Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Oil We Eat (from Harper's)

Richard Manning article demonstrates another major problem that must be faced in the transformation to a green society--the heavy dependence of the so called Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1960s on hydrocarbons. Around 1960 the expansion of agriculture had used up the supply of unfarmed, arable lands. In response plant breeders developed new strains of wheat, rice, and corn so that they could be hypercharged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen. These new strains were most efficiently farmed by the industrialized factory-farm system.

Manning calls this "the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet." It moved many of the now no longer needed people off the land and into the world's most severe poverty. It allowed the doubling of population, "adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes." And it made agriculture irreversibly dependent on oil.

In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

It is not an idle fear; many countries are indeed following the US lead. Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its grain to livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3 percent to 31 percent in the same period, and China, with a sixth of the world's population, has gone from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of these places have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't afford it.

And it's all based on oil and gas which will soon reach peak production and become increasingly expensive and increasingly scarce.


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