Environment Picture

Fuel for thought

Strawberries from Chile? Eat ‘em up, but be mindful that their true cost is more than you pay at the register
An older British woman once described how as a child she would savor the first strawberries picked in season. Nowadays, she said, they just don’t taste as good because you can buy them any time you want at the supermarket. What, besides nostalgia for a simpler and sweeter time, do we really pay for year-round strawberries? For starters, consider the embedded energy resources they represent.

Those store-bought berries were likely grown far away from Michigan, perhaps in California, Mexico or even Chile. Transporting them thousands of miles burned massive amounts of fuel—increasing both pollution, dependence on foreign oil and cost to the consumer. Producing and handling food closer to consumers can dramatically cut fossil fuel use, thereby reducing emissions of global warming pollution.

Transporting agricultural products is only one stage in the energy life cycle of our food. Plenty of diesel fuel is also burned in moving vast amounts of seed, fertilizer, pesticides and animal feed to the farmer. And where do these materials come from? They are made with energy. Most fertilizers, for example, contain nitrogen stripped from non-renewable natural gas through an industrial process.

On the farm, conventional methods rely heavily on powered machinery to till soil, pump irrigation water, spread seed and other materials, and harvest crops. Here we come face-to-face with a key feature of modern society: access to cheap fossil-based energy enables us to artificially supplement natural plant functions such as nutrient extraction and disease and insect management. Machinery has also largely displaced human labor from the farm. These technological changes have greatly increased agricultural efficiency and crop yields. But more energy is now consumed to produce the same amount of food.

According to a recent Johns Hopkins University report, U.S. agriculture consumes three energy input calories, on average, to produce one edible food calorie. The ratio for grain-fed beef is actually 35:1, showing that typical meat products are far more energy-intensive than fruits and vegetables.

Another study found that processing and packaging, and household storage and preparation both require more energy inputs than agricultural growing and production. The same study estimated that the entire U.S. food system accounts for one tenth of our national energy budget, a tremendous figure.

Embracing a system of agriculture more local, seasonal and chemical-free would yield multiple health, environmental and economic benefits. Going forward, pay close attention to the cost of milk, cereal and other corn-dependent products as ethanol gains in popularity. And watch out for rising food prices after the next major oil shock.
-David Gard, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: climate change, food policy
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