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June 22, 2005

Consumption and the Facts about our Oil Laden Food Chain

(This post is by Ianqui from The Oil Drum).

That oil is consumed by public and private transportation and industry is a no brainer. 

However, another, perhaps more important reason petroleum is so vital to our economy, beyond transportation, is that it takes a lot of fossil fuel just to produce the food that we eat every day.

When I stop to think about this, I get this image of gasoline being poured on my food. Pictured that way, the idea that we use a lot of oil on food is easy to dismiss, but the truth is that there are myriad ways that oil makes it into the food chain. And this is something we must be aware of, since once there are oil shortages, it's not just going to be lines at the pump--there might also be lines at the grocery stores.

Now, I don't claim to be an expert on the food production system all the way from planting to delivery at the Safeway, but I think it's worth highlighting just a few of the areas where oil is crucial just to give you a little glimpse ot the picture.

Just to get started, according to this estimate, the food production system uses 17% of all of the fossil fuel consumed in the US at some stage of the production or consumption process.

1. Fertilizer

We didn't always grow food the way that big agribusiness companies grow it now. In fact, it wasn't until the 1950's, when the Green Revolution came about, that we used anything much more than cow manure and sunlight to grow crops. The Green Revolution led to several new techniques in agriculture, including massive irrigation, the use of heavy machinery like harvesters, widespread introduction of pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. It's the latter that really revolutionized the yield of crops per capita, but it also seriously increased our dependence on fossil fuel. Fossil fuels like oil and natural gas are combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia, which is the major component necessary in fertilizer.

So, how much fertilizer do we use in a year? According to this site, from June 2001 to June 2002, the US used 12,009,300 short tons of nitrogen fertilizer. In order to produce one kg of fertilizer, it takes the energy equivalent of 1.4 liters of diesel fuel. Using this as a conversion factor, we see that in that time period, 96.2 million barrels of oil were necessary just for fertilizer. Let's put this against another landmark.

This website estimates that there are about 7 billion barrels of oil in ANWR. (This is a pretty moderate estimate, given the USGS's (probably inflated) estimate of 10.4 billion barrels.) In any case, this would give us 73 years worth of fertilizer, if only we could use all of ANWR for just fertilizer. In fact, it's really more like 3.65 years (since fertilizer accounts for about 31% of the oil used in food production, not including packaging and transport).

2. Cattle feed

70-80% of the grain produced in the US goes to cattle feed.  This site claims that "it now takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grainfed beef in the United States. The annual beef consumption of an average American family of four requires more than 260 gallons of fuel." Another estimate claims that 35 calories of fossil fuel are required to produce one calorie of beef, and 68 calories for pork.

Keep in mind that "a given quantity of grain eaten directly will feed 5 times as many people as it will if it is first fed to livestock and then is eaten indirectly by humans in the form of livestock products...." (M.E. Ensminger).

Here are even more numbers. By switching from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet, each person could reduce energy consumption by at least 25% annually. (Unfortunately, I don't know if these numbers include packaging and transportation in the energy consumption calculation.)

Average US meat diet = 1.1 gallons of oil/day = 401 gallons/year
Lacto-ovo vegetarian = .83 gallons of oil/day = 303 gallons/year (25% reduction over meat diet)
Vegan vegetarian = .60 gallons of oil/day = 219 gallons/year (45% drop over meat diet)

At the very least, we should consider switching to an all-organic diet, but it is interesting that vegetarians consume even less fossil fuels per year.

3. Processing and Transport

I'm not going to discuss packaging in detail, but there are a few numbers that are pretty surprising (see also Horrigan et al. for even higher estimates).

Processing 1lb of frozen fruits or vegetables: 825 (food) calories, plus 559 calories for packaging, plus energy for refrigeration during transport, at the store, and in homes.
Processing a 1lb can of fruits or vegetables: 261 calories, plus 1006 calories for packaging.
Processing breakfast cereals: about 7000 calories per pound, when a 1lb box of cereal only contains ~2000 consumable calories.

Transport is, in a sense, a two-fold problem. First, 34% of the energy dedicated to agricultural production is used for the diesel and gasoline that farm vehicles use. Perhaps more importantly, though, it has been estimated that some fruits and vegetables travel 1200-1500 miles from farm to store. Most of our food is trucked, even though trucking is 10x less efficient than transport by rail or barge.  Norman Church says that 127 calories of aviation fuel are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce from the US to the UK--similar numbers are given for the transport of asparagus and carrots. (See also Prof Goose's earlier post.) Even worse, the UK imports 75% of its organic produce, thereby nearly negating the benefits gained from organic farming methods which don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So, what should we do? Well, this post is already getting long, so it's a good thing that I've already laid out some of the answers in my previous post. Eat organic, become vegetarian if you dare, buy foods that have as little packaging as you can find. Don't eat as much processed food (i.e. eat lower on the food chain)--learn to love your kitchen. If you have to pick something up for dinner, get it from a salad bar or a cash-and-carry place, and bring your own containers! Buy from bulk bins. Even one or two of these things will put you on a path toward conservation, which will hopefully play a large role in flattening out the peak.

June 22, 2005 | Permalink

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I thought I'd recommend a post that Oil Drum author Ianqui had guest posted at Ezra Klein's blog. In it, the author covers the main energy requirements of modern agriculture. Some of these I've heard before and some, like transportation [Read More]

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Comments

good luck convincing people to go vegetarian to save oil. I consider myself to be a fairly earth-conscious person, but it will take a lot for me to give up meat. As part of a PR campaign, I'd gloss over this one, the cost-to-benefit ratio for this is too high.

As for veganism, forget it. That's just extreme. Cheese, milk and yogurt are vital parts of a healthy diet, and only the obsessive will be able to correctly plan a diet that won't leave a woman with osteoperosis (sp?) when she's 60. Plus, you only achieved a 0.2 gal/day reduction over vegetarianism.

Other than that, I agree with your sentiments. Encouraging people to buy local will help a great deal with the transportation issues. Education will help with minimizing the amount of packaging used. How about promoting gardening? Getting uber-fresh veggies is always great, and that's even less oil useage.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jun 22, 2005 12:32:32 PM

Well, here's another good reason to switch to a CSA, that is, Community Supported Agriculture. I belong to one in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and it's not too late to sign up. While you're at it, if this movie comes to your town, see it: The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Sure, it's got some hippy stuff in it, which I can't stand, but it's an inspiring farming story.

The advantages are legion. I know my farmers. I know the labor situation at their farms. My food is organic. So that saves fuel. It comes from 4 hours outside New York city and is brought down here once a week and in that way saves a lot of fuel. My beef is free-range, grass-fed, and, did I mention, delicious?

At the least, shop at your Farmers' Markets. If you're getting your food chiefly from big agribusiness, you're supporting monocultures (one of the things that helped cause the Irish Potato Famine), oil use, and helping put money in the pockets of people who hate us.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jun 22, 2005 12:34:10 PM

You guys should also read The Oil We Eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq, from Harper's last year.

(verplanck colvin, you're wrong about dairy being required parts of our diet.)

Posted by: Guav | Jun 22, 2005 1:30:49 PM

Guav: Yeah, that article is linked above in the section about cattle feed. It's a good one.

Verplanck: Guav's right. You don't need dairy. I've hardly been eating it for about a year now and I'm just fine. Weight-bearing exercise should help make up for the osteoporosis problem, as should calcium supplements in soy milk or in multivitamins. Even so, if you are going to eat dairy, at least buy organic.

Karl: I live in NYC too and shop at the Greenmarket regularly. In fact, the Greenmarket tries to capitalize on our fears of peak oil to entice people to buy (see this photo)! But as I'm about to say at TOD, I'm not sure that the farmers will still want to truck their stuff in 2-3 hours when oil is scarce (unless they really have no other market). I guess we'll see.

Posted by: ianqui | Jun 22, 2005 1:49:03 PM

Guav, is there an easy alternative to dairy for calcium intake? From my knowledge, it seems to take a lot of thought and effort in getting your daily allowance of calcium. It can be done, but not as quickly, easily and deliciously as eating Shelburne Farms Cheddar mmmm...cheddar...aghaghaghagh [/homer simpson]

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jun 22, 2005 1:56:35 PM

Fertilizers can be manufactured using microbes. We just need the energy for the manufacturing, which could come from any source. Same goes for plastics--biotech will revolutionize the materials aspect of the oil based products. Not to worry there--we just need to think big for new energy sources beyond oil.

And the meat thing--they're already working on growing steaks in a petri dish so the whole farming thing and the cruelty to animals issue is bypassed.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jun 22, 2005 2:38:05 PM

Karl: I live in NYC too and shop at the Greenmarket regularly.

Is that the Union Sq. Market? Funny. You know there are many, many Farmer's Markets in NYC. I have one about 4 blocks from my apartment -- where there's this kind of freaky guy who sells excellent sausage and great walnuts -- and the next closest one is the Grand Army Plaza market, which is nearly as large as Union Sq.

No, when oil gets really expensive, our food costs will go up all over. But it'll be considerably less expensive, I presume, to eat food grown closer than it would be, say, to eat Israeli oranges or Chilaen peppers of whatever else it is that people who shop at, say, Safeway or the corner Bodega eat.

Steve: downside of petri-dish steak manufacturing. Sounds less labor intensive, I suppose, but sounds like an excellent way to further centralize food production. With centralized food production comes some increased dangers, chiefly, if that central outfit fucks up in some way, a lot of people get hurt. I read blogs rather than, say, watch TV because I believe in decentralization. It's why I prefer open-source software to Microsoft and Mac, and it's why I prefer to know my farmers and shop locally rather than put my trust in some invisible consortium of suits who couldn't care less about me.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jun 22, 2005 2:57:11 PM

I think the one that kills me is enriched white bread. Fix flour so that it won't keep weevils alive and add vitamins. Reducing processing will have the same effect as reducing overcooking - it tastes better and retains more nourishment. Calcium needs magnesium so it can be fixed in the bones. And factory farming reduces biodiversity and leaves the "crop" at risk of disastrous loss to epidemic or infestation without backup options for substitutes. Another point about using crops for oil replacement is it costs fuel to make it. Brazil does a lot of that. I've heard TV ad actors called talking heads. Do I ramble O.K. ?

Posted by: opit | Jun 23, 2005 2:30:55 AM

The advantages are legion.

Posted by: Weight Healthy | Apr 15, 2007 10:35:03 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:41:26 PM

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