Food Production and the Energy Crisis

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Science  02 Nov 1973:
Vol. 182, Issue 4111, pp. 443-449
DOI: 10.1126/science.182.4111.443


The principal raw material of modern U.S. agriculture is fossil fuel, whereas the labor input is relatively small (about 9 hours per crop acre). As agriculture is dependent upon fossil energy, crop production costs will also soar when fuel costs increase two- to fivefold. A return of 2.8 kcal of corn per 1 kcal of fuel input may then be uneconomical.

Green revolution agriculture also uses high energy crop production technology, especially with respect to fertilizers and pesticides. While one may not doubt the sincerity of the U.S. effort to share its agricultural technology so that the rest of the world can live and eat as it does, one must be realistic about the resources available to accomplish this mission. In the United States we are currently using an equivalent of 80 gallons of gasoline to produce an acre of corn. With fuel shortages and high prices to come, we wonder if many developing nations will be able to afford the technology of U.S. agriculture.

Problems have already occurred with green revolution crops, particularly problems related to pests (57). More critical problems are expected when there is a world energy crisis. A careful assessment should be made of the benefits, costs, and risks of high energy-demand green revolution agriculture in order to be certain that this program will not aggravate the already serious world food situation (58).

To reduce energy inputs, green revolution and U.S. agriculture might employ such alternatives as rotations and green manures to reduce the high energy demand of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. U.S. agriculture might also reduce energy expenditures by substituting some manpower currently displaced by mechanization.

While no one knows for certain what changes will have to be made, we can be sure that when conventional energy resources become scarce and expensive, the impact on agriculture as an industry and a way of life will be significant. This analysis is but a preliminary investigation of a significant agricultural problem that deserves careful attention and greater study before the energy situation becomes more critical.