Our food economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Industrial agriculture uses vast amounts of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers. Enormous amounts of fossil fuels are also used for food processing, packaging, refrigeration, transport and retailing.
The fuel blockades of 2000 showed how much our food distribution systems relies on oil. Within days of blockades by farmers and road hauliers at refineries and fuel depots, the 'fuel crisis' was threatening food stocks, supermarket shelves were rapidly emptying and supermarkets began rationing sales of bread, milk and sugar.
The heavy reliance of the UK food system on fossil fuels makes it our single largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest source of greenhouse gases. It accounts for over twenty per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Growing and producing food accounts for roughly one quarter of the food system's emissions (e.g. fertiliser, fuel for tractors etc). Half is from the transportation of food (from farm to processor, processor to supermarket and from supermarket to home) and one quarter from the processing and cooking of food.
The energy for industrial agriculture is provided by fossil fuels
manufactured from natural gas
derived from oil
powered by petrol and diesel fuels
Nitrogen fertiliser manufacture in particular is very fossil fuel intensive, accounting for about half of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Most of the rest comes from farm machinery (tractors, harvesters, irrigation pumps etc.
Driving up emissions
The power of the big supermarkets to dictate prices, and their insatiable desire for supplies of cheap food means that to stay in business conventional farmers must continuously intensify. They are forced onto the treadmill of corporate-driven technological innovations to increase their productivity, and use ever larger amounts of fossil fuels. In the US, small-scale, less mechanised, more biodiverse organic farming operations have been shown to use 60% less fossil fuel per unit of food than conventional industrial farms.
Supermarkets also use the roads intensively, to transport products from farms, ports and processing plants to their distribution depots and then on to stores. Food distribution currently accounts for up to 40% of all UK road freight. Supermarkets also encourage shoppers to travel by car. The rise in out of town and edge of town supermarkets has led to a massive dependence on car transport. One in ten car journeys are to buy food.
Transport of food by air has trebled in recent years, causing a major rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Ostensibly air freight exists to provide consumers with a choice of out of season vegetables and exotic fruits. In reality it enables supermarkets to secure the cheapest prices for produce. In the UK, the average supermarket vegetable is estimated to have traveled about 600miles. One kilogram of New Zealand apples (brought to the UK by ship) and bought in a supermarket accounts for 300g of CO2, whereas one kilogram of apples from Kent sold in a supermarket has emissions of 120g. Norfolk apples sold at a local farmers' market, village shop or through a box scheme produce emissions of between 10 and 110 grams depending on how far and what mode of transport the shopper takes . If produce is air freighted then emissions are considerably higher, for example one kilogram of mangetout from Kenya produce almost 4 kilograms of CO2 .
Wrapped up in oil
The vast majority of the food available in supermarkets is processed and also heavily packaged. Examples include breakfast cereals, bread, milk, cakes, biscuits, canned and frozen foods. A can of sweetcorn seems innocuous enough, but 9kcals of fossil fuel energy are required to grow, process, package, transport and prepare every 1kcal of food energy from the sweetcorn. Over thirty per cent of the energy required is utilised in the manufacture of the steel can (see pie chart). In highly processed 'convenience' foods, like cook-chill meals, with multiple ingredients, not only is energy used in processing and packaging, but different ingredients of the meal may be processed in different parts of the country and then combined before the product reaches the supermarket shelf. Energy use in livestock production is very variable, but generally speaking it is more energy efficient to eat grain directly than to feed it to an animal and then eat the meat.
The end of cheap oil
Many analysts predict that energy prices are set to rise dramatically in the next few years, with oil output likely to peak within the next 5 years, nuclear decommissioning taking place and gas supply shortages already happening. With constant turmoil in the Middle East and regular hurricanes hitting the Gulf of Mexico, the current spike in oil prices could be the dawn of a new era of expensive oil. How are food and agribusiness corporations planning to respond to this - and to the mounting pressure for reductions in fossil fuel usage to limit climate change effects?
When gas prices suddenly quadrupled earlier in 2006 (due to an unexpected shortage of supply), UK fertiliser companies simply stopped production, sending fertiliser prices shooting up. Farmers worry that rising fertiliser costs will mean that two crops of wheat a year will no longer be possible. This would create the potential for UK food shortages. Kraft Foods announced towards the end of 2005 that due to increased energy and packaging costs they were increasing the costs of their branded foods by 4%. It seems like it will be business as usual: big corporations dumping costs onto farmers and consumers.
Large superstores, despite having been built relatively recently, are the most energy inefficient buildings in the retail sector. It would take more than 60 corner shops and greengrocers to match the carbon dioxide emissions from an average sized superstore.
Several supermarkets have made gestures towards environmental sustainability. Asda and Sainburys are increasing energy efficiency in their stores and fuel efficiency in its lorry fleet. Walmart has set a target of 20% reduction in emissions and will develop a more fuel efficient hybrid engine for its US truck fleet. Tesco have announced the setting up of a £100m environment fund, including plans to power stores with wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal power and to introduce gasification, which produces energy from waste food. It also plans to cut energy consumption per square foot by half by 2010. However, Friends of the Earth say that this energy cut will in effect be negated by the supermarket's plans for expansion over that period. the factn that Tesco made their green pledges the day before announcing record profits points to a PR move rather than a real commitement to greening their business.
A fossil free future
None of the supermarkets have shown any initiative to tackle the fundamental problems of fossil fuel reliance. This is hardly surprising when they have relied so heavily on cheap fossil fuels to create their profitable empires - cheap food from industrial agriculture, cheap fuel for transportation of food to centralised distribution centres and stores and cheap produce from global trading.
In an age of rising oil prices and climate chaos our food supply can only be secured by a local organic system of production, with minimum processing of food, less need for transport, refigeration and packaging. Such a system will not be created by the supermarkets. Their model of food supply is out of date and inherently unsustainable.