Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Food supply, energy and policy

Peter Baker over at the BBC's 'green'room, makes the argument that the sheer 'complexity' of global supply chains conflated with political policies, means we lose sight of the real value of food, it's calorific 'energy' content, as opposed its total energy cost of production, transporting, warehousing, storage and retailing etc. This point (he emphasises), is particularly relevant to 'how informed', trade policies are towards developing nations.

Examples he cites are that it takes 4 times the energy to produce a tomato in the US compared to its energy value. Or that the US dollar paid per amount of Nicaraguan coffee; does not compensate the energy cost of production and processing. Thus nicaraguans are 'subsidising the coffee' for export.

He concluded by emphasising the merits of locally produced and consumed foods, while lamenting the lack of data and metrics which make apparent the situation at present:

''We are intervening, politically and normatively, in very complex systems that we only partially understand. ' (Baker, 2008)

From my own research, I certainly agree with most of Peter's article, but his utilising of 'the second law of thermodynamics' unnecessarily confuses rather than crystallises his main points. The price consumers pay for food certainly reflects the added cost of production, storage, packaging, advertising, retailing etc (many of these entailing white collar 'informational' jobs). We can talk about the added energy all this brings, but is this fruitful? These are all jobs after all, eliminating the middle men has its consequences. Principly, let's not get overly distracted from the core issues; that of producers being given a 'fair' price for their goods, ensuring policies don't favour and subsidise mono-culture (and the associated 'chemical' and 'fertilising' industries), and ensuring bio-diversification by supporting small-scale farming industries and organic practices. Bakers emphasis on the true 'energy' costs of agriculture may well throw a negative light on monoculture, whilst raising awareness about the purity and nutritional value of food may favour organic. These are of course useful in informing policy though they may delay action. My point is that focusing on key policy principles may remedy many of the associated problems of 'energy' costs to which Baker refers. Getting bound up in the energy costs of food-supply can then be avoided.

The reality is that the value of food doesn't lie in its calories alone; it lies in the proportion of nutrients, minerals and compounds, its emotional value, its scarcity value, its shelf-life, its versatility, flexibility and utility in transport, storage, preparation and processing. Thus, the situation is unfathomably complex and it is doubtful that data or metrics could ever satisfactorily illuminate all that is involved (as Baker seems to suggest). Having more information about foods may not be better information. Instead, past experience, sound theory, principle and practice can aid in developing sound normative strategies for influencing the industry. Below I try to elucidate some of the contingencies absent from Bakers article:

The fact remains that current globalised agri-industry's (fertilisation and its synthesis, production, processing, warehousing, transport, retail etc) are inexobably bound up with fossil fuels. Understanding and decoupling this relationship is of key concern. Today, the cost per barrel currently hovers around $115. Projections on future price all point upwards(because of increased demand, peak oil etc.). Fossil fuels embody energy condensed over thousands of years and the price nowhere near reflects this embodied energy. Our way of life, our food supply, is being subsidised by 'ghost acreage' (past energy accumulations) which constantly diminish and become more cost prohibitive to extract (albeit rising prices have thus far opened up the viability of further extractions and alternative energy industries). We must acknowledge steps and adaptations to increasing energy prices: Options available for coping include; innovations and efficency gains in industry and associated relocalising and diversifying of food markets etc, switching to renewables as well as steps such as switching to organic farming practices. Realisically though, steps taken thus far fail to account for an ever rising global population and a concurrant appetite for western standards of living. Fossil fuels have allowed humanity to overshoot the planets carrying capacity and it remains unknown to what degree humanity can adapt.

With such pressures on global food supply, it is my view that we must throw caution and a critical eye to the prevalence and advocation of mono-culture (powered by a fossil fuel economy) and the push for genetically modified crops as a solution. Monoculture; the large scale 'rationalisation of food supply'; means farmers and consumers increasingly rely on key food stuffs and are thus sensitive (particularly in developing countries) to price fluctuations and shortages as a result of weather systems, commodity/future markets and energy prices etc. Monoculture quells biodiversity with associated ramifications. Monculture overly relies on artificial chemicals and fertilisation with uncalculatable hidden and externalised costs to the sanctity of the land, to biodiversity and to humans. Large scale food-production leaves populations susceptible to large scale contamination and disruption of food supply. Globalised food markets, commodity and future trading leave consumers and producers contingent to ever fluctuating global prices.

Similarly, genetically modified foods require extreme caution and temporal-restraint in their trial and implementation. We simply do not know the short-term and long-term effect on the bio-sphere and the impact on the 'web of life'. For example, GM crops 'designed' to grow 'bigger, 'faster' and more plentiful may do so at the expense of the integrity of the soil, plants don't grow in a vacuum!! In addition, we have already seen how corporations attempt to eliminate seeding of plants to leave farmers reliant on companies. There are additional concerns of the cross-contamination of GM crops into non-GM farms with inevitable patent issues and the farm->corporation reliance that ensues. Bio-diversification not monoculture brings resilience and sustainability of food supply. We simply must not be pushed by vested interests or those with incomplete knowledge, into believing Monoculture and GM crops are a large part of the solution to ensuring food supply. Policies which unnessicarily favour mono-culture and GM crops should be deeply questioned.

We must throw (what seems) positive light on the agri industry in terms of the manifold efficiency increases from reformed agricultural practices and new cultivated seed varieties. Innovation in agri-technology and practices as well as efficiencies in logistics, transport, warehousing and distribution of foodstuffs; have culminated in driving down prices and offsetting burdening oil prices. Related to this, is the move to renewable solar, wind and wave technology ( as well as nuclear); meaning we can make srides in replacing our dependance for fossil fuels which additionally helps curbs further increases in energy prices. At issue however, is that the present 'fossil fuelled' economy effectively subsidises the cost of researching and producing these renewables. Research illuminating the connection between fossil fuels and renewables is needed!

Paramount to all of this is 'truth' and 'price' in the market. To what degree does 'price' (undistorted by politics) in the market drive innovation and change in over food supply, farming practices and consumption? Does spiraling food prices drive diversity in food supply? Will increasing food prices drive change in lifestyles, behaviours and outlooks? For example; a rekindling of farm alotments in towns and cities, a curbing of excess food consumption, refocusing attention on the quality and sourcing of food etc. In otherwards, are we already moving to a situation where the 'truer' price of food (unsubsidised by cheap oil and regulated trade) is better reflected? The entanglement with food 'production' and energy prices has always existed in terms of fertilisation, machinery fuel costs etc. The entanglement though, look set to further increase with the advent of bio-fuels and energy price rises. Not only has farming land giving way to bio-fuel crops such as rape seed, palm oil etc. but crops such as wheat, corn and suger cane can now either be harvested for food or fuel. We must also emphasise how rising energy costs affects farming which relies on regular pesticide use, fertilisation and harvesting. This leads to the difficult question; how will increasing energy prices affect food production and food prices? Overall, to what degree will 'price' result in a restructuring of the market towards organic farming practices, bio-diversifiation and relocalisation of food supply? These are all questions which lack clear knowledge to date! I suppose though that rising prices favour a trend.

As already mentioned, 'efficiencies' and reform in the argi-sectors have made substantial differences to the 'cost' of food and the structure of the market. It is my belief that further efficiency gains and changes in practices will further restructure the industry. Information communication technologies (ICT's) have the potential to support and enhance small scale farming practices (including organic) in out-competing large scale mono-culture leading to sustainability of food supply and environment. A win-win, if you will!! Farmers with access to knowledge and assisted in connecting and communicating with other local farmers, producers and consumers; can enhanse bio-diversification and relocalisation of food supply. Small farmers who have easy access to up-to-date relevant information on market prices, long-range weather and product demand, as well as having access to knowledge repositories on relevant farming techniques, suitable crop varieties and the latest research; can flourish. ICT's importantly have the potential for farmers to better co-ordinate and communicate with local suppliers, retailers and consumers. 'Carrot' and 'Stick' policies which support small-scale food producers and artisans are needed in this regard.

As Baker argues, it may no longer make sense to simultaneously import and export high energy embodied food. I contend; policies which support biodiversification and small-scale farming are warranted, efficencies and reform in the agri-sector are ongoing and finally 'consumers', 'the market' and 'price'; invariably may help address disparities in 'energy' flows as they arrise.

For the full BBC article see:

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

No comments: