Have we reached peak food? Authors of a new study in Ecology and Society say “yes,” claiming our ability to grow more food has reached its limit, despite advances in growing technology, even as the population increases. But others say that if we simply stop wasting food, we won’t have a problem.
Ralf Seppelt, a scientist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and several colleagues looked at production rates for 27 renewable and nonrenewable resources, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Using data they collected from different international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they “analyzed yield rates and totals over a period of time—from 1961 to about 2010 in most cases. For renewable resources like crops and livestock, the team identified peak production as the point when acceleration in gains maxed out and was followed by a clear deceleration.”
In every category, the rate of growth is still increasing — except for wild-caught fish — but at a monumentally slower rate than previously measured. Peak production of most food products occurred between five and 30 years ago. Peak corn production occurred in 1985; peak rice in 1988; peak milk and wheat in 2004.
This means, Seppelt asserts, that these crops and many others will plateau in growth and potentially even decline. Why? Because we have already used all of the pesticides, fertilizers and “genetic modification” tricks we know to increase food yields and there simply no more tricks in the hat.
“Just nine or ten plant species feed the world,” says Seppelt. “But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever.” Fertilizing soil is important, but it can only go so far. We reached peak nitrogen, an essential nutrient to fertilizer, 1983.
Converting forest and marshland to farmland holds some potential, but losing more forests to agriculture is a recipe for ecological disaster. Jonathan Foley, director of the California Academy of Sciences, said that the trajectory is a warning but in a way, it’s good news. “It means we will have to change how we eat and use food,” he said in Smithsonian Magazine. He also notes that 30 to 40 percent of food globally goes uneaten. In developing nations, this waste happens before the food gets to market and the food spoils. In developed nations, it occurs post-consumer.
We would do well, then, to heed the old adage, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” Less waste across the board and developing better transport and distribution venues for developing nations will likely improve our access to food. The impact that burning corn as ethanol has on our global food supply was not mentioned in the study, but must have some overall importance.