Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A well-oiled machine

Big Ag is getting nervous about energy costs. The hand-wringing reveals much about the energy-intensive nature of industrial agriculture--and its lack of imagination regarding alternatives.

Here's an Associated Press article laying out the energy story in terms dictated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which not innacurately calls itself "the voice of agriculture." It has only forgoten to add a few modifiers: vast-scale, heavily subsidized, energy-intensive.

The AP article cites a Farm Bureau economist complaining that high oil prices will add about 10 percent to farmers' costs this year, or about $3 billion.

If a 10 percent increase amounts to $3 billion, that means US farmers spend about $30 billion per year on fuel and fertilizers.To put that number in perspective, the entire annual economic output of Guatemala--which the US is trying to lassoo into a free-trade pact that has the Farm Bureau salivating--is about $50 billion.

Another way to look at it: In order to sustain industrial ag, the Federal Government from 1996 to 2003 forked over about $131 billion to farmers, the top 10 percent of recipients hording 70 percent of the loot. That's an average of about $15 billion a year, or about half of the energy/fertilizer bill.

No wonder President Bush caved in to industrial-ag pressure and decided to preserve ag subsidies at current levels in the 2006 budget.

Clearly, we're looking at an energy-intensive system here. This 2002 paper by Johns Hopkins scientists Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker claims that:

The average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy (in feedlot beef production, this ratio is 35:1), and this does not include the energy used to process and transport the food. (Emphasis added.)

Last time anyone checked--according to the Hopkins professors no one has since a 1969 Defense Department study--food travels an average of 1300 miles bewteen farm and table in the US. That's a lot of oil up in smoke.

And the energy efficiency of industrial ag has deteriorated over time. Richard Manning claims that in 1940, just before chemical-intensive agriculture really took hold, the average farm actually produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy used, and that by 1974 the ratio had fallen to 1:1.

What, then, is the Farm Bureau's agenda for addressing the American farm's exorbitant energy bill, and for increasing energy efficiency?

It has none. According to the group's Website, its energy agenda includes urging the government to raid the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, supporting ludicrous government ethanol subsidies, and opposing "excessive" automobile fuel-economy standards.

Clearly, our food system is wholly reliant on cheap energy. But what happens when the age of cheap energy ends?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're here!

Here's a link to an organization I work with that emphasizes sustainable, local ag, and also stresses access - making such food accessible to people of all income levels.

I can be found here.

5/29/2005 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

When I did a presentation on eating locally and sustainably at a Pagan festival a few years back, people were surprised at how much oil went into the production of corn. The statistics I gave people shocked them--and these folks were people who supposedly revere the Earth as an embodiment of God/dess. These folks are all into the environment, and environmental issues, yet they had no clue that the impact of what they ate was.

People are woefully lacking in cogent information on these issues, so thank you for writing a blog that helps get that information out there.

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