We agonize over the price of fuel to run our cars and heat our homes while virtually ignoring the cost of fuel to grow our food.
Food production uses a lot of energy. About 10 per cent of our total fuel consumption is used to raise, process and distribute food. It makes sense to find efficiencies in food production because the problem is only getting worse.
The number of mouths to feed is expected to increase to nine billion by 2050. Michael Webber puts it bluntly. "As a consequence, experts predict that food production will have to double by 2050," he warns in the magazine Scientific American.
As consumption increases, climate change will negatively affect crops: more floods and droughts, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and reduced photosynthesis.
Here are some solutions. Instead of wasting energy in plowing up fields, seeds could be planted directly into the untilled soil. Argentina has been doing it for years. No-till agriculture reduces labour, irrigation, and soil erosion.
Water consumption, and the cost of pumping it, can be reduced through drip irrigation. Water is wasted by overhead irrigation especially in semiarid climates like Kamloops'.
You've seen those big green crop circles created by giant rotating water arms that evaporate water before it hits the crops, and more when it lands on leaves. Researchers estimate that water delivered directly to the roots by tubes could reduce water consumption by 40 per cent and lower energy bills by 25 per cent.
Fertilizer application could be reduced by leveling fields. Farmers now apply enough fertilizer and water for the highest point of their fields. The remainder runs off to the lowest point and then into streams and rivers that become choked with excess fertilizer. When fields are laser-leveled, only the necessary fertilizer and water are applied to the crop.
Why drill for natural gas with dangerous methods such as fracking when there are pools of the stuff lying around? Every year, Canadian farms produce about 100 million tons of manure. That represents an untapped energy output.
In the good old days when ranches were small, manure would go back to the land in place of chemical fertilizers. While the best solution would be to get rid of factory farms, in the mean time the gas produced from manure could be used for whole towns as it now does in Juehnde, German.
An astonishing 25 per cent of food is wasted because grocers don't want to risk making customers sick. Since food uses 10 per cent of our total energy, that means the waste food energy in Canada would meet all the energy the needs of a population the size of the city of Winnipeg.
That's a lot of needless waste that could be reduced by replacing the date-based labeling system now used with temperature revealing ones. Best-before labels don't reveal the conditions which food was transported. Food that is not exposed to high temperatures has a shelf life beyond the date but grocers can't take the chance and throw it out.
Temperature sensitive inks in labels would reveal whether food is safe or not by changing colour. Such labels would also reveal which carriers who don't store food properly in transport.
Technology will only go so far in reducing the amount of energy to grow food. Behaviour has to change as well. We need to eat foods that require less energy to grow like grains, vegetables and fruit. In a world of diminishing reserves of easy oil, it only makes sense.
David Charbonneau is the owner of Trio Technical.