Feeding Cities: We May Be Having the Wrong Energy vs. Food Conversation

A conversation on food, fuel and fracking at the Feeding Cities conference.

Cook stove in India. Credit: Improved Biomass Cooking Stoves

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As the 2013 Feeding Cities conference unfolds this week in Philadelphia, Next City, a media partner for the event, will feature regular updates from bloggers covering its talks and workshops.

“The real food versus fuel debate for most of the world is, ‘Do I buy food today or do I buy fuel?’” said Harry Stokes, director of the non-profit Project Gaia, during a Feeding Cities breakout session this morning on energy and food security.

While the debate in U.S. politics tends to focus on the share of corn and other crops grown for consumption as opposed to fuel — and the government subsidy structure that determines this balance — today’s discussion focused more on the energy that goes into food.

As Stokes noted, this is a daily concern in many parts of the world. Gaia, which works largely in Ethiopia, is one of a number of recently formed organizations promoting the use of efficient alcohol-fueled cook stoves in developing countries. The cook stove campaign aims to reduce poverty: In Haiti, for one, charcoal can cost up to $2.50 in a country where most people live on less than $2 per day. Cook stove proponents also sell cooking efficiency as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing fatalities due to smoke inhalation and improving gender equity by reducing the time women spend gathering fuel and preparing food.

The energy that goes into food production is an often-overlooked factor in developed economies as well. “The food system disproportionately consumes energy in our economy,” argued Patrick Canning, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. According to Canning’s calculations, between 1997 and 2002, 80 percent of the increase in the U.S. energy budget was food-driven. In 2008, 8.2 cents of every “food dollar” spent by U.S. consumers was energy costs.

Interestingly, the panelists all seemed fairly dismissive of the widely publicized argument that U.S. government support for ethanol was a major driver of the global spike in food prices in 2008. Noting that subsequent studies found transport costs to be the main component of food prices in developing countries.

“Ironically, the rise in commodity food pricing seems to be most heavily affected by the price of oil,” Stokes suggested, “not the cost to produce the foodstuffs in the developed economy.”

A big factor to watch in food costs going forward may be the fracking boom, argued Columbia University economist Gavin Albert. The U.S. food system is highly reliant on nitrogen-based fertilizers but, thanks to fracking, is now far less reliant on imported nitrogen. Of course, critics will counter — and did during today’s session — that the danger fracking poses to water supplies in agricultural areas outweighs these benefits.

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