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Food and Energy

We have been freed of many of the threats to well being faced by people in previous eras. That's especially true when it comes to food, and energy is a big part of why.

Will the Relationship Between Food and Energy Have Catastrophic Consequences?

There are a number of important intersections between our modern food system and our main sources of energy: oil, natural gas, and coal-generated electricity. Global climate disruption and the financial meltdown are now combining in interlocking fashion with peak oil to put our economy in a vice grip. It is now more important than ever that we understand the relationship between food and energy. Problems with our energy supplies ultimately will mean problems with our food supply.

Today's article explores the food-and-energy issue. It's the final part of a four-part series of excerpts that Grinning Planet is running from Lester Brown's excellent book, Plan B 3.0—Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

~    ~    ~

picture of lester brown Energy and Food Security,
by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

Modern agriculture depends heavily on the use of fossil fuels. Most tractors use gasoline or diesel fuel. Irrigation pumps use diesel fuel, natural gas, or coal-fired electricity. Fertilizer production is also energy-intensive—natural gas is used to synthesize the basic ammonia building block in nitrogen fertilizers, and the mining, manufacture, and international transport of phosphates and potash all depend on oil.

Efficiency gains can help reduce agriculture's dependence on oil. In the United States, the use of farm fuel fell from its historical high of 7.7 billion gallons in 1973 to 4.2 billion in 2005—a decline of 45%. Calculated more broadly, the gallons of fuel used per ton of grain produced decreased by an impressive 64% from1973 to 2005.

One reason for this achievement was a shift to minimum- and no-till cultural practices on roughly two-fifths of US cropland. But while US agricultural fuel use has been declining, in many developing countries it is rising as the shift from draft animals to tractors continues. A generation ago, for example, cropland in China was tilled largely by draft animals. Today much of the plowing is done with tractors.

Fertilizer accounts for 20% of US farm energy use. Worldwide, the figure may be slightly higher. As the world urbanizes, the demand for fertilizer climbs. As people migrate from rural areas to cities, it becomes more difficult to recycle the nutrients in human waste back into the soil, requiring the use of more synthetic fertilizer. Beyond this, the growing international food trade can separate producer and consumer by thousands of miles, further disrupting the nutrient cycle. The United States, for example, exports some 80 million tons of grain per year—grain that contains large quantities of basic plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The ongoing export of these nutrients would slowly drain the inherent fertility from US cropland if the nutrients were not replaced.

Irrigation, another major energy claimant, is requiring more energy worldwide as water tables fall and water must be pumped from ever lower levels. In the United States, close to 19% of farm energy use is for pumping water. In some states in India where water tables are falling, over half of all electricity is used to pump water from wells.

Energy and Food


Although attention commonly focuses on energy use on the farm, agriculture accounts for only one-fifth of the energy used in the US food system. Transport, processing, packaging, marketing, and kitchen preparation of food are responsible for the rest. The US food economy uses as much energy as the entire economy of the United Kingdom.

Moving farm goods from field to consumer takes about 14% of the food system's energy use—that's about two-thirds of the energy used by farmers to produce the food. An estimated 16% of food system energy use is devoted to canning, freezing, and drying food—everything from frozen orange juice concentrate to canned peas.

Historically, food staples such as wheat have moved over long distances by ship. What is new is the shipment of fresh fruits and vegetables over vast distances by air. Few economic activities are more energy-intensive.

Food miles—the distance that food travels from producer to consumer—have risen with cheap oil. At my local supermarket in downtown Washington, DC, the fresh grapes in winter typically come by plane from Chile, traveling almost 5,000 miles. One of the most routine long-distance movements of fresh produce is from California to the heavily populated US East Coast. Most of this produce moves by refrigerated trucks. In assessing the future of long-distance produce transport in the face of shrinking energy supplies, writer James Howard Kunstler observed that the days of the 3,000-mile Caesar salad may be numbered.

Packaging is also surprisingly energy-intensive, accounting for 7% of the food system's energy use. It is not uncommon for the energy invested in packaging to exceed that in the food it contains.

The most energy-intensive segment of the food chain is the kitchen. Much more energy is used to refrigerate and prepare food in the home than is used to produce it in the first place. The big energy user in the food system is the kitchen refrigerator, not the farm tractor. While oil dominates the production end of the food system, electricity dominates the consumption end.

With higher energy prices, the modern food system that evolved when oil was cheap will not survive as it is now structured.

Energy and Food


The world grain harvest has more than tripled since 1950. The most rapid growth came between 1950 and 1973, when the grain harvest doubled. picture of baskets of food staples in an Indian marketplace In those 23 years, grain harvests expanded by as much as they had during the preceding 11,000 years.

The mid-twentieth century marked an abrupt transition point in world agriculture as the frontiers of agricultural settlement largely disappeared. Prior to then, increases in the harvest came largely from expanding the cropped area, as farmers moved from valley to valley and eventually from continent to continent. Yield increases were typically so slow as to be imperceptible within a human life span. In contrast, since 1950, four-fifths of the growth in world grain harvest has come from raising land productivity, with much of the rise dependent on fossil fuels and energy-intensive technologies.

Between 1950 and 1990, the systematic application of science to agriculture helped raise grain productivity worldwide by 2.1% a year, every year. But by 1990, most of the easy steps to raise grain yields had already been taken, and since then the rise has slowed to 1.2% a year. Most notably, since the mid-1980s, the growth in grain production has lagged behind the growth in world population. Grain production per person peaked in 1984.

Energy and Food


We are witnessing a fundamental shift in the relationship between oil and food, one that has been in the making for several decades. From 1950 to 1972, a bushel of wheat could be traded for a barrel of oil on the world market. The price of each during that period was remarkably stable, averaging just under $2 for a bushel of wheat or barrel of oil. Since then, oil prices have climbed. In late 2007, even with a run-up in wheat prices, it took eight bushels of wheat to buy one barrel of oil.

Agricultural analysts have long been concerned about the effect of rising oil prices on food production costs, but now the gap between grain and oil prices is so wide that the United States is starting to convert grain into fuel for cars. When the price of oil rises above $60 a barrel, it becomes profitable to do this. An estimated 16% of the US grain harvest was converted into automotive fuel in 2006; for 2008, the figure is estimated at 33%.


Though the US has set aggressive growth targets for ethanol production, the ongoing financial crisis and downward pressure on oil prices are putting the brakes on expansion of ethanol distilling capacity. In 2008, the world's largest ethanol producer, Verasun, filed for bankruptcy. As of November, 2008, a total of 16 ethanol plants had filed for bankruptcy, with that number expected to at least double in 2009.

    — Grinning Planet

Source: TreeHugger

When oil prices jumped above $60 a barrel in 2005, investments in corn-based distilleries surged. Once dependent on the ethanol subsidy of 51 cents per gallon, distillery investment was now being driven primarily by surging oil prices. By mid-2007, the capacity of plants under construction slightly exceeded that of all plants built since the crop-based fuel ethanol program began decades earlier.

The United States eclipsed Brazil as the world's leading ethanol producer in 2005. While Brazil uses sugarcane as the feedstock, US distillers use grain—mostly corn. The estimated 81 million tons of the 2007 US corn harvest used to produce 8.3 billion gallons of ethanol represents one-fifth of the country's entire grain harvest, but it will supply less than 4% of its automotive fuel.


The US corn production is huge, accounting for 40% of the global harvest and two-thirds of world corn exports. The corn harvest of Iowa, the leading corn-producing state, exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. Iowa is also the epicenter of ethanol distillery construction. As distilleries compete for grain that is also used to feed livestock and poultry, Iowa could become a corn-deficit state—with no corn available to export to the rest of the world.

    — Lester Brown

Energy and Food


Brazil, the world's largest sugar producer and exporter, is now converting half of its sugarcane harvest into fuel ethanol. With 10% of the world's sugar harvest going into ethanol, the price of sugar is rising. Cheap sugar may now be history.

In Europe, the emphasis is on producing biodiesel. In 2006, the European Union (EU) produced 1.2 billion gallons of biodiesel from vegetable oil, mostly in Germany and France, and 417 million gallons of ethanol, most of it distilled from grain in France, Spain, and Germany. To meet its goal of obtaining 10% of its automotive fuel from plant-based sources, the EU is increasingly turning to palm oil imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, a trend that is leading to the clearing of rainforests for oil palm plantations. Concerned about this impact, the Netherlands and some other EU countries are reconsidering import of palm oil for biodiesel production.

In 2006, China converted some 4 million tons of grain—mostly corn—into ethanol. In India, as in Brazil, ethanol is produced largely from sugarcane.

Energy and Food


As the share of the US grain harvest going to ethanol distilleries escalates, it is driving up food prices worldwide. In September 2007, the price of corn was nearly double that of two years earlier. Wheat prices had more than doubled, reaching historic highs. Soybean prices were up by more than half.

The countries initially hit by rising food prices were those where corn is a staple food. In Mexico, the price of tortillas in early 2007 was up by 60%. Angry Mexicans in crowds of up to 75,000 took to the streets in protest, forcing the government to institute price controls on tortillas.

In the summer of 2007, Italian consumers organized pasta boycotts to protest soaring prices. Meanwhile, the British were worrying about rising bread prices.

From an agricultural vantage point, the world's appetite for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The grain required to fill an SUV's 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year.

Historically, the food and energy economies were separate. But with so many ethanol distilleries now being built to convert grain into fuel, the two are merging. In this new situation the world price of grain is moving up toward its oil-equivalent value. If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will simply move the commodity into the energy economy. If the price of oil jumps to $100 a barrel, the price of grain will follow it upward. If oil goes to $120, grain will follow. The price of grain is now keyed to the price of oil.

Energy and Food


For people, there are no alternatives to food; but for vehicles, there are alternatives to using food-based fuels. For example, the 4% of US automotive fuel currently supplied from ethanol could be offset several times over—and at a fraction of the cost—simply by raising auto fuel-efficiency standards by 20%.

Another way to reduce the fuel needed for cars is to shift to highly efficient gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars. This would allow motorists to do short-distance driving, such as their daily commute, with electricity. If wind-rich countries such as the United States, China, and those in Europe invest heavily in wind farms to feed cheap electricity into their grids, cars could run primarily on wind energy—and at the gasoline-equivalent cost of less than $1 a gallon.

As the world increasingly struggles to balance oil demand with faltering production levels, food will become more costly as higher oil prices drive up production costs and transport costs and as biofuel production keeps squeezing food supplies. As oil costs rise, diets will be altered as people move down the food chain and as they consume more local, seasonally produced food.

About The Author

Lester Brown Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute, whose goal is to provide a plan for building a sustainable future and a roadmap of how to get from here to there. Brown has been described as "one of the world's most influential thinkers" by the Washington Post; The Telegraph of Calcutta called him "the guru of the environmental movement"; and the Library of Congress requested his papers for their archives.


Plan B 3.0

Mobilizing to Save Civilization
(by Lester Brown)

book cover for Plan B 3.0, by Lester Brown, 1/16/2008 GP REVIEW: Modern economics rarely puts value on the products and services of earth's ecosystems—other than from a resource exploitation or development perspective. For instance, ignored are the benefits of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and coral reefs for purifying water, conserving soil, sequestering carbon, buffering coastal infrastructure against hurricanes, and providing spawning areas for fish. In Plan B 3.0, Lester Brown makes it very clear that we cannot continue to allow earth's essential systems to be "externalities" in the economic equation. To do so imperils civilization itself.  Read full review of Plan B 3.0

Grinning Planet publish date: 04-DEC-2008

Grinning Planet End Note

Thanks again to Lester Brown and the EPI team for their great work in Plan B 3.0 and for the 2008 series of articles made available on Grinning Planet.

We urge all GP readers to delve deeper into the many emerging issues related to food supply and to take a hard look at their personal food security. The financial crisis promises to take on even more serious proportions in 2009. Disruptions to your local food supply are indeed possible. Check out our three-part series—especially part 3—for more information.

Know someone who might like this Food and Energy article? Please forward it to them.



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  book cover for Eating Fossil Fuels, by Dale Allen Pfeiffer, 10/1/2006

For decades now, cheap fossil fuels have increased crop yields by providing artificial fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, and mechanization. Ten calories of hydrocarbon energy are required to produce one calorie of food. Such an imbalance cannot continue in a world of diminishing hydrocarbon resources. The book explores the problem and urges a transition to a sustainable, re-localized agriculture plus adoption of measures to address overpopulation. (by Dale Allen Pfeiffer)

  book cover for Depletion and Abundance, by Sharon Astyk, 9/1/2008

Life on the New Home Front

We are living beyond our means—with or without a peak-oil/climate-change crisis—and either way, we must learn to place our families and local communities at the center of our thinking once again. Depletion and Abundance presents strategies to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis; to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; to create stronger homes, better health, a richer family life; to prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and to maintain a kitchen garden to supply basic food needs. Most importantly, readers will discover that depletion can lead to abundance, and that the anxiety of these uncertain times can be turned into a gift of hope and action.

  book cover for Food Security for the Faint of Heart, by Robin Wheeler, 9/1/2008

Keeping Your Larder Full in Lean Times   (by Robin Wheeler)

Robin Wheeler extracts logic from hysteria, packages it with a strong environmental perspective, an abundance of practical suggestions, and good humor. Written for anyone interested in surviving whatever disaster comes along, this book will appeal to both long-time food security advocates and newcomers. Chapters are devoted to useful, transferable skills, including: preserving garden food; saving freezer food during a power outage; managing through an earthquake; preparing quick herbal medicinals; foraging for wild food.


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"We are witnessing the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history. The United States, in a misguided effort to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into fuel for cars, is generating global food insecurity on a scale never seen before."

— Lester Brown


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