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How Agriculture Uses Energy

Megan Nichols's picture
Freelance Technical Writer, Self-Employed

Megan Ray Nichols is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to breaking down current complex scientific discussions into the vernacular. She loves writing about the latest...

  • Member since 2018
  • 12 items added with 45,328 views
  • Nov 12, 2016


When we think of ways to reduce emissions of toxic gas contributing to global warming, the suggestions brought up first are usually buying a car that has better gas mileage, recycling and composting, or buying energy-efficient appliances. All of these are excellent ways to help reduce energy consumption.

Agriculture in America, however, is responsible for about 14-18 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of solving the worldwide energy crisis, one of the best solutions is staring us right in the plate.

Energy Consumption of Farm Equipment

Each stage of farming requires the use of equipment and machinery that burn fossil fuels. When we burn these fuels, we add to the greenhouse gasses in the air – such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – that result in raising the Earth’s temperature.

While tractors may be the first piece of equipment that comes to mind when farm equipment is mentioned, other energy-consuming machines don’t get as much attention. For example, we don’t usually associate slaughtering animals with water consumption, but we should. Slaughtering just one animal can use up to 132 gallons of water.

That matters because the water doesn’t just appear – it has to be pumped in and out of the slaughterhouse. Those pumps run on electricity, which runs on fossil fuels. When the fact that roughly 55 billion animals are slaughtered each year is considered, this is truly astounding.

Although farmers can’t control the demand for meat, there is still a way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels in farming. Specifically, farmers who increase the amount of land that is no-till – for example, not cultivating dirt before planting seeds – reduce soil erosion as well as decrease overall diesel consumption. In fact, if farmers collectively doubled the acreage that is no-till, it could save up to 217 million gallons of diesel fuel each year.

Energy Consumption in Processing, Packaging, and Transporting Food

Producing food, whether it be through growing crops or raising cattle for slaughter, is only part of the equation. How the food makes it to your plate also factors into agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuel.

Although the amount of fuel it takes to transport food is enormous, even if we only ate local produce and dairy we would still have an area of waste: packaging.

Just like it takes a large amount of fossil fuels to operate the machinery that pumps water into slaughterhouses for sanitation, it takes a lot of fossil fuel to run the machines that make packaging required to transport food, whether it’s across the country or just down the street.

Farmers can reduce carbon footprint by simply using reconditioned bags for transporting goods. Everything we purchase at the supermarkets is shipped in – whether it come from across the county or cross-country – and typically, farmers will use these plastic bags to ship products like watermelons and corn in bulk or to get shipments of seed. Previously, farmers would just burn these bags or place them in the trash. However, reusing the packaging is environmentally efficient, and it has the added benefit of helping to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills each year.

Energy Consumption in Fertilizer Production

Nitrogen is necessary for photosynthesis to occur, so in order for crops to grow, the soil must have nitrogen. More nitrogen in the ground results in a better harvest. The easiest way to increase the amount of nitrogen is to apply fertilizer. However, if we have massive amounts of food production, we will need equal amounts of fertilizer.

Enter synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer is making soil nutrient-rich enough to yield more crops on the same amount of land. More than a hundred million tons is used worldwide every year. That much fertilizer has a cost.

Synthetic fertilizers use nonrenewable sources – mainly, fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizer is unproducible. As mentioned earlier, burning fossil fuels is contributing to the rise of the Earth’s temperature. In fact, producing and distributing fertilizer accounts for 1 1/2-2 percent of total global warming emissions. The bottom line is that we have an incredibly high demand for synthetic fertilizer, which is causing significant damage to our environment.

There are other options.

Ron Rosmann, a farmer in western Iowa, has been successfully yielding large crops without the use of synthetic fertilizer. Rosmann mainly increases the amount of nitrogen in the soil by planting nitrogen-fixing plants after harvesting his crops. For example, he plants alfalfa and soybeans in the fall because there is nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in the roots of these plants. When the plants die in the spring, the nitrogen is released into the soil, free to be used by the next crop planted. Simply put, he is adding fertilizer to the soil without burning fossil fuels.

Cleary, agriculture consumes more energy than most people previously realized. With governments placing more restrictions on carbon emissions, it’s important for farmers to do their part in reducing their carbon emissions. By doing so, they can also reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and save more money. If we are willing to rethink the way we produce and consume food, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will come naturally.

Photo Credit: cjuneau via Flickr

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Nov 12, 2016

No birds, bees, flowers, trees, or people or edible food. The photo looks like mid June in Minnesota, with about half yearly solar photosynthesis input energy already past and dead dirt showing. Don’t drink the well water. And hope mineral soil fertility like Phosphates and Calcium don’t run off.

Without including agricultural innovation in the discussion we don’t have an environmental discussion. The industry is not philosophically anti-environment. But too few simply must do too much, and this is what we get.

Good tip of the iceberg article. Thanks TEC.

Megan Nichols's picture
Megan Nichols on Nov 14, 2016

Hi Rick,

I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I agree that the agriculture industry is a key component of the larger environmental discussion. My hope is to continue to spread awareness about how agriculture energy usage connects to environmental sustainability and I’m going to continue researching these topics at length in the coming months to further discussion.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Nov 15, 2016

Glad you got my feedback, Megan. Old, rural white guys are the topic of intense media analysis right now after the election. You could easily combine politics and environment and renewable energy by sharing coffee with them. Personally, I think we need a pathway for young educated people, now trapped in cities protesting uncertainty, to return to areas of extraordinary opportunity. No exaggeration, in Minnesota old guys can’t keep the roads open and real wolves from the door forever.

Most of these renewable energy experts are really high pressure hardware salesmen. Agriculture is where life is.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Nov 15, 2016

I find this article just a bit misleading.  For instance, “up to 132 gallons of water” says nothing about the average, so one gets no useful information from the 55 billion figure which follows.  I suspect that a very large fraction of those 55 billion are male chicks which are killed almost immediately after hatching using grinders which have minimal water consumption.

The maximum likely applies to the largest animals, which in the USA would probably be beef cattle.  The 2015 calf crop was just 34.3 million head, which would include all veal, beef and dairy cattle.  This is about 0.06% of the 55 billion total.

As for energy use on farms, a substantial amount of energy is lost in the form of unusable crop byproducts.  This varies immensely by the crop, but the production of excess corn stover and cobs has long been eyed as an energy source.  I’m not going to link the paper because 2 links catches the mod filters, but Frank Shu has done work with molten-salt carbonization of biomass (wood chips) to produce biochar and syngas.  Biochar is easily stored, and is not hard to gasify into motor fuel.  There might be some issues with lower specific engine power when running on char-gas, but it should be possible to cut out a lot of the on-farm consumption of diesel fuel that way.

Steve DelGrosso's picture
Steve DelGrosso on Nov 17, 2016

Just a small correction, the 14-18% range is for global agriculture, the US is about half of that.

Megan Nichols's picture
Thank Megan for the Post!
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