October 5, 2011

Preparing for Peak Oil, Intervening against Hunger: Expanding Local and Regional Food Systems

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

Local market, fresh vegetables

The global food system has become largely dependent on a finite supply of oil. Rates of crude extraction are projected to decline in the immediate future, accompanied by a rise in oil prices. Judging from recent oil price hikes, higher food prices are likely to follow closely behind. As a result, populations afflicted by hunger may face a particularly sobering transition to a food system divorced, at least in part, from what has become an almost inextricable bond with oil.

In every potential crisis lies opportunity. In our efforts to prepare for a post-peak oil food system, what measures can be taken to uplift and protect the world’s most vulnerable? Among several other key recommendations, expanding the capacity of local and regional food systems may build resiliency against rising food prices, more expensive agricultural inputs and other shocks related to oil scarcity. By providing greater economic opportunities to the most affected populations, building support around local farmers in developing regions may also help to alleviate hunger.

In Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health, which is part of an American Journal of Public Health special supplement addressing peak petroleum, authors Roni Neff and colleagues describe some of the potential impacts of peak oil on global hunger. In one scenario, oil scarcity may incentivize a shift from growing food crops toward growing crops for biofuel production—resulting in higher food prices. Looking to recent history, the oil price spike from 2006 to 2008 was closely followed by a rise in food prices that pushed an additional 42 million people worldwide into undernourishment. These events may foreshadow the effects of declining oil reserves.

Even in the absence of impending resource crises, international food policies can exacerbate hunger. Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, explains this paradoxical relationship. An estimated one half of the persons affected by hunger are small farmers. When foreign imports and food aid enter local markets, the prices for locally-produced goods often drop, leaving small local farmers with less revenue from selling their products. As a result, they become more susceptible to hunger, particularly during lean seasons when they can neither grow nor afford adequate food for themselves and their families.

To help address these public health harms, De Schutter advocates for creating more economic opportunities for local and regional production. This could involve setting up local markets, building food distribution and storage infrastructure, and providing small farmers with better information on food prices.

Writing on peak oil, Neff and her colleagues similarly advocate for expanding local and regional food systems—not with the intent of replacing global distribution, as both Neff and De Schutter emphasize, but to build diversity and resilience. Among other advantages, sourcing food from multiple scales of distribution—including local, regional and global—allows for more flexible responses to rising food prices, climate change and other shocks.

As rising oil costs make long-distance transport prohibitively expensive, it is likely that shifts to more local and regional production will become a necessity. If we are unprepared to deal with this transition, the effects on global hunger could be devastating. Rather than waiting until change is forced upon us, expanding local and regional food systems sooner than later could prepare populations for the effects of declining oil reserves, while offering immediate opportunities to address global hunger.

For the previous blogpost on peak oil, click here (Food Systems after Peak Oil: A Look at Cuba)


  1. This is a great cause and well intended, but is limited by relativism (a lack of needed standards) and other common flaws in the food and hunger movements views of the farm economy and farm policy, though it’s somewhat better than many others. (For other examples see: http://www.zcommunications.org/false-on-the-food-poverty-crisis-25-online-examples-by-brad-wilson)

    Basically, we see concern here about “higher food prices” from higher farm prices, but there is no adequate standard of what high or low is. For example, corn/bushel was $21.10 in 1947 and so was oil/barrel (CPI, 2010 dollars). Then corn was $4.20 in the 2007 marketing year (to August 2008) while 2008 oil was $91.48 (2008 dollars). That massive drop in the corn price is the problematic high farm price (typically the $4.20 is called “skyrocketing”). And yes, it was more than double the lowest corn price in history (back to 1866), $2.00 in 2005 (2005 dollars). Ok, do people see the nonsense here, which, surely, Brent simply picked up from everyone else saying the same thing.

    Second, what is a high or low food price? Is a high price what people living on $1/day can’t “afford?” But they can’t “afford” to pay anything!

    Third, I hear that a full 80% of the “undernourished” are rural (UN-FAO “Livdestock in the Balance,” p. 3 & Millennium Interim Report), and 70% of Least Developed Countries populations are rural. So higher farm prices are just what they need. And yes, that’s just what the Africa Group at WTO (mostly LDCs) called for (http://www.zcommunications.org/wto-africa-group-with-nffc-not-ewg-by-brad-wilson).

    Finally, this article gives only a local foods strategy, and does not mention the macro strategy of market management, as called for by the Africa Group and La Via Campesina (http://www.zcommunications.org/via-campesina-with-nffc-support-for-fair-farm-prices-by-brad-wilson). But they almost all live outside of the US and the US farm bill is the key place to advocate for what they want, as we’re the global price leader for crops like corn, wheat and even rice. (On this, including rice see Daryll E. Ray, As so often happens, US food advocates miss the biggest issues, as they don’t know the pre-internet history of the farm justice movement. (But see my “Some History” content box, which has some of the best of those views, (http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/bradwilson) plus my farm justice history videos at YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/FireweedFarm#p/c/A1E706EFA90D1767). I don’t think this is available anywhere else, and I don’t think it’s much linked much in the food movement, to the detriment of LDC countries like Haiti (the 1 in our hemisphere,) and those in Africa. The National Family Farm Coalition has long been the leader on addressing this with farm price ceilings (hugely relevant here but almost unknown in the food movement) and fair trade farm price policies (http://www.nffc.net/Learn/Fact%20Sheets/FFFA2007.pdf).

  2. Pingback: What If We’re at Peak Bacon? | Center for a Livable Future

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