For many people, their opinion on climate change is more a religious type of faith rather than one based on science. It’s understandable because most of us are not experts and must rely on the work of those who are.
In the last few years there have been a series of remarkable u-turns from the world’s top oil companies. Not long ago they were saying that man-made climate change was a myth and funding scientists who were prepared to agree with that. Now, however, they all say that climate change is taking place and that greenhouse gas emissions are at least partly responsible. Indeed, they are all spending millions to prove their green credentials by starting projects that will reduce emissions to some extent.
Peak Oil is another matter. Until now the message coming from the oil companies is that Peak Oil – the time when a peak in production is reached, followed by a decline in production in the face of increasing demand, causing severe shortages – is many decades in to the future. Recently though there are indications that at least one company has changed its mind.
In this week’s Time magazine, Christophe de Boisseson, CEO of the French oil giant Total, speaks openly about the nightmare scenario oil shortages that most energy firms prefer to avoid or deny. De Margerie says the possible effects on the world economy of dwindling oil supplies are so great that, “I am not prepared to shut my mouth.” Shortly after taking over at Total he jolted executives at a London conference by stating that the industry would be unlikely to produce more than 100 million barrels a day, far below the 120 million or so the International Energy Agency estimates the world could produce by 2030, and which will be needed for Asia’s galloping growth. De Margerie now says 90 million barrel a day is “optimistic.”
This is worrying for the health of the world economy, but for the future of food production it is devastating. Western agriculture is totally dependent on oil and the rest of the world is rapidly becoming so. It is expected that food production will need to double in the next 40 years as the population continues to rise and as more people demand a better diet. To increase food production using modern methods requires a corresponding increase in fossil energy inputs. A serious shortage would cause the farming industry to collapse.
The truth about our situation is so unpalatable that most people will prefer to not believe it, but it must be said. The carrying capacity of the Earth has been temporarily increased by the massive use of finite resources. When these resources become depleted, the Earth’s carrying capacity and therefore its population will be reduced – in other words mass starvation and we in the West are the most vulnerable.
Peak Food author John Gossop this week had this article printed on pages 28 and 29 of the Farmers Weekly under the topic of the week section. Dated 8th January 2010, the article was entitled ‘Agriculture has a key role in taking heat out of global warming debate’. The issues raised were then then debated on the Farmers Weekly Forum.
The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time slow the depletion of finite oil and gas reserves has massive implications for the future of farming, which has become nothing more than a system of converting cheap, plentiful calories into a much smaller amount of expensive food calories. As oil and gas supplies are finite, and their production is expected to peak soon and then decline, our present farming system must be regarded as temporary.
As the world moves to collecting and using more of the abundant solar energy that reaches us every day, the most important method will be to use plants to collect solar energy to synthesise simple carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water – in other words agriculture. But to feed the nine billion people predicted by 2050 with fewer fossil inputs, we will need to grow more of our input energy, fix more of our nitrogen and recycle more nutrients. It will be a massive challenge, but agriculture will surely become the most important industry in the world.