News / Economy

Farming with Less Fossil Fuel Won't Mean Fewer Crops

Researchers get same yields with fewer fertilizers, pesticides

Fossil energy use was compared among different crop rotation systems in a field experiment conducted between 2003 and 2008 in Boone Co., Iowa
Fossil energy use was compared among different crop rotation systems in a field experiment conducted between 2003 and 2008 in Boone Co., Iowa

Multimedia

Audio

As rising petroleum prices continue to increase the costs of producing food, new research suggests farmers can use less fossil fuel without reducing their crop yields or profits.

Modern commercial farming consumes a lot of fossil fuel. Gasoline powers farm equipment. Natural gas is a key ingredient in the synthetic fertilizers that replenish the nutrients in the soil. And commonly used chemical pest-killers are petroleum-based.

These techniques have produced remarkable productivity gains and record harvests. But oil prices have been rising all decade, and experts predict they will continue to do so.

Cheap energy

"I think many farmers recognize that what we do now derives in a large part from relatively inexpensive energy," says Iowa State University agronomy professor Matt Liebman. "And if that system changes, then we may have to re-evaluate what's the best system for our land and our climate."

The typical commercial farm in the United States alternates between growing maize one year and soybeans the next. Liebman and his colleagues have been experimenting with alternatives.

Rather than a 2-year, maize-soybean rotation, they grew a 4-year rotation that included two other commercially valuable crops: oats and alfalfa. Since these crops are grown and harvested differently than corn and soybeans, they help disrupt the lifecycle of crop weeds. That meant the reserachers could use less weed-killer.

Alfalfa also helps return nutrients to the soil, which reduced the need for fertilizer. And when they did fertilize, Liebman's group used livestock manure rather than synthetics.

Same yields, less fossil fuels

Using these techniques, Liebman says, "We were able to reduce our use of fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels a lot, without reducing crop production."

In a study in the Agronomy Journal, Liebman's group produced as much or more maize and soybeans as conventional fields, but used a quarter to a half as much fossil fuel. Furthermore, farmers who followed this system would earn about as much money as their conventional counterparts.

Orvin Bontrager, a veteran farming adviser with the company Servi-Tech, gave the study mixed reviews.

"I don't doubt the savings he's seeing here on the energy," he says. "My question — several questions, I guess — would be from the labor side."

Bontrager says if most farms switched to Liebman's system, there might not be enough labor available to handle the additional crops. Plus, farmers would have to buy new equipment to harvest them. And there may not be a market for such a big increase in alfalfa.

'It comes down to economics'

But, Bontrager says, that doesn't mean farmers won't change their methods.

"It comes down to economics," he says. "If the price of oil does get that high, [then] fertilizer and chemicals obviously get a lot higher. And if the prices of crops do not follow along, then obviously we will be going to something like this because it just makes economic sense to do that."

Bontrager adds that when oil prices peaked in 2008, and fertilizer prices spiked along with them, manure became a lot more attractive. He says that shows farmers are willing to make the changes if the price is right.

You May Like

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7305
JPY
USD
101.53
GBP
USD
0.5830
CAD
USD
1.0656
INR
USD
60.075

Rates may not be current.