It All Comes Back to Food

If fossil fuel was replaced by human labor alone, each American would need to work 111 hours a day to feed himself today’s American diet.

Not long ago, the majority of human beings spent much of their time and energy gathering food. It’s easy to romanticize this period of human history (there were many wonderful things about it) but to watch a documentary like Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is to realize that subsistence living can be fairly bleak.

To have the modern luxury of doing something else with our time (like specializing in a career other than food gathering) requires a massive input of both invention and energy. Today, that energy comes in the form of “cheap” oil (cheap is in ironic quotes here because by now we all realize the high costs of oil, which are externalized from the profit and loss statements of fossil fuel companies, naturally).

Starting around 65 years go, we tripled agricultural production with oil—fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation and cultivation.

Today, agriculture consumes more petroleum than any other American industry. For every American eating food, an average of 400 gallons of oil equivalents are needed annually to farm the foods eaten by said American. (That doesn’t include the energy costs for packaging, refrigeration, transportation to markets, household cooking, or restaurant cooking.)

With oil doing more than our share of the farming work for us, our diets have grown grotesquely out of proportion.

If we removed fossil fuels from our farms and replaced that energy with human labor alone, each American would have to work 111 hours a day to feed himself today’s American diet. In other words, if our diets (and obesity levels) are impossible without fossil fuels, then moving to fossil free farming would require us to eat differently, too.

We must get off fossil fuels ASAP. Food is an area where we as individuals can make a big impact immediately.

It seems obvious in hindsight, but when we brought this massive external energy source into our farming system, it threw everything related to that system massively out of whack—our waistlines, our water and soil, our populations, and ultimately the entire climate.

To avoid global climate catastrophe, we must get off fossil fuels immediately. Food is an area where we as individuals can make a big impact immediately.

Where to begin?

From an energy standpoint, how much better is organic? Well, it’s more energy efficient primarily due to lower (or zero) fertilizer and pesticide use (which accounts for up to 80% of the energy consumed in some crops). With dairy, organic farms are about 5x more energy efficient on a per animal basis and 3.5x more energy efficient in terms of output (the energy required to produce a unit of milk).

That said, all those energy efficiencies can be wiped out if the food isn’t local.

Britain imports about 75% of its organic produce and only 2% of its land is organically farmed. This is the kind of insanity that cheap oil makes possible, because if it weren’t so “cheap” to ship, you can bet your sweet butter cookies Britain would convert more farms to organic—and requiring themselves to do so is the kind of thing that should be on the table at international carbon talks.

Beyond local and organic farming, we also need to adopt better farming practices, including no-till farming, permaculture, and reintroducing the once-massive herds of grazing animals that used to thunder from pole to pole unencumbered. These, too, should be part of climate talks.

Buying local and organic foods (or growing them in your own garden) is a big part of the solution. Yes, local organics are more expensive—but a lot less expensive in total if you reduce your meat consumption.

Choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet may be the single most impactful choice individuals can make to save the planet from climate change.

If a vegetarian or vegan diet is too much for you to consider, try this: become a Weekday Vegetarian. This way, you never have to think, “This is my last hamburger ever.”

Graham Hill from Treehugger explains how to go Weekday Vegetarian:

↑ Play Why I’m a Weekday Vegetarian.

One thing is certain: If we keep eating like we do every day we and our children will live in Paradise Lost.

Resources
  • Local Harvest: Find farmers’ markets, family farms, CSAs, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
  • Eat Well Guide: Find sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada. Very useful for travel.
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