From the Editor
Food and Energy Security Go Together
Most people know that food and energy are linked; food is how the human organism
gets energy to keep alive and active. Just as “obesity” is rife
in the rich industrialised countries from the over-consumption of energy-rich
foods, “energy malnutrition”, or hunger, is worsening in the poor
developing nations because people do not get enough to eat, and the two are
definitely linked as well.
But food and energy are connected in other more intricate ways.
Closing the energy gap can widen the food gap
The end of cheap fossil fuels and the widening energy gap between supply and
demand have sent the governments of industrialised countries scrabbling for
the next big solutions.
The UK government had issued an energy white paper in 2003 saying it was not
proposing to build any new nuclear power stations. Now, less than three years
later, it is conducting an energy review, and nuclear energy is very much back
on the agenda. The government’s trump card appears to be a “new
generation” nuclear reactor that’s so safe, we are told, it does
not need expensive containment facilities, and is hence economical to build
and can be sited literally next to your back yard to supply energy much more
efficiently. The reality is that large questions hang over the supposed safety
of the reactor, which is further compromised by the cost cutting it justifies.
The intractable problem of hazardous radioactive waste disposal remains, plus
uranium is a finite, non-renewable resource.
So biofuels seems to be the answer - ethanol from cornstarch and other plant
biomass, and biodiesel from seed oil – widely favoured as “green
fuels” because they are both renewable and carbon neutral. Burning biofuels
puts back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide the plants took out while growing
in the field. (Look out for a thorough review of biofuels in the next issue
The problem is, biofuels involve energy crops that compete directly for land
with food crops. Huge subsidies are already going to big food corporations for
farmers to produce corn for ethanol in the United States.
When President George W. Bush said in his recent State of the Union address,
“We must break our addiction to oil,” he wasn’t exhorting
people to give up their cars or to use less oil. He was offering them biofuels
as substitute for oil to power the country’s cars. Ethanol from wood chips,
stalks, or switchgrass could become “practical and competitive within
six years”, to replace imports from “unstable parts of the world”
- the Middle East - by 2025. Currently 60 percent of the oil consumed in the
US is imported.
The EU is similarly promoting biofuels. The EU Biofuels Directive requires 2
percent of the energy for transport to come from renewable sources, including
biodiesel and bioethanol, rising to 5.75 percent by the end of 2010, and 20
percent by 2020. Europe leads the world in biodiesel production, predominantly
from rapeseed oil. Just to meet the 5.75 percent target requires more than 9
percent of the EU’s agricultural area to grow the oilseed crops.
Political expediency in satisfying the farm lobby has perhaps clouded political
judgement. Solar panels even at 10 percent energy conversion efficiency could
supply the world’s energy needs on just over 0.1 percent of the world’s
land surface, including existing structures such as roof tops and buildings;
and they are getting better and cheaper every day.
The global food trade wastes energy and compromise food security
The environmentally conscious consumers count food miles when buying fresh fruits
and vegetables from the supermarket. They want to buy local produce that’s
genuinely fresh, with minimum inputs of fossil-fuel intensive fertilisers and
pesticides, which has not been transported by air across the planet to the supermarket
shelves. Unfortunately, local produce is hard to find in most cities and other
The global food trade is concentrated in the hands of a few big transnational
corporations that control the entire food supply chain from farm gate to our
dinner plate. Imports and exports have greatly increased due to ever wider sourcing
of food by supermarket chains within the country and abroad, wherever the price
Food transport, especially airfreight, uses up enormous amounts of fossil fuel
energy, spewing extra tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating
The UK Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released
a report on food miles last July that identified globalisation of the food industry
as the major cause of the enormous increase in food transport since 1978. It
put the direct social, environmental and economic costs of food transport at
more than £9 billion each year, with congestion accounting for £5
billion. This £9 billion externalised cost of food transport amounts to
34 percent of the total value of UK’s food and drinks industry (SiS 28).
The world food market is holding our food supply to ransom. Whenever there is
a surplus, food commodity prices fall to below the cost of production, bringing
family farmers to ruin; whenever there is shortage, the prices shoot up, and
the poor and the farmers and farm workers growing for export can no longer afford
to buy food.
In Europe and the United States, heavy subsidies are paid to big farmers and
landowners at the taxpayer’s expense to buffer them against losses, while
hundreds of small farms close down every week. Small farmers in the third world
have no subsidies, and for many the only way out of chronic indebtedness and
hardship is suicide.
To make matters worse, the big commercial farms that feed the global food trade
often have feudal labour practices left over from the colonial days that deny
job security to farm workers, especially women farm workers.
Where is the food security of ordinary people in a globalised food system? Why
should we not have self-sufficiency in food as in energy? Self-sufficiency in
food would also contribute a lot to energy self-sufficiency in requiring much
less energy for food transport.
The impending food crisis
There is another reason why food self-sufficiency is important for food security.
Water is severely depleted in the major breadbaskets of the world, productivity
has been falling and grain reserves are at the lowest in more than thirty years.
World croplands are lost at the rate of 20 m hectares, or 1.3 percent a year,
due to soil erosion and salination from decades of unsustainable industrial
farming practices. Replacing lost croplands accounts for 60 percent of the deforestation
worldwide that’s contributing significantly to climate change. Climate
change is bringing increasingly frequent catastrophes such as hurricanes, droughts,
heat spells, and floods, impacting further on food production.
The inescapable conclusion is that we may no longer be able to rely on imports
to satisfy our food needs.
Countries like the UK have climates favourable for growing food, and can easily
become self-sufficient, or better yet, produce enough for other countries in
Much can be done for both energy and food security through government policies
that promote national/regional food self-sufficiency; that reverse the concentration
of food supply chains in favour of local markets and cooperatives run by farmers
and consumers. These policies would minimize food imports and transport within
the country, and save a lot of fossil fuel energy.
But when asked about UK’s food policy, a DEFRA spokesperson wrote on behalf
of the Minister for the Environment Elliot Morley:
“Supporting greater UK self-sufficiency in food is incompatible with the
concept of the European single market, in which different countries specialise
according to comparative advantage. In an increasingly globalised world the
pursuit of self-sufficiency for its own sake is no longer necessary nor desirable.”
Dream Farm II
So, what do we really need to feed the world, close the energy gap, mitigate
climate change, and let everyone thrive in good health and wealth in a post
We have tabled a proposal for a zero-emission zero-waste food and energy self-sufficient
farm modelled after George Chan’s integrated food and waste management
system that has been widely implemented to eradicate poverty in third world
It exemplifies a new model of self-sufficiency based on reciprocity and synergistic
relationships rather than rampant competition of the dominant model. We hope
it will nucleate the sustainable food production and consumption system that
we need for a post fossil fuel economy.
A network of such energy and food self-sufficient farms across the countryside
would supply cities with fresh nutritious food, cutting down on food miles and
ecological footprint. It would also supply local farmers’ markets, revitalise
town centres, provide employment and rebuild the rural economy.
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