A Look Behind Rising Food Prices: Population Growth; Rising Oil Prices; Weather Events

This is a guest post by Dr. Gary Peters. He is a retired geography professor and author of Population Geography.

Rising food prices, crowned by a recent record high spike and chronicled in the graph below, have played a role in triggering the spread of unrest that we’ve witnessed recently from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. Though most residents of rich countries can absorb higher food costs without much struggle, residents of poor countries, especially those living in major urban areas such as Cairo, cannot. Higher food prices are immediate threats to their health and, in some cases, even their lives, especially those of the very young and the elderly.

Figure 1. Illustration from the New York Times.

The current spike in food prices, which has now exceeded the price spike in 2008, has been blamed on various factors, including unusual weather events, higher demand, smaller crop yields, and the diversion of food crops to biofuels.

Unusual weather events have certainly played a role.  The devastating heat wave that struck Russia last year damaged the wheat crop enough to cause the Russian government to halt grain exports for the year.  Heavy rains in Australia damaged wheat crops to the point that some were downgraded for use only as animal food.  Historic flooding in Pakistan damaged grain crops there as well.  Right now severe drought is threatening the wheat crop in parts of China.  Whether these extreme weather events and others represent just random bad luck or are harbingers of more numerous such events in the future remains an open question, but considerable evidence falls on the side of more frequent severe weather events for planet Earth.

According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), 2010 tied 2005 for the hottest year on record and 2010 was the wettest year on record.  According to Kevin Trenberth, head of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (cited in UK Guardian, “How extreme weather could create a global food crisis,” Feb. 4, 2011):

There is a systematic influence on all of these weather events nowadays because there is more water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be, say, 30 years ago.  It’s about a 4% extra amount, provides plenty of moisture for these storms, and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change.  And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get worse in the future.

Nor is Mr. Trenberth the only one worried about changing weather patterns.  Paul Krugman wrote recently in an Op-Ed article in the New York Times, “Droughts, Floods and Food,” (Feb. 7, 2011):

While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production.  And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as  rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate—which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

Though I agree with Mr. Krugman that current food prices may continue to increase, I do not believe that rising food prices in the future will be a direct result of climate change, though when a severe weather event affects a crop it will be ever more likely that a spike in food prices will follow.  As I will argue below, I think food prices will be further exacerbated primarily by a combination of continued population growth and rising energy prices, both of which are probably more predictable, at least in the short run, than is extreme weather and its potential effects.  In reality none of these trends are predictable, though population growth, rising oil prices, and more frequent extreme weather events will, if they continue, affect food price trends.  Even this is not certain, of course, because some new miracle food or production technique could appear and diffuse widely in a short period of time.  But that seems unlikely; prudence suggests that we should deal as best we can with the trends that we see in front of us, including climate change.

Smaller crop yields may also have played a role in the current spike in food prices, though grain yields are variable from year to year and are obviously affected by weather patterns around the world.  Again, their role in future food production remains unpredictable.

The diversion of food for fuel is likely to continue.  The most obvious examples are the use of sugar cane in Brazil and corn in the United States for the production of ethanol.  Despite its economic insanity, the use of corn for ethanol production in the United States is likely to expand, especially if generous subsidies remain in place and crude oil prices remain high.

In turn, however, high oil prices, if they continue, will almost certainly help drive up food prices because oil is critical to the production of food crops, both directly and in its affect on fertilizer prices.  The world is now struggling to increase crude oil extraction, even in the face of higher prices.  As the graph below shows, even under the unlikely “Low Price” projection by the Energy Information Administration, crude oil prices are unlikely to drop back to where they were in the 1990s.  If we take the “Reference” case as the most likely scenario, it should be likely that higher crude oil prices will translate into higher food prices down the road, especially if the world’s population continues to grow.

Figure 2. Illustration of expected oil prices from EIA's International Energy Outlook.

A recent article in The Economist, “Protests and the Pump,” (Feb. 3, 2011) commented:

Irrespective of events in the Middle East, however, the pressure on oil prices is likely to grow.  The market has recovered very strongly from the lows of 2009 thanks to bumper growth in emerging markets and a decent recovery in America….Even if OPEC eventually makes use of its spare capacity the world’s thirst for oil could start to outpace supplies in the next two years.  Then $100 a barrel could look like a bargain.

Similarly, George Friedman, in The Next Decade:  Where We’ve Been…and Where We’re Going, wrote:

Certainly oil production has moved to less and less hospitable areas, such as the deep waters offshore and shale, which require relatively expensive technology.  That tells us that even if oil extraction has not reached its peak, all other things being equal, oil prices will continue to rise…the increased energy consumption that we will see over the next decade cannot be fueled by oil, or at least not entirely.

Of the four contributors to higher food prices listed above, the most predictable one may be higher demand for food, which is driven both by rising affluence, which allows people to add more animal protein to their diets, and rising numbers of people.  So long as the world economy continues to grow, we are likely to see dietary shifts in many emerging economies, including those of China and India, which together are home to more than 2.5 billion people.  As more animal protein enters their diets, more food crops will be diverted from direct consumption to animal feed, in turn putting further upward pressure on food production and prices. That is why China has become such a large importer of soy beans.

As for population growth, it may be the most predictable of all trends affecting the demand for food, at least in the short run, and also the easiest trend to understand and alter. The graph of food prices above suggests that an upward trend in food prices began around 2000, reached a peak in 2008, then rose to its current peak in late 2010/early 2011. To put this growth in food prices in demographic perspective, the world’s population has grown by more than 800 million since 2000 and continues to grow by more than 80 million annually.

Like world income, world population growth is unevenly distributed. There is enough food to feed our current 6.9 billion people, but many don’t have enough money to buy food at world prices nor land on which to raise their own food. The urban poor will be worst off if food prices remain high, or go even higher, mainly because they must spend a much larger percentage of their incomes just to eat. Our world is currently split in numerous ways, one of which is the following: rich countries are growing little, if at all, demographically, whereas poor countries continue to grow at moderate to high rates.

Figure 3 below shows that virtually all population growth now and into the next few decades will occur in the poor countries; rich country populations will grow slowly in some places and not at all in others. In a few places, Japan, for example, populations will actually decline. Japan’s population is projected to decline from 127 million in 2010 to 95 million in 2050; Germany’s population is projected to decline from 82 million in 2010 to 72 million in 2050. Though demographic shrinkage has its own problems, it may decrease pressure on food prices and prices on other commodities as well when it occurs in rich, high-consumption nations.

Figure 3. Graph from Population Reference Bureau, showing UN projections of population growth.

Recent demographic studies have focused more on population decline in the rich countries than on population growth in the poor ones, and the nature of that focus has been almost exclusively on economics, primarily on future prospects for economic growth. Few if any have written about the potential positive consequences of population decline in rich countries, a topic that I plan to pursue soon.

In the meantime I would argue that for decades we have avoided the consequences of population growth by emphasizing the need for greater food production and ways to meet the rising demand for food. Though this makes intuitive sense, it has put us on a food/population treadmill from which we’re afraid to exit for fear of falling. When times have been good we’ve managed to avoid serious threats of widespread hunger in poor countries by expanding world grain production, by having reserves to help us through bad times, and by continuing to tell people in the poor countries that better times are ahead if only they become more like us, i.e. more democratic and more dedicated to free markets. High food prices threaten our balance on the treadmill, however, because they ration food for the neediest among us.

Economists shrug off such dilemmas by assuring us that high food prices will bring forth greater harvests in the future, hence increasing food supplies and decreasing prices. Their preference is to remain on the treadmill and hope it remains profitable. They may be right; then again they may be wrong. It is getting more difficult to continue expanding food supplies as constraints on production, including higher energy and fertilizer costs, lead ever closer to diminishing returns. Whatever economists might say, we cannot squeeze blood from turnips.

Most ecologists and many geographers argue that there are already too many people on Earth and that it is the steady growth in human numbers that threatens to bring our food/population treadmill experience to a bad ending. Without reducing human numbers there are other alternatives that might take some pressure off food prices. For example, people could choose to eat less, but evidence suggests that we’re moving in the opposite direction and that overweight and obesity are becoming problems not just in America but elsewhere as well. People could also choose to eat less meat, but right now that trend also is moving in the other direction.

It would be more efficient–and a far wiser investment–to help people in poor countries achieve their desired family sizes. This is not a coercive proposal but a humane one, a proposal to slow or stop future population growth voluntarily before it is curtailed by the reappearance of those four famous horsemen. Surveys repeatedly show that women in poor countries desire fewer children than they have. Improving the lives of women, including better education for them, coupled with supportive family planning programs and at least minimal social security programs, would be moves in the right direction.

We promise much to residents of poor countries but deliver little. Unless you truly believe that life in the shanty towns of the poor world is better than it is, it makes sense to help people achieve smaller families. That in turn would allow poor countries to invest more money in education, public health programs, economic improvements, and other things to improve the lives of those who now must cope from day to day with unimaginable squalor and hardship. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (“Ensuring that Every Pregnancy is Wanted,” 2010):

At least 200 million women want to use safe and effective family planning methods, but are unable to do so because they lack access to information and services or the support of their husbands and communities. And more than 50 million of the 190 million women who become pregnant each year have abortions. Many of these are clandestine and performed under unsafe conditions.

So long as we emphasize increasing food production as the only answer, and ignore population growth, we will remain on the food/population treadmill, walking a tenuous course that will most likely end up as bad news. If we truly seek to help people in poor countries create better lives for themselves, then we need to do all we can to help them achieve the smaller families that most of them would like to have. To ignore the issue of large families and high fertility is to condemn more generations to life in crowded shanty towns, lives that will struggle to eke out an existence that the poorest people in rich countries would find unacceptable and unendurable.

Martin Hutchinson, one of the few financial writers who understands something about population issues, wrote recently, in a piece called “The Blight of Population Growth,” (Feb. 7, 2011):

Both the rioters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the Western commentators on those riots have missed a vitally important component of Egypt’s miseries: its excessive and rapidly rising population. With such population growth even the wisest Egyptian ruler, the great Ptah-hotep, could not have achieved a rapid rise in the living standards of Egypt’s people. We should not mock; if this problem is not attacked seriously and rapidly on a global scale, the world of the 22nd Century may bear all too great a resemblance to today’s downtown Cairo.

To put his comment in the perspective of our analogy of the food/population treadmill, at some point increasing food production will fail to keep pace with global population growth. At that point we may have crashed and burned.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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37 Responses to A Look Behind Rising Food Prices: Population Growth; Rising Oil Prices; Weather Events

  1. Arthur Robey says:

    Over here in Australia circumstances are persuading farmers to abandon cereal crops and embrace pastoralism. Less wheat and more sheep and cattle.
    Methinks the reasons are the increasing input costs involved with broad acre farming (topsoil mining).
    We can anticipate less calories per acre as a consequence.

    In Rhodesia we were too successful.
    Our population of aBantu exploded, dooming any per capita prosperity. So we tried various methods to slow down the birth rate increase.

    Talking to the men got nowhere. They viewed children as their old age pension.

    Our most successful technique was for our ladies to organize coffee mornings and spread woman’s Lib. They would instil the idea that it was not upwardly mobile to be a possessed womb.

    And then Bob Mugabe got in and the women were firmly put back in their place, and the African Way of controlling population growth was implemented. He seemed to be succeeding, but I see that the trend is back up again.

    Life is very cheap in Zimbabwe.
    A chic tourist was coming down the International Miekles hotel stairs, when an abandoned street urchin snatched her bag.
    She became hysterical. “My Passport, my wallet etc etc.”
    The Hotel Guard placated her saying,”Never mind Lady, it will be all right.”
    Whereupon he drew his sidearm and shot the fleeing youth through the back of his head.
    Retrieving her hand bag he beamed “See Madam. No harm done.”

    Life on an overcrowded land.

    • There are no good solutions. Pensions are, in fact, going to go more and more away, so people will not be able to depend on governments. This means if they are to be taken care of at all in their old age, it will be by their children. When living conditions are bad, not all of the children will survive to adulthood. So families need several children, to be assured of having one or two of them to care for them in their old age. But this is not the solution one would like.

      • Ed Pell says:

        I as a 52 year old America do not expect to ever collect any social security in my old age. I expect my wife and I can only count on our children. The new normal look a lot like the old normal.

        • Gary Peters says:


          If you’re paying into social security you need to relax. Right now this may be the only solvent program that the U.S. government has and it is likely to stay that way for a long time. Politicians and others lie a lot and cover up facts about social security to make it sound threatened, but its problems are few, its financial base sound for now, and with some minor adjustments down the road it will help you out for a long time.

          • My conclusions on Social Security are fairly different from yours, Dr. Peters. I wrote a post about it last year on The Oil Drum. It was called Social Security and Medicare Funding Issues: Even Worse when One Considers Resource Constraints. We are already behind on a cash funding basis (outflow exceeds cash contributions), and the cut in Social Security contributions this year made the situation worse. All of the slight of hand with debt makes it look like the situation is not as bad as it is, but with “baby boomers” nearing retirement age, the situation is clearly unsustainable.

            I show a lot of images in which I represent the economy as a series of circles, which are either growing or getting smaller. Social Security and Medicare were developed assuming that those circles would be getting bigger and bigger in total, so each persons share could continue to grow (or at least stay the same) because the total pie was growing, and all would share in the total pie. But with resource depletion, what we are facing is an economy which we can expect to shrink in future years. This means there will be more and more people trying to get a share of a shrinking pie. This is a recipe for a major problem.

        • marty schoffstall says:

          contrary to Gary’s statement on a cash flow basis, Social Security is now negative. While it has been in the past there was political will to fix it (Reagan/TipOneill), I suspect there is no will to fix it within the current administration.

          You are probably right, the new normal is the old normal, I’m just hoping as a 51 year old I can work my 2 acres of truck garden for the next 20 years and they can split the wood, and be responsible for the wheat on the other 150 acres.

    • gazon says:

      You ought to tell that story in Technicolor

  2. Ed Pell says:

    The population of all living things is stable (yes there are ups and downs as in a system of rabbits and wolves but on average over time stable). All living things reproduce and do so at a level higher than replacement. The difference is subtracted by the so starvation, predation, disease. In the case of humans we have the nickname the four horsemen (starvation, war, disease and pollution (the new replacement for pestilence)). Starvation is a cruel way to limit human numbers but it will prevail if we do nothing to replace it like a two child policy. Please do not flame me on the evils of government control of reproduction I agree. It is just an example. If you have a “good” alternative to starvation as the population control mechanism PLEASE tell me, tell us.

    What we will have when population is stable is natural selection. That is evolution. Who will be fittest. Who will have the social skills to secure for themselves and their family. Who will be high enough up the social pyramid to get enough food and who will fail at social climbing and have their children starve to death? This has been the norm of human history for 200,000 years (the history of species homo for 3 million years, the history of multi-celled animals for 600 million years). The past 200 years of rapid population growth are an anomaly we are just returning to normal. Subsistence farming at a low enough level of calories that only about two children per family survive.

    • We have an awfully lot of cows and pigs and even goats now, but I expect that without oil things will level out again, and some of the species that have died back will increase in number. It is easy to get the idea that the last 200 years represents the “normal” state, when it does not.

    • Gary Peters says:


      It is true that the numbers of most animals will remain somewhat stable, at least over short periods of time. Any ecosystem has a carrying capacity for any of the species within it, so exceeding that carrying capacity for any length of time will be met with higher death rates to bring numbers back down.

      Humans are animals, but we need to consider two differences between us and other animals when we talk about population growth and the ways to control it. First, unlike other animals, we can change Earth’s carrying capacity for ourselves and we’ve been doing so at least since the agricultural revolution. Second, unlike other animals, we can control our numbers by controlling births as well as deaths.

      Energy has been a critical element in our ability to increase carrying capacity. Early civilizations built irrigation systems, etc., to improve agricultural productivity. Domestication provided draft animals to help us in the fields. Crop rotation systems were developed, etc. However, the big change came when we shifted from animate to inanimate energy sources as the industrial revolution got under way, allowing an unprecedented growth in human numbers. From less than one billion of us in 1800 we’ve grown to 6.9 billion today.

      But we may again be reaching a ceiling in which energy constraints again become critical. Oil extraction is not increasing much at all, and only at ever higher costs, so it will become more difficult to continue to expand agricultural production. If we don’t control birth rates and we can’t expand food productioin fast enough to keep up with an additional 80 million more people each year, then death rates will rise to make up the difference. The food supply will be an ultimate determinant of our numbers.

    • Owen says:

      Who will be high enough up the social pyramid to get enough food and who will fail at social climbing and have their children starve to death? This has been the norm of human history for 200,000 years (the history of species homo for 3 million years, the history of multi-celled animals for 600 million years).

      This is just overtly and unequivocally wrong. And that’s not an attack. It’s just fact.

      Through human history, what has determined whose children survived was raw, physical power. Not friendly glad handing.

      Social pyramids and social climbing and who was congenial, as it were, don’t mean jack squat. Americans will get the “lion’s share”, if they do, for one reason and one reason only, and I think everyone knows that to be so — whether they hate it or not. It won’t be because Americans were friendly.

      Have no illusions about this. China has to feed a lot of people with imports from long distances. They are the number one importer of soybeans in the world. They WILL take measures to secure that supply if it comes under threat. The top exporter? The USA.

      Would the US take similar steps to secure its supply of coffee? No. Oranges? No. Both come from Brazil. When oil scarcity destroys production in various places, and transport from other various places, they are going after neighboring countries’ food. They have to. They would be irresponsible not to, condemning their children to starvation.

      Their social skills won’t persuade neighboring parents who have food to risk their own children’s winter supply by handing it out now. Those parents would be irresponsible if they did take such a risk with their own children’s lives.

      No, beyond irresponsible. Given human norms, they would be inhuman to take such a risk.

      Expecting wars is a pretty easy call.

  3. John B says:

    I found the article arrogant and not close to being all encompassing.

    The author appears to suggest that the problems of high food prices are due to countries other than the US wanting more and having too many people. Arrogance at its best. The US should not be considered as the model empire for others to follow.

    Rather than promoting population reduction in the ‘poor countries’, perhaps something should be done with over-consumption in the rich countries. America needs to start being a leader rather than telling others how to do things with the end result being that America suffers little at all.

    • James Hedges says:

      Rest assured Dr. Peters is well aware of America’s bad example of overconsumption; this article was not aimed at that topic but could well be addressed in a follow-up article, though thinking Americans are already conscious of our profligate ways of expending resources. Some restaurants are, for example, creating menus for “meatless Mondays,” and if we all followed suit we could reduce our intake of grain-fed meat by 1/7, a significant decrease and a means of reducing our embarrassing dependence on feedlot animal production with its negative impact on the environment, and more sadly on the animals sacrificed to this process, no matter how “humanely” practiced.

  4. Bicycle Dave says:

    National Geographic has a population article:


    It has some good demographic numbers and a few interesting bits. It dwells a lot on India. Overall, I got the feeling it was written by someone who was trying very hard to present a “balanced” view between the population optimists and pessimists. It also seemed to emphasize the declining fertility rates in so-called “developed” countries without spending much time on the obvious overall growth in population in most of those countries due to in-migration. It did recognize that a 9B global population was most likely before mid-century.

    The article ends with a Malthus quote

    “The exertions that men find it necessary to make, in order to support themselves or families, frequently awaken faculties that might otherwise have lain for ever dormant, and it has been commonly remarked that new and extraordinary situations generally create minds adequate to grapple with the difficulties in which they are involved.”

    Seven billion of us soon, nine billion in 2045. Let’s hope that Malthus was right about our ingenuity.

    Although the article has some recognition of “the limits of growth”, it seemed pretty weak kneed to me. I think this kind of “balanced” analysis is a big part of the problem – if National Geographic still sees 9B humans as only a “potential” problem, it is no wonder that the general public is not very concerned.

    • Gary Peters says:


      I pretty much agree with your take on the National Geographic article on population. Too often we take a population projection as something carved in stone, when the opposite is really true. The UN says we’re going to have over 9 billion people by 2050, so economists and others tell us we need to figure out how to feed, house, clothe, and educate those people, then find them jobs, etc. From an ecological perspective this makes no sense at all. It’s about much more than just food, as we see today. We can’t or won’t adequately feed the 6.9 billion here already; some are overstuffed and obesity is on the rise while others remain malnourished. Worse yet some are both obese and malnourished.

      • marty schoffstall says:

        While I personally have no excuse for being overweight, I would say that the US system captures many people unsuspectedly by either keeping them ignorant, the system’s ignorance, or the individual’s “willful” ignorance. High fructose corn syrup showing up in every food and drink is probably beyond most human metabolisms to process. I’ve seen some numbers in NYC that certain neighborhoods are 30% diabetic, which undoubtedly tracks the consumption of sweetened drinks and processed foods.

        The decisions made in the 70s with regards to corn and continuing forward were and are a horror. Public policy run amok.

    • Thanks. Those are very fine charts. One thing I don’t like about the WordPress commenting system is that it doesn’t allow images in the comments, or I would show one or two.

      With debt, the issue wouldn’t be so bad, if the economy were growing rapidly. But with declining resource availability, growth has to fade away and decline. With declining resources, there is absolutely no way this debt can be repaid. The situation can only end badly.

  5. Keith Akers says:

    Key to dealing with the food problem is eating lower on the food chain, translation: more vegetarians and vegans. This is not sufficient to deal with the problems of food — even on a vegan diet the world can only support so many people. (There are also peripheral issues such as pasture land but that’s a separate digression.) But eating lower on the food chain is a necessary part of the solution. To quote Dr. Peters, “As more animal protein enters their diets, more food crops will be diverted from direct consumption to animal feed, in turn putting further upward pressure on food production and prices. That is why China has become such a large importer of soy beans.”

    Related to this is food equity. To quote Dr. Peters again, “Economists shrug off such dilemmas by assuring us that high food prices will bring forth greater harvests in the future, hence increasing food supplies and decreasing prices.” But the problem is that even with higher prices, global inequity is such that rich people can afford meat at grain prices at which poor people are starving. Equity is is a key issue of the ecological economists (Herman Daly et. al.). The underlying problem of food prices, which is behind much of the unrest in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Jordan, cannot be met through the so-called free market. The free market does not assure us of reasonable distribution of goods and services; we need to smooth out the inequity somehow.

    If you did this, say by waving a magic wand and setting up a minimum grain allotment for everyone in the world, the effect would be to eliminate grain consumption at the high end, which would mean that heavy meat eaters would not get their meat at any price.

    The world agricultural system is actually too big already and is not sustainable (soil erosion, groundwater depletion, deforestation, etc.). We need to phase in an upper limit on the “size” of our agricultural system and price resources accordingly (within the equity provisions mentioned above), so over time population needs to be reduced. To quote Dr. Peters again, “So long as we emphasize increasing food production as the only answer, and ignore population growth, we will remain on the food/population treadmill, walking a tenuous course that will most likely end up as bad news. ”

    But as far as food goes, what really needs to be reduced is population * food consumption per capita. One meat-eating American couple with two kids has much more of a food impact than one vegan Indian couple with a lot more kids, perhaps 5 or 10 or even more. This statement isn’t exact — local conditions in America and India are different, etc. — but the basic point is the same.


    • I have eaten a low meat diet for many years. (I do eat some fish, though). I made the change for health reasons, and I now have close to zero health problems, so I would recommend it on that basis alone. We eat a lot of beans and lentils instead of meat. Also, quite a bit of fruit and nuts.

      • Gary Peters says:


        Thanks for your comments on social security and for a link to your article, which was very good. Maybe Ed isn’t as safe as I thought. I certainly agree with you that retirement of the baby boomers is going to worsen the problem year by year for the next couple of decades. I also agree that cutting payroll taxes/contributions this year wasn’t a good idea.

        Your introduction of coming resource restraints and their potential impacts on productivity, wages, and contributions to SS and Medicare was something I’d given no thought to. I can see where the picture could become much worse. Thanks again.

        Japan will be a place for all of us to watch as it is probably now the oldest nation demographically and because of very low fertility it will face a major decline in population over the next few decades.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Keith, the whole meat issue is a big can of worms.

      The problem is not so much eating animal products as how those products are produced.

      An American vegan consumes much more fossil energy in their diet than a Masai pastoralist meat-eater. Harvest soy beans from Iowa, ship them to California to be made into soy milk, ship it to New Jersey to package, then ship it to your local store, where a smug vegan purchases it in lieu of the local, grass-grazed raw milk. Not good.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Jan,

        I tend to agree with you. I feel very uncomfortable about the suggestion that a vegan diet could support the current global population (and perhaps a few billion more). I also appreciate the argument about “rich meat eaters” consuming a disproportionate amount of global resources.

        There is also the issue of morbid obesity and rampant diabetes to consider. Gary Taubes has written two excellent books about this:

        He challenges the idea that we should eat a low fat diet. Clearly, the US food policies have not promoted public health. I’m not trying to promote one diet over the other – I just think that this is a complex issue. As you say “a big can of worms”.

        Every human being has a footprint on the planet that goes beyond the mere production of an adequate grain supply – in many, many ways. Although I strongly support the idea of reduced consumption by the affluent, I doubt that this is enough to get the four horsemen to “pass on by”.

        I think it is critical that do whatever is possible to raise awareness of the population issue (I support Population Connection). And, I think the single most important part of that equation is for the USA to take the lead with its own population. Currently, we have no (zero) official population policy. Our tacit policy is to rejoice in every new addition to our country to maintain “growth” by increasing the demand for consumption that every new person brings to the party.

        Although measures to improve global equality are meritorious, I think they need to be viewed as temporary measures while we work on the much more important population issue.

        • Keith Akers says:

          Taubes is a dangerous and irresponsible popular writer. It’s pointless to try to read him, because he distorts his sources. You’re going to have to check every single footnote he has, because he probably distorted it.

          After he wrote his New York Times article, numerous researchers bitterly complained that they had been misquoted, including Barbara Rolls (obesity expert at Pennsylvania State University), John Farquhar (a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University’s Center for Research in Disease Prevention), and F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, director of the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. “The article was written in bad faith,” he said; “it was irresponsible.”

          All of this has been blithely ignored by Taubes, who just rolls onward to bigger and bigger book deals advocating the Atkins diet, which has been almost universally condemned by medical experts all across the spectrum of dietary thinking.


      • Keith Akers says:

        This is a fairly straightforward issue which your example confuses.

        Pastoral nomadism is the single most destructive form of agriculture per capita in history. Much of the Sahara Desert was not desert before about the 6th century; you can thank pastoral nomads for that. On this kind of agriculture, you couldn’t support even 0.1% of our current population. This example compares just one resource (namely, fossil fuels) under two completely different economies (stone age vs. modern).

        If you are looking at the same basic economic system, there is just no comparison. Humans and their livestock are over 90% of the total zoomass of all mammals on the planet. There’s no way that this, or anything close to it, is going to continue in the energy descent.


        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Keith,

          Thanks for the link regarding the Akins criticism. I agree that this criticism should be carefully considered. I saw another such criticism (can’t remember where) that allowed Taubes to respond on a point by point basis – he seemed to present a decent counter argument. But, the criticism you referenced does also make a powerful argument against his advice.

          I struggle with weight gain and have personally found that sugar or anything high on the glycemic index is my biggest enemy – I give Taubes credit for advising against this type of food. Personally, I do well on some of the Atkins ideas. However, I agree that the evidence against consuming saturated fat is very compelling. It is also hard to disagree with the final bit of advice in the article you referenced:

          Just make sure that you cut calories, and that the fats and carbs you do eat are healthy. “Most everyone agrees that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, that our grains should be whole rather than refined, that our protein foods should be lean, and that our oils should come from plants or fish,”

          I would not be so harsh about Taubes because I’m not convinced that government food polices have been effective for public health and I think we need critics like Taubes. However, you have made a good point and his criticism should also be viewed critically. Debate is good.

        • Keith Akers says:

          Bicycle Dave,

          Have you tried the Engine 2 Diet? http://engine2diet.com/
          Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but it is hot right now, and based on a quick look at the web site, it looks pretty good.

          He really avoids refined foods, but it is based on plant foods.


        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Keith,

          Thanks again for an interesting link (Engine 2). The recipe pages were most interesting – some good suggestions. I’m sure this vegan diet would work well for many folks. For some reasons that are probably more specific to my metabolism, I have trouble with this approach. However, I’m at one of those points (again) where I want to lose of weight and generally get more serious about a long term healthy diet. As I did well in the past on the South Beach Diet, I’m going to revisit that approach and the general idea of a more Mediterranean style of long term eating habits. Plus, I just plain like that type of food.

          The Engine 2 Diet does seem to have a lot going for it. And, the more I read (along with my own life experience), the more I’m convinced that refined food of any kind is the main thing to avoid.

    • marty schoffstall says:


      I would add trying to eat locally helps the program as well, and as local as your backyard veggie patch including trading with your neighbors, seeds, sweat and the output.

      I agree with you that the current agricultural system is too big, but I think the current system has too much hystereses to change before collapse in many if not all nation states.

  6. Gary Peters says:


    The Masai diet is changing. Meat and blood are becoming less important; milk and cereal (from maize) are increasing. Also, as a measure of how much humans everywhere are taking a toll on ecosystems, the Masai are killing off lions in nearby preserves, presumably to protect their cattle. As John Muir noted, everything is hitched to everything else.

    Almost everywhere affluence brings with it dietary changes that move people up the food chain. That is a hard cycle to break, if it can be broken at all. Another correlate of increasing affluence is the reduced percentage of income that is spent on food, which in turn means that changes in food prices have less pronounced effects on the affluent.

    So long as the world adopts (by choice or force) an economic system that uses price to determine supply and demand, it seems logical to think that as food gets scarcer, prices will rise and food will flow toward those who can pay, not toward those who may be hungry, even desperate. Though many NGOs try to fill food gaps for the hungry, they struggle as well when prices are high.

    Rich meat eaters are unlikely to worry much about hungry children in shanty towns in far away places, no matter what we say to them. Systemic problems keep us from being able to feed adequate diets to everyone in a world of 6.9 billion, so without changes in our world economy adding another 2-3 billion, if it even happens, will result in more hunger and malnutrition for the poor and greater riches for the rich.

  7. Fay Helwig says:

    Can anyone tell me from which countries does China import Soy Beans? I’m wondering if they are buying them from the USA to use up some of the US dollars they have accumulated.

    • Gary Peters says:


      China is a large producer of soy beans but is also a large importer. It imports its soy beans primarily from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina.

      • Owen says:

        I commented more extensively above. China is the #1 importer of soybeans in the world. The USA is the #1 exporter.

        This introduces a new aspect to Export Land Model thinking. If the US, as a consequence of inadequate oil supply, was not able to produce as many soybeans, and tried to keep them domestic — and China had to have them . . . .

        Export Land Model is only meaningful if importers permit it. If starvation looms, they will not permit it. The importers will attempt to take what they must have by force, as humans always have.

        • Gary Peters says:


          China imports soy beans primarily to feed to animals, which they then eat. Losing some of its soy bean imports would not cause starvation, though it would drive up the price of meat.

  8. robert wilson says:

    Circa 1971 I bought several copies of Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe to give as gifts. I was active in the Sierra Club and other organizations at that time and feared (wrongly) that no one would buy the book. One outcome – my daughter became an outstanding vegetarian cook. I once heard Lappe speak in Santa Barbara and asked a question from the floor which garnered a curt response suggesting that I was part of the Garrett Hardin crowd. I guess she was right.


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