By Robert Turner
The next time you sit down to a meal, imagine a big bowl of black diesel fuel oil sitting there next to the saltshaker. Why? Because it’s in there.
Most of my columns are related to organic and regenerative agriculture and the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (and our carbon footprint) in the food system. But how long will it really take us to decarbonize the food system, and is there enough time?
A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) report says that at the current rate of soil loss from industrial agriculture we have about 60 years of topsoil left around the globe (that’s 60 harvests.) Coincidently, we have about 50 years of known oil reserves on the planet. The current food system is so dependent on fossil fuels that it is difficult to say how quickly we can wean ourselves off the stuff and transition to a system of food production that improves soil health rather than destroying it.
Most of us don’t realize how big a role fossil fuels play in the food we eat. Some of this dependence is spelled out in a new book titled How the World Really Works by scientist and author Vaclav Smil (Viking 2022). As one example, Smil describes a loaf of bread. Growing the wheat with chemical fertilizers (that come from fossil fuels), grinding and milling it and then baking a two-pound loaf of sourdough bread requires the energy equivalent of one cup of diesel fuel. Add long-distance distribution and transportation, and that can quickly double to more than two cups of diesel per loaf. Now, imagine sopping up all that rich, delicious, black oil off your plate with the bread. That’s a pretty good visual because it’s so hard to see the carbon footprint in our food. I apologize if you’ve just lost your appetite.
A chicken is one of the more efficient grain processors in the animal kingdom that can transform roughly three pounds of grain (corn and soybeans) into one pound of meat (3:1 ratio). To grow the feed and the chicken, process it and cook it will require the equivalent of half a wine bottle in diesel fuel (a little more than two cups). If the chicken is raised in the north in the wintertime, requiring heat, that can double to the equivalent of a full wine bottle. The fossil energy required for pork is three times that per pound, and for beef it’s at least six times the fossil fuel required per pound because of the enormous amounts of feed that they require. Seafood isn’t any better, requiring as much as five cups of diesel energy equivalent (that’s one-and-a-half wine bottles) for a pound of farm-raised fish like sea bass. A greenhouse-grown tomato can suck up as much as six tablespoons of diesel fuel for production and transportation.
Add up all the fossil fuels associated with our dinner including production, processing, packaging, distribution, refrigerated storage in warehouses and at home, and preparation at home or away, and food uses more than 20 percent of the US energy supply, says Smil.
Smil suggests that we’ve become so dependent on this fossil fuel-based system that we aren’t going to go organic overnight. It will take time to reduce that dependence on oil, gas and diesel, but it is inevitable because of the limited oil reserves left on the planet.
What did we gain from our fossil fuel-intensive, industrialized food system over the past 70 years? Smil says we reduced human labor in the production of food by more than 98 percent. Now, less than 1 percent of Americans work on a farm. Most of that labor was replaced by mechanical equipment and fossil fuels. That freed up a lot of people to do other things, like invent the cell phone.
But more than that, Smil says that more than half of the world’s 8 billion people would not be alive today if it weren’t for nitrogen fertilizers, derived from fossil fuels (natural gas), which we started using intensively just after World War II and that greatly increased yields per acre. Said another way, fossil fuels have allowed the world population to grow two and a half times since the 1950s. The world population exploded from 3 billion in 1960 to 7.75 billion in 2020, and without these man-made, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, the world could not have fed so many people.
Technological advances in equipment, in addition to fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, have also reduced the number of undernourished people around the world from 65 percent in 1950 to less than 9 percent in 2019, while the world population more than doubled over that same time. The fundamental energy source for food production is still, obviously, the sun and photosynthesis. But fossil fuels have become so entrenched and indispensable to our modern agricultural system that it will take time to break free of our dependence on them, probably decades. That doesn’t mean we can’t get started now.
Our farmers can do a lot to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, like using no-till and limited-till planting methods and cover crops that replace nitrogen and improve the soil; and by reducing wasteful overspraying of fertilizers (as much as half of our fertilizer is wasted from over-application.) I’ve written a lot about this, so I won’t go there now. But what can the average person do right now?
Simple solutions include eating less meat, shopping local food and wasting less food. According to the UNFAO, we lose and waste half of our fruits and vegetables, more than 30 percent of our grain, about one-third of our fish, and one-fifth of our meat and dairy products, for an average of one-third of our total food supply thrown into landfills. I’ve seen other reports with even higher numbers, closer to 40 percent of the total food supply wasted. Buy only what you’re going to cook. Cook only what you’re going to eat. Freeze the rest.
Eating less meat is an obvious way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in the food supply and methane gases in the atmosphere from cow burps (a big source of methane). A lesser amount of fossil fuels would be needed for growing animal feed (about 38 percent of the US corn crop goes toward feeding animals), and there would be much less environmental damage from confined animal feed operations.
In most high-income countries like the US, people eat, on average, 220 pounds of meat per year. But in some countries, like Japan (a country with the world’s highest longevity), the average person consumes much less meat—about 66 pounds per year. France is eating much less meat now also, with about 40 percent of the population eating 85 pounds or less. When you do eat meat, try to eat local, pasture-raised meat because that has a much lower impact on the environment and a much-reduced fossil fuel demand.
When you eat local food, you dramatically cut the food miles associated with your dinner, and most of our local growers use compost and other organic fertilizers. So you can take that big bowl of black oil off the table.
Robert Turner is the author of Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America. Download the first chapter for free at EatYourView.com.