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Peak Food Production and the Rule of Experts

December 12, 2012

Last post unpacked the question of how many people can Earth carry and it explored the concept of peak oil. This second part continues the critique of a bipolar discussion which puts nature on one side and society on the other side and it does so by looking at the idea of peak food production. It will conclude by showing why the answer to the question cannot be left to the “experts”.

Peak Food Production. On one side, one is told, there is the nature: firstly there is the area harvested at the present time which can be considered to be the same in the future; secondly future yields trends will depend on the availability and the wastage rate of the available resources of water; similarly feeding the world will depend largely on the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers keeping pace with the world food demand: fertilizers have been key in increasing cereal output in the past and their availability is a function of nitrogen and hydrogen i.e. the natural constraint.  Other natural constraints also include the frequency of extreme weather events such as drought which can drastically reduce the world cereal supply at any given time even if the long term outlook is not compromised (the occurrence of a drought this year let’s say in Russia will disrupt the supply of cereal this year but it will not have major consequences on how many people can be fed in the medium future). On the other side stands the society:  how much governments decide to invest in agriculture, how much countries decide to cut back food production and run down stocks to avoid to over-flood markets thus dumping prices, how much cereals producing countries decide to trade and how much of what is produced is decided to be allocated to bio-fuels[1]. These are the individual and collective choices which take place in the domain called society. The conventional wisdom has it that answering the question of how many people can Earth feed is a matter of looking at the first set of factors i.e. the natural constraints. The second set of factors, the society, are of a secondary importance insofar as they alter the course of nature: let nature on its own and the world will be fed.

Experts? (source

This wisdom has two pitfalls: firstly, it ignores the fact that the division between the natural and the societal is blurred: how much water will be available to irrigate soil is not a question of how much water Earth has but of how water will be priced, who will pay for it which in turn will determine how much water does go wasted. Secondly, this is not to assert the primacy of the society over the nature: to take the metaphor used with oil, the direction of causality runs both from above the ground to below the ground and vice versa. Take for example what happened in July 2012: heat waves and droughts (read nature) hit Russia and the US Mid-West and caused the grain harvest forecast to drop, spreading fears that both countries would be left with a small surplus of grain to export. Nature caused price to spike temporarily thus affecting the society. It can work the other way around as well though: when the Indian government decided to make “food for all” its flagship it banned the export of rice. This ignited a chain reaction whereby prices were going up in the expectations that governments will hoard rise thus cutting drastically the quantity of rice available worldwide: individual and collective choices in the realm of society determined an outcome which for many is purely natural i.e. how much rise Earth can produce at any given time.

Leave It to the Technocrats. The world today lives in the illusion that were we able to  isolate the natural from the human we would be able to live in a limitless world. Reservoirs of what is called conventional oil (oil more easily extractable) would be more accessible without war, sanctions and OPEC states switching on and off the tap: were the US to repeal sanction on Iran, were Israel and Iran to make peace, were anti-US protests in the Middle East to calm down, were Saudi Arabia to constantly offer more extra oil, Earth would offer enough oil to get by and we would not face oil prices spikes. In the same fashion,  were governments to stop tampering with cereal flows across borders banning and unbanning their exports, nature would offer in the medium term enough food for everybody. Shielding the nature from the tampering of social forces is however a dead end: everything in the world is the combination of social, natural and technical forces.

In commenting the rise of technocratic governance to face the consequences of the financial crisis across the rich world, the Economist wrote

Technocrats may be good at saying how much pain a country must endure, how to make its debt level sustainable or how to solve a financial crisis. But they are not so good at working out how pain is to be distributed, whether to raise taxes or cut spending on this or that group, and what the income-distribution effects of their policies are. Those are political questions, not technocratic ones. And they will not go away just because a technocrat has been made prime minister.

In the same fashion, many today think that the experts about nature can forecast when the world will reach peak oil and peak food production. Experts however can estimate how much oil the rock has, can tell how much oil can be feasibly be extracted from the underground given the current technology of discoveries and extraction; but they cannot tell how much will be the future costs of extraction and the level of demand which influences the development of technologies to extract more unconventional oil. Similarly, expert can calculate the current areas harvested, can project in the future past trends in the increase of fertilizers production and water availability so that they estimate future world food supply. However they are not so good at working out which countries will allow food to move across boundaries, which countries will put a price on water to reduce wastage, who will bear the price, which countries will consistently increase the level of stocks to avoid fluctuations when droughts occur and what countries will reduce the quantity of cereal going to bio-fuels. Those are political questions, not technocratic one and they cannot be answered by the experts as long as one keep a rigid division between the natural and the social. The sooner one gets rid of this illusory division, the sooner one will be able to tackle those political questions.

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