The Oil We Eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq

Quick! Which is worse from an environmental perspective: a Hummer, or a bowl of breakfast cereal? Well?

What’s your answer?

When presented with this (ostensibly) laughably easy choice, most people would pick the Hummer, no contest. In fact, most people wouldn’t even see the point of the question.

Believe it or not, the question isn’t entirely frivolous. From “The Oil We Eat,” an article by Richard Manning (in Harper’s Magazine):

“A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. … That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the food from the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by millions of people driving to thousands of super discount stores on the edge of town, where the land is cheap.”

Of course, demonizing breakfast cereal isn’t exactly the main point of the article. For the most part, Manning takes broader strokes, aiming mainly at the radical inefficiency of modern day agriculture. It’s enlightening, even if you do have some understanding of the costs incurred by the inefficiency (e.g., overuse of fertilizer, cross-country transportation of foods for year-round availability, etc.). You can find the article online—for the time being, anyway—at the Portland (Oregon) Indymedia web site.

It’s an excellent, excellent article. It’s long, but highly worthwhile.

If you’re still deliberating with yourself, wondering whether or not this article is for you, read on. Otherwise, read the article.

Some Highlights

I’ll attempt to pull out some of the more concentrated bits from the article, some of the key ideas of Manning’s arguments, but what follows should in no way be construed as any kind of complete argument or even an adequate distillation of the article. Rather, these highlights should merely give you a better sense of the article—and perhaps a better idea of whether or not you want to read the article in its entirety. Keeping that in mind, here are some of the highlights:

  • The roots of corn, rice, and wheat are in catastrophe: the reason these crops store so much energy in their seeds (and why they are so prized) is because they are built for catastrophe.

    “There is a group of annuals… that grow in patches of a single species and store almost all of their income as seed… Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers.

    “Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa’s fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.”

  • Technology results in an increasing greediness of crops: New techniques in agriculture, in terms of resource use, actually manage to be less efficient in many ways.

    “By mining the iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not farmable. At the same time, it extended its boundaries across time, tapping fossil energy, stripping past assets.”

  • The oil-to-nutrient energy ratio is rising:

    “The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There’s a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.”

  • Fossil fuel reserves are seriously threatened by Western appetites:

    David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

  • Crops vs. food:

    “America’s biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can’t eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can’t eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don’t. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food.”

(via Harper’s: “The Oil We Eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq”, by Richard Manning (February 2004))