How We Can Free Ourselves from a Fossil-Fuel-Soaked Diet

By gradually relocalizing our food production we can return to an agricultural system that is much less energy intensive.

The following is an excerpt from The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. It has been adapted for the Web.

You might think it was the business of agriculture to capture the energy of the sun for our nourishment. If you are thinking about the "food" that comes to reside on most Americans' tables at mealtime, you would be very wrong. Sunshine has little to do with it.

Instead, what you would find would mostly be a product of fossil fuels. There's the oil and natural gas for the manufacture of fertilizer (31 percent), for the operation of the machinery (19 percent), for the product's transportation (16 percent), irrigation (13 percent), pesticides (5 percent), and other miscellaneous squanderings (16 percent). And this doesn't even count the fossil fuels burned for the packaging, refrigeration, and transportation of that sunlight-deficient product from the retail outlet to the home. In sum, on average an American consumes 12 barrels of oil equivalents (504 gallons) for energy used in the home, 10 barrels (420 gallons) for food production and distribution, and another 9 barrels (378 gallons) for transportation.

The 420 gallons of oil equivalents used to produce the average 2,175 pounds of food a year the average American eats (compared to the world average of 1,630 pounds) boils down to spending 10 fossil-fuel calories for each one food calorie. It doesn't sound like a good idea, nor does it sound efficient, but that's what most of us depend on to stay alive every day -- fossil calories.

How did things get to such a sorry state? As with many things, our move toward convenience has come at the cost of our independence. Where at one time many families grew some of their own food and knew the grower of any other food they consumed, now the grower of our food is on average 1,500 miles away, and oftentimes much farther. We had the misfortune of buying some garlic grown in China recently. Growing this staple 8,000 miles away seems like a bad idea to us, but most Americans don't realize nor do they care where the garlic they buy comes from. In 2005, garlic imports rose to 100 million pounds, while being almost nonexistent five years earlier. If this is what the wisdom of the marketplace dictates, then we suggest that the market is not very bright.

The very large distances we are making our food travel has another downside. This is the removal of nutrients from where they are needed: where the food is being grown. Exporting produce thousands of miles away ensures that the nutrients locked in that food cannot ever be returned to the soil from which they came to cycle through again. This deficiency ensures the missing nutrients must be replaced by fossil fuels or other fossil accumulations that are being rapidly depleted, such as phosphorus.

When we consider these facts in the context of peak fossil energy and global climate disruption, then it's not surprising if our first reaction is some good oldfashioned fear and loathing. Not only is our food system consuming unsustainable amounts of energy (a 10-to-1 ratio of calories in to calories out), it's also overconsuming our water and topsoil resources at a prodigious rate. Can there be any hope of rectifying a situation that has gone so awry?

The first thing to note is that, generally speaking, we in the United States could use a little less food, anyway, especially with obesity rates at all-time highs. So the fact that food prices might rise at first as we have less fossil energy available is, for most of us, not such a dire situation. Moving our diet from lots of higher-energyinput foods like meat and cheese to more vegetables, beans, and grains will not only be cheaper and use much less energy for the same amount of food calories, but the net result will be a healthier population. Heavily processed junk and fast food should also increase in price relative to healthier unprocessed items, since the processing requires large energy inputs. Unfortunately, the price of this type of food has never reflected its true cost in terms of pollution, animal welfare, fossil energy depletion, and adverse health effects, the latter afflicting poorer folks disproportionately due to its subsidized cheapness and availability.

Fortunately, the same path that brought us down into this fossilized abyss is the same one we can take back out. By gradually relocalizing our food production we can return to an agricultural system that is much less energy intensive. If there's one good thing about a system being so grossly inefficient and out of whack (producing so little food calories for the energy calories that went in), it's that dramatic improvements can be made very quickly once we realize the need to turn around. The myriad problems that seem overwhelming all stem from a common disease: the fact that we've let our food production and distribution get out of our hands and into the paws of profit-grubbing corporations. If instead of buying nonorganic (and, hence, heavily pesticide-and fertilizer-dependent) canned goods at some big-box grocer that we have to drive to, we grow some veggies in our own yard and get the balance from a local farmer, we've eliminated the vast majority of tomato-miles it takes to keep our tummies full. Spending a fall afternoon planting a few blueberry bushes will result in tens of pounds of blueberries in just a few years. Thinking about how many clear plastic half-pint blueberry containers this will save from being brought into existence almost blows the mind (not even to mention how many dollars will remain in your wallet!).

Aiming for total food self-sufficiency will quickly lead to burnout, as the labor demands of such an endeavor quickly become overwhelming. Instead of trying to leap to the finish line, consider your goal of fossil-fuel-free food to be a meander through a beautiful park. Each year, plant a few more edible perennials, grow some hardy low-maintenance veggies (see what's doing well in your neighbors' gardens), and maybe experiment with mushroom cultivation. Make sure to patronize local farmers' markets, food stands, and community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

Food is the foundation of community. A healthy garden naturally produces more than one person can consume. The surplus must be shared, stored, or wasted. Sharing the bounty of the garden will quickly lead to meals together with friends and neighbors, which in turn will lead to other socioeconomic connections: trading skills and lending tools, carpooling, taking care of a vacationing neighbor's cat or dog. Food weaves the community together like the vast interacting community of earthworms, mycelia, plant roots, and other microfauna and flora that exists in the soil just beneath our feet.

Rebekah and Stephen Hren are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit from Chelsea Green.
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