We all know that fossil fuels power our machines. Often overlooked however is the vital role they play in powering humans, as the food we eat is made possible by fossil fuels.
To take just one example, synthesized fertilizers are the plant-nutrient inputs that feed humanity’s food crops, and this plant food is overwhelmingly made possible by fossil fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in 2010, “the U.S. nitrogenous fertilizer industry consumed more than 200 trillion Btu of natural gas as feedstock and another 152 trillion Btu for heat and power.” To put that into perspective, total U.S. Solar energy consumption in 2010 equalled just 125 trillion Btu—not even enough to provide for the heat and power necessary to synthesize this fertilizer.
This is why Alex Epstein, in his 2012 debate with Bill McKibben, called fossil fuels “the food of food.” They make possible the fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery our food supply depends on.
McKibben—once called the “nation’s leading environmentalist” by the Boston Globe—has advocated the reduction of fossil fuel consumption by 95 percent. During the debate, Epstein explained that fossil fuels are critical for powering today’s modern mechanized agricultural industry, and that a 95 percent cut in fossil fuel use would be disastrous.
In a society where most people are detached from food production, it is easy to forget just how much our ability to enjoy abundant food depends on extraordinary amounts of affordable energy. For example:
In 2012—the year of the debate—the American agricultural industry consumed 800 Trillion (Btu) in the growing of crops and livestock—”about as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah,” notes the Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).
And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is fossil fuels that feed the modern mechanized agricultural industry: the “dominant share of direct energy use on U.S. farms is fuels (including diesel and gasoline) to run machinery for field operations such as planting, tilling, and harvesting; to dry crops; for livestock use; and to transport goods.”
Supplying “water can also be an energy-intensive task,” the EIA adds. Fossil fuel-powered modern irrigation has limited our reliance on nature to rain water down on crops. Today, the electricity to power water pumps, filtration, and treatment systems, is inexpensive and abundant, thanks to coal- and natural gas-fired central power stations; while more rural settings can depend upon water pumps powered by diesel or propane generators. This ability to pump water vast distances created the opportunity for a wider variety of cropping alternatives, reduces frost damage, and has led to higher yields with increased drought protection.
The reason you nor I have any tragic memories of U.S. drought-related famines is because there haven’t been any during our lifetimes. This happy reality owes more to a single coal miner than to Bill McKibben’s entire 350.org organization.
Reducing fossil fuel consumption by 95 percent, Epstein concluded, would starve the modern mechanized agricultural industry of the energy necessary to continue its work producing affordable, abundant food—the consequence of which would be massive human malnourishment and starvation.