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Peak Oil: Its Impact on Food Systems and Public Health

Sep 01, 2011

A peer-reviewed analysis in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health focuses on peak oil and its connections with food systems and public health. The article, Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health, co-authored by the Center for a Livable future's Research and Policy Director, Roni Neff, PhD, and the Center's Director, Bob Lawrence, MD, is part of an eight article special section, Peak Petroleum and Public Health. Their analysis examines food system vulnerability to rising oil prices and the public health consequences.

Today's globalized industrial food system depends heavily on petroleum products for fueling farm machinery, producing pesticides, and transporting goods. Food prices further intertwine with oil prices due to the diversion of food crops for ethanol production, and the rise in commodity speculation.

In a phenomenon referred to as peak oil, global oil production is expected to peak (or has already peaked) and then decline. The resultant escalation in both oil and food prices could have impacts from widespread food insecurity to famine. The level of crisis will be determined by the extent of preparedness and food system resilience, as well as the speed of price rises and other factors.

To prepare for the predicted price rises, public health has an essential role to play in joining with others to promote a healthy and equitable transition to an oil-independent, more resilient food system, emphasize the authors.

"To date, the public health community has engaged little on the issue of peak oil. The American Journal of Public Health's decision to publish this article series represents an important acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation, and hopefully portends an uptick in attention," says Neff.

The study's authors note that the public health community has much to learn from the farmers, communities, advocates, consumers, sociologists, and scientists who have been addressing the issues over time. Public health, in turn, is a needed ally.

According to the analysis, in the short term, rising oil prices could lead to shortsighted responses, such as increasing support for cheap food systems with adverse impacts on the environment, and increased inequities. Food system market consolidation is also likely, with fewer companies obtaining greater shares of the overall market. Unfortunately, these short-term changes can further increase the eventual social pain of transition to an oil-independent food system.

Over the long term, high oil prices will necessitate a shift towards more resilient food production, distribution, and consumption. The authors identify four shifts likely to occur over time: reduced oil in food production; increased food system energy efficiency and renewable energy; changed food consumption patterns; and reduced food transportation distances. For example, a lower-oil food production system would make use of energy-efficient vehicles, shift to renewable energy sources, change pest and weed management techniques, and include reduced consumption of food items that require more energy to produce, such as meat. Globalized food chains may be replaced by primarily regional foodshed areas, though some food will likely continue to be transported longer distances. Regions with low food production ability relative to population size will adapt in various ways.

The authors argue that the lower-oil agriculture picture portrayed in the article is not a return to the past, but rather a shift toward knowledge-intensive ecological agriculture, which combines new science and localized data analysis with historical wisdom to manage ecological forces in their complexity and relationships for resilient food yields.

The authors describe numerous policy and other interventions that can reduce the dislocation that could accompany rapid food system shifts. Many of these occur outside the traditional domains of public health. The authors, however, identify specific roles for public health professionals, based on the field's recognized core functions.

Of course, the researchers note there are a variety of barriers in preparing the food system for peak oil. Perhaps the largest challenge is that few want to think about peak oil and other ecological threats such as climate change and soil depletion never mind committing to precautionary change. Most of us prefer to continue the status quo, particularly if it has worked previously, if we have invested in it, and if it functions acceptably well. Change carries cost and risk. So, however, does inaction.

Other coauthors are: Cindy L. Parker, MD, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, JHSPH and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; Frederick L. Kirschenmann, PhD, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture; and Jennifer Tinch, who was with the JHSPH Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency, at the time of the study.