Energy and food production

The major items that would undoubtedly be in any agenda for immediate world action are population, food and energy, and their interrelationships. The strategies recommended at the World Food Conference relied heavily on the application of more energy — in terms of pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation and machineries. In other words, the emphasis was to use the North American type of highly energy-intensive agriculture to increase yield in other parts of the world. Whether such a strategy was desirable in an era of energy crisis, when many of the developing countries were facing serious balance of payment deficits even to pay for their existing energy import bills was not seriously considered. Nor was the question considered whether such a policy was desirable and sustainable on a long-term basis. Agricultural practices in North America has become increasingly energy intensive. During the era of cheap energy prices, such massive and rapid industrialization of the agricultural production practices, made economic sense. In a different era, when energy prices are high and the point of diminishing return has been reached in many instances, we have to reexamine and perhaps re-orient some of our present production practices.

It is quite clear that we cannot feed the world by using the North American system of food production. The “green revolution” type of high-yielding agriculture that has been exported to some parts of the developing world is somewhat similar to western agriculture in that both are energy-intensive. The new strains of wheat, corn, rice, etc. need more fertilizers pesticides and irrigation to provide optimal yields. This is in contrast to native crops which did not.

In much of the developing world, however, significant increase in yield can be obtained by further small inputs of energy. A small energy input into low-intensity culture will increase yield much more than an identical input into a high-intensity production process. World malnutrition may also be alleviated by use of energy-related raw materials as food. The commercial viability of large-scale protein production from hydrocarbons is a distinct possibility, and there appears to be several advantages in further developing such processes.

By Asit K. Biswas and Margaret R. Biswas, 1976. Article published in Agro-Ecosystems, Volume 2, Issue 3, pages 195-210. DOI: 10.1016/0304-3746(76)90160-8

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