We are Fossil Fuels

And We are Farms

“From dust you were made, and to dust you will return.”

Seeing as Sunday was Easter, this Lenten locution is a bit belated. But even with the promises Easter brings, it is one I do not think we should forget. Our bodies were created of earth; they are sustained by what we intake, which is grown by, or feeds off the earth; and ultimately we will return to the earth.

I wonder however, if the modern world version of the phrase should be, “From fossil fuels you are made, to them you cannot return”

At a conference last weekend, I heard, what felt like it should be, an outrageous claim. “Half of the nitrogen in the average American comes from fossil fuels,” the speaker said flippantly, offering no back up or colorful powerpoint to prove it. I say outrageous and flippant because I wanted it to be so. And though, I still don’t understand all the chemistry behind it, and if our nitrogen is actually from oil. What I do know, is that the vast majority of our caloric intake is the result of fossil fuels.

Though naturally inaccessible, nitrogen is essential for plants to grow. It is made accessible through microbes in the the soil. It is not a hugely abundant resource in our soil. But with centuries of farming, we learned practices to sustain and renew nitrogen. We rotated crops and allowed lands to lay farrow. And we used natural fertilizers. Those practices, by necessity, limited food production. And with limited food production, we had limited population growth.

In the early 20th century, we learned a new process for getting plants nitrogen. Two German Chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch found a way to mix nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas to create ammonia, a easily accessible form of nitrogen. Fossil fuels are vital to the production of ammonia fertilizer. Fossil fuels run the factories, and natural gases act as hydrogen sources. The nitrogen produced is highly reactive. It is sprayed on fields and plants absorb about 30-50% of it. For more information about where the rest goes check out this series on Grist: http://grist.org/series/the-n2-dilemma-is-america-fertilizing-disaster/

Ammonia is now widely used as a fertilizer. Wikipedia even credits the Haber process with sustain one-third of the worlds population, because it increased our ability to grow crops. No longer did we need to diversify, no longer do we need to allow fields to lay fallow, and no longer was food a limiting factor on population growth.

We are eating up fossil fuels, by the gallon full. They produce our nitrogen, that is then sprayed on our fields. The plants use the nitrogen to grow. These crops are shipped in fossil fuel burning trucks to market, to fossil fuel burning processing plants, and to be eaten by dairy and meat livestock. Their products are in turn processed and shipped using fuels The nice clean number I’ve heard is that is take 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food.

If we are what we eat and what we eat is so intertwined with fossil fuel, then what we are is fossil fuels. And we are depleting them.

But if we are what we eat, and what we eat comes from farms, I would argue we are also farms. We should be concerned with and for farms. We should fight for them. We should support them.

The ties between fossil fuels, a dwindling resource, and food, an essential, are difficult to disentwine. To break these ties, to find innovation to feed our hungry, to return to best practices, farms need our support.

They need our dollars.

We already participate in the food system, we purchase. We can send feedback. Where we direct our dollars, especially when it is a we, can make a difference. If we demand it and purchase it, it necessitates supply. Be conscious in what you consume. Seek ways to break the ties with oil. And through that, if we act together, we can send a message. I welcome your ideas of how we can do this.

I don’t know about you, but I want to again to be made of dust, made of dirt, made of soil. I don’t want to be made of oil.

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