Viewpoint: Oil crisis threatens our future

We are caught in a Catch 22 far more serious than who blew the cover of the ambassador’s wife or how many movie people “Ahnuld” may have groped. Surprisingly, there is not a single presidential candidate, incumbent or challenger, who has even mentioned it, let alone outlined a plan to deal with it. Its name is Peak Oil and its existence was confirmed this past week by CNN, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Britain’s Independent newspaper. Peak oil simply means the maximum amount of production of petroleum and natural gas. When that point is reached, the available amount of oil and gas drops off afterward until there is no more. For the first time, major media reported that a team of scientists determined that available supplies of petroleum are 80 percent less than had previously been believed. They said it would peak in about a decade. Get ready. That finding has some mighty serious ramifications, and solutions aren’t likely to come from politicians or the government. If any are found, they will undoubtedly come from the private sector. So the oil is going to run out. What’s the big deal, you say? Consider a few chilling facts. In the United States we use 400 gallons of oil equivalents to feed each American. Some 31 percent of agricultural energy goes into the making of inorganic fertilizer. Other percentages are used up for operating machinery, for transportation of crops, for irrigation, for raising livestock and for several other purposes. Modern agriculture is very energy intensive. The fertilizer we use today is made from nitrogen. To produce one kilogram of nitrogen, we must use between 1.4 and 1.8 liters of diesel fuel. That does not include the natural gas feedstock. From the end of June 2001, until the end of June 2002, we used 12,009,300 short tons of nitrogen fertilizer in this country. If we use the lower figure of 1.4 liters of diesel per kilogram of nitrogen, that amounts to 15.3 billion liters of diesel fuel, or 96.2 million barrels of oil. Agricultural energy input went up four-fold between 1945 and 1994, while crop yields increased only threefold. Energy input has continued upward since then, but yields have not. We are at the point of marginal returns. Modern agriculture is in a position of having to boost its energy usage simply to maintain the present crop yields. Our food system uses 10 times more energy than it produces in food. That is possible through the use of fossil fuel stocks, which are non-renewable. If we lacked access to these stocks, it would take almost three weeks of labor per capita to produce the current U.S. daily diet. Total use of fossil fuels in this country has increased 20-fold in the last 40 years. We use 20 to 30 times more fossil fuel energy per capita than citizens of developing nations. Farming accounts for 17 percent of all energy used in this country. By 1990, we were using about 6.41 barrels of oil to produce food on one hectare (about 2.47 acres) of land. David Pimentel and Mario Giampietro, who have done several studies of agricultural land use, food production, energy consumption and population relationships, in a 1994 study, found that 10 kcal (kilogram-calories) of exosomatic energy (energy transformed and used outside the human body, such as in an engine) are needed to produce 1 kcal of food delivered to the consumer in our food system. Here comes the crunch. The two authors contend intensive modern agriculture is not sustainable. They say it has added to soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and (largely because of increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. It takes 500 years to replace one inch of topsoil. Soil erosion where there is farming is reducing productivity up to 65 percent each year. After 100 years of plowing the prairie, these soils, the breadbasket of America, have lost half their topsoil. It is eroding 30 times faster than nature can replace it. Further, these prairie soils are depleted. Soil erosion and mineral depletion removes about $20 billion worth of plant nutrients from our farmland annually. In the Great Plains, much of the soil is akin to a huge sponge that must be poured full of hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in order to produce crops. Today’s farming practices consume 85 percent of all freshwater resources in the country. Surface water furnishes only 60 percent of irrigation water. The rest comes from underground aquifers. To grow 118 bushels of corn per acre per year takes more than 500,000 gallons of water per acre in the growing season. Growing one pound of corn takes 175 gallons of water. That kind of consumption can rapidly put America into a water crisis. The catch in all this is that just as agriculture demands more fossil fuel input to pump water, replace nutrients, furnish pest protection, remedy the environment and keep crop production constant, it will crash head-on into a sharp drop in fossil fuel production. The average American eats 2,175 pounds of food each year, giving him or her an average daily intake of 3,600 calories. The world average is 2,700 calories a day. We also use massive amounts of water. Ten years ago we were consuming 1,450 gallons per day per capita, with most used on farming. Consumption by 2050 is predicted at 700 gallons per day per capita, considered a minimal amount for human needs. Americans and Canadians use .6 million metric tons of pesticides each year. They are made from oil. Globally, more nitrogen fertilizer is used each year than can be supplied through natural sources. Only two nations export large amounts of grain: the U.S. and Canada. By 2025, scientists say, the U.S. will not be exporting because of domestic demand. Food exports contribute $40 billion to our economy each year. Without exports, millions around the world might starve. Overall, the picture is bleak. Unless we get busy on some solutions, we could all be looking at a future where we are cold, hungry and thirsty. The answers for agriculture lie in energy produced from biomass, solar, wind and fuel cell technologies. Natural fertilizers and farming methods also must be practiced more widely. We need a Manhatten Project-sized effort on the national level. More information on the upcoming shortage can can be found in a study called “Impact of Population Growth on Food Supplies and Environment” by David Pimentel at 57.htm. And in a study titled “Energy and Population,” by Paul Werbos, cited at page 63 on the same site. After reading this, what do you think of those who are blacktopping our cornfields, and pumping millions of our tax dollars into urban-sprawl extenders like the Perryville Road extension? Why don’t you give them a call, and tell them to wake up—or we’ll all go hungry, perhaps sooner than later.

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