Most of America’s farms are dependent on prodigious amounts of fossil fuels at every stage of production. Powerful PR firms have worked overtime in recent years to craft a narrative that highlight farms’ potential role in mitigating climate change, but the truth is that agriculture consumes 6 percent of the world’s fossil fuel energy, and the oil and gas industries rely on industrial agriculture for one of its largest and most lucrative markets.
From planting to harvest, farm machinery such as tractors and combines burn diesel fuel to churn out the raw materials for our food system. The freight trucks, locomotives, and inland barges that transport bulk harvested commodity crops and livestock significantly add to agriculture’s CO2 emissions. Because farm machinery is often built to last, progress to electrify those vehicles is slow even though it holds huge untapped potential to reduce agriculture’s emissions.
In addition, on-farm activities like irrigation rigs require a lot of generated power. At large livestock facilities specifically, the lighting, cooling, heating, and pumping of water and waste consume a huge amount of electricity. Eventually, agriculture’s electrical use could become a climate bright spot through the widespread adoption of truly renewable sources like wind and solar. But rural America still relies on electrical co-ops, which depend mostly on fossil fuels.
There is hope for change, though. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act directed $9.7 billion to electric cooperatives to transition to renewables.
In 2016, a third of America’s 1,500 farming co-ops sold $17 billion in diesel and other petroleum products.
In addition, pesticides and fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels. American agriculture is awash in a mix of both, as farms use about a billion pounds of pesticides and 21 million tons of synthetic fertilizer every year. The fossil fuel industry views these as the uses with greatest potential for petrochemical growth. Since 1960, global value of pesticide exports has increased 15,000 percent while synthetic fertilizer use has increased ninefold.
These pesticides and fertilizers are harmful to both human health and the climate. For example, chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide in the organophosphates class of chemicals that were first developed by the Nazis for chemical warfare, is acutely toxic. Although the EPA has banned the use of chlorpyrifos in food, it is still widely used in U.S. agriculture on cotton, corn used for ethanol, Christmas trees, and golf courses despite the fact that is associated with neurodevelopmental harms in children.
Nitrate fertilizer, which is widely used on conventional farms, is made with huge amounts of methane gas. In fact, the gas industry and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a far-right “limited government” legislative policy group) boast that agriculture is dependent on fossil fuel gas. The gas industry points out that 30 percent of all global energy is used for food production and distribution, while agriculture consumes almost 15 percent of U.S. commercial and industrial fossil fuel gas. Fertilizer production accounts for about a third of the total energy used in crop production.
Agriculture’s willful dependence on fossil fuels is not entirely surprising. While it’s important to have a food safety net, the government subsidized crop insurance program and regular federal disaster payments insulate producers from risk and create few incentives to employ practices that regenerate the soil and hold more moisture and organic matter in the ground in a way that minimizes climate risk. Instead, most producers pour on more (subsidized) fossil fuels.