Petroleumdependent agriculture and food systems

In the 20th century, oil and gas took over from the waning extraction of cheap coal reserves, as the drivers of growth of industry, trade, transport and agriculture in industrialized countries. Coal had already had a major impact on the agricultural sector in the 19th century, enabling a shift from hand and animal-drawn power to stronger equipment made of iron and steel, to steam-engine powered field machinery, and to more suitable means of transport (railways and steamships). This transport provided access to more distant markets and sources of soil fertility inputs, including mineral fertilizers (Mazoyer and Roudart, 2006). The takeover by oil heralded more efficient and large-scale industrial, mechanized processes - including the powering of irrigation pumps, production of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, mechanization for crop production, storage, drying and processing, production of animal feeds and maintenance of animal operations, and the transportation of farm inputs and outputs.2

These industrialized farming systems use approximately 10 calories of fossil energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy (Hamer and Anslow, 2008). In the USA, for example, 29 per cent of farm energy use goes on fertilizer production,

25 per cent as diesel fuel to power farm machinery, 18 per cent for electricity in facility operations, 9 per cent on gasoline for farm machinery, 7 per cent for irrigation and 6 per cent for pesticide production (Brown, 2006). In the UK, agriculture accounts for approximately 2.7 per cent of the nation's total energy use (Ho and Ching, 2008). Most of this, 76.2 per cent, goes to the production and transport of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, animal feeds and medicines. Nitrogen fertilizer in particular accounts for 53.7 per cent of total energy use. The remaining 23.8 per cent is used on-farm. An estimated 37 per cent of on-farm energy use is for heating (61 per cent of which is in the protected crops sector), 36 per cent as gas and oil for field operations and especially for arable crops, and 28 per cent as electricity for ventilation, refrigeration, lighting and other facility operations (Adams et al, 2007). Thus, although industrialized agriculture takes a relatively small share of total fossil energy supplies of industrialized countries, the sector cannot operate without it.

Industrialized agricultural systems are not, of course, globally prevailing; they have developed in those countries and regions with more dominant secondary, tertiary and quaternary economic sectors (manufacturing, services and information sectors, respectively): that is, Japan, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe, and increasingly Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries, Israel, and the Asian countries of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and (the Special Administrative Region of China) Hong Kong. For less-industrialized countries - those whose economies are dependent on primary industries of mining, agriculture and fishing - industrial forms of agriculture are regionally dispersed in the form of plantation or commodity-oriented production and Green Revolution agriculture. The majority of the world's population, meanwhile, continues to depend on non-industrialized (traditional and intentionally organic) agriculture, yet is encouraged to aspire to more fossil-fuel-dependent systems.3

In analyses of alternative farming systems, modern organic agriculture4 generally consumes less energy than industrialized, although more than traditional subsistence farming. Although organic farming may use more machine hours, this is offset by the absence of other fuel and petrochemical uses. Studies report that organic agriculture performs better on a per hectare scale with respect to both direct energy consumption - fuel and oil - and indirect consumption - synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (Scialabba and Hattam, 2002; Ziesemer, 2008). Any increase in labour requirements of organic farming is an employment opportunity. A comparative analysis of energy inputs on long-term trials at the Rodale Institute, USA, found that organic farming systems use 63 per cent of the energy required in industrial systems, largely because of savings in the energy used to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer (Pimentel et al, 2005). In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded that organic crops used 25 per cent less energy than industrialized, and in some crops up to 60 per cent (Hamer and Anslow, 2008). Niles et al (2001) also concluded that it takes 6-10 times more energy to produce a tonne of cereals or vegetables by industrialized agriculture than by more sustainable methods. The actual degree of consumption depends on the type of farming approach - some organic farms are more industrialized than others and may be similarly dependent on irrigation, heavy machinery and heated greenhouses, and on the degree to which the organic farm is embedded in the prevailing food system (Hall and Mogyorody, 2001; Ziesemer, 2008). In fact, the organic movement, which in industrialized countries has developed in the context of plentiful fossil energy supplies, is reviewing the means by which it can reduce energy consumption or even become energy self-sufficient or energy exporting (Hamer and Anslow, 2008).

Industrialized agriculture provides the raw materials for the industrial food system. Although these materials comprise only a small part, the food system is dependent on this cheap and consistent supply for transformation into added-value products, through processing, marketing and distribution activities. Energy usage on-farm comprises a large minority of that of the rest of the food system. Taking figures for the USA and the UK again, production comprises 21 per cent of energy use in the US food system, with home refrigeration and preparation using 32 per cent, processing 16 per cent, transport 14 per cent, and packaging and retailing 7 per cent each (Heller and Keoleian, 2000). In the UK, and using barrels of oil as a measure, production and processing combined attribute to approximately 34 per cent of total oil usage in the food system, while home preparation uses 23 per cent, transport and distribution centres use 18 per cent, catering 10 per cent, packaging 7 per cent and retailing 6 per cent (Lucas et al, 2006). In this sense, the industrialized food system - comprising production, processing, transportation and distribution systems - is inherently vulnerable to both shortages and increasing prices of fossil fuels. Whether organic or industrialized, a more localized, short-chain food system, through which produce is sold with minimal packaging, has lower energy needs. For example, comparative studies indicate that the energy use of organic box schemes may be 90 per cent less than if purchasing similar, industrially produced foods from a supermarket (Hamer and Anslow, 2008).

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