Why Our Food Is So Dependent On Oil
By Norman Church
07 April, 2005
From The Wilderness
"Concentrate on what cannot lie. The evidence..." -- Gil Grissom
"Eating Oil" was the title of a book which was published in 1978 following the first oil crisis in 1973 (1). The aim of the book was to investigate the extent to which food supply in industrialised countries relied on fossil fuels. In the summer of 2000 the degree of dependence on oil in the UK food system was demonstrated once again when protestors blockaded oil refineries and fuel distribution depots. The fuel crises disrupted the distribution of food and industry leaders warned that their stores would be out of food within days. The lessons of 1973 have not been heeded.
Today the food system is even more reliant on cheap crude oil. Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent upon this finite resource, which is nearing its depletion phase.
Moreover, at a time when we should be making massive cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in order to reduce the threat posed by climate change, the food system is lengthening its supply chains and increasing emissions to the point where it is a significant contributor to global warming.
The organic sector could be leading the development of a sustainable food system. Direct environmental and ecological impacts of agriculture 'on the farm' are certainly reduced in organic systems. However, global trade and distribution of organic products fritter away those benefits and undermine its leadership role.
Not only is the contemporary food system inherently unsustainable, increasingly, it is damaging the environment.
The systems that produce the world's food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.
Ironically, the food industry is at serious risk from global warming caused by these greenhouse gases, through the disruption of the predictable climactic cycles on which agriculture depends. But global warming can have the more pronounced and immediate effect of exacerbating existing environmental threats to agriculture, many of which are caused by industrial agriculture itself. Environmental degradation, water shortages, salination, soil erosion, pests, disease and desertification all pose serious threats to our food supply, and are made worse by climate change. But many of the conventional ways used to overcome these environmental problems further increase the consumption of finite oil and gas reserves. Thus the cycle of oil dependence and environmental degradation continues.
Industrial agriculture and the systems of food supply are also responsible for the erosion of communities throughout the world. This social degradation is compounded by trade rules and policies, by the profit driven mindset of the industry, and by the lack of knowledge of the faults of the current systems and the possibilities of alternatives. But the globalisation and corporate control that seriously threaten society and the stability of our environment are only possible because cheap energy is used to replace labour and allows the distance between producer and consumer to be extended.
However, this is set to change. Oil output is expected to peak in the next few years and steadily decline thereafter. We have a very poor understanding of how the extreme fluctuations in the availability and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect the global food supply systems, and how they will be able to adapt to the decreasing availability of energy. In the near future, environmental threats will combine with energy scarcity to cause significant food shortages and sharp increases in prices - at the very least. We are about to enter an era where we will have to once again feed the world with limited use of fossil fuels. But do we have enough time, knowledge, money, energy and political power to make this massive transformation to our food systems when they are already threatened by significant environmental stresses and increasing corporate control?
The modern, commercial agricultural miracle that feeds all of us, and much of the rest of the world, is completely dependent on the flow, processing and distribution of oil, and technology is critical to maintaining that flow.
Oil refined for gasoline and diesel is critical to run the tractors, combines and other farm vehicles and equipment that plant, spray the herbicides and pesticides, and harvest/transport food and seed Food processors rely on the just-in-time (gasoline-based) delivery of fresh or refrigerated food Food processors rely on the production and delivery of food additives, including vitamins and minerals, emulsifiers, preservatives, colouring agents, etc. Many are oil-based. Delivery is oil-based Food processors rely on the production and delivery of boxes, metal cans, printed paper labels, plastic trays, cellophane for microwave/convenience foods, glass jars, plastic and metal lids with sealing compounds. Many of these are essentially oil-based Delivery of finished food products to distribution centres in refrigerated trucks. Oil-based, daily, just-in-time shipment of food to grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc., all oil-based; customer drives to grocery store to shop for supplies, often several times a week
ENERGY, TRANSPORT AND THE FOOD SYSTEM
Our food system is energy inefficient...
One indicator of the unsustainability of the contemporary food system is the ratio of energy outputs - the energy content of a food product (calories) - to the energy inputs.
The latter is all the energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing that product. The energy ratio (energy out/energy in) in agriculture has decreased from being close to 100 for traditional pre-industrial societies to less than 1 in most cases in the present food system, as energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, have gradually increased.
However, transport energy consumption is also significant, and if included in these ratios would mean that the ratio would decrease further. For example, when iceberg lettuce is imported to the UK from the USA by plane, the energy ratio is only 0.00786. In other words 127 calories of energy (aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic. If the energy consumed during lettuce cultivation, packaging, refrigeration, distribution in the UK and shopping by car was included, the energy needed would be even higher. Similarly, 97 calories of transport energy are needed to import 1 calorie of asparagus by plane from Chile, and 66 units of energy are consumed when flying 1 unit of carrot energy from South Africa.
Just how energy inefficient the food system is can be seen in the crazy case of the Swedish tomato ketchup. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology analysed the production of tomato ketchup (2). The study considered the production of inputs to agriculture, tomato cultivation and conversion to tomato paste (in Italy), the processing and packaging of the paste and other ingredients into tomato ketchup in Sweden and the retail and storage of the final product. All this involved more than 52 transport and process stages.
The aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, and then moved to Sweden. The five layered, red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials form Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The polypropylene (PP) screw-cap of the bottle and plug, made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Additionally, LDPE shrink-film and corrugated cardboard were used to distribute the final product. Labels, glue and ink were not included in the analysis.
This example demonstrates the extent to which the food system is now dependent on national and international freight transport. However, there are many other steps involved in the production of this everyday product. These include the transportation associated with: the production and supply of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium fertilisers; pesticides; processing equipment; and farm machinery. It is likely that other ingredients such as sugar, vinegar, spices and salt were also imported. Most of the processes listed above will also depend on derivatives of fossil fuels. This product is also likely to be purchased in a shopping trip by car.
...is dependent on oil...
Complete article at: