Peak food. Sustainability challenged as many renewable resources max out


Preface. Also see related article Limits to Growth? 2016 United Nations report provides best evidence yet.

This new article shows that climate change is already affecting harvests of the world’s top 10 crops that comprise 83% of our calories: barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane and wheat. So though the article below says we’re approaching peak food, to some extent we’re already there (Deepak 2019).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Nichols, S. January 14, 2015. Sustainability challenged as many renewable resources max out. Michigan state university.

The days of assuming natural resources can be swapped to solve shortages – corn for oil, soy for beef – may be over.

An international group of scientists demonstrate that many key resources have peaked in productivity, pointing to the sobering conclusion that “renewable” is not synonymous with “unlimited.”

People often talk about substitution. If we run out of one resource, we just substitute another. But if multiple resources are running out, we’ve got a problem,” said Jack Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

The research team discovered not only that 20 resources had a peak-year but also that for 16 of the 20 resources with a peak year, the peak year lay between 1988 and 2008 – a narrow range in the history of mankind.  The annual growth rate of 18 of these renewable resources – for example, increase in meat production or fish catch – peaked around 2006.

[ My note: it’s interesting that the master resource, oil, which makes all others possible, peaked in 2005-2006 (conventional oil that is, where 90% of petroleum comes from). ]

Here are several reasons why many of the peak years occurred during the same time period or synchronized:

  1. Multiple resources such as land, food and energy, are consumed simultaneously to meet different needs of rapidly growing populations and diet changes worldwide.
  2. Producing one resource needs other resources, production needs land, energy and water.
  3. Producing resources creates pollution, which exacerbates resource shortages.
  4. Extracting less accessible resources results in an increased ecological and economic cost per unit extracted, thus lowering the availability of the remaining resources.

Renewable resources become scarcer. The authors were able to illustrate this using various examples: The maximum global growth rate in crop yields for soybeans was in 2009, for milk it was 2004, for eggs it was 1993 and for the fish caught it was 1988. Data from other studies confirm these results. For example, the crop yield per area with corn, wheat, soy and rice on more than a quarter of the farming area around the world is stagnating or decreasing.

Bawden, T. January 2015. Have we reached peak food? Shortages loom as global production rates slow. Staples like wheat, chicken and rice are slowing in growth – with dire consequences.  Independent

The world has entered an era of “peak food” production with an array of staples from corn and rice to wheat and chicken slowing in growth – with potentially disastrous consequences for feeding the planet.

Peak chicken was in 2006, while milk and wheat both peaked in 2004 and rice peaked way back in 1988, according to new research from Yale University, Michigan State University and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.

What makes the report particularly alarming is that so many crucial sources of food have peaked in a relatively short period of history, the researchers said.

Mankind needs to accept that renewable raw materials are reaching their yield limits worldwide,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, of Michigan State University.

Just nine or 10 plants species feed the world. But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever,” said Ralf Seppelt, of the Helmholtz Centre.

This synchronisation of peak years is all the more worrying because it suggests the whole food system is becoming overwhelmed, making it extremely difficult to resurrect the fortunes of any one foodstuff, let alone all of them, the report suggested.

The simultaneous peaking of the world’s basic foodstuffs is largely down to the competing demands of a mushrooming population, which is putting ever-greater strain on the land for housing, agriculture, business and infrastructure. At the same time, producing more of any one staple requires the use of extra land and water, which increases their scarcity and makes it harder to increase food production in the future.

Finally, increases in production tend to push up pollution, which exacerbates shortages of resources and slows the growth in output.

The simultaneous peaking of crops and livestock comes against a backdrop of a growing population, which is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, requiring the world to produce twice as much food by then as it does now, according to a separate study by the California Academy of Sciences. The problems caused by the growing population have been compounded by the growth of wealthy middle-class populations in countries such as China and India which are demanding a meatier diet. This is problematic because meat and dairy use up a lot more resources than if a comparable level of nutrition were provided by crops, grown direct for human consumption.

Among the basic foodstuffs examined, only the relatively undeveloped farmed fish – or aquaculture – industry has yet to reach peak production.


Deepak, K. R., et al. 2019. Climate change has likely already affected global food production. PLOS ONE.

Seppelt, R., et al. 2014. Synchronized peak-rate years of global resources use. Ecology and Society 19.

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2 Responses to Peak food. Sustainability challenged as many renewable resources max out

  1. David Wright says:

    On top of the graph it states food has reached a peak “rate”. What does that mean? Further down in the text it implies the rate of growth has slowed but the implication in the entire piece implies the production of these commodities has peaked. Just would like to know what is meant here? It would be useful to know the estimated time when the actual production of foodstuffs hits a real and measurable peak. I have been led to believe production of many foodstuffs will continue to rise for some time–we all know there will one day be a peak. Are we there? D Wright

    • energyskeptic says:

      David, you are right, it is the annual growth rate that has peaked: “Peak production refers to the point at which the growth in a crop, animal or other food source begins to slow down, rather than the point at which production actually declines. However, it is regarded as a key signal that the momentum is being lost and it is typically only a matter of time before production plateaus and, in some cases, begins to fall”. This means we are unlikely to be able to feed the additional 2-3 billion people expected to arrive by 2050, not even with genetic engineering, because the food decline will also be due to lack of water, topsoil, too much pollution, climate change drought/flooding, and so on.

      A related article is