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What will we eat as the oil runs out?

INTRODUCTION

Feasta is planning a major international conference [on "Food Security in an Energy-Scarce World"] to be held on June 23rd, 24th & 25th, 2005, at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, University College Dublin, Ireland.

The systems that produce the world's food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production; from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gasses.

Ironically, the food industry is at serious risk from global warming caused by these greenhouse gases, through the disruption of the predictable climactic cycles on which agriculture depends. But global warming can have the more pronounced and immediate effect of exacerbating existing environmental threats to agriculture, many of which are caused by industrial agriculture itself. Environmental degradation, water shortages, salination, soil erosion, pests, disease and desertification all pose serious threats to our food supply, and are made worse by climate change. But many of the conventional ways used to overcome these environmental problems further increase the consumption of finite oil and gas reserves. Thus the cycle of oil dependence and environmental degradation continues.

Industrial agriculture and the systems of food supply are also responsible for the erosion of communities throughout the world. This social degradation is compounded by trade rules and policies, by the profit driven mindset of the industry, and by the lack of knowledge of the faults of the current systems and the possibilities of alternatives. But the globalisation and corporate control that seriously threaten society and the stability of our environment are only possible because cheap energy is used to replace labour and allows the distance between producer and consumer to be extended.

However, this is set to change. Oil output is expected to peak in the next few years and thereafter steadily decline. We have a very poor understanding of how the extreme fluctuations in the availability and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect the global food supply systems, and how they will be able to adapt to the decreasing availability of energy. In the near future environmental threats will combine with energy scarcity to cause significant food shortages and sharp increases in prices - at the very least. We are about to enter an era where we will have to once again feed the world with limited use of fossil fuels. But do we have enough time, knowledge, money, energy and political power to make this massive transformation to our food systems when they are already threatened by significant environmental stresses and increasing corporate control?

This conference will explore the nature of the threats to world food security, examine our global food supply systems, evaluate the possible solutions to the problems that we face, and will seek to answer a crucial question:

How can the world's population be fed without the extensive use of fossil fuels in the production, processing and distribution of food?

Topics of this three day conference will include:

Opening Lecture - Wednesday June 22nd: Peak Oil

Day One - Thursday June 23rd: Food Under Threat
- threats of 'peak oil' to the global food supply
- environmental threats to agricultural production
- globalisation and loss of democratic control
- land use conflicts, oversupply, resources ownership and policy reform
- the relationship between food and fossil fuels
- the structures and origins of the agriculture and food industries
- food as a solution-multiplier

Day Two - Friday June 24th: Reducing Fossil Fuel Use

- technology based solutions
- knowledge based solutions
- conventional vs organic agriculture
- developing technologies vs propagating knowledge
- the challenges of genetic modification
- the possibilities of alternative energy sources
- infrastructure based solutions

Day Three - Saturday June 25th: Precedents and Possibilities

- holistic approaches to food production
- sustainable local food systems
- from fossil fuel dependence to low carbon food systems
- sustainable, productive and culturally supportive farm systems
- food, land and population
- control, policy and education
- the Irish context

Speakers to Include:

Cáit Curran - Market gardener and editor of Organic Matters magazine
Julian Darley - Founder of the Post Carbon Institute
Richard Douthwaite - Economist and author of The Growth Illusion and Short Circuit
John Feehan - Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, UCD
Folke Günther - Ph.D. student at the Department of Systems Ecology at Stockholm University
Anita Hayes - Founder of the Irish Seed Savers Association
Richard Heinberg - Author of Powerdown - Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon Future
Mae-Wan Ho - Director of the Institute of Science and Society
David Holmgren - Author of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
Seamus Hoyne - Managing Director of Tipperary Energy Agency
Seán McDonagh - Author of Patenting Life? Stop! and The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction
Helena Norberg-Hodge - Founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture
Michael O'Brien - Trade Policy Advocacy Officer with Trócaire
Deirdre O'Connor - Lecturer in Resource Economics, UCD
Jules Pretty - Director of the Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex
Darrin Qualman - Director of Research, National Farmers Union of Canada
Wayne Roberts - Project coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council
Colin Sage - Lecturer at Department of Geography, University College Cork
Micheline Sheehy Skeffington - Head of Botany Department, NUI Galway
Lori Stahlbrand - Project Leader of the The Local Food Eco-label Project
Andre Viljoen - Architect and author of Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes

Detailed conference program page

Conference fees

Fees include lunch, tea, coffee

Full rate for three days: 350 euro (early bird rate book and pay by May 27: 280 euro)

Concession rate (note limited number of places): 175 euro. This applies to students, NGOs and Feasta members. (early bird book and pay by May 27: 140 euro).

Contact us for discounts for more than one delegate from same organisation, and for day only rates (limited availability)

Payment can be made by credit card. To register download the Booking Form or contact us at food@feasta.org, or by phone at +353 (0)1 4053615.

This conference is being organised by Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability in association with the Department of Environmental Resource Management at the Faculty of Agri-Food and the Environment, University College Dublin.


[Highlights from from the conference program page:]

DAY ONE (Thursday 23 June, 2005)
...
16:00 Conference Carbon Footprint
Estimation of fossil fuel used in the production of the food served at the conference, and comparison of total conference carbon footprint (including transportation) to fossil fuel use in other areas of Irish society.

16:20 Low Carbon vs. High Carbon Food
Introducing method(s) of evaluating different food supply systems that deal with total fossil fuel use.

16:45 Food as a Solutions Multiplier
Presentation of idea that by concentrating on creating sustainable food supply systems, many other environmental, social and economic problems can be reduced or resolved in the process.
...

DAY TWO (Friday 24 June, 2005)
...
14:00 3. IS 'WHERE' A MORE IMPORTANT ISSUE THAN 'HOW'?

Presentations and panel discussion about the possibilities of fossil fuel reduction through changes to infrastructure and land-use patterns. Topics to be discussed include:

Localisation
Establishing farmers markets, Community Shared Agriculture, food box distribution systems, and other methods of supplying fresh local food in season, in order to reduce fossil fuel use for processing, packaging, refrigeration and transport, while reducing waste and strengthening local farmers, communities and economies.

Nutrient Cycles
Changing infrastructure, land use and settlement patterns to focus on nutrient cycles, and a corresponding reduction of food miles, in order to reduce energy consumption, waste and environmental destruction.

Urban/Peri-Urban Agriculture
Producing substantial amounts of food in close proximity to areas of high population, in order to reduce fossil fuel use, make use of underused space and concentration of 'wastes', while moderating the local climate.

16:15 4. WHO SHOULD CONTROL WHAT WE EAT?

Presentations and panel discussion about the possibilities of fossil fuel reduction through societal changes and policy reform. Topics to be discussed include:

Self Production
Providing land/space, education and encouragement for people throughout the world to grow even a portion of their own food, could be one of the most dramatic steps towards a sustainable and secure food supply system.

Resource Ownership and Taxation
Changing systems of ownership and taxation of land, water, nutrients etc., so that scarce resources are conserved, environmental damage is reduced and resources are available to those who need them.
...

Editorial Notes: Feasta makes a plethora of writings on sustainability available on its website. For example, you can access the book-length collection of articles titled Growth: The Celtic Cancer, Why the global economy damages our health and society. (Also, see a review of the articles.) "Feasta aims to identify the characteristics (economic, cultural and environmental) of a truly sustainable society, articulate how the necessary transition can be effected and promote the implementation of the measures required for this purpose." -BA

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