Our oil-laden food chain

I alluded to this in my previous post, but I want to reiterate that it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce the food that we eat every day. When I stop to think about this, I get this image of gasoline being poured on my food. Pictured that way, the idea that we use a lot of oil on food is easy to dismiss, but the truth is that there are myriad ways that oil makes it into the food chain. And this is something we must be aware of, since once there are oil shortages, it's not just going to be lines at the pump--there might also be lines at the grocery stores.

I don't claim to be an expert on the food production system from planting to delivery at the Safeway, but I think it's worth highlighting just a few of the areas where oil is crucial to give you a picture.

Just to get started, according to this estimate, the food production system uses 17% of all of the fossil fuel consumed in the US.

1. Fertilizer

We didn't always grow food the way that big agribusiness companies grow it now. In fact, it wasn't until the 1950's, when the Green Revolution came about, that we used anything much more than cow manure and sunlight to grow crops. The Green Revolution led to several new techniques in agriculture, including massive irrigation, the use of heavy machinery like harvesters, widespread introduction of pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. It's the latter that really revolutionized the yield of crops per capita, but it also seriously increased our dependence on fossil fuel. Fossil fuels like oil and natural gas are combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia, which is the major component necessary in fertilizer.

So, how much fertilizer do we use in a year? According to this site, from June 2001 to June 2002, the US used 12,009,300 short tons of nitrogen fertilizer. In order to produce one kg of fertilizer, it takes the energy equivalent of 1.4 liters of diesel fuel. Using this as a conversion factor, we see that in that time period, 96.2 million barrels of oil were necessary just for fertilizer. Let's put this against another landmark. This website estimates that there are about 7 billion barrels of oil in ANWR. (This is a pretty moderate estimate, given the USGS's (probably inflated) estimate of 10.4 billion barrels.) In any case, this would give us 73 years worth of fertilizer, if only we could use all of ANWR for just fertilizer. In fact, it's really more like 3.65 years (since fertilizer accounts for about 31% of the oil used in food production, not including packaging and transport).

2. Cattle feed

70-80% of the grain produced in the US goes to cattle feed. This site claims that "it now takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grainfed beef in the United States. The annual beef consumption of an average American family of four requires more than 260 gallons of fuel." Another estimate claims that 35 calories of fossil fuel are required to produce one calorie of beef, and 68 calories for pork.

Keep in mind that "a given quantity of grain eaten directly will feed 5 times as many people as it will if it is first fed to livestock and then is eaten indirectly by humans in the form of livestock products...." (M.E. Ensminger).

Here are even more numbers. By switching from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet, each person could reduce energy consumption by at least 25% annually. (Unfortunately, I don't know if these numbers include packaging and transportation in the energy consumption calculation.)
  • Average US meat diet = 1.1 gallons of oil/day = 401 gallons/year
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian = .83 gallons of oil/day = 303 gallons/year (25% reduction over meat diet)
  • Vegan vegetarian = .60 gallons of oil/day = 219 gallons/year (45% drop over meat diet)
At the very least, we should consider switching to an all-organic diet, but vegetarians consume even less fossil fuels per year.

3. Processing and Transport

I'm not going to discuss packaging in detail, but there are a few numbers that are pretty surprising (see also Horrigan et al. for even higher estimates).
  • Processing 1lb of frozen fruits or vegetables: 825 (food) calories, plus 559 calories for packaging, plus energy for refrigeration during transport, at the store, and in homes.
  • Processing a 1lb can of fruits or vegetables: 261 calories, plus 1006 calories for packaging.
  • Processing breakfast cereals: about 7000 calories per pound, when a 1lb box of cereal only contains ~2000 consumable calories.
Transport is, in a sense, a two-fold problem. First, 34% of the energy dedicated to agricultural production is used for the diesel and gasoline that farm vehicles use. Perhaps more importantly, though, it has been estimated that some fruits and vegetables travel 1200-1500 miles from farm to store. Most of our food is trucked, even though trucking is 10x less efficient than transport by rail or barge. Norman Church says that 127 calories of aviation fuel are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce from the US to the UK--similar numbers are given for the transport of asparagus and carrots. (See also Prof Goose's earlier post.) Even worse, the UK imports 75% of its organic produce, thereby nearly negating the benefits gained from organic farming methods which don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So, what should we do? Well, this post is already getting long, so it's a good thing that I've already laid out some of the answers in my previous post. Eat organic, become vegetarian if you dare, buy foods that have as little packaging as you can find. Don't eat as much processed food (i.e. eat lower on the food chain)--learn to love your kitchen. If you have to pick something up for dinner, get it from a salad bar or a cash-and-carry place, and bring your own containers! Buy from bulk bins. Even one or two of these things will put you on a path toward conservation, which will hopefully play a large role in flattening out the peak.

Go to the postings for today

Technorati Tags: ,

Don't forget the tremendous amount of diesel fuel it takes to (a) apply fertilizer and (b) harvest the crops.

Yes, I believe that's factored into the 34% of agricultural production energy that goes to the use of farm vehicles (under "Processing and Transport").

Barry Swartz, in "The Paradox of Choice," tells us that markets commonly carry 30,000 different items today.

I see this as a tremendous opportunity. As prices rise (in the "slow" scenario) the worst energy offenders will drop out, freeing resources for the efficient.

I sometimes mention the worst case I've ever seen - half dozens of free range chicken eggs imported (no doubt flown) from New Zealand to Newport Beach California.

Anyway it will be interesting to see what drops out first - the only cloud would be if subsidies arrive to preserve inefficient practices.

The American public loves diet fads. Maybe we should introduce the "Peak Oil Diet". Instead of merely reducing calorie content in foods, the Peak Oil Diet would also reduce the calories required to grow, process, and transport the food.

People have proven to be very adept at food accounting (e.g., carbs, Weight Watchers "points"). Let's put their obsessive-compulsive abilities to work on figuring how much oil is required for their meals!

BTW, I'm only half-joking.

Super G - write a book, quick!

Let's try another way of looking at this.

Assume that:

1. Peak oil means "no cheap oil", not "no oil", a very non-controversial view among energy geeks.

2. No energy efficiency changes are made in how we grow, process, transport, etc. food. Obviously this is ridiculous, as it says that all parts of the food infrastructure are controlled by people immune to basic economics, and that they won't do so much as run trucks on biodeisel or use hybrid vehicles as fuel costs rise.

3. No changes are made to the mix of products we eator the packaging we use for food. Again, this is ridiculous; we would certainly expect at least some companies and people to be rational enough to make some of the changes mentioned in the main article.

4. The percentage of the price we pay for food that is directly attributable to the cost of oil (not energy), averaged across the entire current product mix, is 25%. This is a wild-ass guess, but I strongly suspect that the actual number is lower.

5. Oil rises in price by a factor of 5, from today's roughly $55/barrel to $275/barrel, over a period of, say, 5 years. I think it won't rise nearly this much, but let's use a high number just for the sake of creating an intentionally extreme example.

The price of food would then double. Some items would no doubt increase more, some less. This would place a high economic burden on low-income households, possibly leading to a food-stam-like program that reaches further up the economic scale than past efforts, but it wouldn't cause food shortages or dire consequences.

If you make more realistic assumptions about the market response to rising oil prices, and the level of those oil prices, the impact on the consumer only goes down from the projected 100% increase.

Frankly, I'm far more concerned about other peak oil effects, like unemployment resulting from the early stages of our transition to the age of expensive oil. E.g. I would not want to work for an airline right now.

odo -

There are already farmers in Texas (big-time farmers, thousands of acres) greasing the wheels for additional subsidies. At the same time, the number of all organic small farms is skyrocketing. My parents would have done that but they are a bit too old to get out and get dirty with composting and planting and such.

The whole deal about taking orders before the season and then delivering to the city folks works with cheap oil, but the delivery will likely have to be curtailed. It will hurt this growing lifestyle as much as the big guys, unfortunately.

Another thing that people will have to adapt to is local produce selection. Everybody is not going to be able to have whatever they wish, but more like whatever is available from local or regional farms.

Pineapples will go back to being an exotic fruit, as will lots of other items, for awhile. I have found that if you want to grow something, you can generally figure out a way to do it, unless it involves a mature tree too big for a greenhouse.

hmmm...bonsai pecans or olives maybe?

Local foods--yes, of course. On the east coast we'll learn to love squash and turnip in the winter.

But Lou, I disagree that food isn't going to become a big issue (or that a 2x rise in prices isn't going to have such a huge effect). If we have to severely limit the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used, then we'd essentially be back to pre-Green Revolution farming methods, or at least levels.

Imagine that such methods would cut the amount of grain produced in this country by half (there's a statistic about this somewhere but I can't find it now). Well, we'd be in big trouble, since as it is 70-80% of grain goes to cattle feed. Would we keep trying to feed the cows? I sure hope not, but you never do know. In any case, such a reduction in grain would lead to food shortages--rationing, as you mention--and lots of people would go hungry, especially the poor.

And of course, grains are just for starters.


That is only assuming, that all increases in cost can be passed down to the consumer, and that no fuel and ferilizer shortages develop. If shortages develop, then the just in time supply system from the farm to the store collapses, and you then have much higher prices than the 100% you came up with.

My understanding is that natural gas is the preferred source for nitrogen fertilizer, both from a cost and pollution standpoint. While there is a peak natural gas issue, we will first confront peak North American natural gas. At this point production of fertilizer can be shifted overseas. In other words, importation of fertilizer avoids the headaches of importing LPG. Even when natural gas becomes an uneconomical source, coal can be a source of ammonia used to produce nitrates, though a dirtier source. I understand China currently relies principally on coal.

That said, and having just finished Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, I understand how agriculture in many other countries is a more marginal enterprise—and thus more dependent on fertilizer—than the US. Small changes in costs could be disastrous in the third world. Even looking at the per cent of disposable income spent on food, I see ranges of 10% (US) to 51% (India). A 50% increase in food costs may be bearable here, but catastrophic in India. (Though I assume we are more sensitive to oil costs than India since it is our supermarkets that are stocked with the grapes from Chile.)

The impact of peak oil on food is definitely a worry, though before it causes pain in the middle-class American, we will first see misery in the Third World on our TV sets. Then we’ll see the local food banks in the US overwhelmed.

From this post, the changes the individual person needs to make to respond to Peak Oil (or Peak Natural Gas) are pretty simple: Shop at your local farmer's market for as much of your food as possible, and cut back on the amount of meat that you eat.

If you don't have a local farmer's market, ask yourself, why? If it is because there are no local produce farmers, perhaps you need to seriously consider where you live, as you may be living in a place where food supply is going to become pretty dicey as the effects of Peak Oil ripple through the economy.

The US has already shut down some domestic fertilizer plants and is substituting imported nitrate (ammonium nitrate and urea travel a lot better than LNG).

All you need to fix nitrogen in industrial quantitites is hydrogen, and you CAN get hydrogen from sunlight, water and the right algae.

Here is where you can get a longer of the UW/M version of article


Thanks, Rajiv.  Looks like that process would work well with cellulosic anything, from thinned trees and brush in fire-prone areas to switchgrass.  The unanswered question is, how do they go from polymers to sugars?

It appears that the first step, which "removes hydrogen" from carbohydrate, also releases carbon as carbon dioxide (otherwise the equations don't seem to balance).  If hydrogen is available, that CO2 could be turned into methanol by existing processes.  Methanol can be used to replace gasoline, turned into dimethyl ether and used as diesel fuel, or as chemical feedstock.


Yes, I'm assuming costs will be passed on to consumers. Why would I assume otherwise? All the intermediate steps of food production (in the largest sense fo the word) can't absorb those costs, so they'll pass them on to their customers, whether that's you and me at the store or the next company in the production chain.

Yes, I'm assuming there won't be fuel or fuel-derived product shortages. All the PO adherents (except for the apocalypticons), including me, constantly lecture people about how "peak oil doesn't mean no oil, it means no cheap oil". If we mean it, then there's no reason to assume there will be shortages.

The point I was trying to make in my earlier post is that the impact a rise in oil cost will have on the market cost of other products is determined by the amount that oil contributes to the cost of that product. The price of oil goes up, and gasoline goes with it, but the price of a jewelry box I make in my woodworking shop remains unchanged or rises only very slightly. Oil contributes a relatively small percentage to the cost of food, so I don't see it skyrocketing in price.

If there's some credible analysis out there that says high oil prices will result in a shortage of food or some input critical to food production, I would appreciate knowing about it. I've looked, and I can't find any analysis that's even close to being convincing. Hand-waving by the online apocalypticons (NOT a reference to you or anyone else here) definitely doesn't count.


If you look at the economic history of famines, you will find that underlying causes of the famine were somewhat different than the supply hiccups. The supply hiccups tended to be the triggers. These triggers could result in large price fluctuations, and these could potentially be devastating.

From http://www.worldbank.org/html/dec/Publications/Briefs/DB28.html

According to Amartya Sen of Harvard University, hunger is best seen in terms of the failure of people to establish command over an adequate amount of food and other necessities (known as the entitlement theory). A person may have few means of commanding food if he or she has no job, no other sources of income, and no social security. The hunger that will result can coexist with a plentiful supply of food in the economy and the markets. Famines have, in fact, occurred in situations of high food availability---sometimes even peak food availability.

Also from http://ideas.repec.org/a/aea/jeclit/v35y1997i3p1205-1242.html

Famines have happened with and without crop failures or wars. But they invariably entail a collapse in the command over food of vulnerable subgroups within a society, whether through loss of endowment or a contraction in the amount of food that can be acquired from given endowments. Thus economic analysis can help understand famines, viewed as tragic aperiodic magnifications of normal market and governmental failures. Recent literature in economics and other fields has reflected this change in the conceptualization of famines, and it has come with policy implications for famine relieve and prevention.

More than 40% of the income Americans spend on food is spent on eating out.

Some estimates show that 60% of Americans are obese.

Maybe our food should be more expensive.

Here is part of the point I was trying to make.

Fuel costs this harvest season are running a third more than a year ago, Farris said.

"We are really caught in the squeeze with these fuel prices," he said.

To cope, Farris has eliminated all the driving he can and even bought an old, used minivan to ferry his crew around so he does not have to run the bigger, gas-guzzling vehicles as much.

High fuel prices also are driving up the costs of everything else cutters have to buy. The high steel prices have already caused steep jumps in the prices of farm equipment and repair parts, he said.

While many cutters are passing some of the additional costs along to farmers with fuel surcharges, the low grain prices make it difficult for farmers to absorb all the increased costs.

"There were quite a few harvesters that quit this year," Hermesch said. "For a lot of them it was a last-minute decision. They decided they did not want to fight high fuel prices."

The above was from me

I don't see that CSA/local produce farms would be especially hurt; their gigantic monocropping competitors probably have to deliver much further.

More importantly, a smallish organic farm growing a broad range of crops (as is likely, on a s.o.f.) can provide more of a customer's diet for more of the year. Being near the biggest, best asparagus farm in the world would be less useful, as transport got more expensive.

Has anybody noticed that there are lots of fruits and veggies we used to get that are not appearing on shelves this summer?