There has been much speculation over the date of peak oil, that is to say how much time we have left before the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached and begins its ultimate decline. According to some, we have already reached this point and are already on the decline. Others are more optimistic and say we have until about the year 2030.
The peak oil debate emerges again and again because we lack sufficiently clear, reliable, and unbiased data. In this field, most people are biased. For example, the British newspaper The Guardian has said that ever since the government began conferring with industry representatives and the scientific community about peak oil, speculations about a possible supply crisis have disappeared. Or take what happened in May when researcher Lionel Badal, appearing before the European Commission, presented his doubts about the reliability of the world oil supply forecasts of the International Energy Agency (IEA).
However, according to Manuel Casal Lodeiro, activist and founder of Véspera de Nada (a Spanish organization for a petroleum-free Galicia), “The exact date is not actually relevant. The only thing we need to know is that it is irreversible.” Oil supplies are finite. Petroleum extraction – after peak oil – will decrease, be of poorer quality, and require more and more energy. Today one barrel of oil is required to extract 10 barrels, but – and here the experts are unanimous – this ratio will steadily worsen over time.
So instead of debating when, it would be better if we spent our energy (in a manner of speaking) discussing how we will approach the post-oil world. Will it be harder for us to get around? Where are we in terms of alternative energies? And, above all, will we be able to feed the global population? Even though most people do not see the direct relationship, agriculture and our food supply will suffer the most serious consequences of the end of oil if we do not make any changes to our way of life. There are two reasons for this.
First, our model of food production depends almost entirely on oil. In supposedly productive areas, we set up irrigation (with pumping systems) on dry land under skies of plastic, which is also made of petroleum. There are farms in Europe whose animals eat nothing but feed that comes to them by boat or plane from Latin America’s Southern Cone. Our agricultural system is infused with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all of which are derived from fossil fuels. The use of machinery such as tractors and reapers was a boon for rural work but has been blown out of proportion and also represents a high cost in fossil fuels. Adding these and other energy costs, our current system requires 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food.
The second and more obvious factor has to do with the model of distribution and marketing to which globalization has given rise. Not only does our food travel further today than ever before, but it is also centralized in distribution chains, which means that our dependency on transportation, freezing, packing, and refrigeration – all of which use energy – has become a form of subjugation.
We must somehow come to terms with the fragility of our food system. It was designed with the assumption that there was an unlimited, inexpensive energy supply. The energy costs of the system (the flip side of environmental costs) have never amounted to more than a negligible percentage of the final consumer price. How can we buy a Costa Rican pineapple for one euro? We pay next to nothing for energy, just as the people who cultivate and harvest our food have received little or nothing.
After the peak, with oil less abundant and more expensive, we could choose to reduce our low cost trips, but we can’t choose to stop eating. So we either need to keep waiting patiently for a technological miracle to fall from the sky, or we need to adopt measures to move towards self-sufficient mixed farming. These farms would be modernized with technology based on both traditional and agro-ecological knowledge and experience and would work closely with local communities in order to encourage people to eat locally. Some countries are already opting for local food consumption, like Scotland, whose Parliament passed a resolution in 2008 supporting local supply chains in order to ensure a steady food supply. Meanwhile, Spain is moving backwards. The Government still has not responded to a question asked on 24 June by the leftist organization Izquierda Unida about peak oil and the possibility that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has been distorting the facts.
According to Manuel Casal Lodeiro, oil producers “could see revolutionizing the oil industry as resulting in reduced earnings, but if it is done correctly, the reduction in costs will compensate for reduced income.” As consumers we will have to modify some of our habits, but the benefits are clear: keeping the pantry full of good food.
- Gustavo Duch Guillot is managing editor of the review Soberanía Alimentaria, Biodiversidad y Culturas (“food sovereignty, biodiversity, and cultures”).
“Porque contar es otra forma de caminar”
(Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Hunt)
(Published in Spanish 2010-10-13)