tell Politicians what we want from them?????

      Javier Gonzalez

      Feb 2, 2015 at 9:26pm

      Talk about peak water! Look at Brazil and Southwest US. Peak water is the main bottleneck to civilization and we have already passed it! Please write about it, thanks!

      I Chandler

      Feb 2, 2015 at 9:56pm

      -current soils will yield about 30 percent less...by around 2050.
      -Peak phosphate is currently no more than 40 years away.
      -things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s.

      DYER: "But unless we come up with some new “magic bullets”, things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s."

      But those bees will be lucky to make it another decade? Lucky Blackwater shoots magic bullets...

      DYER: "The fact remains that one-third of the American bee population has disappeared in the past decade. If the losses spread and deepen, we may face serious food shortages. Many suspect that the main cause is a widely used type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, but the evidence is not yet conclusive."

      Surprise , surprise - Inconclusive evidence is poetry to the ears - of Monsanto. The US Department of Agriculture, have been relying on Beeologics for help unraveling the mystery behind Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

      This might be the reason Monsanto purchased Beeologics and Blackwater - the largest mercenary army in the world:
      http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_...

      "Now that it's owned by Monsanto, it's very unlikely that Beeologics [a CCD research firm] will investigate the links, but GMO crops have been implicated in CCD for years now."

      "Monsanto's BT corn has been banned in Poland following protests by beekeepers who showed the corn was killing honeybees. Poland is the first country to formally acknowledge the link between Monsanto's genetically engineered corn and the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that's been devastating bees around the world.

      Meanwhile, commercial beekeepers in the U.S. have filed an emergency legal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend use of a pesticide that is linked to massive honey bee deaths. The legal petition, which specifies Bayer's neonicotinoid pesticide clothianidin, is backed by over one million citizen petition signatures."

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      Could Have Been Different

      Feb 3, 2015 at 5:56am

      If the last century hadn't become obsessed with "minorities" and "historically disadvantaged groups", we would have solved this by now. All that rot is just a way for the Establishment to pretend to be "progressive." "Hey, our petroclusterfuck now has a black lesbian manager! Aren't we progressing?"