Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Inevitable Demise of Chemical-Based Agriculture

The popularity of organically grown food has increased dramatically over the past decade. Growth in the sales of organic food has risen more than 10% per year recently, and now represents over 4% of total food sales. That may sound like a pretty minor fraction (4/100), but it is clear that this increase will continue. Right now, over 10% of fruit and vegetable sales are organic, and much of this increase is due to public perception that organic foods are healthier than their conventional counterparts. Although there is little to no evidence that this is the case, and also given the questionable practices allowed in certified organic farming by the government, this shift represents a major change in the manner in which an increasingly larger portion of our food is grown. As I mentioned earlier, large agribusiness firms own the majority of organic food brands. This must change to allow a shift in how sustainably our food is produced. I believe such a change is inevitable.

Agriculture in the United States is heavily dependent upon petroleum feedstocks. This dependency comes in many forms, including direct consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel on farms and in the shipping of food outputs and chemical inputs. In addition, the chemicals themselves are produced from petroleum-based starting materials, chemicals such as pesticides, fumigants, insecticides, and herbicides. Even the production of inorganic chemicals such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer consumes considerable energy, from mining, refining, packaging, through shipping and application. I am comfortable as a professional chemist with the denotation of these processes as chemical agriculture. The practice of modern agriculture is dependent upon a large input of chemicals and petroleum feedstocks.

Compare this to the manner in which sustainable farming is practiced in an integrated farming environment. Several, perhaps dozens of different crops are produced and these crops are rotated on a regular and rational basis. Fertilizer comes largely in the form of animal manure or its derivative compost, so that the soil is enriched instead of being depleted. The agricultural products are sold locally instead of being shipped thousands of miles to consumers; chemical inputs are minimal; animals are not fed a continuous stream of antibiotics; huge amounts of petroleum feedstocks are unnecessary; and, some farmers are beginning to grow seed oils to make biodiesel. Imagine a farm that produces its own fuel to run the tractors that plow and plant the land that grows the seeds that produce the fuel, etc. While this may not be a completely closed loop, it is a far cry from the chemical and petroleum dependency of most modern farms.

I believe the evidence shows that we have reached peak oil production. While estimates vary, an increasing proportion of crude oil is being produced by non-conventional means, and most analysts recognize that we have consumed about half of all available crude oil. Just as I’m not getting any younger, oil production is entering the latter half of its life. Just as it’s harder and harder to keep my body going in terms of medical care and stiff muscles and joints, it is going to be more difficult to produce the inexpensive oil necessary to fuel the world economy. Oil is not going to become less expensive.

This brings me to the thesis of this blog post: as petroleum and its products become increasingly expensive, chemical agriculture will become economically impractical. Whether this will occur in the next 25 years I cannot say: I’m a chemist, not an economist. What I can say, however, is that peak oil will force a change in the manner in which we produce food. There will be no choice. Farms of 10-100 acres – small farms – will produce food in a less expensive and more environmentally friendly manner than larger chemical-based farms, and they will begin to produce a larger proportion of our food. Disregarding the artificial government-designated label of organic, food produced on small, organic-based farms will be less dependent on fossil fuels and petroleum-based inputs, this food will be produced in an environmentally enriching manner, and the food will be healthier. In other words, the current movement towards sustainable farming will inevitably win out over chemical based agriculture.

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