Growth and Connection

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wasted Energy in Food Production

There is an interesting interplay between the energy it takes to grow food, and the process in which food gets to people who actually eat it. For just one calorie of energy used in growing food, five more are needed to process it, store it, and distribute it. The reason there is such an imbalance has resulted from the industrialization of food, which is part of a cycle between oil production, food production, and population levels.

Once oil production increased, food production could increase because machines are much more efficient than human labour. As a result of food production increasing, this leads to a rise in population levels. With a rise in population, more food would need to be produced, followed by more oil production to provide energy to grow the food. This shows how reliant our system of food production is on the oil and gas sector, which leads to the thought that if there are oil shortages, our high use of energy for food would easily cause food prices to soar.

Where is all this energy used in the food industry? As mentioned before, a lot more energy is used in the storage, packaging, and distribution of food than actually growing it. Fuel is needed to run machines in factories for processing foods, energy to refrigerate foods to store them, and the fuel needed for transportation all add up. All of these factors in the food processing system are needed because of the way that cities are set up, and the need to bring food from far distances into cities.

So what happens if oil runs out, or even an oil shortage shoots food prices high up? Is there a way to fix this kind of problem before it actually happens? There are probably many separate and distinct solutions, but all of them must have some kind of relationship to the planning of a city and its surrounding areas.

Arranging a city, whether fully developed or still developing, to accommodate some kind of urban farming, would greatly save in the energy used after food is grown. If food is more localized, there is less need for processing, storage, and transportation. One solution could be urban greenhouses, as the concept by Plantagon proposes an energy-efficient greenhouse to control food production within a city, making enough revenue to sustain itself.

Another solution might be to re-examine how cities brought in food before there was such a reliance on transportation. The answer could also lie in keeping small cities the size they are, which creates a small unit that could potentially sustain itself in food production, and energy production, providing that alternative energy sources become more economically viable. These are a few possible answers, but each and every city, town, slum, and suburb would have to rely on some basic principles of these problems to come up with a satisfying local solution.

- Desiree Geib


Church, Norman. "Why Our Food is so Dependent on Oil". April 1, 2005. (Accessed November 1, 2009).

Lester, Paul. "Plantagon Urban Greenhouse Concept". July 20, 2009. (Accessed November 1, 2009).

Steel, Carolyn. "How Food Shapes Our Cities". July 2009. (Accessed October 31, 2009)

Tumber, Catherine. "Small, Green, and Good: the role of neglected cities in a sustainable future". April 2009. (Accessed November 2, 2009).

A Sitopian World

Ever since the beginning of human civilization we have lived in what could be called a “sitopia,” (from the Greek sitos meaning food, and topos meaning place) a place where food is at the central aspect of society. It must be transported, bought, sold, cooked, and gotten rid of. As we move through the 21st century, food is often something we take for granted. We don’t think of where it comes from, what it took to get it to us, or even where it goes when we are done with it. Farmland that has been in use f0r hundreds of years for making food and animal feed is now being converted to grow energy crops for biofuel, and the amount of food being produced is being significantly reduced. But the reality is food is something we cannot afford to take for granted. Today 1.02 billion people do not have enough food to eat, more than the population of Canada, the United States and the European Union combined.


As we face the energy crisis and continue to search for methods to replace our dependence of fossil fuels, we need to be aware of the human and environmental impacts these actions make. The rush to switch from petroleum to bioenergy has the potential to lead to serious food shortages and a huge increase in prices. The production of crops for biofuels has been doubling every few years. Last year the United States used more than a third of their maize crops to harvest ethanol for biofuels. This is putting serious strain on world food supplies. World reserves of grain had already fallen from 100 days' supply in 2000 to 40 days in 2006, and can be expected to drop with promises to increase the percentage of biofuel in road fuels.


The depleting of food supplies results in a two-fold problem. One: there is not enough food being produced to feed the growing population. Two: Due to food shortages prices begin to rise, making food even less accessible. The United Nations World Food Programme has said that rapidly rising food prices are like “a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger."


In order to overcome this society must step back and re-evaluate the way we see our world. Food, one of the most basic and essential things needed in everyday life, is being used frivolously as an inventive, yet destructive attempt to solve our energy crisis. We must return to that “Sitopian” state in which food and urbanism are bound together, where cities are shaped with food being their central social core. Society must find a way to rediscover the value of food, as a means of survival, but also as a way of life. After all what good is having fuel to run a car, if there is no one to drive it.


Here is Architect Carolyn Steel’s take on food, energy and economy, and how it shapes our cities and lives:

Images Sources:





-Sam Eby

Rapeseed: The Emblem of Subsistence

Call it an apocalypse or tree hugging: but something about expending fossil fuel seems off. Our depleting fuel supply will lead our society into a revelation, which will give our tree-huggers a chance to cross their arms and say “we told you so.” Then begins a quest for subsistent fuel and, accordingly, subsistent urbanity.

A search for alternative fuels is, by its nature, a search for subsistent fuels; since, these are minimal fuels that can supplant the luxurious fossil fuel. Since fuel, or energy, is the driving backbone of production and economy, the notion of minimal fuel ultimately leads to the idea of minimal urbanity: hence, our invaluable

member of the urban survival kit.

The story of the corn fuel is a short lived one. It was revealed that it takes more energy to produce the fuel than how much energy that fuel can release. Also, many were uncomfortable with the fact that there are many who would rather eat the corn than to burn it.

The issue of rapeseed is revolutionary. Rape is a weed-like projection with four petit, yellow petals. Its seeds yield an oil, which was originally only used as lubricant due to its high acidity. After successive cross-breeding, the rapeseed oil was redesigned to be used for cooking, soap, margarine, and lamp fuel. Although edible, the oil does not provide essential nutrients; therefore, even from an ethical standpoint, it is permissible to use to it for other ends.

Use of rapeseed to produce biodiesel has been the hotbed of discussion. Its characteristics include clean-burning, biodegradable, and non-toxic: all of which sound very pleasing to the modern ear. The resulting biodiesel has versatile application ranging from mundane vehicular use to Czech aircraft use.

In addition, uses of rape extends much further than alternative fuel: edible oil, bedding for farmland, high-protein animal feed, and honey. Therefore, an investment to grow rape is highly economical and can never go wrong. This implication is exemplified by an increase in its world-wide production of 27.9 million tons in 1991 to 50.6 million tons in 2007. The booming trend bespeaks the feasibility of its use as biodiesel. As of 2007, Canada is the second largest producer of rapeseed, spearheading the revolution.

There are many factors that sustain and develop urbanity: such as economy, food, and energy. The basic interplay of the factors is this: biodiesel is the most economic substitute for fossil fuel; rapeseed yields the most efficient supply of biodiesel; urbanism is sustained by fuel energy along with food and economy in the macroscopic scale. Thus, subsistent fuel source will generate subsistent urbanity.

This is the story of how the yellow seeds found their way into my urban survival kit.


"Faostat," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009. (accessed November 1, 2009).

"Biodiesel," ATTRA, 2009. (accessed November 1, 2009).

"Rapeseed," Nation Master, 2005. (accessed November 1, 2009).

-Iggy So

Sustainable Food Production in Rural Communities

How do we create a system of sustainable food production that will feed the ever increasing population? An answer to this problem lies in reevaluating the methods we are currently using to produce food. Seventy percent of the estimated one billion people in poverty around the world live in rural areas and depend on the productivity of ecosystems for their livelihoods.

We need the ability to feed more people while taking into account the diminishing energy resources such as fuel and natural resources like fresh water. If our rural communities begin to focus on producing their food on a smaller scale, such as small scale farming, with a more diverse range of food being produced we would be able to uphold food production longer and promote healthy ways of living and eating.

A shift to small scale rural farms would make sense globally as it would give the ability for many third world nations to begin sustaining themselves and feed through local production. An example of this can be seen in India’s state of Andhra Pradesh.

In 2001-2002 a drought hit which killed all flourishing crops in the area. After analysis it was decided that the area had all it needed to sustain itself and was not allotted any external food assistance. The eventual key to their success in designing a sustainable means of food production was found in the biodiversity of their small farms and the community nature under which they were developed. The community was like a single breathing unit. The dry and unforgiving land in this region is hard to grow on, but by introducing seeds and grains that adapted to the land they learned to use the land for what it was and adapted their farming habits to the available resources.

Though this is just an example of how we can break down areas, it really shows us how communities can work as a whole to sustain themselves.These practices were also managed without the help of any chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, giving those who live off this food a much healthier diet. This worked in India, and various diverse versions of the same plan could be implemented to feed many of the hungry people around the world. It may even be a plan for the future of our urban development to look into small scale farming within the city sector. Where small farms are actually two to ten times more productive than larger scale farms this would bring food production to the people, cutting out the middle-man and the resources needed to support it.

The additional introduction of biodiversity into farming would, in itself, create more eco-friendly food production and healthier land on which to grow. Healthier and more diverse food would be going into the world, which will support and sustain people’s bodies. Overall, when considering the oncoming shift in population something must be done to find more sustainable practices in how we produce food and feed the masses. By creating smaller self sustaining rural communities, and farming in a biodiverse manner within them, everyone would have a means of nourishment.


Practical Action. "Food Production". (accessed November 4, 2009)

The North Sea Region Programme. "Rural Food Production in the experience economy". (accessed November 4, 2009)

Practical Action. "Preserving the Web of Life". (accessed November 4, 2009)

Inter Pares. "Community Based Food Security Systems: Local solutions for ending Chronic hunger and promoting rural development".

BBC News. "Food production must rise 70%".

The Cattle Crisis - Brazil

The cattle industry cannot keep up with the rising, global demand for quality produce. It is a matter of production inefficiency: the means cannot keep pace and profit at the same time. However, Brazil, among other major suppliers, cannot afford falling behind said pace, hence government subsidies. This becomes a problem for the subsistent locals when they can no longer compete with subsidized imports, an issue of free trade arises.

The practice is subsidized because it is inefficient, with the expense of capital secondary to the expense of the environment:

Cattle ranching is the primary driver of deforestation in Earth's largest rainforest, the Brazilian Amazon.1

The research shows that more than 38,600 square miles has been cleared for pasture since 1996, bringing the total area occupied by cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon to 214,000 square miles, an area larger than France.2

Environmental issues of deforestation aside, it is a matter of inefficient and unsustainable land usage:

…the soil that is cleared in slash and burn is left infertile, the nutrients in the soil are quickly absorbed by surrounding organisms. The farmers must move on sometimes to other areas and repeat this process and worthy land and trees become scarce. For farmers in places like Brazil, slash and burn methods are the only way to effectively clear land of parasites and unwanted organisms; chemical means contaminate water and soil and farmers continue to turn to slashing and burning.3

Reasons why the cattle industry thrives in Brazil:

INTEREST RATES—Rainforest lands are often used for land speculation purposes. When real pasture land prices exceed real forest land prices, land clearing is a good hedge against inflation. At times of high inflation, the appreciation of cattle prices and the stream of services (milk) they provide may outpace the interest rate earned on money left in the bank.

LAND TENURE LAWS—In Brazil, colonists and developers can gain title to Amazon lands by simply clearing forest and placing a few head of cattle on the land. As an additional benefit, cattle are a low-risk investment relative to cash crops which are subject to wild price swings and pest infestations. Essentially cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon.4

Brazil has become the world’s largest exporter of beef, and a major supplier of leather. The demand is global: beef to fast food chains expanding internationally and leather to global brands like Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Timberland.

Greenpeace Forest Campaigner Lindsey Allen: “To be true climate leaders, Nike, Adidas, Timberland and other brands must help protect the Amazon and our climate by refusing to buy leather from deforestation. In the fight against climate change, every step counts.”5

The problem is that Brazil’s economy depends heavily on its Amazon exploits:

Brazilian deforestation is strongly correlated to the economic health of the country: the decline in deforestation from 1988-1991 nicely matched the economic slowdown during the same period, while the rocketing rate of deforestation from 1993-1998 paralleled Brazil's period of rapid economic growth.6

Therefore, any solution must take this economy into consideration. According to Roberto Smeraldi, (Amigos da Terra, Activist group) one such solution “involves improving the productivity of cattle ranching, thereby allowing forest to recover without sacrificing jobs or income.”7 Increasing productivity would allow for a reduction in pasture size.

There are some approaches worth considering, though none solely practicable as of yet.

One possibility is to condition cattle into grazing sustainable alternatives: here is research into the conditioning process and a proposition of snakeweed as the substitute,

Also potentially an option is turning to genetics technology, which has already involved itself in the cattle industry: improving the Brazilian breed for ‘mass production’ through in vitro fertilization and cloning. Changing grazing habits and needs by breed and genetic modification is the concept, perhaps using miniature breeds and their high density capacity for some direction. Of course, miniature-breed ranching using rotational grazing systems already exist sustainably, but only as an option for a subsistence setting; dispersing the industry is a global solution, but not viable from Brazil’s economic perspective.

The bottom line is that as industry develops, overconcentration becomes not just an environmental issue, but an urban issue in poor land usage. The optimal solution would maximize production efficiency and minimize resource waste.

-Nathan Tung


· 1 Butler, Rhett. "Beef drives 80% of Amazon deforestation,” (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· 2,4,6 Butler, Rhett. "Amazon Destruction: Why is the rainforest being destroyed in Brazil?;” The Amazon (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· 3 Stock, Jocelyn. "The Choice: Doomsday or Arbor Day," (accessed November 1, 2009).

· 5 Beltra, Daniel. "Top name brands implicated in Amazon destruction,” Greenpeace (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· 7 Butler, Rhett. "Activists target Brazil's largest driver of deforestation: cattle ranching,” (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· Consulate General of Brazil. “Technology and Tailored Cows in Brazil” (accessed November 1, 2009).

· Greenpeace Brazil. “Amazon Cattle Footprint,” Greenpeace (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· Journal of Animal Breeding & Genetics; Apr2006, Vol. 123 Issue 2, p97-104, 8p, 9 charts

Image Sources:

· Butler, Rhett. "Amazon Destruction: Why is the rainforest being destroyed in Brazil?;” The Amazon (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

· Greenpeace Brazil. “Amazon Cattle Footprint,” Greenpeace (2009), (accessed November 1, 2009).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Buy Local?

The local food movement has been growing rapidly around the world. 100-Mile Challenge is a television show featuring families challenging themselves to only eat foods that were grown and produced within a 100-mile radius of their home. The "Buy Ontario" campaign of the provincial government encourages Ontario's consumers to buy seasonal, locally-grown food in order to support Ontario farmers. Similarly, "Savour Ontario" is another part of the same strategy that promotes fine restaurants that serve locally grown and produced foods. Restaurants that join the program clearly identify menu items to allow patrons to choose local foods. However, this focus on the distance food travels from the producer to the consumer is misleading; perhaps "buy local" advocates are aiming at the wrong stretch of the road.

Food distribution is a multi-faceted system involving transportation and infrastructure, as well as storage and often refrigeration. Various statistics indicate that roughly 15% to 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions can be accounted for by food production and distribution. Within that amount, one study shows that 83% is created during food production, 11% during transport, and only 4% during transport from producers to consumers. (Weber 2008) What this indicates is that when considering the transportation of food, much of the greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the production and not the final step of delivery.

Still, the distance food travels from farm to plate is not an accurate indication of the impact its production has on the environment(DeWeerdt 2008), even the simple amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation and production methods are far more telling: trains are several times more efficient than trucks and open field farms use minimal energy when compared to heated greenhouses. Even further, the energy used to heat the greenhouses could come from renewable sources or from coal-burning power plants. A distance-based local food movement may not be realistic in and around large urban centres simply because farmland has already been pushed away from the cities. Another overlooked aspect is so-called "upstream" transportation creating greenhouse gases, i.e. transportation of supplies like fertilizer to farms.

If the 100-mile approach isn't the right direction, the local food movement still has weight, bringing the farmer and the consumer closer in more than measurable distances. The advantage in efficiency of rail transport over diesel-burning trucks could outweigh the benefits of eating food from a 100-mile radius if the locally-grown food uses high volumes of fertilizer and a warm and humid greenhouse situated in the snowbelt. It may be more pertinent to aim for eating local foods that are in season, or focusing on choosing cleaner transportation methods or improving existing methods.

Weber, Christopher L. and H. Scott Matthews. 2008. Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology 42, no. 10. (April 16),

DeWeerdt, Sarah. 2008. Is Local Food Better? Worldwatch Institute.
- Stanley Sun

Energy Inefficiency in the Food Industry

The discovery of fossil fuels as an energy source has greatly increased production processes. It has proven to be so effective that 85% of the energy in the U.S. is produced by burning fossil fuels. This increase in production also includes the production of food. However, the emissions given off by the combustion of fossil fuels to create this energy has also harmed the food industry, and will continue to do so unless we begin using alternative production methods. One of the effects of these emissions that is causing the most concern is global warming.

The earth’s surface temperatures are currently expected to increase by 0.2 degrees celsius every ten years. This increase would create better growing conditions for food in northern regions, but at the same time could also make regions close to the equator too hot to grow certain types of food. The change in temperature would also provide a larger habitable area for insects that destroy crops. Another repercussion is an increased evaporation rate, thereby reducing the supply of water available for food growth. In addition, sea levels would rise as global warming is causing the ice caps to melt.

Low-altitude agricultural regions would eventually become completely submerged. This loss of growing area would cause the demand and the price of food to increase dramatically. Fossil fuel combustion is also resulting in an increase in ozone levels at the earth’s surface. Although it is a necessary component of the atmosphere, it is hazardous to both animals and vegetation at ground level. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (which are both emitted during fossil fuel combustion) react with each other. The resultant ozone is being absorbed by crops, and destroying them - in 1990, over $215 million in crops were destroyed in the U.K. In these ways, our use of fossil fuels and energy consumption is destroying the growth, production, and economy of a vital resource. For more information, check out these sources on energy consumption and how it affects the food industry: Agriculture, Food Production Daily, and Monitoring Energy Efficiency in the Food Industry.

Although greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels is negatively affecting food production, the energy consumption of the food industry itself is also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The food industry uses about 10% of the the total energy consumed in the U.S., and the growth and production processes are extremely energy inefficient - it takes three calories of energy just to produce one calorie of food. Much of the energy used in food production isn’t actually put towards growing food, either - 40% is used to produce fertilizers, 23% is used to process and package the food, and another 32% comes from its refrigeration and cooking.

Diesel fuel is also consumed by farm machinery used for planting, tilling, and harvesting crops, as well as vehicles that transport food to finish being processed or to be sold. The large amount of energy being used so inefficiently is impacting the economy of the food industry. Right now, it is resulting in reduced incomes and losses of jobs as food production companies go out of business. This has a large impact on the economy, as 35% of the U.S. work force works in the food industry. Eventually, as the demand for food becomes greater, food prices will increase and agricultural exports will drop. In order to sustain the food industry and its economy, the industry must develop less expensive, more energy-efficient methods of food production. Check out these websites on energy usage in food production: Food Production Daily, and Sustainable Table.

There are many ways farmers can decrease both their energy consumption and expenses in food growth, production, and transportation, by practicing sustainable farming. One of the simplest ways to do this is to sell their products locally.

This simply means that less fuel is used to transport the food, therefore the farmer spends less money and uses less energy. Eliminating the process of tilling the soil can also save energy and money, as the farm equipment that would normally till the soil requires about 3.9 gallons of diesel fuel per acre of land. On an average farm of about 740 acres, the farmer would save 2886 galleons of fuel and almost $7 720. Refraining from tilling the soil also counteracts some of the effects of fossil fuel combustion. When plants absorb carbon, they draw it down into the soil and out of the air. By not tilling the soil, the carbon is able to stay in the ground. Farmers can also cut down on the large amount of energy used in the production of fertilizer by using manure, a natural fertilizer. If animals are allowed to graze in the fields, they feed themselves as well as spread manure. This greatly reduces the cost of fertilizer and feed for the animals, as well as the fuel needed to transport them to the farm. These simple practices allow farmers to save energy and reduce the impact of global warming on food production, as well as save money to sustain the economy of the food industry. Check out this information on sustainable farming: Sustainable Table.

- Stephanie Fleming

Works Cited

Buchdahl, Joe and Hare, Sue. "Agriculture." Encyclopedia of the Atmospheric Environment. 2000. (accessd October 25, 2009).

Decision News Media. "Energy efficient food safety." Food Production Daily. April 27, 2004. (accessd October 25, 2009).

Fletcher, Anthony. "Food production hit by increasing ozone levels." Food Production Daily. October 8, 2004. (accessed October 25, 2009).

Ramirez, C. A. "Monitoring Energy Efficiency in the Food Sector." Utrect University. September 22, 2005. (accessed November 1, 2009).

Sanders, Rich. "Fossil fuel and energy use." Sustainable Table. 2003. (accessed October 25, 2009).