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Feeling the heat of food security

Reforming the economics of food production and supply would be beneficial for a number of environmental and social problems, argues Peter Baker. A key issue, he says, is understanding the energy involved in putting food on your plate.

Global development, global debt, global warming, food miles, food security, food riots, peak oil, peak water…

What’s this got to do with small farmers and global food chains?

The answer is that all the issues mentioned above intersect over small farmers. If we can’t quite get a grip on what is happening to the world, we won’t be able to do a good job for them, and we’ll waste a lot of resources in the process.

It’s perfectly reasonable to want to assist farmers to build a better life by adding value.

It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect their produce to be fresh and non-toxic. And it’s only natural to want to facilitate this process through aid, technical assistance, capacity building and the like.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Maintaining order

I had originally planned to call this article Supermarkets, Smallholders and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Second Law is about order; the Universe is inexorably heading to increased randomness and disorder.

For practical purposes, this does not have to be a problem because we can increase order locally by hard work, by expending energy. But in the process we create greater disorder (heat and waste) elsewhere.

If there is plenty of energy and plenty of “elsewhere”, then we don’t have to worry.

Indeed, for our whole existence, we largely haven’t worried; in fact the whole world order, built on trade and economics, hasn’t worried.

Biological systems know all about thermodynamics. All living things are highly ordered assemblies of molecules continuously battling against disorder.

Commodity chains must also obey the Second Law; in a sense, they are living things, creating highly ordered products and emitting significant waste and heat in the process.

For example, a recent study looking at Nicaraguan coffee production and processing showed that the total energy embodied in coffee exported to several countries - though not all - was not compensated by the dollar price paid for that energy.

Essentially, the conclusion was that the country is exporting subsidised energy.

It could well be that coffee is still the best way for farmers to earn a living and that the available energy could not readily be put to a better purpose. But it should at least make a country’s decision-makers wonder about the long term policy, the true value of exported products and how sustainable a country’s commodity chains will be in an energetically expensive future.

Look too at a modern high value vegetable chain. The orderliness required to plant, grow, harvest, process, pack, store, monitor, administer, transport, display and sell the produce in a supermarket is simply staggering, and the expended energy intense.

As an example, tomato production in the US consumes four times as many calories as the calorific value of the tomatoes created.

The point of this article may now be apparent. We are intervening, politically and normatively, in very complex systems that we only partially understand.

Waste of energy

This is not a tirade about supermarkets; no one is forcing farmers into these chains. Indeed, the retail sector has only done its job: ordering and quantifying according to its own criteria, to a state of near optimal efficiency.It’s just that the rest of us have not been able to match its brilliance.

At some point, it no longer makes any sense to simultaneously export and import food high in embodied energy

And it’s not about food miles. The argument about the cost to the environment versus the gains to poor rural farmers has its pros and cons.

Instead, it’s about different sorts of sustainability and the clash of very different interests.

The economic argument, revealed through agribusiness plans, may well be very strong. But these are inevitably rather short-term positions, and the funds invested may be hedged for exchange rate changes, freight costs and other risks.

When these are just stand-alone business operations then we could leave it at that - they invest their money and take their chances.

But it’s no longer a matter of a few agribusiness operations in a few developing countries. With the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements now being signed, for instance, countries in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group are on course to completely open their borders to food trade, and will be encouraged to export whatever products they can to the EU.

Foreign investment will descend on certain countries and will look for good deals on infrastructure. Politicians there may feel obliged to provide subsidised water, road and other infrastructure to secure new export initiatives, and they in turn will look for donor support to carry them through.

Trade departments of development banks and other donors will examine the short-to-medium-term economic argument, but may not adequately determine whether this is sustainable into the long term.

Hence, before significant public funds are assigned to this end, we must do our utmost to ensure they are well spent.

Thinking locally

Getting back to the Second Law; agribusiness operations in under-developed countries are highly ordered physical and information entities producing products with high embodied energy.

They exist in a landscape of increasing disorder caused by growing populations and a degrading environment.

Trucks carrying away the produce along bumpy rural roads sometimes pass food aid trucks coming in the opposite direction. For example, some $45m (£22.5m) of food aid came from the US to Kenya last year.

Even before its sea voyage, the calorific value of US wheat is only twice the amount of calories expended to produce it. Compare this with cassava production in Tanzania where 23 times the calorific value is gained for each calorie of human energy input.

Is it energetically sound, socially advisable and economically sensible in the long term to encourage and sustain such long two-way supply chains that evolved in a low-cost energy era?

CARE International has recently declined the food aid it gets for Kenya, suggesting that it is distorting local agriculture. Are they right? How can they and donors make the right decisions?

Could it be more sustainable and cost effective for donors to pay farmers a “fair” price to develop food production for local markets - based on costs of fuel, importing food, the risk of the supply chain collapsing or moving to another country, and so on?

There are many possibilities and a large number of variables, but the most important is to find out how close to the margins of impossibility any business plan might approach.

Surely at some point, let’s say between $50 and $500 per barrel of oil, it no longer makes any sense to simultaneously export and import food high in embodied energy.

But we simply lack the user-friendly models and metrics that decision-makers need to calculate such figures and project them into the future.

So private standards are fine; but there should be public standards too, or at least a set of criteria based on the most fundamental laws of physics and biology, before significant public funds are spent.

Dr Peter Baker is a commodities development specialist at CABI, a not-for-profit agricultural research organisation

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website


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