Food Production Can and Should Step Away from the Fossil Fuels

Agriculture's Carbon Footprint

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The phrase “global warming solutions” conjures up many things: acres of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, regulations demanding that cars get 40 or 50 mpg. But it doesn’t usually make people think of farming. This is a funny thing, since American farming contributes 10 percent of the nation’s GHG emissions.

Farming isn’t an option—we need to eat. So it’s nice to read the new report from the Post-Carbon Institute, “The Food and Farming Transition: Toward a Post-Carbon Food System,” observing that moving to a zero-emissions agricultural model won’t be impossible.

It must be borne in mind that the removal of fossil fuels from the food system is inevitable: Maintenance of the current system is simply not an option over the long term.

This isn’t the dry, considered, equivocation-riddled social-scientist’s argot in which such reports are usually written. “Not an option”? “The removal … is inevitable”? It is. Here’s why.

The tripling of world agricultural production – in lock-step with a more-than-tripling of Earth’s population – was made possible by the massive use of natural gas to fabricate nitrogen fertilizers and oil to fuel farm machinery.

Meanwhile, "food items are shipped worldwide, and enormous quantities of food are routinely transported from places of abundance to sites of scarcity, enabling cities to be built in deserts."

That’s a lot of fossil fuel use. The report observes that getting food from farm to plate – including transportation, processing, packaging, more transportation, storage and home preparation – uses far more energy than farming itself:

From an energy perspective, industrialization presents a paradoxical reversal.

Before the industrial revolution, farming and forestry were society’s primary net producers of energy. Today, the food system is a net user of energy in virtually every nation; this is especially so in industrial countries, where each calorie of food energy produced and brought to the table represents an average investment of about 7.3 calories of energy inputs.

Such profligate energy use is possible because we burn stored calories—fossil fuels—to farm, package, ship and store food.

The report lays out a series of reasonable steps to reverse this trend, and it spells out why those steps should be taken now, starting with a clear example from last year.

The 2008 oil price spike, poor harvests due to drought, growing demand, commodity speculation, the decline in the value of the dollar, and the growth in biofuel production all contributed to a doubling of food commodity prices last year. Those higher food prices then led to food riots in more than 30 countries.

If there were supply-line disruptions – if there were no fuel to deliver food to supermarkets – shelves would be bare in weeks, with “protracted absolute scarcity” foreseeable in the future.

The solution: Reduce fossil fuel use in the food production system.

That means moving toward:

  • regenerative fertility systems that put carbon into the soil rather than leaching it out,
  • integrated systems of pest management that can end reliance on industrial pesticides,
  • renewable energy sources powering food production directly on farms,
  • relocalized food systems,
  • diet and consumption patterns that de-emphasize beef,
  • and a massive scale-up in the number of farmers worldwide.


As the authors keenly note, fossil fuel has replaced physical labor in our modern system, a labor-saving innovation that has become a planet-destroying innovation.

The report goes into deeper detail on each of the steps, suggesting, among other things, creating organic agricultural systems that closely mimic natural processes, such as using animal manure from farm-based livestock in lieu of petro-chemical fertilizers on grain farms, improved sewage management, massive composting efforts, which add carbon to the soil, and the terra preta process to directly sequester carbon underground as soil-healthy biochar.

Getting away from fossil fuels in farming is going to take involvement at every level: government, community, family, businesses and institutions.

For governments, the authors advise: ‘The transition plan that is formulated must be comprehensive and detailed, and must contain robust but attainable targets with timelines and mechanisms for periodic review and revision."

For individuals, that means developing relations with local food producers, self-assessing where their food comes from, and – echoing Wendell Berry’s injunction that “The most radical thing you can do is plant a garden and remove yourself one step from dependency upon a destructive system” – planting gardens.

Other groups are putting out similar proposals. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released a report on Monday calling for assessing and reducing the global warming impacts of food and agriculture in the United States.

The report notes:

We can begin the transition to the new system immediately through a process of planned, graduated, rapid change.

That’s a good thing, because as the report concludes:

The unplanned alternative—reconstruction from scratch after collapse—would be chaotic and tragic.