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Why Are Fossil Fuels Needed in Agriculture?

Energy as a Necessity

Energy is a necessity in life. Without abundant and reliable sources of energy, life would cease to exist as we know it. Cheap and abundant fossil fuels supply the vast majority of the energy needed to power today’s civilization. Fossil fuels have been thoroughly woven within the fabric of modern society. Electric grids, transportation systems, consumer goods, hot water, clothing, and plastics have largely been made possible by fossil fuels. While renewable energy generation is rapidly becoming more common, fossil fuels are still projected to be a necessity in the coming decades. As part of the building blocks of society and global development in general, fossil fuels have become ingrained within nearly all of today’s socioeconomic models. The enduring need for fossil fuels has even become critical for global food production. Many people are unaware that fossil fuels have revolutionized agricultural production around the world, supporting access to sufficient food supplies for billions of people.

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The Importance of Food Systems

Human health and survival depend heavily on access to modern and productive food systems. Societies that lack easily accessible food supplies have lower life expectancies and elevated rates of infant and maternal mortality, in addition to malnutrition and poor health in general (Goklany, 2012). The initial development of agriculture thousands of year ago led to the rise of humanity. The overall adoption of agricultural practices has enabled human civilizations to thrive and grow many times larger than could be achieved by simply hunting and gathering alone. While agriculture once existed without the use of fossil fuels, fossil fuels have dramatically enhanced agricultural productivity and the ability to adequately feed the world’s rapidly growing population.

Fossil Fuels and Food

Prior to incorporating fossil fuels into food production, agriculture was heavily dependent on both human and animal labor. Before the Industrial Revolution that took place beginning in the 18th century, the sun provided the primary input of energy for agricultural production. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants grew incrementally and then served as food for livestock. The livestock were then used to generate manure as fertilizer and muscle power for plowing the fields for crop production. As fossil fuels were introduced, synthetic fertilizers, farm machinery, and other modern technologies were adopted to dramatically increase food production. As the global population doubled from 3.1 billion to 6.7 billion between 1961 and 2007, food supplies increased by 27 percent per person even though the total amount of cropland expanded by only 11 percent (Goklany, 2012). Fossil fuels enabled this increase in agricultural productivity.

Many of the improvements that have been implemented within the agriculture industry have been directly and indirectly influenced by fossil fuels. Near the beginning of the twentieth century, tractors powered by fossil fuels first started to replace horses to mechanize numerous aspects of agricultural production. In addition to routine landscape maintenance, lawn care, mowing, and spreading fertilizer, tractors were brought into the agriculture industry for plowing, tilling, and planting crops. The power, durability, and versatility of the tractor was a main revolutionizing factor for global agricultural production. While horses and other livestock were once the backbone of farms, the tractor allowed farms to grow bigger and rapidly cover more ground. Moreover, tractors enabled farmers to move away from growing crops to feed labor horses and instead grow crops to feed more people. As the internal combustion made its way to the average farm, there was no stopping the explosion of agricultural productivity.   

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Primary Needs

There are four primary needs for fossil fuels in agricultural production. In addition to supplying power to mechanical equipment such as tractors, fossil fuels are used to manufacture fertilizer, transport food to markets, and within processing and packaging food supplies. These four focal areas require a significant amount of energy and fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, American farmers consume about 800 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy annually, which is equivalent to the energy needs of the entire state of Utah (EIA, 2014). When evaluating energy consumption within the agriculture industry, consumption can be broken into direct and indirect sources. Direct sources of energy consumption would include the use of fuels like diesel and natural gas for farm operations. On the other hand, indirect sources of energy consumption occur when fuels like diesel and natural gas are used to manufacture agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers.

After World War II, the production of cheap fossil fuels subsequently led to and increase the development of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers. The main ingredient in nitrogen-based fertilizers for agriculture is ammonia, which is developed using primarily natural gas. The global production of ammonia grew from under 5 million tons per year in 1950, to over 31 million ton per year in 1961, and an astonishing 178 million tons per year by 2010 (Pirani, 2018).

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Synthetic Ammonia

Agricultural studies have concluded that about 40 percent of the global supply of food would not exist without the use of synthetic ammonia (Pfromm, 2017). As a result of the massive levels of ammonia production needed in industrial agriculture, ammonia has become the second most produced chemical in the world. The total annual carbon emissions associated with ammonia produced has been estimated to be upwards of 670 million tons (Pfromm, 2017).

Beginning in the 1970s, the Soviet Union started to create its own chemical fertilizer, while fertilizer consumption started to soar in Latin America and Asia to supply large-scale farms that produced high-yielding types of corn, rice, and wheat (Pirani, 2018). The development of fertilizers also began to influence where crops were planted. For example, beginning in the 1950s, large-scale and industrialized farms in the U.S. started to sprout up near natural gas wells and fossil fuel pipelines to be close to future sources of ammonia and other types of fertilizers and pesticides.

Without modern fertilizers to enhance soil fertility and pesticides to defend against weeds and pests, current levels of global population growth would not be able to be sustained. A study in the research journal Nature Geosciences concluded that fertilizer made from synthetic nitrogen and ammonia was responsible for feeding more than 50 percent of the global population in 2008 (Kinder Morgan, 2020). The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2010 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey found that the American fertilizer industry consumed 152 trillion Btu of natural gas for heat and power and more than 200 trillion Btu of natural gas as feedstock (Goklany, 2012).

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Transportation and Packaging

In addition to the need for advanced fertilizers and pesticides to enhance agricultural productivity, fossil fuels have become essential to deliver food to global markets. Global transportation systems are highly reliant on fossil fuels. While some global policymakers have been planning to implement bans on fossil fuel-powered vehicles, the overwhelming majority of food being transported around the world relies on large trucks and massive freight shipments that are powered by fossil fuels. While the development of electric passenger cars has been gaining steam around the world, there are currently no viable alternatives to fossil fuel-powered ships and semi-tractor-trailer trucks. As a whole, food-related transportation has been estimated to make up about one quarter of all global transportation, with the proportion even higher in less developed countries (Pirani, 2018).

Aside from transporting food, the processing of food also requires a considerable amount of energy. As food has become increasingly processed and heavily packaged, more energy has been needed to mechanically chop, grind, and mix ingredients together before being delivered to consumers. Moreover, since the majority of food packaging is made from petroleum-based plastics, fossil fuels have become essential to ensure that food packaging is safe, reliable, and clean. While some newer plastics have been able to be produced using plant-based materials in place of fossil fuels, these techniques have yet to become widespread and are more expensive to produce. However, as concerns related to the environmental impacts of single-use plastics continue to become more apparent, some environmentalists believe that the future of petroleum-based packaging is limited.

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Dependence and Sustainability

While many natural resource professionals and environmentalists are optimistic about a future less dependent on fossil fuels, it’s clear that a great deal of work is still needed to address energy consumption for agriculture. In a recent interview, a researcher from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization effectively captured how dependent the agriculture industry is on fossil fuels. “Fossil energy is used for the production of feeds, their bulk transport, storage (ventilation), processing, and their distribution to individual farms. Once on the farm, and depending on location (climate), season of the year, and building facilities, more fossil energy is needed for the movement of feeds from the storage to the animal pens; for control of the thermal environment; and for animal waste collection and treatment” (Pirani, 2018).  

As concerns have mounted related to global warming and climate change, a movement has been growing to push the agriculture industry to invest in more sustainable practices. Some economists say that the dependence on fossil fuels for agricultural production is becoming a risk for global food security. The volatility of fuel prices, as well as periods where fuels are in short supply, could in turn create future food supply shocks. In recent years, the U.S. government has been investing in alternatives to traditional ammonia synthesis. In 2016 alone, the government invested more than $30 million into programs to evaluate opportunities to improve the efficiency of ammonia production and to explore more sustainable alternatives (Pfromm, 2017). As a result of the decline in renewable energy prices, interest has been growing in finding alternatives to ammonia developed with fossil fuels.

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Future Advancements

In addition to technological advancements to reduce fossil fuel dependence in the agriculture industry, numerous low-tech solutions have been gaining traction. Household composting, reducing food waste, and encouraging plant-based diets have all been deemed as opportunities to reduce energy consumption from agricultural production. Composting is being publicized as a way to reduce dependence on fertilizer, reducing food waste reduces the need to grow more food, and switching to a less meat-intensive diet has been shown to reduce societal fossil fuel consumption. If these strategies continue to become more mainstream, then less energy will be needed to produce food.

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro will play a vital role in the future of energy production. However, when evaluating the current state of the global agriculture industry, it’s clear that fossil fuels will remain crucial in the coming decade. However, as more sustainable practices continue to gain traction, dependence on fossil fuels for agricultural production may be reduced. Moreover, since fossil fuels are known as finite resources, it will be imperative to revolutionize agriculture to prepare for the inevitable decline in fossil fuel production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has stated that the global supply of crude oil and other liquid fossil fuels are expected to be able to meet the world’s demand for liquid fuels for at least the next couple of decades. However, once these fuels are exhausted, a new source of energy will be needed to maintain adequate levels of global agriculture production.

Sources

Canning, P., et al. (2017). “The Role of Fossil Fuels in the U.S. Food System and the American Diet.” United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Report Number 224.

EIA. (2014). “Energy for growing and harvesting crops is a large component of farm operating costs.” U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Goklany, I. (2012). Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity. Cato Institute: No. 715.

Kinder Morgan. (2020). “The Need for Fossil Fuel.” Kinder Morgan White Paper.

Pfeiffer, D. (2006). “Oil, Food, and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture.” New Society Publishers.

Pfromm, P. (2017). “Towards sustainable agriculture: Fossil-free ammonia.” Kansas State University, Department of Chemical Engineering: Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

Pirani, S. (2018). “Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.” Pluto Press: London.

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