The Global Oil Economy: Forecasting the Role of Nutrient Use Efficiency in Agricultural Development

There is no question of the importance of oil in the global economy.  The United States is currently involved in two separate conflicts for reasons most analysts and policy makers attribute to national demand for cheap oil.  The Iraq war, at an estimated cost of between 2.7 and 5 trillion US dollars and 90,000 and 800,000 civilian lives, illustrates the lengths policy makers will go to secure oil reserves.  With the rest of the world producing the majority of the world’s crude and 60% of the 500 biggest fields already at peak production, energy use efficiency is now more important to national security than ever.  As one of the world’s largest agricultural producers, the ability of the United States to cheaply and efficiently produce food has a direct effect on the price of food worldwide.  With the predicted increases in population, storm severity, and food insecurity due to climate change the pressures being placed on US commercial agricultural systems will continue to increase rapidly.  In response to concerns about US dependence on foreign oil sources, the U.S. Energy and Independence and Security Act of 2007 now mandates biofuel output requirements for the national economy.  The U.S. Air Force, the world’s greatest consumer of petroleum has also announced plans to increase its use of biofuels to 50% in an effort to reduce their reliance on foreign oil.  National security and climate change policies have made biofuels a clear priority for the U.S. economy.  Due to competition from biofuels, the amount of arable land available for food production will likely diminish in the future.  Since oil is used in the production, transport, manufacture, and application of the nitrogen fertilizers used in commercial agriculture, current and future market pressures have produced an environment where increasing nutrient use efficiency is not only necessary, but cost effective.—Michael Gazeley-Romney
Liska, Adam J. and Perrin, Richard K., 2011. “Energy and Climate Implications for Agricultural Nutrient Use Efficiency”. Adam Liska Papers. Paper 9.

Richard Perry and Adam Liska, Researchers at the University of Nebraska , undertook an analysis of the global oil market, biofuels, population, climate change, and global agricultural production using current research to analyze the effect on agricultural methods.  Their research outlines the importance of increasing nutrient use efficiency for nitrogen fertilizers due to the number of huge external pressures placed on the current system.  After elaborating on each of the individual pressures, the researchers focus more closely on the need to increase energy outputs from biofuel production while making agricultural energy inputs more efficient to address the growing population and food security issues while maintaining low GHG emissions.  Because the inputs of land and energy are relatively fixed due to the diminishing availability of both, nutrients become the most elastic input and show the greatest potential for further research and improvement.
           The link between Nitrogen fertilizers and the global oil market best illustrates the influence of oil in modern agriculture.  The invention of the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixing process has boosted crop yields to support an additional three billion people in the twentieth century alone.  Energy is needed in every step of fertilizer production, transport, and dispersal making it a ripe target for further research.  Improving the energy efficiency of the fertilizer process is hugely important because nitrogen fertilizers are vital to modern yield-boosting techniques.  The researchers found that nitrogen fertilizer represents 40% of the total energy input and creates 35.5% of the GHGs for the entire US corn production system.  Nitrogen fertilizers are mostly used in first world commercial agriculture, but once the necessary infrastructure for these methods is developed in the third world, global nitrogen use will increase dramatically.  Liska et al. noted that agricultural nitrogen is responsible for 10–12% of all human-related GHGs produced annually, with that number predicted to rise 35–60% by 2030 as nitrogen use increases in the third world.  These findings demonstrate not only how crucial cheap oil is to future food security, but also how improvements in nutrient use efficiency can dramatically reduce the costs of modern agriculture and alleviate pressure on declining oil resources.  Focusing on nitrogen containing fertilizers in particular would be the most effective way to increase national food and energy security while decreasing GHG emissions overall from an agricultural standpoint.
          To forecast the effects of increased biofuel use, the researchers performed an analysis of the relative efficiencies of the current US biofuels production system.  They found 90% of US ethanol mills, which produce biofuel from corn grain, run on natural gas, further spreading the energy burden away from crude.  The most recent surveys of corn-ethanol production show 1.6 energy units created per unit energy expended while emitting 47% fewer GHGs than gasoline.  Research into soy-ethanol has proved unpromising, while sorghum shows promise for further research into the lower bounds of nitrogen application having a low nitrogen uptake rate while maintaining a high energy yield.  Although corn continues to provide the main source of feedstock for biofuel production, if sweet sorghum can be grown with little to no fertilizer and compete with corn in terms of energy yield, it could greatly increase the lifecycle efficiency of biofuels overall.
          In assessing our best options to address the energy and nutritional needs of a booming world population, the researchers prefer to focus monetary and scientific investment on increasing the nutritional efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer because of its high oil inputs.  With the amount of arable land available already maximized, in order to boost future yields while still reducing GHGs in a warming world higher nutrient efficiency is essential.  Research into the reciprocal relationship between energy, agriculture, and climate change will continue, but for the present, the best way for the agricultural community to address all three issues lies with nitrogen fertilizers.

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