Could Farming Like A Physicist Prevent The Global Food Crisis?

The world needs to dramatically reduce the amount of energy used for farming, writes Cora Moran

Farming is, of course, essential to all of our lives. Over the centuries, a variety of innovations in pre-industrial agriculture, such as water mills, windmills and beasts of burden, have helped to substantially increase net available energy and increase farming efficiency.

Our current farming systems have continued to improve yields; using fossil fuels as cheap, readily available energy to boost agricultural productivity. However, this comes at a cost. Globally, agriculture accounts for 11 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of energy used in the production of food rather than in transportation or storage.

There are also other dangerously degradative environmental effects such as: methane emissions from livestock; excess fertiliser runoff damaging aquatic ecosystems; and pesticides affecting biodiversity on land. Most of all, the fundamental problem with industrial agriculture is that we use several calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food.

The most fundamental problem with industrial agriculture is that we use several calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food

Globally, we are attempting to move to a low carbon economy and reduce our use of fossil fuels, as this will reduce both carbon emissions and our dependence on a non-renewable resource.

However, to achieve a low carbon economy we will have to live off an ‘energy income’ rather than the ‘energy inheritance’ of fossil fuels. Renewable energy systems produce a respectable energy surplus but we will most likely have less net energy available to run society in future. Whilst we can adapt our infrastructure to run off renewables, the raw materials and embodied energy that fossil fuels provide for artificial fertilisers and pesticides will be extremely difficult to replace.

There is no silver bullet, but there are a range of innovations and strategies that can reduce the energy required for food production: organic farming avoids the use of pesticides but needs to be combined with a range of other techniques to provide sufficient food production for present global demand. Promoting the local production and consumption of food can also help reduce transport emissions.

There is no silver bullet, but there are a range of innovations and strategies that can reduce the energy required for food production

Perennial grains are also being developed to reduce soil erosion and the need for chemical inputs along with systems such as aquaponics which allow farmers to grow fruit and vegetables with considerably less water and fertilisers. These are just some of the potential solutions.

What links all of these strategies is the role of energy. The majority of current industrial agriculture is extractive: we mine fossil fuels and use their embodied energy to produce abundance. Unfortunately, this produces pollution and cannot be sustained forever.

New, innovative systems are looking to minimise energy inputs and recycle resources where possible – this is a much more sustainable approach as we move into living off an energy income rather than an energy inheritance.

Collectively, we need to think about food production in terms of the energy involved. This will give us a common language with which to talk about and move towards sustainable methods of food production.

Cora Moran is an experienced researcher who has worked in the Built Environment & Renewable Energy sectors for a number of years and writes for the European Energy Centre about a range of environmental issues.

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