Saturday, 14 February 2009

10 calories of energy is too much to produce one calorie of food

I have been reading the online newsletter I get from BFA (Biological farmers of Australia) and there is something worth commenting on, that I have had at the back of my mind, but not put into words before reading this. It is to do with the argument that says we need large scale agriculture and genetically modified seeds to produce enough food to feed the world into the future and that organic agriculture is not able to do this.

This sounds like a simple enough solution to what at first glance is a simple problem. Lots of us who read this and other blogs about growing food as close to naturally as possible would strongly argue that organics is the only way forward and that small farmers and individuals growing food for local people can indeed provide all the food required but sometimes we struggle to give factual explanations.

What I have never put into words before is the convergence of related issues to food security. We are all aware of and I have written often about climate change, peak oil, water shortages, carbon footprints, pollution of land, sea and water and reduced availability of arable land. But their inclusion in the equation of food supply is often ignored, on the pretext that we must continue producing food on a mass scale or fear a food security crisis.

Currently it is estimated that it takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food using 'conventional' agriculture. (Although for 10,000 years 'conventional' meant natural and organic as there was no other way!).The 10 calories come from energy used to make chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides etc and ship them to farms, build and run enormous machinery, store and ship goods to ports, package and deliver products all over the world and for the manufacturing industries behind all these calorie-hungry food production businesses. Moreover, the carbon footprint of intensive, chemical agriculture is enormous, magnifying most of the world's serious problems while attempting to solve one. Water wastage on large scale farms is so significant that the entire water allocation for the whole of the city of Adelaide pales into insignificance in comparison. Simply put, we cannot go on using up the earth's resources in such an irresponsible way and must find a more energy efficient way to provide food.

Producing food naturally, in your own backyard or close to home actually produces 10 calories of food for every 1 calorie put in to its production. Importantly, organic food production sequesters carbon, produces no waste which cannot be re-used (ie composted), uses less water, less fuel/oil and gives a net gain in value to solving the world's problems and at the same time can produce enough food to feed the world, cleanly and locally. Modern agricultural methods fail another basic test in the race to provide food for the poor....price. There is already plenty of food, the problem often lies in its distribution because poor people have no means to pay for food shipped in from elsewhere, especially when oil prices send the costs soaring. Growing food locally and organically means these additional costs are reduced or even removed. Therefore I cannot understand why we keep on the path of destruction when the answers are in front of us - the only way to produce food in a way that benefits those who need it and in a way that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, water, chemicals and actually sequesters carbon instead of releasing it, is to encourage and support the growing food close to or at home, in the most natural way possible.

The UK Soil Association Director, Patrick Holden, was in Australia last week and spoke at  free public talks in Sydney.  His message was - We can’t eat a scorched earth! Thanks to BFA and Patrick Holden for making us think.


Em said...

Hi Kate, I too think that our current food production systems are unsustainable, but as a 5th generation primary producer and land custodian (although I'm no longer a farmer, I'm now a city dweller), I'm aware that there need to be huge shifts in many systems and in the small choices that individuals make every day, to allow food production to become more sustainable; it would be wonderful if all our agriculture could be local and organic, and it's a goal to work towards, but the transition needs to be gradual and financially sustainable. It needs to be supported by the entire community and by government policy. This is as big as governments forcing markets to reflect the *real* cost of food production, and as small as individual shoppers accepting that nature often produces blemished and uneven shaped produce, that tomatoes aren't available year-round, and that it isn't the end of the world if there is an caterpillar in your broccoli...

chaiselongue said...

Thanks for putting this into words, Kate. Like you, it has been at the back of my mind for a while. Industrialised food production is unsustainable and costly (in many ways) and it's responsible for some of the environmental problems in huge areas of the world. The problem is that at the moment organic food is seen as expensive - and often is expensive when it's provided by the supermarkets as 'special' lines. People with less money to spend on food then buy cheap, but low food value, food because that is what they can afford. As Em says in the comment above, it needs a concerted effort of governments and communities to make organic local food production the norm. And to try to persuade as many people as possible to grow their own food! Or, if they can't do that, then buy local. Maybe this is one good thing that may come out of the financial crisis???
Let's hope so.