Reducing Fossil Fuel Waste in Agriculture

Primary agriculture is undoubtedly one of the most important industries to our species. A reoccurring theme here is that agricultural practices are increasingly becoming unsustainable and impractical. It is an industry that is heavy on both water and fossil fuel use. Over the coming decade, oil will peak, resulting in rising cost of agricultural produce. There are coffee-table styled environmentalists who smugly laugh off this concern with suggestions that the market will sort itself and that necessity will foster innovation. To this, I retort that although long-term, they may be correct, in the short-term the growing-pangs will be unnecessarily strong; it is cheaper, more practical and thus a smoother transition to develop new methodologies while the energy is still relatively cheap, thereby using the remaining fossil fuels ever more efficiently (increasing the length of time of availability also) while developing a system less dependent on fossil fuel supply.

About a fortnight ago, I rediscovered a paper that I had printed out and planned to read, but had gone missing among the mess on my work desk; Pimentel et al (2008) Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System. (doi: 10.1007/s10745-008-9184-3)

In the opening abstract, the authors state that the US food system could reduce the need of fossil fuels by as much as 50% through appropriate technological changes – which quickly (re)caught my attention. With about a fifth of the US energy usage dedicated to food supply alone, most fossil fuels now imported (and oil prices soon to increase as supply peaks), here we have an example of a major population that is ill-prepared for a world beyond carbon. By reducing the fossil fuel derived energy requirements of food production, there is a clear benefit to future food security and cost.

Although in practice, I doubt as much as 50% reduction can be achieved, where the same limitations to fossil fuel reduction are also present in Australia. However, I will discuss that, along with the study and my own suggestions where I can. I also note that the length of this post will detract some readers. However, it is broken up into small sections which can be read over time.

Consumption

The first suggestion is more of a social reflection and will no doubt be seen as an obstruction to freewill as much as my continuous plugging of Transit and Pedestrian Orientated Developments. In short, meats are a more energy intensive produce than plant material and junk food is in a league of it’s own. By reducing the average calorie intake from 3747 kcal per day, to the Food and Drug Administration recommended value  of 2000 to 2500 kcal a day (you could nearly reach this simply by reducing junk food consumption from 33% of an average American diet to 10%) and by promoting a more vegetarian diet, you could not only make a significant different to the fossil fuels required for food production, but also improve health and standard of living.

However, of course it’s ones right to eat what they want, when they want and to the amount that they want… (How well will this statement stand up when the reality becomes one where shipping radically increases food costs and there is little locally derived foods?)

Energy Supply

Obviously, the source energy is a logical inclusion to such discussions. This is one point where the authors and myself must agree to disagree.

My main point of difference is with their promotion of bio-energy. Am I the only one to find it a little strange to grow crop, to make fuel, to power machines to grow crops? It’s the same as with cattle – we complain about food availability, yet feed endless tons of grain to livestock who produce far less meat protein in return. Growing switchgrass, hybrid poplar and willow for fuel seems a ridiculous waste of agricultural land when we have hungry mouths to feed.

Ultimately, I agree that hydro, but also nuclear (preferably 4th gen reactors) will take the reins from gas over the coming century while wind and solar will assist in remote and lower energy requirement areas. We should also remain mindful of passive energy use – such as structures that are shaped in a way to promote heat capture or loss. On the farm, I believe that energy reduction will be best achieved by wind and solar powered storage areas (either dug out or insulated to provide greater temperature protection), waste biomass recaptured for fuelling farm machines and transfer to local markets by electrified rail. Provided that we achieve nodal urban mixed-used environments (such as discussed here), this should be plausible.

Irrigation

As mentioned above and throughout the work of this blog, food will increasingly need to be grown closer to home. That is the inevitable result of an increasing cost in transportation beyond cheap and abundant fossil fuels. This is contrary to what the authors suggest, because another major energy and financial cost is irrigation. The effort required to irrigate arid landscapes may see agriculture reduced largely to areas of high rainfall. However, transport to arid areas will present a conflicting problem (something not addressed in the article).

Personally, the only viable option as I see it is to create desalination plants and pump. Where possible (ie. where water requirements are low/sporadic) renewable processes should be employed to deliver fresh water to storage dams near populations and where requirements are too great, nuclear energy should be used.

In many cases, there is amazing service that should be considered, which would have incredible economic as well as ecological benefits if done well. For example, Australia’s Murray Darling Basin supports a massive section of the population and much of the biodiversity of eastern and southern central Australia. It also transports water thousands of kilometres. If a good nuclear powered desalination plant, or a series of renewable energy desalination plants were developed on the northern coast of NSW and southern coast of Qld, with the water pumped to areas in the Great Dividing Range that feed the Murray Darling system, you overcome much of the needed transport cost, while watering a major water way and many many communities along the way.

It’s not cheap and easy to produce fresher water (note: the Murray Darling is somewhat saline naturally, which means that desalination doesn’t need to be to drinking quality) and pump it up hill, into the ranges. However the benefits will far out-weigh the costs and do deserve consideration at a federal level.

Soils and nutrients

As population continues to increase, per capita land availability will decrease. When this is considered along side soil erosion (which can be 10 tons per hectare per year up to as much as 30 tons per hectare per year) and that with the loss of fossil fuels, synthetic fertilisers will become non-viable, we have a serious issue of feeding the world’s population in 100 years (you could argue that with nearly 4 billion people currently malnourished, we are already beyond casual discussions and are already in need of real action).

This is a subject that I am very interested in and have discussed on numerous occasions, however, firstly the authors talk about one of the best ideas around; cover crops. By planting a cover crop before and after primary crop seasons, there can be a major reduction in soil erosion and water loss, and if the cover crop is a legume species, if can also provide usable nitrogen for the primary crop. It is also mentioned that cover crops can also greatly increase the amount of solar energy that is collected from the farm. This extra material can be an excellent compost, feed for livestock or fuel for farm machinery.

Next they discuss soil organic material which is quite arguably part of the healthy farming system that I’ve written about previously. By promoting local biodiversity, including soil health such as increased organic material, you are effectively exploiting ecological services which in turn reduce your input and maintenance costs. This is a subject that requires much more room than this write up can allow for. However, the authors note that increasing soil organic matter in an organic farming system can also increase the amount of CO2 sequestered by the farm. You could also mention the greater commercial value of organic produce. Less effort, CO2 sequestration, higher valued produce and the reappearance of the locals (biodiversity value): not too shabby if you ask me!

The last point made here is a given: manure. Until the mid twentieth century, manure played a massive role in agriculture. It’s a lesson that we need to re-learn.

Energy Efficiency

The next few sections discuss different aspects of efficiency, such as machinery choice, crop rotation, crop/livestock selection. Much of this seems to suggest to me that the authors agree with me that traditional methods and the use of ecological services are far more efficient than current practices. Of particular interest however, is the section on livestock proteins. As mentioned above, under consumption, meat proteins are far more costly than plant proteins (it makes sense from a tropic level point of view). However, not all meats are equal. For instance chicken protein is far more efficient than beef protein (4:1 to 40:1, that is, plant calorie input : animal calorie produce) and milk production can be more efficient if cattle are grazed on pasture land. The same can be said of good organic pastures which can great improve the efficiency (with cattle, 40:1 can be reduced to as little as 20:1, on a calorie basis where cattle forage rather than are fed on grain).

Packaging

Here is another example where the authors and I disagree. Firstly however, I must praise their discussion here on how to improve processing to increase efficiency – it is an excellent example of broad-scale eco-mapping of industrial inputs; something that every business should invest in on a regular basis (even if you don’t care about climate change or the environment, the principles are clearly designed to save money as well).

That said, here is my suggestion on how to lower processing and packaging costs: package or process as little as possible! It’s that simple. Since WWII, there has been a clear shift away from fresh produce and towards packets of stuff, unbeknown in nature, which you tear open, pour into a pot and voila, it’s done! As is discussed in other posts (such as this one), the more a food produce is altered from a natural state, the more non-reclaimable energy has needlessly been spent. Any good food critic will tell you that we are a culture of flavour junkies, preferring a handful of chips (crisps), with it’s initial explosion of flavour than truly appreciating a well cooked meal.

Believe it or not, but a fresh, healthy and delicious meal doesn’t need to be complicated or time consuming. We do not need prepared pasta in plastic containers that require nothing, but to be placed in a microwave for 3 minutes, to be bowl ready. Unlike vacuuming or washing the dishes, cooking can be an enjoyable experience as well. This 2-minute-noodle-culture is poorer and unhealthier for modern food preparation techniques and improving the efficiency of needless processing is like adding a fuel saving device to a vehicle that is used only to go to the post-box, 5 houses down the street.

Transportation

The authors state that in the US, food travels 2,400km, on average, before being consumed. Do I really need to say much here?

As cheap and abundant fossil fuels become not so abundant and certainly no longer so cheap, such practices will no longer be as viable. Adelaide, for instance, has enjoyed over the past forty years, selling up most of the surrounding fertile agricultural land for residential use. There are some remnant primary produces to the north and among the Mount Lofty ranges, but most are about 3 hours to the east in the Riverland and the majority of produce is either from the eastern states or abroad.

The authors point out that transport food by rail requires only about 1.8% of the energy than that required to transport food by aircraft. It should also be noted that food that spends greater time in transit and in processing, is not as fresh and is likely to have lower nutritional value. Where some complain that regional culture is being lost under a flood of Coke and a glowing M on the horizon, it could be suggested that with a re-establishment of local produce, we can find a resurgence of regional dishes, which (excuse the pun) adds spice and colour to life.

Conclusion

Although I have some criticism of the paper, in all, I honestly think it’s a great piece, with many valid conclusions and some excellent suggestions. Obviously, simply to avoid plagiarism, I was very brief in my look at the paper, but I suggest it as an excellent read.

Before the twentieth century, agriculture was more less a victim of the whim of climate and pest infections (I remember once reading in my first year of uni that it was the coffee rust fungus that decimated English coffee supplies, turning them into a country of tea drinkers). Following WWII, technology and fossil fuel availability radically changed many aspects of human activity – especially agriculture. No-one would want a return to conditions experienced by our ancestors over 100 years ago, but without effective changes to our practices while energy is still cheap enough  to easily permit such changes, we are more likely to take backward steps rather than forward. Fossil fuel dependence is a dead-end. We can either spend the energy building a ladder out and onto a more sustainable future or face that backwards walk with many more hungry mouths than ever before.

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14 thoughts on “Reducing Fossil Fuel Waste in Agriculture

  1. I was thinking about your concerns on urban sprawl and locally grown food when someone was talking about their home delivery of organic produce.

    What if, I thought, we could integrate the two? Many people like to grow some of their own food, but very few have the skill, time and energy to grow lots. Why not have councils or coops organise people to set aside 10 or 25 or more sqm of a backyard for a dispersed local growing enterprise. The gardener only needs to pop in a couple of times a week for most, hardly ever for pumpkins and the like. The plots with soft green veg and herbs may need near-daily visits for harvest, as would other crops as they mature.

    And the box deliveries would be the assorted result of what’s grown in your own and others’ gardens , maybe down the street, maybe around the corner. But all within a couple of 100 metres.

    All those issues of crop rotation and pest control and composting would be much more easily managed than trying the same thing in a single suburban garden by not-very-expert novices.

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    1. There is little to no doubt that we will need to return to a life-style in some way not unlike pre-1950’s. How much we return is really up to how soon we face a changing world (we seem more likely to put it off until the last moment, which will make the situation worse).
      A while ago I wrote about this (I quickly looked through my posts to find it, but I couldn’t) as it’s often on my mind, more so since I moved to the hills. The two things that really got me is that most of the house up there, like the northern to eastern suburbs, are build on traditionally agricultural land (up in the hills, some of the best and uncontaminated land in the region is under slab now) and the farmers markets.
      What I figured would be a great initiative would be a compromise for those who opt out of TOD’s and POD’s – that they use their land more productively. It would have to be, as you suggested, organised by a body. Anyway, on the weekend, you could visit the local market, where you can first drop of your unneeded produce, which you are given payment for and is placed with the rest of the fresh produce for sale in the stalls. You can then use this money, plus some, to purchase produce from the weekend markets. Others that provide other good and wish to have their own stall can pay a modest space hire, but hopefully you can get a lot of volunteer assistance. It should be designed to bring a little money – not-for-profit, but to keep the market rolling along. On certain times of the year, maybe with the seasons, a larger charity inclusion can be held, thereby providing revenue for CFS and other local projects (including biodiversity rehab). Produce that is too low a quality for selling can be turned into mulch and sold for backyard gardens and eatable goods that don’t sell and won’t keep should be given to charities.
      As you say, many hands make small work – it doesn’t need much expertise for small garden set-ups and should be enough work for one full-time council employee and a number of volunteers. A simple web-package could also be set-up whereby the council employee gives stats on how much is being grown of certain crops of the season, thereby allowing growers to know what to grow and not to grow to have more valuable produce (so we down flood the local market with pumpkins for example).
      Plus, as someone who grew up with backyard produce (veggies and eggs) – there’s no better way to teach a kid the value and quality of local fresh produce over supermarket bought stock than to get them involved young in growing their own food (plus, it’s one of the few events that parents are happy for their children to play with dirt!). It’ll also re-introduce pickling and fresh herbs which a very much out nowadays.
      It’ll also bring TOD/POD dwellers out for a great day-trip – bringing in extra $$ to the local community.
      It wouldn’t be perfect and I doubt it’ll take off under current conditions (most people are too happy just rushing down, just an hour a week, to the supermarket, followed with 4hrs on their couch, eating pre-packaged microwave nonsense – so they don’t miss their favourite shows), but as oil prices go up, it’ll begin to become more attractive – especially when it not only leads to cheaper market food, but also pays you for your contribution.
      Alas, like much of the ideas that cloud my head, it’s a strange mix of what was (both a rural childhood and an obsession with old literature) and what could be (if it wasn’t for limited $$ and more importantly, interest) and remains a fantasy 🙂

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  2. Enough of the pre-1950s! Remember the WW2 veterans who were householders after 1950 grew up in depression times. Everybody had a lemon tree, probably an almond and at least a couple of other fruit trees when I was growing up. And I’d guess about half had chooks until around the early 60s.

    If you’re prepared to get all your protein from eggs and chicken meat, and buy some milk, you’ve got bonus free fertiliser for your veg and fruit trees and a very much smaller grocery bill. You don’t even need to buy straw for the chooks if you shred every piece of paper that comes near your property.

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    1. lol – you really don’t like me talking pre-1950’s. In many respects we boomed in activity following WWII. I saw this post today, in which Johan discusses this – in every respect of activity, we have a hockey stick graph – this also includes agriculture (I nearly reposted this piece because I found it really interesting). I also read another few articles a while ago which said much the same – that by the 60’s most people stopped productively using their land. My argument is largely that around this time, the internal combustion engine really took off and with it, we radically shifted away from sustainability (not that it had been too great for a long period – especially when you look at deforestation).

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  3. When I walk our dog I look at peoples yards and think of all the wasted space that could be used to grow food locally and then think of home much time people waste watching TV or sitting at the club playing pokies and I think really would it be so bad if we had to go back to growing our own food or having it grown local .

    We have had energy so cheap for so long that I cant see it anything but very painful to prise people away from the carbon addiction .

    What makes me sad is that we could use science and Knowlegde to live a much more sustianable way and the sooner we start the easier it would be , I see the right wing say the greens want to send us back to the stone age but it doesnt have to be like that .

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    1. I couldn’t agree more. I was thinking much the same thing while mowing the lawn the other day. My house is on what was once farming land in the Adelaide hills (wheat still pops up from time to time). The grass grows incredibly well – it’s a lot of work keeping it and the weeds in check… It’s shocking that so much productive land has been allowed to become so uselessly unproductive.

      I’d argue that the conservative right are the one’s who will send us back to the stone age, with our being unprepared to meet a changing world.

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  4. On your consumption point, Tim. My husband the other day was looking at a site for info on obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The conclusion of the study he looked at was that the increase in calorie intake in American diets (and I suspect most Australian diets) was due mainly to the increase in serving size.

    So for that ‘reduce your meat intake’ argument, all we have to do is go back to the serving sizes of the 50s and 60s. Excluding shearers’ quarters of course – they had an extraordinary demand for calories because of the work. Some people take in almost that much without doing more than walking to the car.

    How many people nowadays make a leg of lamb serve 4 people for 4 meals plus a couple of school lunches? Routine when I was growing up.

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    1. Too true. From that paper, it’s argued that the American diet could be nearly halved in calorie uptake to be deemed healthy. That’s staggering, seeing as we’re physically much less active than any previous generation. I’d go as far as to say that calorie uptake should probably be even less for sedentary workers. The same could be said for Australia, no doubt.

      For informative entertainment on the subject, that “Supersize Me” documentary/mockumentary? illustrated how much fast food portions have increased over the past 50yrs. Also, that English series “Supersizers [Go?]” who looked into the eating style of various ages highlight many interesting aspects. One that was of most interest was how people ate in the 70’s (a lot of processes food), but simply due to a more active lifestyle (and probably smaller serving sizes) they where relatively healthier.

      It’s nothing short of madness how complacent we have become with consumables.

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    2. I’ve noticed that here in Britain, manual workers eat what their bodies need, but when they retire or their industry collapses, they continue eating in the same way. So it’s become a stereotype to see fat, ageing men in areas where heavy industry used to keep them burning off their bacon sandwiches.

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      1. You should keep an eye out for “The Spirit Level” By Wilkinson and Pickett. I harp on about it a lot recently, but it is illuminating. It may interest you also as both authors are British. The “working class” are known to by growing in girth..

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  5. Thanks for this thoughtful review. Your blogging style is quite different from mine as you’ll have noticed, esp in terms of word count. But you have a lot of interesting things to say.

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    1. Thanks! To be honest, when I planned to go to uni, my two top preferences were ecology and creative writing. In reality, I probably should have chosen science communication – something I’m now working on.

      As you noted, a problem of mine is word length. I love to write. I can write a 20,000 word e-ebook in a week or a 1000 word post in half an hour. Unfortunately such length detracts readers..

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      1. I think all science writers have to work on this skill, whether writing for academic publication or writing popsci. I often encourage students to be more concise. Me, I tend the other way! – getting asked to use more words so that my papers will be comprehensible.

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      2. I agree. I often stress that the inability of many scientists to engage with the public has helped misinformation initiatives, such as anti-vax, climate denial, anti-GM etc.

        I had to learn to be more technical myself. As a first year undergrad I used lose marks because my writing was, quote, ‘too interesting’.

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