Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eating Fewer Fossil Fuels

This is #21 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

I know. You’re probably thinking, “I don’t EAT fossil fuels!” In essence, though, you do – we all do – because our current food system relies so heavily on inputs of petroleum and natural gas at every stage.

Most fields are plowed and planted using petroleum diesel. Commercial farms use fertilizers manufactured from natural gas feedstocks, and pesticides derived from petroleum. Harvesting by machine consumes additional diesel. Processing and packaging require energy and petrochemical plastic while distribution consumes yet more diesel as well as gasoline.

A 1994 study led by David Pimentel of Cornell University examined these issues and calculated that feeding each American consumes about 400 gallons of oil equivalents per year. Based on that figure, each of us consumes a little over a gallon of oil per day when we eat – and as we do this, we feed the demand for oil that leads to risky deepwater drilling and the degradation of ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico.

Eating less petroleum is thus another important part of recovery from oil dependence. Fortunately there are several delicious ways to cut back on consuming crude when we eat.

1) Eat organic. About 2/3 of petroleum-derived pesticides used in the U.S. are used by agriculture, says a background report from the Congressional Research Service. You can avoid that by eating certified organic foods – which are better for you, anyway, based on recent research. A study from University of California at Davis, for instance, found that strawberries grown without pesticides contain more antioxidants – good news for all my friends who’ve been picking organic strawberries this season here in Upper Michigan.

2) Avoid processed and plastic-packaged foods. Processing and packaging consume fossil energy as well as adding petroleum-derived plastic to the food chain. Packaging food in plastic not only increases our use of oil, it can add undesirable chemicals to the food itself. As noted in this fact sheet from Berkeley, California’s Ecology Center, compounds in plastic wrappings can migrate into food; eating that food can expose you to hormone disrupters and possible carcinogens.

3) Skip the factory-farmed meats. As Michael Pollan has written in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes nearly a barrel of oil to grow just one factory-farmed steer to slaughter weight. All the hormone and antibiotic residues in factory-farmed meat are another good reason to avoid it. Even though I don’t have numbers I suspect the equation changes for locally raised, organic, grass-fed meat and hunted game, neither of which are likely to consume as much petroleum as factory farming. Author and organic grower Eliot Coleman, for instance, has argued that more fossil fuel is used and CO2 generated by “a vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil” than by local production of a grass-fed steer. I’m not advocating for or against vegetarianism here, just saying that the decision of whether to eat meat at all is complicated. However, whether to eat factory-farmed meats is much more black and white, as the evidence against factory farming is so compelling.

This Farmer's Market stall features organic produce.

4) Eat more locally. Like the meat issue, this can also get complicated. Writer Sarah DeWeerdt pointed out in a recent World Watch Magazine article that how much local eating cuts energy consumption can vary. Still, the petroleum we use to transport food is significant. Paying attention to where food comes from can help reduce the average 1500 miles that standard grocery items travel as they’re trucked from farm to table. Check labels in grocery stores to see where foods are from; get to know growers in your area and buy direct from them; attend farmer’s markets and buy from growers there. Farmer’s markets, often lively and beautiful events, have the added benefit of featuring many certified organic growers.

5) Grow your own. There’s nothing more local, tasty, and petroleum-free than fresh-picked organically-grown produce from your own garden. The garden photos in this post come from ours, which provides us with wonderful salads and vegetables. The kind of garden space we have is nice, but not required; even apartment dwellers can grow some of their own food by gardening in containers. And just about anyone can grow sprouts, a wonderful source of fresh, raw nutrition. It’s a favorite approach to food growing for my friend Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, who gives these instructions for sprouting on her blog, along with her recipe for Rainbow Sprout Salad.

Our passive solar greenhouse helps us grow our own greens, like these collards and kale, during long winters.

There’s plenty more interesting reading about making our food more sustainable and less petroleum-based all over the web; one I like is the Locavores site, locavore being a coined word referring to one who eats from within a specified local area. One tragedy we are witnessing now is how drilling for oil has made the accessing of local foods – mainly fisheries – difficult, unhealthy and/or impossible for a big segment of the Gulf coast population. This lost access to local food is a big part of what shocked Gulf residents now lament. Like oil and water, oil and sustainable food don’t mix, and I’m hoping we will fully understand that before it’s too late.


  1. On behalf of all of us in the 'post organic', organic and beyond organic movements, thanks for the much appreciated common sense tips.

  2. Wow. Excellent post. Good point about factory tofu. The subject of fossil-fuel and food supply is almost too horrifying to absorb. When cars are gone the organic farmers can have the suburbs... that is some hope at least. Here is a post we put up during the food riots. There is a book out titled "Eating Oil." food riot link