Pirogues on the river Niger. Image: Oxfam
Pirogues on the river Niger. Image: Oxfam

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

11 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

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 fuels
Considering 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 farming
Proponents 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 agriculture
Despite 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 equation
We 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?



To eat, we need energy (sunlight), nutrients and water. Anna’s reasoning is too easy, using the food component that is far from the most limiting. Working in Mali, where Anna’s picture of fishermen on the Niger River has been made presumably, I started being interested in the carrying capacity of natural resources. Even in the Sahel, nutrients are more limiting than water (let’s forget energy for the moment being), and the most limiting nutrient appears being nitrogen in the Malian Sahel. The natural availability is about 15 – 20 kg/ha/y; just enough to produce about 500 kg/ha/y of cereals or their equivalents. A family, at average composed out of about 6 – 7 persons, is not able to exploit more than about 2 ha; 4 persons can be nourished with the work of the family.

Indeed, when mechanized agriculture more is possible, but a) one cannot invest when there are always shortages instead of producing more than the family can eat, and b) the tractor needs oil instead of sunlight.

Why not using leguminous species to obtain more nitrogen? A small problem, the biological N fixation needs P, and the present N-availability is linked to and limited by the natural availability of P. Fertilizer-P could be a solution......

Fossil fuels and poverty reduction

Yesterday concerns were raised about the need to overcome structural problems, obesity, and conflicts over land reform if the future for agriculture is to be a bright one. Today the debate continues with three essays, all about the use of fossil fuels.

Modern agriculture is energy intensive, and this dependency pervades every stage of food production from field to fork. Lappé and McKibben are convinced agriculture could, and must, use less fossil fuel. Bindraban acknowledges the possibility but cautions that doing so may not reduce poverty and inequality. What do you think?

land ownership

Where does the issue of land ownership--especially for women--fit into this debate?  In many countries women cannot own land, even if she has access to credit and other things that could boost her productivity.  If her husband dies, land often goes to her husband's family and she is on her own or must marry one of her husband's brothers.  Changing land ownership laws could be an important step in supporting women's livelihoods while increasing sustainable food production.

Either / or ?

It was great to “travel” by the intricacies of considering the ‘elegant engineering’, the ‘honorable intentions’ and the ‘lobbying clout of agribusiness’ to grasp a bit of the enormous challenges faced by the ‘modern’ American and European agriculture because of their inputs in oil, nitrogen and energy, plus the global problems that they generate when hurricanes like Sandy are becoming a normal part of present life.  

I was astonished when I got the feeling that according to Bindraban’s article we have the possibility to choose either/or between two extreme models of agriculture: agro-ecology or organic in one extreme and oil/chemical fertilizers in the other. There is no choice and we don’t have that much time available. The time of sustainable life is different, is longer, than the industrial time full of chemicals and energy inputs that has put the globe at its highest risk in its history.  

Earlier in my life I was an engineer. I was an expert in managing computer programs, algorithms, and derivatives and complex equations to simulate life processes. As an engineer, I would love finding hallucinatory solutions like the ones mentioned by Bill McKibben, of moving North the territories in Iowa. This type of solutions forgets that land and agriculture create a particular relation with the territory where they are developed, with the people and with the communities that are established there. These solutions only exist in dreams.

I would agree very strongly with Bill McKibben and with Anna Lappé in their indications that we need to rely mainly on organic or near-organic farming practices as those used in East Africa, Andra Pradesh in India, China, Indonesia, Bolivia, the Philippines, Brazil, etc., empowering women, be them producers or consumers,  strengthening the sustainability of Mother Earth.

I think that Eric Hobsbawm  was right when he indicated few months before passing away that “the gap between the rich and the poor and divisions between social groups continue to exist, whether or not we call such groups ‘classes’. The political fight continues, though only in part as class politics” (see How To Change the World, p. 414). It is clear that Socialism is over and since 2008 we went into the most serious crisis of Capitalism. During the last four years we have seen that solutions are not coming from the globalised markets and we need to find a system which can provide responses to the sustainability of the planet.

We need to continue developing a strong global movement (meaning by global that it has local, regional and national constituents), which is relatively independent from economic growth and income, capable of generating changing policies in governments. Do we need more chemical fertilizers, as indicated by Prem Bindraban? No. We don’t want SUV’s  or Pam cooking sprays in our agriculture. We need to defend our ‘honorable intentions’ of defending all peoples’ human rights. We need to stop the dominant method of agricultural production used in the Global North or in the Southern North, as presented by Anna Lappé. We need to continue developing the social and the ethical elements of a global movement able to understand the achievements in Agriculture made by ancestral populations in order to face climate change.   The oldest ancestral knowledge has demonstrated an impressive capacity to modernize itself, while respecting Mother Earth.  


Use fossil fuels for a faster transition

This is extremely well=articulated.  One thing that is missing here: the Transition Initiative perspective which includes the fact that we have likely reached peak production of fossil fuels, and they will be more expensive from here on out.  If you include this, we might need to re-frame a bit and start looking at fossil fuels (fossilized and concentrated sunlight) as a serious and limited gift from nature that can help us in making what will be a very large transition over to resilient, agro-ecological farming and away from these global value chains.  Fossil fuels can help us in quick production of renewables, changing the contours of the land to passively collect rainwater, plant new forests, etc.



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