7.1 mn people are currently suffering from famine in the Sahel. It would be naïve to think that all of them will make it through the winter. We thought that we had passed headlines about famine to history, but in fact they are bound to become our future if we don't give up two myths. One is that modern agriculture is efficient. The other is that development means urbanization. These thoughts are illusions, and until we drop them, we will only move closer to a very hungry world.
Conventional agriculture is not efficient
Above is a top of the line combine from John Deere. Machines like these are useless on small fields. Big fields require pesticides. Lands treated with pesticides demand fertilizers. The combine must have oil. That is the ecological cycle of conventional agriculture, also known as agribusiness. Except, it is not really a cycle...
In spite of deploying few people to produce fantastic yields, conventional agriculture is not efficient in the relevant sense of the word. A study in the Phillipines showed that
Growing rice the organic method was 4 times more energy efficient than the conventional method. The organic method is defined as farmers who
no longer apply chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Instead, they practice rice straw recycling, use green manure crops (Azolla, Sesbania); and raise livestock (ducks, swine, cattle or carabao) to produce on-farm the manure which they apply in their farm as fresh manure or prepared into compost. In other words - the farmers who used imporved methods that they had inhereited from pre-industrial times were more efficient than their pseudo-modernized collegues.
Several studies have come to the similar conclusions. Labour intensive organic farming is more energy efficient, more secure and sometimes even give bigger yields. Lim Li Ching writes on the Institute of Science in Society's homepage:
Projects in Senegal involving 2000 farmers promoted stall-fed livestock, composting systems, use of green manures, water harvesting systems and rock phosphate. Yields of millet and peanuts increased dramatically, by 75-195% and 75-165% respectively. Because the soils have greater water retaining capacity, fluctuations in yields are less pronounced between high and low rainfall years.
The World Food Program cites errant rainfall as one of the reasons to the latest hunger catastrophe in the Sahel... it is clear that conventional agriculture has nothing to offer the world's hungry.
Poverty in the countryside feeds urbanization
For traditional farmers, the competition from agribusiness is killing. Since the headquartes of agribusinesses like other businesses are situated in the cities, the profits from the bigger yields leave the countryside. In a country like Sweden. the contryside populations relies largely on tourism and state- or EU support. As the wealth grows in the cities, poverty grows on the countryside, which draws people away from there to the city, where they (hopefully) work for a living and buy their food instead.
The UN's World Urbanization Prospects states that by now more than half of the world's population live in cities - more people live in the countryside in the developing world than in developed countries. In 2025 more than half of the the population in what is today the developing world will live in cities, and by 2050 68.70 % of the world's total population will live in cities.
Since people must eat, that means one of two things - either these cities must be self-sufficient in food production, or the third of the population still living in the countryside must produce food for all the rest.
Cities have never been self-sufficient, and it seems unlikely that they will ever be. With radically different eating habits it would maybe be possible in a city like Lund with 300 inhabitants/km2. But how could it be possible in Kolkata with the staggering 29,650 inhabitants/km2? Kolkata is the world's most densly populated city. It is a safe bet that by 2050 less people than today will eat the food that they have grown themselves. And that is the very idea of progress - already Adam Smith noted that the wealth of a nation grows when people divide their labour. If the farmer farms and the blacksmith hammers out the nails while the programmist sips jolt cola in front of the computer screen, all of them are more eficient and get more wealth to share in the end.
Smith is obviously right about this. Just take a look around. Wherever you sit in the world, you are likely to see an affluence that your parents or grandparents could never dream of. This is largely due to industrialization and a greater division of labour. The problem with deploying Smith's ideas today is that his classic work The Wealth of Nations was published already in 1776. Smith could never have predicted how the use of oil would change the economic dynamics.
Urbanization is not sustainable
Unfortunately, it is not the human intellect that has made the the affluence around you possible. It is not human toil that has allowed almost all of us to move to the cities. It is all about oil. Subsidized oil has made transports cheap, and has decoupled the food production from social life. For my salad I might use spanish tomatoes, dutch lettuce and bulgarian cheese. For my mother's birthday I could have bought a kenyan flower. These products are all taken to my store by the use of oil. Without oil, the cities would be very sad places to live. But if transports was the only problem, we would be better off than we are.
The Swedish author Gunnar Lindstedt writes that in terms of working hours the industrialized agriculture produces
40 times more food than it did before the advent of oil. But working hours was the way we measured work in Smith's time. The man or woman who drives the John Deere combine above is not necessarily more intelligent, skilled or hard working than his or her ancestors. It is the oil in the tank that does the work. In a world where 7.1 Million people are allowed to starve, it seems seems murderous to critizise an 40% increase in food production. But the other side of the coin is that without oil the current working hours in agriculture will produce 40% less food. That is really scary. Especially for those living in the cities, who have no other means of obtaining food than paying for it. The prices they pay are very closely related to the price of oil as the charts below show (Be aware of the different dates). The situation gets critical when oil costs more than 100 USD / barrel - and at one point it becomes impossible to produce food and sell it as a commodity with profit, if you use oil for production and transport. That will be the end of agribusiness. Spanish tomatoes will not be avaliable in my store any more. Neither will there be enough rice in Kolkata.
When are we running out of oil? Recently Lloyds and Chatham house published a study, that warnes businesses to adapt as soon as possible. Paul Stevens from Chatham house calculates that the lack of oil will push oil prices above 200 USD / barrel before 2020. The impact of such a price hike on food prices is easy to imagine. In 2008 a hike to 125 USD/barrel led to riots and political crises. It will affect much more than 7.1 million people. Worst hit will be the poor in the cities, exactly the same people who are now leaving their rural lives behind. What Chatham house and Lloyd's report says is that within decades, they will need their lands back. A prioritized task for policy makers should be to assure that they get them back.
But why not simply substitute oil for something else? It is not easily done. We can easily heat our homes with other kinds of energy, but it is hard to imagine a global transport system that runs on wind power or coal. Sailing ships and steam boats? Why not, but they would hardly sustain the current levels of exports and imports. There is of course one easy fix - to run motors on ethanol in stead of gas. But almost immediately after trying that we saw the food crisis of 2008, casued on one hand by high oil prices, and on the other by fertile grounds being used for ethanol production. With a growing population, we will need to use those fertile land even more.
Algae is maybe a more promising substitute. But the technology is still experimental, and at the moment more energy is spent on making algae into fuel than the give as fuel. Unless this research takes a giant leap forward, we will have to do with the fastest growing source of energy - human labour.
Without oil we will need 40 times as many people working in agriculture as today. It doesn't necerssarily mean a return to the middle ages - only a return to economical realities. We know more about biology and agriculture than we did a two hundred years ago, and we exchange information faster than ever. What Smith shows is that the only force that can ever help us is human innovations, not oil. Unlike agriculture, the internet can easily be maintained with other sources of energy, so maybe the future countryside will be populated with self-sufficient netizens?
More people in agriculture can mean that people move back to the countryside. This is not uncommon in history, quite recently it happened in eastern Europe after the fall of communism(PDF link), and it will no doubt happen to some extent. But wew can also redefine what a city is. The problem is not the number of inhabitants per se, but the population density. Cities could work as clusters of smaller, largely self-sufficient towns. The city landscape could be used much more productively than it is used today. We can grow food on rooftops, balconies and in shipping containers, becoming a lot more self-sufficient than today. The borders between cities and countryside will become blurred - and hopefully the internet can preserve the best of our oil-dependent urban civilization. And make labour-intensive farmwork profitable.
A hungry man is an angry man, but a man who fears hunger is innovative. I do not doubt that mankind will adapt to a world without oil pretty fast when it is forced to, but probably not one day too early. The current pattern with less and less people producing food for more and more consumers is not sustainable. We should start thinking now about how we can turn urbanization trends around. Developing countries should beware of making the same mistakes as developed countries has made - and fortunately this seems to be more and more acknowledged. I think the key is to keep agriculture depending on human labour rather than oil, but improving access to services like healthcare and education in the countryside.
We already live after peak oil. Adapting to that doesn't require money. It only requires our time, dedication and intelligence. But I think it will also be fun.