Peak oil, peak soil

During the run up in oil prices in summer 2008, the idea of peak oil began to gain broader traction. Peak oil — when aggregate oil extraction reaches its peak and begins a terminal decline — will spell the end of the oil-based economy and infrastructure. In response to this peak, increasing prices will necessitate long-term investment and development of alternative models of energy generation and transportation. Although the economic downturn has decreased demand for oil globally, the specter of peak oil remains. Still, oil companies want to doubt the validity of peak oil. China is betting otherwise.

In terms of finite resources, many fail to consider agricultural farmland. Although year after year seems to bring in record crop yields, there is the very real problem that agricultural output comes at the price of being overly wasteful of limited water supplies, dependent on monocultures, and productive largely through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These factors which have been important in producing the record crop yields, could very much be those factors that undermine our agricultural system. It is possible, then, that we could reach peak *soil*.

The specter of peak soil is nothing new. In his 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Thomas Malthus predicted that given limited agricultural areas, the failure of crop yields to keep up with population growth would result in global food shortages and an increase “misery and vice.” Fortunately, Malthus’ theory failed to materialize as technological advances allowed for increased agricultural output to supply the coming population explosion.

Despite all of the advances, hunger and food security continues to be a problem globally and nationally. During the run-up in oil prices in 2008, reported cases of food shortages and food riots suggested an unseaming of civilization that fortunately failed to materialize. Still, presently the World Food Programme estimates that 1 in 6 people worldwide do not have access to enough to be healthy, while in the U.S., there is the dual problem that 14.6 percent of Americans are food insecure and 67 percent of Americans are obese.

These shortcomings occur despite all the technological advances we have made in both food production and distribution. Malthus, who was derided for his seeming negligence of continued technological improvements, makes the prescient warning in his essay that, “a careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined.”  Following our current agricultural practices, the limits of our food system do appear to be merely undefined.

For these reasons, the idea of a sustainable, second Green Revolution has been proposed. This cause for the developing world — primarily Africa — has been spearheaded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which advocates for improving crop yields and food infrastructure in sustainable ways that empower smallholder farms, conserve water use, and improve food security — as well as to leverage the benefits of genetically modified crops.

In the U.S., the local food and urban agriculture movements seek to lessen the environmental impact of agriculture as well as democratize food distribution for the poor and improve community health. In addition to encouraging traditional organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming techniques, proposals within these movements range from empowering backyard farming to proposals for vertical farming schemes, aquaponics, and even window farming.

A second Green Revolution, both internationally and domestically, promises to build a durable, modern sustainable food system. Embedded in these proposals is a forward-looking reliance on technological improvements, which seemed to have delivered us from early predictions of Malthusian catastrophe. Technology can still deliver use from future catastrophe, but only so long as it promotes agricultural practices with the goal of sustainable progress.


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