Food provides the energy people need to survive and do work. The globalisation of the food industry and concentration of the food supply chains are the major causes of increase in food transport across the globe, wasting a lot of energy and spewing extra tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is estimated that the direct social, environmental, and economic costs of food transport within the UK amount to over £9 billion each year, which is 34 percent of the market value of UK’s agriculture and food and drink manufacturing industry. Policies are needed to minimize food import/export, to promote instead, national/regional food selfsufficiency.

Food production itself is in crisis from rising energy costs, the severe depletion of water, the loss of agricultural land from decades of unsustainable farming practices, and global warming. An integrated approach to food and energy would do much to increase both energy and food security, save on carbon emissions and mitigate global warming, and contribute greatly to improving the health of the nation.

  1. A report commissioned by UK’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs identified globalisation of the food industry and concentration of the food production base and food supply chains as the major causes of increase in food transport.
  2. The direct social, environmental and economic costs of food transport within the UK have been estimated at over £9 billion per year, and are dominated by congestion, estimated at £5 billion, with accidents accounting for £2 billion per year, and greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise and infrastructure a further £2 billion.
  3. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the food sector consumes about 10-15 percent of total energy in industrialised countries, though only 2-5 percent are on the farm, due to fertilisers, pesticides and machinery. Estimates for the US and Canadian food sector put the figure at 17 percent and 11.2 percent respectively, which include total energy consumed on the farm, processing, transport, packaging, and storing farm products, as well as energy used by households to purchase, store and prepare food. The figures do not include energy costs in food-processing machinery and buildings, waste collection and waste treatment, or roads for transport; nor do they include energy consumed in importing/exporting food.
  4. The depletion of water is perhaps the most serious threat to food production, as industrial agriculture is extremely thirsty. It takes 1000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of grain; aquifers are pumped dry in the world’s major breadbaskets in the United States, China and India.
  5. Not only water is depleted but also soil and soil nutrients and fertility, so productivity has been falling. Grain yields fell for four successive years from 2000 to 2003, and the world reserves are still at the lowest levels in 30 odd years.
  6. Unsustainable practices over the past decades have resulted in massive losses of croplands from salination and soil erosion, totalling 20 million ha a year, or 1.3 percent of the world’s croplands. Replacing lost croplands accounts for 60 percent of deforestation, greatly accelerating climate change. That is why catastrophes such as hurricane Katrina, flood, drought and extreme weather are increasingly frequent, impacting further on food production.
  7. Global warming itself threatens food production through the increase in temperature alone. Yields fall by 10 percent for every deg `C rise in night temperature; and the latest predicted rise in average global temperature is 1.9 to 11.5 C within this century when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches 560 ppm (parts per million), double the pre-industrial level.
  8. There is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change, and a lot can be done through our food system. An estimate of the French food sector put its carbon emissions at more than 30 percent national total; not including import/export, household use and storage, food processing, and imported fertilisers.
  9. Policies are needed to minimize food import/export, to promote instead, national/regional food-sufficiency, and to reverse the concentration of food supply chains in favour of local shops and cooperatives run directly by farmers and consumers. In addition, there should be government subsidies and incentives for reducing carbon dioxide emissions on farms, and for farms and local communities to become energy self-sufficient in low or zero-emission renewables.
  10. What we need above all is a new model of balanced growth based on reciprocity and symbiotic relationships to replace the dominant model of unlimited growth based on rampant competition and the survival of the fittest.
  11. The new model is exemplified by abundantly productive farming systems with ‘zero-input’ and ‘zero-emission’ that have now been implemented in many Third World countries, which combine integrated farming (crops, livestock and fishponds) with anaerobic digestion of livestock wastes to provide biogas energy and rich fertilisers.
  12. Big farms, meat and fish-packing plants, distilleries, and various agro-industries in the Third World that have adopted anaerobic digestion to recover biogas from organic wastes are now self-sufficient in energy, besides having big volumes of nutrient-rich effluent for feeding fishponds, and ‘fertigating’ (fertilizing and irrigating) many kinds of crops.
  13. ISIS (Institute of Science in Society) is proposing to set up a ‘zero emission’ Dream Farm II for demonstration, education and research purposes; combining the best and most appropriate technologies to showcase the new paradigm and at the same time, to serve as an incubator and resource centre for new knowledge and technologies that really serve people and planet.
  14. A network of such farms – without the research education components in Dream Farm II proper – dotted around the countryside would supply cities with fresh nutritious food, cutting down immeasurably on food miles and ecological footprint. It would also supply local farmers’ markets, revitalise town centres, provideemployment and rebuild the rural economy.

Extracted from the article: “Which Energy“, By Mae-Wan Ho

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