Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Agricultural Policy and Energy Policy

After listening to President Obama get sworn into office on Tuesday and hearing him talk about the need for change in energy policy, I couldn't help but think about the link between our food system and energy policy. This occurred to me primarily because my fiancee and I are in the midst of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which is an excellent analysis of the deficiencies in America's food system and how it impacts the country's health, environment, economy, and way of life.

Pollan also contributes to the NY Times Magazine. In an October 2008 open letter to the next President, Pollan cites some striking statistics. For instance:
  • 19% of the fossil fuels burned in the US are used by the agricultural sector, making it the 2nd largest category of fossil fuel use (cars are #1)
  • One study says that agriculture contributes as much as 37% of the greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere
  • While in 1940, 1 calorie of fossil fuels could produce 2.3 calories of food energy, it now takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food

This means that while we can talk about electricity generation and hybrids until we are blue in the face, we will be missing a huge piece of the energy picture. While measurements such as yield per acre have gone up tremendously during this transition in agriculture, such a measurement gives a very flawed picture of agricultural efficiency. If efficiency is measured by amount of output for a given amount of input, the more relevant input should be energy. What's worse is that policymakers are making the situation progressively worse, and "organic" agriculture does relatively little to fix the problem. As Pollan points out,

It must be recognized that the current food system — characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table — is not simply the product of the free market. Rather, it is the product of a specific set of government policies that sponsored a shift from solar (and human) energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy.

In order to develop any kind of comprehensive energy policy, the agricultural dimension must be considered. Electrical grid operators complain about solar energy because of intermittancy problems, but we could be using solar power even more efficiently to power our food system. Policymakers can hopefully seize this moment to lead us to a more responsible system of agriculture. As for consumers, when people talk about "calls for sacrifice" for the sake of the country, they should keep in mind that changing our food choices as consumers could have an even bigger impact on America's energy security and the environment than many of the other conservation measures that tend to get more attention.


netnet87 said...

I never realized that the agriculture sector required so much fossil fuels, but in the letter it mentioned that the exact amount is disputed. The thing is, if a more organic method of production was used, i.e. less chemical fertilizers, in order to reduce carbon emissions, wouldn't the price of food skyrocket? Until cheaper organic, natural methods of food production and renewable sources of energy are available, fossil fuels will have to be sacrificed to feed Americans.

Jacksonite said...

I would like to see a breakdown of the numbers that are being claimed by this author. I find it hard to believe that 37% of greenhouse gasses floating around in the atmosphere are attributable to someone out in Kansas sitting in the cabin of his John Deere.

Does that math even make sense? How can an annual use of 19% of the fossil fuels in the United States contribute to such a large proportion of the pollution? I think the needle of my BS meter is starting to move.

I guess if you consider the ENTIRE supply chain and logistics of farming some of this may make sense: natgas use in fertilizers, shipping and logistics of supplies and end products, the fuel burned in the actual process of growing crops, etc.

SC_Tang said...

I have to agree with Andrew on this issue. Our agriculture process has definitely produced a large amount of deadly green house gases. (Carbon dioxide, Nitrous oxide and Methane)
I found a chart on this following website that can help us visualize the contribution of green house gases from different human activities. Here is the link:
It is very interesting to note that not only agriculture processes contributed 15% of the green house gases, but deforestation is also a large contributor in this chart.
As you have stated in your Blog, President Obama definitely has to considered the improvement of agriculture industries as an important issue in his energy policy.

Andrew said...

We need to remember that while CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, Methane has a far greater effect per molecule on greenhouse gases than CO2 does. I imagine all of the methane produced from livestock struggling to digest the corn that will eventually destroy their stomachs has a significant impact on our contributions of greenhouse gases.

As far as food prices are concerned, yes they are signficantly lower than they used to be, but we need to consider all of the externalities this system of agriculture has produced. The kind of monoculture agriculture we practice in the US, which even "Organic" farmers use, will destroy our ability to grow food in the future.

When you start considering all of the various processes that are required to support this agricultural system--between the synthetic fertilizers, the potentially thousands of miles between a farm and a processing facility, and the distance from the processing facility to the supermarket, not to mention the energy required to manufacture the antibiotics and other medicines needed to keep the animals "healthy" as they live in these filthy feed lots, and the energy needed to treat water drawn from streams that have been polluted from agricultural run-off.

We should also not forget that this system didn't develop on its own--it has been quite deliberately promoted by the federal government since the 1970s.

Anyway, my main point was just to draw attention to this issue. As someone who has only ever lived in very dense suburbs and cities, agriculture is something usually pretty distant from my day to day life, so in the past, I have really overlooked the impact of agriculture on the environment. And it seems like our government does to, because why else should cities have to treat their sewage, but feedlots that produce just as much solid waste-do not? It's just something that I think needs more attention from policy-makers.

beckystaylor said...

Andrew's posts contains kernels of a lot of truths, and I agree with much of it.

Methane is a huge issue, and we can directly affect it by the food choices we make every day. I am not a vegetarian, but I have dramatically reduced how much beef/pork I eat due to this issue.

There is another angle to this policy area that needs to be considered, and it is also something we can each directly and quickly impact.

Land use is a driver behind the behaviors on the farm, as land values are skewed to value non-agricultural uses over growing food.

Part of the massive shift from 1970s forward has been a reduction in the number of acres that are tilled to produce our food. I watched it happen as a native Iowan who grew up during the shift from walking the fields to cut weeds, to riding in a tractor to do the same thing.

This reduction is driven in part by poor land use policies that have allowed sprawling subdivisions to be built atop what used to be fertile ground. These policies do not typically take into account how much dirt we need to set aside in a given community to assure the ability to grow our own food. Here in Travis County, the County Commissioners Court, along with the City of Austin Planning and Zoning Commission, make many decisions affecting this issue.

Raising it via email or by attending hearings is one way to directly support the call for the Obama administration to take a closer look at ag policy as it relates to energy policy, at the local level.

John D. said...

I would also like address some of the numbers mentioned in the Pollan article and some other issues that arise from them.

-Does fossil fuel use include fertilizers?
-Do emissions include methane from livestock?
-Do emissions include energy used in food processing or just on the farm?

"After cars, the food system USES more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent". -Michael Pollan

Fossil fuels used as fertilizers do not contribute to green house gasses because they are not released into the atmosphere. They just sit in the ground and aid in plant growth. According to %40 of the fossil fuel used by the agriculture sector goes to fertilizer and pesticide. It should be noted that fossil fuel use does not always lead to more greenhouse emissions.

As for methane emissions according to the EPA livestock enteric fermentation accounts for about %20 of methane released. This is astonishing considering this is about the same amount released by the natural gas industry. I had no idea that much methane was released by cows. Although, I don't think there is a real way to fix this other than a few funny jokes I've heard.

Lastly, a lot of energy is used in food processing. The food market is incredibly more diverse that it was in 1940. These are demands for exotic foods in isolated locations and it requires energy to make that happen. Modern preservatives and food substitutes (Low fat sugars etc.) require energy to produce. This is an example of how when society becomes more and more advanced our energy consumption will rise. In order meet new energy demands additional energy sources to fossil fuels must be developed.

Rachel said...

This discussion reminds me of an article I read in The Economist a few years ago: "Voting with your trolley - Food politics." (Dec. 9th, 2006). The article argues that buying locally grown and organic foods, which are taken at face value to be better for the environment, may sometimes be worse for the environment.

The article discusses factors not often taken into account such as the extra land that may be needed for organic or extra energy needed to keep weeds at bay without the use of herbicides. In terms of locally grown produce, the article cites a study indicating that it is less energy intensive to produce certain foods including dairy products, lamb, apples, and onions in New Zealand and then fly them to Britain than to produce them locally. (This study was produced by Lincoln University in New Zealand, so that made me slightly more skeptical). The article also states that 50% of the food travel miles in Britain are actually travelled by cars driving to and from shops, so that extra cars/SUVs driving to and from farmers markets to get locally grown produce may actually result in an overall increase in total food miles, oil consumption, and green house gas emissions, as compared to just buying oranges from Spain at the grocery store with the rest of your food.

The article generated a bit of controversy when it came out as you would probably expect. I think it's particularly complicated to assign an energy input or CO2 output to the agricultural sector given all of the different components that go into that industry (or any industry for that matter).

In some sense it's somewhat arbitrary where you draw the line for energy inputs and CO2 emissions. Conclusions from this Economist article and statistics in the above blog posting are completely dependent on where you draw your boundaries. Do you take into account the CO2 emissions and energy input that went into producing the giant metal vats that are then used by the fertilizer company to manufacture fertilizer and have to be replaced every X years?