07 August 2008

#Conflicts between Energy shortages, food scarcity and climate change

It appears that at the present time, we are facing a shortage in energy and a rise in costs, we are facing a big question on how and where the energy is sourced to reduce its environmental impact. We are facing a similar question on food shortages, its cost and its production. At the same time, we are facing a year or two of economic hardship that may pass, but the other issues still remain. Since modern conventional food production depends on the energy economy - agricultural machinery, transportation (air, land and sea), storage (refrigeration), then clearly the energy crisis has an impact on that. Since one proposed energy crash solution was biofuels, which are produced the same way food is - from some of the same crops, we have a conflict.

Many years ago, people said there would be trouble. Massive fuel consumption, rising consumerism, food becoming too conveniently packaged and with that too detached from the real world.

10, 20 years ago, people were starting to become interested in recycling, in conservation, in really considering the outcome of our actions. The city farms started.

Perhaps it is time to pay a little attention to The Cree Indian Prophecy: Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will he find that money cannot be eaten”.

We are now finding that perhaps the trees and rivers are fine, but food is becoming scarce, oil will do so soon and climate change may be beginning to show real affects. In the grip of the so called credit crunch, there is a fuel crunch going on, with oil being controlled by a few powerful groups, who are possibly all to aware that there will eventually be a drop off.

Biofuels were seen as an answer, but considering that food is also becoming expensive due to crop failures, increased mouths to feed, and food miles being affected by the price of oil, it seems a bad idea to have the two things competing. Oil is needed for equipment to farm as well.

There is a worst case here if the energy crunch comes to a point where we have little energy, at the point where growing urbanisation means that there is little food and the effects of global warming become serious. Perhaps now is the time (perhaps even a little late) to do all that we can to prepare for or avoid such a situation.

What is The Energy Crunch?

You may have noticed that energy is getting rapidly more expensive. Countries with reserves of oil and gas are demanding more money or simply not exporting. Combine this with the fact that in general people want to be more responsible for the CO2 output of their energy usage.

Petrol prices are kept high to line some pockets, they are taxed (especially in the UK), and we may have already been at the peak oil, where our consumption is so great that it overtakes production, and because of dwindling reserves, means that production will fall away.

Cars do not run well on electrical energy yet, although people are working on it, it could be some time, so fuel prices will directly affect so much of what we buy as it must all be transported. This includes food, clothes and other basics. It includes your daily commute. It includes also plastics that are made form petrochemicals. Perhaps we will see a return to electrically powered freight trains (rare in the UK), and alternatives to trucks as the main form of transport.

Electricity can be produced from Nuclear power as an alternative to oil and gas, although this has well known drawbacks. This can be used to light and heat our homes, but without advances in cars still can not get those not using trains from A to B.

The energy crunch is a real problem, and it is probably here to stay – the increasing fuel prices will eventually drive us to find other ways to power our lives, or reduce the power we consume.

Issues to Consider

Food Waste

Waste Heap Image

The food waste (and other waste) mountains at the landfills are growing, and threatening to release a lot of stinking gas into the atmosphere, with the immediate threat of smelly pollution, and the longer term threat of producing greenhouse gases that significantly contribute to climate change.

Giving over land to landfill, when it could be used for food or fuel crop production, or merely living space, exacerbates the problem. In a time when land is becoming expensive, especially in the urban centres, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Lorry Arrives at Waste Tipping Area at Landfill Site, Mucking, London

Murray, Louise Buy at AllPosters.com Framed   Mounted

Peak oil vs consumption

Fuel Consumption Empty Glass

Fuel consumption has been rising with steady growth of 7% annually. Calculating what that actually means, this is a doubling time of 10 years. This means that every 10 years, our fuel consumption has doubled. Even ignoring global warming, we are dangerously close to this being disastrous.

Fuel production has began to no longer pace with that as the oil fields run low. We may have reached, or be past the point of peak oil. It can not continue, and we will begin to feel the crunch pretty soon, maybe 10 or 20 years or even less.

OPEC may sometimes produce a few thousand new barrels, and then may find that they are short a similar amount somewhere else. Oil prices have been volatile, it is hard to see that changing any time soon.

Retired Petrochem Refinery, Ventura, California Buy at AllPosters.com Framed   Mounted

Alternative Energy Sources

We could switch to clean burn coal, but even that is finite. Lowering consumption, and investing energy and time into finding real alternatives will now become the best investment we can make into a future that is not our great grandchildren, or our children, but our own lifetimes. The lack of fuel is likely to be a large problem before the rising sea levels and other effects of pollution or global warming, and needs to be addressed first, and with forethought about its effects. We need to start looking ahead, and thoroughly understanding the affects of our actions. Now is the time for change.

What can we do?

What can you do? What should you encourage the government and corporations to do? Here I share some of my ideas, and invite you to share yours.

I am aware that not everybody believes in these concepts, and I am really not sure there is anything worth me saying to try and convince them, but those who see what is happening need to start thinking and sharing ideas to deal with this future.

Food Waste Mountains and Biofuels

can the food waste mountains be used as a suitable fuel source?

We have a mountain of waste per city, per day, of food merely decomposing into smelly greenhouse gases on the one hand. This comes from various food waste, including perfectly good food thrown out by supermarkets, restaurants and households. On the other hand, we have a fuel shortage, and are desperate for alternatives. Current growing of Biofuel crops are clearly not looking good in the balance of just getting food.

Well lets take a tip from the Japanese – they are using rice husks (they eat the rest) for biofuels.

We could go one better. By using anaerobic digestion systems on our waste products, we should be able to product fuel that is rich in calorific value. There are mountains of food – this should mean mountains of fuel.

Now the maths needs to be done on the energy it would take to process and transport it, and methods to be efficient and keep these costs down should be considered.

Firstly – if the waste is locally produced, the biofuel should be locally refined, in each city. This will keep transport costs low.

Secondly – the more we use this technology, the greater the volume in which it is deployed and money is going into researching it, the better we should become at refining it. This is a relatively new concept given how much money, and time, and energy has gone into oil production. If just a reasonable percentage was diverted into research and production of biofuel based on food waste, we will make reasonable leaps.

Web of food and fuel

food web fuel availability image

Food availability and prices, fuel, waste, household wealth are linked in a web and all affect each other. Where there is a “+”, there is a positive relationship, where there is a “-”, there is a negative relationship.

By taking positive steps, we can forge new, more beneficial relationships.

Can food waste mountains be used for biofuels?

Can they? Should they? Are there better alternatives? Are there reasons we should not even bother? Previous readers thoughts:


grafixforacause says: Consume less in all aspects, buy second hand, and recycle. Thats what I’m doing.

RolandTumble says: Absolutely. As much “waste” as possible, in all forms, should be reprocessed into usable products, and energy is one of the crunch points.

ElizabethJeanAllen says: We need to explore alternative fuel sources. With biofuels, windpower, solar energy etc. We shouldn’t be burning any fossil fuels to generate electricity.

My own answer:

Fossil fuels are limited. Growing biofuels specifically would take a lot of land and energy, and these mountains of waste are a smelly problem in our cities. They also produce methane, a greenhouse gas. If we can harness this to produce biofuels, use AD systems to feed fuel cells with them, these could be good sources of energy while reducing other problems.

How powerful do you think the sun is?

Photovoltaic solar panels are not that efficient, and give people the impression that solar power is not up to much. But here is the thing, the energy put out by the sun is massive, and this clip demonstrates how a big mirror can be used to focus some of this energy.

Exactly where will we grow food

Is there enough land or resources to grow all we need?

The subtitle there is a loaded question, as the first thing to seriously consider is that we consume more food than we need. When I say consume, I will take it to mean no longer available for use – this includes that which is wasted.

There is a question of land used for biofuels, vs that which is used for food. As food prices are rising, and fuel prices, this question will become more pertinent.

There are some concepts which are yet to be fully explored. A number of years ago, I suggested a rather unorthodox idea of urban farms built in skyrise buildings. It turned out the concept was not original, and others had come up with similar concepts around the same time. Not only would it provide more land for food, but it would provide it right at the place of consumption, in the cities, cutting transportation and storage costs, and meaning fresher food. However, it would also cost a great deal of money to initially create such structures. So far, I have seen none in practice.

Another plan is to build many inner city rooftop terraces given to growing food or fuels. There is plenty of otherwise unused roof space. This would be cheaper than the vertical farms concept, although since the roofs belong to many different private companies, incentive would need to be provided for such things. Perhaps as the price of food goes up, that alone would be all the incentive needed to consider this.

There could also be a greater provision of public land as allotments to allow people to grow their own food. I certainly think that those in the know can at least grow a little food for themselves.

There are also vast tracts of land unused, but to be clear, these lands also host a biodiversity otherwise unseen in the farmed or urban areas. Some land which has become barren through overfarming could be turned over to rejuvenating crops which may in the medium to long term see it re-usable for crops. Existing agricultural land could be better farmed for good yield – and this may mean turning to unpopular, and risky farming methods involving chemicals like hormones, and GM crops.

It may be an unwelcome suggestion, but in reality, reducing the unnecessary wastage is an important part of ensuring shortages are kept low.

This is problem that needs plenty of thinking, and the sooner it starts to be thought about, the better the chances we are able to face it as it gets worse.

Alternate crop solutions

1 Industrial Hemp

Recently, there has been discussion of the use of industrial hemp (hemp without THC – non-psychoactive) as both a biofuel and a rapidly growing food source.

Although this will help with food shortages, used as a fuel, it will not have the benefit of using the waste mountains and reducing landfill.

It is worth noting that growing industrial hemp is restricted in most countries.

2 Kelp

Kelp is a rapidly growing sea-weed. It is edible, and could possibly also be used as a biofuel. Even in Sci-fi the concept of kelp-burgers is fairly widespread.

Kelp grows quickly, at a rate of around half a meter today – so a large kelp plantation in the water can yield a huge biomass in a short time.

About my relationship with the subject

In a casual and amateur capacity, I have been investigating recycling, safe power production, power conservation, food sourcing and growing my own food for a long time.

Having worked for recycling companies and actively engaged local government to improve local recycling facilities, I have more than just theoretical contact with these issues.