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Gas Guzzling Food

Sustainable Business

The SUV in the Pantry

by Thomas Starrs

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to reduce my family's
dependence on energy, particularly energy derived from fossil fuels. I
commute to work by bicycle or bus, install compact fluorescents when light
bulbs burn out, replace major appliances with the most efficient ones I can
afford, and cast jealous glances at my friends who drive hybrids or
alternative-fueled vehicles. But until recently, I didn't think of myself as
an energy glutton because of the food I eat.

Then I read an astonishing statistic: It takes about 10 fossil fuel calories
to produce each food calorie in the average American diet. So if your daily
food intake is 2,000 calories, then it took 20,000 calories to grow that
food and get it to you. In more familiar units, this means that growing,
processing and delivering the food consumed by a family of four each year
requires the equivalent of almost 34,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, or
more than 930 gallons of gasoline (for comparison, the average U.S.
household annually consumes about 10,800 kWh of electricity, or about 1,070
gallons of gasoline). [Webnote: This last sentence should read... "for comparison, the average U.S. household annually consumes about 10,800 kWh of electricity, AND about 1,070 gallons of gasoline"] **Please see OCA webnote at foot of this article**

In other words, we use about as much energy to grow our food as to power our
homes or fuel our cars.

Overall, about 15% OF U.S. energy goes to supplying Americans with food. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and
agricultural science at Cornell University, has estimated that if all
humanity ate the way Americans eat, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel
reserves in just seven years.

The implications of agricultural energy use for the environment are
disturbing. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
agriculture contributes over 20% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions,
including more than 20% CO2, 55% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. In
addition, our energy-intensive agriculture industry contributes
substantially to soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitat, degradation of
water quality from chemical runoff and causes other adverse environmental

Much of the energy embedded in our food comes from growing grains that
require further processing to be eaten. Producing a 2-pound box of breakfast
cereal, for example, requires the equivalent of burning half a gallon of

Eating high on the food chain is even worse. Eating a carrot or an apple
gives the diner all the caloric energy in those foods, but feeding these
foods to a pig reduces the energy available by a factor of 10. That's
because the pig uses most of the energy just staying alive, and stores only
a fraction of the energy in the parts we eat. All told, it takes 68 calories
of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of pork, and 35 calories of fuel to
make one calorie of beef.

Interestingly, the path to reducing the energy intensity of the food system
dovetails nicely with the path to a healthy and nutritious diet. It can be
summarized in three simple suggestions.

First, eat lower on the food chain. That means more fruits and vegetables,
and fewer meats and fish. Meats, poultry and fish contain necessary
proteins, but most American diets contain too much protein - about twice the
recommended amount. Since 80% of the grains go to feeding livestock, the
amount of energy used indirectly to support our diet of double bacon
cheeseburgers is staggering. And, if you do eat meat, then try to avoid
animals grown in feedlots or factory pens. They take far more energy
calories to raise than free-range, grassfed critters, which have only about
a third of the embedded energy.

Second, eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. Fruits and
vegetables again, but also whole grains, legumes and other less-processed
foods, have much less embedded energy. In general, the more packaging, the
more processing - and the more energy associated with its production.

Third, buy local. Incredibly, the food items on U.S. grocery store shelves
have traveled an average of 1,500 miles. And some foods are much worse.
Table grapes grown in Chile, transported by ship to California and shipped
by truck to Iowa have traveled over 4,200 miles. In response, some
agricultural scientists have proposed ecolabeling programs based on CO2
rankings or broader lifecycle assessments.

These analyses provide better information than just miles traveled. For
instance, because they travel by air rather than by ship, Hawaiian
pineapples are among the most carbon intensive of foods, contributing about
40 pounds of CO2 per pound of pineapple. That is about 10 times the next
highest figure among the foods studied.

In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, individuals and businesses alike are
starting to recognize and respond to the public's concerns about fossil
food. Grocery stores featuring locally grown and organic products are
common. Farm stands, farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture
operations are thriving. Here, even fast food restaurants are using local
and organic ingredients.

For instance, Burgerville is a local chain that buys exclusively Oregon
Country Beef, the branded product of 40 family ranches in the region that
produce an all-natural product made without hormones, genetically modified
grain or any animal byproducts. Burgerville promotes the fact that customers
can trace the source of their food from ranch to table - and play a role in
sustaining the local agricultural economy. Another local company, Hot Lips
Pizza, worked with a group of Northwest farmers to create a Food
Alliance-certified local market for organic wheat and flour, providing
customers with pizza that is sustainably grown. It also is really, really

After all, you are what you eat.


OCA Webnote:

This article was originally printed at Sustainable Business webzine. Although the author makes some very valid points, we, at the Organic Consumers Association, would like to clarify the following.

  • The average food travels 2,000 miles before arriving at the typical U.S. dinner table. This amounts for a large portion of the energy required in our current food system.
  • Conventional farming consumes more energy than organic farming, due to the use of petroleum based fertilizers (see Cornell University study here).
  • By buying local and organic, you can greatly reduce the amount of energy needed to produce and transport your food (learn how to buy local and organic here)

The author's statistics are based on the following conversions:

  • One calorie = .001163 kilowatt hour
  • One gallon of gasoline generates roughly 37 kilowatt hours of electricity (note: a gallon of gasoline can generate up to 60 kilowatt hours with newer mthods of production)