Food security in an energy-scarce world: June 2005 conference


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

– threats of ‘peak oil’ to the global food supply
– environmental threats to agricultural production
– globalisation and loss of democratic control
– land use conflicts, oversupply, resources ownership and policy reform
– the relationship between food and fossil fuels
– the structures and origins of the agriculture and food industries
– food as a solution-multiplier

Day Two – Friday June 24th: Reducing Fossil
Fuel Use

– technology based solutions
– knowledge based solutions
– conventional vs organic agriculture
– developing technologies vs propagating knowledge
– the challenges of genetic modification
– the possibilities of alternative energy sources
– infrastructure based solutions

Day Three – Saturday June 25th: Precedents
and Possibilities

– holistic approaches to food production
– sustainable local food systems
– from fossil fuel dependence to low carbon food systems
– sustainable, productive and culturally supportive farm systems
– food, land and population
– control, policy and education
– the Irish context

Speakers Included:

Cáit Curran – Market gardener and editor of Organic Matters magazine
Julian Darley – Founder of the Post Carbon Institute
Bruce Darrell – Architect, small scale grower and conference co-ordinator
Richard Douthwaite – Economist and author of The Growth Illusion and Short Circuit
Leslie Dowley – Head of Plant Pathology Department, Oak Park Crops Research Centre, Teagasc
John Feehan – Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, UCD
David Fleming – Author of The Lean Economy:
Survivor’s Guide to a Future that Works

Barney Foran – Senior Analyst with the CSIRO Resource Futures Group, Australia

Folke Günther – Ph.D. student at the Department of Systems Ecology at Stockholm University
Anita Hayes – Founder of the Irish Seed Savers Association
Richard Heinberg – Author of Powerdown – Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon Futuree
Mae-Wan Ho – Director of the Institute of Science and Society
David Holmgren – Author of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
Seamus Hoyne – Managing Director of Tipperary Energy Agency
Dan Keech – Sustainable Food Chains Officer, Sustain, UK
Seán McDonagh – Author of Patenting Life? Stop! and The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction
Helena Norberg-Hodge – Founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture
Deirdre O’Connor – Lecturer in Resource Economics, UCD
Emer O’Siochrú – Planning and Development Consultant and Eco-architect
Jules Pretty – Director of the Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex
Darrin Qualman – Director of Research, National Farmers Union of Canada
Bernard Rice – Head of the Crop Production and Engineering Department, Teagasc
Wayne Roberts – Project coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council
Colin Roche – Campaigns and Advocacy Executive at Oxfam, Ireland
Colin Sage – Lecturer at Department of Geography, University College Cork
Annie Sugrue – Director of the Johannesburg EcoCity Trust
Micheline Sheehy Skeffington – Lecturer at the Botany Department, NUI Galway
Ger Shortle – Resource Manager, Johnstown Castle Organic Unit, Teagasc

Lori Stahlbrand – Project Leader of the The Local
Food Eco-label Project, Toronto
Andre Viljoen – Architect and author/editor of Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes

Detailed conference program page

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.

conference was financially supported by:

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