If Climate Change and Population Growth Are Going to Push Food Prices Up by 50%, What Happens When you Add in Peak Oil?

From the Japan Times:

Former Irish President Mary Robinson’s foundation for climate justice is hosting a major conference in Dublin this week. Research presented there said that rising incomes and growth in the global population, expected to create 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, will drive food prices higher by 40 to 50 percent.

“We must prepare today for higher temperatures in all sectors,” said Gerald Nelson, a senior economist with the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

All of the studies suggest the worst impacts will be felt by the poorest people. Robinson, Ireland’s first female president, said: “Climate change is already having a domino effect on food and nutritional security for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Child malnutrition is predicted to increase by 20 percent by 2050.”

But from Europe to the U.S. to Asia, no population will remain insulated from the huge changes in food production that the rest of the century will bring.

The intersections between food and politics, population and agriculture, economics and climate are incredibly complex, and very hard to sort out.  The truth is that while we all know nothing good will come of them, the exact implications are complex to model.  But there is something else truly critical missing from the models - any understanding of how energy and food prices have become so tightly intertwined, and what peak oil will do to these models.

While at this point climate change is not reducing overall grain yields (although it is expected to begin doing so in the 2020s by most models I've seen), in a way that's still troubling - because our last global food crisis came during a period of record yields.  Ultimately, yield is hugely important, but cost and distribution are what really matter most, and the complicated ways in which we've tied food prices to the price of oil mean global hunger can skyrocket EVEN IF yields don't fall.  If they eventually do fall, which pretty much everyone expects, that's a recipe for disaster.

The problem is that at this point, no one is providing a clear and complete modelling picture of the intersections of energy, food, population, economics and climate - and yes, that's one hell of a complex modelling problem.  But it also may be the most critical modelling problem of our times:

I've taken the UN to task for not adding peak energy into their modelling programs, but the UN  is just a starting point - although a critical one:

Peak Oil changes the world food picture entirely - agro ecological responses to our food crisis, endorsed by several UN reports in the last few years, become not just a good idea but an absolute necessity when you have to reduce the amount of energy and in particular liquid fuels, consumed in agriculture. The UN has been a consistent leader in recognizing the ways that biofuels drive up the price of food for the world’s hungry poor, but has failed to grasp the ways that without a conscious untangling, food and energy prices will become even more tightly bound together – potentially leaving billions hungry.

Peak Oil is fundamental to nearly every issue that the UN addresses. Understanding why energy shortages tempt us to burn coal - and how to avoid it is critical to our climate picture. The UN's emergent focus on women's impact in reducing poverty and improving lives must continue - but must move in areas that aren't fossil fuel dependent. We must prepare for a less-globalized, not more globalized, society and one struggling with new poverty in new places as climate change and Peak Oil come together. Human rights of all sorts will be affected by the changes that are coming. If we do not wish to lose gains because we are surprised by depletion, we must prepare to hang on to them in a lower energy society.

There is, at this moment, as far as I know, no comprehensive UN study on energy resources and their future. This is both a shame and a scandal - we are preparing for the coming century without a clear picture of the real problems that beset us. Every nation on earth relies on UN research and material to make decisions - and that material is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is time for the UN to come into the 21st century and recognize that finite resources are truly finite – and that a clear picture of our limits is essential to our human future.

Nearly everyone is failing to take into account the role of geology, oil and energy limits in their predictions - and we're racing towards disaster.






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I honestly cannot believe we will ever reach a point where there is an additional 2 billion people on the planet. Global population data is always a few years behind because of the difficulty getting accurate information, so any forecasts will be years out of date and based on a growth economy, not Peak Oil like you say.

Also most of the medication like anti-biotics and vacinations are reliant on money and oil. Medical advances were one of the contributors to the growth of the population. Without them the population will not continue to increase.

Dmitry Orlov in his book Reinventing Collapse, talks about how the financial collapse in the Soviet Union resulted in life expectancy falling by 20 years. It wasn't an obvious reduction in the population, like a pandemic or a famine, but far more subtle. These subtle changes aren't apparent until years later, once the data has been collected and analysed.

Financial collapse also reduces immigration and increases emmigration, as people struggle to find work and move away. This could result in some countries seeing significant decreases in population anyway, before we start getting into more dramatic scenarios such as lack of medication, death from exposure due to lack of fuel, or starvation, if things get to that.

I feel certain that the brakes are already being applied to the runaway population growth, and it is slowly shuddering to a halt. Predicting the future is impossible, however fancy the models are, so better to just work on what we can do today. That's something you are so good at Sharon.


There are several points at which I disagree with you- for example, your observation that financial collapse might decrease some countries' populations fails to note that emigrating people go _somewhere_, and we are talking about global population here- but what I take issue most with is your conclusion, which I would summarize as, "It's really hard to predict the future, so let's not try, and just instead focus on individual actions." Most individuals (and governments) simply won't be moved to sufficient action unless they have a clear enough picture of how dire things will get unless they do. Fear of loss is a powerful motivator, so we need to do the hard work of calculating, to the best of our abilities, exactly what we should all be afraid of. Runaway population increase is something we should all be highly concerned about, and should look in the eye instead of convincing ourselves that it will work itself out somehow.

I think that I may not have expressed myself clearly Heather. The population growth that we have seen is based on access to abundant food from agriculture, advances in healthcare and preventative medicine and cheap energy. We no longer have cheap energy, food prices are going up from rising demand. Part of the growth in population is to do with people living longer. Can we continue to extend people's lives indefinitely? Will the average life span keep rising until people can expect to become 100 years old? If so what is the cost of the medicine that would enable that?

So how can the population possibly keep growing? How can we possibly reach another 2 billion people, when common sense says there is no spare capacity left? The book 'Limits to Growth' is very good at explaining this, though very depressing, so not a holiday read!

Governments like to see growth in population, because that equates to growth in the workforce, taxes and consumer spending, so in theory GDP should grow too. Projections are based on everything growing. Projections for house building are an example. If you project that my local population will increase by 13,000 over the next 20 years, then we can justify building 5,000 new homes on my doorstep, and this will provide construction jobs and boost the economy, enabling the government to borrow more money based on this predicted growing economy. If it turns out that the projection was based on what has gone before not on the limits to growth that are staring us in the face, then it will be another case where too many unnecessary houses have been built as in Spain, Ireland, China and the US, and lead to a crash in house prices, because nobody wants them.

Population can only decrease now. Law of nature - without sufficient resources populations decline. What my original comment was trying to convey is that that doesn't have to look like a crash off the edge of a cliff, but may start as a slow un-noticed descent. What we do today can help make this decline easier, but won't stop it. Neither will projections of the future.

I disagree that "Fear of loss is a powerful motivator....". My view is that fear paralyses people.

Take a look at climate change. All the scientific research in the world supports that this is very real and predicts a very bleak future if we continue with business as usual. Has that moved governments to significant actions? No, they still subsidise fossil fuels and refuse to suggest people make small lifestyle changes because they might lose votes.

Things won't just work themselves out somehow. It is down to each of us to make the difference, by doing what we can today.

Still the best model we have for what is coming down the pike is the 1970's Limits to Growth studies. The problem is that this type of dynamic modeling is just not in fashion today, but it needs to be. There are a few people, like Steve Keen, using these techniques for economic modeling. The success of "micro" grid-based models for climate, weather, and fluid flow has made "structural" modeling less popular. World-wide interactions of population, food , energy, and resources require the dynamic structural approach. Great topic for some budding PhD student. Start with Steve Keen!

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