Chapter 1 - Food Production from an Energy Perspective

This chapter is the first part of a five-part blog series discussing the methodology adopted to develop ‘An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore’.

  • Chapter 1 - Food Production from an Energy Perspective

  • Chapter 2 - Road to Self-sufficiency in Food Production

  • Chapter 3 - Closing the Systems Loop

  • Chapter 4 - Evolutionary Design Process

  • Chapter 5 - Adaptive-iterative Design Exploration

Cite as: Kaushik, Vignesh. 2012. “An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore” Masters’ thesis, National University of Singapore.


Food security has traditionally been considered only in the context of rural poverty. However, the 2007/2008 global food crisis saw food riots and demonstrations in many parts of the world and brought the topic of food security to the forefront of international attention. Far from being a one-off event, this crisis highlighted the vulnerabilities of our global food system, and the need for countries to re-examine their food security policies and approaches. The agricultural productivity is on the decline globally due to under-investment in agriculture while the global food demand has been steadily increasing due to the expanding population. More often than not, climate changes, extreme weather events and natural calamities disrupt supply and compound the food shortage problem.

Food security is a complex problem. As a small city-state with limited natural resources, Singapore imports over 90% of its food requirement for its 5+ million inhabitants [1]. In the event of global food crises, Singapore’s food security will be a grave concern as exporting countries, under pressure to feed themselves, are likely to restrict or even stop exports. Singapore is also a price taker and faces the twin challenges of food price and supply volatility. Hence any disruption in production to any of its key suppliers could have significant consequences to the food security of Singapore. Though measures have been taken to diversify food sources (even as far as Brazil and Argentina), they ensure resilience only against short-term supply disruptions and are highly energy-intensive.

[1] Speech by Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development and Defence at the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Asian Food Security, 2011

Developed countries around the world are leasing or purchasing agricultural land in developing countries to ensure their own food security. For example, South Korea has agricultural land in Madagascar while the United Arab Emirates has purchased land in Pakistan. Singapore has initiated a feasibility study for the Jilin-Singapore Food Zone which covers 1,450 square kilometers, more than twice the area of Singapore, in Jilin, China [2]. This only exacerbates the global trend of declining agricultural areas and food production and may challenge Singapore’s sovereignty.

[2] In 2008, the leaders of Singapore and China raised the idea of building a super farm in Jilin, China.
Sources: Bigger stake for China in Sino-S’pore food zone, Super Farm

The AVA Annual report 2009/2010 indicates that a very small percentage of the food that Singapore consumes is produced locally.

Moreover, oil output is expected to peak in the next few years and steadily decline thereafter. The global peak oil and energy descent scenario poses a serious threat to food-importing nations since the modern food system is both highly centralized and almost entirely dependent on oil. 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 [2].

[2] Why Our Food is So Dependent on Oil?

As a small city-state with limited natural resources, Singapore imports over 90% of its food requirement for its 5.4 million inhabitants.

Therefore, in the wake of energy descent and due to such overwhelming dependency on external food sources, certain energy-efficient strategies have to be developed to ensure greater self-sufficiency in food supply for Singapore’s growing population.

Food Production: An Energy Perspective

As a first step towards developing a holistic strategy, it is imperative to analyze the energy consumed in importing major food products to Singapore as it is still unknown if Singapore has energy and cost benefits in cultivating crops locally. For the purpose of this study only vegetables, fruits and animal-based products are analyzed. Other staple food products like rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil etc. have all been excluded from the study as there is little merit in analyzing them since Singapore island constrained for growing such ground intensive farming crops.

Diversification of sources of food supply to Singapore
Source: AVA Annual Report 2009/2010

The total energy input for each of the food items from the point of production to the point it reaches Singapore port is analyzed. This analysis helps in identifying food items that make the most sense to be grown locally. There is also a possibility that certain stages of the food production process are more energy and cost-efficient if moved to Singapore. Therefore, it is important to analyze a detailed break-up of energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing food to Singapore.

A brief look at the energy characteristics of each component of the production cycle is helpful in comprehending the energy distribution. The energy used in food production is primarily divided into direct and indirect energy use. Direct energy inputs are those on the farm, such as electricity for machinery and equipment handling and diesel and other fuels used on the farm. Indirect energy inputs include the embodied energy in the manufacture and supply of pesticides, fertilizers and forage & fodder. Capital energy is the energy consumed to set up and maintain the production house and includes all fuels used to manufacture machinery, building materials and other farm inputs. Processing includes butchering animals, washing and packaging crops, or other more involved processing techniques. The distribution includes transportation as well as wholesale and retail sales. While these categories make up a substantive part of the energy invested in food production, they don’t represent the totality of it. Energy used by restaurants and caterers, within households to store and prepare food, and by water treatment facilities and waste disposal sites, among other categories, are not included, guaranteeing that the numbers presented are at best, conservative.

Energy distribution among various stages of beef, mutton & pork production.
– Energy ratios in Finnish agricultural production
– Benchmarking Organic, Integrated and Conventional Sheep and Beef Farms
– Energy inputs in Brazilian beef production
– Environmental Assessment of Danish Pork
– The environmental impact of pork production from a life cycle perspective

Energy distribution among various stages of vegetables & fruits production.
– No Through Road: The Limitations of Food Miles
– Analysis of energy consumption in the agriculture and food sector in Canada
– Environmental Assessment of Danish Pork
– Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry

It is clear from the graphs above that the energy inputs in animal meat production are high. It isn’t surprising, since the production of animal meat is an industrialized process from start to finish, requiring large pieces of machinery, sophisticated processing facilities, industrially-produced feed, and refrigerated transportation. All of these require huge investments of energy, either directly as fuel to power them or indirectly in their manufacture and maintenance. The huge energy demand associated with farm inputs is made up primarily of the embodied energy in grain purchased to feed cows, lamb and pigs. The high fuel costs are because of best-practices regulations that require meat operations to transport animals to slaughter and packing facilities instead of processing them on-farm.

Transporting goods by truck is about eleven times more energy-intensive compared to shipping them.

Farm to plate – Comparative analysis of energy distribution
Sources: Energy use in the production of Poultry, Nutritional outputs and energy inputs in seafoods

Among the meat-based products, lamb, beef and pork have higher energy costs till the gate of the production houses. However, they spend much lesser energy on average on transportation when compared to chicken and fish. This is because these three products are currently being shipped from Australia or New Zealand which is much more energy-efficient compared to chicken and fish products that are being trucked from Malaysia and Thailand by road. On the other hand, vegetable and fruit production are not as energy-intensive as producing meat, so trucking them via road from Malaysia or Thailand adds disproportionately higher energy costs. Though ground farming is considerably low on overall energy consumption, the processes that take to keep the produce fresh from the gate of the production house to the port of Singapore and then to the plates of the consumer thereafter is relatively high.

Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than the production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious compared to plant protein

One indicator of the unsustainability of the contemporary food system is the ratio of energy outputs (the energy content of a food product in calories) to the energy inputs. When the ratio is presented as inputs divided by outputs, a number larger than one indicates a system that’s energy-intensive, so the smaller the input/output ratio the more sustainable the system is.

Ratio of Energy Input to Food-Energy Output
Sources: Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment

Tracking food animal production from the feed trough to the dinner table, it is found that broiler chickens to be the most efficient use of fossil energy, and lamb, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output while lamb meat production is the worst at 57:1. Beef cattle production is also as inefficient as lamb (energy input to output ratio of 40:1), but including Dairy production adds up to the energy output a little more compared to lamb. The larger the animal, the larger the percentage of that animal’s body mass that is inedible material like bone, skin and tissue. That explains why it takes exponentially less water and energy inputs to produce fruits and vegetables.

Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water compared to producing 1 kg of grain protein.

Organic farming is more energy efficient compared to industrialized farming methods. The improved energy efficiency is largely due to reduced use of fertilizer and pesticide inputs that account for atleast 30-40% of energy use in conventional systems. When reared organically, a large portion of feed for dairy cattle and lamb is derived from grass and therefore it is found that organic systems are five times more energy efficient on a per animal basis. But once it passes the farm-gate, it is still energy-intensive to slaughter, process, pack, store and transport the meat to various parts of the globe.

Bottom Line

Our contemporary food system is inherently inefficient and highly unsustainable and is almost entirely dependent on one finite energy source, oil. The vulnerability of our food system to sudden changes was seen during the fuel crisis in 2001. A sharp increase in oil price or a reduction in oil supply could present a serious geopolitical conflict and eventually threaten Singapore’s food security. Also, there is growing evidence that the product that is imported is not as nutrient-rich. This is because the food is traveling across increasing distances and in order to accommodate the weeks spent in transport, produce is harvested long before it ripens and thus well below its peak nutrient density.

Therefore in order to achieve Singapore’s self-sufficiency in food production, we have to first address the three main problems with its food supply; vulnerability, inefficiency and unsustainability.