by Richard Heinberg
(Note: This is the abbreviated text of a lecture by Richard Heinberg delivered to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on October 28, 2006)
There was a time not so long ago when famine was an expected, if not accepted, part of life. Until the 19th century—whether in China, France, India or Britain—food came almost entirely fromlocal sources and harvests were variable. In good years, there was plenty—enough for seasonal feasts and for storage in anticipation of winter and hard times to come; in bad years, starvation cut down the poorest and the weakest—the very young, the old, and the sickly. Sometimes bad years followed one upon another, reducing the size of the population by several percent. This was the normal conditionof life in pre-industrial societies, and it persisted for thousands of years.
Today, in America, such a state of affairs is hard to imagine. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is a far more widespread concern than hunger. The average mega-supermarket stocks an impressive array of exotic foods from across the globe, and even staples are typically trucked from hundreds of miles away. Manypeople in America did go hungry during the Great Depression, but those were times that only the elderly can recall. In the current regime, the desperately poor may experience chronic malnutrition and may miss meals, but for most the dilemma is finding time in the day’s hectic schedule to go to the grocery store or to cook. As a result, fast-food restaurants proliferate: the fare may not beparticularly nutritious, but even an hour’s earnings at minimum wage will buy a meal or two. The average American family spent 20 percent of its income on food in 1950; today the figure is 10 percent.
This is an extraordinary situation; but because it is the only one that most Americans alive today have ever experienced, we tend to assume that it will continue indefinitely. However there are reasons tothink that our current anomalous abundance of inexpensive food may be only temporary; if so, present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest—famine.
The following are four principal bases (there are others) for this gloomy forecast.
The first has to with looming fuel shortages. This is a subject I have written about extensivelyelsewhere, so I shall not repeat myself in any detail. Suffice it to say that the era of cheap oil and natural gas is coming to a crashing end, with global oil production projected to peak in 2010 and North American natural gas extraction rates already in decline. These events will have enormous implications for America’s petroleum-dependent food system.
Modern industrial agriculture has beendescribed as a method of using soil to turn petroleum and gas into food. We use natural gas to make fertilizer, and oil to fuel farm machinery and power irrigation pumps, as a feedstock for pesticides and herbicides, in the maintenance of animal operations, in crop storage and drying, and for transportation of farm inputs and outputs. Agriculture accounts for about 17 percent of the U.S. annual energybudget; this makes it the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries. By comparison, the U.S. military, in all of its operations, uses only about half that amount. About 350 gallons (1,500 liters) of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year, and every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil-fuel inputs. This is afood system profoundly vulnerable, at every level, to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices. And both are inevitable.
An attempt to make up for fuel shortfalls by producing more biofuels—ethanol, butanol, and biodiesel—will put even more pressure on the food system, and will likely result in a competition between food and fuel uses of land and other resources needed for agricultural production....