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Michael McLawhorn asks:

Why don't you talk about the consequences of permanently high oil for the food production business? Does the high cost of fertilizer mean a drop in productivity and some kind of malthusian nightmare? Or can we sustain a large world population of food production with permanently expensive petroleum?



A malthusian nightmare seems unlikely to me.

In pure acres of land cultivated per calorie consumed, meat is ridiculously inefficient. If you used the acreage that you dedicating to growing feed for the animal, and used that land to grow (plant) food for people instead, you could feed many more people. So viewed in that light, a rise in the costs of agricultural production is unlikely to lead to mass starvation. Rather, we'll see a return to an earlier pattern of lower overall levels of meat consumption, and probably more consumption of the relatively undesirable cuts of meat (hello, tongue sandwich). There's good reason to believe that consuming less food overall, and less meat in particular, would improve public health in the rich world so even though it would make me sad (I'm certainly part of the public health problem in terms of meat consumption) it's perhaps not to be regretted.

Relatedly, I've heard it plausibly argued that if you're interested in reducing your "carbon footprint," reducing your meat consumption is probably the best thing to do. That strikes me as something that, if true, is more interesting if read the other way 'round -- one major consequence of limiting carbon emissions would be to create financial incentives for people to eat less meat and more plants.

That kind of thing is one reason why I think the cost of adjusting to a low-carbon future will actually prove much lower than people think. A lot of the changes in habit that a world of more expensive energy will incentive are things that there are sound unrelated reasons to do. Less meat-eating and more walking and biking would improve the health and long-term quality of life of the population.

Photo by Flickr user archeon used under a Creative Commons license

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