July 22, 2011

Preparing for Peak Oil

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Peak oil will challenge oil-dependent agriculture.

Peak oil is inevitable. At some point, global oil supplies will peak and then decline (it may be happening already), driving up the cost of oil and petroleum products.But what happens to our food systems, which rely heavily on oil, when oil becomes scarce? We can anticipate higher food prices, undernourishment, and hunger—unless we start preparing now.

Today the American Journal of Public Health has published online ahead of print “Peak Petroleum and Public Health,” as part of a special AJPH supplement, to be published in September, that will examine peak oil health threats.This paper, co-authored by CLF faculty Roni Neff, PhD, Robert Lawrence, MD, and colleagues, makes the case for pre-emptive changes that can help public health adapt—ahead of the curve—to the inevitable.“Certain social and policy changes could smooth adaptation. Public health has an essential role in promoting a proactive, smart, and equitable transition that increases resilience and enables adequate food for all,” write the authors.

The health of every population hinges on food security and food access. And inexpensive oil has powered industrial food production, making food cheap, calorie-rich, and plentiful. In the AJPH paper, lead author Neff and colleagues identify four food system adaptations likely to occur as oil prices escalate: reduced oil in food production; increased food system energy efficiency and renewable energy; changed food consumption patterns; and reduced food transportation distances. They discuss needed actions from public health professionals and policymakers, from changing incentives in order to promote lower-oil and more resilient forms of agriculture; to developing regionally-adapted nutrition guidance for year-round eating; to tracking conditions and outcomes; to assuring safety nets as food prices rise.

Today, food prices are already at dangerously high levels, for a range of reasons including oil prices.How will rising food prices play out? The World Bank estimated that the price rise from June 2010 to February 2011 threw 44 million additional people into poverty.

Neff says , “Peak oil is off most people’s radar.Few in the public health community think about it, never mind about how its impacts may be magnified when combined with other ecological threats we face.Yet, the hunger and public health toll could be devastating, particularly if we fail to take action in advance to begin shifting our food systems.This is our window of opportunity.”


  1. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    Check out “Running on Empty?” which interviews Peter Winch, an author of another article to be included in the upcoming AJPH supplement. Says Winch, “A lot of people believe that our basic M.O. will stay the same. But there’s no way it will. We have to recalibrate what we’re doing in the field. Just getting people thinking about what will happen when oil is scarce is a challenge.”

  2. My concern is one need only look at the current debt ceiling boondoggle to understand that most first world countries only make changes when a crisis hits, not well before hand. In the case of peak oil, most will say that oil fracking can take up the slack until they realize that there is simply no way that enough oil can be produced to replace the huge depletion numbers we are expecting to see in the coming decade. I commend the AJPH supplement, but fear it may be a case of to little, to late. By the time the politicians start really dealing with the issue, there will be no quick solution. One could say the Arab Spring we have seen were fueled by rising food prices. Might this not be a foreshadowing of developments to come in many countries?

  3. Consider the fundamentals of economics that still teach that resources are unlimited, that humans are sane & reasonable and will respomd to ecomomic pressures in same????

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