Peak Food and Peak Water

Op-Ed by Shepherd Bliss

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Peak Oil theorists such as Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Matthew Simmons and others turn out to be correct. Petroleum supplies are declining as demand increases. This unfolding trend will radically change human habitation on the Earth. Among the consequences will be the drastic reduction of food and fresh water available to people, not only in poorer parts of the globe, but throughout the planet.

Industrial societies with their industrial agriculture are dependent upon fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas and coal for many things, including transportation, electricity and making plastics and other modern essentials. Oil is the main ingredient in conventional food. As the supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels decline Peak Water and Peak Food will follow. In recent months we have seen the return of food riots in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.

In April food prices in the United States saw their biggest jump in 18 years, according to the Labor Department. Prices are up an average of 41 percent from last year for commodities such as corn and cotton. Fertilizer prices are up a dramatic 65 percent from a year ago.

“Saving Water: From Field to Fork” titles a new study reported in the article “Food Security Requires New Approach to Water” in a May 24 Inter Press Service article. A growing scarcity of water threatens food supplies. Food production and agriculture are the largest uses of fresh water, consuming about 70 percent of water globally, according to the study by the Stockholm International Water Institute. In his book Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Heinberg says that over 80 percent of fresh water goes toward agriculture in the United States.

Scare supplies of water, according to the IPS article, “will be a key constraint to food production.” If there is no change in current practices in food production and consumption, according to a contributor to the Stockholm report, “it is likely that twice as much water as that used today would be required by 2015 to produce the world’s required food.” But that amount of water would not be available, indicating the possibility of widespread food fights and even famine.

“Peak Food” is a term that California farmer and author John Jeavons uses in workshops. Jeavons “says peak food is actually related to four other intertwined crises: peak farmable land, peak water, peak oil, and global warming,” according to the article “Monocrops Bring Food Crisis” by Alex Roslin in the Canadian publication www.straight.com.

A solution — according to Jeavons in his classic book How to Grow More Vegetables — is to revive small-scale farming, such as used to prevail in the United States. In addition to Jeavon’s biointensive farming, others advocate the system referred to as permaculture. Heinberg calls for the de-industrialization of agriculture. He says that a key will be getting more farmers and re-ruralization and re-localization.

“Food Banks Face Rising Costs,” headlines a May 26 MSNBC article. “While demand is up, supplies and donations are down,” the article reveals. “The way it’s going, we’re going to have a food disaster pretty soon,” the MSNBC article quotes Phyllis Legg of the Merced Food Bank in the foreclosure-ravaged Merced County in California.

“If gas keeps going up, its going to be catastrophic in every possible way,” the article quotes Ross Fraser, a spokesperson for America’s Second Harvest — The Nation’s Food Bank Network. “The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else,” Fraser asserts.

A food bank in Albuquerque, N.M., runs out of food and turns people away. Public-school students in Baton Rouge, La. bring home some of their lunches to have something to eat for dinner. A food bank in Lorain, Ohio, meets only 25 to 30 percent of the need for food. In Stockton, Ca., which has the highest foreclosure rate in the country, customers line up several hours before the food bank’s 10 a.m. opening.

“When people go to the gas pump and watch that dial roll over, there goes breakfast, lunch and dinner. People are living on the edge,” Don Lindsay is quoted in a May 26 article in the New York Times-owned daily Press Democrat of Sonoma County, where this reporter lives in Northern California. Lindsay is operations director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. It feeds 50,000 people in our semi-rural county of around 500,000. Such pantries are an essential aspect of the safety net that is diminishing.

“Present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest — famine,” writes Heinberg.

The electrical grid in Baghdad is not expected to be restored for many years and is already down in other parts of the world, making electricity and it many benefits unavailable. An increasing number of people in parts of Hawai’i, California’s North Coast, and elsewhere are planning for the future by making homes that are off the electrical grid. Industrial societies run on electricity powered by the cheap energy of fossil fuels. As the supply of those energy sources decline and world-wide competition for them through wars and other means heighten, more electrical grids will fail, and with them access to both food and water.

The pace quickens. The signs are more numerous. We need even more than food security; we need food sovereignty. Who controls your food? Growing at least part of one’s own food — and having something to trade — will be essential to survival.

Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sbliss@hawaii.edu, teaches at Sonoma State University and has run the organic Kokopelli Farm for most of the last 15 years. He has contributed to two dozen books and is currently writing about agropsychology and agrotherapy.



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