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.
- Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
- The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
- 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