We at www.peakfood.co.uk have long been showing the relationship between oil supplies and food supplies. It is the use of cheap plentiful fossil energy that has enabled the world population to grow to its present level. Scarce, expensive oil will cause scarce, expensive food. For that reason we show this article from the “Guardian” by Terry Macalister.
The world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit, according to a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency who claims it has been deliberately underplaying a looming shortage for fear of triggering panic buying.
The senior official claims the US has played an influential role in encouraging the watchdog to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves.
The allegations raise serious questions about the accuracy of the organisation’s latest World Energy Outlook on oil demand and supply to be published tomorrow – which is used by the British and many other governments to help guide their wider energy and climate change policies.
There’s suspicion the IEA has been influenced by the US. In particular they question the prediction in the last World Economic Outlook, believed to be repeated again this year, that oil production can be raised from its current level of 83m barrels a day to 105m barrels. External critics have frequently argued that this cannot be substantiated by firm evidence and say the world has already passed its peak in oil production.
Now the “peak oil” theory is gaining support at the heart of the global energy establishment. “The IEA in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year,” said the IEA source who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. “The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today’s number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.
”Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90m to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources,” he added.
A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was “imperative not to anger the Americans” but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. “We have [already] entered the ‘peak oil’ zone. I think that the situation is really bad,” he added.
The IEA acknowledges the importance of its own figures, boasting on its website: “The IEA governments and industry from all across the globe have come to rely on the World Energy Outlook to provide a consistent basis on which they can formulate policies and design business plans.”
The British government, among others, always uses the IEA statistics rather than any of its own to argue that there is little threat to long-term oil supplies.
The IEA said tonight that peak oil critics had often wrongly questioned the accuracy of its figures. A spokesman said it was unable to comment ahead of the 2009 report being released tomorrow.
John Hemming, the MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on peak oil and gas, said the revelations confirmed his suspicions that the IEA underplayed how quickly the world was running out and this had profound implications for British government energy policy.
He said he had also been contacted by some IEA officials unhappy with its lack of independent scepticism over predictions. “Reliance on IEA reports has been used to justify claims that oil and gas supplies will not peak before 2030. It is clear now that this will not be the case and the IEA figures cannot be relied on,” said Hemming.
”This all gives an importance to the Copenhagen [climate change] talks and an urgent need for the UK to move faster towards a more sustainable [lower carbon] economy if it is to avoid severe economic dislocation,” he added.
The IEA was established in 1974 after the oil crisis in an attempt to try to safeguard energy supplies to the west. The World Energy Outlook is produced annually under the control of the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, who has defended the projections from earlier outside attack. Peak oil critics have often questioned the IEA figures.
But now IEA sources who have contacted the Guardian say that Birol has increasingly been facing questions about the figures inside the organisation.
Matt Simmons, a respected oil industry expert, has long questioned the decline rates and oil statistics provided by Saudi Arabia on its own fields. He has raised questions about whether peak oil is much closer than many have accepted.
A report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) last month said worldwide production of conventionally extracted oil could “peak” and go into terminal decline before 2020 – but that the government was not facing up to the risk. Steve Sorrell, chief author of the report, said forecasts suggesting oil production will not peak before 2030 were “at best optimistic and at worst implausible”.
But as far back as 2004 there have been people making similar warnings. Colin Campbell, a former executive with Total of France told a conference: “If the real [oil reserve] figures were to come out there would be panic on the stock markets … in the end that would suit no one.”
This week New Scientist writer Debora Mackezie wrote about the threats to food production in an article called Feed the World:
It is humanity’s oldest enemy. Despite all our science, a sixth of people in the developing world are chronically hungry. At a summit in Rome this week, world leaders reaffirmed a pledge to end hunger “at the earliest possible date”.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) wanted them to promise to end hunger by 2025, but the delegates declined. They said instead that they would keep trying to meet their previous goal: to halve chronic hunger from 20 per cent of people in developing countries to 10 per cent by 2015 (see graph). But can they? Based on their performance so far, the FAO considers it “unlikely”.
That, agricultural experts tell New Scientist, is because governments have broken their promises and slashed aid budgets for agriculture. The hungry poor fell to 16 per cent in 2007, mainly thanks to Asia’s economic boom, but recession and soaring food prices pushed it back to 17 per cent in 2008.
“Ending hunger by 2025 is not realistic,” says Joachim von Braun of IFPRI, a food-policy institute in Washington DC. “Halving it might be, but it requires sustained action.”
It gets worse: global population is set to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050, while global warming will have a serious impact on farming. What can be done?
The FAO says feeding 9 billion people will require a near-doubling in food production. All nations will have to take part, but attention will be focused on poor countries, where there is most room for improvement and where better farming will give poor farmers income to buy food. The FAO says farming investment in poor countries must grow from $142 billion per year to $209 billion.
Agricultural research must also increase. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) – the international, mainly government-funded labs that perform farm research for poor countries – says agricultural R&D spending for developing countries needs to grow from $5.1 billion to $16.4 billion per year by 2025. Its researchers say that in theory, given funds, they can boost agriculture enough to double food production, although global warming may make this impossible. These are their top priorities.
1 Hold on to water
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says irrigated areas must expand by 11 per cent by 2025, yet the ancient aquifers that feed much of the world’s food production are running dry.
Johan Rockström of the Swedish Resilience Centre in Stockholm says we need to rethink water. “Blue” water, which flows in streams, is the usual basis for farm planning yet accounts for just 5 to 15 per cent of the water flowing through farming systems. The rest, “green” water, is either lost through run-off or evaporation or passes usefully through crops. There are several ways to capture more of this green water in crops, including soil-covering mulches, terraces, and underground tanks filled by the run-off from tropical downpours. In parts of Kenya and China such tanks can get a crop through the dry spell that frequently follows a downpour.
Mapping the potential for combining all of these approaches shows that the largest untapped potential to improve water productivity is in the savannahs, says Rockström. This is sometimes counter-intuitive, he adds. “Dry Namibia and Botswana have more than enough green water to feed themselves.”
2 Stop ploughing
For 1000 years, farmers have turned over the top layer of soil to bury and kill weed seeds. This is expensive, damages soils and releases greenhouse gases.
Most maize and soya growers in the Americas have abandoned the plough for “no-till” farming: they merely scratch furrows in the ground to plant their seed and handle weeds with herbicides and herbicide-resistant genetically modified crops.
But farmers do not need those if they smother weeds with organic residue such as straw, and rotate crops to frustrate pests, says Bram Govaerts of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, a CGIAR lab. This is known as conservation agriculture, and besides conserving soil, nutrients and energy, it cuts water loss. Govaerts has been managing experimental plots in Mexico using these methods, and finds that conservation agriculture can yield as much as traditional agriculture in good years, and even more during drought.
3 Go back to basics
Creating high-yielding seeds is only worthwhile if farmers have access to them, and can sell their produce for a profit. “There are varieties of maize that resist climate stress or disease, but how do you get them to farmers?” asks Prabhu Pingali, deputy head of agriculture at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Nerica rice is a case in point. This dryland variety was bred in the 1990s by CGIAR scientists who crossed Asian rice with an African species. Nerica competes better with weeds than other varieties, yields more and contains more protein. But few African farmers have heard of it.
Government services that taught farmers new techniques were dismantled during the debt crisis of the 1980s, says Papa Seck, head of the CGIAR’s African Rice Center in Cotonou, Benin. “We need them back.”
Even if they have access to better seed varieties, African farmers often don’t invest in boosting production because they don’t have access to markets and therefore cannot sell their extra crops for a profit. And sold or not, crops are often poorly stored and lost to rot: half the bananas grown in Kenya are lost each year, says Peter Hartmann of IITA, CGIAR’s tropical agriculture lab in Ibadan, Nigeria. He says Africa would not need imported food aid if it could use all the crops it produces.
You have to look at the whole food system to boost production, says Hartmann. For instance, IITA bred higher-yielding, disease-resistant cassava and helped set up factories to grind the crop into flour; but then discovered uptake was limited because there was limited transport: cassava grows in southern Nigeria, the trucking industry is in the north. After publicity brought truckers in, production grew from 35 million to 45 million tonnes, on less land, from 2004 to 2007.
4 Boost yields
Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) calculates that crops that will yield 25 per cent more food would boost African food production more than doubling irrigation would. It might also be easier. “We have tremendous options to enhance yields,” says Hans Braun, head of wheat at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
Last week the world’s wheat scientists launched a consortium to raise wheat yield by genetically re-engineering the crop’s photosynthesis, no less. “It is inefficient compared with some plants,” says Braun. “Improvements are feasible, and will dramatically increase water efficiency, heat tolerance and yield.” They plan to equip wheat with more efficient variants of the key photosynthetic enzyme rubisco, and with suites of genes to convert it from the C3 photosynthetic system to the C4 system found in maize, which fixes more carbon per unit of light. Meanwhile, CGIAR’s International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is developing C4 rice.
Braun says the key is money. The yields of new varieties of maize are climbing twice as fast as yields of rice and wheat. This is because maize is bred mainly by private companies, which invest $1.5 billion a year in it. Wheat and rice breeding, by contrast, is done mostly in government labs. Wheat gets only about $350 million a year. Apart from Chinese hybrid rice varieties, rice yields have been stagnant for years.