Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Eating Oil

Total fossil fuel use in the United States has increased 20-fold in the last 4 decades. In the US, we consume 20 to 30 times more fossil fuel energy per capita than people in developing nations. Agriculture directly accounts for 17% of all the energy used in this country.12 As of 1990, we were using approximately 1,000 liters (6.41 barrels) of oil to produce food of one hectare of land.13

The need to expand agricultural production was one of the motive causes behind most of the wars in recorded history, along with expansion of the energy base (and agricultural production is truly an essential portion of the energy base). And when Europeans could no longer expand cultivation, they began the task of conquering the world. Explorers were followed by conquistadors and traders and settlers. The declared reasons for expansion may have been trade, avarice, empire or simply curiosity, but at its base, it was all about the expansion of agricultural productivity. Wherever explorers and conquistadors traveled, they may have carried off loot, but they left plantations. And settlers toiled to clear land and establish their own homestead. This conquest and expansion went on until there was no place left for further expansion. Certainly, to this day, landowners and farmers fight to claim still more land for agricultural productivity, but they are fighting over crumbs. Today, virtually all of the productive land on this planet is being exploited by agriculture. What remains unused is too steep, too wet, too dry or lacking in soil nutrients.1

MODERN INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE IS UNSUSTAINABLE. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products. More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied, along with more pesticides; irrigation water requires more energy to pump; and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water.

It takes 500 years to replace 1 inch of topsoil.21 In a natural environment, topsoil is built up by decaying plant matter and weathering rock, and it is protected from erosion by growing plants. In soil made susceptible by agriculture, erosion is reducing productivity up to 65% each year.22 Former prairie lands, which constitute the bread basket of the United States, have lost one half of their topsoil after farming for about 100 years. This soil is eroding 30 times faster than the natural formation rate.23 Food crops are much hungrier than the natural grasses that once covered the Great Plains. As a result, the remaining topsoil is increasingly depleted of nutrients. Soil erosion and mineral depletion removes about $20 billion worth of plant nutrients from U.S. agricultural soils every year.24 Much of the soil in the Great Plains is little more than a sponge into which we must pour hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in order to produce crops.
Eating Oil


Bridget Jones said...

And the interesting/frustrating thing is, there are straight forward ways of dealing with this too!

Crop rotation, use of fallow fields, organic farming (see link above, it's just one of many)...these aren't new practices, they are hundreds of years old. Growing crops in soils where it's appropriate to do so reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides/fertilizers. NONE of this is new!!!!

And I learned this in the late 1970's! Since then, great progress has been made in engineering farm equipment that runs on alternative energy sources. Unfortunately, the number of family farms continues to decrease.


Candy Minx said...

Right. and my position on this is a little different, but you may start to be getting my drift.

We don't need to farm as much as we do.

Let's START to stop farming for goodness sakes!

Let's start by eliminating the very least productive practical food we grow.

Bread, wheat, corn, potatoes and rice.

Grow food in the cities, on our balcomies, back yards.

Most people could eat one third of the portions they eat right now.

Start with getting rid of the Frankenfoods.

Avoid, beef and chicken and other farmed animals...unless you find out what kind of life they are having, grass-fed versus grain-fed?

Lets just see where and how things go by eliminating the complete waste of producing wheat, corn and rice! And keep looking into this situation with our imaginations...what else can be done?

Karen said...

Candy - great post! I wish more people were upset about these things. However, they don't see the immediate effects when they go to the grocery store and can't be bothered, in this fast paced western world, to bother to stop and think.

Nancy - amen sister. Look to the past, it has much to teach us. However, my fear is that it might already be too late.


Probably is too late. We're lazy. Might get lucky though I suppose.

Candy Minx said...

Some Supercomputers say, ten years.

People who eat farmed animals use 150 gallons of fossil fuels a year. A bushel of corn needs a gallon of oil.

If everyone ate like North Americans we would use up the fossil fuels in the world in 13 years.

Good times!

Anonymous said...

Reality is such that we seem to not realize the reality we are actually in. In a million years all the great cities of today will be fossil fuel sites of tomorrow.

Sean J said...

Interesting article. Very intruiging. I was just reading that Gay Marriage blog post you made too because I didn't check it out before. I found that very very interesting.

I'm posted on my blog again because I wanted to submit the story to the social news website www.digg.com. Just to see how it would do.

Once again, great post.

Gardenia said...

Not a very good legacy for our descendants, huh? We are civilizing ourselves literally to death if we see ourselves in generations down from us.

I marvel at what we have done to our waters - we soil what we drink, pour chemicals in it, then on and on again

felix said...

Massive amount of information, all of it disturbing. I used to be much more up on matters agricultural, but it looks like more, and more, and more of the same.

Yeah, it takes lots of fossil energy to produce corn, so where's the benefit in ethanol produced from corn? Except to farmers looking for more markets instead of modifying their operations.

Reading stuff like this depresses me, but I need to keep up. Thanks for the post and link.

Timmer said...

It is a true shame how much energy is waisted to produce so little. our ecological footprint is huge and damaging. We must reduce, stop polluting, eat less somehow. Also the sprawl of the GTA and Golden Horseshoe is all over prime unspoiled farm land, in fact some of the best soil in North America is just being paved over and built upon!! What can I do? It would be cool to have a garden on the roof of my building, but the expense of doing it are too much for the board of directors to create a budget.

Gardenia said...

You are so right. I wonder if all the greed is the downfall. I lived in Iowa for a while and I gardened like a delighted fool - I planted anything and everthing and it just magically grew. I left for a while and came back, all the little towns were dead and farm houses sat empty. Corporations, many from Japan, I was told bought up the farms. Here in Wyoming, one could have all the meat they could eat because of the vast amount of wildlife. We would have to go back to the old "Rendevous" - Small truck farmers from Iowa could get together and bring vegetables to us, we could send meat back...but then maybe as I think about it - there are no wild animals in Iowa (or only a few) because they plowed all the land for farming.......boy we keep digging ourselves into the grave don't we?