Calling all bloggers: Join a virtuous circle

We need to talk about ketchup. We all love the red stuff. But we really need to talk about it. Analysis of the steps involved in processing ketchup – from farming the tomatoes through to packaging – to transporting and retailing that symbol of American mass consumerism reveals an alarming fact. To produce it requires a mind-boggling 150 separate processes, across several continents, according to research cited in a new book by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

It’s just one small part of a “staggeringly inefficient” food system according to the new book Virtuous Circles. When the overall energy costs for producing food are taken into account – including farm machinery, transportation, processing and packaging – “the modern food system consumes between ten and fifteen calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy (nutrition) produced.” [pg. 61]

Examples such as this illustrate why 95% of all food products in European countries need oil to be produced, according to the book. “Every link in the food chain is currently dependent on fossil fuels”. This has concerning implications if the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction level – called peak oil – will be reached by 2030, as research from the Independent UK Energy Research Centre suggests. How will this affect the cost of food stuffs in the future?

The book explains that the current food system is based on a linear approach, which assumes that there’s a limitless supply of energy and materials and that the environment can absorb the pollution, carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming, and the solid waste created.

But these assumptions are surely not grounded in reality. We have all noticed that UK food prices have been rising. In fact, they have been growing more rapidly than most other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development economies’ food prices. These rises are part of a global food inflation caused by extreme weather events, low cereal stocks, speculation on food stocks and a growth in biofuels, fuels made from biological resources, such as corn.

“Vicious cycles to virtuous circles”

Natural systems are based on cycles with very little natural waste, as waste from one species is food to another. The book urges the adoption of circular systems that mimics this cycle.

Approaches will differ due to local geographical and climactic factors, but examples cited in the book include Chinese farmers living in Pearl River Delta who have been developing a circular farming system over the past 2,000 years. Water from fishponds fertilises other growing crops.
Technology can be adopted to reuse waste, which, in many cities, is still being flushed out to sea.  Biogas systems, sometimes called anerobic digesters, can be used to recycle food waste, human excrement and livestock manure which then produces:

  • biogas for cooking and lighting
  • fertiliser from the slurry.

And what to do with all the mass-produced items – like that ketchup bottle lurking at the back of your fridge somewhere? Localised production systems would reduce the physical distances ingredients need to be transported, and the physical scale of production would also be reduced. In the case of ketchup, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides should be avoided, the tomato paste should be bottled in glass (for recycling) and transport kept to a minimum (Figure 47).

Even sunny optimists must wonder whether the huge mental shifts and lifestyle changes needed by enough people to make this work will be possible. And, despite some examples on how the principals have been applied to urban areas by farming on patios and rooftops in Havana, I find it difficult to see how this could be rolled out in a really large city.

But, as my family munches on food that probably has more fossil fuel calories than food calories, I really wonder if we have any choice?

We want to know what you think. To mark the launch of the book – Virtuous Circles: Values, systems and sustainability by Andy Jones, Michel Pimbert and Janice Jiggins, we’re welcoming you to write a blog and send us the link. We will profile the best posts on our IIED blog, citing your name and linking to your blog and will promote them on our twitter channel: @IIED. Email me with the link:

See the attached PDF which has book illustrations which you are welcome to use in your blogs, but please be sure to credit the authors.

Or leave a comment on this blog. And don’t forget to join in on the discussion on twitter by using hashtag #vcircles.