Posted by: Francis Koster Published: February 6, 2012

Coping with Population Growth and the Costs of Energy and Food

Coping with Population Growth and the Costs of Energy and Food

by Francis P. Koster, Ed. D

Our food supply is enormously dependent on energy for pesticides, fertilizer, processing, packaging, and transportation.  And in a rapidly growing world, this dependency will be a challenge.

Did you know that the population of the world is growing one United States each 5 years?  In the next 30 years, the population of the earth will have expanded from 7 billion people to 9 billion - equal to an additional 6.5 United States of Americas.[1] 

Think of the increase demand  this will create for new supplies of food and energy.   To those thoughts add the increased demand created by the improving standard of living of much of the world.  For example, India and China  currently have around one-third  of the entire world's population.[2] Their average citizen uses less than  one-tenth of the energy that a citizen of the United States uses.[3] Per capita energy consumption in these emerging nations is expected to more than double in the next 20 years [4], resulting in enormous new demands for energy.  

Add the energy needs of the growing population of the world (6.5 the population of the USA in 30 years) to the doubling of per capita energy consumption in nations like India and China, and you get a demand for the basic life support system of food and oil that is unsustainable using currently-known resources and technologies.  As demand increases, you will also see a rapid rise in energy costs due to customers bidding for insufficient supplies.

As Futurists, we can also examine the implications of shipping heavy food items, such as beef.

While researching this issue, I was surprised to learn that due to the current economics of farming, most farmers  or cattlemen who raise newborn calves are part-time farmers - they need what is called "off farm employment" to survive.  The part-time cattleman presides over the cows' pregnancy and birth, then ships the calves off to someplace many miles away to be fattened up, and then starts to tend to the mama cows to do it all over again. 

The ”teenage" cow at the feed lot is then fattened up and slaughtered, and some of the national output is shipped back to the local supermarket.  This is a lot of tonnage to ship.

Can you see how rising energy costs for fertilizer, pesticides,  transportation, and packaging will impact food costs? 

One of the reasons local cattlemen ship their maturing beef far away is that the number of local slaughterhouses has fallen dramatically - down one-third in the past 20 years.[5]  As these local facilities vanish, the part-time cattleman has to ship cattle a great deal farther. The underlying use of energy increases, and local profitability is reduced. 

Some communities have taken steps to solve this problem.

One good example is found in Tacoma, Washington, where a group of local farmers called the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative  banded together and bought a 45-foot-long mobile meat processing trailer.  It accommodates cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, handled by six  "as needed" part time employees. The van travels around the region by appointment, making "house calls."[6].The business plan calls for the investors to be repaid at a rate which varies from 5% to 20%, depending on the volume of meat processed.[7]

Another good example is found in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, where a unique joint public-private venture created a slaughterhouse adjacent to a family-owned butcher shop.  Due to become operational  this spring, the extensive planning process indicates that this will enable local farmers to increase their incomes, while preserving local agriculture jobs.

And local slaughter houses are not just a "farmers market" scale operation.  Major food companies which supply supermarkets can buy  the local farmers product  as well, because the new slaughter houses produce sufficient volume, meet federal food handling standards, and are under sanitary inspection daily when in operation.  

This opens up the market for the farmer, who can sell their entire high end local product to one customer, eliminating overhead, and granting the supermarket customer a vacuum sealed product which can truthfully bear the name "Locally Raised", "Grass Fed" or "Organic", which command premium prices.  Since 2008, the demand for such locally raised meat in North Carolina has stimulated a 400% increase in farmers who sell their meat locally.[8] 

It may feel like a leap to go from the population explosion and  rising energy consumption in India and China to increasing the price of  food on our plate, but the two are quite directly connected.  

As we look to the future, we can learn from communities who have shortened the distance from farm to fork, protected jobs, and in effect have helped create a sort of food  insurance policy for our families. 

We can create the future we want for ourselves and our families, if we have the determination to shape, rather than receive, our future.


[3] See calculations below, derived from data found in the British Petroleum Company publication "Energy Outlook 2030" found at

[4] Ibid.

[5] New York Times "Push to eat local foods is hampered by shortage", March 28, 2010

[6] Mobile Slaughterhouse helps Washington State Farmers meet demand for local foods" PBS NewsHour August 10, 2011

[8] Casey McKissick, NC Choices Coordinator, 828-216-2966, as quoted from press release February 4, 2011

Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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