In the 1950s and 1960s, agriculture was revolutionized in the United States with what was called the Green Revolution. Advances in hybrid seeds and plants increased food production which, in turn, lowered food costs. Between 1950 and the mid-80s, the Green Revolution increased the amount of food produced worldwide. Wheat production rose as much as 250 percent during that period.

That increase in food production required a large increase in the amount of energy. No more land was brought into production. In fact, land used to produce food decreased over that period.

So where did all the energy come from that made it possible to grow vast amounts of food on less land? The answer: fossil fuels, primarily oil and natural gas in the form of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As a side note, cancer rates also increased substantially during the same period.

The amount of energy from fossil fuels to produce crops increased by an average of 50 times during that period and, in some cases, by 100 times and more.

In the United States it is estimated that 400 gallons of oil, or it’s equivalent in natural gas, is expended each year to feed every single person in the U.S.

Energy used to fuel the current system of agriculture, by percentage, includes 31 percent in the production of fertilizers; 19 percent to operate machinery; 16 percent for transportation; 13 percent for irrigation; 8 percent for raising livestock (does not include feed); 5 percent for drying crops; 5 percent for pesticide production; and 8 percent in other areas of crop production.

That does not include energy used in packaging, refrigeration, transportation to stores, cooking or waste.

Our food system relies heavily on oil and and natural gas, without which our current food system is unsustainable. If we see a significant rise in energy costs, food costs will also see a significant rise. So where are energy costs going?

So where will it all end?

In July 2008, China’s population reached 1,330,044, 544 while the U.S. population was at 303,824,640.

Listing the countries in the world in order of population, the U.S. comes in third behind China and India. A decade ago, we used more energy than the other four largest countries combined.

But now China’s and India’s economies are growing. China’s energy usage has doubled in the past 10 years, surpassing the U.S. for total energy used. Yet the per-person energy usage in China is still only one-third as much as the 38 OECD nations. Prospects for future growth in China remain incredibly strong. China’s dependency on imported oil reached 50 percent last year and is projected to rise.

That, coupled with several studies from organizations such as The Congress Research Service May 2008 “Rising Food Prices and Global Food Needs,” The U.S. Department of Agriculture August 2010 report “World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates,” and the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research study “Keeping World Food Security on the Agenda Implications for the United Nations and the CGAR,” show that world food reserves are down. Some major wheat-producing counties have banned wheat exports due to shortages.

Food shortages have led to riots and unrest in several countries. Prices are rising and will rise, and food consumption in the world is projected to double in the next 15 to 20 years, due to world population growth.

Put it all together and it becomes an undeniable fact that large changes in world food production are starting to occur and must occur in the future.

The U.S. cannot continue to produce cheap food as it has in the past, because as the demand for oil rises, energy costs must rise. As a hungry world needs more and more food, food costs will increase. Because of those two factors, prices for food will outpace the rise in energy costs.

Food production in the future will require more farmland, farms located closer to consumers and more labor-intensive practices.

Maine with water, open space and being located close to some of the most populated areas in the U.S. needs to revitalize its agricultural base, and needs to do it now. To accomplish that, Maine needs to get to work in several areas.

We need to increase agricultural education; find equipment appropriately sized for the smaller farms in Maine and find ways to get this equipment where it is needed.

We need to increase the number of food processing facilities and food storage facilities in Maine.

We also need to implement regulations that help smaller farms become more sustainable and competitive, and find a way that allows young people interested in farming to have access to land that often is sitting idle or is unaffordable to them.

Richard Marble is owner of Marble Family Farms in Farmington.


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