Next discussion group: “Would you like a little Oil in your salad?” will be held at the Central
Avenue Bakery, 174 Central Avenue, PG, on March 9, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. The meeting is
free and the public is invited.
How Much Fossil Fuel
Energy is in Your Food?
A lot more than you get out of it
You may not realize it, but the average calorie of food energy an American consumes entails the
use of about ten calories of fossil fuels for making and running farm machinery, making
fertilizer, pesticides, processing, packaging, refrigeration and transportation—but not including
preparation at home. If 300 million Americans each consume an average of 2000 Calories
(kilocalories) per day, then it takes about 5 million barrels oil equivalent per day to feed us—the
way we eat now. Put another way, the average American diet is supported by about 6.4 barrels
of oil per person per year. Grain fed meat is the worst—as Richard Manning wrote for Harper’s
in “The Oil We Eat”:
It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to
make one calorie of pork.
If everyone in the world grew food and ate the way we do, food production would need more
fossil fuel than the equivalent of all the world’s oil production.
It wasn’t always this way—when the world started running out of unused arable land very
roughly around 1960, new food crop varieties were developed with much higher yields of food
per acre. But the high yields came at a price—water, pesticides, mechanization, and fertilizer—
and the yield increases have now leveled off. Not only that, but the scale and specialization of
agriculture has increased steadily, making food production a much more globalized affair—food
in the US now travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to table. Some seasonal foods are
even flown by jumbo jet from the southern hemisphere during the northern winter.
So what happens if fossil fuels become scarce or prohibitively expensive?
• Fertilizer, being directly dependent on natural gas, will be used less.
• Pesticides, produced from mostly from oil, will also decline.
• Crop yields and planted acreage will decline.
• Food processing will become more expensive or impossible.
• Operating farm equipment will become more expensive.
• Food trucked long distances will probably eventually be unaffordable, or unavailable.
• Food crops will have to compete with fuel crops (biodiesel, ethanol, etc.) for acreage.
Average of Corn, Wheat and Soybeans, Relative to Max
2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Figure 1: Fraction of maximum US crop production for three major crops (USDA)
Figure 2: World oil production by month from January 2002 to January 2006 (Stuart Staniford, The Oil
US and Canadian Natural Gas Production
1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006
Figure 3: Natural gas production for the US and Canada has peaked and is in decline
What is the status of fossil fuel production in support of food production?
World oil production grew rapidly after the recession bottomed in 2002, but then flattened and
has virtually stopped growing since late 2004, as shown in figure 2, in spite of continued
economic growth. North American natural gas production is now declining and probably will
from now on. The bottom curve in figure 3 is for all of Canada, which has been declining since
2002, even though the number of new gas wells drilled per year tripled between 1998 and 2004.
The middle curve is US production, which peaked in 2001, also in spite of ever growing numbers
of new wells each year.
Since natural gas is difficult to import from overseas, and we have minimal facilities for
importing it, we are at least temporarily stuck with the natural gas that’s available on this
continent. The combination of declining supplies and growing demand for electric power
generation and space heating has made natural gas increasingly scarce and expensive in North
America. As a result, about half of NA fertilizer production has shut down and fertilizer has
become more expensive. Crop production (figure 1) grew in parallel with oil after bottoming in
2002, but has also stagnated (or declined) since 2004, in spite of continued economic growth.
We don’t know the cause of the lack of growth in food production, nor do we know whether this
is the start of a trend. However, we do know that some farmers are taking acreage out of
production and some are reducing the application of fertilizer—and the production of the crops I
selected to plot parallels the oil production curve rather nicely.
What can happen to food as fossil energy declines?
• General price increases and growing scarcity
• Deteriorating US balance of trade
• Possible disruption of food distribution
• Financial failure of farms and other food businesses
• Possible end of long-range food distribution
• Failure of cities remote from arable land and irrigation water
• Reduced ability to cope with effects of climate change and local shortages
• Insufficient food to sustain the population
What can people do to avoid hunger, malnutrition and possibly famine?
• Build and support a local agricultural economy.
• Support organic agriculture, in advance of problems.
• Move down the food chain
o Eat range-fed or grass-fed meat, not grain-fed
o Eat less meat—learn what a healthy vegetarian diet is—as a survival skill
• Plant fruit and nut trees if you can, and see that they get established.
• Learn to produce and preserve various foods.
• Put aside non-perishable staples enough to feed yourself for as long as is feasible.
• Get to know your neighbors.
Remember—there’s enormous waste in our food economy, and we can all eat well if we make it
more efficient and don’t waste what’s available—even if the bottom drops out of our energy
supplies. However, it will take a lot of reorganization, and a lot of glitches can be expected
along the way.
Sources of information--
“The Oil We Eat” Richard Manning, Harpers Magazine,
“Eating Fossil Fuels” by Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Organic Consumers’ Association
National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA)
Earth Policy Institute http://www.earth-policy.org/
The True Cost of Food http://truecostoffood.com/
And for a truly apocalyptic vision (don’t go there if you don’t want to see it):
Die Off http://dieoff.org/