“To produce good crops farmers must have good weather, water and fertilizer — but the common denominator is energy,” says former USDA Under-Secretary of Agriculture Gale Buchanan.

Speaking at the recent annual meeting of the Southern Peanut Growers Association, Buchanan says a key to solving energy problems and invigorating agriculture in the U.S. and worldwide is to invest billions, not millions, into meaningful research efforts that could change the very fiber of energy production and consumption worldwide.

Buchanan, who is a former dean of agriculture at both Auburn University and the University of Georgia, says simply talking about energy problems won’t work.

For example, he says the U.S. Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, which called for production of 36 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2025.

The same act mandated we use 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2011 and 550 million gallons this year.  “Though we have several pilot plants and big plans, we are essentially using no cellulosic ethanol today,” he says

There are so called energy experts on both sides of the issue. One says our global energy is secure and virtually never-ending and another paints a truly frightening picture of the future of energy for the world, Buchanan says.

A July issue of the New York Times magazine Smart Money included a nine-page series of article titled, “The Return of Fossil Fuel.”

The story paints a very optimistic picture of the future of fossil fuel use in the United and the world.

“The big question is what do you think? You can pick an expert on either side of the issue or buy into the picture being painted by top media outlets, or you can decide for yourself where we stand and what we need to do about it,” Buchanan says.

Problem solving

The former USDA administrator says there are 10 facts that underscore the need to solve our energy problems:

• Energy is a requirement for the success of agriculture as we know it. Virtually every aspect of modern agriculture is dependent on energy to get land ready for crops, to put seed in the ground, to harvest and transportation to marketing — every step is energy intensive.

• World population will reach 9 billion people before 2050. With world population topping seven billion last October, agriculture is now hard-pressed to meet the demand for calories worldwide. By 2050 farmers will be charged with feeding two extra countries the size of India, or about 2 billion more people.

• The world’s appetite for oil will grow faster in the future than it has grown in the past. For example 50 million new cars are added globally each year. To get a look at the future demand for gas for cars, China now produces more new cars each year than the U.S. produces.

• U.S. energy supply is not sustainable. The United States represents about five percent of the world’s population, but consumes more than a fourth of the oil (about 20 million barrels of oil per year) used worldwide. The most rapid growing economies in the world, like China and India are also the fastest growing in demand for oil — and they will have the money to buy it in the future.

• The Age of Oil will be brief in terms of the history of the world It took 125 years for the world to consume a trillion barrels of oil. In less than 30 years the U.S. will use a trillion barrels of oil — at the current pace of consumption. Unless many current energy realities change, we will use the next trillion barrels of oil in a much shorter time frame.

• At some point the world will reach ‘peak oil. The U.S. reached peak oil in 1972 — that’s the point at which a country reaches maximum output and total production begins to decline. When the world will reach peak oil is highly debatable. An equally big question is how can a debtor nation like the United States, compete for oil when the supply begins to decline.

• The rate of discovery of oil in the U.S. peaked in the 1930s and in the world it peaked in the 1960s. The 10 billion barrels of oil recently discovered in North Dakota and Montana currently represents only a 130 day supply for the world or 10 billion barrels.

Supplies hard to reach

• Not only has the discovery of oil peaked, but remaining supplies are located in hard to get to places. Future oil won’t come nearly as easily as puncturing a hole in the Earth’s surface and capturing oil as it spews from the ground.

• This oil in hard to find places will require much more water and energy to capture and process. Oil in shale or tied up in tar sands will be difficult to extract and expensive to get in a usable form.

• All forms of natural energy are finite. “Think of it terms of your bank account — you have to write bigger and bigger checks, but you can’t add any money to your account,” Buchanan explains.

Buchanan’s facts are hard to dispute, though he admits there are many who do. The bigger question, he says, is what do these facts mean?

“For my generation and probably for my children’s generation, these facts don’t mean much in terms of our everyday life. Certainly, our current supply of oil and coal will be abundant in my lifetime and likely throughout much or all of my children’s lifetime,” he says.

Future generations are another story entirely, he adds. “We are spending the energy inheritance of future generations at a frightening rate,” Buchanan says.

He contends world political leaders and business leaders don’t seem to be looking at the obvious answers. “We spend money for energy in the trillions of dollars, yet we invest in finding new and sustainable energy sources in millions of dollars,” Buchanan says.

“To meet the challenges of energy, which directly impacts on our ability to produce food for a growing world population, and to preserve a finite supply of water, we must invest more heavily in finding more sustainable and affordable energy sources,” he adds.

Highly respected organizations, like the New York Times, publish stories and produce white papers about the plentiful supply of coal and natural gas and of new discoveries of oil supplies. They paint a very rosy picture of our current energy supply, leading many people in powerful places to use the old adage — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, Buchanan says.

“I’ve never liked that phrase — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I contend, if it ain’t broke, use the time it’s fixed to make it better. Making energy better is going to be critical to the future of world agriculture and to the people of world. “Fossil fuel has given us the time we as a planet needed to fix our energy problem. So far the attempts to fix energy haven’t worked, and in fact have probably done just the opposite.

“Stimulating the use of alternative energy with federal dollars is wonderful for the folks receiving those dollars, but it hardly addresses the problem. The development of competitive alternative fuels, with the emphasis on competitive, people will use them,” he says.

“Focusing research on developing competitive, affordable alternative biofuels is what we should be doing and this is not what we have been doing.”   

rroberson@farmpress.com