20 July 2008

Excerpt from Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, pp. 198-200. This book is available for borrowing at the Singapre National Library.

From 1970 to 1990, the total number of hungry people fell by 16 percent, a decrease typically credited to the green revolution. However, the largest drop occurred in communist China, beyond the reach of the green revolution. The number of hungry Chinese fell by more than 50 percent, from more than 400 million to under 200 million. Excluding China, the number of hungry people increased by more than 10 percent. The effectiveness of the land redistribution of the Chinese Revolution at reducing hunger shows the importance of economic and cultural factors in fighting hunger. However we view Malthusian ideas, population growth remains critical – outside of China, increased population more than compensated for the tremendous growth in agricultural production during the green revolution.

Another key reason why the green revolution did not end world hunger is that increased crop yields depended on intensive fertilizer applications that the poorest farmers could not afford. Higher yields can be more profitable to farmers who can afford the new methods, but only if crop prices cover increased costs for fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery. In third world countries the price of outlays for fertilizers and pesticides increased faster than green revolution crop yields. If the poor can’t afford to buy food, increased harvests won’t feed them.

More ominously, the green revolution’s new seeds increased third-world dependence on fertilizers and petroleum. In India, agricultural output per ton of fertilizer fell by two-thirds while fertilizer use increased sixfold. In West Java a two-thirds jump in outlays for fertilizer and pesticides swallowed up profits from the resulting one-quarter increase in crop yields in the 1980s. Across Asia fertilizer use grew three to forty times faster than rice yields. Since the 1980s falling Asian crop yields are thought to reflect soil degradation from increasingly intensive irrigation and fertilizer use.

Without cheap fertilizers – and the cheap oil used to make them – this productivity cannot be sustained. As oil prices continue climbing this century, this cycle may stall with disastrous consequences. We burned more than a trillion barrels of oil over the past two decades. That’s eighty million barrels a day – enough to stack to the moon and back two thousand times. Making oil requires a specific series of geologic accidents over inconceivable amounts of time…It takes millions of years to produce a barrel of oil; we use millions of barrels a day. There is no question that we will run out of oil – the only question is when.

Estimates for when petroleum production will peak range from before 2020 to about 2040. Since such estimates do not include political or environmental constraints, some experts believe that the peak in world oil production is already at hand… At present, agriculture consumes 30 percent of our oil use. As supplies dwindle, oil and natural gas will become too valuable to use for fertilizer production. Petroleum-based industrial agriculture will end sometime later this century.