Big Ag is nervous about energy costs. The hand-wringing reveals much about the energy-intensive nature of industrial agriculture — and its lack of imagination regarding alternatives.

Even before the latest big runup in oil prices — incidentally, oil had reached $60 per barrel before Hurricane Katrina trashed the Gulf of Mexico — farmers were feeling the pinch. Here’s an Associated Press article from May laying out the energy story in terms dictated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which not inaccurately calls itself “the voice of agriculture.” It has only forgotten to add a few compound modifiers: vast-scale, heavily subsidized, export-minded energy-intensive.

The AP article cites a Farm Bureau economist complaining that high oil prices will add about 10 percent to farmers’ costs this year, or about $3 billion.

If a 10 percent increase amounts to $3 billion, that means U.S. farmers spend about $30 billion per year on fuel and fertilizers. To put that number in perspective, the entire annual economic output of Guatemala — which the U.S. recently lassoed into a free-trade pact that has the Farm Bureau salivating — is about $50 billion.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Another way to look at it: In order to sustain industrial ag, the Federal Government from 1996 to 2003 forked over about $131 billion to farmers, the top 10 percent of recipients hoarding 70 percent of the loot. That’s an average of about $14.5 billion a year, or about half of the energy/fertilizer bill.

(Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the goverment will likely pay upwards of $23 billion in commodity subsidies this year — the most ever. Despite a sustained drought in much of the grain belt, farmers still managed to churn out a near-record grain crop, flooding the market and pushing the price down, thus prodding the subsidy cash cow into action.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Clearly, we’re looking at an energy-intensive system here. This 2002 paper by Johns Hopkins scientists Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker claims that:

The average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy (in feedlot beef production, this ratio is 35:1), and this does not include the energy used to process and transport the food. (Emphasis added.)

Last time anyone checked — according to the Hopkins professors, no one has since a 1969 Defense Department study — food travels an average of 1300 miles between farm and table in the U.S. That’s a lot of oil up in smoke.

And the energy efficiency of industrial ag has deteriorated over time. Richard Manning claims that in 1940, just before chemical-intensive agriculture really took hold, the average farm actually produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy used, and that by 1974 the ratio had fallen to 1:1.

According to Danielle Murray of the Earth Policy Institute, “The U.S. food system uses over 10 quadrillion Btu (10,551 quadrillion Joules) of energy each year, as much as France’s total annual energy consumption.”

What, then, is the Farm Bureau’s agenda for addressing the American farm’s exorbitant energy bill, and for increasing energy efficiency?

It has none. According to the group’s Website, its energy agenda includes urging the government to raid the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, supporting ludicrous government ethanol subsidies, and opposing “excessive” automobile fuel-economy standards.

Clearly, our food system is wholly reliant on cheap energy. But what happens if and when the age of cheap energy ends?


This post first appeared in Bitter Greens Journal.