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It takes energy to feed the world

The challenge is to be eco-friendly

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THERE’S been lots of talk lately about how the world is now home to seven billion people — and counting.

The discussion is usually in the context of the debate over how we’re going to feed all of those folks in a world of increasingly limited resources and more volatile weather.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently added some perspective with its call for more "energy-smart food" for people and climate.

The discussion paper points out much of the productivity increases we’ve seen since the Green Revolution have relied heavily on fossil fuels.

Nitrogen fertilizer production alone accounts for about half of the fossil fuels used in primary production.

The food sector currently gobbles up about 30 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption. Not surprisingly, the high-GDP countries such as Canada use more energy than the low GDP-countries where farmers tend to be poor, their farms small and producing mostly to feed themselves.

On the other side of the energy equation, the food sector contributes over 20 per cent of global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

"The great challenge the world now faces is to develop global food systems that emit fewer GHG emissions, enjoy a secure energy supply and can respond to fluctuating energy prices while at the same time support food security and sustainable development," the report says.

It says food production must gradually be disconnected from increased energy demands if the world is to achieve a secure food supply at prices people can afford to pay.

Simply put, the world’s resource base can’t support the strain of low-GDP countries catching up to the production systems of high-GDP countries.

"Industrializing agricultural systems by increasing fossil fuel inputs may no longer be a feasible and justifiable option," the report says.

But also unacceptable is moving wholesale to production approaches that use less energy but also reduce yields, such as simply cutting back on fertilizer rather than optimizing how it is used.

The report’s authors stress lowinput systems can have relatively high energy intensities if they produce less food. This is the argument routinely used against organic systems, despite the growing pile of data that show well-managed organic systems can enjoy yields that are as good as, or better, than conventional systems while using less energy.

 

The report says globalization in the past two decades appears to have increased the average distance travelled by food products by 25 per cent.

 

Buying locally produced food can indeed tend to have a lower carbon footprint. "… since the food at farmers markets is usually sold fresh or minimally processed, the buying-local approach can be more energy-efficient than purchasing heavily processed and packaged supermarket goods," it says, noting buying local is estimated to cut greenhouse gas emissions for the average U.S. household by between four and five per cent.

 

But that’s not always the case. The trend toward buying food at "farmers markets" that sell only local produce may in some cases save relatively little energy on transport, the report says.

New data on life-cycle analysis of food products are showing "food imports from countries where productivity is greater or where refrigerated storage requirements are lower could have a smaller carbon footprint than locally produced food."

The authors steer clear of the rhetorically loaded debates over conventional versus organic systems, or locally produced food versus imports. Instead, they provide some rational context for societies in the throes of making some of those choices.

Another report released last week by a group of Canadian commodity organizations says producers are on the right track when it comes to improving the sustainability of their farming systems while increasing their productivity.

The project, called Sustainable Agriculture Metrics for Western Canadian Field Crops, looked at two decades of progress with indicators including land use, soil loss, energy use and climate impact for the major crops grown in the region.

Producers here have generally adopted soil-conserving practices.

But they have a long way to go to reduce the amount of fossil energy needed to run their farms.

If producers in other countries can indeed leapfrog to production systems based on renewable and less costly energy sources, Canada’s export advantage could be undermined.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792–4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

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