WHAT WILL WE EAT AS THE OIL RUNS OUT?
Feasta held a major international conference on June 23rd, 24th & 25th, 2005, at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, University College Dublin, Ireland.
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 gasses.
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 thereafter steadily decline. 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?
This conference explored the nature of the threats to world food security, examined our global food supply systems, evaluated the possible solutions to the problems that we face, and sought to answer a crucial question:
How can the world's population be fed without the extensive use of fossil fuels in the production, processing and distribution of food?
Topics of this three day conference included:
Opening Lecture at the Davenport Hotel - Wednesday June 22nd: Peak Oil
Day One - Thursday June 23rd: Food Under Threat
Day Two - Friday June 24th: Reducing Fossil Fuel Use
- technology based solutions
Day Three - Saturday June 25th: Precedents and Possibilities
- holistic approaches to food production
Cáit Curran - Market gardener and editor of Organic Matters magazine
This conference was organised by Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability in association with the Department of Environmental Resource Management at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, University College Dublin.
This conference was financially supported by: