Globalization, meaning “the process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale,” exploded after the second world war and left no industry untouched (1). In our food system, this global network made agriculture and food supply chains increasingly dependent on fossil fuels (2). This dependence is both direct, through the use of machines to cultivate lands and transport food, and indirect, through the manufacturing of chemical inputs to replace natural fertilizers on farmers’ fields (3). While our food system continues to use fossil fuels, farmers, researchers, and consumers alike are seeing both the pros and cons of this relationship. This week, we want to share both sides of this debate: is the food system’s use of fossil fuels a good or bad thing?
The era when fossil fuels were rapidly adopted in agricultural production is nicknamed the “green revolution” as crop yields greatly increased (4). This growth in production efficiency was due to the replacement of organic inputs and other agricultural methods used to increase soil fertility with fossil fuel energy. For example, the application of manure for fertilizer and the use of horses or man-power to till soil were replaced with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and diesel powered machinery (5). As a result, fields could produce more food on the same amount of land than ever before.
In addition, fossil fuels quickly transformed the transportation sector which consequently changed the paletes and diets of the Western world. As transportation became faster, variation in food was no longer limited by geography or seasonality. Today, many of us wouldn’t know how to have a balanced diet without having access to food grown in other parts of the world!
In short, the use of fossil fuels in our food system is not only considered beneficial for how it made agricultural production more efficient, but it can also be valued for the pleasure it brought to eating.
The cons of fossil fuel use in our food system can be summarized by three “D”s: dependency, disconnection, and degradation.
Dependency: Food author Wendell Berry summarizes it best: “The farm’s originally organic, coherent, independent production system [has] expanded into a complex dependence on remote sources and on manufactured supplies” (6). What this means is that prior to the utility of fossil fuels by agriculture, farms could operate almost exclusively on their own. Today, this new dependence on external resources makes agriculture vulnerable to changes outside of its operations, like the fluctuation of fossil fuel prices. This connection makes food prices susceptible to change based on the price of fossil fuels, so if fossil fuel prices go up, food affordability could go down (7).
Disconnection: With food travelling long distances thanks to fossil-fuel based transportation, consumers have become increasingly disconnected from how food is grown and by whom. This disconnect has consequently made it difficult for consumers to know how their food choices impact the world. When we eat local, it is easier to talk to those who produce our food and see for ourselves how our food choices impact the environment.
Degradation: Although the use of fertilizer and pesticides made from fossil fuels have increased crop yields, it has largely done so at the expense of the environment. For example, synthetic pesticide use often must increase year over year as pests become resistant to it (8). The increase of this toxic substance can negatively impact soil health, nearby water sources, and the health of agricultural workers (9). In sum, the use of fossil fuels can often create short term gains with long term consequences.
Fossil fuels are used in every industry for a reason: they are incredibly useful and affordable in comparison to other sources of energy. That being said, they also have massive negative consequences to our environment that need to be better managed and addressed. At SPUD, we recognize our own dependence on fossil fuels but we also work everyday to discover ways we can reduce our impact on the planet. Help us out by sharing the ways are you reducing your carbon footprint!
1) Kirschenmann, Frederick L. “Food as relationship.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 3.2-3 (2008): 106-121.
2) Woods, Jeremy, et al. “Energy and the food system.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365.1554 (2010): 2991-3006.
3) Pimentel, David, et al. “Reducing energy inputs in the US food system.” Human Ecology 36.4 (2008): 459-471.
4) Tomczak, Jay. “Implications of fossil fuel dependence for the food system.” Michigan State University (2005): 11-12.
6) Berry, Wendell. The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.
7) “‘Energy-smart’ agriculture needed to escape fossil fuel trap.” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/95161/icode/
8) Tomczak, Jay. “Implications of fossil fuel dependence for the food system.” Michigan State University (2005): 11-12.
9) Wilson, Clevo, and Clem Tisdell. “Why farmers continue to use pesticides despite environmental, health and sustainability costs.” Ecological economics 39.3 (2001): 449-462.