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Energy shortage challenges future of agriculture

By John Stencel

With fuel costs increasing nearly 25 percent over what they were a year ago, I am surprised that there has been no public outcry. While consumers are forced to devote more of their incomes to paying for fuel for their vehicles and to heat (or air condition) their homes, transportation, farming, and other industries heavily dependent on fuel, find their livelihoods threatened.

Most industries will eventually be able to pass the additional costs on to consumers, but farmers are price takers, not price setters.

Short-term benefits, such as opening up Alaskan Wilderness land to oil exploration, could result from a call on Congress to investigate escalating oil prices, but sooner or later, we will have to face the truth that there is a finite amount of the black gold that lies beneath the earth’s surface. As China, India and other developing nations grow economically, the demand for fossil fuels will increase dramatically. The simplest economics tell us that increased demand coupled with a decreased supply will result in skyrocketing prices.

We need to throw our weight behind industries and individuals developing renewable energy technologies and systems. National programs that conduct research and share new technologies are important, but development and distribution of energy on a community level is probably the most cost effective. A bill introduced in April to the U.S. House that would more than double the production and use of domestic renewable fuels including ethanol, biodiesel, and fuels produced from cellulosic biomass is a good start. Think tanks, such as the Ag Energy Working Group, which has the goal that agriculture will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States by 2025, are good ways to bring together industry, policymakers and agricultural groups.

Another effective and important way we can reduce use of fossil fuel energy is by developing local food systems.

A study titled “Food, Fuel, and Freeways” conducted by the University of Iowa in 2002 cited 1997 data that food received at a Maryland distribution center on average traveled 1685 miles. With the substantial increase in imports, this number has undoubtedly increased in the last eight years.

This is unsustainable in the wake of rising fuel prices. It is bad for the environment and it has made our nation increasingly dependent of foreign oil. More than two-thirds of the oil consumed in this country is imported. These statistics present a compelling argument for locally-produced and distributed foods.

Recommendations in the University of Iowa study are many. Producers are encouraged to produce products that are in demand locally and to pursue marketing through farmers markets and community supported agriculture organizations. They also are recommended to seek season-extending technologies and to seek to sell products near supermarkets in order to reduce distances driven by consumers. Consumers are encouraged to seek alternative crops, such as switching from perishable vegetables like lettuce to longer lasting and nutrition-dense vegetables such as cabbage.

Not only would the development of local food systems greatly reduce energy usage, food would be fresher, more nutritious and better tasting.

It is imperative that we as a society devise and implement a plan to meet human needs with a whole lot less fossil fuel. If we do not do so, a less desirable solution will be forced upon us. Renewable energy is a part of the solution.