More food with less energy use?

Our global food system runs on an energy deficit. More efficiency is needed, and agtech can be part of the solution.

Food is energy. Producing food requires energy. In addition, agricultural land use is facing increasing competition between energy and food production. This situation creates a complicated tangle of contradictions.

Let’s take a look at the basics. Plant-derived foods result from photosynthesis, in which carbohydrates are produced from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, while oxygen is released. In this process, the energy input is renewable (it comes directly from the sun). However, chlorophyll – a protein required for photosynthesis – needs nitrogen, which is supplied in the form of fertilisers.

Now, fertilisers predominantly come in two flavours: organic fertiliser from animal production and mineral fertiliser from industrial production. The Haber–Bosch process, the basis for the latter, consumes around 1–2% of the world’s energy supply. Agriculture as a whole consumes orders of magnitude more energy and has an energy deficit: it consumes more energy than it produces.

This disparity has actually increased massively over the last century, as Vaclav Smil has pointed out:

The 10-fold increase in yield has been driven by a 90-fold boost in energetic inputs — caused by fossil-fuelled farm machinery, and electricity for irrigation and fertilizer production. When this complexity is accounted for, the story of efficiency is turned on its head: we now put more fossil-fuel energy in for each unit of food we get out.

Now this deficit becomes even more of a problem when we talk about biomass as a renewable energy source. In this case, solar and wind energy are orders of magnitude more efficient in the utilisation of agricultural land. Aside from that, the nitrogen efficiency of the global food system is low as well: Vaclav Smil calculated it to be no more than 15%. And he noted:

Obviously, even relatively small reductions in the average meat consumption would have notable effects on overall nitrogen losses.

And what’s more: on a global level, a third of all food is wasted. This alone, if taken into account, dramatically worsens efficiency.

How to improve efficiency

At this point, we can note a few things:

  1. Our global food system suffers from an energy deficit, low nitrogen efficiency and high waste.
  2. For energy production, photovoltaic and wind are better solutions than photosynthesis.
  3. However, photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

So, apart from obvious, but hard to implement, things like eating less meat and reducing food waste, what can we do to improve the efficiency of the global food system? Krishna Kumar, founder and CEO of Cropin, has pointed out that agriculture is one of the least digitised industries. This translates to a bunch of low-hanging fruit from digitisation and leads to what he and others call the smart agriculture revolution.

All the important digital buzzwords of the recent past are included, from the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence to big data, drones and robotics. Precision agriculture employs technologies like these to improve efficiency. It is related to the Smart Earth approach: using sensors to generate data, automate operations, optimise returns and minimise inputs.

What is agtech?

Part of the idea is to provide the right amount of seed, water or fertiliser in the right place and at the right time. This is already beyond the stage of a mere idea, and it is not limited to Western countries, as this story from India shows. There is an entire industry, dubbed agtech (for agricultural technology). Agtech has different sectors:

  • biotech
  • agrifinance and e-commerce
  • indoor farming (also known as vertical farming)
  • animal agtech (everything related to livestock)
  • precision agtech

Work is underway to replace synthetic fertilisers with organic alternatives, and pesticides with biopesticides. The smart agriculture revolution goes way beyond applying the usual suspects of the digital revolution to agriculture. Neither does it seem that there is a silver bullet like the Haber-Bosch process, which single-handedly took agriculture to a new level in the 20th century.

Today, the Haber-Bosch process relies on natural gas. Phasing out natural gas requires new solutions. Research is going on, but, to quote a 2019 paper,

the question still remains whether such revolution will take place.

Last year, Nature Synthesis concluded that green ammonia is a space worth watching. Not only for its impact as fertiliser, but also as an energy storage solution. So, apart from biomass and the use of agricultural land for solar and wind power, there is a third conflict. We possibly need green ammonia to produce fertiliser and to replace fossil fuels.

How fast will costs decline?

This boils down to one conclusion: it’s not about either/or. We need both more energy and more efficiency in the use of it. We need to combine different possible solutions and redesign our systems. And we need intelligent policies to govern conflicts and design markets. Much depends on how fast the costs of different solutions will decline. And this is notoriously hard to predict.

We know about the learning curve and scale effects. We don’t know just how fast and how steeply these effects kick in. For example: if battery prices decline faster than we can grow green ammonia, batteries could reduce the potential demand for ammonia as an energy storage solution. If we can replace synthetic fertilisers with organic alternatives, the demand for ammonia will decline even further.

The price of batteries has already declined massively and will probably continue to do so. Ammonia optimists expect similar effects for green ammonia. This would be good news given the importance of ammonia for the global food system. Today, about half of the world’s population is fed by synthetic fertiliser.

Key Takeaways

To conclude:

  1. We need agricultural land to produce food and harvest energy.
  2. We need energy to produce food.
  3. More efficiency helps resolve conflicts of land use.

And we haven’t even discussed the meat question. Is going vegan the solution? Probably not, but reducing meat consumption is a no-brainer, not least for reasons of efficiency.

Image by Jan KopřivaUnsplash.