Food and energy: a clash of giants

Two critical markets are pursuing a stressed planet’s renewable resources, presenting policymakers with complex and difficult choices. The Worldwatch Institute’s latest look at Earth’s “vital signs” sees dangerous times ahead as the “sustainability crisis” unfolds. China Dialogue's Maryann Bird investigates

“Each year, the signs of an unraveling global environment become a little clearer.” So observes Erik Assadourian, project director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2007-2008, the latest edition of Worldwatch’s annual report on the environmental trends shaping the planet’s future.

According to the Washington-based research organisation’s just-released assessment of the planet’s “vital signs” – the indications of its health -- an “important new element of the ‘sustainability’ crisis” is unfolding.

“Global energy and food markets have collided over the past year,” writes Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin, “greatly increasing pressure on the renewable resources that nourish the economy. This collision between two of the world’s largest and most essential economic sectors will have complex repercussions. One consequence is clear: unprecedented stress on Earth’s land and water resources will present difficult choices for policymakers for a long time to come.”

The collision, on different fronts, of the food and energy economies is beginning to have social as well as economic impacts. And, says Flavin, it is “another reminder of the powerful forces that connect the human economy to Earth’s ecological systems.”

Among the “key indicators” cited by Worldwatch are food and agricultural trends and energy and environmental ones that are fighting for supremacy on much the same ground. On the food front, grain production has fallen while prices have surged. The demand for soybeans, meat and fish has soared, while the area of irrigated land has remained stable. In the energy and environmental sectors, fossil-fuel use is up (as is, more encouragingly, wind and solar power), while carbon emissions rise relentlessly. Biofuel flows are surging, but the growing demand has pushed up the prices of several agricultural commodities, including corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, weather-related disasters have increased in number and intensity, often delivering devastating and unexpected economic and social blows, including the destruction of key food crops.

Global grain production per person dropped by 13 kilograms from 2005 to 2006, says Vital Signs, as wheat, corn and rice all declined due to poor weather in the world’s major growing areas. Across Asia, a host of factors marred the 2006 rice crop. In China, droughts, floods and disease were factors. Despite larger plantings, production was about the same as in 2005, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures. In India, the monsoon rains were erratic in the rice-producing states.

As incomes have risen in China and other developing countries, diets have changed, generating an increase in the demand for meat products. In 2006, global production of meat rose by 2.5% -- to 276 million tonnes. Naturally, such demand brought with it a greater need for animal feed, so the consumption of corn, soybeans and other agricultural commodities also increased. Driven by the increased need for animal feed, along with falling water tables in soybean-growing areas of northern China, the country has doubled its soybean imports from 2004 to 2006. China began the cultivation of soybeans 5,000 years ago; in 2005, 74% of the country’s soy was imported.

Brazil now produces a quarter of the world’s soybeans and is the crop’s largest exporter, while production in Argentina has been growing even faster – by 216% since 1995. “Rapid South American soybean expansion is creating monocrop plantations at a rate that endangers 22 million hectares of tropical forest and savanna in the next 20 years,” according to the environmental organisation WWF’s figures. Such single-crop plantation requires large amounts of both land and water.

While these food demands on agriculture grow, so does the demand for crops for the booming biofuels market, which expanded by 28% in 2006. The United States and Brazil are leading the way, but dozens of other countries are keen to follow on their heels. Also growing, says Worldwatch, are “the ecological risks of rising food and energy demand”. One glaring example, notes Flavin, is palm oil. Used for cooking and as a supplement to diesel fuel, palm oil “became a hot commodity in 2006, spurring entrepreneurs to clear tropical forests in southeast Asia in order to expand their palm populations”.

Increased incomes and changing diets in China and other Asian countries have created greater demand for meat, production of which increased by 2.5% in 2006, to an estimated 276 million tonnes. At least 60% of that meat was produced in developing nations, and the FAO expects another 3% production rise in 2007, to 285 million tonnes. “China continues to be the world’s largest producer of pig meat,” the Worldwatch report says, but several Latin American nations – including Brazil – are increasing their production facilities. Demand for pork has increased faster than for any other meat, “likely due to shifting meat consumption patterns in Asia as people switch from chicken to pork due to concerns about avian flu.”

All of this has a significant impact on the planet. Meat production, according to Vital Signs, accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the earth’s land surface. In the Amazon, for example, “70% of previously forested land is occupied by pastures for cattle and much of the remaining 30% is used to grow soybeans and other food crops.” Livestock are said to be responsible for 18% of overall greenhouse-gas emissions (measured in carbon dioxide equivalent) – including 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. The animals also are major users of water and producers of pollution in rivers and streams, groundwater and soil.

(The planet’s appetite for fish keeps growing, too, “even as seafood becomes scarcer”. Wild fish schools have been depleted, their harvests stagnant over the past decade. The decline has prompted huge global growth in farmed fish, 70% of which are raised in China. About a fifth of all seafood is consumed by the Chinese, whose intake has grown more than tenfold since the early 1960s.)

Other pressures on the earth’s ecosystems also are linked to the wider issue of climate change brought about by humans’ unsustainable consumption patterns. The pressures include shortages of irrigation water, soil salinisation, deforestation on an unprecedented scale, loss of biodiversity through accelerating habitat loss, and increased carbon emissions due to fossil-fuel burning.

Worldwatch’s report tracked 44 trends, only six of which were considered positive. Chief among the encouraging signs was the growing use of wind power, spurred by concerns about climate change and energy security. Outside of Europe – where wind capacity rose 19% last year -- Asia experienced the strongest growth in wind power, adding nearly 3,680 megawatts of capacity. “India trailed only the United States and Germany by installing 1,840 megawatts of new capacity in 2006,” according to Vital Signs. In total installations, India is in fourth place globally (with 6,270 megawatts), behind Germany, Spain and the United States.

“China is rapidly catching up, however,” the report says. “It leads the world in the use of small wind turbines and ranks sixth overall for total wind power installations, not far behind Denmark. China added nearly 1,350 megawatts in 2006, thanks to a new renewable energy law, more than doubling its total capacity to 2,604 megawatts.” Citing reports by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), the Worldwatch document added: “The [Chinese] government plans to redouble its wind capacity by 2010 – a target some experts believe will be greatly exceeded – and to install 30,000 megawatts of capacity by 2020.”

Globally, “[i]nvestments in new wind-power generating equipment exceeded $20 billion in 2006 and are projected to surpass $60 billion in 2016.” The GWEC forecasts that “with strong policies in place, global installed wind capacity will reach 135,000 megawatts by 2010 and could exceed 1 million megawatts by 2020.”

China is also growing strong in production of solar photovoltaic cells, ranking third in the world, behind Japan and the European Union (EU) -- led by Germany. Separately, Taiwan was ranked fifth in 2006, with the US fourth. Together, the Chinese mainland and Taiwan produced an estimated 547 megawatts of solar cells last year, “accounting for almost half of the global expansion in output and nearly 22% of the market”.

However, says Worldwatch: “Most of China’s production was for export to Germany and Spain, with only 25 megawatts installed domestically in 2006.”

As alternative energy capacity grew, however, much of the planet still relied on fossil fuels, and carbon emissions continued their unrelenting rise. While the US remained the world’s biggest emitter, the largest increases took place in Asia -- and China is poised to overtake the US in the near future.

According to the report: “Average CO2 concentrations have risen 20.8% since measurements began in 1959 and are now more than 100 parts per million higher than in pre-industrial times.” In 2006 – a year in which the world used 3.9 billion tons of oil -- human activities elevated CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere by 2.2 parts per million (ppm), bringing the total to 382 ppm. About 80% of the increase has been attributed to fossil-fuel burning, emissions from which increased 3% in 2005, to 7.56 billion tons – “more than one ton for every person on Earth.” Annual fossil-fuel emissions are up 17% just since 2000, Worldwatch says. China’s alone rose by 9.1% in 2005 “and experts predict that before 2010 China will emit more carbon from fossil-fuel use than the United States does.”

“The world is running out of time to head off catastrophic climate change,” said Worldwatch’s Erik Assadourian at the recent Barcelona launch of Vital Signs 2007-2008, “and it is essential that Europe and the rest of the international community bring pressure to bear on US policymakers to address the climate crisis.” While the fastest growth in CO2 emissions is occurring in Asia, Worldwatch and others argue, persuading China and India to commit to reductions is unlikely without a US commitment to restraints.

“The only hope for reducing the world’s carbon emissions is for the US to begin reducing its emissions and cooperating with other nations immediately,” according to Assadourian. “The EU may be the only entity that can make that happen.”

Recent moves by Canada, Russia, Denmark and other countries toward staking claims to possible new sources of oil and gas in an ice-free Arctic “assume that a warming world is here,” he says.

Clearly, critical public-policy decisions are needed in a world increasingly faced with competing human demands on the planet’s ecological systems, demands that encompass the current collision of the food and energy economies. As Worldwatch’s Christopher Flavin concluded in Vital Signs: “Efforts to replace limited fossil fuels are placing new demands on biological resources – even as the continued combustion of those fuels further weakens the resource base by disrupting the climate. In the dangerous period we’ve now entered, Planet Earth’s vital signs require careful monitoring.”

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

This article first appeared in China Dialogue.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007