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How High Oil Prices Promote Sustainable Agriculture

High oil prices have forced us to reconsider the status quo, particularly in agriculture.

For the most part the news we hear about high oil prices is focused on how it’s hurting Americans’ wallets. But what if we take a moment and think about the ways that high oil prices have forced us to reconsider the status quo, particularly in agriculture. Some of the innovations coming out as a result of high oil prices may be the very things we need to create a more sustainable, more secure food system in America.

The food sector today is responsible for approximately 10% of the energy budget in the U.S. We have also realized that our food systems are operating at near total production capacity.

As the population grows, energy use and demand for food will also grow. As people in the developing world become wealthier, their taste for meat other foods that were once specialties is growing, adding strain to the demand side of food production. We must find alternative ways of producing and transporting food that are more productive and less energy consumptive.

As a result of the rising price of oil, innovative and entrepreneurial people are responding with a flurry of positive fresh approaches to producing and distributing food. These are just some of the promising trends that we have been following.

Reducing Food Miles
In America today the distance food travels before it reaches a plate is typically between 500 and 2,000 miles. The food systems we take for granted rely on heavy petroleum use for transportation and distribution along a complex chain of producers before reaching the end consumer.

There are lots of initiatives to combat the problem of food miles including:
  • Urban farming: everything from rooftop farms to community gardens are springing up in urban areas all across the U.S.
  • The Locavore movement: eating local has become trendy as people realize that locally grown food is often tastier and helps to support local business.
  • Innovative startup companies like Real Time Farms are using the Internet to connect farmers and consumers and promote local food production. And the Local Food Lab in Silicon Valley is an incubator that mentors entrepreneurs wanting to start sustainable food-related businesses.
  • Other innovative startups like Podponics and PharmPods are figuring out ways to grow food in shipping containers and other unique urban environments.
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Replenishing Soils
Typical industrial agriculture strips the soil of its nutrients. Since the invention of commercial synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century, industrial agriculture has looked to synthetic fertilizers as the remedy for poor soils, using chemicals to provide nutrients to plants.

But this method leaves the soil still undernourished and the fertilizers are heavily dependent upon oil for their production. As oil prices rise so do the price of fertilizers and many farmers are turning to more readily available organic options to supplement or replace fertilizers.

Alternative methods that are now gaining wider acceptance include:

  • Composting organic matter such as food waste using worms or methods like bokashi fermenting – this also helps to combat the problem of food waste by turning discarded food into soil fertilizer. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that Americans waste some 40 percent of their food!
  • Green Manure – using cover crops on farm plots to fix nitrogen and then plowing them over to enrich the soil.
  • Livestock being incorporated back into crop farming so that their manure can be utilized for soil health.
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The recent Marsden farm study shows us that a mixture of industrial and organic farming methods can in fact yield equal or higher production in comparison to conventional industrial farming methods while reducing oil use and environmental impact. These are exciting trends.

Perennial crops
The Land Institute in Kansas has been focused on more widespread use of perennial crops, like perennial wheat, which do not need to be plowed. These crops have deep roots that help fix soil, abate erosion, and reduce oil use with the reduced need for tractors and plows. While they have not yet perfected these crops for wide spread cultivation, there are positive signs for the future.

So with all the dire statistics and depressing news stories about the rising price of oil, these are just a few of the silver linings to celebrate. America was built by innovative entrepreneurs, and by focusing our energy on new ways to grow and distribute food that use less oil, we are moving closer and closer to a more Sustainable America every day.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Andrew Morrell


Aubrey Yee is a writer and editor at Sustainable America, where she works to help people understand the importance of food security and energy independence for America.

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