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Oil is Not Food but Food is Oil: The Imminent Crisis of Food Production Dependence on Oil

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Awareness of the oil crisis is ubiquitous, epitomized by America's desperate struggle to secure control over the world's oil supplies notwithstanding the specious pretexts offered as rationalizations for occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and destabilization campaigns in countries such as Iran.

Sadly absent from public discourse on oil-related issues is the impact of declining oil reserves on the production of food and the complete lack of interest of Western governments in pursuing alternate methods of feeding the world.

Many scientists have concluded that we have passed peak oil which is the point at which the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached due to geological limitations.   After reaching peak oil, the rate of production enters terminal decline.

Obviously, the rate of oil production after peak oil is reached can remain at high levels but at the cost of shortening the time remaining before producing oil is no longer feasible.

Another problem in extracting oil after it reaches its peak is the net gain in energy or the "energy returned on energy invested ratio" (EROEI).   EROEI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource.   When it reaches the point that it costs more than a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil as in the Alberta Tar Sands, production becomes a losing proposition.

EROEI for various sources of energy are: coal: 80; imported oil (2005): 30; domestic oil (2000): 30; natural gas: 20; nuclear power 8; offshore oil: 5; ethanol: 1.3; tar sands; .3.   ("The American Scientist". December 22, 2009) Note that despite the fact the tar sands is now the largest oil reserves on the planet, it only produces .3 of a barrel of energy for every barrel of input needed to produce it.

According to a number of experts, peak oil has either been reached or approaching rapidly.   The EU energy chief warns that: "European oil consumption of gas already reached its peak.   The amount of oil available globally, I think has already peaked."   In a U.S. Department of Energy study "Peaking of World Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management", released in 2005 reports that: "As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically."   The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (APSO) concludes that regular conventional oil reached its peak in 2005.

There are many ramifications of living in a world with dwindling production of oil, but none more important than the impact on the production of food.

Over 400 gallons of oil are consumed each year to feed one person in North America.   About one third of that oil is used to manufacture fertilizer, about 20% to operate farm machinery, 16% for transportation, 13% for irrigation, 8% for raising livestock and 5% for pesticides.   Transportation involves refrigerated trucks and planes transporting foods long distances to distribution centres.

According to Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in -"Residence at the Post Carbon Institute and author: "Over all -" including energy costs for farm machinery, transportation, and processing, and oil and natural gas used as feedstock's for agricultural chemicals -" the modern food system consumes roughly ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced."   Currently, efficiency in food production is obscenely poor and foreshadows an escalation in prices and diminishing supplies.

Part of the problem of food production depending so heavily on oil is the growing use of GMO foods many of which are modified seeds that produce much higher yields.   They are designed to be resistant to pesticides allowing crops to be sprayed heavily with highly toxic pesticides such as Roundup and Atrazine.   Farmers then need three times more water to irrigate GMO crops, resulting in further drainage of the world's fresh water supplies.

To sever the relationship between oil and food will require a major paradigm shift in how we produce food.   In the words of Richard Hienberg (2005): "Given the fact that fossil fuels are limited in quantity and we are already in view of the global oil production peak, the debate over the potential productivity chemical-gene engineered agriculture and agroecological farming may be relatively pointless.   We must turn to a food system that is less fuel reliant, even if it does prove to be less productive."

The solution may be a methodology referred to as permaculture which is a sustainable land use design.   The strategy in permaculture is to create stable, productive systems that meet human needs while at the same time respecting the environment.   It is a self-sustaining, synergistic closed-looped system in which outputs of one element become inputs to another.

Consider the example of Cuba after the breakup of the Soviet Union when Cuba lost key imports for large-scale farming and at the same time was facing a famine.   The government responded by breaking up large state-owned farms and encouraged the formation of small agricultural co-ops and at the same time, sponsored widespread education in organic food production.   At the same time, the Cuban people converted to a partially vegetarian diet.   Livestock is a very inefficient source of protein.

Salaries for agricultural workers were raised to induce people to return to farming as their means of earning a living.   Along with the creation of urban gardens on rooftops and public lands, Cuba was able to produce sufficient food to feed its people.

In contrast to the paradigm shift in Cuba, the U.S. government is continuing to provide generous subsidies to agribusiness, thus postponing the day when a transformation in farming methods can be set in motion.   For example, there were three types of agricultural subsidies and in 2008: the government paid our $12.2 billion in direct subsidies with 62% going to commercial farms; $5.2 billion in commodity payments with 76% going to commercial farms; $2.7 billion in conservation payments with 33% going to commercial farms.

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I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which "Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death" was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z (more...)
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