The Green Revolution and the Future of the Oil Industry

By Katy Dalenberg

“Grain is to the plant world what a barrel of refined oil is to the hydrocarbon world: the most concentrated form of true wealth on the planet” (Manning 38).  This is how the green revolution creates a link between oil, food production, and wealth.  Although the quote specifies grain as the most important aspect of food in generating wealth, oil plays a pivotal role in the creation of all food. The oil industry is the driving force behind food production; however, this drive has resulted in an unstable system that cannot last. This quote epitomizes the relationship that exists between the oil industry and the green revolution.  Oil is a highly valuable product because it is non–renewable resource, which is why its involvement in the green revolution it troublesome.  In contrast, food has been considered a renewable resource because plants are capable of self-replenishment naturally over time.  However, contemporary food production occurs through a process that is so energy intensive that is has become independently not stainable. This means that naturally food could not be produced at the rate that it is occurring currently.  One of the ways that the mass production of food has escalated is through the methodologies associated with the green revolution.  Although the benefits of the green revolution may be abundant, the strong connection between the green revolution and the oil industry does raise some pertinent issues.   One of the constantly addressed issues is the continuation of the use of oil resulting in the need for alternative energy sources.  Even though oil usage is not restricted to the green revolution, the future of the oil industry has a large effect on the continuation of successes of the green revolution.  In order to understand the relationship between the oil industry and the green revolution, one must understand the pervasiveness of the oil industry with in the green revolution and the ongoing debate regarding the use of alternative energy sources successfulness.

Green Revolution:

Although occurring between 1940 and 1970, the primary boom of the green revolution occurred during the 1960s.  However, the term “green revolution” was not coined until 1968 by William Gaud, who was the director for the United States Agency of International Development.  He chose this terminology to address that this revolution was a technological one, but would not result in violence like the communist “red revolution” that was occurring during this time (Gaud 1). Despite his claim, the green revolution would not be as beneficial as Gaud originally imagined.  The newly defined green revolution includes new methodology that pushes agriculture far beyond subsistence into a globalized approach to addressing food concerns.  In fact, the green revolution is often called the industrialization of the farming process because addressing these concerns required several advancements in technology including specialization of crops, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and infrastructure developments (Levy-Spira 418).  Although the facets involved are more specialized, the primary way that the green revolution has become so successful is by taking a universal approach to farming (Levy-Spira 418).

Unlike previously where farming practices were differentiated by several factors including the region, environment and season, the green revolution has resulted in technological advances that have allowed crops to grow in areas where they would not have grown naturally (Levy-Spira 418).  This includes areas like Iowa, which prior to the green revolution consisted primarily of prairie grass are now covered in cornfields, often called row crops (Manning 39).  In the figures below, one can see just how drastic this change is.  In a course of approximately 150 years, the natural prairie grass has been reduced to less than one tenth of one percent (Samuels 28).   This is an example of a radical change that has destroyed the natural environment in order to create a universal approach to farming across Iowa that could only be undone with great difficulty.


Iowa 2




Because such significant changes are taking places in the environment in order for the green revolution to be successful, certain processes are needed to measure this success. Typically, the effectiveness of the green revolution is measured by comparing and contrasting the production of energy yielded naturally and the production after the green revolution. In order to trace food to its source, Manning uses the concept of primary productivity to understand how much energy can be produced naturally.

Primary productivity is the scientific evaluation of the transformation of solar or chemical energy into biomass (Manning 38).  Manning reminds his readers of the law of conservation of energy, which states that the amount of energy that exists is constant, so it can only be changed into new forms of energy, and cannot be created.  This law of physics is important because humans gain their energy from consuming plants or animals that eat plants, rather than creating their own energy (Manning 37). The idea behind the green revolution is to manipulate the land using fossil fuels to produce more food than would naturally be possible. In essence, the energy that exists in fossil fuels is being transformed into food energy for human consumption.

Out of all of the energy that the earth naturally produces, humans consume forty percent (Manning 37).  Furthermore, two-thirds of the forty percent humans consume rests in three kinds of crops- rice, wheat and corn (Manning 38).  Ironically, unprocessed wheat is not edible and a large portion of corn is not eaten raw but processed into types of sugars (Manning 43).  Although the initial increase of sugar consumption cannot be linked to the green revolution, the continuation and the growth of its ingestion can be. The initial growth was linked to the industrialization of England at the end of the 1800s. During that time, the British got one sixth of their total nutrition from sugar (Manning 43, 44).  Today, Americans consume the same amount, which is also double what nutritionists would (Manning 44).  The link between the United Kingdom in the late 1800s and the United States today, is a result of different forms of industrialization.  The industrialization of agriculture also known as the green revolution allowed for the continuation of massive consumption of sugars in a population as large as the United States.  Only because of the green revolution could the extensive accessibility of the sugar be possible to the United States, otherwise it would have continued to be a luxury commodity as the population grew.  The formations of these crops that are not as nutritionally beneficial or initially edible are two large examples of how the energy from fossil fuels is harnessed.

However, what is more astonishing than the massive consumption of the human population and the cultivation of so few crops is the amount of energy, specifically in fossil fuels, required to produce these crops on such a large scale. Because food is a necessity to human existence, the ability to have such a prominent role in agricultural production is highly valuable.  Additionally, the alteration of the land to create these fields and crops can result in much more harm to the earth than the short-term benefits of the mass production of crops.  On average, it takes ten calories of fossil fuel burning in order to create one calorie of food (Manning 42, Smoker 519).  According to the U.S. department of agriculture, on average citizens consume 3,800 calories per a day as of 2000. There is approximately 35,000 calories in one galloon of oil and it would take 38,000 calories of oil to make enough food for the average US citizen. Therefore, it takes a little more than a gallon of oil to produce for one person in the US and the US alone has a more than 315 million people according to the US Census Bureau.  Therefore, more than 315 gallons of oil is to make food for its citizens each day.  The extremely large amount of oil used in food production is the reason why the current system is unstable and how such a strong economic connection between oil and food exists.

In fact, the connection between wealth and agriculture has a long history. However, Manning has provided an interesting hypothesis. Manning claims that in agricultural societies one sees the first indication of status possibly associated with wealth (Manning 39).  Typically, anthropologists studying the leap from hunter gather to agricultural society struggle to explain the progression.  This is primarily because upon comparing human remains of hunter gather societies and agricultural societies, one finds that the first agriculturalists were highly malnourished (Manning 39).  In fact, hunter gathers living directly on the land often ate much better than the initial agriculturalists, thus complicating the understanding of why humans would chose to adopt this way of life (Manning 38).  He claims in comparison to hunter gathers, which required groups to work together in order to survive, those who practiced agriculture were capable of having more individualized roles in society (Manning 38).  Therefore, although the majority of people were malnourished some people were benefiting from this situation. This benefit is the first appearance of wealth (Manning 38).

The occurrence of wealth associated with agriculture is still present today.  Those with oil are the ones are the most powerful and wealthy because they control something that is essential to human life. Additionally, the inequality exits as well because in order for some to be wealth others have to be poor.   The structure of power still exists; however, where that power derives from is different.  Although those who own oil are typically not farmers, their role in the farming process results in immense wealth and power.

Although society has advanced tremendously since the first agricultural societies, this connection between wealth and food still exists.  However, today in order to make significant amounts of food, oil is required. For every acre of eroded land often due to the green revolution, 5.5 gallons of fossil fuel energy can be used to replace it (Manning 40).  The green revolution is in favor of larger farmers because they have the financial capital to make large scale changes to land; however, these famers a most interested in profit rather than caring for the land resulting in wide scale erosion.  This can comes from several factors including planting crops that would not grow normally or polluting the land with chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides.

Every year that the green revolution continues more land that is natural is cultivated and eventually ruined by chemicals (Levy-Spira 419).  As this continues, more and more oil will be required to continue the productivity of the green revolution.  However, the increase of oil cannot continue forever because fossil fuels are non-renewable resources.  It takes several million years to create fossil fuels and the rate that the land is ruined is faster than the amount of time it takes to fix it.  The current system of the green revolution is founded on an unstable structure that will fail if significant changes to the foundation of its existences are not made.

As the price of fossil fuels elevate, so does the costs of food (Rooney 1). Food exists in highly volatile environment because it is strongly linked to the price of oil, which is on the rise because of the decreasing amount of it (Rooney 1).  On average, in order to make a two-pound bag of cereal, it takes approximately half a gallon of gas (Manning 42).  This approximation does not even include the transportation required for its production (Manning 42).  Importing food only serves to increase the cost of food because the cost of transportation is a significant factor (Levy-Spira 419).  Transportation is not normally addressed as part of the process because it largely subjective depending on the origin of the production and where it is headed.

Societies that previously farmed for subsistence now have to import food, which were once grown locally (Levy-Spira 419).  However, excluding transportation, one finds that the oil industry still plays a significant role in agricultural production. This is because oil is necessary in the production of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to aid in the farming in crops.  In addition, oil is necessary to fuel many of the machines, which are used harvesting the crops. In conclusion, the connection between the oil industry and the green revolution is significant because the green revolution is an energy intensive process (Manzo1).  Of the energy used in this process, fossil fuels, primarily oil, generate the majority of energy.

If fossil fuels were renewable energy, this would not be as worrisome.  However, due to the limited reserves of fossil fuels, the current system of the green revolution is not sustainable.   In order to counteract this problem alternative energy sources have become necessary.  Because fossil fuels exist at every step of the process, alternatives need to be made at every step as well. The US Bioeconomy and Sustainability Department’s goal is to replace twenty percent of the oil use with biomass alternative energy sources (Smolker 520).

Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Energy:

One of the most common alternatives suggested is biodiesel fuels.  Duckett believes that the use of biodiesel fuels could create as much as 1 million new jobs for people in the poorest regions of Africa (20). Additionally, one of the most interesting aspects of some biodiesel fuels is their partnerships with oil companies. One biodiesel company, D1 Oils, is partnered with BP (Duckett 20).  The reason that this is so surprising is because these partnerships seem to indicate that the exhaustion of oil reserves may be eminent because otherwise there would not be a need to for oil companies to invest in energy alternatives.  If oil reserves were exhausted without investment in alternative energy resources the entire structures of most societies would change drastically.  Biodiesel could potentially change any sort of biomass into biofuel (Duckett 20).  The reason that this would be possible is because oil itself is a type of organic matter; therefore, they each contain many of the same properties (Duckett 20).

Other methods that have been suggested as alternatives to fossil fuels include the creation of biodegradable plant-based polymers.  Creating these polymers is similar to the idea of biodiesel fuel, because it stems from the idea that organic matter contains many of the same chemical properties as oil (Mooney 219).  Using genetically modified plant based polymers, called white biotechnology, one could substitute the oil-based products (typically plastics) with more biodegradable ones (Mooney 219). They are useful because they can use crops such as switch grass to create this alternative energy source (Mooney 219). This is mostly beneficial because unlike many other types of organic matter needed for alternative energy, switchgrass can be grown on marginal land that would not be able to be farmed for food production.  Therefore, this could be a way to minimize land competition.

Another strongly supported alternative to the vast use of fossil fuels is gasification.  Types of gasification have been used as early as WWII to aid in energy production (Manzo 1). Because the green revolution is such energy intensive process and the oil reserves are depleting, gasification could be seen as a viable alternative.  This alternative energy method could be harnessed from several different kinds of organic matter including hazelnuts (Manzo 2).  Gasification works by burning the organic matter so that it releases a gas that has similar properties to natural gas.  This natural gas-like material is then passed through an internal combustion engine order to make electric energy (Manzo 2).

All of these sources aim to replace fossil fuel use as a whole by creating biomass alternatives that may be used in a number of ways as an energy source.  However, removing products that require oil may be a better solution. Nitrogen based fertilizers require oil to be produced but they are harmful for several additional reasons.  To begin, the use of these fertilizers is harmful to the soil because it changes its chemical makeup (Duckett 20). When they are produced using oil they release greenhouses gases into the atmosphere (Smolker 521).  It has be suggested to try and switch these typical nitrogen based fertilizers with a biological nitrogen fixation alternative (Garg 1)

Despite the benefits to finding alternative energy sources to fossil fuels, these sets of alternatives comes with their own set of problems, which cannot be ignored.  Alternatives will require biomass from farming in order to create these alternative fuels.  If crops are required to create alternative energy, which is needed for food production then it likely that this will create a huge cycle beginning with the rapid conversion of land into arable land in order to meet this energy crisis (Smoker 519).  Additionally, this will result in a conversion of farming on arable land from consumable food to crops optimized for biofuel products because fuel is not only needed for farming practices (Smolker 523). Although production of biodiesel fuel, this will only increase the amount of starving people in the world because the production of nonedible food will only serve to increase this number (Smolker 524).

Despite this issue, biomass is currently a better solution than continuing with fossil fuel use until people are left with no alternative. Still the consequences of even the alternative energy sources are pushing many people to accept that the green revolution may not be as beneficial as it appears to be (Smolker 519).  In fact, many are arguing that the real energy issue of the green revolution is not addressed.  Instead, people are beginning to draw a new conclusion that the focus of debates concerning the green revolution should not be about the search for new alternative energy but for the reduction of energy use as a whole (Smolker 519).  The extensive use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has poisoned a lot of land and has sharply reduced the amount of variety in crop production (Levy-Spira 418).  The problem is not just an energy issue grounded in oil reserves, but also a problem with the depletion of farmland.  These two issues can be handled in the same manner by changing farming practices as a whole by minimizing the amount of energy used in this process, specifically oil because the process is currently very energy intensive.

Even now, people are starting to reclaim their land and regrow native crops (Levy-Spira 418).  Furthermore, people are starting to claim that even if the amount of biofuels needed were created, eventually there will have to be a debate concerning how to achieve the balance between food production and crop production for energy sources.  Many believe that this balance cannot be met without a reduction in energy consumption.

Overall, big changes will be occurring in the energy market, whether this will result in forced energy reduction or a sharp increase in the production of biofuels is still up for debate. However, one can safely say that changes are underway, which will greatly affect people’s food production.  Not only will one see the prices in foods fluctuate, but people will likely see a change in how food is made and for what crops are used. Some claim that the technology needed to create biofuels will result in new jobs; while other claim that the only true way to create positive change is to revert to old farming practices. Despite how the future turns out, one will never be able to claim that oil industry does not have a significant impact on the green revolution and farming in general.  In fact, one could say that in the current state the future of the green revolution depends on how further use of oil is handled.

Works Cited

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Manzo, et al. “Energy Characterization and Gasification of Biomass Derived By Hazelnut Cultivation: Analysis of Produced Syngas by Gas Chromatography.” Mathematical Problems in Engineering 2012. (2012): 1-9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

Mooney, Brian. “The Second Green Revolution? Production Of Plant-Based Biodegradable Plastics.” Biochemical Journal 418.2 (2009): 219-232. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

Garg, Neera, and Geetanjali. “Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation In Legume Nodules: Process And Signaling. A Review.” Agronomy for Sustainable Development (EDP Sciences) 27.1 (2007): 59-68. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

Samuels, Sam. Iowa . Department of Natural Resources.Hallowed Prairie. Iowa Outdoors, 2009. Print. Smolker, Rachel. “The New Bioeconomy and the Future of Agriculture.” Development 51.4

(2008): 519-526. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. Rooney.  “Oil shock could push world food prices higher”CNNMoney. March 3, 2011.