Sharon Astyk: The Future of Food – ASPO-USA Conference

Sharon Astyk is a new member of the ASPO-USA board of directors with an amazingly high energy level and a broad background. She has practical experience with food growing on the small farm she and her husband own in upstate New York. She also has an academic background (having mostly finished a PhD), is raising four children, has written three books, writes a blog, and does a lot of work for ASPO-USA.

In this talk about the Future of Food, she brings out the connection of high oil prices with high food prices and food insecurity. As with oil, after the 2008 price spike, food prices dropped back. But they are still high by historical standards, and more variable than in earlier times. Countries like Saudi Arabia and China are trying to find places around the world where they can grow food for their own people, not unlike the colonists of long ago. We don’t know what the future will bring, but judging from the past, future oil price spikes are likely to ripple through the food systems as well, creating geo-political as well as hunger crises around the world.

Below the fold, I provide something between a summary and a transcript of her talk.

Sharon Astyk

Link to ASPO TV video. (Log in required)

This is where we don’t want to go is to the Doom Food Restaurant. But I think that has been part of the peak oil narrative. If there is a food side of it, we are all doomed, and you had better go get yourself a little farm. And I do have a little farm. We have been doing small scale agriculture for about 10 years now. But I think the personal narrative approach kind of misses the picture of the world food problem.

I want to talk about the link between oil, climate, and food. I am going to settle for correlations here. I’m not going to draw any direct conclusions on how energy, food, and climate go together. The real answers are quite complicated.

I want to begin with this quote from “Limits to Growth, the 30 Year Update”.

I think one of the things we have seen since 2007 is that of the places where we are likely to run out of the ability to cope is going to be the food system.

If you look at oil, wheat, and rice prices, they all tend to rise together.

And if you look at the hunger map, the places that are yellow and orange and red are the ones with hunger problems. The places that are vulnerable, tend to get oranger and redder, as oil prices rise.

At the end of 2008, we had 1 billion people who were seriously malnourished in the world. That is more than ever before. With the run-up in oil prices, we saw a run-up in food prices.

But after the run up, when prices fell back down, both for food and for oil, they really haven’t gone back to the level that they were a few years before the run-up.  So while food insecurity has gone down–to 900 million by one estimate –it really didn’t leave. Even the 900 million estimate didn’t take into account the Pakistani floods or the spike in prices because of the drought in Russia, and many estimates say we went back over 1 billion, only a few months later.

What we don’t see here is a return to prior food price levels, or a return to prior levels of stability. An awfully lot of major exporters, like Russia, and Argentina, and China, started restricting grain exports in 2008. It is important to recognize that during the food crisis of 2008, we had a record world harvest. There was no actual shortages of food. What we had was rising demand, and speculation because of this demand.

After the spike in food prices receded, the export restrictions mentioned as occurring in 2008 went away for a while, but now they are coming back. Whether that is a permanent situation is an interesting question. Most of the world spends more than 50% of its income on food; the average American spends 11% to 12% of its income on food.

Where food price is a high percentage of income, a food price rise is the difference between life and death for some people; the difference between sending your children to school and not sending them to school; the difference between eating meat once a month, and not eating it at all. And of course it is the difference between political stability and political instability. We know that food price spikes often result in government changes, and not necessarily for the better.

To get another sense of the picture, world grain land per person has been declining steadily for many years.

Even more important in some ways is world irrigated grain land:

Only 17% of the world’s grain land was irrigated at the end of 2005, but that produced almost 30% of the world’s grain. And many of those areas using irrigation are expect to be affected by climate change.

This is world increase in grain production by decade:

In the last two decades we are still increasing grain production, but you can see those increases are small. There is a lot of talk about investment in research in agriculture to change that picture, and it is possible that research could have some effect, but in the last two decades, all of the research that has been done hasn’t really done much to increase food production. I wonder if anyone notes any correlation with oil. With oil, there have been advances in technology, but little increase (none recently) in overall production.

And this shows world grain stocks:

Many nations that have been largely or partly food self-sufficient are giving up. We know that Saudi Arabia is giving up, and is not going to grow wheat any more. That is probably a reasonable assessment considering its water situation. But it means it has to go shopping for food. And it is buying land in Indonesia.

And we know that China, by 2025, may need the equivalent of the entire Canadian wheat harvest for imports. China was for a long time fairly food self-sufficient, and it is still a major exporter of food. But for grain, it is going to have to go out, and it is buying land from all over the world. The geo-political implications of this food situation are just as dire as the geo-pollitical implications of the energy situation, and they are so intertwined that I don’t think we have fully grasped how this is going to play out.

Quite often, we hear people say, “We don’t use that much oil in agriculture.” We use a fair bit, but it is not number one. But I think there is a complex relationship. What we see is both oil and food have sensitivities and feedback loops that are more complicated than one to one relationships.

Jeffrey Brown has proposed that there is an “Exportland Model” as well as oil. When countries begin adding export restrictions because they are having trouble feeding their own populations, we see that food supply tightens, and food insecurity increases. So I think it is important to recognize that these are feedback loop situations. It is easy to talk about “We use ten calories of oil to produce one calorie of consumable food,” and that is a useful number for educating people. But it is not the whole story.

When countries like China and Saudi Arabia begin doing agriculture around the world, the new farm owners are often large farm owners or national investors. What kind of agriculture–what kind of environment–this will produce is not yet clear. But the world picture is going to look very different when China has subsidiary nations. We have seen colonial versions of this before in the world, and I think it is worth thinking about what the world is going to look like with a growing number of agricultural colonies for nations who cannot feed themselves.

This is US grain use for fuel ethanol.

I think it is worth noting here that the UN FAO estimated that 40% of the food price rise in 2008 was due to rising ethanol use, which is just another way that food and energy can’t be separated out. And what we see is the simple reality that when the poorest people in the world, who generally eat their grain as grain, and the richest people in the world, who feed it to their cars, compete, the cars always eat first. And I think this is a really important point.

The biofuels situation is more complicated than I can discuss here, but it seems to me that we have set up an artificial population increase, by feeding grain to our cars.

The other question is food wastage here. I think it is really interesting to look at developing nations and the developed nations. Both of them have problems with substantial loss of available food. We produce about twice as many calories now as needed to feed every man, woman, and child on the planet. Now, realistically, that doesn’t mean there is a one-to-one correspondence. If we produce just enough calories to feed our population, we are going to be in trouble.

But it is interesting to see how this food is wasted. The vast majority of the food that is wasted in the developed world is wasted at home and in transport. The vast majority of the food that is lost in the developing world is lost to on-farm and transport losses. That is, farmers can’t drive, and they can’t refrigerate, they can’t preserve the food, and it spoils. That gives us one sense of where changes might be made to enhance food security, both in the US and elsewhere.

I will talk now about the US for a bit. Food insecurity is different in the US. But if you are worried your kids are not going to have enough to eat, you are not going to worry about much else.

There were a lot of stories at the beginning of the recession that this is not going to be like the great depression. Food is such a small percentage of family incomes that no one is going to go hungry. People are going to be worried about health care. But that turned out not to be true. Food insecurity has risen rapidly and disturbingly in the developed world. What I think is interesting about that is that no one can explain why it happened very well.

About one in seven Americans is now receiving food stamps, as is about one in four American children. We don’t like it when other countries subsidize food for their people, but when we get to numbers like one out of every seven Americans are on food stamps, what we have is a subsidized food system. What we are admitting is that the economic insecurity in the United States is so bad that a significant minority of Americans can’t afford to eat with their regular incomes.

Where are the possibilities for change? We know that there are a lot of possibilities for change. In 1999, the UN FAO estimated that 2 billion people live on organic, almost no oil-input agriculture. And that is because they cannot get oil to input into their agriculture. They don’t have any pesticides.

So we are supporting 2 billion people with virtually no oil. Based on this, oil-use could go way down in the food system. But we should think carefully about where we want it to decline.

(Sharon showed some slides on energy use and on expected US climate change that I don’t have, so I will skip a bit. -Gail)

We have fewer and fewer farmers. In the US, the average American farmer is now 57, and the average American small scale farmer is 63. We are reaching a demographic change. Soon, the people who raise food on farms won’t themselves have been raised on farms. We have never done that before in human history. My husband and I are living proof that these skills can be learned, but it does mean that the agricultural learning curve is a tough one, if you haven’t been raised on a farm.

One of the questions we are going to have to ask is how we are going to grow food where people are. People tell me, “I only have my tenth of an acre of land.” Worldwide, most cities produce about 20% of their meat, and about 20% of their produce. In Tanzania, children raised in families that garden–often tiny little gardens on land that they don’t own–have the same nutritional status as families of the middle class.

And what we find is that urban farmer can use waste food scraps to raise meat, to raise dense calories to compensate for some of the grains that they can’t grow, and they can produce produce–high value things that otherwise they can’t afford.

I will finish with a quote from 1932. “The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of the industrial nation, and the industrial nation is being pauperized by the poverty of farmers.” This is my nightmare. This is what we could have in an economic crisis. Farmers letting their apples rot in the field, because they cannot afford to transport them somewhere where someone can eat them, and then we see children scavenging in garbage cans. This is what we don’t want.

Over the last few years, we have replaced people with oil. Realistically, if some of the oil is going to have to come out of agriculture, we are going to have to put some people back in.

Regardless of what background we come from, all of us eat, so this problem belongs to all of us.

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 financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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4 Responses to Sharon Astyk: The Future of Food – ASPO-USA Conference

  1. majorian says:

    Isn’t remarkable that at a time of history when energy supplies have never been higher, technology never smarter and land cultivation has never been greater there are still a billion hungry people?
    Hunger is a social equality problem.
    As far as biofuels go the direction should be in the direction of cellulosic ethanol.
    Since that process breaks down cellulose into starch before it gets metabolized into ethanol I would guess that we could eventually be able to reduces wood from trees and grasses into starch for use as flour if needs be. Hopefully world population will peak in a couple decades and we won’t need to do that. In the year 2100 perhaps more
    ‘food’ calories will come from biomass than from conventional farming–just a speculation.

    • Don Millman says:

      In the long-run, Malthus has proven to be correct. The global population is in great overshoot (see Wm. Catton), and what will happen is that death rates (Malthus’s “positive checks” on population growth) will increase until the earth’s population declines to levels that can be fed without fossil fuels.

      I’m a bit skeptical of 2 billion as an equilibrium global population. My SWAG is that the number is much closer to 1 billion and may be even somewhat below that number.

      What was the world’s population in 1750? My guess is that that is the greatest population that can be sustained without cheap fossil fuels.

      As John Michael Greer has suggested in THE LONG DESCENT, it may take us a couple of hundred years to get down to a long-term sustainable equilibrium population.

      Suggestions by some that lowering the birth rates we see now will be enough to deal with food problems in our future are, IMHO, innumerate.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    As fuel and all other fossil fuel components of agriculture increase in price, those farmers that are more efficient in using fuel will have a competitive advantage over the rest. The low-efficiency farmer will not be able to compete in the market economy and will have to drop out of producing for the market. This means that we could simultaneously see smaller, less efficient farms reverting to subsistence production and also expansion of larger, highly mechanized farms, possibly in the same area.

    Food produced for the market will go to those that can afford it. Food produced for subsistence will go to those who grow it. What about the group of people in the middle, those who live in cities and who don’t have the money to purchase food? Right now that group is supported by food aid in wealthier countries and by often heavy food subsidies in poorer countries. As both those options become more and more costly to every country’s economy, many countries will be forced into two options: 1) encourage people to leave the city for the countryside to raise their own food; 2) “take” or purchase food from the market producer to maintain food subsidies.

    People may leave the city, but only if there is land available for subsistence farming. This brings up the questions of land ownership and “land reform”. How does land get into the hands of people who will need raise their own food if they are to eat? If they get that land, how much will remain for the market producer? Will it be “taken” from the efficient market producer? If so, the result may resemble Zimbabwe. On the other hand, if food is taken from the market producer to feed the urban poor, how long can those market producers last? If food is purchased at market prices from the market producer, how will poor countries compete with the more wealthy countries?

    I have read that there is enough land on the earth to support about two billion people if they are no-fossil-input subsistence farmers. It seems to me that there is just not enough land (food) to go around without cheap fuel, which is why the Limits to Growth projections show huge increases in the death rate this century, presumably from malnutrition.

  3. Len Gould says:

    The relationship between food and fuel is extremely complex. Everything depends on whether one is evaluating subsistence-level farming, or market crop farming. On the subsistence-level farm, one can propose that reductions in fossil fuel availability wouldn’t significantly affect production, since a very large part of the work is done manually and need not involve mechanized operations. On the market crop level, especially field crops amenable to mechanized harvest such as grains, the issue becomes much more complex.

    For a given amount of fuel, a 400 or 500 hp tractor towing 100+ foot wide laser-depth-guaged multi-operation cultivation / fertilization / seeding implements will use perhaps less than half the refined fuel input per unit production than a typical 50 hp tractor operation making multiple passes with simpler implements. Among other factors, larger diesel engines are more efficient per unit output, larger engines can justify more costly engine management systems such as electronic-controlled injection, variable valve operation etc. Larger combine harvesters can justify more complex threshing and sieving systems, resulting in a higher percentage crop recovery. Larger operations justify much more scientific soil analysis prior to seeding, and the large seeders can justify more costly computerized seed and fertilizer measurement. Many other factors.

    So which way things go appears to depend on the bottom-line question. In future, will farming be done for product sale or for subsistence? As fuel availability drops (and fuel costs rise), it seems reasonable to predict that the scale of farming will INCREASE not decrease, perhaps until a breaking point is reached when everything collapses to subsistence manual operations (a condition which I find very unlikely given the levels of fuel waste now common.)

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