Tanking up our food

Are shrinking oil supplies going to take dinner right off your table?

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The hidden calorie problem with North American food has less to do with the impact of greasy foods on waistlines and more to do with farmers’ dependence on greasy fossil fuels as the major feed stock of agriculture. As the UN honours World Food Day today (Thursday, October 16), I can’t help dwelling on the release earlier this month of a chilling new study by geologists at Sweden’s Uppsala University warning that the world is running out of oil almost as fast as the economy is finding new ways to make it even more necessary.

The scenario is referred to as “peak oil and gas,” and there’s even an Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas that monitors the latest info from geologists and explorers. Many experts predict a crisis within 50 years, and some look to big troubles by the end of this decade.

This could hold catastrophic consequences for what’s on your dinner plate. Agriculture, which was almost exclusively a solar industry until the 1950s, is now a smokestack industry.

Fossil-fuel use in farming has increased four-fold since then, and agriculture now consumes about 20 per cent of North American energy. According to research by Cornell University’s David Pimentel, it takes about 400 gallons of fuel a year to feed a typical North American.

To understand the vicious circle that led to the takeover of agriculture by the “oiligarchy,” check out John Bacher’s tour de force, Petrotyranny.

Progress must have seemed innocent enough when horse- and human-drawn ploughs were replaced with pricey tractors.

But keeping up with bank payments pressured farmers to specialize in cash crops and to grow those crops on the same fields year after year.

So tillers of the land stopped crop rotation, and before long they were buying fertilizers made from petrochemicals, which now account for 31 per cent of fossil-fuel use in North American agriculture.

And because growing one crop year after year in the same place is a magnet for pests, pesticide use shot up 33-fold over the last 20 years. Focusing on a single item requires wide-scale marketing, so 16 per cent of farm energy use now goes to transportation.

According to Pimentel, North American energy use is so over-the-top that 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy are needed to produce one calorie of food energy. With some products such as canned corn, the ratio is an incredible 100 to one.

World Food Day is meant to draw attention to the 840 million people around the world who go to bed hungry every night. But stories of peak oil and gas remind us of another dimension to food insecurity that is even more profound and systemic than poverty. Continued reliance on an obsolete and polluting power source may soon make eating too expensive for all but the world’s ultra-rich.

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