By 2015, the world will have arrived at the summit of global crude oil production, according to John Oliver, president of Maple Leaf Bio-Concepts.
After that point, depletion rates of roughly four to six per cent per year in the world’s “easy” oilfields will leave an ever-shrinking pool of the precious resource to power the world’s planes, trains, automobiles and farm tractors.
Cheap oil for everyone will have become a thing of the past, as energy markets instead become a “zero-sum” game, and those intent on consuming oil will have to outbid others, or go without.
The price spike that occurred in mid-2008 when the price hit $147 per barrel was just a preview of coming attractions, said Oliver, who delivered the keynote address at the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council annual general meeting last week.
“It’s commonplace for people to hear of the concept of peak energy, but people aren’t talking about peak food and peak water,” he said. “But some people are looking over their shoulders and saying that maybe the same thing could happen.”
All three peaks, he added, are due to arrive within the first 50 years of this century. Peak food would have hit by 2018, had the financial crisis that struck in the fall of 2008 not derailed the explosive rate of global food consumption driven by changing diets in China and India.
“I think now we’re looking out to about 2025 on food,” said Oliver, former president of Dow Agro-Sciences. “And I think water is 2030, or 2035.”
If oil goes to $100 per barrel, Oliver argued that the high prices would make alternatives such as renewable energy sources and hybrid and electric cars more attractive. That impact on global demand would buy time and stretch existing crude oil supplies further into the future.
But he noted alternative energy sources will probably never be available on a sufficient scale to replace fossil fuels, which are unique in being the product of millions of years of stored sunlight.
Some economists argue that crude oil even at $80 per barrel effectively strangles growth in the developed countries which have designed their economies over the past six decades to be wholly dependent on oil, noting that if people can’t afford gasoline at $5 per gallon, they can’t afford it at $10, either.
They argue that the knock-on effect of high oil prices throughout the economy results in a punishing deflationary spiral, as the evaporation of jobs and economic activity result in even more lost jobs and failed businesses. With no markets for their products, the economic “miracles” of China and India collapse as well.
Stalled global economic growth leaves oil prices stagnant, and oil companies without price incentives to go after the expensive, difficult-to-extract, deep water reservoirs and unconventional sources such as the tarsands of Alberta. Countries hoard the leftovers, leading to more shortages.
“If oil goes to $150 per barrel, I honestly don’t know what will happen,” he said. “Agriculture as we know it today is based on cheap energy.”
Oliver proposed the Canadian Climate Advantage Diet (CCAD) as a solution to ward off the threat of world hunger posed by that other horseman of the apocalypse, peak food, while at the same time mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Proponents of CCAD argue that instead of importing dietary solutions such as the Mediterranean diet to replace the fat, sugar and salt of the so-called western diet, which has been linked to growing problems of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, Canada’s farmers and agri-food processors should work together to develop their own balanced diet composed of the five major food crops grown here for export to the world.
Oliver pointed to the success of dog food formulations, which have provided comprehensive, nutritionally sound, science-based solutions for keeping pets lean, healthy and able to enjoy longer lives in low-cost, easy-to-distribute packaging.
But will the masses accept “agr i -food” solut ions that include genetically modified organisms, or will they demand “real” food from organic or local sources that match their cultural tastes?
Oliver said China and India are poised to accept GM food, and that the recent approval of a GM potato for industrial paper use in Europe represents a “breach in the wall.”
“I think it’s a question of how they want to eat,” he said. “If they can afford to buy it and they want it, then go ahead. I’m giving them the option. I think it will be rationed by demand and by price. Tell me what their option is.” [email protected]