Food ShortagesPeak OilPopulation

How Tight is the Link Between Oil, Food and Population?

The linkage is this tight:

In this graph "grain" is the world’s annual production of rice, wheat and corn, "oil" is the global production of all petroleum liquids, and people are people. I normalized the numbers so that they all start off from an index of 100 in 1985. This is a standard technique that makes the relationship between the three elements visible.

It’s obvious at a glance that food, oil and population are tightly related, but the nature of their relationship is open to interpretation. If you were an economist you could say that as the number of people grows, we go out and grow more food and find more oil to meet our growing needs. Conversely if you were an ecologist you might say that increasing supplies of oil and food allow our population to grow. Or you could say (as I do) that they all exist in a complex feedback loop.

If they are all components of a feedback loop, that means that anything that influences one will influence the others, at least to some extent. Oil is essential in our modern system of industrial agriculture to grow and distribute food. Without enough food populations don’t grow – food shortages tend to lower womens’ fertility, increase infant mortality and decrease life expectancy.

The correlation shown above between oil and grain production implies that that any significant hiccup in the world’s oil supply is going to affect food production. And the virtually 100% correlation between grain and population implies that any hiccup in the food supply is going to impact our numbers sooner or later.

And we’ve already hit the Peak Oil plateau:

Overall, the world’s food supply is tightening dramatically:

Click for larger view

In the 20 years from 1968 to 1987 growth in the food supply reliably outstripped the growth in global population. It lagged in only 3 years out of 20, and kept ahead by an average of 1.07% per year.

However, the 20 years from 1988 to 2007 is a whole different story. Growth in the food supply fell behind the growth in population in 12 years out of 20, and on average fell behind by 0.05% per year.

Even though our population is growing by a constant amount rather than an exponential rate, the global food supply is failing to keep up with even that.

It’s no wonder that a bad sneeze or two can set off a food price spike.

It’s time to make friends with an organic farmer. Or better yet, become one yourself….

Further Reading:


  1. I agree with the gist of what you are saying but leave out the hyperbole. An ecologist would say it’s a complex system with feedback loops, I’m pretty sure system theory was developed by ecologists. Your chart proclaiming peak oil stops at roughly 2008 even though it is now 2013, and a more up to date chart would show a different story, all the charts look to be about 5 years out of date. 1.2% population growth is still exponential growth with a doubling time of 58.3 years.

    Everywhere I look these days the reporting has become less and less factual and more and more sensational. Puts me off even bothering to read. Is fact based reporting no longer profitable or what?

  2. The article is a nice update through 2007; however a constant rate of growth results in exponential increase as that constant rate is on an ever larger total.

    Additionally, no discussion of oil production is complete without a discussion of net energy. As an example, a barrel of oil manufactured from the Alberta tar sands or the Bakken Shale (or any other tight oil) has far less available energy to run our society than a barrel of oil from Ghawar in Saudia Arabia.

  3. You may well be right (and for what it’s worth, I think you are) but you’ve made a fundamental mistake in saying “The correlation shown above … implies…”. Correlation never, ever implies causation. The classic example is the very strong correlation between number of pubs and number of churches in towns and cities. You can’t conclude it’s the church-members who are doing the drinking. In fact there’s no causal link – they’re both linked causally to population. As I said, I have a strong hunch you are right, but it’s because of the underlying causal links, and you’re right – it’s complex!

  4. Andy’s comment is spot on; indeed all three are. Without in any way doubting the core argument, the reality is that like so many other aspects of life today, the signal is surrounded by a great deal of noise.

    We live in an age where the tendency of the media is to reduce issues to catchy headlines whereas many, many issues are extremely complex.

  5. I don’t believe this graph is “open to interpretation.” I think it is definitive. All one need do is a simple thought experiment. What would happen to the curves for food production if the curve for oil production were to drop off suddenly? Given that the increases in food production for the last 70 years or so are largely the result of massive inputs of fossil fuels and chemicals, what would happen if oil suddenly became scarce. We all know what would happen. Lots of people would starve. The resulting unrest would cascade into turmoil and even more death. Does anyone really question this? I’m not suggesting that people wouldn’t figure out a way to feed themselves eventually. But, lots of people would die in the interim.

    We are the only species that obliterates the opportunity for other species to feed themselves so that we may feed ourselves. This little piece tells that story quite eloquently…

    This has been called totalitarian agriculture, and it defies the laws of nature that have allowed all life to evolve on this planet. One species may eat another species, but no species, until us, has ever eliminated species in order to favor the cultivation of particular species for food. We are converting all the diversity of the community of Life into very particular type of biomass which we eat. The saddest part, is that it is not even healthy for us. It merely allows us to survive.

    This notion is horrifying, but it is critical for us to understand if we are to move beyond it. I would suggest that you look into the work of author Daniel Quinn. Coming to terms with this reality is painful, it was so for me, but I believe it is one of the most important things that we need to do as a species.

  6. I admire Paul’s writing very much and have no wish to “beat a dead horse”, however some people may be unaware of the EROEI issue that is upon us. This quote sums it up nicely:

    “In modern societies, manufacturing, services, minerals, food and even water are functions of the availability of energy. The critical equation here is not the absolute quantity of energy available but, rather, the difference between energy extracted and energy consumed in the extraction process. This is measured by the mathematical equation EROEI (energy return on energy invested).

    The path we are on has this characteristic:

    Research suggests that the global average EROEI, having fallen from about 40:1 in 1990 to 17:1 in 2010, may decline to just 11:1 by 2020, at which point energy will be about 50% more expensive, in real terms, than it is today, a metric which will carry through directly into the cost of almost everything else – including food.”


    To put that in perspective it has been estimated that an Amish farmer gets an EROEI of 10:1.

  7. Duane, how are those links helpful? And all that Ayn Rand shite. Lets live in solution, lets follow the really positive principles and directives that Permaculture has developed.
    Greenie bashing is just a smokescreen for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

  8. hi Carolyn,

    “Duane, how are those links helpful? And all that Ayn Rand shite. Lets live in solution, lets follow the really positive principles and directives that Permaculture has developed.
    Greenie bashing is just a smokescreen for inaction and maintaining the status quo”

    the status quo is “fossil fuels”
    it replaced this

    it’s no wonder that “fossil fuels” were embraced

    what is going to replace “fossil fuel”
    wind and solar won’t it
    neither will a return to animal power
    biofuels may fill some local gaps
    but the problem is that big source to feed the grid and keep the system operating while and even after permaculture permeates the planet

    we need to work with everyone to solve the problem
    get past the Rand crap to see the prospective of those currently providing “fossil fuel” to keep the system from collasping
    this is a good thing

    lamenting about our dependence on “fossil fuels” isn’t helping
    looking for the replacement is what is needed and those currently working there are needed.

    the approach should be in terms of evolution
    we evolved from animal power to fossil fuel power
    neither were perfect but was the best thing at the time
    the “next best thing” should be thought of the same way
    current fossil fuel should be discussed in terms of a bridge to that next big thing
    if the “status quo” collapses rather than being replaced will be disaster

  9. Duane, feel free to read my bio over on permaculture global, I physically and mentally work in the solution everyday, so telling me about fossil fuel and its lack of replacements is a waste of your time, just as I found those links a path to no solutions.
    If you are really serious about actually dealing with the fossil fuel issue, either by on the ground work or awareness raising, please realize that you may actually be dis-empowering people when you continually serve up the problem without a side order of solution.
    You seem to write passionately, as though you know what the answer to the fossil fuel dilemma is, do you have the answer?
    Personally I think it is unhelpful to lead anyone, to anything, to do with something, that might have been inspired by Rand.

  10. Personally I think it is unhelpful to lead anyone, to anything, to do with something, that might have been inspired by Rand.

    Agreed. If I had to choose between listening to sentiments inspired by Rand, or hitting myself repeatedly in the head with a brick, I’d choose the latter every time.

  11. Hi Carolyn and Craig,

    if you read the first article, the author isn’t advocating Rand. He says he just feels unappreciated like those characters in the book.
    now that Rand is out of the way.

    I viewed your profile and its quite nice but….
    As Geoff says in the “Green Gold” video, we need two types of actions
    one is the turning of backyards into food forests and the other is the major rehabitation of damaged ecosystems
    your work is more directed toward the first

    doing away with oil is more like the second- major financial, political, business and infrastructure problems exist beyond just what guilds should be used. and as John and Geoff showed in “Green Gold” you have to work with all the people involved

    I took my PDC in 1988
    I spend nearly thirty years working with municipalities and industries on wastewater treatment and reuse and recycling systems.
    I understand the views of business, engineers and construction people. I understand the politics involved in large projects. I don’t necessary approve of these complications, but know you have to work with them to get anything done.

    The same applies to the energy industry. be happy its there. we need to work with engineers, drillers ,manufacturers, transportation and construction people. (think of them the same as farmers who haven’t heard of permaculture yet)
    the problem has been that we have confused the evil people who control the oil with the oil itself. oil isn’t evil. if you read the one link, you will see it kept the cities from being filled with 35 ft of horse manure!!

    If all the conventional farms shut down today, what would happen?

    I am not dis-empowering anyone, just showing the path
    I don’t know for certain what the “next big thing” is but we have eliminated several from being the baseline power provider for the grid.
    the “next big thing” may eliminate the need for the grid!!!
    I am optimistic that one is one its way.
    my guess it will as different as horse power is from horsepower.

  12. I just realized I have no idea what you are talking about Duane and I don’t really think it matters much. Somewhere out there on the planet we are probably on the same page, who knows?
    Thanks Paul for a great article, it sure does look like a tight link to me.
    Carolyn Payne
    Mudlark Permaculture

  13. Duane,

    The only person here who used the word evil is you.

    A prudent person would ask, what if there is no “next big thing” (your words)?

    Try to be a bit more objective in future.


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