Dr. Robert Lawrence: Peak Oil, Food Systems and Public Health

As the director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. Robert Lawrence knows a lot about the relationships among agriculture, public health, natural resources, the environment and global population. He managed to address the complex interconnections among them all in an hour-long lecture at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health entitled, “Peak oil, food systems and public health.” (Watch the lecture here.)

Dr. Lawrence sets the stage by outlining four key issues: diet, environment, food production and public health. He lists the drivers that can influence those issues: population growth, climate disruption, lack of equity and resource depletion, with a focus on the last. As he explains, humans are straining resources and that’s creating a lot of issues and challenges.

As we know from our food, water and energy nexus work, putting a strain on one system can lead to strains on others. For example, Dr. Lawrence notes that it takes a lot of energy to produce food. In the days before synthetic fertilizers, crops produced more energy than it took to raise them. Now, in modern industrial-scale farming, it takes on average about 1-3 kilocalories (or kcal: what scientists call a food calorie) to produce 1 kcal of food, but that figure can go as high as 35 kcal to produce 1 kcal of beef. When you factor in the manufacturing of inorganic fertilizer, machinery operation, irrigation pumping, etc. it takes about 400 gallons of oil equivalent to produce the food to make up a single average American diet each year. To process and package that food you need even more energy. Dr. Lawrence notes that frosted flakes require 60 percent more energy to process and package than steel cut oats (he also reminds us that the oats are the healthier option). If our energy resources become more constrained there will be big implications for our current food system. 

Dr. Lawrence doesn’t miss a beat transitioning to the food-water nexus. He lays out an ominous scenario: climate change will alter the hydrological cycle and that could undermine food security. After all, two-thirds of global water use is used for irrigation, and global population distribution does not coincide with where the rain falls or where crops are grown (he includes some really great animated graphics at this point, by the way). On top of that, a large percentage of our thirsty food crops are being diverted for use as energy in the form of ethanol fuel. Meanwhile, a billion people are malnourished. 

After describing the scale and implications of the interactions among our global resources, Dr. Lawrence focuses on one particular resource intensive product: meat. There are 9.1 billion food animals grown in the US per year. Of that, 8 billion are broilers (chickens grown for meat), which translates to about 1 million broilers grown per hour. To put this into context, Dr. Lawrence notes that by the end of his lecture, about a million broilers would have been used to feed America’s appetite for animal-based protein. 

Fortunately for the US, per capita meat consumption has leveled off, but globally, meat consumption is predicted to double by 2030, with a large portion of that increased meat consumption in China. Dr. Lawrence states that in 1960 China raised about 100 million pigs most likely in people’s backyards, three or four at a time, and they were fed slops. By 2007, China was raising 450 million pigs in industrialized settings. 

At this point Dr. Lawrence refers to himself as Dr. Gloom and Doom — you might find that a compelling moniker. So what can we do? He offers four big picture items: 

  • Move away from heavy reliance on fertilizer and pesticides;
  • Use science to improve food shelf life;
  • Reduce refrigeration and freezing;
  • Increase food system energy efficiency and further our reliance on renewables;
  • Eat less meat; and 
  • Eat less processed food and reduce long distance fuel transportation.

As individuals, he says we can: 

  • Eat less meat and dairy;
  • Eat more seasonal, low-processed, local, organic food (he recalled when there was a season for peaches rather than their being a year round commodity and they tasted better then too);
  • Reduce the number of trips we take to the store;
  • Use less packaging and bring our own bags; and
  • Waste less food — 40 percent of food produced gets wasted.

Dr. Lawrence notes that these actions are a challenge for the average consumer. It’s hard to sustain these behaviors and the food industry is not at all supportive of these actions. 

Gloom and doom aside, Dr. Lawrence is a flexitarian and occasionally enjoys meat as a part of a healthy diet—he just tries to limit his consumption. He reminds us that we have the opportunity to take action 21 times a week with each of our meals. This means we have many opportunities to reduce meat consumption. To help us along, he recommends checking out Meatless Mondays to help us cut meat out of three meals a week. 

In all, Dr. Lawrence let us know that the use – and overuse – of resources shapes our lives and the environment. As he wraps up his lecture near the one hour mark, I think back on his remarks about chicken production: one million chickens since he began speaking. With all of the inputs required to raise those animals, that’s a lot of water and energy too. Dr. Lawrence is doing important work informing us that between our warming planet and its growing population, such rapid depletion of precious resources is putting us on a very unsustainable path.

Check out Dr. Robert Lawrence’s presentation here.