Exploring Human Potential

Food and Energy

Posted on | October 27, 2008 | Comments Off on Food and Energy

Connected at the hip If we Americans really want energy independence, we should take a long hard look at our food system. Believe it or not, second only to automobiles, food consumes the most fossil fuel on a day to day basis — an unbelievable 19% of our total consumption.  How is that possible?

To answer that question, you have to go back in history to the immediate period, post-World War II.  That’s when nitrogen-based fertilizers and insecticides were developed and became huge factors in agriculture. Along the way, they helped to centralized American farming and created cheap food and lots of it — but not without a cost in declining health of our citizens, our environment and our overall security.

In 1940, it took less than one half a calorie of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. Today it takes roughly 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. These increases in energy consumption include the clearing of land, the use of chemical fertilizers made from natural gas and insecticides made from petroleum, the running of farm machinery, the transport far and wide locally and globally and back again, and the packaging and over-packaging of what we eat.

In that earlier time when crop plants and animals served each other on common real estate, and fed people close to home, grasses and grains fed the animals. Animal waste nourished the soil. And the enriched soil supported the next years’ growth of grasses and grains. But with the appearance of fertilizers and insecticides, and reinforced by agriculture subsidies, American farming went monoculture. Farms became larger and larger, and year after year produced fewer and fewer types of food locally.

As costs of grain dropped, and new agriculture technologies emerged, the costs of related agriculture came down as well – including animal production. Cheap, subsidized grain meant cheap, subsidized calorie-laden beverages and cheap, subsidized meat. And that opened the way for our fast food industry. Today, the average American consumes 1/2 pound of meat each and every day. This shift in the American diet has been accompanied by an epidemic of child obesity and by direct linkages to chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

The negative health consequences for Americans are mirrored by declines in environmental health as well. By one estimate, 37% of the greenhouse gases we emit are tied to our agricultural production and distribution system.  Experts like food advocate Michael Pollan call for elimination of subsidies, a move back to localized and regional farming, incentivizing and rewarding farmers for crop and animal diversity, and a variety of other reforms in agriculture. In addition to these measures, our national food policies should ensure maximum safety and security of the food supply and improve the health of our environment rather than promote declining health standards for all. To learn more about how our national food policies have led to problems, watch this week’s video, included with this blog post – it’s taken from our Health Politics archives. You’ll need to visit the Health Politics website to watch this video. You can also read a longer version of this blog post, with more detail.

What’s your opinion on this topic? Join the discussion by leaving a comment!

See Also

  • Farmer Demographics
    This website, from the American Farm Bureau, provides background on how agriculture is changing in the United States.
  • Corn and Ethanol
    This Health Politics program examines our nation’s ethanol policies and how they have affected food production.


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