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.
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 of SiS).
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 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 ‘food deserts’.
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 is cheapest.
Food transport, especially airfreight, uses up enormous amounts of fossil fuel energy, spewing extra tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
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.
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 need.
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.”
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 fossil-fuel economy?
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 countries.
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.
Article first published 01/02/06
Got something to say about this page? Comment