But compared with garden variety pessimists I am a wild-eyed optimist. I don't think we are anywhere near running out of food.
In the comments to a very doom-laden article on the Oil Drum by Peter Goodchild, Euan Mearns comments:
I gather that we use about 5% of our energy in agriculture, and on that basis I don't see that agricultural output will be immediately threatened by energy decline since I assume we will manage some how to prioritise. Furthermore, with conversion ratios of 7 to 10:1 for meat, we have a substantial buffer there where high meat prices may encourage us to eat more plant produce.This seems right to me. The world is a long way from starvation.
If transportation becomes an order of magnitude more expensive, we will see no more of South American or New Zealand fruit, but continent-wide exchanges of food remain affordable. I think it costs about a penny to ship a tomato across the continent. If that goes up to a dime, we will still have out-of-state tomatoes.
What he learned from Katrina is that our customs make it impossible to abandon a city; we are tied to our "real estate" now as much as it freed us in the past two decades. New Orleans limps back to life whether people want it to or not. New Orleans has no choice. So as I look at the bizarre Texas drought and do what we all do nowadays when weather gets strange (wonder whether it is permanent) I contemplate the vision of a heavily populated Texas as dry as California, but perhaps lacking the power to appropriate water for far afield.
My more apocalyptic local friends are all talking about local gardens, because it will be too expensive to ship food. Maybe it will come to that someday, but not for a long time. Meanwhile, which is more expensive (more energy intensive) to ship to Texas: a tomato, or enough water to grow a tomato?
Fruits and vegetables are high value cargo. Water and fertilizer (and coal and timber and rocks and cement and steel) are not. If transportation becomes expensive, it is the low value industrial processes that relocalize. In wetter areas, bulk foods like grains may relocalize as well, though many grains ship well by sea, where shipment costs are negligible.
But the more I think about it, the more I think the locavore movement, whatever its social benefits, is fighting an uphill battle. Increasing shipment costs actually pull for efficiency of production, especially good soil and sustainable water. What little farming there is in Texas will decline sharply if this summer is a taste of the future. The huge population will decline only slowly. Food will be imported, and we will find a way to pay for it somehow.
On the other hand, increasing energy costs (and further increases in population, along with continuing decline in fish stocks) argue for less meat in the diet, as does direct greenhouse forcing via ruminant belching. And the terrifying message of the movie Food Inc. that I saw recently has me convinced that corporate meat sources are unethical. Local high value-add production of meat and of processed foods, on the model of traditional food production in Europe, is a good way to make use of human efforts and natural resources while respecting animal life. And in general, fresh, of course, is better.
But this romantic idea of making reliance on local resources on an overcrowded planet into an intrinsic goal is a fetish and a wrongheaded idea except in very remote places.
(On the other hand, I am glad I am not a citizen or landowner in Australia. I don't see how they cope given present trends of energy and climate.)