Food, Population, Energy and Climate Change in MENA

Its COP21 week and in Sunday’s Blowout 100 Roger linked to a couple of UN articles detailing the risks to food security from climate change, especially in the developing world. Statements like this one are so inaccurate they in fact lie 180˚ from the truth:

Echoing this message was the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which underlined that natural disasters triggered by climate change have risen in frequency and severity over the last three decades, increasing the damage caused to the agricultural sectors of many developing countries and putting them at risk of growing food insecurity.

The World Food Programme (WFP) further insisted that without “ambitious action” to address the causes and consequences of climate change, hunger cannot be eradicated.

According to the UN IPCC AR5 report, climate disasters have not increased in frequency. Food production has kept pace with population growth averting famine thanks mainly to fossil fuels not despite them. And evidence for climate change related drought and food shortages in MENA (Middle East North Africa), the subject of this post, is sparse to absent as detailed in Roger’s post Drought, Climate, War, Terrorism, and Syria.

Fossil Fuels and Food

From Walter Youngquist, author of Geodestinies;

A second aspect of the post-petroleum paradigm is not confined to the oil-rich, oil dependent countries, but relates to the world as a whole. How the decline and eventual depletion of oil, and its close associate, natural gas, will affect world food production is of vital importance. Bartlett (1978) succinctly makes the point: “Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food”.

This was written from a perspective that fossil fuel depletion will one day catch up with the Human Race that is, in its current dimension, created from fossil fuels. It now needs to be read from the perspective of the UN, who evidently want to phase out the use of fossil fuels, an ambition that I personally view as a very dangerous fantasy since it may also result in the phasing out of Humanity.

Fossil fuels facilitate food production in many ways. Tractor mechanisation enables the cultivation of much larger areas. Irrigation, built and powered by fossil fuels, enables the cultivation of much larger areas. Of course in the past this was enabled by using human slaves, now replaced by fossil fuel energy slaves. Fossil fuels uniquely, especially natural gas, are used to manufacture fertilisers and pesticides. These underpinned the Green Revolution. None of this can be enabled by solar PV. The current UN course of demonising fossil fuels is very dangerous indeed.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) publishes a wealth of data on global food production. For example, for Syria about 69 different crops are listed. There is enough data here to keep me (and Roger) plotting for a year. In his post, Roger chose wheat as a benchmark crop and I have done the same. I chose Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey to examine the linkages between food production, population and energy.

Figure 1 shows wheat production in the 5 selected countries. The dashed lines mark years when production fell. There could be a number of reasons for this, for example less area planted or conflict. But I will posit that the over riding factor is weather and in particular rainfall. Roger showed that wheat production in Syria fell during dry years. The 1989 event shows up in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and was evidently a regional dry spell impacting productivity. But notably, dry spells are sometimes offset by one year between countries. For example Turkey was dry in 2007 while Iran, Syria and Iraq were dry in 2008. I will speculate that the distribution reflects the positioning of regional high pressure. Notably Egypt, which lies far to the South, does not match the Middle East which is not surprising.

The distribution suggests that the frequency of dry spells is increasing with periods of 16, 11 and 8 years, but barely enough to warrant claims that man made gobal warming is to blame. I am using the term dry spell to distinguish this from drought that conjures an image of multiple years without rain and widespread failure of crops. As Roger has already pointed out, this has not happened.

Figure 2

Figure 3 Looking at yield provides a measure independent of area planted and we see that the four low  productivity years show up. One obvious feature is that yields in Egypt are much higher than the Middle east countries. Presumably this reflects the fertile Nile Valley and no shortage of water for irrigation. The average yield in 1961 was 1.1 tonnes / ha and by 2013 this had risen to 3.2, a factor increase of 2.9. In the same period, combined production grew from 13.1 million tonnes to 52.9 million tonnes, a factor increase of 4.0 and this tells us that the area planted has also grown. The main point is that this increase in yield is fundamental to sustaining populations. It is the direct result of fertiliser, pesticides, mechanisation and irrigation, all provided by fossil fuels. Virtually none of this may be attributed to renewable or carbon free energy. Perhaps some irrigation pumps work off hydro power in the Nile Valley?

Figure 4 The combined population of these five countries was 91 million in 1961 that grew to 294 million in 2013, a factor increase of 3.2 matching the increase in productivity almost exactly. It is the vastly increased number of souls living in these marginal environments that is the root cause of pressure on resources and in exposing them to risks from storms, drought, disease, conflict and famine. Fossil fuels have created all these people and it is through the act of creating them that risks to their existence arise. It has virtually nothing to do with CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Switch off the fossil fuels and the people may also be switched off. Ban Ki-Moon and other world leaders would do well to understand that this is a core objective of deep Green Thinking that they have adopted as a global energy policy.

Figure 5 There are many variables at work to produce the per capita distributions – population, yield, weather, conflict to name but a few. Turkey has the highest per capita production and Egypt on balance the lowest. I presume that Egypt gives priority to production of some other staple crops.

Figure 6 Stacking per capita production is not best charting practice but I thought it was interesting to see how per capita production of wheat for these five countries has remained flat since 1961. The massive growth in population has been cancelled by greatly improved yields and efficiency made possible by fossil fuels, especially oil and gas. There is absolutely no evidence from this chart that man made global warming represents a risk to wheat crops in MENA. Increased CO2 will help in providing the increased yields!

Figure 7 Iraq and Iran are energy rich, less so Egypt, and Syria and Turkey are energy poor. The overall shape of this stack is moulded by conflict in Iraq and to a lesser extent sanctions on Iran. Overall, energy production has risen “in line” with population growth.

Figure 8 Primary energy consumption displays monotonic growth “in line” with population.

Figure 9 The chart of primary energy consumption per capita is interesting. Readers who have followed my earlier blog posts will know that I see energy consumption as a proxy for wealth. We see that Iraq, Syria and Egypt all have similar per capita energy consumptions. These are intrinsically poor developing nations. Moreover, their per capita consumption (wealth) has changed little since 1994. The UN really needs to ponder this statistic and ask if this may be linked to the latent instability in these nations. Turks consume more energy per capita despite being an energy poor State. The Iranians consume a lot more energy. Energy consumption in Turkey and Iran has increased since 1994.

Figure 10 To conclude a couple of charts focussing on Syria. Syria is energy poor. It does have some oil and gas, but nothing like the energy riches of its Gulf neighbours. Primary energy production peaked in the mid-1990s and since went into decline, going off a cliff when the troubles began in 2011. Gail Tverberg has already suggested that the trouble in Syria is linked to oil and gas depletion.

Figure 11 As already stated, Syria is not an energy rich nation, but it did produce a surplus of energy for export that has been in decline since 1996. Main primary energy production is oil, gas and hydroelectric power. The decline in energy production must have impacted State finances and the State’s ability to subsidise fuel and food.

In his earlier post Roger observed:

But while these factors undoubtedly contributed the event that probably contributed most to the 2008 crop failures was Bashar Assad’s 2005 “liberalization” of the Syrian economy, which caused a near-tripling of the price of diesel between 2007 and 2008 and made it “nearly impossible for many cultivators to keep their irrigation pumps running, much less to transport produce to the cities”

Without yet having dived into the details, it seems possible that recent socio-economic events follow this narrative:- Bashar Assad is confronted with the decline of Syria’s oil and gas fields AND burgeoning population. The country does not have a manufacturing base that would enable the import of energy. And so the decision is made to remove subsidies on petroleum consumption resulting in wide-spread unrest, especially in farming communities. The cost of diesel goes through the roof and agricultural productivity declines. This pattern is mirrored in a number of poor MENA countries.

Concluding Comments

  • There is no evidence for prolonged regional drought impacting wheat production in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Periodic, drier than normal years does reduce wheat production, but does not equate to regional drought caused by Man.
  • In these countries, there has been a 3.2 factor uplift in wheat production per hectare since 1961 that can be attributed almost exclusively to benefits of using fossil fuels at multiple levels of the production process. To suggest that continued use of fossil fuels represents a risk to agriculture in these areas is a travesty.
  • In Syria, indigenous energy production began to decline in the mid-1990s, and by the mid-2000s the country was facing energy imports it could not afford. The government removed subsidies on fuel consumption, at a time when global energy prices were rising sharply. Widespread social unrest and violence spread throughout MENA and Syria. Man made climate change had nothing to do with it.
  • By advocating the removal of fossil fuel consumption subsidies throughout the developing world, the UN seems to be promoting the Syrian model for all. The UN, in the grasp of Green Thinking, really needs to watch out.

Data sources:
Energy: EIA International

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16 Responses to Food, Population, Energy and Climate Change in MENA

  1. Dave Rutledge says:

    Hi Euan,

    Thank you for a great summary.


  2. oldfossil says:

    Excellent post Euan and great charting skills. I find it a trifle ironic that we, um, doubters readily quote the ARs when it suits us.

  3. mosomoso says:

    Australia has centuries supply of best Permian black in the Sydney-Gunnedah-Bowen Basin. Yet, thanks to our New Class mindset, we are doing voluntarily to our main energy supply and wealth generator what Assad probably had little choice about doing. Not that we don’t waste mountains of coal and “emissions” by failing to modernise and upgrade coal power even as we continue to rely on it utterly. Kind of infuriating, this green thing, especially when you’re a bit of a conservationist.

    Anyway, thanks for this post and this site. I’m starting to browse here more often. If people don’t always comment I reckon it’s because you get round to saying most of what needs saying, with plenty of hard detail. Well done.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I am very much into environmental protection and recognise the multitude challenges with BAU and not wrecking the planet. Wealth probably helps us be more protective. Understanding the true nature of the real risks is the only way they can be met.

      Food to fuel, felling forests for electricity, windmills everywhere, REE extraction in China – the Green Way is clearly bonkers. But I’m no great fan of the tar sands or in situ gasification either.

      U guys have loads of the stuff and U should Use it 😉

  4. Flocard says:

    You wrote
    “Notably Egypt, which lies far to the South, does not match the Middle East which is not surprising”
    For your specific study I am wondering if Egypt really belongs to MENA since its agro production mostly depends on water from the Nile which originates in Ethiopia and in Central Africa.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      There’s no doubt that Egypt is in North Africa 😉 But you’re right, it is atypical when it comes to agriculture. You have to plot some data to find that out.

  5. Euan

    You note in the early graphs of a weak indication increasing dry spells. However there could be another interpretation. Due to increasing crop yields, even small or moderate dry spells may impact the upper end of the yield.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I think expanding the area cultivated will certainly increase exposure to weather on the assumption that the expansion is into more marginal land. But on the other hand these areas may be dependent upon irrigation. But if that irrigation is dependent on ground water, the soil may be destroyed over a number of years and or the ground water turn more saline.

      Bottom line is this is a highly marginal agricultural province, now over-populated, tipped over the edge.

  6. I worked for 5 years in an irrigation project in Bangladesh in the 1980s. Our project target was a doubling of the rice harvest in a high-lying area (10-15 m high) which is normally bone dry in the months of December – April/May. In order to open up the remote area and connect it to a grain silo a 30 km long all-weather brick road had to be built. Energy input was firewood for burning the bricks but a shortage developed and we had to go for gas-fired bricks. Diesel for trucks to bring millions of bricks to the site was a major item – although as our logistics improved we also used boats to transport bricks in the monsoon season. Irrigation pumps were running on diesel and later on electricity as the rural electrification program spread over the area. Local distribution of food was by bicycle-rickshaws. But farmers made higher profits by selling fruits and vegetables to the rich Dhaka market, transported by truck – mostly back-loads of our construction trucks.

    This increase in yield per ha cannot be repeated. It is a one-off improvement. So the above aggregate statistics would have to be analysed project by project. Somewhere there is a limit.

    In Bangladesh, land is now destroyed by salt water intrusion from sea level rises

    This will happen in Egypt and Pakistan, too. So let’s not kid ourselves.

    My take on Syria (focus oil and budget)

    Syria peak oil weakened government’s finances ahead of Arab Spring in 2011

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Matt, thanks for posting the link to your crudeoilpeak article on Syria. It’s a great read with great charts – all who are interested in this subject should have a look. I think we are pretty well on the same page in that arena.

      I’m not so sure about Bangladesh though. Why do you think Bangladesh has been so successful at growing its population? Bangladesh is sinking under the weight of sediment deposited by the Brahmaputra. It is the land that is going down, not the sea that is going up. Regular flooding that deposits fertile mud is the solution as this helps keep the delta tops head above the waves. And provides great farming opportunities.

      • Population in Bangladesh (now 166 million) grows at 1.5% pa.

        Why successful at feeding growing population?

        High political priority and responsibility on providing food to population, in particular cultivating rice. Dhaka and other big cities can quickly become violent places when there are demonstrations, strikes and riots.

        Factors include: foreign aid, involvement of CARE, World Vision and World Food Program, high-yield seed and dry-season irrigation research in universities and other agricultural centers, support by indigenous NGOs, Grameen bank financing, elaborate food distribution system including strategically located grain silos – targeted for the poor, programs like food for education and food for work, business mindset of farmers and traders, privatization of fertilizer system, removal of subsidies, liberalization of food imports, rehabilitation of rural roads, rural electrification including irrigation pumps.

        All in all, over 30 years, dry season rice has increased to 50% of total production

        But the combination of all of the above is also reaching its limits

        2014/15 rice production was 34.5 MMT (million metric tons), imports 1.1 MMT, public stocks 0.8 MMT, 1.5% growth of 34.5 MMT = 0.5 MMT

        So we can see how vulnerable the balance is. Extreme monsoon seasons and cyclones can easily reduce the rice harvest by 2-3 MMT

        In relation to sea level rises from global warming these will of course be on top of whatever happens in a dynamic river delta with both erosion and sedimentation. In the 80s the main problem was more floods due to deforestation in the Himalayas. Now it will be melting of the glaciers.

        I will never forget one of my 1st trips in the monsoon season, from Dhaka to Tangail, when we were stopped by a big crowd on a bridge. I thought that there was an accident, but these were actually villagers who had fled their flooded homes and took refuge on what was the highest point around, the road bridge. My highly intelligent and educated Bangladeshi counterpart said, rather drily, that millions of Bangladeshis will die because of global warming. It was the 1st time I heard about it. It was 1983. We had to return to Dhaka, my 1st flooding lesson.

        You will be interested in this:

        Solar irrigation pumps in Bangladesh

        • roger in florida says:

          Thanks for your insight and giving us the benefit of your experience. Just a few comments:
          1. The ocean is not rising, your gauge is sinking.
          2. Your “highly intelligent and educated Bangladeshi counterpart” should have said: “If we Bangladeshis don’t start acting in a responsible manner, particularly in our breeding habits, millions of us are going to die”. You state the population is increasing at 1.5% pa, that is a doubling in 50 years, if that trend continues and there is no reason to say it won’t, there will be a huge die-off!
          3. The problems of Bangladesh and other 3rd world dystopias are almost entirely home grown. It is convenient of course to blame the 1st world for it’s consumption and wealth, that is where the money is. We see at the Paris conference Latin America wants a $1.5 trillion payoff as compensation, well, who wouldn’t?
          Dr Mearns;
          Thanks for this blog. There is a common theme visible when you post articles such as this one and the one about Syria; clearly the major problem is population growth, “global warming” and “climate change” are insignificant factors beside the huge growth in human population. It is probable in my view that, as the 20th century was the century of war, the 21st century will be the century of starvation.

          • Euan Mearns says:

            I am in constant battle with my Malthusian instincts. I believe, following UN projections, that global population will peak mid-century and then begin to decline. Global resources – energy, water, food, land – are just about enough to cope. The real problem then lies with the Ponzi scheme. The world ends up like Japan, an ageing population wth not enough young workers to support the burgeoning old. Retirement age will creep up beyond 70 and at some point life expectancy will go into reverse, perhaps due to failure of antibiotics or the finance system.

    • mosomoso says:

      Much of Australia’s coast is geologically stable and out of the glacial rebound influence. It’s hard to find a sea level rise here, beyond that trickle that began in the late 1700s and is clearly shown in Australian records from the 19th century on as nothing more than what you’d expect in a warmer phase of the Holocene. And in view of what a cooler phase did, for example, in the Ottoman Middle East post-1590, I can live with some warming.

      I guess I’d go for more conservation and less “green”.

    • Jura says:

      I’d also like to shake my head in a thankfull manner for the link to the post.
      I have quite a long roster of Peak, Maalthusian, energy, LTG -like blogs in my RSS reader.
      But somehow I never encountered yours.
      But as of now “your pages” also took their deserved place amog other in the noble a/m company 🙂

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