Robert Lawrence, MD, from the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health spoke on “Peak oil, food systems, and public health” at Monday’s University of Wisconsin Population Health seminar series. Peak oil, introduced by Shell Oil Company in the 1950s, is the point in time when the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached. After this occurs, the global availability of petroleum will diminish indefinitely.1 While there is no consensus on when this peak will occur (if it hasn’t already), its certainty is well documented. Therefore, the cost of extraction—and thus food and oil prices—will rise substantially. Lawrence argued that without drastic changes to food consumption patterns and energy use in production, widespread food insecurity and famines are a realistic threat. Further, without intervention, peak oil has the potential exacerbate existing disparities; US food insecurity disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color.1
The severity of this foreshadowed crisis will be determined by the level of global preparedness and food system resiliency. The public health community must play an active role to promote a fair transition to “lower oil agriculture” to devise a more sustainable food system. Lawrence went on to describe four mitigation strategies to adopt over time that will lessen the peak oil blow. He calls for reducing the use of oil in food production; increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy in the food system; changing food consumption patterns; and drastically reducing food transportation distances. Tropical fruits shipped to the US from Latin America will need to be a thing of the past. The question that remains, are policymakers, producers, and consumers willing to apply these adaptions before the effects of peak oil can no longer be ignored? You can view Dr. Lawrence’s April 1, 2013 talk here.
1. Neff RA et al. Peak oil, food systems and public health. The American Journal of Public Health September 2011, Vol 101, No. 9