Energy & Agriculture

13 minute read
Kusi Ñan organic farm project in Peru. Photography by Matt Dayka.

Organic. So hip, so green, so refreshing — so not new. While the organic food movement has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent decades, its popularity is anything but the latest fad. For 98% of human history, organic agriculture and food was the norm. Of the ~12,000 year history of agriculture, only in the last ~200 years have humans deviated from traditional (organic) agriculture to industrial (modern/commercial) agriculture. These transitions can be summed up in three “Agricultural Revolutions”: 

  1. Agricultural Revolution, ~12,000 ya: the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to expansionary agriculturalists → greater grain dependence, crop selection, and animal domestication
  1. Industrial Agricultural Revolution, 1800s in Britain: the introduction of machine labor, crop rotation to increase soil fertility & fodder for livestock, selective breeding → at this time, food output was greater than population growth 
  1. Green Revolution, ~1940-1960s: immense crop yield increases and land intensification from genetic modification & hybrid breeding, and intense application of pesticides & fertilizers → high yield wheat + rice diffusing to Asia and Latin America 

Until the industrial revolution then, agriculture was based on energy flows provided by the Earth, animals, and humans. With the advent of mechanization, humans were relieved of manual labor. This new time not spent in the field was called “efficiency.” Although human energy and time was saved, this doesn’t mean energy was. A look at modern agriculture reveals many surprising energy inefficiencies, in terms of EROI (which is explored in this article). 

Modern agriculture is an energy sink, meaning energy input far exceeds energy output. In traditional agriculture, human muscles provide an EROI of 10:1, and animals 5:1. So every 1 calorie invested by a human body, yields 10 calories of food. Now, the ratio is flipped. Under industrial agriculture, to get just 1 calorie of food, 10 calories must be invested. How can we afford to have a net negative outcome such as this powering much of the world’s food system?

Insert fossil energy. 

Fossil energy is laced into every part of the current industrial food system. Illustrated in the graph below, fossil energy is required not only on the field, but at every step after that from natural gas and coal to power the processing plant, to petroleum for transportation, to refrigeration before consumption. 

Graph by University of Michigan

Reimagining sustainable food systems requires reimagining our energy system. Just as the environment is now a subset of the economy, so is food a subset of fossil energy usage. This includes food production, food prices, and food security. 

Food production is very dependent on fossil energy. From spraying fields with synthetic fertilizers, to plastic packaging, to truck delivery, to refrigeration, industrial agriculture has decoupled from natural energy flows (solar, wind, hydro) and switched to reliance on non-renewable resources (oil, coal, natural gas) that are both finite and fickle. Food prices are very sensitive to fluctuations in energy prices. When energy prices go up, food prices go up, and vice versa. In a study of eight Asian countries, 64.17% of food price variance was explained by oil price movement. The same can be seen in the U.S. where oil price volatility is reflected in corn prices.

During the 1970s Oil Crisis, global food prices surged. The same happened during the 2008 Recession, where a host of factors including economic failures, increased demand for biofuel production, and high oil prices contracting food production, led to widespread food insecurity. Food insecurity is exacerbated by fluctuations in price and production output, meaning the availability and affordability of food varies. This puts at risk those who already face pressures to obtain enough food or hover with little disposable income.

Traditional agriculture depends heavily on energy as well, but sources it from renewable resources. An important source of energy for pre-industrial agriculture is soil. Soil is a living medium with a changing composition, housing a myriad of organisms including earthworms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and more. These organisms break down organic matter so plants can uptake important nutrients for growth like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

With the introduction of synthetic fertilizer to supercharge this process and boost plant productivity, plus monoculture, soil health declined. Synthetic fertilizers decrease soil’s microbial biodiversity by disrupting its composition, adding other complications such as: soil acidification, salt buildup, and heavy metal contamination. All of these reduce the soil’s ability to regenerate and provide for plants. With less microbe diversity, less organic matter is broken down leading to diminished “food” for plant growth. Soil acidification renders the soil nutrient deficient, negatively impacting root and tree growth. High salt concentrations in soils “block” roots from wicking up water and can sometimes even leech water away from plants, stunting growth.

An issue that has gained widespread attention is heavy metal soil contamination, which poses health risks to plants and other organisms including humans. Through bioaccumulation, by the time humans ingest food grown in polluted soils, toxic levels of heavy metals have accumulated in the food tissue, with potential to wreak havoc on organs, cognitive abilities, and the nervous system. This issue is not only tied to soil pollution. Remember the scare of eating too much fish and mercury? Heavy metals can enter food systems through many pathways, including waterways, and persist for a long time. 

In addition to synthetic disruption, monoculture is another large factor in soil degradation. By intensely growing the same crop year after year in the same place, soil nutrients are depleted. Without crop rotation or polyculture to provide diverse matter to break down into the soil for nutrients, monoculture relies on chemical fertilizers to compensate for the lack of nutrients. Monoculture also renders crops more susceptible to weeds and pests without biodiversity as a natural defense. This increases pesticide usage, creating a vicious positive feedback loop that weakens soil health. 

By replacing ecosystem services provided by our living kin with methods like the Haber-Bosch process, we’ve effectively rendered our soil inert. This is akin to injecting the human body with steroids for increased performance. But then too many steroids led to an organ failure, and now even more drugs are needed to keep the body functioning. Except the steroid wasn’t administered to just one person, but rather the whole world. This is how our soil is now — a shell of its former wonder, stripped of its abilities to care for itself, and cloaked in weariness. 

We obtain more than 99.7% of out food calories from the land and less than 0.3% from aquatic ecosystems. Soil is technically renewable; however, the regeneration of just 3 cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years. On average. In more arid regions of the world which are exacerbated by climate change, this process may take even longer. Therefore, the preservation of soil and its inhabitants is crucial to providing energy for crop growth to feed the world (especially at risk populations), amongst other benefits like carbon sequestration and water filtration. 

Even though the production stage has its inefficiencies, it is also worth noting where the inefficiencies are allocated after crops are produced. According to the FAO database, in 2013 only 8% of the cereal crops grown in the U.S. went to human consumption; 32% was fed to livestock; and 32% was allocated to industrial uses, like biofuel production. To understand why this is inefficient, a brief detour into ecology and trophic levels is needed. 

Graph by University of Michigan

As one of Earth’s top predators, humans are considered secondary/tertiary/quaternary consumers. We are farther up on the food chain, removed from the primary source of energy that supplies our calories. Each stage of energy transfer up the chain is called a trophic level. Only about 10% of energy makes it to the next trophic level to be used by the consumer — the rest is indigestible or lost as heat during metabolic processes. 

Only 10% of energy is recovered at each trophic level. Graphic @ Pearson Education.

Wealthy nations or those with rising incomes can afford more meat consumption (and the industry infrastructure), but what this really means is: can afford more energy loss. A plant-based diet retains the most calories, whereas those with meat gain only a fraction of the original amount. This is not to suggest an omnivorous diet is inherently unsustainable (we are after all, evolutionarily omnivorous creatures), yet many developed parts of the world are eating an unaffordable amount of meat, and as developing nations acquire wealth, their diets too will increase meat demand. 

A plant-based diet retains more caloric energy from food than one that is meat-heavy. Graphic @ Pearson Education.

Global meat demand is primarily around pork, poultry, and beef. This is problematic. In the U.S. alone, beef accounts for 36% of all GHG emissions. Globally, making just one pound (454 grams) of lamb generates five times more GHGs than making a pound of chicken and around 30 times more than making a pound of lentils. Emissions aside, meat places enormous stress on natural resources, majorly contributing to deforestation, freshwater depletion and contamination, and species extinction. We can “afford” all this loss because we still have access to cheap fossil energy. With less access to fossil energy in the future and the peak of important additives like phosphorus to pave over the inefficiencies and destruction associated with meat consumption, transitioning away from heavy meat consumption will not be an option. It is a necessity. 

Plenty of other meat and protein options currently exist and are seeing rising popularity. Like the organic movement, these alternatives are nothing new. Vegetarians and vegans all around the world rely on legumes, nuts, soy, eggs, and more for protein. For comparison, 100g of lentils contains 24g of protein vs. 100g of lamb which contains 20g. And if you’re not into 2-legged or 4-legged protein and don’t want to become one of the “V-people,” fret not! There are options there too. 

Insert crickets. 

In a comparison of beef and cricket protein as a percentage of body mass, crickets are 69% protein while beef is only 29%. Although crickets enjoy the media limelight, there are over 2,000 types of edible insects and 80% of the world’s population already eats bugs. From South American fire ants, to Mexican yellow mealworm tortillas, to African beetle larvae delicacies, the entomophagy scene is very robust.

Ecologically, insect protein is highly energy efficient. In terms of water, 100 gallons of water creates 6g of beef protein, 18g of chicken protein, or 238g of cricket protein. A family of four eating cricket-based food just once a week for a year would save 650,000 liters of water. In terms of land usage, a single hectare (2.47 acres or 10,000 square meters) could produce 150 tons of insect protein/year. Furthermore, crickets produce 80 times less methane gas than cows. This has significant implications on GHGs and climate change. Other benefits of insects include: urban agriculture adaptability as insects can be farmed in repurposed warehouses through vertical farming techniques; sustainable feed for aquaculture as opposed to commercial grains feeds since fish naturally eat insects anyways; better livestock feed since the chitin in insect exoskeletons serve as immune system boosters, removing the need for antibiotics which travel up the food chain to humans. 

Edible insects are sold on the street in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area. Photography @Michael Sullivan for NPR. 

Planetary health is a must and so is people’s health. Modeling studies show that between 10.9 to 11.6 million early deaths worldwide could be avoided each year. To do this, red meat and sugar consumption would have to be cut 50% while fruits, nuts, vegetables, and legumes consumption must double. To reach these targets, shifts would have to be geographically contextual. Considering those in North America eat 6.5 times the meat as those in South Asia, these dietary transitions must be culturally and regionally sensitive. 

Feeding a growing population while avoiding further ecological devastation is one of the greatest challenges of our times. Land, water, air, and monetary capital impose restrictions — still many more less mentioned limits exist: peak phosphorus, peak oil, peak lithium, peak everything. Raw materials are what allow industrial agriculture to function now; without these organic and inorganic building blocks as tools, further investment is void. While it is tempting to power people and the planet on organic agriculture, its ~25% lower yield is not a realistic substitute. Yet. 

Our current food system has become a subset of the fossil energy system, and this relationship will not last. To navigate the end of this paradigm, we can look towards alternative ways to not only subsist but flourish. Read on in the Reimagining the Future section to discover how we can shake our current roles as proxy oil-eating detritivores by rethinking regenerative agriculture, supply chains, population, circular pathways, and more. 

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