13 May 2009

It is not unthinkable that we may soon say goodbye to the era of 1500 mile Thai rice, 3000 mile Australian lamb loin chops, 4000 mile New Zealand strip loins, 9000 mile Namibian seafood, and 10,000 mile Norwegian Salmon Fillet in Cold Storage and NTUC Fairprice. Why? Because triple-digit oil prices are going to drive up transportation costs to such an extent that it will be more sensible and affordable to grow our own food. Distance is going to matter again and globalization - the economic integration of nations through unrestricted flow of goods and services - will be reversed with the end of cheap oil.

What will we eat? Our food security is at stake and what is the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) doing about it? Their key strategy is to diversify by sourcing from countries as far away as Namibia and Chile. Will this work? No because it still depends on oil for transportation and food producing nations will move to curb exports as we witnessed in 2008 when high food prices forced governments to take action to quell local anxieties; therefore, it is important to substantially increase local food production to guarantee uninterrupted food supplies. Regrettably, AVA is not pursuing the self sufficient route.

Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, has written a timely book about peak oil and the end of globalization. It deserves our attention because Singapore's economy is so dependent on trade that we are highly vulnerable to oil shocks. Unlike the 1970s, the next oil shock will be permanent without any recovery in sight - a permanent recession caused by a relentless decline in global oil production. What is worrying is that the Singapore government does not appear to have any detailed contingency plans for peak oil. My email queries to government ministries have only elicited standard template replies like the following:

From: Ministry of Trade and Industry

With no indigenous energy resources of our own, we are price-takers and dependent on global markets for our energy resources. Thus, an essential part of our energy security strategy is to diversify our sources of supply, and in the long run, to diversify our fuel types. We have decided to pursue the import of LNG from 2012. We are test-bedding new and renewable energy technologies, and are keeping a watching brief on emerging energy technologies that may become viable for Singapore in the long run.

We would like to thank you for your constructive feedback.
Many Singaporeans will be in for a rude shock, which will be compounded by the current absence or lack of coverage of these issues by the local media, when they realise how long lasting this crisis will be.

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization by Jeff Rubin (On Sale: May 19, 2009) Excerpts:

Cheap oil has been subsidizing the cost of fish. Just like WalMart and Tesco and big-box retailers around the world have been able to cut prices on almost everything by taking advantage of cheap shipping and cheap Asian labor, salmon went from being delicious local seafood to being another global commodity. Cheap oil gives us access to a pretty big world.

In the global economy, no one thinks about distance in miles– they think in dollars. If oil is cheap, it really doesn’t matter how far a factory is from a showroom or a farmer’s field from a supermarket. It’s the cost of other things, like labor or tax, that determines what happens where. An Atlantic salmon caught off the coast of Norway is destined to be moved around the world just like a ball bearing or a microprocessor...

....To get that salmon from the ocean to your plate takes a ridiculous amount of energy. Think of the fuel for the fishing boats, container ships and just- in- time delivery trucks; the energy to freeze and process the fish, to sell it in a supermarket (retail stores use almost as much energy per square foot as factories do, just on heating, cooling and lighting). We invest a lot more energy to get that salmon than we get out of it when we eat it, which in itself makes the fish a bad energy deal. Economics calls it a “diminishing rate of return.”

But it gets worse. A lot worse. All of that energy costs money, and energy gets more expensive just about every day. Not quite every day, of course– the recession that seemed to catch everyone by surprise in 2008 brought oil prices down in spectacular fashion. But even the deepest recessions last barely over a year. Those prices will be on their way back up soon enough. And however you want to measure the energy in that fish– calories, miles, joules, barrels of oil– it is inevitable that the price of fish is going to go up as well...

...what we had just recently seen in oil markets was a harbinger of the future trend in world oil prices. Those high prices (remember when $30 oil seemed alarmingly expensive?) were not some cyclical blip or coincidence of special factors but the beginning of what would prove to be a spectacular rise in oil prices driven by a fundamental imbalance between ever- growing demand and ever- tightening supply conditions...

In today’s oil market, the laws of supply and demand have been turned on their heads. Contrary to the basic precepts of economic theory, global oil demand grew faster during the run- up in oil prices than it did a decade earlier, when prices were roughly a fifth or less of what they were in early 2008. Far from killing demand, record high oil prices seemed to spur ever- greater consumption of oil. And instead of new supply gushing out of the ground, supply growth has basically stopped dead in its track in the face of no less than a fivefold increase in the price of crude. Despite every incentive to pump more, despite calls for OPEC to open the spigots and President Bush’s personal pleas to the Saudis, world production has hardly grown at all since 2005.

Suddenly the textbooks seem to be describing some other world than the one we live in...

...Get ready for a smaller world. Soon, your food is going to come from a field much closer to home, and the things you buy will probably come from a factory down the road rather than one on the other side of the world. You will almost certainly drive less and walk more, and that means you will be shopping and working closer to home. Your neighbors and your neighborhood are about to get a lot more important in the smaller world of the none too-distant future.


Singapore Democrats said...

Thank you for the insightful blogpost. The Singapore Democrats have featured your post in our blogs of the week section - http://yoursdp.org/index.php/news/blogs-of-the-week

More about our "Blogs of the week" section - http://yoursdp.org/index.php/news/singapore/2212-blogs-of-the-week