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Why Our Food is So Dependent on Oil

http://www.321energy.com/editorials/church/church040205.html

by Norman Church
April 2nd, 2005

"Concentrate on what cannot lie. The evidence..." -- Gil Grissom

INTRODUCTION
“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...
One study has estimated that UK imports of food products and animal feed 
involved transportation by sea, air and road amounting to over 83 billion 
tonne-kilometres (3). This required 1.6 billion litres of fuel and, based on 
a conservative figure of 50 grams of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre 
resulted in 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (4). Within the 
UK, the amount of food transported increased by 16% and the distances 
travelled by 50% between 1978 and 1999.
It has been estimated that the CO2 emissions attributable to producing, 
processing, packaging and distributing the food consumed by a family of four 
is about 8 tonnes a year (5)
..and is unnecessarily contributing to carbon emissions.
It is not that this transportation is critical or necessary. In many cases 
countries import and export similar quantities of the same food products 
(6). A recent report has highlighted the instances in which countries import 
and export large quantities of particular foodstuffs (6). For example, in 
1997, 126 million litres of liquid milk was imported into the UK and, at the 
same time, 270 million litres of milk was exported from the UK. 23,000 
tonnes of milk powder was imported into the UK and 153,000 tonnes exported 
(7). UK milk imports have doubled over the last 20 years, but there has been 
a four-fold increase in UK milk exports over the last 30 years (8).
Britain imports 61,400 tonnes of poultry meat a year from the Netherlands 
and exports 33,100 tonnes to the Netherlands. We import 240,000 tonnes of 
pork and 125,000 tonnes of lamb while exporting 195,000 tonnes of pork and 
102,000 tonnes of lamb (6).
This system is unsustainable, illogical, and bizarre and can only exist as 
long as inexpensive fossil fuels are available and we do not take 
significant action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
GLOBAL WARMING AND FINITE OIL
The threat of global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions
The nearness of the depletion stage of oil supplies
Discovery of oil and gas peaked in the 1960s. Production is set to peak too, 
with five Middle Eastern countries regaining control of world supply (9). 
Almost two-thirds of the world's total reserves of crude oil are located in 
the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq (10). An assessment 
of future world oil supply and its depletion pattern shows that between 1980 
and 1998 there was an 11.2 per cent increase in world crude oil production, 
from 59.6 to 66.9 million barrels of oil per day (10). Current world 
production rates are about 25 Gb (billion barrels) per year. A simple 
calculation shows that if consumption levels remain constant, world crude 
oil reserves, at approximately 1 trillion barrels, could be exhausted around 
2040 (11).
The oil crises of the 1970s when the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting 
Countries (OPEC) states reined in their production have passed into folk 
memory. However, they were accompanied by massive disruption and global 
economic recession. The same happened in 1980 and 1991 (12).
Colin J. Campbell, a pre-eminent oil industry analyst, believes that future 
crises will be much worse. “The oil shocks of the 1970s were short-lived 
because there were then plenty of new oil and gas finds to bring on stream. 
This time there are virtually no new prolific basins to yield a crop of 
giant fields sufficient to have a global impact. The growing Middle East 
control of the market is likely to lead to a radical and permanent increase 
in the price of oil, before physical shortages begin to appear within the 
first decade of the 21st century. The world's economy has been driven by an 
abundant supply of cheap oil-based energy for the best part of this century. 
The coming oil crisis will accordingly be an economic and political 
discontinuity of historic proportions, as the world adjusts to a new energy 
environment” (9).
The three main purposes for which oil is used worldwide are food, transport 
and heating. In the near future the competition for oil for these three 
activities will be raw and real. An energy famine is likely to affect poorer 
countries first, when increases in the cost of paraffin, used for cooking, 
place it beyond their reach. Following the peak in production, food supplies 
all over the world will begin to be disrupted, not only because of price 
increases but because the oil will no longer be there.
IS ORGANIC ANY DIFFERENT?
The organic system is more energy efficient to the farm gate...
One of the benefits of organic production is that energy consumption and, 
therefore, fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, are less 
than that in conventional systems.
The energy used in food production is separated into direct and indirect 
inputs. Indirect inputs include the manufacture and supply of pesticides, 
feedstuffs and fertilisers while direct energy inputs are those on the farm, 
such as machinery. One measure of the energy efficiency of food production 
that allows a comparison between different farming practices is the energy 
consumed per unit output, often expressed as the energy consumed per tonne 
of food produced (MJ/tonne) or the energy consumed per kilogram of food 
(MJ/kg).
A study comparing organic and conventional livestock, dairy, vegetable and 
arable systems in the UK found that, with average yields, the energy saving 
with organic production ranged from 0.14 MJ/kg to 1.79 MJ/kg, with the 
average being 0.68 MJ/kg or 42 per cent (13). The improved energy efficiency 
in organic systems is largely due to lower (or zero) fertiliser and 
pesticide inputs, which account for half of the energy input in conventional 
potato and winter wheat production and up to 80 per cent of the energy 
consumed in some vegetable crops.
In conventional upland livestock production, the largest energy input is 
again indirect in the form of concentrated and cereal feeds. When reared 
organically, a greater proportion of the feed for dairy cattle, beef and 
hill sheep is derived from grass. In the case of milk production, it has 
been found that organic systems are almost five times more energy efficient 
on a per animal basis and three and a half times more energy efficient in 
terms of unit output (the energy required to produce a litre of milk) (13).
...but not when it goes global.
So far so good - but once passed the farm-gate, things begin to go wrong. 
Britain imports over three-quarters of its organic produce, and despite 
consumer demand, only two per cent of its land is organically farmed (14). 
As the market has grown it has been met by imports.
A study looking at the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions when 
importing organic food products to the UK by plane (15) found that carbon 
dioxide emissions range from 1.6 kilograms to 10.7 kilograms. Air transport 
of food is the worst environmental option but road transport, especially 
unnecessary journeys, is also bad. For example 5kg of Sicilian potatoes 
travelling 2448 miles emits 771 grams of carbon dioxide.
The problem is that, overall, human beings have developed a tendency to deal 
with problems on an ad hoc basis - i.e., to deal with 'problems of the 
moment'. This does not foster an attitude of seeing a problem embedded in 
the context of another problem.
Globalisation makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in 
isolation. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote, can cause 
problems for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject 
to their influence (whether helpful or destabilising).
For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.
Shocks to the system
As already stated, the three main purposes for which oil is used worldwide 
are food, transport and heating. Agriculture is almost entirely dependent on 
reliable supplies of oil for cultivation and for pumping water, and on gas 
for its fertilisers; in addition, for every calorie of energy used by 
agriculture itself, five more are used for processing, storage and 
distribution.
Since farming and the food industry are not famous for spending money 
unnecessarily, there must be a presumption that there is very little 
short-term 'slack' which would allow its demand for energy to be reduced at 
short notice without disruptions in food prices. In the case of transport 
and heating fuel, there is more scope for saving energy at short notice; 
cutting leisure journeys, for instance, wearing extra pullovers and, in the 
slightly longer term, driving smaller cars have a role to play while, in the 
longer term, there is a totally different low-energy paradigm waiting to be 
developed. But it is the short term that has to be survived first and, in 
that short term, the competition for oil for food, transport and heating 
will be real and raw.
Through its dependence on oil, contemporary farming is exposed to the whole 
question of the sustainability of our use of fossil fuels. It took 500 
million years to produce these hydrocarbon deposits and we are using them at 
a rate in excess of 1 million times their natural rate of production. On the 
time scale of centuries, we certainly cannot expect to continue using oil as 
freely and ubiquitously as we do today. Something is going to have to 
change.
The same applies more widely to every natural resource on which industrial 
civilisation relies. Furthermore, one might think that there is a compounded 
problem. Not only are there more people consuming these resources, but their 
per capita consumption also increases in line with the elaboration of 
technology. We seem to be facing a problem of diminishing returns, indeed of 
running out of the vital raw materials needed to support our economic 
growth.
Almost every current human endeavour from transportation, to manufacturing, 
to electricity to plastics, and especially food production is inextricably 
intertwined with oil and natural gas supplies.
Commercial food production is oil powered. Most pesticides are petroleum- 
(oil) based, and all commercial fertilisers are ammonia-based. Ammonia is 
produced from natural gas Oil based agriculture is primarily responsible for 
the world's population exploding from 1 billion at the middle of the 19th 
century to 6.3 billion at the turn of the 21st Oil allowed for farming 
implements such as tractors, food storage systems such as refrigerators, and 
food transport systems such as trucks As oil production went up, so did food 
production. As food production went up, so did the population. As the 
population went up, the demand for food went up, which increased the demand 
for oil. Here we go round the Mulberry bush Oil is also largely responsible 
for the advances in medicine that have been made in the last 150 years. Oil 
allowed for the mass production of pharmaceutical drugs, and the development 
of health care infrastructure such as hospitals, ambulances, roads, etc.
We are now at a point where the demand for food/oil continues to rise, while 
our ability to produce it in an affordable fashion is about to drop.
Within a few years of Peak Oil occurring, the price of food will skyrocket 
because the cost of fertiliser will soar. The cost of storing (electricity) 
and transporting (gasoline) the food that is produced will also soar.
Oil is required for a lot more than just food, medicine, and transportation. 
It is also required for nearly every consumer item, water supply pumping, 
sewage disposal, garbage disposal, street/park maintenance, hospitals and 
health systems, police, fire services and national defence.
Additionally, as you are probably already aware, wars are often fought over 
oil.
Bottom line?
If we think we are food secure here in the UK and other industrialised 
countries simply because we have gas in the car, frankly, we are delusional. 
Despite the appearance of an endless bounty of food, it is a fragile bounty, 
dependent upon the integrity of the global oil production, refining and 
delivery system. That system is entirely dependent on the thread of 
technology. Modern, technology-based agriculture produces both food, and 
seeds for next year’s food, on a just-in-time basis. There are precious 
little reserves of either food or seeds to sustain any protracted 
interruption.
Technology and the incredibly rich tapestry it has made possible has created 
a false sense of security for so many of us. The thread is flawed; the 
tapestry is now fragile; famines are possible. We must take that seriously. 
. .
Our food supply, and our economic survival as a whole, depends on the steady 
availability of reasonably priced oil. Is oil our Achilles heel?
This means our food supply is:
Vulnerable:
The oil supplies that fuel the food system could be exhausted by 2040 (19). 
In many regions oil production has peaked and most reserves lie in the 
Middle East. Food security is also threatened: for example, even if all UK 
fruit production was consumed in the UK, of every 100 fruit products 
purchased, only 5 will now have been grown in the UK.
Inefficient:
For every calorie of carrot, flown in from South Africa, we use 66 calories 
of fuel. The huge fuel use in the food system means more carbon dioxide 
emissions, which means climate change, which means more damage to food 
supplies, as well as other major health and social problems.
Unsustainable:
Even organic supplies are becoming hugely damaging as imports fill our 
shelves (17). One shopping basket of 26 imported organic products could have 
travelled 241,000 kilometres and released as much CO2 into the atmosphere as 
an average four bedroom household does through cooking meals over eight 
months (18).
Other problems highlighted include loss of nutrients in food, increased 
incidence and spread of diseases such as Foot & Mouth and other major animal 
welfare problems. Poor countries producing food for distant markets are not 
necessarily seeing benefits through increased and often intensive production 
for export. The report reveals how such trends could be reversed through 
industry, government and public action.
In other words, we won’t have to run completely out of oil to be rudely 
awakened. The panic starts once the world needs more oil than it gets.
To understand why, you’ve got to fathom how totally addicted to oil we have 
become. We know that petroleum is drawn from deep wells and distilled into 
gasoline, jet fuel, and countless other products that form the lifeblood of 
industry and the adrenaline of military might. It’s less well known that the 
world’s food is now nourished by oil; petroleum and natural gas are crucial 
at every step of modern agriculture, from forming fertiliser to shipping 
crops. The implications are grim. For millions, the difference between an 
energy famine and a biblical famine could well be academic.
Independent policy analyst David Fleming writes in the British magazine 
Prospect (Nov. 2000),
With a global oil crisis looming like the Doomsday Rock, why do so few 
political leaders seem to care? Many experts refuse to take the problem 
seriously because it "falls outside the mind-set of market economics." 
Thanks to the triumph of global capitalism, the free-market model now reigns 
almost everywhere. The trouble is, its principles "tend to break down when 
applied to natural resources like oil." The result is both potentially 
catastrophic and all too human. Our high priests—the market economists—are 
blind to a reality that in their cosmology cannot exist.
Fleming offers several examples of this broken logic at work. Many cling to 
a belief that higher oil prices will spur more oil discoveries, but they 
ignore what earth scientists have been saying for years: there aren’t any 
more big discoveries to make. Most of the oil reserves we tap today were 
actually identified by the mid-1960s. There’s a lot of oil left in the 
ground — perhaps more than half of the total recoverable supply. Fleming 
says that that is not the issue. The real concern is the point beyond which 
demand cannot be met. And with demand destined to grow by as much as 3 
percent a year, the missing barrels will add up quickly. Once the pain 
becomes real, the Darwinian impulse kicks in and the orderly market gives 
way to chaos.
Some insist that industrial societies are growing less dependent on oil. 
Fleming says they’re kidding themselves. They’re talking about oil use as a 
percentage of total energy use, not the actual amount of oil burned. 
Measured by the barrel, we’re burning more and more. In Britain, for 
instance, transportation needs have doubled in volume since 1973 and still 
rely almost entirely on oil. Transportation is the weak link in any modern 
economy; choke off the oil and a country quickly seizes.
This wouldn’t matter much, Fleming laments, "If the world had spent the last 
25 years urgently preparing alternative energies, conservation technologies, 
and patterns of land use with a much lower dependence on transport." (He 
figures 25 years to be the time it will take a country like Britain to break 
its habit.) Instead, "the long-expected shock finds us unprepared."
SOME UK FOOD STATISTICS
UK food supply chain
UK food retailing market was worth £103,800 million in 2001
Food manufacturing is the single-largest manufacturing industry in the UK
Food supply chain employs 12.5% of the entire workforce in the UK
Food supply chain contributes 8% to the UK economy
Food and drink accounts for 21% of weekly household expenditure
Food supply chain and unsustainability
Food supply chain is the largest energy user in the UK
Food production and distribution contributes up to 22% of the UK’s total 
greenhouse emissions
Food travels further than any other product - 129 km compared to the average 
product travel of 94 km
Wages in the food industry are notoriously low compared to other sectors
Nearly 30% of household waste is food waste
CONCLUSIONS
Proximity and localisation of food system would be beneficial.
The contemporary food system is inherently unsustainable.
Indicators of social, environmental and economic performance, such as food 
security, greenhouse gas emissions, food miles, farm income and biodiversity 
highlight this fact. This process could be reversed by re-establishing local 
and regional food supply systems and substituting ‘near for far’ in 
production and distribution systems. This would reduce both the demand for, 
and the environmental burdens associated with, transportation.
The proximity principle is a straightforward concept in Eating Oil, where 
production processes are located as near to the consumer as possible. When 
applied to food supply, local food systems in the form of home-delivery box 
schemes, farmers’ markets and shops selling local produce would replace 
imported and centrally distributed foodstuffs.
Taking UK food supply and trade at present, there is great potential to 
apply the proximity principle, in the form of import substitution. Apart 
from products such as bananas, coffee and tea, many of the foodstuffs that 
are imported at present could be produced in Britain. Many meat products, 
cereals, dairy products and cooking oils are - or could be - available here 
throughout the year. So could fruit and vegetables, perhaps the most 
seasonal of food groups, through a combination of cultivating different 
varieties and traditional and modern storage and preservation techniques.
The land currently used to produce food that is exported could be used to 
increase our self-sufficiency.
There is growing evidence of environmental benefits of local sourcing of 
food in terms of reduced transport-related environmental impact. In the case 
of organic produce, a survey of retailers compared local and global sourcing 
of produce marketed in different outlets between June and August 2001. 
Products were chosen that were available in the UK during these months but 
are at present imported by the multiple retailers. These included spring 
onions imported by plane from Mexico, potatoes imported by road from Sicily, 
onions imported by ship from New Zealand. It was found that local sourcing 
through a farmers market, for example, would therefore reduce the greenhouse 
gas emissions associated with distribution by a factor of 650 in the case of 
a farmers’ market and more for box schemes and farm shop sales (16).
The value of UK food, feed and drink imports in 1999 was over £17 billion. 
It is clear that a reduction in food imports through import substitution 
would not only be of benefit to the UK economy as a whole but could also be 
a major driver in rural regeneration as farm incomes would increase 
substantially. Local food systems also have great potential to reduce the 
damaging environmental effects of the current food supply system.
A sustainable food system cannot rely, almost completely, on one finite 
energy source; an energy source which causes enormous levels of pollution 
during its production, distribution and use. Although food supplies in 
wealthy countries such as the UK appear to be secure and choice, in terms of 
thousands of food products being available at supermarkets, seems limitless, 
this is an illusion.
The vulnerability of our food system to sudden changes was demonstrated 
during the fuel crisis in 2001. A sharp increase in the price of oil or a 
reduction in oil supplies could present a far more serious threat to food 
security and is likely to as oil enters its depletion phase. Food production 
and distribution, as they are organised today, would not be able to 
function. Moreover, the alternatives, in the form of sustainable agriculture 
and local food supplies, which minimise the use of crude oil, are currently 
unable to respond to increased demand due to low investment and capacity.
The food system is now a significant contributor to climate change. Reducing 
the carbon dioxide emissions from food production, processing and 
distribution by minimising the distance between producer and consumer should 
be a critical part of any strategy to mitigate global warming.
There are many benefits to organic farming, including reduced fossil fuel 
energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. However, these are often 
overshadowed by the environmental damage of long distance transport. Organic 
products that are transported long distances, particularly when distribution 
is by plane, are almost as damaging as their conventional air freighted 
counterparts. Highly processed and packaged organic foodstuffs have an added 
adverse environmental impact.
The priority must be the development of local and regional food systems, 
preferably organically based, in which a large percentage of demand is met 
within the locality or region. This approach, combined with fair trade, will 
ensure secure food supplies, minimise fossil fuel consumption and reduce the 
vulnerability associated with a dependency on food exports (as well as 
imports). Localising the food system will require significant 
diversification, research, investment and support that have, so far, not 
been forthcoming. But it is achievable and we have little choice.

Compiled by Norman Church
Norman@noidea.me.uk
Norman Church
April 2nd, 2005

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during June – August 2001; distance tables for air miles at 
http://www.indo.com/cgi-bin/dist and the environmental impact of airfreight in 
Guidelines for company reporting on greenhouse gas emissions. Department of 
the Environment, Transport and the Regions, London, March 2001.
16 Data for shipping and airfreight from Guidelines for company reporting on 
greenhouse gas emissions. Department of the Environment, Transport and the 
Regions: London, March 2001. Data for trucks is based on Whitelegg, J., 
1993. Transport for a sustainable future: the case for Europe. Belhaven 
Press, London; and Gover, M. P., 1994. UK petrol and diesel demand: energy 
and emission effects of a switch to diesel. Report for the Department of 
Trade and Industry, HMSO, London. Data for cars from the Vehicle 
Certification Agency at http://www.vca.gov.uk ; Whitelegg, J., 1993. Transport for a 
sustainable future: the case for Europe. Belhaven Press, London; and Gover, 
M. P., 1994. UK petrol and diesel demand: energy and emission effects of a 
switch to diesel. Report for the Department of Trade and Industry, HMSO, 
London.
17 RCEP, 2000. Energy – The Changing Climate. The Royal Commission on 
Environmental Pollution, Twenty-second Report, June 2000, HMSO, London.
18 DETR, 2001. The draft UK climate change programme. DETR, 2001. HMSO, 
London.
19 USDOE, 2001.World Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and 
Flaring of Fossil Fuels, 1980-1999. US Department of the Environment at 
http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/tableh1.xls 
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