In an interview that can be seen and heard in the online documentary called ‘Edible City’1, Michael Pollan, an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, remarks that “we have been eating oil for 30 or 40 years, ever since the products of war became the products of our pesticides”. Pollan’s comment hints at various issues, the one most relevant to this chapter being the extent to which the oil industry dominates the agricultural industry – and as it has already been seen in various sub-sections above (most notably 1.2.1), the oil industry plays a central causal role in the ecological crisis.
An initial overview of the extent to which agriculture is a fossil-fuel dependent system can be found at royalsocietypublishing.org; there, a paper called ‘Energy and the food system’2 summarises some key points about the energy inputs of the agricultural industry. The four authors of the article, respectively from Imperial College London, the University of Cranfield, and the Food and Environment Research Agency, offer a concise abstract to the paper, parts of which follow:
“Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil resources. Both direct energy use for crop management and indirect energy use for fertilizers, pesticides and machinery production have contributed to the major increases in food production seen since the 1960s. … Nitrogen fertilizer production uses large amounts of natural gas and some coal, and can account for more than 50 per cent of total energy use in commercial agriculture. Oil accounts for between 30 and 75 per cent of energy inputs of UK agriculture, depending on the cropping system. While agriculture remains dependent on fossil sources of energy, food prices will couple to fossil energy prices and food production will remain a significant contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”
The ecological issues with the fossil-fuel industry have, at this point of the chapter, been well established; the abstract just quoted, furthermore, mentions fertilisers and pesticides, the products of the petrochemical industry also already explored above for its destructive environmental consequences; the reference to greenhouse gases, a topic also discussed above for its ecological implications, is also raised. The ‘Energy and the food system’ paper, however, is the tip of an ice-berg, so to speak, when it comes to the issues associated with an agricultural system extensively reliant on fossil fuels; countercurrents.org3 takes a step closer to expressing something of the intricate ‘web’ of fossil-fuel systems necessary for global food production:
“The systems that produce the world’s food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.”
The “industrial food supply system” mentioned above is one where monocropping techniques are used – as the name suggests, monocropping is the planting of one food crop, usually over very large areas of land. Such a technique has dire consequences for the biodiversity of an area: biodiversity, as defined and discussed in 1.1.1, denotes variety of life in an ecosystem, and it requires no explanation when making the obvious point that a monocrop is by definition not ‘varied’. Take, for example, palm oil plantations; a researcher named Fitzherbert, according to rainforestrescue.org.au4, “found that conversion of primary rainforest to an oil palm plantation results in a loss of more than 80 percent of species.” So due to the mere existence of a monocrop, biodiversity of an area decreases – land is cleared and ploughed, and its energy focused entirely on producing one kind of plant for the purpose of human consumption; other species, big and small, fauna and flora, that once inhabited a monocropped area, are displaced.
Once an area is cleared and planted with a monocrop, it is routinely sprayed at different times with pesticides/herbicides and fertilizers; these petrochemical substances have already been discussed in numerous sections above for their role in the ecological crisis. To elaborate further on such a role, now in the context on the agricultural industry, consider first the phenomenon of spraying insecticides, etc: as explained at sustainable.org5, growing “only one type of crop in a large area of land causes crop vulnerability to insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests – as the pest spreads, it can continue unabated. This vulnerability to pests often requires intensive use of insecticides, fungicides, and/or herbicides”. Insideclimatenews.org6 touches on several issues that arise when such poisons are used: results “of intensive pesticide use include loss of biodiversity and elimination of key species (e.g., bees); adverse health effects for both consumers and agricultural workers; water pollution and soil contamination; and pest resistance, resulting in the need for increased application of pesticides, or the need for alternate formulations”. The same source raises some serious concerns about the sustainability of fertilizers, which “accounts for 20 percent of U.S. farm energy use” (and worldwide, “the figure may be slightly higher”):
“Ultimately, the use of commercial fertilizers is not sustainable over time, as many formulations of fertilizer require high inputs of fossil fuel use, especially natural gas, for their creation, ensuring further dependence on fossil fuels for industrial crop production. Other types of commercial fertilizers, such as phosphorus, are mined; the extraction of phosphorus from the ground is energy-intensive and polluting. In addition, phosphate reserves that are easily accessible are gradually declining”.
The world’s fresh water situation, already discussed in above sub-sections, is heavily affected by agriculture. According to the WWF7, agriculture “consumes more water than any other source and wastes much of that through inefficiencies.” Sustainable.org8 adds that the use “of intensive irrigation is common in industrial crop production” and that agriculture “accounts for 80% of the water used in the US. In much of the world, water for agricultural irrigation is taken from ground water that does not replenish itself.” Unsurprisingly, as water becomes an increasingly scarce substance, more energy is used in industrial endeavours to access it; as pointed out at insideclimatenews.org9, in “the United States, close to 19 percent of farm energy use is for pumping water. And in some states in India, where water tables are falling, over half of all electricity is used to pump water from wells.” Furthermore, the ‘run-off’ from fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and ultimately the ocean, which creates the ‘dead zones’ mentioned in 1.1.6, is a phenomenon relevant here that is directly a result of the agriculture industry, which of course is by now clearly a major subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry; sustainable.org reiterates such a concern, and indeed calls it one “of the most serious environmental effects of commercial fertilizer use”: “[r]iver, stream, lake, and ocean health are all affected by inorganic fertilizer runoff from industrial farms. Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in bodies of water create algae blooms and dead zones (areas in the ocean where little or no life is found due to decreases in oxygen levels)”.
Adding to the list of ecological concerns with industrial agriculture techniques, various monocrops are genetically modified organisms – for details, see section 1.1.7, where extensive information is offered in this regard. All the concerns raised in 1.1.7 are relevant when discussing the ecological consequences of industrial agriculture.
Transportation and processing in the industrial agriculture industry also play major roles when it comes to environmental impacts. According to insideclimatenews.org10, the “14 percent of energy used in the food system to move goods from farmer to consumer is equal to two-thirds of the energy used to produce the food. And an estimated 16 percent of food system energy use is devoted to canning, freezing, and drying food – everything from frozen orange juice concentrate to canned peas.” There exists a telling and interesting analysis by researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology of various inputs required to maker a bottle of tomato ketchup; as listed at countercurrents.org11,
“[t]he aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, and then moved to Sweden. The five layered, red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials form Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The polypropylene (PP) screw-cap of the bottle and plug, made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Additionally, LDPE shrink-film and corrugated cardboard were used to distribute the final product. Labels, glue and ink were not included in the analysis.”
Every single step in the processing chain obviously requires the use of fossil fuel, not just for transportation between ‘phases’, but for the production and running of the machinery used. The same source lists a different study that “has estimated that UK imports of food products and animal feed involved transportation by sea, air and road amounting to over 83 billion tonne-kilometres. This required 1.6 billion litres of fuel and, based on a conservative figure of 50 grams of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre resulted in 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions”. A final ‘processing’ factor that needs to be mentioned here is the packaging of food; it is stated at insideclimatenews.org12 that packaging accounts for “7 percent of food system energy use” and that it “is not uncommon for the energy invested in packaging to exceed that in the food it contains.”
“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.”
1https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob7Vso86DxA accessed 18 July 2014
2http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554/2991.full accessed 18 July 2014
3http://www.countercurrents.org/po-church0700405.htm accessed 18 July 2014
5http://www.sustainabletable.org/804/industrial-crop-production accessed 18 July 2014
7 https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity accessed 25 June 2014
8http://www.sustainabletable.org/804/industrial-crop-production accessed 18 July 2014
11http://www.countercurrents.org/po-church0700405.htm accessed 18 July 2014
13http://www.organicconsumers.org/corp/fossil-fuels.cfm accessed 18 July 2012