Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tackling food security with a growing population, climate change and peak oil

With a growing population and improving diets there is a need to double our food supply by 2050. Identify three measures you would take to meet this demand. Identify one of your measures from your list and post your solution into the discussion - be prepared to defend your choice!

That is a big question to throw in a climate change course. I am presently doing an online course - Climate Change: Challenges and solutions - offered by the University of Exeter (UK). So please indulge me as I also use this blog for some climate course work. This article is for week 6, section 6.5 of the course on 'Tackling food security'.

Food security is one helluva big area to try and come to terms with. Earth's population is just over 7 billion people. It is projected by the United Nations in a June 2013 report on global population to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, although some commentators like David Merkel think it may peak at 8.5 billion around 2030 due to officials underestimating the fall in the fertility rate.

Currently, at least one billion people are constantly hungry or living under the threat of hunger.

Agricultural productivity of the last century has been brought about by the energy input from fossil fuels. There is a strong recent correlation between soaring food costs and soaring oil costs. With Peak oil, energy costs can expect to increase much further, placing further costs on food production. A FAO 2011 report says: "Commodity prices tend to be linked with global energy prices. As energy prices fluctuate and trend upwards, so do food prices".


”Feeding a growing world population will require a 60 percent increase in food production by 2050, but we are not going to be able to meet that goal the way we did during the Green Revolution, relying on fossil fuels,” said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources and the Environment. “A very different approach is required.”

The food sector accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and
accounts for around 22 percent of total Greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).


Most of the big productivity gains of the Green revolution ocurred due to substantial intensification of energy inputs into agriculture through fossil fuels. From non-organic fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation of farming practices, increased processing, refrigeration, packaging and transport to more distant markets and more urbanised consumers.

Ten measures to increase food production sustainably

So I sat down and brainstormed ten measures to increase food production, keeping in mind the increasing problem of peak oil and need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for climate change. Yes, I know, the course only wanted me to list three and argue for one! I got carried away.

We are now facing the prospect of increasing productivity to feed a growing global population, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, and fossil fuels becoming progressively more expensive due to peak oil. The large easily accessed oil fields are now in decline, and to maintain production we are more reliant on fossil fuels both harder to access and more expensive such as Arctic oil, deep sea oil, coal seam gas and tight shale oil. Some of the methods of accessing fossil fuels are either far more polluting, risk chemical contamination of groundwater and can impact agricultural productivity.

So here is my quick list of 10 measures we should be implementing to tackle food security and reducing fossil fuel use in the food sector:

  • 1. Reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy for agricultural production to counter the threat of peak oil and reduce agricultural production of carbon emissions. Reduce non-organic fertilizers and pesticides by adopting integrated pest and weed management techniques, and shifting to crop varieties and animal breeds that require fewer inputs.
  • 2. Reduce ruminants for food and emphasise health importance of a dietary change to less red meat, enabling increased water efficiency and crop production for human consumption. This also reduces agricultural methane production.
  • 3. Reduce food waste (About one third of food produced each year - 1.3 billion tonnes - is wasted) Better logistics and energy efficiency in food manufacturing, processing, packaging and transport would help to reduce this, but increased regulation and prevention of food dumping and waste practices in the food chain from producer to end retailer needs to be enacted. Composting food waste by consumers needs to be encouraged to reduce decomposition and methane production in landfill sites.
  • 4. Encourage consumption from local production rather than long distance and out of season imports (Awareness of food miles), which reduces transport CO2 emissions. Encourage Urban agriculture.
  • 5. Natural Water retention and water storage needs to be enhanced to enable greater crop productivity. The health of river ecosystems needs to be carefully managed and not over allocated for agriculture, especially wetlands which provide important ecological services especially in times of drought as a biodiversity refuge. Ground water aquifers need to be protected from contamination or water table alteration by mining (eg open cut coal mining, fracking for coal seam gas or tight oil deposits)
  • 6. Adopt more intensive organic and agroecological practices, including greater permaculture, companion planting practices, agroforestry, crop rotation and land for wildlife.
  • 7. Reduce monoculture practices and boost support to small farmers as recomended by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in the Trade and Environment report 2013 (PDF)(media release):
  • 8. Encourage preservation and production of heritage plant species for their genetic diversity, enabling the crossbreeding for producing new varieties tolerant to specific threats in the future.
  • 9. Develop closed cycle aquaponics for intensive horticultural production and aquaculture to supply fish protein.
  • 10. Greater emphasis on soil carbon farming to both enrich soils and act as a carbon storage sink. Reduce soil erosion. See FAO on Greater focus on soil health needed to feed a hungry planet

None of these will be easy to do, but I suspect all will need to be done to lift agricultural productivity while reducing fossil fuel energy input.

Transitioning industrial agriculture to organics and agroecology

In my search for some answers and solutions I stumbled upon a seminar held by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) on 25th April 2012 in Stockholm: 100 % Agroecology Can Feed the World. The presentations were videoed and the powerpoint slides published.

Johanna Björklund, Teaching Professor of Agroecology, Örebro University, argues in her presentation that "To feed an increasing global population and in the same time cope with climate change and ecosystem degradation the large-scale, low productive and extensive mode of food production in industrial countries needs to be abandoned."

Björklund puts forward some Non negotiable demands on the future food system:

  • More food with less use of water and without fossil fuels
  • Agricultural areas needs to sequestrer carbon
  • Drastically reduced input of new nitrogen fertilizers
  • No more phosphorus which ends up in the oceans
  • Extinction of species need to be halter to at least 10 per cent of today
  • Decreased meat consumption in developed countries

Björklund presentation on The potential of a productive, fossil fuel free agriculture based on ecosystem services is worthwhile watching on Youtube or below. Slide Presentations are also available for viewing. She also emphasised that urban agriculture can play an important part of ensuring food security.

At the same session in Stockholm Hans Herren, Director of the Millenium Institute, gave a presentation on Action plan for changing course in agriculture in which he outlined the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) global assessment report - Agriculture at a Crossroads. This report was prepared by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) by the Division of Early Warning and Assessment. Watch the video, or slide presentation:

Herren has done agricultural modelling to show that transitioning our industrial agriculture to more organic and sustainable agro-ecological methods is possible to feed a larger population with increased productivity, greater employment, increased soil quality, reduced water use, reduced deforestation, providing a more than adequate calorie supply to each person on the planet. A matter of changing agricultural policies and methods and consumer behaviour.

In 2013 Dr. Hans R. Herren, and Millenium Institute partner Biovision Foundation, were selected as a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, "for his expertise and pioneering work in promoting a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply."

One of the concerns with organic methods of agriculture is that yields are substantially less than conventional agricultural methods, although often this is made up in social, ecosystem and biodiversity benefits. On the same day as the symposium in Stockholm Natasha Gilbert outlined in a news article in Nature magazine that Organic farming is rarely enough with Conventional agriculture giving higher yields under most conditions. This article draws upon the research by Verene Seufert et al (2012) in Nature who say in their study - Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture:

Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

FAO: Energy Smart agriculture needed

Since the 2011 UN Durban Climate change conference the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been pushing for Energy-smart agriculture to escape the fossil fuel trap.

"There is justifiable concern that the current dependence of the food sector on fossil fuels may limit the sector's ability to meet global food demands. The challenge is to decouple food prices from fluctuating and rising fossil fuel prices," said an FAO paper published during the Durban UN Conference on Climate Change in 2011.

According to the report, the food sector (including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation marketing and consumption) accounts for around 95 exa-Joules (1018 Joules), approximately 30 percent of global energy consumption, and produces over 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

On-farm direct energy use amounts to around 6 exa-Joules per year, if human and animal power are excluded — just over half of that is in OECD countries. On farms, energy is used for pumping water, housing livestock, cultivating and harvesting crops, heating protected crops, and drying and storage. After harvest, it is used in processing, packaging, storing, transportation and consumption.

"The global food sector needs to learn how to use energy more wisely. At each stage of the food supply chain, current practices can be adapted to become less energy intensive," said FAO Assistant Director-General for Environment and Natural Resources, Alexander Mueller.

At the farm level this includes more fuel efficient engines, use of compost and precision fertilizers, irrigation monitoring and targeted water delivery, adoption of no-till farming practices and the use of less-input-dependent crop varieties and animal breeds says the FAO report.

After food has been harvested, more efficient transport and logistics, better insulation of food storage facilities, reductions in packaging and food waste, and more efficient cooking devices offer help to reduce energy use in the food sector.

Losses and wastage in the food system presently amount to around one-third of all food produced, which includes the energy that is embedded in it. Reducing this loss also saves substantial energy.

Agriculture also has some potential for providing some of it's own energy through processing wastes to produce biogas which can supplement solar, wind, hydro, geothermal or biomass energy resources where they exist.

"Using local renewable energy resources along the entire food chain can help improve energy access, diversify farm and food processing revenues, avoid disposal of waste products, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, and help achieve sustainable development goals," the FAO report says.

The FAO energy smart food for people and climate program is based on three pillars:

  • (i) providing energy access for all with a focus on rural communities;
  • (ii) improving energy efficiency at all stages of the food supply chain; and
  • (iii) substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy systems in the food sector.

Watch a September 2013 youtube video of Peter Holmgren from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation on climate smart agriculture

Food miles and food transport

We live in a globalised economy where food is often transported over long distances, often to places where it is out of season. But this uses transport which utilizes primarily fossil fuel energy. Much food is transported over long distances by road, rail and shipping. The FAO report says "Air transport is costly in terms of energy intensity and economic costs, therefore rarely used. For example, only 0.5 percent of the fresh fruit imported to the USA is shipped by air (Bernatz, 2010).

Globalization in the past two decades appears to have increased the average distance travelled by food products by 25 percent." This has lead many aware consumers in the developed world to look at 'food miles', although some point out that Food miles can mislead and total carbon footprinting may be more important for analysing the food we buy.

The report does suggest better labelling on retail food packaging to display the energy used in the production, processing, packaging and distribution of the product so that consumers could consider the energy and GHG implications when making purchases. But this would require development of international standards for measuring energy consumption using standardized Life Cycle Assessment methodologies to assess each stage of the food chain.

"The key question at hand is not, ‘If or when we should begin the transition to energy-smart food systems?' but rather ‘how can we get started and make gradual but steady progress?" said Mueller in the 2011 FAO media release.

There is at least one example of a country being forced to make the transition to low fossil fuel input into agriculture: Cuba.

Cuba's transition to permaculture with early onset of peak oil

When the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union reduced it's fossil fuel subsidies to Cuba in the 1990s we saw a taste of what Peak Oil might mean for a fossil fuel dependant economy. Cuba embarked on fuel rationing which entailed transforming their energy and agricultural systems. The film The power of Community. How Cuba Survived peak Oil provides lessons for us all when the oil starts running out. Watch the Youtube video below

The impact of reduced availability of fossil fuels on Cuban life was transformative. It entailed a major shift in agricultural practices to organic and permaculture methods with much more labour intensive small farm activity, along with urban permaculture. Transport was also shaken up with more emphasis on living locally, using public transport and cycling. It wasn't an easy transition to make for most people.

Are we ready for such a transition? The earlier we start, the more preparation we make, the easier it will be on the communities we live within. The threat of peak oil and climate change has sparked the Transition Towns movement, a global movement to build community resilience and sustainability to the threats posed by climate change and peak oil. Another small part of the solution.


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