With a gallon of gasoline in America now averaging almost $4.00, the topic of oil dependence is timely.

Cheap oil and other fossil fuels have helped create the modern American economy, and to a lesser extent, the economies of other industrialized cultures around the world.  Big industry totally depends on them.  Naturally, this includes the food industry.

Let’s list some of the ways in which cheap fossil fuels sustains the conventional food system in America.

  1. Factory farm grain is sown and harvested using enormous tractors that run on fossil fuels.
  2. Factory farms depend on fertilizers, which are made using fossil fuels.
  3. Factory farm chemicals are dispersed with vehicles that run on fossil fuels.
  4. Factory farm corn and soy are transported long distances to industrial feeding operations in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  5. Factory farm animals are transported to industrial feeding operations in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  6. Factory farm manure is managed with vehicles using fossil fuels.
  7. Factory farm animals are transported to slaughterhouses in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  8. Factory farm corn and soy are transported long distances to industrial processing facilities in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  9. Industrial processing facility workers are transported long distances to and from work in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  10. Factory farm dairy, meat, vegetables, and processed foods are packaged with materials made from fossil fuels.
  11. Factory farm dairy, meat, vegetables, and processed foods are transported long distances to supermarkets using fossil fuels.
  12. Factory farm consumers travel to and from supermarkets in vehicles using fossil fuels.
  13. Industrial food products are shipped around the world in vessels using fossil fuels.

According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivor’s Dilemma, in the industrial food system, “it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food, ” and that’s before the food even leaves the farm!  Pollan states, “from the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink the petroleum directly.”

According to Polyface Farms farmer and author Joel Salatin, the current industrial food model that fossil fuels made possible is revolutionary, but not in healthy way.  In his new book, Folk, this ain’t normal, he explains that, prior to the modern age, energy was a precious and rare commodity.  He states:

Not very long ago, the average person was responsible for his own energy. … [A person] had to maintain a horse to travel somewhere.  That horse required care and feed.  [The person] had to cut wood with an ax and crosscut saw to feed the woodstove and, before woodstoves, the incredible inefficient fireplace.  Waterwheels often powered gain mills and sawmills.  Later, steam engines powered these things, as well as trains.  Coal gradually replaced wood.  Lights came from candles made from animal fat.  All of this took lots of time.

Joel then goes on:

Because energy was precious, people tended to live close to their work.  Driving to the office was too expensive and laborious. … Craftspeople tended to live over their shops.  Communing into work was not only impractical, it was undesirable and inefficient.  Suburban developments only became possible, and will only remain so, as long as energy is cheap. … Food had to be grown close to consumption because transporting it was too expensive.  Feedstuffs for animals, whether it was grain or grass, had to be grown and consumed on the same farm; nothing else was possible.

Joel then explains that cheap energy is what allowed for the development of the current large-scale industrial paradigm.  He explains that, with the arrival of cheap energy:

The butcher, baker, and candlestick mater, formerly embedded in the village, were summarily removed from the community because with cheap energy, their businesses could grow beyond local energy carrying capacity. … Ordinary industries that had been shackled to a village scale could suddenly grow unimpeded. … The huge industrial factories could not be nestled into the village.

Joel argues that this bigness had serious downsides.  First, removal of industry, including the food industry, from villages and towns where consumers could interact with producers removed transparency from the industrial process and fostered ignorance and complacency among consumers on the topic of industrial processes.  Joel states:

These mega-industries actually became repugnant to neighbors, so much so that the businesses erected large security fences to keep out curious eyes that could testify about pollution or worker abuse.  Whenever an economic sector cloisters itself behind opaqueness, it will begin taking environmental, social, and economic shortcuts.  Integrity occurs when people can see what’s going in at the front door and what’s coming out the back door.  Absent that accountability, you lose integrity.

Second, large industry’s dependence on cheap oil leaves it very vulnerable to destruction in the event that cheap oil ends.  In other words, large-scale industry made possible by cheap oil is not only revolutionary, it is temporary and may someday disappear.  According to Joel:

The reality is that bonanzas don’t survive for very long, and that is what cheap energy is: a bonanza.  I don’t know how long it will last, but the way to bet is that we will return to a more normal energy cost sometime in the future.

Energy costs could skyrocket for many reasons.  An increasingly discussed reason is the arrival of “peak oil”, the point at which the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached, after which the supply of oil will enter permanent decline.  Debate exists on whether peak oil has already occurred.

Regardless of whether peak oil has occurred, the question remains.  When fossil fuel is no longer affordable, and therefore, food is no longer affordable, who will have food to eat?

I’ll put my money on those who eat local.



Photo by Michelle Meiklejohn, whose portfolio may be viewed by going to http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=901.

Joel Salatin, Folks, this ain’t normal, p. 146-149, Center Street publishing, 2011.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 45-46, Penguin books, 2006.

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