Feature Report: Food, Energy and Climate

5 items of content in this feature report

Op-ed articles

Energy and food

Marion Guillou
Marion GuillouChairwoman of Agreenium

"Conscientious consumers are everyday people who seek to transform the world through their consumption choices, in the broad sense of the term."

Consuming Conscientiously

While it is important to analyze energy consumption, greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... (GHG) emissions and environmental impacts, it is also vital to take action at an individual and collective level to reduce their effects. This means going beyond the role of passive observer to become an active player in consumption, or a “conscientious consumer”, argues Marion Guillou, Chairwoman of Agreenium, in this article.

Conscientious consumers are everyday people who seek to transform the world through their consumption choices, in the broad sense of the term. Younger generations are highly sensitive to the concept – and they are right to be.

Consider food, for example, where consumption impacts several fields: nutrition, which spills over into health; energy use, and by extension greenhouse gas emissions; the environment, through waste management; and the balance between urban and rural areas, which raises significant political and social issues. Contradictions abound because what works well for one aspect may not for another, making trade-offs inevitable. That said, there are a few very simple recommendations that cover all possible scenarios.

Impact of Transportation

Transportation is an essential factor in calculating the energy impact of what we eat. Fresh produce freighted by air from far-off countries has a disastrously large carbon footprintThe carbon footprint (also known as greenhouse gas inventory) of a good or service measures the impact human activities have on the environment ... . Products shipped by sea, on the other hand, are virtually neutral in terms of energy consumption. But while it is crucial to look at the country of origin when buying fresh produce, the real difficulty lies in the “last mile”. From an energy point of view, it is better to walk to the local convenience store to do your shopping than to drive 10 to 20 kilometers to a large supermarket. Short supply chains are not always the cure-all solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they do benefit peri-urban farming and contribute to vibrant rural environments and stable local economies.


Mass catering and home-delivered meals are a source of significant food waste. Cafeterias have observed that diners take 50% less bread when it is placed at the end of the circuit rather than the beginning. “Used By” dates on fresh produce need to be carefully distinguished from “Best Before” dates on canned and dry goods to prevent people from throwing away perfectly edible food. And while individually portioned products require more packaging, they more effectively cater to the needs of people who live alone and of small families, thereby curbing waste. In terms of packaging, the use and landfilling of non-biodegradableA substance capable of being decomposed by naturally occurring fungi and microorganisms. plastics has been catastrophic for our oceans and the biodiversityRefers to the natural diversity of living organisms. It can be measured through the study of species, genes and ecosystems. they harbor, making the environment the prime concern. Many countries including France have recently introduced strict bans on these materials.


A balanced, varied diet made up of vegetables and a moderate amount of meat products can have a positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions and above all on nutrition. Recommendations to increase our fruit and vegetable intake should be followed, but not to the point of relying on greenhouses heated using fossil fuels to grow these ingredients. From this perspective, frozen products offer an excellent and particularly cost-effective solution for putting out-of-season vegetables on the table, despite the energy used to maintain the cold chain. Advertisements often ignore the three golden rules to good nutrition: less fat, less sugar, less salt. To remedy this situation, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended taxing sugary drinks and many countries have introduced regulations to limit audiovisual advertising during children’s peak viewing times.

In all of these highly interconnected areas, public regulations can provide invaluable support to the individual efforts of conscientious consumers.


Marion Guillou is an engineer specialized in world food security. A graduate of France’s École Polytechnique with a Ph.D. in the physical chemistry of biotransformation, she is involved in several international bodies. Marion Guillou notably chairs Agreenium, a French agricultural, veterinary and forestry institute, which was founded in 2014 to support public training, research and innovation policy in these fields. From 2004 to 2012, she served as Chairwoman of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). 

Jean-Louis Rastoin
Jean-Louis RastoinProfessor at the French National Higher Institute of Agricultural Sciences of Montpellier

"Grâce à l’innovation sociale et à la technologie, les perspectives énergétiques peuvent être gérables."

Industrial Agriculture and Agroecology – The Two Global Food Systems

How can we feed a global population of nine or ten billion people in 2050 in a sustainable manner? And what kind of energy consumption will be required to achieve this goal? Two non-mutually exclusive scenarios are playing out: one following the industrial agriculture model, and another branching off into regional food systems. In both cases, social innovation and technology have made it possible to manage the energy outlook. Below is the analysis of agricultural engineer and economist, Professor Jean-Louis Rastoin.

To introduce the subject, here are some key facts:

  • According to a study carried out by the European Union, the food sector as a whole accounted for a quarter of the E.U.’s final energy consumption at the beginning of the decade. This relates to the entire food chain, from manufacturing fertilizers to the food reaching the consumers’ plates. Food production is therefore particularly energy intensive.
  • In the U.S. in the early 00s, 12 kilocalories of energy were needed to produce just 1 kilocalorie of food, which is far from energy efficient.
  • Approximately 8 to 10 kilocalories from vegetable sources are needed to produce 1 kilocalorie’s worth of animal products, which explains why our diet is such a decisive factor in our energy footprint. A shift to a more vegetarian diet would lead to significant energy savings.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), each person consumes almost 3,000 kilocalories per day on average throughout the world, although there are considerable disparities between the North and the South. Nutritionists advise that an intake of 2,000 kilocalories would be sufficient. It would seem then that the planet does have the necessary resources to feed the entire population, but they are poorly distributed.

Today, two main food systems exist alongside each other. There is the mass producing industrial agriculture system, with its global enterprises and long distribution channels, which has established itself over the years as the dominant system across all continents; and there is the traditional system, built on small farm-holdings with low yields in poorer countries.

You might say that the first system is directed by supermarket trolleys or, in other words, by demand. It is well established in economically mature markets, and is popular in emerging markets as it is adapted to middle-class lifestyles. The strong economic performance of the system, which relies on advanced technology, has made it possible to significantly reduce food prices. Over the coming years, industrial agriculture will move further toward innovative developments such as "vertical farms" built in peri-urban areas, and "precision agriculture", which seeks to optimize seeding, fertilization, pesticide application and irrigation in each field. This concept is expected to make it possible to reduce energy consumption and more effectively manage pollution. However, it can also give rise to significant health issues as a result of producing crops that contain too much sugar, fat or salt and often pesticides too.

An Alternative System

Consumers are well aware of the disadvantages and, mainly in developed countries, are increasingly looking for alternatives to industrially made products, seeking healthy, fresh produce that tastes better and for which origin and production techniques are clear.

The second, alternative system is better suited to meet such concerns. Based on agroecology and eco-design, it uses smaller food processing facilities that are closer to the farms and calls upon local distribution networks. Impossible to offshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling". and rooted within the region it serves, this alternative system also creates more jobs. Energy use in organic farming is lower than that of intensive farming, and the distribution channel is organized in an organic, circular economy that also produces renewable energies.

Both systems are destined to exist alongside one another. In large cities, the decentralized system is hardly feasible. However, in 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will still be living in small towns or in rural areas, where the alternative system is clearly relevant.

This system is being tested in North America, Europe, Japan and China, but some wonder whether it can be adapted to less developed countries without first establishing industrial agriculture. The answer is yes, if governments in the Global South, still drawn to the industrial agricultural system, can change their stance. Already, trials are being carried out in Africa and technology is spreading fast. If we find a way to move past conservative public policies in the Global South, as in the North, regional food systems will grow throughout the world.


Jean-Louis Rastoin is Emeritus Professor at Montpellier SupAgro. He founded the UNESCO Chair and the UNITWIN program on World Food Systems. An agricultural engineer and Ph.D. in economic sciences with a postgraduate teaching qualification [agrégation] in management sciences, Jean-Louis Rastoin has served as an advisor in technical cooperation in Brazil and department Director at the French Center for Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD). He has published several books, including Le système alimentaire mondial (with co-author Gérard Ghersi, 2010, Éditions Quae).

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