Globalized Energy and Food Systems

In 2007-08 global agricultural commodity prices spiked causing millions of people in poor and lesser-developed countries to suffer food shortages.  Subsequent analyses have identified a complex and interconnected set of factors contributing to the crisis, including, most notably, futures trading, increased petroleum prices, deliberate eschewing of strategic grain reserves, agricultural price supports and subsidies in developed nations, increased demand among a growing human global population, and diversion of food crops for making ethanol.  That is to say, although industrial large-scale agricultural production and world trade have many benefits, fundamentally the 2007-08 agricultural commodity price spike was an unfortunate consequence of a complex and interconnected globalized system of trade (as illustrated in figure 3.2). For more on this topic, see the fact sheet: The Relationship Between Bioenergy and Global Food Prices.

Figure 3.2. Global grain production and trade; most countries keep most of what they produce; the U.S. is a major importer and exporter of grains. (Yourish and Lindeman, The Washington Post, 2008.)

Conventional row crops like corn, sugar cane and soybean can be used for food, feed and fiber, and to make various bioenergy products and industrial chemicals. As global population increases, so too does demand for food and energy from plant based materials. Use of arable farmland (as opposed to marginal lands only) for production of biofuels does present some risk of impact to food supply on the global scale.  There is much debate about how best to respond to this dilemma, but responses can be characterized in general as supply-focused or demand-focused.  Supply-focused approaches emphasize increases in global agricultural productivity and efficiency, and commercial development of second generation biofuels utilizing non-food crops.  Demand-focused approaches emphasize such things as reduced per capita consumption of food and energy in developed countries through increased efficiencies and lifestyle changes.  To fulfill increased demand for food, feed, fiber, fuel and power, both supply- and demand-focused approaches will be necessary.