Food security is increasingly coming under scanner in recent years as the law of diminishing returns sets in agriculture. How long our fields can support chemical inundation and reckless cultivation methods like monocroping.
Year 2007 saw ‘’great wheat panic” grip the world and year 2008 is witnessing rationing of rice in USA, of all places and food riots in dozens of countries.
Today the food system is completely dependent on cheap crude oil. Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are dependent upon this finite resource, which is nearing its depletion phase.
Not only is the contemporary food system inherently unsustainable, increasingly, it is damaging the environment.
The systems that produce the world's food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.
Proximity and localisation of food system would be beneficial. The contemporary food system is inherently unsustainable. Ironically, the food industry is at serious risk from global warming caused by these greenhouse gases.
Environmental degradation, water shortages, salination, soil erosion, pests, disease and desertification all pose serious threats to our food supply and are made worse by climate change.
Industrial agriculture and the systems of food supply are also responsible for the erosion of communities throughout the world. This social degradation is compounded by trade rules and policies, by the profit driven mindset of the industry, and by the lack of knowledge of the faults of the current systems and the possibilities of alternatives. But the globalisation and corporate control that seriously threaten society and the stability of our environment are only possible because cheap energy is used to replace labour and allow the distance between producer and consumer to be extended.
However, this is set to change. We have a very poor understanding of how the extreme fluctuations in the availability and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect the global food supply systems, and how they will be able to adapt to the decreasing availability of energy. In the near future, environmental threats will combine with energy scarcity to cause significant food shortages and sharp increases in prices - at the very least. We are about to enter an era where we will have to once again feed the world with limited use of fossil fuels. But do we have enough time, knowledge, money, energy and political will to make this massive transformation to our food systems when they are already threatened by significant environmental stresses and increasing corporate control?
The modern, commercial agricultural miracle that feeds all of us, and much of the rest of the world, is completely dependent on the flow, processing and distribution of oil, and technology is critical to maintaining that flow.
Oil refined for gasoline and diesel is critical to run the tractors, combines and other farm vehicles and equipment that plant, spray the herbicides and pesticides, and harvest/transport food and seed Food processors rely on the just-in-time (gasoline-based) delivery of fresh or refrigerated food. Food processors rely on the production and delivery of food additives, including vitamins and minerals, emulsifiers, preservatives, colouring agents, etc. Many are oil-based. Delivery in oil-based Food processors rely on the production and delivery of boxes, metal cans, printed paper labels, plastic trays, cellophane for microwave/convenience foods, glass jars, plastic and metal lids with sealing compounds.
Energy, Transport And The Food System Our food system is energy inefficient. One indicator of the unsustainability of the contemporary food system is the ratio of energy outputs - the energy content of a food product (calories) - to the energy inputs.
The latter is all the energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing that product. The energy ratio (energy out/energy in) in agriculture has decreased from being close to 100 for traditional pre-industrial societies to less than 1 in most cases in the present food system, as energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, have gradually increased.
However, transport energy consumption is also significant, and if included in these ratios would mean that the ratio would decrease further. For example, when iceberg lettuce is imported to the UK from the USA by plane, the energy ratio is only 0.00786. In other words 127 calories of energy (aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic. If the energy consumed during lettuce cultivation, packaging, refrigeration, distribution in the UK and shopping by car was included, the energy needed would be even higher. Similarly, 97 calories of transport energy are needed to import 1 calorie of asparagus by plane from Chile, and 66 units of energy are consumed when flying 1 unit of carrot energy from South Africa.
Just how energy inefficient the food system is can be seen in the crazy case of the Swedish tomato ketchup. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology analysed the production of tomato ketchup. The study considered the production of inputs to agriculture, tomato cultivation and conversion to tomato paste (in Italy), the processing and packaging of the paste and other ingredients into tomato ketchup in Sweden and the retail and storage of the final product. All this involved more than 52 transport and process stages.
The aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, and then moved to Sweden. The five layered, red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials from Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The polypropylene (PP) screw-cap of the bottle and plug, made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Additionally, LDPE shrink-film and corrugated cardboard were used to distribute the final product. Labels, glue and ink were not included in the analysis.
This example demonstrates the extent to which the food system is now dependent on national and international freight transport. However, there are many other steps involved in the production of this everyday product. These include the transportation associated with: the production and supply of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium fertilisers; pesticides; processing equipment; and farm machinery. It is likely that other ingredients such as sugar, vinegar, spices and salt were also imported. Most of the processes listed above will also depend on derivatives of fossil fuels. This product is also likely to be purchased in a shopping trip by car.
It is not that this transportation is critical or necessary. In many cases countries import and export similar quantities of the same food products. A recent report has highlighted the instances in which countries import and export large quantities of particular foodstuffs. For example, in 1997, 126 million litres of liquid milk was imported into the UK and, at the same time, 270 million litres of milk was exported from the UK. 23,000 tonnes of milk powder was imported into the UK and 153,000 tonnes exported.
Britain imports 61,400 tonnes of poultry meat a year from the Netherlands and exports 33,100 tonnes to the Netherlands. US imports 240,000 tonnes of pork and 125,000 tonnes of lamb while exporting 195,000 tonnes of pork and 102,000 tonnes of lamb.
This system is unsustainable, illogical, and bizarre and can only exist as long as inexpensive fossil fuels are available and we do not take significant action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions..
(Ref. Caroline Lucas, 2001. Stopping the Great Food Swap - Relocalising Europe's food supply. Green Party, 2001.)
In addition, oil is required for cultivation and for pumping water, and on gas for its fertilisers. Also, for every calorie of energy used by agriculture itself, five more are used for processing, storage and distribution.
Most pesticides are petroleum- (oil) based, and all commercial fertilisers are ammonia-based. Ammonia is produced from natural gas. As oil production went up, so did food production.
We are now at a point where the demand for food/oil continues to rise, while our ability to produce it in an affordable fashion is about to drop. Within a few years of Peak Oil occurring, the price of food will skyrocket because the cost of fertiliser will soar, the cost of storing (electricity) and transporting (gasoline) the food that is produced will also soar.
Modern food system is entirely dependent on the thread of technology. Modern, technology-based agriculture produces both food, and seeds for next year's food, on a just-in-time basis. There are precious little reserves of either food or seeds to sustain any protracted interruption. Technology and the incredibly rich tapestry it has made possible has created a false sense of security for so many of us. The thread is flawed; the tapestry is now fragile; famines are possible.
No country is self-sufficient in all respects neither any country is striving in that direction. The implications are grim. For millions, the difference between an energy famine and a biblical famine could well be academic.
Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale.
The priority must be the development of local and regional food systems, preferably organically based, in which a large percentage of demand is met within the locality or region. This approach, combined with fair trade, will ensure secure food supplies, minimize fossil fuel consumption and reduce the vulnerability associated with a dependency on food exports (as well as imports). Localising the food system will require significant diversification, research, investment and support that have, so far, not been forthcoming. But it is achievable and we have little choice.
Once we're out of oil, the big consequences will hit. Our planet can only support perhaps a billion people without petroleum-based agriculture. The effects of a failure in production of nitrogenous fertilizers and pesticides and fuel for farming machines will be more pronounced in areas that have been farmed to the point of fatigue.
Divorce of Oil and Food - An Urgent Necessity The US food system uses over 10 quadrillion Btu (10,551 quadrillion Joules) of energy each year, as much as France's total annual energy consumption. Growing food accounts for only one-fifth of this. The other four-fifths is used to move, process, package, sell, and store food after it leaves the farm.
Some 28% of energy used in agriculture goes to fertilizer manufacturing, 7% goes to irrigation and 34% is consumed as diesel and gasoline by farm vehicles used to plant, till, and harvest crops. The rest goes to pesticide production, grain drying and facility operations.
The past half-century has witnessed a tripling in world grain production - from 631 million tons in 1950 to 2,029 million tons in 2004. While 40% of the increase is due to population growth raising the demand, the remainder can be attributed to more people eating higher up the food chain (meat). New grain demand has been met primarily by raising land productivity through higher yielding crop varieties in conjunction with more oil-intensive mechanization, irrigation, and fertilizer use, rather than by expanding cropland.
Crop production now relies on fertilizers to replace soil nutrients, and therefore on the oil needed to mine, manufacture, and transport these fertilizers around the world. Rock deposits in the United States, Morocco, China, and Russia meet two-thirds of world phosphate demand, while Canada, Russia, and Belarus account for half of potash mine production. Nitrogen fertilizer production, which relies heavily on natural gas to fuel the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into reduced forms of nitrogen such as ammonia, is much more widely dispersed.
World fertilizer use has increased dramatically since the 1950s. China is now the top consumer with use rising beyond 40 million tons in 2004. Fertilizer use has leveled off in the United States, staying near 19 million tons per year since 1984. India's use also has stabilized at around 16 million tons per year since 1998. More energy-efficient fertilizer production technology and precision monitoring of soil nutrient needs have cut the amount of energy needed to fertilize crops, but there is still more room for improvement. As oil prices increase and the price of fertilizer rises, there will be a premium on closing the nutrient cycle and replacing synthetic fertilizer with organic waste.
The use of mechanical pumps to irrigate crops has allowed farms to prosper in the middle of the desert. It also has increased farm energy use, allowed larger water withdrawals, and contributed to aquifer depletion worldwide. As water tables drop, ever more powerful pumps must be used, perpetuating and increasing the oil requirements for irrigation. More efficient irrigation systems, such as low-pressure and drip irrigation, and precision soil moisture testing could reduce agricultural water and energy needs. But in many countries, government subsidies keep water artificially cheap and readily available.
Although agriculture is finding ways to use less energy, the amount consumed between the farm gate and the kitchen table continues to rise. While 21% of overall food system energy is used in agricultural production, another 14% goes to food transport, 16% to processing, 7% to packaging, 4% to food retailing, 7% to restaurants and caterers, and 32% to home refrigeration and preparation.
Food today travels farther than ever, with fruits and vegetables in Western industrial countries often logging 2,500-4,000 kilometers from farm to store. Increasingly, open world markets combined with low fuel prices allow the import of fresh produce year round, regardless of season or location. But as food travels farther, energy use soars. Trucking accounts for the majority of food transport, though it is nearly 10 times more energy-intensive than moving goods by rail or barge. Refrigerated jumbo jets - 60 times more energy-intensive than sea transport - constitute a small but growing sector of food transport, helping supply northern hemisphere markets with fresh produce from places like Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Processed foods now make up three-fourths of total world food sales. One pound (0.45 kilograms) of frozen fruits or vegetables requires 825 kilocalories of energy for processing and 559 kilocalories for packaging, plus energy for refrigeration during transport, at the store, and in homes. Processing a one-pound can of fruits or vegetables takes an average 261 kilocalories, and packaging adds 1,006 kilocalories, thanks to the high energy-intensity of mining and manufacturing steel. Processing breakfast cereals requires 7,125 kilocalories per pound - easily five times as much energy as is contained in the cereal itself.
Most fresh produce and minimally processed grains, legumes, and sugars require very little packaging, particularly if bought in bulk. Processed foods, on the other hand, are often individually wrapped, bagged and boxed, or similarly overpackaged. This flashy packaging requires large amounts of energy and raw materials to produce, yet almost all of it ends up in our landfills.
Food retail operations, such as supermarkets and restaurants, require massive amounts of energy for refrigeration and food preparation. The replacement of neighborhood shops by "super" stores means consumers must drive farther to buy their food and rely more heavily on refrigeration to store food between shopping trips. Due to their preference for large contracts and homogenous supply, most grocery chains are reluctant to buy from local or small farms. Instead, food is shipped from distant large-scale farms and distributors - adding again to transport, packaging, and refrigeration energy needs.
Rather than propping up fossil-fuel-intensive, long-distance food systems through oil, irrigation, and transport subsidies, governments could promote sustainable agriculture, locally grown foods, and energy-efficient transportation. Incentives to use environmentally friendly farming methods such as conservation tillage, organic fertilizer application, and integrated pest management could reduce farm energy use significantly. Rebate programs for energy-efficient appliances and machinery for homes, retail establishments, processors, and farms would cut energy use throughout the food system. Legislation to minimize unnecessary packaging and promote recycling would decrease energy use and waste going to landfills.
Direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, such as farmers' markets, bypasses centralized distribution systems, cutting out unnecessary food travel and reducing packaging needs while improving local food security. Farmers' markets are expanding in different parts of the world including India. In US, for example, farmers’ markets have grown from 1,755 markets in 1993 to 3,100 in 2002, but still represent only 0.3% of food sales.
The biggest political action individuals take each day is deciding what to buy and eat. Preferentially buying local foods that are in season can cut transport and farm energy use and can improve food safety and security. Buying fewer processed, heavily packaged, and frozen foods can cut energy use and marketing costs, and using smaller refrigerators can slash household electricity bills. Eating lower on the food chain can reduce pressure on land, water, and energy supplies.
Fossil fuel reliance may prove to be the Achilles' heel of the modern food system. Oil supply fluctuations and disruptions could send food prices soaring overnight. Competition and conflict could quickly escalate. Decoupling the food system from the oil industry is key to improving food security.
(Courtesy: Asia Times, By Danielle Murray, Infoshop News)
Blame Game World leaders are dangerously ignorant of ground realities and are busy blaming each other while the globe steadily slides into a food crisis.
Recently India blamed the US policy of diverting food grains such as corn for producing bio-fuels for the spurt in food grain prices globally. Finance Minister P Chidambaram said in a statement:
"It has been estimated that nearly 20 per cent of corn grown in the United States is diverted for producing bio-fuels. As citizens of one world, we ought to be concerned about the foolishness of growing food and converting it into fuel. Demand for staple food is on the rise, leading to higher prices, but diverting food for fuel has also contributed to increase in food prices. This process (diversion of food grains for bio-fuels) is a sign of the lopsided priorities of certain countries. Prices of maize, rice and wheat, all staple items of food have either doubled or trebled between 2004 and 2008.”
The Indian Finance Minister termed the rise in the price of crude oil as "greed" overtaking the common good of the world. The minister also noted that there is no case for raising food prices so high that many poor people could not buy food anymore.
"India imports significant quantities of urea. The price of urea was $175 per metric ton in 2004. By April 2007, it had increased to $288 per MT and in January 2008, it was quoted at $370 per MT," he added.
Noting that there were clear signs of a slowdown in the world economy and signs of rising inflation in many countries of the world, Chidambaram said "global slow down, rising inflation and subdued interest in investment make for a combination that can have only negative consequences for developing countries."
On the other hand, US President George W. Bush has blamed India for the spiraling global food prices.
"There are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. That's bigger than America. Their middle class is larger than our entire population," said Bush recently. "And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up." The US President was endorsing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's earlier comments that the world food crisis was a result of "improvement in the diets of people in India and China."
Stung, Indian government, in a fit of nationalist pique, did not lose time to point out to the US president that his analysis was "completely erroneous."
"George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics. And he has just proved once again how comprehensively wrong he is," Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Commerce, said, wondering whether President Bush wanted Indians to remain malnourished.
“And here the rascals are advising, produce bolts and nuts, tire, and drill petrol. They are not producing food. And the so-called government men, they are levying taxes, and they are enjoying. They haven’t got to produce food. They are killing animals, eating, and digesting with wine. And then woman. That’s all. This is their business. And food price is increasing daily. They don’t mind because they will psrint paper, and to the supplier they will give paper. “ -Srila Prabhupada (Morning walk, May 25, 1974, Rome)
Food is energy. And it takes energy to get food. -Norman Church
The oil crisis gets louder – listen to it, talk about it, prepare for it – it is out there, the tide is rising and rushing towards us. ~James Howard
Just like here in this Letchmore Heath there is so much land lying vacant. You produce you own food. Why you are going to London, to the factories? There is no need. This is wrong civilization. Here is land. You produce your food. If you produce your food, there is no need of going hundred miles, fifty miles on your motorcycle or motor to earn your livelihood. Why? There is no need. Then you require petrol. And petrol there is scarcity. Then you require so many parts, so many.. That means you are making the whole thing complicated unnecessarily. Unnecessarily. There is no need. ~Srila Prabhupada (Srimad-Bhagavatam Lecture, London, November 25, 1973)
"The End Of Suburbia" One of the surprises in the oil world in 2004 was the success of an underground documentary on the perilous state of world energy. "The End of Suburbia" has sold more than a million DVDs and has been aired on TV around the world. ~Adam Porter