“Memo to the media: Please don’t say inflation is at a 40-year high without also mentioning that corporate profits are at a 70-year high. Give the people the full picture.”
— Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labour
On 11 October 2022, the International Monetary Fund’s head of research, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, warned that today’s high energy prices were not going away any time soon. The “energy crisis”, he cautioned, “is not a transitory shock”. The same could be said for what he called the “food crisis”. As Gourinchas noted, today’s high prices for energy and food are intimately linked. But they are also intensely connected to how corporations exercise control over consumers, decision-makers and workers, and the ensuing destabilisation of our climate. Finding a way out of this “polycrisis” requires a deep transformation in how energy and food are produced and distributed, with actions that challenge corporate control head on.
A fossil fuels diet
The food system accounts for around a third of the world’s total energy demand. So any upswing in energy prices has an impact on food prices, even though it can take some time for that impact to occur. This is especially true of fossil fuels. The industrial food system is more addicted to fossil fuels as an energy source than other sectors, with little involvement of renewable sources. Much of this dependency is due to the massive amounts of natural gas needed to produce nitrogen fertilisers. Fossil fuels are also used widely in crop cultivation, food processing, packing, transport and retailing.
But the food and energy picture varies greatly around the world. The large scale, mechanised farms that dominate Europe, North America and parts of Latin America use vastly more energy than small farms in the global South. Farms in the global North use roughly 2.5 times the amount of energy to produce a tonne of cereals than farms in the global South, and more than three times the energy per hectare. The disparity is even larger when looked at in terms of farmers. On a per worker basis, a farm in the global North uses 33 times the energy of a farm in the global South.
There is also variation when it comes to farming systems. Studies show that organic farming is more energy efficient than industrial farming. One recent comparison of organic versus conventional rice farming by colleagues in the Philippines found organic farming to be 63% more energy efficient, while producing equal yields.
These differences help to explain why the heavily industrialised US food system consumes as much energy as India’s total energy budget or the entire energy budget of all African nations combined.
Hungry for energy
Europe’s food system is equally reliant on fossil fuels as that of the US. Over a quarter of all the energy consumed in Europe goes into the cultivation, processing, packing and retailing of food.
Without cheap, abundant access to fossil fuels, Europe’s food system would be in serious trouble.
This is why the war in Ukraine is such a disaster for Europe’s industrial food system. Without cheap natural gas, European food companies cannot run their processing plants, nitrogen fertiliser factories have to shut down, and greenhouses cannot keep the lights on. This winter many European households will have to choose between heating or eating, as prices for both are rising too high and real wage growth is not keeping up. Experts predict the situation will only worsen next year.
This should be a moment for European powers and citizens to rethink their outsized energy consumption and reliance on a model of food production that is overly dependent on fossil fuels. Instead, the continent’s corporations and governments have their eyes on an overseas energy grab – with scant consideration for the people living in those countries or our climate. There’s a boom in energy projects that involve drilling, building ports, signing purchase agreements and making other investments across Africa and Asia, for example. The European Union has committed €50 billion to fossil fuels since the war broke out earlier this year, most of it to be able to import new non-Russian liquified natural gas (LNG) from countries like the US, Qatar, Senegal, Algeria, Egypt, Congo, Mozambique and Tanzania. The East African oil pipeline being built by French energy giant Total in Uganda and Tanzania is mainly to serve Europe. The EU is even deploying massive funds to beef up security services in Mozambique to protect its gas interests there. These are not one-off blips, that will stop when the war in Ukraine comes to an end. There are 20 new long-term LNG terminals being planned in Europe right now.
Europe is taking energy supplies from countries in Asia, as well. It is buying up Indonesia’s coal and Malaysia’s LNG resources, driving up energy prices for local communities there. Similarly, communities in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been suffering blackouts due to gas supplies being diverted to Europe.
All of this spells disaster for a world already heading for a 2.5ºC increase in temperatures by 2100. More fossil fuel production will deepen the climate crisis, which will put further stress on global food production. Already, the increase in global temperatures is wreaking havoc on food production through droughts, floods and storms and scorching temperatures that make it unbearable for farmworkers to work in open fields. We cannot solve the energy crisis or the food crisis with measures that worsen the climate crisis; all three crises are deeply connected and overlapping.
Paths out of the polycrisis…..