Rethinking Food During an Energy Transition
By Simon Ratcliffe
Wheat harvest in the US midwest (Credit Oklahoma State University)
During recent days the British media is full of news and analysis about energy, food shortages, supply chains, shortages of lorry drivers and Brexit.
There are stories of rising food prices, empty supermarket shelves and the inability of some people and communities to afford food. How serious a crisis is this and is it just a passing issue that will come and go and soon return to normal? The current crisis may be short-lived, but we know we face a much more difficult long-term problem in providing adequate food to the world’s population and doing so in ways that don’t destroy the planet.
The United Nations Climate Champions have designated “energy” as today’s theme for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Our global food system is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, oil in particular. I believe that we need to rethink food consumption, production, and distribution with a goal of developing more sustainable ways of getting food from farm to table.
Pivot Projects is presenting an event in Glasgow during COP26, It's Time to Pivot, an element of the Malin Group's Spotlight series. It will take place in person and online starting at 1:45 pm UK Time on Nov. 6. The event is a conversation and a call to action to individuals and groups who want to pivot to a more sustainable future. Please join us!
Here's a blog post about Pivot Projects and the event, with a link to registration.
Here's the registration page.
During the last 150 years or so we have moved from an essentially agrarian rural existence to an urban industrial one. The concentration of people in towns is only possible because of the industrialisation of agriculture. Cheap oil has enabled us to urbanise and globalise the production of food. We now source our food from the cheapest producers worldwide. This comes with a high environmental price and is ultimately unsustainable in this form due to its reliance on a finite resource, oil.
The 2021 World Energy Outlook produced by the International Energy Agency, includes a warning to the fossil fuel industry. Demand for oil will peak under every scenario the agency studied, and if countries live up to their climate pledges, that moment will arrive in just a few years.[i]
We are nearing or may even have past the point of maximum global oil production. From this point onwards, oil production will decline on a yearly basis. In other words, there will be less and less available for the industrial production of food, which will likely result in declining production. Or for production levels to remain as they are, a reallocation of oil from other sectors will be required.
Vulnerabilities in the food production system
Our climate crisis has come about mainly due to the energy choices we have made. The vulnerability in our food system arises due to the high dependence on oil that permeates the system. Some 95% of global food production is reliant on oil.
Right now, using conventional diesel tractors for farming, it takes 10 units of fossil energy to put one unit of food energy on American tables.[ii] Almost the entire food production value chain is currently oil dependent. Decarbonising the food system is a major challenge.
Fortunately, some manufacturers are rising to the challenge. Tractor manufacturers are now beginning to develop electric tractors. While electric tractors are climate friendly, the biggest problem they face is that they don’t have the energy density of diesel and are not able to work for the long hours in the field. Battery storage technology is not yet fully developed.
In the last two decades, the use of pesticides in the US has increased 33-fold. Nearly 50% of US corn land is grown continuously as a monoculture that has resulted in an increase in corn pests, which in turn requires the use of more pesticides. Pesticide use on corn crops has increased 1,000-fold.[iii]
Phosphorus is essential for all living matter. We get our phosphorus from the food we eat, which in turn comes from the phosphate fertilizers used in industrial agricultural methods. Phosphate fertilizer is essential for modern food production. Phosphorus is a critical global resource, 90% of which is used for food production.
The mining of phosphorous is energy intensive and requires fossil fuel driven machinery.
Food and climate change
The way in which food is now produced is a major contributor to global warming, because of its energy intensiveness. Not only is food production a contributor to global warming but will be profoundly affected by the changes in climate that will arise as an unintended consequence. We are already beginning to see unpredictable weather patterns and higher temperatures. This will begin to affect yields and the types of plants that can be grown.
Climate change is also scheduled to bring about rises in the sea level due to thermal expansion, the melting of the Greenland Iceshelf, Antarctica and glaciers and will affect land and food production in low lying areas of the world.
So what should we do?
The key to building local resilience around food is timely planning. The threats to our food system require a comprehensive re-evaluation of the way we produce food.
We urgently need to reduce our dependence on oil in agriculture and find more energy efficient farming methods with fewer sprays and fertilizers. This means a new way of farming. There are different methods that produce high yields that are organic and regenerate the soil. Permaculture is one example and was successfully used in Havana, Cuba, to create their urban agriculture programme.
We need to begin a widespread programme of urban agriculture ensuring that urban people are able to meet some if not all of their food needs by decentralising food production by growing their own. We also need to support local farmers and food producers to break the monopolistic system of few very large companies that control food supplies and land.
We need to reduce the amount of meat we eat. This will free up agricultural land from crops produced for animal feed. Reducing food waste and role of behavioral change and greater sharing of surplus.
Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. It includes a set of design principles derived using whole systems thinking.
We need to re-evaluate the policies we have adopted in relation to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The GMO route offers us uncertain and unintended outcomes as well as dependence on companies whose strategies are at best questionable.
We need to provide school children with the education and skills to grow food, by re-capturing subsistence skills that are rapidly being lost.
The issues around food are too serious to be ignored.
[i] https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/13/energy/iea-world-energy-outlook-climate/index.html [ii] https://modernfarmer.com/2020/03/going-green-can-electric-tractors-override-diesel/ [iii] Ibid