Day 3: Why eat oil when we could eat sunlight?

Anna Lappé

Blog post by Anna Lappé

Founding principal of the Small Planet Institute
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Anna Lappé argues we should feel a sense of urgency and a sense of hope in transitioning towards more ecological farming. We know how to farm without costly reliance on fossil fuels and we know the freedom it brings from corporations’ monopoly control.

by Anna Lappé, Founding Principal of the Small Planet Institute

In the summer 2012, a team of US trial lawyers filed a class action suit against the agribusiness giant, ConAgra, on behalf of consumers for false labeling. The suit alleges the company didn’t properly disclose that the propellant in ConAgra’s popular cooking spray, Pam, contains petroleum, butane, and propane. 

Petroleum in Pam? Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. Fossil fuels are ubiquitous in the industrial food chain—from this not-so-tasty cooking aid to petrochemical pesticides and the natural gas and fuel used to power synthetic fertilizer operations and livestock “factory farms.”

Relying on fossil fuelsConsidering we now rely on fossil fuel for so many aspects of contemporary agriculture, is it possible to eliminate their use? Michael Mack, the chief executive of Syngenta, one of the world’s biggest agricultural chemical makers, would say no: “If the whole planet were to suddenly switch to organic farming tomorrow, it would be an ecological disaster.”  The producers of synthetic fertilizer similarly argue that we need their products to ensure an abundant food supply. 

But ask experts without a billion-dollar stake in the game and you get a very different answer. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is considered the most significant and credible research-based assessment of global agriculture. Commissioned by the World Bank, the United Nations, and other international institutions, the 2008 report was completed after four years of exhaustive research by more than 400 experts. 

“Ask experts without a billion-dollar stake in the game and you get a very different answer.”

The authors urge a transition to “biological substitutes for agrochemicals” and the reduction of “the dependency of the agricultural sector on fossil fuels.” They affirm the enormous benefits of agroecology, small-scale farming, and the sustainable management of livestock, forests, and fisheries, while stressing that moving away from dependence on fossil fuels is vital for global food security. 

Such a shift away from fossil fuels requires rethinking the dominant method of agricultural production in the Global North. For today’s industrialized food system—as it’s often referred to—is dependent on fossil fuels for every key aspect of production. 

“A shift away from fossil fuels requires rethinking the dominant method of agricultural production in the Global North.

All crops need fertile soil to thrive, and industrial growers achieve it through synthetic fertilizer. Though nitrogen makes up a significant portion of the air we breathe, this crucial ingredient in fertilizer requires enormous volumes of natural gas to synthesize it and make it usable for farming—33.5 million British thermal units (MMBtu) of natural gas per ton, to be exact. In China, most nitrogen fertilizer production is powered by dirty coal.

To mine for phosphorus, another key ingredient in synthetic fertilizer, requires even more energy as the material becomes rarer and we have to probe deeper and deeper underground. 

Then there is all the fossil fuel needed to power irrigation systems for monoculture crops and the energy required to heat, cool, and clean intensive livestock factory farms. Finally, industrial agriculture also relies on an arsenal of petrochemicals to attack weeds, fungus, and pests.  

Input-intensive farmingProponents call this kind of system “efficient” and “modern,” but the entire system should really be called “input-intensive.” For industrial growers only achieve this so-called efficiency through the expensive—both to their pocketbook and to the planet—use of fossil fuels. 

On the other hand, sustainable farming practices—including certified organic agriculture, agroforestry, and biodynamic methods—tap into ecological systems for soil fertility and for managing pests, weeds, and other potential threats to productivity. Sustainable farming is based in biology; industrial agriculture in chemistry. 

“Sustainable farming is based in biology; industrial agriculture in chemistry“

Sustainable farmers achieve fertility by composting, integrating livestock, or planting soil-nourishing crops. Sustainable growers use natural push-pull technology or other creative and safe techniques to manage weeds and pests, integrating plants that attract insects away from crops, for instance.

Studies have shown that these methods are remarkable for their ability to protect biodiversity and promote soil conservation, clean water, and other ecological benefits. Plus, yields are often as high—or higher—on these sustainable farms. 

One 30-year study by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania comparing organic and industrial corn and soybean fields found that the sustainable methods on average delivered just as much yield and in drought years as much as 30 percent more. 

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers at the University of Essex analyzed 286 farming projects in 57 countries, including 12.6 million farmers transitioning towards agricultural sustainability—and found a yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types. Select just those projects in East Africa and the increase in yields from introducing sustainable farming approaches was 116 percent.

Gas-guzzling agricultureDespite this evidence, promoters of the industrial model insist their system is the only viable path, like Syngenta’s Mack, who said organic farming is the “productive equivalent of driving an S.U.V.” When he delivered this analogy, Mack seemed willfully ignorant of the irony: industrial agriculture is the gas-guzzler, not organic farming. Rodale Institute studies have found that organic methods can use as much as 45 percent less energy than industrial methods. 

And that productivity of industrial agriculture that Mack touts comes from a clever accounting trick: Promoters don’t tally all the fossil fuel energy used in production, nor do they account for all the greenhouse gas pollution caused from burning fossil fuels. These are no small numbers—greenhouse gas emissions tied to livestock production alone add up to more than the emissions from all the cars, trucks, planes, and other fossil-fueled modes of transportation in the world.

As we realize the true costs of burning fossil fuels—not just the higher input costs to the farmer but the costs to the planet of global warming—we all should feel a sense of urgency in transitioning toward more ecological farming, as well as a sense of hope. We know how to farm without such a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and we know the freedom it brings from corporations’ monopoly control over industrial inputs like pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, and fertilizer.

The gender equationWe also know how sustainable farming empowers women, while models that requires purchased inputs to succeed by design disadvantages them, not least because most women farmers don’t have access to credit or, if they do, it comes at a very high cost. In the wake of the spread of sustainable farming training in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh, India, for example, debt levels among women farmers dropped dramatically while food security went way up.

If there is such urgency, why aren’t we seeing a shift to agro-ecology occurring? In large part, the political power of the fossil fuel industry and the lobbying clout of agribusiness have kept us trapped in our dependence on fossil fuels. In the United States, agribusiness spent more than $173.5 million lobbying around the 2008 farm bill—the US federal policy that shapes agriculture here and to a large extent around the world. Their lobbying ensured that the true costs of industrial agriculture would continue to accrue to taxpayers, not the polluting corporations. 

“The true costs of industrial agriculture would continue to accrue to taxpayers, not the polluting corporations.”

Fossil fuel free?So, could we ever find ourselves completely freed from fossil fuels in agricultural production? Yes, the evidence shows that there is no scientific case for continuing to be so reliant on fossil fuels: indeed, shifting away from fossil fuel dependency would make our food system more resilient and productive. 

And we could do so without risking greater food insecurity. In fact, natural methods of enhancing soil fertility, of weed and insect management, and more—make farming more affordable. When farmers rely on knowledge of ecological systems, not costly inputs, they can save and share seeds, and their soil is healthier and more resilient, making their fields naturally more productive. 

Sure, we might not be able to go cold turkey on fossil fuels anytime soon, but we certainly could begin shifting in that direction and see a dramatic improvement in the sustainability and long-term viability of our food system. And I doubt anyone would miss that petroleum in our Pam cooking spray. 

Download: Why Eat Oil When We Could Eat Sunlight?