Dwindling Fossil Fuels and Food System Energy Costs

The high energy costs of our modern food system are sustainable only so long as current levels of fossil fuel production are sustainable, a relationship threatened by the impending arrival of peak oil. How long can we depend on fossil fuels to facilitate the transfer of food from farm to fork?

| August/September 2010

  • food system energy costs - green combine
    How much fuel did it take to produce the food on your table? The food system we depend on today has become a voracious machine with unsustainably high energy costs.
  • U.S. Food System Energy Use
    Our modern food system “eats” a lot of oil.

  • food system energy costs - green combine
  • U.S. Food System Energy Use

Since 1981, the quantity of oil extracted from the earth has exceeded new oil discoveries by an ever-widening margin. In 2008, the world pumped 31 billion barrels of oil, but discovered fewer than 9 billion new barrels. World reserves of conventional oil are in a free fall, decreasing every year.

It can’t be denied: Agriculture uses a vast amount of oil. Most tractors use gasoline or diesel fuel. Irrigation pumps use diesel, natural gas or coal-fired electricity. Fertilizer production also is energy-intensive. Natural gas is used to synthesize the basic ammonia building block in nitrogen fertilizers. The mining, manufacture and international transport of phosphate and potash fertilizers all depend on oil. Our answer to the question of how we can end world hunger has thus far been to focus on increases in agricultural technology. These advances, unfortunately, require even more fuel that entail ever higher energy costs.

Fertilizer production accounts for 20 percent of energy use on U.S. farms, and the demand for this fertilizer continues to climb. In addition, the international food trade separates producer from consumer by thousands of miles, further disrupting soil nutrient cycles. For example, the United States exports some 80 million tons of grain per year — grain that contains large quantities of basic plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The ongoing export of these nutrients will slowly drain the inherent fertility from U.S. cropland if the nutrients are not replaced.

This international food trade is responsible for more than just soil nutrient depletion. Sustainable farming alone cannot solve this problem.The amount of energy used to transfer goods from farmer to consumer equals two-thirds of the total amount of energy used to grow it on the farm (see “U.S. Food System Energy Use” chart in the Image Gallery). An estimated 16 percent of food system energy is used to can, freeze and dry food — everything from canned peas to frozen orange juice from concentrate.

Food miles — the distance food travels from producer to consumer — have risen in the United States thanks to cheap oil. Fresh produce routinely travels long distances, such as from California to the East Coast. Most of this produce moves on refrigerated trucks.

In the international food trade, staples such as wheat have historically moved long distances by ship — traveling from the United States to Europe, for example. But more recently, fresh fruits and vegetables have begun to travel vast distances by air; few activities are more energy-intensive. Packaging is surprisingly energy-intensive as well, accounting for 7 percent of food system energy use. Along with marketing, it also can account for much of the cost of processed foods. On average, a U.S. farmer gets only about 20 percent of the total consumer food dollar, and for some products, that figure is much lower.

6/4/2013 3:05:49 PM

shysterk, go hungry then and pay 10X more for your food, if tou can find it.

6/2/2013 10:41:14 PM

I am against drilling here in US. Here's why: even if we do extensive drilling here (and in the process, destroy our beautiful natural habitats), we will see neither a price decrease nor an increase in supply. There is no "American" oil company that I know of. And even if there is, in our "global economy", they will just sell it off somewhere else....never decreasing our cost at the pump one cent! Surprisingly, about two years ago, I learned that we were the biggest exporter of refined oil and gasoline. So while we cry "drill baby, drill", it will be foreign owned companies doing the drilling, spilling and profiting from the destruction of our most precious resource.....nature.

6/2/2013 2:29:39 PM

***You are spot on Patriot1st. Here's the latest on so-called global warming:

Arctic Sea Ice Continues To Expand, Silently

  • Date: 02/06/13
  • Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post

There is now more ice in the Arctic for this time of year than in recent years, says the Danish Meteorological Institute’s Centre for Ocean and Ice, which shows 2013 topping every year since 2005. See it http://probeinternational.org/library/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/DMI-May-31-2013.pdf.

Not only do current ice levels exceed those of recent years, says data from the International Arctic Research Center and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Center, but  the Arctic is today more ice-bound than it’s been, on average, over the last two decades. See it http://probeinternational.org/library/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IARC-JAXA-May-31-2013.pdf.

That’s nothing, says data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, an American organization assisted by NASA. The Arctic now has more ice — 269 million square kilometres more – than in 1995. See it http://probeinternational.org/library/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/NSDIC-May-31-2013.pdf.

Will the Arctic ice expand or contract in future? I’ll keep you posted periodically should it continue to expand relative to recent years. If it contracts, I won’t need to let you know – you’ll hear about it in the nightly news and all the morning papers.




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