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

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine 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.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7768
JPY
USD
108.84
GBP
USD
0.6124
CAD
USD
1.0999
INR
USD
61.042

Rates may not be current.