On Monday, 3rd of August, The Independent ran a front page article entitled,” Warning: oil supplies are running out fast”.
As the actual warning came from no less a person than Dr Fatir Birol, the chief economist of the respected International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries, it should have been big news in the rest of the media, but got hardly a mention.
Do most people have no idea of the implications of this for the future of food supplies and everything else the modern world depends on to function?
Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted.
The first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves , has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago.
The IEA has concluded that the consumption of oil was “patently unsustainable”, with expected demand far outstripping supply.
These are not the ramblings of some far out pressure group, but still, will governments listen and take the huge and collective steps needed to reduce our need for oil by encouraging extreme energy efficiency, and the collection of a greater proportion of the abundant solar energy reaching us each day.
Richard Branson’s book, “Business Stripped Bear” is a fascinating account of how he started his businesses and how he likes to manage them, but the most surprising fact is that despite running transport companies that consume vast amounts of fossil energy, and is starting a space tourism company, he obviously understands the problems of climate change and oil depletion, and actually is determined to do something about it.
This is in stark contrast to some other business leaders who in the past have spent millions of dollars on campaigns to persuade governments and the public that there is no problem and that we can carry on with present practices.
Branson has taken the time to study the subject and once convinced, he used his celebrity status to contact people who could help him make a difference.
In typical Richard Branson fashion he has come up with headline grabbing but brilliant ideas.
First, he has announced that any proceeds received by the Virgin Group from their transportation businesses will be used to tackle environmental issues, which he hopes could be something like £3 billion over a number of years.
Next, he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge. To win the $25 million prize, participants will have to demonstrate a provable, commercially viable design that will result in the removal or displacement of a significant amount of environmental greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. The challenge will run for ten years.
Sir Richard is now using his money, contacts and influence to try to make a real difference and to get as many people as possible looking for solutions.
Good for him!
In the last few years investors have poured millions of dollars in to farmland, farming businesses, commodities and companies supplying farmers with machinery, fertiliser, seeds and pesticides.
In Fortune magazine, Shonda Warner explains why she launched an investment firm to buy farmland.
She says “…..The simplest metric to consider is the amount of farmland per person worldwide: In 1960 there were 1.1 acres of arable farmland per capita globally, according to data from the United Nations, By 2000 that had fallen to 0.6 acres. And over the next 40 years the population of the world is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion.
“Land is scarce and will become scarcer as the world has to double food output to satisfy increased demand by 2050. With limited land and water resources, this will automatically lead to increased valuations of productive land. And it goes hand in hand with water. Water scarcity will probably increase even more than land.”
The article goes on to say that the biggest investors in farmland over the next decade will probably be sovereign wealth funds and governments of crop-starved countries eager to secure food supplies for their rapidly growing populations. In 2008, China announced a $5 billion plan to develop agricultural assets in Africa. That’s just the start. Given that it has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land and 7% of its freshwater resources, China has no choice but to look beyond it’s borders. And the global recession has hardly slowed it’s appetite for crops. In the first four months of 2009, China imported a record 13.0 million tons of soybeans.
When the world realises that there is a limit to the natural resources that the earth can provide, we will have to stop wasting energy and nutrient rich “waste” such as animal manure and waste food.
In Europe, anaerobic digestion is widely used to deal with these materials and is now catching on here in the UK.
At Biogen Greenfinch, managing director Andrew Needham uses 12,000 tonnes of pig slurry plus 30,000 tonnes of food waste from Waitrose, Sainsbury and local authorities each year to generate renewable energy with the digestate being used as a fertiliser across 600 acres of arable land.
On Owen Yeatman’s farm in North Devon, 8,000 tonnes of manure and 3,500 tonnes of maize every year goes in to his digester to power a 270KW generator. By using the digestate as a fertiliser, Mr Yeatman has stopped buying nitrogen fertiliser. He estimates that his digester unit will have paid for itself in 5 years.
As we come to the time of Peak Food, after which the amount of basic food available for each person in the world declines as population continues to rise, it is crucial that the conversion of feed in to meat is as efficient as possible.
This is where poultry has a big advantage. It can take less then 2kg of high quality feed to produce 1 kg of poultry meat compared with up to 10 kg for beef and somewhere in between for pork.
Dr Merdo MacLoed, editor-in-chief of British Poultry Science recently presented the result of a year long study into the importance of research in UK poultry and said,” At a time of concerns about climate change, the environment and human population growth, we should be positive about what the poultry industry has to offer.
“The industry has been on the defensive for many years but objective analysis shows that poultry meat and egg production have important advantages over other ways of producing animal protein.”
We agree that poultry should be the main method of meat production in the future, but we also believe that there will need to be less meat in our diets so that more grains and legumes can be eaten directly by humans.