How to Cut Fossil Fuels in Agriculture With Renewable Energy

fossil fuels agriculture
Credit: Roddy Scheer

When you think of agriculture, what comes to mind are rolling fields of golden grain and enormous herds of cattle grazing their way across the landscape. You don’t normally think of crude oil, but the agriculture industry is reliant on it. This is a big problem, because while we will always need the food farms produce, crude oil is a finite resource. How can we cut the agriculture industry’s dependence on fossil fuels with the application of renewable energy resources?

Eating Oil

Following the oil crisis of the early 1970s, a book was published called “Eating Oil” that investigated how much of the U.K.’s food supply relied on the use of fossil fuels. In spite of the problems that occurred during the 1970s, much of the agriculture industry relies on these finite resources.

Gas and oil are used in everything, from farm equipment to harvest the food to trucks that move it to grocery stores. Nearly every step of food production relies on fossil fuels or the energy that can be created by burning them. Even fertilizer is based on fossil fuels.

How can the industry reduce or eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels? One way is by making the switch to renewable energy.

Green Energy Options

Farms rely on sunshine to grow a successful crop. Why not utilize some of that sunshine to power the farm and its facilities? Solar panels can be installed on farm buildings or in empty fields and be used to generate electricity. This would greatly reduce the farm’s reliance on the energy created by burning fossil fuels. The number of government incentives, grants and customization make solar and other forms of renewable energy an option with high ROI.

Depending on the amount of usable sun the farm gets, theoretically the farm’s entire energy needs could be met with by installing enough solar panels.

Solar energy isn’t the only option for green and renewable energy. Depending on where the farm is located, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and even biomass energy generation are all options to help reduce the necessity for power created by fossil fuels.

Crop Rotation

Many commercial farms are focused on generating the biggest crops possible, but that isn’t the best thing they could be doing for the environment. Big crops like wheat and corn pull nitrogen out of the soil. The plants need this mineral to grow, so farms replace the depleted nitrogen with fertilizer. The problem with that is that the nitrogen in fertilizer is produced from natural gas, which is another finite fossil fuel.

The reliance on fertilizer isn’t necessary if the farms utilize a centuries-old technique known as crop rotation4. You plant a nitrogen-draining crop one season, then the next you rotate that crop to another field and plant a nitrogen-renewing crop. Corn and wheat drain nitrogen from the ground, and crops like winter peas and hairy vetch return nitrogen to the soil, getting it ready for the next planting season.

The increasing demands on the agriculture industry aren’t going away anytime soon, especially with the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion in the next 50 years or so. In the same amount of time, we’re expected to exhaust the planet’s supply of fossil fuels, so a change needs to happen and it needs to happen soon. There are plenty of green options to get the agricultural industry away from fossil fuels. All we need now is some enterprising farmers willing to adopt them. The food production industry hasn’t changed much in the last few centuries, but now it’s time for an upgrade. It’s time to get away from the old hidebound ideal that everything needs to run on fossil fuels.

Emily Folk is the editor of Conservation Folks. She writes on topics of sustainability, conservation and green technology.