We have for years been hearing about the potential for ‘peak oil’ and more recently about ‘peak metals’ but for the first time, several peer reviewed articles are warning us other peak resource constraints are threatening several key areas of product supply, including food.

Peak oil has been discussed for a number of years, but its timing has been pushed out into the future by the emergence of high environmental impact mining techniques like shale oil, oil sands and fracking of natural gas (also used as an oil substitute) across the world.

This change in timing is particularly notable in the US, where for the first time in many decades the nation is not dependent on imported supplies of fossil fuels. Coming at a time when OPEC is trying to retain some control of world markets, this has resulted in a massive price drop that is not truly related to actual reserves but short-term oversupply.

It is unlikely that the same kind of oversupply is ever likely to affect the latest ‘peak resource’ constraints, ‘peak metals’ because many of them are so rare and some like arsenic and selenium can’t even be mined except as a by-product of other mining.

For many years, there has been concern over the increasing use of these incredibly rare metals like indium (used in some LEDs, circuit boards, LCD TVs, smart building systems, computers, phone screens, and so on), ruthenium (printable photovoltaics), gallium (semiconductors, LEDs, lasers and thin-film photovoltaics), neodymium (hybrid vehicle motors and batteries) europium and yttrium (fibre optics and  fluorescent and mercury vapour lighting) and rhenium (one of the rarest elements in the earth’s crust, used in jet engines).

A recent study from Yale researchers is the first peer-reviewed assessment of the criticality of all of the planet’s metals and metalloids. The study underlines the increasing risk to supplies (including geopolitical risk) and the critical importance of mitigating resource use.

Our use of metals in consumer and building electronics is often in very small quantities and this makes recycling very difficult. E-waste is also currently a very diffuse waste stream and one that is highly polluting as many of these metals are very toxic in the environment and to workers in e-waste recovery facilities. Our use of multiple plastics, often bound together inseparably, is similarly not focussed on recovery and re-use.

The recent Product Stewardship Act 2011 initiative by the Federal Government involves industry funded voluntary, co-regulatory and mandatory product stewardship initially for televisions, computers, printers and computer products. The initiative calls for free pickup for consumers, and it will be expanding to a full National scheme by 2021 with 80 per cent recycling rates targeted. The scope of products being considered for expansion of this scheme includes batteries under five kilograms, consumer packaging, small air conditioners, refrigerators, and waste architectural and decorative paints.

But recycling shouldn’t be a first response. It should be the last option. Making better and longer use of the original product needs to be the priority.

There are also geopolitical supply chain risks with many of the rare materials we are increasingly relying on being from unstable or politically sensitive areas. China controls over 70 per cent of the rare earths that we are depending more and more on for items such as high performance magnets and batteries. These are the backbone of the emerging electric vehicle market, high speed trains, distributed solar networks, off-grid and grid storage batteries, medical devices like MRI machines, infrared sensors and many other uses.

Other countries that supply rare elements in everyday use include Bolivia, Chile and Argentina and the war-torn countries of Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

Another joint study from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, Yale University and Michigan State University has shown that we are facing an even more critical situation in our food production systems. Peak milk happened in 2004, peak soybeans in 2009, and peak chicken in 2006. Rice peaked in 1988. The new study published in Ecology and Society explains that 21 key resources that humans rely on — mostly food — have already passed their peak rate of production.

‘Peak’ in this case doesn't mean that we're actually producing fewer chickens or less milk yet, rather that the rate of production has plateaued, while at the same time the population - and therefore the consumer base - is increasing.

The researchers analysed production rates over time for 27 key resources, including some fossil fuels. While they found that nonrenewable resources like coal, oil, and gas haven't peaked, most food product systems have. While not predicting a date for peak production, they found that the production rate is slowing across so many food supply chains at the same time.

This is partly because each supply chain relies on the same limited resources such as land, topsoil, nutrients (especially phosphorous) and water, with some even relying on each other. For instance, the meat industry uses around 70 per cent of the grain grown in the US.

While the study does not allow for innovation, especially disruptive innovations that could lead to easier production of animal proteins or more productive plants that might dramatically change our ability to grow food, it does show us that we are on a track to an overall resource shortage and that we have to dramatically rethink the way we design, construct/consume and dispose of all resources, no matter what their purpose or source.

Recent innovations in fertiliser manufacture and a realisation that ‘peak phosphorous’ (estimated by some researchers to be by 2030) is another looming supply constraint, suggests urine capture can solve this looming food crisis factor. Harvesting separate urine streams from buildings is also being touted by battery manufacturers that have developed urine battery technology such as that recently funded by Bill Gates.

A major realisation as a result of the food supply chain study and indeed reflected in the other studies as well is that even what we thought of renewable resources, aren't as infinite as we always thought.

Across all resources and sectors, we need to be urgently more focussed on creating long lived, reparable and upgradable components to feed into circular supply chain products, buildings, and entire economies, or we will inevitably, and sooner than we probably realise, face the personal and planetary consequences.

  • Fine article – and a timely reminder of the need for Australia to change its resource-dependent economic growth model.