We’re Eating Oil–Literally


I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed

6 thoughts on “We’re Eating Oil–Literally

  1. This subject was very well covered back in 2003, when almost no one was paying attention – those who were heard the phrase “tinfoil hat” well before it became a pop culture meme.
    In a now-extinct (but still accessible) website called “From the Wilderness”, Dale Allen Pfeiffer wrote a very ominous article called “Eating Fossil Fuels”. He goes into a lot of detail.


    Happy reading. >_<

    • Thanks Karin; I’m looking forward to reading this (in a sense–in another sense, of course, I’m not looking forward to it at all).

      I believe Michael Pollan has been covering this for a while, too. I hope more people are disturbed enough by it to be moved to action soon–or encouraged enough by the opportunities posed by changing it to start taking some action!

  2. This is one problem with a simple solution, albeit probably an impossible one. The crop that sucks up the oil is corn, which is sold far below the cost to produce it because of government price guarantees. Corn is so cheap and plentiful because of these price supports that the excess can be used to feed cattle, which never evolved to eat corn and actually have difficulty getting healthy nourishment from it, thus requiring a lot of drugs be introduced into cattle farming to keep the cows alive long enough to reach a slaughter weight. Beef, chicken, and pork are cheaper to eat because their nearly all-corn diet fattens them up quicker than when they were allowed to eat a more natural diet.

    Cut out government subsidies (which do almost nothing to help small farmers and instead mainly support large food conglomerates) and farmers will stop growning more corn than the market can consume. Prices will rise, feeding corn to animals will no longer be cost effective, and farmers will have to transition back to cow’s evolved diet of grass. The price of beef will go up, causing hamburgers and Coke to be more expensive, and people will cut back on fast food because it will no longer be a fraction of the price per calorie compared to healthier foods. Lentils and barley would look much more attractive if you can no longer buy chicken for under a dollar a pound.

    Getting rid of farm subsidies would cut our deficit because we would no longer be throwing money at an already obscenely wealthy food industrial complex. We’d also save money on health care costs, because over time our obesity epidemic would probably decline. (There’s an interesting correlation between rising obesity and the switch of most industries from sugar to corn syrup for sweeteners… again, economically sensible only due to subsidies.)

    One potential downside: If all the barrels of oil poured into corn suddenly had no home on the market, the price of oil would likely drop, making it even more difficult for alternative fuels to compete. But, if the price of oil dropped below a certain point, some of the extraction practices such as digging up oil sands and fracking no longer make economic sense. The irony is, people might want to burn cheap oil, but companies don’t want to pump it. When oil prices go up, even if people switch to more fuel efficient cars, the oil industry still has a market in converting this fuel into corn because, again, the government will never allow the price to drop to the point that it isn’t profitable.

    People ask how I can be a libertarian and an environmentalist. When I look at the damage done to the earth by government policies, I wonder why so many environmentalists want the government to do more.

    Alas, as long as Iowa remains the first step in the presidential nominating contest, the odds of eliminating or even cutting farm subsidies are probably nil. Still, one can dream.

    • I’m very much with you on that, James. I have no idea how it would have to happen politically, and I think it would be difficult to get grassroots support for what sounds like “help for farmers” and “food production” and “lower food prices” (and actually is that last one, for now), but I agree it’s a very important piece.

      Of course, it probably would mean higher food prices in general and increased pressure on the poorest Americans. While I don’t think this will appeal to your political sensibilities, it seems to me that there might be some value in boosting food and nutrition programs for people in poverty if that were to go ahead.

      • I would argue that if we got rid of the economic incentives for corn monoculture, we might actually see the prices for healthier foods go down. I read somewhere that the farmland we devote to growing corn covers the area of two New York states. If this cropland were switched over to a more diverse array of crops, we might see food prices for other fruits and vegetable go down. In any case, I think it’s kind of an unfortunate myth that eating healthier is automatically more expensive. Many healthy staples like beans and rice are pretty cheap. If you have access to a farmers market and willing to adjust you’re diet to what’s grown seasonally, in peak seasons most vegetables are stupidly cheap. If you want to buy a tomato from a local farmers market in July, you can probably get a good deal. If you insist on buying tomatoes in January, you are likely paying to have them crossing thousands of miles to reach you.

        My wife and I have made a transition to healthier eating this year, and I think we might actually be saving money once we finally purchased all our staples. We eat out less since eating a home gives us more control over our diets. The big expense hasn’t been money, but time. It takes a lot more brainpower and advance planning to have healthy meals, and cooking a stew from scratch is more time consuming than throwing a frozen pizza into an oven.

        I think the biggest suprise is that our diet is now much more diverse than it used to be. We went into this thinking we’d be giving up a lot of stuff. Instead, we’ve discovered whole new categories of food and amazing flavors we were skipping over on our old diet. We didn’t need government intervention to change us. We changed to combat our expanding waistlines, but we’re sticking with it because, frankly, the healthier choices just taste better.

        • That makes a lot of sense to me, James. This is the first thing we’re digging into as a family to try to transition, getting much more locally-grown food. This past summer we got almost all of our produce from a local organic CSA in combination with Janine’s garden, and you’re right: it was cheap. I think we’re going to have to seriously up our game, though. I’m encouraged to hear that when you and Cheryl made some of these kinds of changes, your diet got more interesting rather than the reverse!

          To keep the time part manageable, we’ll be trying to do a lot of making huge batches of things to freeze and eat for multiple meals (not to mention work lunches). Fortunately, my son Ethan has developed some cooking skill, too, and we have two young girls coming up in the family who will also soon be doing some cooking. Many hands should make light work!

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