An Unsustainable Food Supply

Fur trappers and traders who came to North America in the 1600s and 1700s had to eat what they could forage and catch. Rabbits were plentiful in many regions at that time, and so they formed the bulk of some trappers’ diets. Those trappers who relied too heavily on rabbit meat often died of malnutrition. Rabbit meat takes more calories to procure than you get back from eating it. That balance is unsustainable, and yet it is exactly how the U.S. food system works.

A little bit of math

It takes approximately 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. That means, for a family of four with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, 930 gallons of gas per year will be required to produce and transport their food, not including that family driving to and from the grocery store. Since the average household in the U.S. consumes somewhere around 1,000 gallons of gas per year, the way we manage our food supply nearly doubles the already ridiculous amount of fuel each person is responsible for consuming. That kind of imbalance on a personal level will eventually kill you, and what we’re seeing on a national level is no different.

Approximately 15% of the energy supply in the United States goes into crop production, livestock production, food processing, and packaging. A Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science did the math for what that means for the big picture: if all of humanity were to go about food production the way the U.S. does, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. Wow, that’s wasteful!

Agricultural practices contribute greatly to global warming. Because of the complexity of the problem and the multitude of factors, it’s difficult to arrive at an accurate number, but it’s thought that approximately 33% of contributions to climate change are a direct result of the food supply system. Some of the factors are farm machinery, petroleum-based chemicals used in synthetic fertilizers, the manufacturing processes for agro-chemicals and fertilizers, the processing of major crops like corn and soy into a vast array of derived products, and the distribution over long distances of everything, including the final output. Animal agriculture itself accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all transportation in the globe (14%). (Others argue that the figure of 18% allows a large number of unallocated emissions that are really due to animal agriculture, bringing the figure up to 51% – read more here.)

Let’s take school lunches as an example, if only because a) they need to change anyway as they’re incredibly unhealthy for our children, and b) I can quote directly from an article by Tom Starrs, VP and COO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation:

“According to 2005 USDA National School Lunch Program participation figures, 29.6 million American school children were served nearly five billion meals at school last year. Typically these meals are highly processed, filled with conditioners, preservatives, dyes, salts, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. Usually they’re individually portioned and packaged, and travel thousands of miles to the school cafeteria.

School meals are commonly delivered frozen, wrapped and sealed in energy-consumptive packaging, and in need of some interval in a warming oven to thaw before being served to students. Studies of packaging and plate waste in school cafeterias indicate that, every day, as much as half, by weight, of these hasty, unappetizing, low-nutrient, highly processed and packaged meals is tossed by students — unopened, un”appreciated”, untasted, unrecycled and uncomposted. The energy needed to collect and transport the waste generated by school lunch must also be added to the net energy embedded in the meal.”

This is no different from food in the grocery store, which travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there, and is wastefully packaged to boot.

It’s the Monsanto monster again

A huge amount of agriculture and food supply mismanagement can be traced back to Monsanto & friends. The federal government has been convinced by lobbyists and money to subsidize over-production of monoculture crops such as corn and soy. They are genetically modified crops, grown in petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer, drenched in herbicides and insecticides, then either fed to cattle who can’t digest them or highly processed before going into your own food. Monsanto & friends get extremely-well paid, while you and I foot the bill, twice – once in our tax dollars funding their subsidies and once for increasingly expensive health care to treat our inevitable diet-related illnesses.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables that are fit for human consumption don’t receive subsidies. It’s really an upside-down system. We should be able to offer farmers subsidies to protect them from a year of drought, blight, etc., but not for purposeful overproduction of nutritionally useless and environmentally damaging crops that serve no purpose but to line the pockets of those in charge of unethical corporations.

Tipping point

With a rising global population, increases in droughts and flooding, and a beautiful planet that can’t take much more of what we’re throwing at her, we absolutely have to make our system more sustainable and energy-efficient if we’re going to survive. None of us can implement that change alone, but we can each make choices in our daily lives that will contribute, and we can urge others to do the same. If enough of us care and get involved, we can and will reach a tipping point where the system will have to change. It’s a top-down problem that we need to try to solve from the bottom-up. We all have to get involved. Buy local as much as possible. Go to farmer’s markets. Grow your own vegetables at home. Start to think about the net energy that goes into your food and the waste that results. Start or get involved in a local community garden, farm-to-school program, or food forest project. Above all, teach your children!

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2 responses »

  1. Great post, love the info!! Food science is such an interesting topic in our day and age. This article is really comprehensive and enlightening!

    Reply
    • You have a great blog as well. I love that you are coming to the discussion from the viewpoint of molecular biology. Our biggest asset (aside from the incredible planet we live on) is our ability to share information and cross-pollinate intellectual pursuits and ideas. Thank you for being part of it!

      Reply

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