Fossil fuel – fertilizing our food

A while back I published post about the risks of turning food into fuel. In a nutshell, the booming biodiesel and ethanol industry is creating a scenario where the price of food crops, or animal products dependent upon grain feed, are increasing as more of the grain harvest is being diverted for the purpose of making fuel.

Thankfully, the world is becoming aware of what United Nations food expert, Jean Ziegler, termed a “crime against humanity” and alternative feedstocks, non-food crops, for biodiesel and ethanol production are now being developed.

On the flip side; there’s also the critical issue of how much fossil fuel currently goes into making food at every stage of its production – field preparation, planting, fertilizing, cultivation, harvesting, processing, transportation and storage. We’re painting ourselves into quite a corner here.

Have you ever stopped to think how far the out of season fruit and vegetables you’re eating have had to be shipped? For example, grapes purchased in Chicago have arrived there after a 2,000 mile journey – courtesy of fossil fuel. The issue of food miles is one worth considering in your purchase choices.

Prior to transporting food to our tables, there’s also the role of fossil fuel in the tilling of soil, planting, cultivating and harvesting, then there’s the energy expended in packing and cold storage.

Fossil fuel – you’re eating it

Even more insidious is the issue of fertilizer. There’s not just the shipping of fertilizer to farms to consider, but the actual production of it. Much of the fertilizer used in the world today is a product of fossil fuel. 

So, in effect, we are eating fossil fuel.

Many food crops are heavily dependent upon nitrogen. In the 1950’s, the total amount of nitrogen based fertilizers produced was around 4 million tons.

One of the most important advancements in 20th century agriculture was the introduction of the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of nitrogen fertilizer.

The Haber-Bosch process now generates over a hundred million tons of nitrogen based fertilizer annually and in the process consumes a full 1% of the world’s annual energy supply in the form of natural gas; an essential component of the process. The frightening aspect of this is that the Haber-Bosch process is now directly responsible for sustaining 40% of the Earth’s population.

In a world that’s running out of fossil fuels such as natural gas, you can see where all this is heading. Added to that, the indiscriminate use of nitrogen based fertilizers over the decades has also accelerated topsoil degradation. For decades, we have been pushing the soil to the limit. If nitrogen fertilizers were to become scarce; crop yields would suffer greatly.

Coal cakes

However, coal is here to save the day – or is it? 

When cheap, easily obtained sources of natural gas end, it appears that coal may step in. Coal can be gasified, and turned into urea – a white crystalline substance rich in nitrogen. However, everything connected with the mining and processing of coal is incredibly damaging to the environment. Add to that the combustion of coal spewing even more carbon emissions into an atmosphere already sodden with it and we’ll just be exacerbating our global warming problems. 

In regards to the possibility of the much-touted concept of “clean coal” and carbon sequestration, the burying of carbon dioxide waste – that’s still very much pie-in-the-sky stuff and even if it does become commercially viable, clean coal technologies are not only expensive, but require far more energy – meaning more coal needs to be used, which in turn means even more environmental havoc.

A food crunch?

In the not too distant future, we may see big problems facing city dwellers in particular in relation to sourcing fresh fruit and vegetables. As fossil fuels become scarcer and/or more expensive, prices for fertilizer, farm machinery running costs and transportation will rise dramatically and that will be reflected in the end product.

The optimists would point to alternative fuels such as ethanol picking up from where fossil fuels left off. Even if ethanol and biodiesel could totally replace fossil fuels, which they cannot with the current technology available, the amount of land and crops needed to produce the fuel to ensure that people in Chicago could get those grapes mentioned earlier will see that only the very wealthy can afford them. 

All this means that if the stats are correct; if coal based fertilizers aren’t viable,  40% of the world’s population will face a food crisis during this century and even if coal based fertilizers are successful; this will contribute to already major problems in relation to our climate; also resulting in famine. A catch-22.

Food independence

Even if a food crunch doesn’t eventuate due to coal gasification taking the place of natural gas in fertilizer production and climate change related famine doesn’t occur for a few decades (well, badly affecting us in richer nations anyway) – do we really want to participate in the destruction or our environment that the increased usage of coal will wreak upon it? This will be a legacy we leave for future generations.

For those of us in the suburbs and in rural areas, we really need to be looking more towards self sufficiency in food production; and starting very soon.

It’s time for us all to be thinking about establishing a heritage seed based vegetable garden and keeping chickens – mainly as a protein source from eggs. It was good enough for our forefathers and I think it is good enough for us too.

We also need to start thinking about starting to compost our household waste and to stop flushing away a very rich fertilizer source – our own waste – in the form of humanure. For example, our urine is rich not only in nitrogen, but also phosphorous, another element of fertilizer that is rapidly running out.

Community gardens need to be started en masse in the cities. Community gardens became popular in the UK many years ago; first established after The Blitz in World War II as part of the “victory garden” initiative. These community gardens helped feed the nation. Basically, a vacant lot is set aside where local people can rent out a small section to grow fruit and vegetables. The plots can be tiny – anywhere from 5 feet square to 25 feet square, but it’s quite amazing how much food can be produced from such a small area..

The other great thing about community garden plots or having your own vegetable patch at home is it’s something the whole family can get involved in. It’s a fantastic way to instil in children respect and awe of nature and it’s a very satisfying feeling sitting down to a meal prepared from food you have grown yourself.

Like anything, growing fruit and vegetables is a skill, so don’t leave establishing a food garden for too long – don’t put too much faith in anything reliant on fossil fuels or in Big Agriculture coming to humanity’s rescue. If we are indeed headed for a crunch; best to prepare for it as soon as you can. 

By the way, for those of us too busy to till the soil or who simply don’t have any space or opportunity; we can help support low carbon agriculture by becoming members of organic CSA farms.