Agriculture is highly dependent on cheap oil. Just observe the many tractors, combines, and other oil-consuming farm machinery as you drive across the country. That dependence on cheap oil is a threat to agriculture, and a new report from the U.S. military Joint Operating Command warns that the threat is imminent:
"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day...."
A shortfall of that magnitude will drive up oil prices, and cause economic and political consequences worldwide. Here in Iowa, we have already seen what that could look like. When oil hit $147 per barrel in 2008, Iowa agriculture went into a tailspin that it hasn’t yet fully recovered from. Keeping the farm diesel tanks full and buying nitrogen fertilizer for the corn crop came close to prohibitively expensive overnight.
Despite that shock to the system, our agricultural policies are still mostly predicated on an unending supply of cheap oil to fuel our increasing agricultural industrialization. Our farmers deserve better, and they need our leaders to help them prepare for and prosper in the new reality that is bearing down on us even faster than we thought. We must develop a vision and plans for how we will operate in a future of high energy costs, and we need to do it now, not wait until oil shortages and high energy prices start putting farmers out of business.
What are the elements of a sound energy policy for agriculture?
First, we need to make our farming systems much more energy-efficient and resilient. We can do that by, as much as possible, replacing annual crops with perennial crops which do not require the high levels of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that annual crops do. The best way to do that is to develop the next generation of biofuel technology that uses perennial crops (such as switchgrass) as the biomass source. We can also achieve lower costs and more energy efficiency by converting much of our confinement animal production to grazing systems. When animals harvest their own feed by grazing, the energy costs for harvesting and processing their feed are avoided, as well as the energy costs of collecting the feedlot manure and hauling it back to the field. There are environmental benefits of a well designed grazing system over confinement animal production as well.
Second, we need to develop technologies to produce energy to power agriculture. Now, most of our biofuel production is geared to make ethanol for highway vehicles. Secretary Vilsack has proposeda program for moving toward production of advanced biofuels. Advanced biofuels are fuels made from biomass other than corn grain. This is a very positive move, and shows the value of having progressive decision makers in our federal government. That program does include support for technologies for using perennial crops to make diesel fuel, the most common fuel for powering agriculture.
Third, we need to develop promising new energy technologies that can be operated at a farm scale, so the energy produced on the farm can be used directly on the farm. For example, we can put mid-size wind turbines on farms all across the country, where wind speeds are sufficient, so the wind on a farm can be used to power the farm. Also, we should develop the technology to produce biofuels right on the farm to power the farm. When the value of the energy created is retained on the farm, it will make agriculture more sustainable, put more money in the pockets of farmers, and create economic development for rural communities. Developing and applying these kinds of farm-scale energy systems will also create good green jobs for building and maintaining the required infrastructure.
We should prepare for our energy future, not ignore or fear it. We can create an energy-efficient and self-sufficient agriculture in a time of shrinking oil supplies and still have prosperity on our farms, and produce food that our people can afford to buy.
I am running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture because I see that Iowa agriculture is facing some major challenges -- including the escalating costs of energy -- that we are ill-prepared to meet. We will need new vision and new leadership to surmount those challenges.