Energy, food and greenhouse gases

Energy, food and greenhouse gases

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By William Austen Bradbury

Globally, the rate of energy consumption is calculated at 15 terawatts (TW), or 15 terajoules (TJ) of energy every second (1T = 1,000,000,000,000). About 86% of all this energy is produced by fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal).

Globally, the rate of energy consumption is calculated at 15 terawatts (TW), or 15 terajoules (TJ) of energy every second (1T = 1,000,000,000,000). [1] If a conventional electric light bulb consumes 60 W, this is the equivalent of 37 permanently lit light bulbs for every person in the world. More than a quarter of this consumption is lost in the generation and transport of energy.

About 86% of all this energy is produced by fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal). The use of these fuels has increased almost relentlessly since the first oil drilling in the mid-nineteenth century. This growth contrasts with the decline in the discovery of deposits since the late 1970s. Fossil fuels are a limited source of energy, exploited exponentially in recent decades, accelerating their inevitable depletion.

The predominant power system is highly dependent on energy consumption. The energy consumed by agriculture itself is estimated at only 4% of global energy consumption but, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contributes directly to 11% of the total greenhouse gases emitted, or 6.1 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent [3], [4]. Almost all emissions are in the form of methane (3.3 Gt) and nitrogen oxide (2.8 Gt). About two-thirds of global methane emissions and most nitrogen oxide emissions come from agriculture. [5]

However, when looking at the entire food system, a much higher energy consumption must be taken into account. From preparing the land for planting to the sale of processed products in stores and markets, there are a multitude of processes that make up the world's food system and that require energy to function: growing food, storage , transportation, processing, transformation and packaging, distribution, sale and treatment of waste.

The manufacture of most agricultural inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drugs) is done by processing fossil fuels as raw materials (natural gas to produce nitrogen fertilizer and oil to produce pesticides). Starting with the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s, the use of agrochemicals and water for irrigation increased tremendously.

Between 1960 and 2005, a period in which the world population doubled, the global use of nitrogen fertilizer increased more than 8 times. It is estimated that the production of this fertilizer consumes 2% of the world's energy consumption. [3] More than half of this production is applied to a single crop: corn. In the US, industrial production of one quintal (100 pounds) of corn consumes about half a gallon of oil. [7]

This high energy consumption by the industrial food system, which is highly dependent on fossil fuels, is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that a third of global emissions of these can be attributed to the global food system (see Table, page 17) [3]. However, there are many different ways of eating that have different energy consumptions and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. The most basic and traditional forms of food production such as displacement agriculture and hunting and gathering, consume much less energy than is obtained. The most modern methods such as intensive beef and industrial fishing are very energy inefficient, sometimes consuming up to 15 to 20 times more energy than what is obtained in the form of food.

The energy consumption of the food system of the most industrialized country on the planet, the United States, has increased enormously in the last 100 years from less than one calorie for every calorie of food obtained, to more than 10 calories today.

In recent decades, as an alternative response to the great industrialization of food production and distribution throughout the world, an important movement of farmers and ecologists has emerged in favor of the production of food in an ecological way and its distribution in based on local markets, linking producers with consumers.

At the beginning of the 21st century, with the energy and environmental crises becoming more and more evident, the results of several important studies have been published that prove the efficiency of organic farming in terms of its energy consumption.

In 2002, the results of the dok Trial, a study that compared organic agriculture with conventional agriculture for 24 years, were released. Unique in the world of its kind, of such a long duration, its statistics show that organic agriculture is "more environmentally friendly, more efficient and sustainable", while maintaining higher fertility in the soil. [9]

The United Nations' Organic Agriculture, Environment and Food Security report, published in 2003, also found that organic agriculture performs better than conventional agriculture per hectare, with respect to direct energy consumption (fuel and oil) and indirect consumption. energy (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides). [10] Another United Nations report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, published last year, confirmed that organic agriculture consumes less energy. It was found that 93% of the investigated cases reported benefits in soil fertility, water supply, flood control and biodiversity. [eleven]

While international institutions limit themselves to referring to organic agriculture, many social and environmental organizations speak of agroecology. Organic agriculture, since the term was born, has undergone a change in its meaning. Agroindustries intend to commercialize organic products because they are more environmentally friendly, when in reality the same cultivation techniques are used (monocultures) although, instead of using chemical inputs, they use inputs made from materials not considered chemical. It may result in a healthier product for human consumption, but its improved impact on the environment is questionable. Without the implementation of agricultural practices such as crop rotation and association, recycling of waste in the form of organic compost, and protection of the soil, problems of erosion by rain or wind, loss of fertility soil, and the high dependence on external inputs and energy consumption, are not solved.

Agroecology has another approach based on caring for the soil. For agriculture to be truly environmentally friendly and sustainable, you cannot allow the soil to degrade. This is only achieved with the aforementioned practices, all with the purpose of recycling nutrients, and therefore energy, within the farm or area. Well-kept soil acts as a “carbon sequestrant” - it absorbs carbon dioxide and mitigates climate change.

One myth is that organic farming is outdated and underperforming because it doesn't take advantage of modern technology; theory discredited by several international studies published in recent years.

In 2006, an international study of improvements in agricultural practices (such as crop rotation and organic farming) found that the average increase in production was 79%. [12] In 2008, the results of the world's largest study comparing the use of compost (organic compost) with chemical fertilizer over a 7-year period were published. The study concluded that the use of compost increased production by 100-200% and surpassed the increase due to the use of chemical fertilizers by 30%. [13] Finally, the United Nations study on organic agriculture in Africa, which analyzed more than 100 interventions in 24 countries, found an average increase in production of more than 100%. [eleven]

If organic agriculture, or rather agroecology, is added a local food system - food production for the local market - instead of the agro-export model imposed on most countries in the world by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the energy consumed can be lowered even more to feed the population.

This is what Via Campesina has been proposing for 10 years, an international peasant movement that represents millions of peasant women and men, indigenous peoples, small farmers and rural workers in 69 countries around the world. In its fight for food sovereignty, La Via Campesina demands the right of the peoples to define their own policies on the production, distribution and consumption of food to guarantee a healthy diet for their population. If they chose policies that developed organic farming and localized food and energy systems, there would be the potential to save more than 50% of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Incorporating renewable energy could supply more energy than necessary and eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. [3]

As Hans Herren, co-chair of the International Assessment of the Role of Knowledge, Science and Technology in Agricultural Development [14] said: "Without reforms, many of the poorest countries will have very difficult times."

To implement such a change, strong, democratic and participatory states would be needed, and that is why the importance of strengthening and raising awareness among social movements is highlighted.

William Austen Bradbury - EcoBASE - Education Based on Sustainable and Ecological Agriculture, (…) - Grain Biodiversity Magazine -


1. Consumption and energy resources worldwide. International Energy Outlook 2007 of the United States Department of Energy,

2. Anatomy of an oil discovery (2007). David Cohen. Published in aspo-usa Energy Bulletin.

3. “Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change. How the world can be food and energy secure without fossil fuels ”. Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society, Paper from the East and Southeast Asia Workshop-Conference on Sustainable Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, The Philippines, October 2008.

4. “Mitigating Climate Change through Organic Agriculture and Localized Food Systems”. Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching, Institute of Science in Society, January 2008,

5. “The Role of Organic Agriculture in Mitigating Climate Change —a scoping study”. Johannes Kotschi and Karl Müller Sämann, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, May 2004

6. "Agricultural Sustainability and Intensive Production Practices". David Tilman, Kenneth G. Cassman, Pamela A. Matson, Rosamond Naylor, and Stephen Polasky. Nature 418, August 2002, pp 671-677.

7. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Michael Pollan, 2006

8. Ariadne’s Thread: The Search for New Modes of Thinking. Mary E. Clark. St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

9. Press Call of the Organic Agriculture Research Institute (fibl), Switzerland, 2002,…)

10. Organic agriculture, environment and food security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao). Edited by Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Caroline Hattam, 280 pp, Fao Collection: Environment and Natural Resources No. 4, 2003,

11. Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. unep-unctad, 2008,

12. “Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries”. J. N. Pretty, A. D. Noble, D. Bossio, J. Dixon, R. E. Hine, F. W. T. Penning de Vries, and J. I. L. Morison. Environmental Science and Technology, 2006, 1114–1119,

13. “Greening Ethiopia for Food Security & End to Poverty”. Edwards S. Science in Society 37, 42-46, February 2008.

14. International Assessment of the Role of Knowledge, Science and Technology in Agricultural Development (iaastd), 2008.

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  1. Arakasa

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  2. Eadric

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  3. Adio

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