Thursday, August 11, 2005

The oil we eat

It's the name of another article from Harper's

The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years’ worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized...

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.

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.

And sure enough, there go food prices:

High gas prices may not only pinch your wallet at the pump but also at the supermarket. Some stores and even restaurants may have to charge more to cover their costs.

Talk about sticker shock. Hal Spradlin couldn't believe pump prices when he filled up his delivery truck Tuesday morning. Usually $65 gets him close to a full tank. But Tuesday? "Three-quarters of a tank," Spradlin said. And by week's end, Hal will nearly pay three times as much. "It's an average of $180 a week to fill this thing up. Twenty cents a gallon makes a big difference," said Spradlin.

If you think what Hal pays at the pump doesn't affect you, you're wrong. Hal delivers produce for Sam Okun, a food wholesale business in downtown Toledo. Even though the company does not charge extra for gas, the increase cost is built in to the price of some products. "Lettuce that cost us $8 before, we were getting $10 now. We are [selling it for] $10.50.

And that's not all the other areas where petroleum impacts the food chain.

Oh boy...we're in trouble...

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