Norman Pagett and Josephine Smit : Grain of Truth

Image from UCL.

Grain of truth:
Our precarious food supply

Global food production has been allowed to fall into the hands of fewer and fewer megacorporations, and their aims are simple: to deliver short-term profits and ultimately to control the entire system of world supply.

By Norman Pagett and Josephine Smit / End of More / May 16, 2013

“A hungry world is a dangerous world. Without food, people have only three options: they riot, they emigrate or they die.” — Josette Sheeran, World Food Programme

We owe our lives to technology that uses 10 calories of energy in the process of growing food to produce a single calorie of energy in the food we eat.

On average, we need to consume about 2,500 calories a day, so each of us has to find 10 times that amount of energy in order to stay alive. Our existence rests on that fundamental equation. Looked at it in cold print, this might seem irrelevant to our day-to-day lives but it means that global agricultural production and food supply systems are consuming 10 times more energy than they deliver as food.

Few of us ever stop to consider the embodied energy in what we eat. Why would we? Calories have become purely the currency of dietary fads, something to be limited in our constant battle with obesity. We have been well fed for so long that we imagine that supermarket shelves will always be amply stocked to support our affluent comfort. Until now, in the developed world at least, the food production, distribution and supply infrastructure has been able to obtain all the energy it needs, and in ever increasing amounts.

We are far more prosperous than the third world countries that are constantly being brought to the brink of food deprivation or outright starvation. Yet we are only marginally safer. We have a blind faith in our supply systems and expect our food stores to have everything we might want to buy available fresh every day. Remove the certainty of our seven-day-a-week food supplies and supermarkets would be stripped bare within hours.

Our food supply is extremely precarious; it takes very little disturbance to disrupt it severely. During an oil delivery tanker drivers’ strike in the UK in 2001, the government was given the stark warning by a consortium of major retailers that the food chain delivery system carried only three days’ supply. This information was not released to the public at the time.

The fuel supply emergency lasted only a week, but if it had gone on for longer rapidly emptying supermarket shelves would have provided the impetus for food hoarding and panic. This is what happens when there is a temporary break in just one link in the energy chain that supports our highly complex food supply system.

Reduced to its raw essentials, the embodied energy in food represents all the mechanical input of our farming system: the tractors, the fishing boats, and the trucks. It includes the water transported from Portugal disguised as melons, and that air-freighted from Kenya disguised as green beans — 4 litres of water are needed to grow a single bean stem.

It covers the diesel in the trucks that deliver loads to your supermarket several times a day, fresh and just in time, and it includes the gasoline in your car when you go to collect your weekly groceries. The cumulative energy intrinsic to so many food processes — growing, packaging, distribution and delivery — is so cheap in historic terms that most of us could buy sufficient basic food for a week for what we earn in an hour or two, and in many cases far less than that.

Over 50 years, our average food expenditure has dropped from half of our income to around 10% but that is a purchasing total, not the cost of what might be described as essentials. Our food is so cheap that we can afford to buy far in excess of what our bodies need for survival and throw large quantities of it away — at least a third of the food we buy is wasted.

Cheap food is an illusion; it is put there by energy sources that we have come to regard as inexhaustible. Our collective genius at devising new ways of producing food, faster and in the name of greater efficiency and productivity, has worked so well that we see it as normal. Greater abundance of food has allowed more people to survive, and dramatically increased global population.

It has been estimated that the number of people now alive is more than the entire number of human beings who have ever lived. Some 90% of those people are only here because of our ingenuity at delivering food with that 10:1 calorie factor built into it, together with all the other benefits of cheap fossil fuel energy.

As fossil fuel energy declines, renewable sources will not be able to maintain our complex, energy-intensive food systems in their present form. As a result, we will not be able to feed our present numbers. Our food production level will return to roughly what it was 500 years ago, when one calorie had to be put in as manual labour or animal manure to produce one calorie to eat. By that reckoning, our food supply system will only support one-tenth of us. To put it bluntly, at least 6 billion people won’t have a future.

The energy that goes into making our food is taken from the ground in some form of fossil fuel, and there is no substitute for it. It is not possible to make nitrate fertilizer or a tractor tire from the energy output of a wind turbine or a photovoltaic panel because these agricultural essentials depend on a high volume input of hydrocarbons.

We are pressing ahead with the large-scale manufacture of biofuel because we have convinced ourselves it is a viable alternative, predominantly to liquid hydrocarbon fuel. But a growing consensus of scientific opinion, backed by extensive research, has demonstrated that biofuel is not a practical solution.

It requires vast quantities of land, which we also need for foods, and consumes more energy in production than is obtained by its use. It is at best only marginally better than 1:1. Putting biofuel into a tractor to cultivate crops to make yet more biofuel would only be done by the kind of farmer who was a regular guest at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, unless of course he was being subsidized at the taxpayer’s expense.

This is the logic of what has come to be known as agribusiness. Agribusiness now dominates farming, although its originators have little in common with the land; they in fact began as giant chemical companies. These chemical companies had the resources to initiate development and analysis of fundamental crop science, so that plants could be engineered to suit exact conditions and resist specific pests while at the same time remaining under the patented control of their producers.

The science of agriculture and food production changed forever around the turn of the millennium when the United States Supreme Court judged that a patent could be granted on bioengineered seed. While dairy products, fruit and vegetables may still be wrapped in packaging bearing images of the rosy-cheeked farmer, food production is now an industrial process and inherited farming skills are rapidly being lost.

“Today so few people farm that vital knowledge of how to farm is disappearing.” Richard Heinberg, “Fifty Million Farmers,” 26th annual EF Schumacher lecture, 2006

Big business, in the form of supermarkets and agribusiness, is squeezing out the small farmers on the grounds that their methods are “inefficient” and is pushing down the price of produce to such an extent that local operators are struggling to make a living or are being displaced altogether. Agribusiness supplies supermarkets with consistent product on a massive scale and at a rock-bottom price. The small farmer struggles just to stay in business.

The principles of large-scale industrialized farming, now epitomized by the U.S. mega-farm, are being exported to Europe and elsewhere across the globe. The spread of agribusiness is stripping the world of its family farmers, those who possess skills handed down through generations in tending small parcels of land sustainably.

Today the typical farmer in both the UK and U.S. is likely to be over the age of 55, and UK farmers are leaving the industry at a rate of around a dozen a week. These trends are being repeated across the developed world. In developing countries small farmers are abandoning rural life to take their chances in the city because they can no longer make their living from the land.

This shift is of critical importance because the very infrastructure of farming is being destroyed. The inherited link between mankind and the land that supports him is being broken. Once gone, that link cannot be easily reestablished. Farming knowledge is an instinct passed down through generations; it is not something that can be learned from books.

The Caribbean’s lush islands were once key food producers with Jamaica providing up to 500,000 pounds of rice a year, until agriculture decreased in favour of a more lucrative income from tourism through the latter half of the twentieth century. The prosperity brought by tourism in turn supported increased population numbers, with visitors’ dollars buying rice from Guyana and the U.S. When the prices of basic foodstuffs soared around the world in 2008, the islands found their annual rice bill had risen to $3 billion.

Now they are seeking to revive lost farming skills but have had to turn to other countries for help, with Jamaica asking Guyana to help reestablish rice production. It is not redeveloping the techniques of its own small farmers, and has instead turned to foreign mega-farming operations, welcoming them with open arms and, according to local news reports, preferential treatment.

In microcosm, Jamaica serves as a warning to all of us. We have freely chosen to abandon our understanding of how food is produced, preferring more comfortable jobs that offer transient wealth but no long-term sustenance.

Global food production has been allowed to fall into the hands of fewer and fewer megacorporations, and their aims are simple: to deliver short-term profits and ultimately to control the entire system of world supply.

“The twenty first century is going to have to produce a new diet for people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds more people more equitably using less land.” Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University, London, 2008

Biofuel production, now inextricably linked with that of food, has given the megacorporations even greater power over our lives. These megacorporations are feeding on government subsidies paid by the taxpayer and given by politicians on the vague promise that in the long term biofuel will become economic to produce, and will replace the conventional oil we need to provide our food by current farming methods.

Food security is of little concern to those involved in agribusiness. U.S. giant Cargill delivered a 68% increase in earnings over just three months in 2010, on the back of “crop market volatility,” ie, rising prices on the global market. Cargill is a very successful company and its financial performance was good news for the company’s stockholders. But over the same period of time in Mozambique, people at the bottom of the food chain were rioting at the 30% increase in the price of a loaf of bread.

Agribusiness exists to convert the fertility of the land into profit with maximum efficiency. The industry functions on the widely accepted, successful, and profitable laws of business. That may mean forcing food producers into a state of dependence on crops that must be treated with specific weedkiller and grown by increasing applications of fertilizer. Seeds, weedkillers, and fertilizers may have to be obtained from specific sources that further contribute to the profit margins of agribusiness.

In the third world basic farming economies have been devastated by agribusinesses dumping subsidised grain crops on the market at prices below that which indigenous farmers could compete. Their actions effectively forced farmers off the land, leaving the way clear for them to buy vast acreages from governments in order to make still more money from the twin essentials of food and oil.

Highly industrialized farming is stripping the soil of its underlying fertility and water reserves. Food products are ultimately shipped to those countries with the ability to pay the going rate for them.

If we think about these practices we may feel uncomfortable about the methods, but in our immediate short term, agribusiness is delivering what we need: cheap, varied foods of consistent quality.

Food has become currency, not only through the activities of agribusiness but more literally with the rise in prominence and influence of the food speculator. In 2000 the U.S. government changed the business of commodities trading with the introduction of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. This paved the way for financial institutions that were in no way connected with the business of agriculture to trade in food-based commodities.

Effectively it gave investors the power to manipulate markets, by buying up foodstuffs, exacerbating shortages and as a result inflating prices. As returns from traditional investments have dwindled because of the global economic downturn, putting money into staples like food has appeared a safe and attractive investment. Investors are essentially profiteering at the expense of human hunger, an unacceptable trade that is provoking world-wide food riots as well as global demands for constraints on this kind of speculation.

In the hands of unscrupulous people, food is becoming a means of control. Profits and financial results are now the goals; starvation does not appear on balance sheets.

The rapid transfer of food and energy into the combined asset of money is resulting in supply pressures that are already climbing the ladder of prosperity and will inevitably exacerbate over time. Today it is the world’s poor who are affected, but each successive stratum of society will find itself subject to food stress as the one below falls under the hammer blows of outright starvation.

We can measure poverty or prosperity by the proportion of income that has to be used to obtain what we need for subsistence. Our perceived income, derived from raw energy itself, will buy less and less as even the developed societies of the west have to use a greater proportion of income to obtain the means to eat. We will be subject to the same shortages that drove the underclasses of Mexico City, Lagos, Cairo, or Jakarta to riot in 2008.

Those shortages will take a little longer to reach the food markets of the developed West, but already the poorest are depending on financial support to eat. In the U.S., one in eight citizens relies on the government’s supplemental nutrition assistance program, the politically correct term for food aid, and that number is rising every month. In the UK and most other countries in the EU there is a growing network of food banks to provide people with an essential supplement to state support.

“Part of the reason for the fall in stock levels was simply that global use of grains and oilseeds had overtaken production – a factor that has continued to hold for seven of the eight years since 2000” — Chatham House, “Feeding the Nine Billion,” 2009

There have always been hungry people in the world, although there has in fact been sufficient food to “feed” everyone. But increases in global population, pressures from developing nations for more varied diets, and the destruction of crops through environmental disasters are producing new tensions, and desperate steps to try to ensure security of supply.

The food production shortfall and resulting price spike in 2008 caused 29 countries to ban or restrict exports of staple foods. They had no option but to hoard what they had; there was no concern whatsoever for the condition of those who had not.

Saudi Arabia is now growing a high proportion of its food in Ethiopia using Nile water, while Ethiopia itself has to seek food aid from other regions of the world to feed its own starving people. In Indonesia, palm oil plantations suck water out of what was rainforest so that developed societies can cling on to vain hopes of maintaining a lifestyle of infinite plenty at the expense of others less fortunate. In Brazil, indigenous people are displaced en masse as the rainforest is cleared to make way for cash and energy producing crops.

“Although we believe agriculture has enabled us to lead lives of wealth, health and great longevity, it has in fact been detrimental to the human species.” — Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

As with all species, our strength is drawn from the nourishment we absorb, and our survival depends on continued access to food. Although present levels of production cannot be maintained, let alone increased, we will continue to believe that this is somehow possible and that continual progress and growth form part of our ultimate destiny.

When we finally recognize that commerce and our own communal greed have destroyed our means of survival, we will have no option but to fight for what’s left, using every weapon at our disposal in order to gain advantage for our country, our tribe and ultimately for ourselves.

[Norman Pagett is a UK-based professional technical writer and communicator, working in the engineering, building, transport, environmental, health, and food industries. Josephine Smit is a UK-based journalist specializing in architecture and environmental issues and policy who has freelanced for British newspapers including the Sunday Times.Together they edit and write The End of More.]

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2 Responses to Norman Pagett and Josephine Smit : Grain of Truth

  1. Gilleez says:

    Nice article describing the crisis we face, but weak on solution. “The energy that goes into making our food is taken from the ground in some form of fossil fuel, and there is no substitute for it. It is not possible to make nitrate fertilizer…from the energy output of a wind turbine or a photovoltaic panel because these agricultural essentials depend on a high volume input of hydrocarbons.” Right, but rotating crops, before it was all but banned by the government, did just this. Using solar energy ( we called it the sun back then) a plant takes nitrates right out of the air!! Presto, no need for nitrates from fossil fuels. You do need a farmer though, huge tractor operations won’t work. You need animals for fertilizer as well, and geese to weed etc etc etc. Small farms are more efficient except they need more labor (jobs!)

  2. no solution was offered because our excess population excludes it. We cannot go back to using animal for farm work because they require too much land for their energy sources (grass basically)
    we are locked into an industrial farming system that produce 7 billion people, but unfortunately cannot go on supporting them

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