ISIS Report 07/04/08
Food Without Fossil Fuels Now
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Invited Keynote Lecture,
2nd Mediterranean Conference on
Organic Agriculture in Croatia, Organic Agriculture
– Contribution to Sustainable Ecosystem, 2-6 April 2008, Dubrovnik
University. Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Thank you for inviting me to this beautiful city by the
Adriatic Sea, which really concentrates the mind on why we must
protect our natural ecosystems from the ravages of industrial agriculture
and climate change. Congratulations too, to Dubrovnik County for being the
first in Croatia to be GMO-free (17 out of the 20 counties in Croatia have
declared themselves GMO-free so far), and to be taking organic agriculture
so seriously that you have a yearly food fair devoted to it (4-6 April).
Announcing a new Report from ISIS. The most complete up-to-date summary of the dangers of GM agriculture in 52 pages. Buy Now
My talk is on how
switching to organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can
save us from the ravages of industrial agricultural and climate change. It
can feed the world; more than that, it is the
only way we can feed the world, and also the most effective way
to mitigate climate change. It can potentially compensate for all greenhouse
gas emissions due to human activities and free us completely from fossil fuels.
We have collected all the scientific evidence and evidence from farmers’ experiences
around the world in a comprehensive report  (Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable
*Fossil Fuel Free ) that has gone to press just before I came here.
is very wise not to be diverted by GM crops. To grow GM crops now is a recipe
for global famine. They have the worst features of industrial agriculture
as a major driver of climate change, and are far from safe for human health
and the environment.
2008 the year of global food crisis
2008 has been designated
the year of global food crisis by the United Nations [2-4]. The crisis has
been building up over the past decades, but things have come to a head. Agricultural
production has fallen below consumption for 7 out of the past 8 years, and
world grain reserves are at the lowest since records began in the 1970s. To
a large extent, this is a long-term trend reflecting the failure of industrial
Green Revolution agriculture, and this very failure has been used to promote
genetically modified (GM) crops as the new “doubly green” revolution  (Beware the New "Doubly
Green Revolution", SiS
But within the past
year, world food prices suddenly went up by an average of 40 percent. That
leaves the World Food Programme to feed 73 million people in 78 countries
– not even one-tenth of the world’s hungry – with a shortfall of US$500 million.
In addition, 36 countries have declared a food crisis as of December 2007.
There have been food
riots and protests in many countries around the world: Mexico,
Yemen, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon,
even Italy, and the UK, where pig farmers can’t make a living because feed
prices have doubled . India has been hit by an epidemic of farmers’ suicide
at an average of 10 000 a year before escalating to 16 000 a year when GM
crops were introduced (see Chapter 23 of our Report ). But in 2007, a record
25 000 farmers took their own lives .
What has precipitated this
food crisis? Many commentators blame China and India, countries
with rapidly growing economies. People there are becoming well off and eating
too much meat, like Europeans and Americans. The record suicides in India
speak volumes against the idea that Indians are becoming ‘well off’.
On recent visits
to China, we found restaurants and local markets everywhere
full of food of all kinds: fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, seafood, meats,
sausages, wind-dried meats, honey, grains, pulses, dried mushrooms, lichens,
dried jelly fish and other produce of the sea, and a variety of snacks, both
cooked and raw, processed or preserved. People’s
Daily, the official Chinese government newspaper issued a rebuttal,
rejecting as “groundless” the accusation that China has been responsible for
the food price hikes , saying that “China’s grain yields have steadily
grown from 2004 to 2007, and grain reserves have increased accordingly”.
During 2007, China exported 9.2 million tonnes of cereals and imported 1.44
tonnes; so export exceeded import by a factor of 4.9. The article conceded
that food prices in China have gone up, and the Government has cancelled export
rebate in order to discourage exports to stabilize food prices in the country.
Biofuels are to blame for the food crisis
A major contributing factor to the build up of the food crisis is ‘peak oil’
 (Oil Running Out, SiS
25). According to a recent analysis, production figures showed that oil has
peaked in 2006 . Petroleum prices reached a record $105 a barrel last year,
which has certainly driven food and feed prices up because conventional agriculture
is heavily dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, water and machinery,
all of which require fossil fuels. But the immediate cause of the present food
crisis is something else - an intensified production of biofuels in Europe and
the United States - that is having widespread repercussions on the availability
of food because biofuels use our food as feedstock.
States divested a quarter of its corn harvests to producing ethanol in 2007,
and in 2008, this will increase to a third. The US supplies more than 60 percent
of the world’s corn exports and 40 percent of all cereal exports [2-4]. Other
grains turned into biofuels are soybeans, wheat, and oilseed rape. And forests
are being chopped down to grow soybeans and other feedstock such as oil palm,
sugarcane, and jatropha, in South America, Asia, and Africa.
All our predictions that
biofuels will bring biodevastation and hunger, and accelerate global warming
(reviewed in Chapter 5 of our report ) have been confirmed. Thankfully,
there has been a mind-change at the top. UK’s newly appointed
chief scientist, Prof. John Beddington, attacked the biofuels industry in
his first major speech , blaming it for having delivered a “major shock”
to the to world food prices. Cutting down rainforest to produce biofuel crops
is “profoundly stupid”, he said, and cannot imagine how we can produce enough
crops for biofuels and feed
GM crops a dangerous diversion
Unfortunately, the UK
government is misadvised and misguided in its support for nuclear energy and
GM crops. Biofuels and the food crisis have been a boon especially to Monsanto.
More GM seeds have been sold for GM crops to be planted for biofuels in Brazil,
Argentina and other South American countries, and Monsanto’s failing fortunes
are dramatically turned around. It reported record profits over the past year
. BusinessWeek identified
Monsanto as a “prime beneficiary” of the biofuels boom. Its stock correlated
closely at 0.94 with oil price, better than that of ExxonMobile, which correlated
at only 0.84, and hardly correlated with the price of corn, basically because
people don’t eat GM corn. “For sure, what’s gotten the whole [agribusiness]
industry raging is corn ethanol,” Charlie Rentschler, analyst at the stock
research firm Wall Street Access told BusinessWeek.
The pro-GM lobby
is using the food crisis to promote GM crops. UK government’s
funding agency was even caught supporting a marketing exercise disguised as
scientific survey  ("UK
Farmers Upbeat about GM Crops" Debunked, SiS 38).
GM crops are one big failed
experiment [13, 14] (Puncturing
the GM Myths, SiS 22; No to GMOs, No to GM Science, SiS 35): no increase in yields, in
many cases a decrease, including massive crop failures that escalated Indian
farmers’ suicides. GM crops do not reduce use of pesticides; on the contrary
there have been huge increases in recent years, according to the latest figures
from the US Department of Agriculture . GM crops have proven more harmful
for biodiversity than conventional industrial agriculture in UK government-funded
Farm Scale Evaluations, despite all attempts at manipulating the trials in
favour of GM crops (Bogus Comparison in GM Maize
Trial, SiS 22) . Anecdotal
evidence since 2005 from farmers around the world indicates that GM crops
require more water . GM crops have all the worst features of industrial
Green Revolution varieties exaggerated, including susceptibility to diseases
and climate extremes on account of genetic uniformity , plus there are
outstanding safety concerns  ((GM Food Nightmare
Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham , ISIS scientific publication). Growing
GM crops for biofuels does not make them safe, as they will contaminate our
food crops all the same. GM crops are a dangerous diversion from the urgent
task of addressing the world food crisis, and can end up exacerbating the
The grim outlook with business as usual
The outlook for food production
is grim if we continue business as usual, especially because climate change
is hitting us much quicker and harder than expected. Glaciers are melting
faster than predicted, weather extremes are increasingly frequent, and these
will have big impacts on food production. To top it all, our industrial agriculture
and food system is a major driver of global warming.
Scientists of the
British Antarctic Survey have just found that the West Antarctic glaciers
are thinning alarmingly at 1.6 metre a year, which is more than 20 times faster
than in the previous thousands and tens of thousands of years . It is
estimated that a rise in sea level of 1 metre would threaten the homes of
1 billion and put one-third of the world’s croplands at risk . The loss
of glaciers affects agriculture in another way. The biggest rivers in China
and India, the Ganges, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers are fed by rain during the
monsoon season, but during the dry season, they depend on meltwater from the
glaciers in the Himalayas. The Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas alone supplies
70 percent of the Ganges’ water in the dry season. The Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last year that the Himalayan glaciers could
disappear by 2035. When that happens, the rivers will dry up completely .
A study published
at the end of 2007 based on existing climate models show that apart from anything
else, the rise in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns will reduce
world agricultural productivity up to 16 percent by 2080 . The most severe
reductions will be in the tropics where the poorest live. Temperate regions
may have cropping seasons extended because of temperature rise and the overall
global reduction may also be mitigated by the ‘carbon fertilization effect’,
the 15 percent increase in plant growth rate observed in a carbon dioxide
rich atmosphere in green house experiments. That would reduce the deficit
in global agricultural productivity to 3 percent. But the author of the report
William Cline says don’t count on it, as actual in situ experiments failed to bear this out
 (More CO2 Could Mean
Less Biodiversity and Worse, SiS
Weather extremes such as floods, hurricanes
and droughts could reduce crop harvests by 30 percent or more, as US
records show . The recent drought in Australia reduced its wheat harvest
by 60 percent in 2007 .
industrial agriculture and globalised food system is responsible for at least
25 percent of global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions when agriculture-related
change in land use (deforestation and conversion of natural grasslands into
cropslands), transport/processing/ packaging and storage costs are taken into
account (see Chapter 19 of Report ). Industrial agriculture is water intensive
as well. Aquifers have been pumped dry in the major breadbaskets of the world,
and some see water shortage as even more serious than the depletion of fossil
Food without fossil fuels now
Fortunately, we can do a
lot to alleviate the food crisis and mitigate climate change, and it is really
surprising that the IPCC has failed to mention the mitigating potentials of
organic agriculture and localised food systems.
Our Report  is a unique combination of
the latest scientific analyses, case studies on farmer-led research, and especially
farmers’ own experiences and innovations that often confound academic scientists
wedded to outmoded and obsolete theories. There is a refreshing mix of practical
know-how and new theoretical
concepts to put things in the broadest perspective, including the necessary
transformation of the dominant knowledge system, which is blocking progress.
Here are some of the highlights
in our Report. The largest single study of its kind in the world with data
collected over 7 years in Ethiopia shows that composting together with simple
water-conservation techniques gives 30 percent more crop yields than chemical
fertilizers (Chapter 11). Coincidentally, scientists also find that organic
out yields conventional agriculture by a factor of 1.3, and green manure alone
could provide all nitrogen needs (Chapter 9). Local farmers in Sahel
defied the dire predictions of scientists and policy-makers by greening the
desert and creating a haven of trees (Chapter 25). Cuba has demonstrated it is possible to feed a nation without
fossil fuels, and organic urban agriculture plays a large role (Chapter 12).
Conservative estimates show that organic agriculture and localised food systems
can mitigate nearly 30 percent of the world’s ghg emissions and save 1/6 of
the world’s energy use (Chapter 19). Thirty percent of ghg emissions are just
about what the current agriculture and food system costs, and 16.5 percent
are also close to its energy costs. So practically, we could be eating for
free, at the very least.
We can do better than that. If we add anaerobic digestion of food and farm
wastes in a zero-emission integrated food and energy producing Dream Farm
that could boost the total energy savings to nearly 50 percent and total ghg
savings to more than 50 percent. That means agriculture will compensate for
the energy and ghg costs of other sectors. In our Dream Farms, we also incorporate
other renewable energies at small and microscale levels: solar, wind, hydroelectric.
That means we can potentially produce a large excess of energy to feed into
the grid for other users. There will be no need for fossil energies whatsoever.
In addition, our Report summarises the evidence accumulated indicating that
organic agriculture does indeed gives us cleaner, safer environments, greater
natural and agricultural biodiversity (Chapter 18), more nutritious, healthier
and health-promoting foods (Chapter 20, 21), and a plethora of social benefits
(Chapters 22-24): higher income and independence for farmers, more employment
opportunities. Organic agriculture and localised food system regenerates local
economies, revitalizes local knowledge, and creates enormous social wealth,
that could counteract juvenile delinquency, gang violence and suicides in
socially deprived areas.
Let me sketch out the main message in our Report.
Scientists find organic agriculture can feed the world better than conventional
A team of scientists led
by Catherine Badgley at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,
in the United States reviewed 293 studies comparing conventional with organic/sustainable
or low input agriculture, and found that organic agriculture out yields conventional
by a factor of 1.3. And, more than enough nitrogen can be provided by green
manure alone, amounting to 171 percent of synthetic N fertilizer used currently.
Organic agriculture, therefore, has the potential to support “a substantially
larger population” than currently exists.
The increase in yield
with organic agriculture confirms the direct comparisons in the Ethiopian
study. The importance of this finding cannot be overemphasized. Using chemical fertilizers not only costs fossil fuels
and its associated ghg emissions (plus nitrate pollution of drinking water),
it increases nitrous oxide emissions directly, a ghg with global warming potential
of about 300 compared with carbon dioxide. More seriously, it leads to a 23
percent reduction in our food supply.
Yet more evidence from scientists:
a joint study by Iowa State University, Ohio, and USDA found
that by using appropriate soil-building cover-crops and crop-rotation during
conversion from conventional to organic, crop yields were equal by the third
year, and by the fourth year, organic corn and soybean out yielded the conventional
Yields are not nearly as
important as resilience to stress, especially under climate change. In the
longest running experiment comparing organic and conventional agriculture
in the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, scientists found that
the yields were not significantly different during normal years; but organic
far out yields conventional, by a third or more, during drought years (Chapter
13). That’s because the organic soil is so much better at holding water as
well as other nutrients that make plants more resilient to all kinds of stresses.
This same study
shows that while conventional soils failed to take carbon dioxide out of the
atmosphere, organic soils are very good at it, and could take up to 4 tonnes
of carbon dioxide per ha a year just in the top 30 cm of soil. This is a major
contribution of organic agriculture to mitigating climate change.
These are just
some of the examples where scientists are reproducing and rediscovering what
farmers have found out for themselves long ago.
Local knowledge and initiative have greened the Sahel
Here is something beautiful.
Scientists and policy-makers have been making dire predictions that Sahel
will turn into desert irreversibly as the result of the great droughts of
the 1980s. But local farmers have proven them wrong (Chapter 25). By saving
and planting trees, and cooperating in water conservation, they have pushed
back the desert, as confirmed by observations on the ground and from the satellites
since the 1990s. Satellite data consistently showed that the desert is greener
than expected, and the greenest spots are correlated with human activities.
The data also indicate that planting trees can create more rain, which is
very good news for mitigating climate change, and show exactly how “profoundly
stupid”  it is to cut down trees for bioenergy crop plantations (see earlier).
The greening of the
Sahel is a prime example of how the dominant knowledge system had grossly misinformed policy-makers;
and it was the knowledge and initiatives of local farmers that saved the situation.
Farmers’ innovations and the circular economy of nature
There are more
examples of farmers’ innovations, as well as trained agronomists unlearning
what they have been taught in universities to pay heed to local knowledge
(see Chapter 17). Local knowledge depends on working with and within the circular
economy of nature.
Mr. Takeo Furano in Japan
has perfected the Aigamo system (Chapter 26): putting ducklings to work in
paddy fields, resulting in a bumper yearly harvest of 7 tonnes of rice, 300
ducks, 4 000 ducklings, countless fish, and enough vegetables for 100 from
his 2 ha farm, Best of all, Furano and his family get plenty of free time
from not having to do any weeding.
Furano has drawn
a diagram (Fig. 1) to teach other farmers, which makes clear that the system
works by reciprocity and mutual benefit, a circular economy in other words.
And it is absolutely dependent on the natural biodiversity of species working
to benefit one another, either directly or indirectly. For example, the ducks
not only eat the weeds and seeds, they fertilize the water to feed the rice
plants, the rice plants attract pests, which make more food for the ducks.
The ducks also feed the plankton in the water, which feed the fish, and sometimes
fish fries get eaten by the ducks, and so on.
Figure 1. Takeo Furano and his Aigama System
Another example of the circular
economy of nature put to work is the dyke-pond system perfected by the peasant
farmers of the Pearl River Delta in China, in the course of thousands of years
There are many different
dyke-pond systems, the one shown here is the simplest, and involves growing
mulberry, elephant grass and vegetables and raising pigs and silkworms on
the dykes (Fig. 2). Mulberry feeds silkworms, and after the cocoons are harvested,
the faeces of the silkworms are dumped into the ponds to feed the plankton
that feed the fish and water plants, which go to feed the pigs. The pig manure
also fertilizes the pond. Typically 5 different species of carp are kept in
the ponds to fill the different depths and ecological niche. Elephant grass
feeds the grass carp.
Figure 2. The circular economy of the dyke-pond system
There are eleven
cycles in the diagram varying in length from 2 to 5 links. Such systems support
on average 17 people per ha in this region, giving the lie to conventional
ecological dogma that there is a fixed constant carrying capacity for a piece
system works perfectly on a small scale, but you can’t dump too much manure
all at once directly into the pond, and here is where anaerobic digestion
Everyone in Britain
should know about anaerobic digestion by now, as it has been constantly on
The Archers – the longest running
BBC drama about English country folks - for the best part of a year, and since
we promoted its use in our Which Energy? report
 published two years ago.
Professor George Chan was
trained as an environment engineer in Imperial College, London, and had many
government posts in the US and Mauritius before he was about to retire and
spent 5 years with the Chinese peasants of the Pearl River Delta. He said
he learnt as much from them as from Imperial College. From his experience
in China, he perfected what he called an Integrated Food and Waste Management
System of farming, which I called Dream Farm (Chapter 33), or Dream Farm 1.
You can see the circular
economy at work, though George Chan didn’t call it that. The biogas digester
is the heart of the system, and it reinforces the circular economy and makes
it more efficient. Livestock manure and waste water, instead of being dumped
directly into the fishpond go into the biogas digester where it is sterilised
and converted into biogas, which is 60 percent or more of methane, and can
provide all energy needs for cooking, heating, electricity and processing.
The residue in the digester is a rich fertilizer for crops or for growing
mushrooms. The wastewater from the digester is still not passed directly into
the fishpond, but goes through further cleansing in shallow basins with algae
growing, and producing oxygen through photosynthesis to oxidize the remaining
chemical and biological pollutants. Only then is the water allowed into the
fishponds. Water from the fishponds is used to ‘fertigate’ crops. The algae
can be harvested to feed chicken, ducks and geese. Crops wastes go to raise
earthworms or into the compost, or they could be fed into the biogas digester.
What remains after the mushroom harvest can be fed to livestock, and the livestock
manure goes back into the biogas digester to complete the grand cycle. As
you can see, this farm is incredibly productive because it relies entirely
on internal input, recycling all the wastes and turning wastes into food and
energy resources. The nutrients too, remain within the cycle. Manure spread
on land will lose nitrogen as ammonia and nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse
approaches the ideal of the sustainable system, which operates like an organism,
as explained in my book, The Rainbow And The Worm
The ideal circular economy
doesn’t dissipate its energy and primary resources, doesn’t accumulate waste
inside, and even the wastes exported to the outside is minimised. How is that
The organism manages because
the big lifecycle consists of many different cycles of activities coupled
together and working together, so that activities that yield energy are directly
linked to those requiring energy, and all the cycles are feeding one another
directly or indirectly.
The same principle of cooperation
and reciprocity operates in a sustainable system, as opposed to the competition
that rules the unsustainable mainstream model. In the traditional simple integrated
farming, the farmer, livestock and crops form a symbiotic cycle that can perpetrate
indefinitely. The farmer tends the crops and livestock. The crops feed the
farmer and livestock and livestock returns manure to feed the crops.
Dream Farm is just a more
complicated version of the same reciprocity and symbiosis. Notice that the
more lifecycles are linked into the grand cycle, the more productive the land.
The skilful organic farmer
knows that space-time has four dimensions, and can be put to good use for
a diversity of crops that make the Chinese diet so rich
We can put everything together
in an integrated food and energy Dream Farm 2 operating on the same organic
circular economy (Chapter 34). It differs from Dream Farm 1 only in the explicit
incorporation of renewable energies at small to micro-scale: wind, solar and
hydroelectric (where appropriate). My ideal Dream Farm 2 (Fig. 3) works for
demonstration, education, and research purposes, as incubator and showcase
for new technologies, information exchange and resource centre for Dream Farms
around the world, all based on maximum use of local resources and biodiversity
and designed to the highest energy and carbon saving standards.
Figure 3. The complete Dream Farm 2
The diagram is colour-coded.
Pink is for energy, green for agricultural produce, blue is for water conservation
and flood control (increasingly important during climate extremes), black
is waste in the ordinary sense of the word, which soon gets converted into
food and energy resources. And there will be real carbon credits based on
actual savings in operating the farm itself.
Energy and carbon savings
Let me show you a glimpse
of the calculations done on the climate mitigating potentials of organic agriculture
and localised food systems together with anaerobic digestion. You won’t believe
how difficult it was to find exactly how much manure of each kind is produced
in the UK, how many tonnes of other biological wastes, and so on.
can provide 3.2 percent of total energy consumption in the UK, or, because
methane can be used for mobile vehicles, it can provide 12.9 percent of transport
fuel. It saves 7.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And this is all from
biological wastes which otherwise would pollute the environment.
The biogas yields from different
feedstock are given in Figure 4 , so you can see that I have used very
conservative estimates for biological wastes in general.
Figure 4. Potential biogas yields from different
Another thing you’d
be interested to know is that anaerobic digestion also yields the most fuel
per ha compared with ethanol and biodiesel . But it is still unacceptable
to use any food crop as feedstock for anaerobic digestion, as some women in
The Archers are quite rightly
opposing their local anaerobic digestion project on those grounds.
The mitigating potential
of Dream Farms implemented globally saves greenhouse gas emissions by 54 percent
(see Chapter 34 ). The biggest saving is from less fossil fuel burnt due
to efficiency gains in consuming energy locally, which is 17 percent. The
other big savers are carbon sequestration in organic soil (11 percent) and
reduced transport due to localising the food systems (10 percent).
For energy, the efficiency
gain in consuming energy locally is assumed to be half of that lost in heat
and in electricity transport through the grid, estimated at 30 percent. The
other big gain is in reduced transport from localising food systems, at 10
To end, here are some vignettes
from George’s Dream Farms around the world, also a peek into our food futures.