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.


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.


6/2/2013 2:16:44 PM

***Dwindling Fossil fuels? I don't think so. New discoveries in shale show that the U.S. has more natural gas and crude oil than all the other countries of the world combined. The U.S. has enough fossil fuel to lat more than 300 years. Drill, baby, drill! I live smack dab in the middle of the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom and it's wonderful. Screw dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas!!

4/29/2013 9:01:59 PM

Too bad this article speaks about scare tactics and then uses them itself. The whole concept of "peak oil" has been shown to be false in anything approaching the time frame quoted. The sad part about "peak oil" scare tactics is how the date has been moving for the last 30 years.

The latest estimate of energy reserves in just North America outstrip all of the previous production in history. Yet the same old tired arguements keep being recycled over and over. :(

Do we need to be considerate of energy usage, yes! Do we need to have an energy policy dictated by fear and crank science, NO!

None of the current global warming models are even remotely accurate. Really not too surprising when you look at the hysteria that has always surrounded climate. Prior to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl events the leading science was explaining how the climate was getting better and better for the MidWest farming regions, kind of fell apart don't you know! Just like this article, filled with holes and old outdated information. :(

joshua larson
9/29/2012 11:38:14 PM

While i cant argue with the national debt argument i still believe that a food system based on unsustainable fossil fuels whether that be oil coal or natural gas is just not smart. I shudder to think what problem the future generations of human will face if we dont change that system and with human poplution skyrocketing upwards i dont honestly believe we will be able to produce enough food without killing the planet. And your right if we did try to save everyone it wouldnt work. I just hope it doesn't come to that and people with have enough sense to limit how many kids they have and to learn to live a more sustainalbe life.

t brandt
9/27/2012 10:56:20 PM

I've been concerned about energy conservation since I was a precocious kid in the '50s. I thought much like you, concerned that food production would necessarily fall precipitously when the petroleum runs out in less than a century. But over the past few yrs, we've discovered that we have in the US enough natural gas to supply our energy needs for 5-6 more centuries. converting the int comb engine to run on NG is really cheap and simple and it works just as well as gasoline. Energy won't be our linmiting factor. ..Now it's the national debt that threatens us with chaos, so we'll still have to worry about our food security....Noah didn't try to save everybody. Verbum sapienti...

joshua joshua
9/27/2012 4:43:27 PM

Robert and Jan you both bring up excellent points and i would like to add one more to it. Not only are these agricultural product produced but nearly everything that we take for granted is oil or fossil fuel based these days. Not only will we run into a huge food crunch when the oil runs or out or more likely get unspeakably expensive but we will start losing others basics like toothbrushes, synthetic rubber and plastics. Lets just say when the oil runs outs were going to be losing alot more that just cheap energy or food we are going to lose our whole way of life. Sorry to Robert if you feel I am using scare tatics but i dont think the evidence can be denied any longer on this topic. Its only a matter of time before the the *&*& hits the fan. I just hope that i will be ready by the time it does.

robert lacoe
3/5/2011 5:15:25 PM

One BIG problem is that we, in this country are not allowed to produce all the oil and natural gas we have discovered. For years I pushed for more ways to save fossil fuels and was laughed at. The extreme greenies want NO energy production or we would now have much more wind, solar,nuclear, water, wave energy. Companies in the 70's were producing small wind mills that were being used all over Texas and Oklahoma, but taxes and federal regulations put them out of business. We have to stop all the scare tactics, use everything we have, and allow people to develop energy sources we do not have at this time.

jan steinman
2/16/2011 4:49:24 PM

Before the widespread use of fossil fuel, it took fifteen families on the land to support each family living in the city. But today, there are hundreds of people in cities for every one who produces food. This cannot continue. Someday, once again, there will be more people on the land than in the cities. This may happen sooner than anyone thinks.

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