Up until the early 1970s, American automobile manufacturers dominated domestic and global markets. Their failure to adapt to rising energy prices and demand for small vehicles led to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and a loss of global market share. American agriculture is now poised to make a similar mistake if it does not recognize the ground shift in the global energy landscape.
U.S. farming is globally recognized for its productivity and innovation. In fact, much of the technology that drives global food and fiber production today originally was developed in U.S. laboratories, from hybridization to genetic engineering.
But many of these productivity innovations were developed in an era of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.
While American agriculture is some of the most productive in the world in terms of output per unit area, the amount of energy it takes to produce such yields is staggering. Each year, agricultural production accounts for 7 percent of our national energy use, not to mention another 7 percent for processing and packaging, and 3 percent for distribution. We currently burn about 107 gallons of fuel to produce crops on an acre of farmland, with nearly two-thirds of this energy use being in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. The gas guzzling nature of our agriculture soon may make us uncompetitive internationally and the cost of our food too expensive.
U.S. farmers might seem poised to benefit from another year of record farm gate prices. But the rising price of energy threatens profits as input costs also are climbing dramatically.
Democratic presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, have recognized the inevitable end to the cheap fossil fuel era and made energy conservation, efficiency and alternatives a policy priority. Yet, paradoxically, these same administrations have uncritically embraced energy intensive, conventional agriculture.
The proponents of conventional agriculture have done an admirable job of selling their approach. Their arguments typically rest on two claims. First, that alternative forms of agriculture are far less productive than conventional forms. Second, that addressing global hunger demands more, not less, American style, industrial agriculture. They are wrong on both counts.
Many forms of alternative agriculture are, in fact, highly productive and much more efficient than conventional agriculture. For example, crops grown in intelligent combinations allow one plant to fix nitrogen for another rather than relying solely on increasingly expensive, fossil fuel-based inorganic fertilizers for these plant nutrients. Mixed cropping strategies are also less vulnerable to insect damage and require little to no pesticide use for a reasonable harvest.
Industrial agriculture is also not an appropriate remedy for hunger in many parts of the world as this approach is often cost prohibitive for the rural poor. Worse yet, introducing poor farmers to energy intensive farming methods is problematic if we know that global energy prices are likely to rise.
The direction of American agriculture has not changed for two reasons. First, the agrochemical industry and the nation’s land-grant universities have a great stake in the continued existence of conventional agriculture and lobby on its behalf. Second, our agricultural subsidies support conventional, energy intensive agriculture.
Reorienting our food system will mean subsidizing the transition to a more energy-efficient agriculture rather than the status quo.
William G. Moseley, chair of geography at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., is a co-author of a 2010 National Academy of Science study, “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences.”
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