The recent change from years of continuous economic growth though most of the world to much slower growth in Asia and negative growth in America and Europe has shown just how addicted we’ve become to continuous growth. It seems that without growth our economies cannot cope. Unemployment rises, assets fall in value and bankruptcies rise. Governments see that the boom that began by excessive debt and the illusion that property prices have made us rich without working for it has ended, so they use government debt and money creation to attempt to stimulate growth.
This apparent inability to manage without growth throws up significant problems. Economic growth increases living standards and richer people consume more of the Earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only due to the availability of this energy collected from the sun millions of years ago that we have lifestyles undreamt of 100 years ago. Unfortunately these fuels are finite, the main reserves of oil and gas are in unstable, unreliable or unfriendly countries and their continued burning is causing the climate to change in a way that threatens our future food supply.
Does that mean that there are just two very unpalatable choices? Should we resume rapid fossil-fueled economic growth, consuming more and more of the Earth’s resources and emitting more and more greenhouse gases until the inevitable time, perhaps not far away, when we reach a rapid decline in oil and gas availability, at the same time as we experience weather related food shortages? Farming is now so dependent on finite energy inputs that food supply will in any case fail when these fuels become scarce. The panic, hoarding and breakdown of the economic system as well as law and order, that will take place when this happens will make the present recession seem like heaven.
The second option doesn’t look much better. This would be to drastically reduce our consumption of energy, thereby slowing the depletion of oil and gas reserves at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The snag with this, of course, is that economic growth would stop, the recession would turn in to a longterm depression and the billions in the developing world would continue in abject poverty.
Looking at these two options, it appears as if we are leaving the next generation with no hope. However there is in fact a third way foreword that would be possible if the world’s leaders accept that we are facing disaster.
That third way is to use ingenuity, innovation and invention to collect far more of the abundant solar energy reaching us each day using solar panels, wind, wave and tidal collectors but most of all the age old method of collection by the plant leaf using photosynthesis.
Because fossil fuels have been so cheap and plentiful, there has been no incentive to improve the inefficient and wasteful farming methods that have become nothing more than a way to convert finite but cheap, fossil energy in the form of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and diesel fuel, into a much smaller amount of more expensive food energy. How can anyone think that this will not fail in the long run?
A large proportion of the energy in crops is wasted, either in the field, during processing, in the home or by feeding it to animals. There are now ways to efficiently harvest more of the crop and turn the previously wasted portion in to liquid fuels or gas. Besides traditional crops, there are developments to turn cellulose from any organic such as managed woodland or grasses, into ethanol fuel. Similarly oil can be produced from algae grown on the water that covers 70% of the planet.
If we also use technology to make it possible for us to enjoy a satisfactory lifestyle while using less total energy, we would be able to delay the depletion of fossil fuels and also reduce climatic change. What a result that would be!
The only way to make this happen quick enough to avoid disaster is to drastically change the price relationship between fossil energy and renewable energy through the tax system. We could replace income and other taxes by a carbon tax on all fossil fuels, or introduce a carbon tax with a 100% dividend. That would mean all the proceeds of the tax would be distributed back to the population.
These changes would bring about vast new industries producing both the renewable energy and the new low energy appliances, buildings and transport methods. Economic growth would no longer be leading us to disaster. It’s a possible solution.
We have said many times that when finite oil supplies become scarce we will reach a situation of Peak Food because our farming system is now totally dependent on these fossil reserves.
So it’s good to see that at least one major tractor maker is looking to make a tractor that does not run on oil based fuel.
The NH2 tractor is a working prototype with fuel cells that generate 106 horse power. Hydrogen, stored at 350bar in a tank under the bonnet, is passed over one electrode, while oxygen (from an air pump) is passed over the other. The electricity produced by the process then passes to a pair of electric motors, one supplying drive and the other providing power for pto and auxiliary services. Because it runs on hydrogen and oxygen, the tractor’s only by-product is water.
There are at least two problems:
- Fuel cells are prohibitively expensive, though New Holland hope that commercially viable cells could come on line as soon as 2018!
- Hydrogen is really an energy storage means and needs an energy source. The conversion of energy into hydrogen, the transportation and storage of the hydrogen and its conversion back into electricity by fuel cells is very inefficient but New Holland has a vision of an energy independent farm that generates electricity on the farm using wind, solar or biogas, and then using an electrolyser to produce hydrogen which is stored in a high pressure tank.
Plainly, developing the tractor and setting up the infrastructure is not going to be a quick solution and may never be viable. However, we must give New Holland full marks for recognising that fossil powered farming can only be temporary and attempting to come up with an alternative.
The severity and speed of man-made climate change is one of the key factors which will determine the amount of food that can be produced in the future. Most of us desperately wish it wasn’t happening and perhaps that explains why people are quick to believe anything coming from the sceptics. The East Anglia email scandal is an example of something fairly insignificant that is used to feed scepticism in the population, most of whom have not looked closely at the evidence or science.
I have heard people say that they would like to see the arguments explained by experts in an easy to understand way.
It’s great therefore that The Royal Society – as the UK’s national academy of science – has responded to eight key misleading arguments by setting out where the weight of scientific evidence lies.
We at Peak Food will show abbreviated versions of each of these arguments.
MISLEADING ARGUMENT 1
The Earth’s climate is always changing and this is nothing to do with humans. Even before the industrial revolution, when humans began pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on a large scale, the earth experienced warmer periods.
WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?
The world has experienced warmer or colder periods in the past without any interference from humans. The ice ages are well-known examples of global changes to the climate. There have also been regional changes such as periods known as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’, when less sea ice and larger areas of cultivated land were reported in Iceland.
However, in contrast to these climate phases, the increase of three-quarters of a degree centigrade in average global temperatures over the last century is larger than can be accounted for by natural factors alone.
The Earth’s climate is complex and influenced by many things- particularly changes in the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun, which has driven the cycle of ice ages in the past. Volcanic eruptions and variations in the energy being emitted from the Sun have also had an effect. But even taking these factors into account, we cannot explain the temperature rises that we have seen over the last 100 years both on land and in the oceans- for example ,eleven of the last twelve years from 1995, have been the hottest years since records started in 1850.
So what is causing this increase in average global temperature? The natural greenhouse effect keeps the Earth around 30c warmer than it would otherwise be and, without it, the Earth would be extremely cold.
The ability of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to act like a blanket and
trap heat has been understood for nearly 200 years and is regarded as firmly established science.
Any increase in the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mean that more heat is trapped and global temperatures increase-an effect known as ‘global warming’. We know from looking at gases found trapped in cores of polar ice that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now 35% greater than they have been for at least the last 650,000 years. The increase in global temperature is consistent with what science tells us we should expect when the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase in the way that they have.
It is alleged that the increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to emissions from volcanoes, but these account for less than one per cent of the emissions due to human activities.
The importance of wild food has obviously been in decline right from the time when a few hunter gatherers decided to have a try at farming. Now, although wild food caught or gathered on land is still important in parts of Africa and places like the Amazon for most of us in the west it is a very small part of our diet.
Wild fish, on the other hand, is far more important. It is a superb high protein food that has been a significant part of our diet and the collapse of fish stocks forecast over the next 20 years could not come at a worse time.
We should remember that until the time of catch there is no input of energy in wild fish while farmed fish obviously uses far more energy. Thus moving away from wild meat and fish will not be easy.
Below is part of an excellent article by Janet Larsen from the Earth Policy Institute website:
“After decades of growth, the reported global wild fish catch peaked in 2000 at 96 million tons and fell to 90 million tons in 2003, the last year for which worldwide data are available.
The catch per person dropped from an average of 17 kilograms in the late 1980s to 14 kilograms in 2003—the lowest figure since 1965.
As fishing fleets expanded through the late 1980’s and as fish finding and harvesting technologies became more efficient, the world’s fishers have systematically gone after their catch at greater depths and in more remote waters. Over the past 50 years, the number of large predatory fish in the oceans has dropped by a startling 90 percent. Catches of many popular food fish such as cod, tuna, flounder, and hake have been cut in half despite a tripling in fishing effort. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the 4 million vessels scouring the world’s waters are at or exceeding the sustainable yields of three quarters of all oceanic fisheries.
The 10 most-fished species constitute 30 percent of the world’s catch. Seven of these have reached their limits and are classified as fully exploited or overexploited throughout their entire ranges, meaning that we cannot expect to increase their harvests. Included in this group are two types of Peruvian anchoveta, Alaska pollock, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting in the northeast Atlantic, capelin in the North Atlantic, and Atlantic herring. The other three species—chub mackerel, skipjack tuna, and largehead hairtail—are overfished in parts of their ranges.
Interestingly, several of these species became fishing targets only after the stocks of more desirable fish were overharvested. After the collapse of the 500-year-old Canadian cod fishery in the early 1990s, blue whiting catches increased. In the northwest Pacific, the overfishing of Alaska pollock and Japanese sardine led fishers to focus on Japanese anchovy, largehead hairtail, and squid. Some scientists warn that continuing to ‘fish down the food web’ will lead to harvests almost exclusively of bait fish and jellyfish.”
It has become fashionable for people to say that they are going SKI ing (acronym for Spending the Kids’ Inheritance), often by taking equity from their house and spending it on holidays etc.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, they earned it or more likely gained it through house price inflation. Now though, governments are taking on unimaginable amounts of debt that is in effect stealing from our children’s future and bequeathing them a less prosperous life.
Yes, our children could probably cope with less prosperity, but they will struggle to deal with inheriting an Earth with a changed climate and food production system dependent on the use of resources that have been depleted by previous generations.
The twentieth century started with 1.5 billion people. We are now close to 7 billion and will pass 8 billion around 2028. This has been possible only because we found ways to convert cheap, plentiful fossil energy in to food energy. On average it now takes about 10 fossil calories, in the form of oil and gas to deliver 1 calorie of food energy. As these resources are finite, they must become scarce and expensive at some time and then the fossil energy based food system will fail, resulting in famine.
The present food system also consumes vast amounts of mined phosphate and potash fertilizers instead of recycling nutrients back to the soil. Ancient aquifers are being depleted to irrigate crops in dry areas. Many of these aquifers, from America to India are close to empty.
How will future generations judge us baby-boomers, the babies born in the post- second world war years when soldiers returned home and birth rates in the West shot up? We lived through a period of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity. We enjoyed the swinging sixties, travelled the world and ate and drank in a way that kings would have envied. In so doing, we plundered and damaged the Earth and built up massive debt.
The thing that they will be unable to understand is that when we realised what was happening we were unwilling to change. We want to live as we do a little longer and to hell with the kids. Some people would call it Gordon Brown mentality.