Sunday, February 24, 2013

Agriculture and Oil

In an interesting article about the influence of banks speculating in commodities, there was this little bit about oil and agriculture:
Farming is a complicated calculation, an intricate system of inputs to reach a single, universally desired goal: Good, healthy eating at a price that people can afford. It doesn’t happen in cyberspace—food flows from the ground. But the bigger that “Big Ag” grows and the more involved the financial institutions’ become in the price of food, the further we get from realizing just what it takes to feed the planet.
Carlson argues that for way too long oil has been  our saving grace. Oil, he says, is the only way that American farmers, who account for just one to two percent of the national population, can feed the other 98 percent of us. But the oil used to sew, reap and ship food, “is finite and as oil goes away we are going to be at a loss for how to feed ourselves,” he says with a not altogether unfamiliar urgency. Carlson suggests that now is the time to start figuring out how to cut back on our agricultural reliance on oil.  The idea seems at first simple, but it requires rethinking the agricultural system from the ground up—forgetting about government subsidies and the corporate farms  entities that grow nearly eighty percent of our food supply and truck it around in eighteen wheelers.
I've often wondered what the total demand for oil is per acre for our current agriculture practices are.  As far as equipment we operate goes, it is pretty low, around 4 gallons per acre.  But we also have the local fertilizer plant applying our herbicide and dry fertilizer, the oil and gas use in the production of the herbicide and fertilizer, and all the fuel used in transporting the raw materials to the farm and then transporting the crops to the commodity users, and their products to consumers.  Getting millions of tons of dry fertilizer from mines to farms, and millions of tons of grain shipped around the world has to take a lot of fuel.  In some ways, I expect some kind of tug-of-war between the production efficiency of larger, more concentrated operations and smaller, less concentrated ones.  To me, having livestock as grain consumers producing manure for fertilizer makes sense, but with water quality concerns, we need animals spread over many more farms than they are now. Meanwhile, smaller operations won't make food prices much cheaper until the transportation costs from rising oil prices get much higher.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out down the road.

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