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Driving on food

Submitted by: MikeC (Admin) on 15-Apr-08 01:05:14 PM

If there's one thing that has affected my attitude most since peering into the world of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs), it is not the case for climate change, it's the realisation of just how dependent on the huge forces we unleash at the mere flick of a switch.

Forces which allow us to shift a one ton vehicle carrying 5 people 60 miles in just an hour. A force which, if replaced by manpower alone, would require a small army of people to transact in a time-span measuring days... not including the days it would take to plan and organise.

A force which delivers food to our shops from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, in a day. A force we use to transport that food home, refrigerate, and cook at phenomenal speeds using more instantly available forces.

Interesting stats

Approximately 90% of the energy in crop production is oil and natural gas.

About one-third of the energy is to reduce the labour input from 500 hours per acre to 4 hours per acre in grain production.

About two-thirds of the energy is for production, of which about one-third of this is for fertilizers alone.
Pimentel and associates (1998)

Without those forces to command - essentially oil-derived - our whole day would revolve around producing (or finding) food, sourcing water, and cooking/boiling it.

Around 5-6 weeks ago, I heard a spokesperson from the World Food Program (WPF) on the BEEB's World Service (don't ask - Actually, it's quite an interesting station) warning that worldwide stockpiles of wheat stood at just 9 weeks.

The shortages are a result of crops ruined by drought and floods in some of the world's major food producing countries, plus the additional 73 million mouths to feed each year (and accelerating).

The "wheat squeeze" is not just a one year blip either: Wheat production has been declining since 2004-05.

On top of that, we have escalating record oil prices ($112/barrel) adding to fertiliser and freight costs.

Sell property - Buy caves

All the more reason why I've sat quietly bemused at the relatively low radar signal. So low, in fact, I felt like a preaching nutter a few weeks ago when I was chatting to a property manager about the EPC and possible ramifications of an oil and grain squeeze - She thought I was unduly carrying the world on my shoulders as I urged her to diversify into cave-renting.

Only because of the riots during the last few days has the situation finally stirred mass-media attention. So, when I spoke with her yesterday, she confessed to now feeling 'slightly nervous'.

She should. We should.

Biofuels vs biofood

From today (Tuesday 15th April 2008), the competing demands on land and food production has increased: 2.5% of the diesel or petrol you pour into your car will now come from ethanol; a so-called biofuel derived from food crops.

What's more, the ratio of biofuel in your tank is set to increase up to 5.75% by 2010, under EU regulations.

That is, unless farming ministers make food an "absolute priority" when they meet later this week, according to Jacques Diouf, of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food riots

This, amidst a worldwide shortage of wheat, rice and corn which has sparked riots in Niger, Senegal, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Haiti, where the government fell during the weekend leaving five people dead (at least).

Elsewhere, protests and general unrest on the streets of Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where people form huge queues to buy rice from government stocks.

The price of wheat and rice has soared 130%, and 74% respectively in the last year alone, triggering a food crisis across 36 countries, according to the FAO.

If you think it's just affecting poor countries, be aware: France and Australia have launched national inquiries into their own exposures and are pressing food makers and supermarkets to bear the brunt of rising prices. Even Italy has suffered a one-day strike because of rising pasta and bread prices.

The food crisis appears to be bubbling up through the world economies, exacerbated by export restrictions imposed by governments in some of the world's major food-producing countries (to feed their own populations), and compounded further by countries such as America, which is diverting 18% of its grain output to ethanol production this year, in a bid to become less oil dependent.

The irony, however, is that we are likely to import their biofuel because we - in the UK - still don't have sufficient biofuel refining capacity to meet demand - A lot of shipping miles!

Struggling with climate change?

If you have a hard time convincing someone of the merits of an EPC using the climate change argument, switch tact; instead, talk about something far easier to appreciate: Energy, and its inextricable link to food production and supply.

Or, as DEA John Semens was kind enough to write after listening to the DEA podcast with David Strahan:

Excellent podcast by the way, I now use it as part of my 'pacifying' blurb when met with a particularly hostile home owner.

'OK so you don't give a toss about saving the planet, that's fine, your choice, but how would you feel if you couldn't put fuel in your car. Or you had to pay a fiver a litre?'

They generally take a bit more interest then.

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Posts: 1
Off the radar
Reply #1 on : Wed April 23, 2008, 21:31:16
Mike it always worries me that when you post stuff like this no one responds. Makes me think only 1 or 2 DEAs actually got into the this career other than to work part time and earn £60,000 a year. Doh!

The more I read the more alarmed I get, the signs are everywhere. Diesel just went up to £1.15 at Sainsbury's. It gets worse however, I'm reading "Plan B" at the moment and we'll soon run out of land for growing food. Apparently the earth can support 10 billion people if we are all veggies (as if!). But if we all go to the western diet then it's only 2.5 billion (Current population is 6 :-O). Thankfully China and India don't each as much meat as us yet, but they'll get richer and catch up.

It not actually just peak oil - it's peak everything you need to worry about. Peak Water, Peak Timber, Peak Food, Peak Coal and even Peak Nuclear (if we all start using it to replace coal uranium stocks will only last 40 years). Know any good caves in Staffordshire?

Actually - there's is a Plan B, but I haven't got to that part of the book yet ;-) But from experience I was cacking myself about the year 2000 bug I worked for a large water company at the time. Working on the same floor as the year 2000 test team. In January 1999 about 90% of the systems were in a potentially non functional state. Ex-colleagues who'd gone off to other companies were saying the same. I told family and friends that if it didn't get better by September to get some big water tanks and tinned food to last a few weeks. But by September most critical systems (including billing) were working and as far as I recall nothing went wrong on Jan 1st. What this taught me was that if you throw enough money and resource at a problem you CAN fix it. (£20 million quid & 400 people in this case).

I think eventually the urgency will start to see things happen. 2007 as a year was like Jan 1999 as far as media coverage and political action was concerned. In the news but not much solid action is happening yet. But I can see change is coming - will it be fast enough?
Posts: 1
Re: Driving on food
Reply #2 on : Wed April 23, 2008, 22:47:25
Simon, I'm continually amazed at the relatively low mass-media attention given over to this, so I kind'a understand why folk don't say much about it.

Saying that, Newsnight had very good coverage on their week-long devotion to the food crisis last week... although even that can't be classed as mass-media exactly.

But it is here, and it's happening: DEAs are being hit in the pocket by high fuel prices, today! And I know my shopping bill is around 20% higher.

A report I heard last night (yeah, on the BEEB's World Service again, aye) had interviews of New Yorkers forced onto "food coupons" (or whatever they call them). Basically, around a million extra people are flocking to these places since the recent price hikes.

And you're right - at the risk of sounding alarmist: Peak Everything would appear to be on the horizon for many in our life-time.

I have some more disturbing news I learnt about last night, but that's for another blog.

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