Saturday, 4 April 2009

Energy Dependence of Modern Agriculture.

Above - fourteen 600kg bags of nitrate.

Way back in 1980 Fritjof Capra (physicist) wrote a critique of Western societies overreliance on the ‘scientific method’. He predicted how a reductionist approach, and obsession with economic growth and production was depleting the planet’s natural resources. He even accurately predicted catastrophic climate change through ozone depletion. Not many people took any notice back then, but we’re paying for it now.

The world’s governments have emerged from the G20 summit claiming to have taken ‘unprecedented steps’ to rectify the global recession. Infact they are stubbornly avoiding dealing with the real issues. Rather than grasping the opportunity to invest in new technologies to counter the effects of climate change and depleted natural resources, our world leaders have instead chosen the same old paradigms that led us to the current crisis.

In his book ‘The Turning Point’ Capra made reference to the work of the geologist M.King Hubbert who as early as the 1950’s predicted the rate of depletion of the planet’s natural resources. There have been decades of negligence by Western governments.

A report by Caroline Lucas(Green MEP)in 2006 cuts through the establishment prevarication. It’s called ‘Fuelling The Food Crisis-The Impact of Peak Oil on Food Security.’

Whilst there is no concencus on how soon global oil will peak(the point at which half of the total oil known to exist has been consumed, and beyond which extraction goes into irreversible decline) many expect it to occur well before 2020.

Caroline Lucas states…..
..."Petroleum has become the lifeblood of both industrialised and developing economies. It would be difficult to find a single product available to us in the UK that has not consumed crude oil derivatives (as well as natural gas or coal) during its production, distribution and retail. Yet there is increasing evidence that days of easy access to cheap oil are fast running out.
The implications of this are vast. Since the first oil crisis of 1973, some of the inevitable consequences of addiction to fossil fuels have been well documented, particularly in terms of its impact on our transport systems. What has been much less analysed, however, is the impact of higher oil prices on our increasingly industrialised food system. This report aims to help address that question, by highlighting the extraordinary dependence of existing food and agriculture policy on cheap oil, and by demonstrating why this will have to change....
In my work as an MEP, I have long argued that the European Union's policies of ever greater free trade and more open markets must change, since they destroy the livelihoods of small and medium sized farmers, jeopardising food security, and increasing our dependence on imports. They also adversely affect the environment, as agricultural commodities are transported ever longer distances,and are processed and packaged to survive the journey. To these social and environmental problems must be added a new imperative - weaning the industrialised food production system itself off its high-energy use....
The priorities are clear. The Common Agricultural Policy must be replaced by a policy framework that minimises fossil-fuel use through the prioritisation of self-reliance, so that Europe can meet this new challenge head on, delivering food security into the future. The current emphasis on ever increasing international trade needs to be replaced by policies to relocalise our food systems.Finally, the EU must urgently refocus its development policies, so that poorer countries can put food security before exports, and replace their dependence on Western markets by much greater national and regional self-reliance. These are ambitious goals. The purpose of this report is to demonstrate why they are so urgently needed.
Higher energy and fuel prices will be a triple blow for the synthetic fertiliser industry, and for those farmers that have become dependent on this quick fix and are unwilling to consider the alternatives.Firstly, because of the large amount of energy required to extract ores and consumed during the manufacturing process; secondly, the use of natural gas as a feedstock, and thirdly, the costs of the fuel required to transport these bulk commodities. The export of fertilisers and their raw materials are a significant constituent of sea-borne bulk trade: the fourth most traded bulk commodity in world shipping trade after iron ore, coal and cereals.
Initially, the energy required to produce nitrogen fertilizer was provided by cheap electricity and derivatives of coal, inputs that were mostly available only in industrialised countries. Trade in fertilisers has increased because the fertiliser industry has gradually relocated plants to countries that have low electricity prices as well as the required natural gas feedstock. These include the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Venezuela. The need to access raw materials forother fertilizers has seen the industry also move into areas that have extensive natural reserves, including Africa, China, the US, and Morocco. Worldwide demand for fertiliser has necessitated significant levels of international trade. Shipping costs are relatively high for these low-value bulk commodities: the lower the value of the shipped material, the greater the incidence of transport in the landed cost.
The fertiliser industry does not see peak oil and natural gas as being a problem for fertiliser producers. According to the International Fertiliser Industry Association"...processes for ammonia production can use a wide range of energy sources. Thus, even when oil and gas supplies eventually dwindle, very large reserves of coal are likely to remain. Coal reserves are sufficient for well over 200 years at current production levels, and their location is geographically diverse. 60% of China's nitrogen fertiliser production is currently based on coal." The consequences in terms of climate change, however, would be catastrophic. Additionally, production of ammonia from coal is 70% more energy intensive than production from natural gas.
Given the high energy input required to produce nitrogen fertiliser, it is inevitable that manufacturing costs have risen as oil and gas prices worldwide have increased. Since 2003, ammonium nitrate costs, for example, have risen from £90 per tonne to over £170 per tonne in early 2006.”….

Even without the Peak Oil situation, Capra describes the damaging effects of fertilizer use in agriculture. Remember he wrote this in 1982.
"...The long-term effects of excessive 'chemotherapy' in agriculture have proven disastrous for the health of the soil and the people, for our social relations, and for the entire eco-system of the planet. As the same crops are planted and fertilized synthetically year after year, the balance in the soil is disrupted. The amount of organic matter diminishes, and with it the soil's ability to retain moisture. The humus content is depleted and the soil's porosity reduced. The changes in soil texture entail a multitude of interrelated consequences. The depletion of organic matter makes thesoil dead and dry; water runs through it but does not wet it.
The ground becomes hard-packed, which forces farmers to use more powerful machines. On the other hand, dead soil is more susceptible to wind and water erosion, which are taking an increasing toll. For example, half of the topsoil in Iowa has been washed away in the last twenty-five years, and in1976 two-thirds of America's agricultural counties were designated drought disaster areas. What is often called 'drought,' 'wind breaking down the land,' or 'winterkill are all consequences of sterile soil.
The massive use of chemical fertilizers has seriously damaged the natural process of nitrogen fixation by damaging soil bacteria involved in this process. As a consequence crops are losing their ability to take up nutrients from the soil and becoming more and more addicted to synthetic chemicals.Because their efficiency in absorbing nutrients this way is much lower, not all the chemicals are taken up by the crop but leach into the ground water or drain from the fields into rivers and lakes".....

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