End of oil

In a world without hydrocarbons, it is possible to imagine no longer taking a plane, abandoning the car, forgetting about synthetic clothing and using wood for heating. But could we stop eating?

“In the West, approximately 10 calories of hydrocarbons are required to produce one calorie of food. In short, we convert oil into food via the Earth. It is as though we were eating oil”, says David Strahan wryly.

The green revolution that began in the 1940s has significantly increased the world’s agricultural yield through the introduction of new intensive production techniques. These have triggered unprecedented demographic growth, doubling the world’s population over the past five decades. It is a situation that bodes ill for world food security in the years following peak oil. Indeed, without oil, not only would it be impossible to run farming machinery or to transport products or raw materials, worse still, it would also be impossible to synthesise agricultural inputs from the petrochemical industry (fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides).

“Under these circumstances, the European Union’s biofuel policy is totally idiotic and counter-productive”, exclaims Strahan. Although an oil shortage would jeopardise the world’s access to the vital resource of food, our politicians are planning to deprive the food industry of a portion of agricultural production in favour of transport. What is more, this would achieve rather mixed results: “Based on IEA statistics published in 2004, 20 % of Europe’s cultivable area would need to be given over to biofuel crops to produce barely 5% of our fuel needs. Even if we were to devote all our agricultural land to biofuel production, this would allow us to satisfy only 25 % of our transport needs and we would starve in the process.”

Back to basics

Giving over a portion of Europe’s farmland to biofuels could compound an already critical problem: how to feed ourselves without the aid of petrochemicals. Using tried and tested ancestral farming methods, without inputs and without agricultural machinery, in short, without a single drop of oil? “In fact, the only means for ensuring world food security without oil may well be organic farming”, says David Strahan. “However, such a transition raises a fundamental question: can the current yield be maintained?” Some people believe that, although organic farming would produce a low yield in the initial years, in the long term it could achieve the same yield as intensive farming. “That being so, it does make me wonder why our farmers spend so much money on pesticides, fertilisers and energy for driving machinery.”

In spite of his doubts, David Strahan is optimistic. “Solutions already exist, especially for producing locally the energy needed to run basic agricultural machinery. For example, we could use biogas (methane) generated by fermenting farm waste, or else batteries charged by wind or solar energy. However, even if organic farming were to provide an equivalent yield, transporting farm produce to the consumer’s plate remains a crucial problem. This means that the farming of the future will more than likely be locally-based.”

Homo energetis

Vandana Shiva, symbolic figurehead of the alterglobalisation movement and Director of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, goes a step further.She advocates quite simply returning to ancestral farming techniques. She places physical labour (animal but especially human) at the top of the green energy list. “State subsidies really must promote a return to traditional agriculture to put a stop not only to dependence on long-distance food supply chains, which are far too costly energy-wise, but also to the disastrous consequences of industrial farming on the climate. Industrial farming and the accompanying food trade are responsible for 25 % of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions”, explains Shiva. “The true energy of the future is human energy.”

That is, provided that human energy is available. “People would probably start moving back into rural areas because of the renewed need for labour”, believes David Strahan. “However, this will not signal the end of cities. They are too highly populated. Transferring the entire urban population to the countryside would destroy the country wholesale. City-dwellers will most probably start growing food in their gardens or on rooftops to offset soaring world food costs. In my view, this will be a spontaneous movement: city-dwellers will take matters into their own hands to counter the food crisis unleashed by peak oil. One thing is certain, urban food will need to be produced in or around the city simply to save energy.”

Jean-Pierre Geets, Julie Van Rossom