And now, Peak Food

Peak food chart from the UK Independent. Based on data recently published in Ecology and Society, from a peer-reviewed paper.

It was a quiet Sunday morning and I was looking at the FaceBook while trying to decide whether I wanted to tune into CBS Sunday Morning and listen to Vocal Fry. One of my pals had posted this Independent article. Per a study in Ecology and Society, the world has reached peak of food production on several different staples. 

““People often talk of substitution. If we run out of one substance we just substitute another. But if multiple resources are running out, we’ve got a problem. Mankind needs to accept that renewable raw materials are reaching their yield limits worldwide,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, of Michigan State University….

 ““Just nine or 10 plants species feed the world. But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever,” said Ralf Seppelt, of the Helmholtz Centre.”

This is not a story solely reported by the Independent. Over a year ago, The Guardian also picked up on the story, with the angle about industrial agriculture being at fault. This was based on a study published by Nature Communications at the end of 2013:

“… we found widespread deceleration in the relative rate of increase of average yields of the major cereal crops during the 1990–2010 period in countries with greatest production of these crops, and strong evidence of yield plateaus or an abrupt drop in rate of yield gain in 44% of the cases, which, together, account for 31% of total global rice, wheat and maize production.”

And a July 2014 article in Reuters also pointed out a related problem–peak soil. Per their reporting, some 25% of agricultural soil is ‘severely degraded’ with another 8% partially degraded. Industrial agriculture largely to blame for planting monocultures and not rotating crops (as in longtime agricultural practices) in order to revive soil.

(By the way, these articles are all based on (and all cite) scholarly studies in peer reviewed journals. There is a wave of anti-intellectualism going through this country, but the people who’ve done the requisite work to acquire a PhD have identified more than one ‘show stopper’ for the smart ape. And they’re suffering for it, in many cases losing tenure and having threats to their lives. Also, please note that all of the media outlets that went with this story are in Europe).

This is not the first time the world has faced this challenge. At the end of the 19th century, there was a serious issue about agriculture not being able to keep up with growing population because of endemic shortages in nitrogen (and ammonia) needed to make fertilizer. Countries had gone to war over substances like bat guano, which were vital to creating fertilizer. Fritz Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize for developing a process to pull ammonia out of the atmosphere in order to create artificial fertilizer. It was his discovery that lead to growing crop output and population overshoot such as what we’re experiencing now. But our problem now is in fundamental ways worse than those that Haber faced. Thanks to climate degradation as a result of global warming, the earth may be losing cropland. (There’s more about the odyssey of Fritz Haber here. Haber was a German Jew but made a Captain in the Kaiser’s army after he developed and deployed poison gas used on the Western Front in WWI (an act that many considered a war crime). After the war, he developed insecticides and his insecticide Zyklon B was used in The Holocaust. IJS). In any case, one of the strategies being contemplated is the genetic re-engineering of vital food plants to allow them to better survive hot climates. Apparently the hopeful have never heard of the law of unintended consequences.

As those of you who’ve read my recent posts must know by now, I’m not particularly optimistic about Homo Sapiens‘ prospects in the short term. And I’m not a late-comer to the whole issue of peak everything. About five years ago I had blogged on Daily Kos about the convergence of various peak issues (peak oil, peak economy, peak uranium, and peak metal). These various problems (I’ll put below link info below the line for those interested) all weigh heavily on the future of us on this planet. And there’s always the information provided to us by Dr. Guy McPherson regarding Near Term Human Extinction brought about by (among other things)  the greenhouse gases c02 and methane converging to heat the planet past inhabitability.

But peak food?

One of the stories that has circulated about global warming is how it might kill off environmental niches vital to certain food types we all love.  Are we going to lose chocolate? Will coffee become a thing of the past? Neither plant makes the chart above, but I think we’d all miss them. Should we just wait for the hunger to start? Because you know what they say


Peak metal. Long story short, chemist Armin Reller predicted that the planet would run out of mineable deposits of critical matierials like copper and zinc in the next 30 years or thereabouts. Here’s a story from Resilience. Other links here (read down a bit): 

Peak uranium and Peak coal: Links to articles here

Peak oil: just go to the search box on this page and type ‘peak oil’. 

UPDATE, 2/2/2015: To be clear, the authors of these studies are saying that the rate of growth of yields on the foodstuffs in question has slowed or halted. They are not saying we will never get more corn or wheat, for example. In fact, soybeans and sugar both set records for 2014, but corn and rice are at the same level as last year. And as Professor Albert Alan Bartlett once pointed out, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. He rejected the idea of ‘sustainable growth’ and made it clear (as did Thomas Malthus before him) that human population growth would always outrace whatever improvements could be made in crop productivity. One can grow crop yield arithmetically, but population grows exponentially.


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