Sustainable Living – Eating (Yuchh) Oil

By Shawn Dell Joyce   

Americans eat almost as much fossil fuels as we burn in automobiles.  American agriculture directly accounts for 17 percent of our energy use, or the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil consumed by every man, woman and child per year according to 1994 statistics.

We have seen a major leap in farm productivity in the last 50 years with food production doubling and even tripling in the case of cereal grains. This amazing leap did not come from new farms or farmlands since we have lost more than half our small farms in that same period. Farmlands are also in decline and being gobbled up by urban sprawl.

 These massive gains in food production are due to the use of synthetic fertilizer and, to a smaller extent, better plant hybrids. “Two out of every five humans on this earth would not be alive today” without the widespread use of chemical fertilizer, says Vaclav Smil, Canadian professor, author, and energy expert.

We are eating fossil fuels in the form of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  These marvelous inventions can be traced directly to Jewish chemist Fritz Haber. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 for “improving agriculture” through his invention of nitrate fertilizer. Unfortunately, Haber’s invention was also used by the Nazis to create Zyklon B, the gas used in the infamous death camps.

Today, a formulation based on Haber’s  Zyklon B is spread “in quantities of over 50 million metric  tons per year” on American farms as insecticides according to author and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins.  This is 20 times more pesticide used than when Rachel Carson wrote her compelling book “Silent Spring,” warning of environmental catastrophe occurring from pesticide overuse.

 The unpalatable truth about our oil-based food system is that “ it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to make 1 calorie of food energy” according to a study by David Pimentel, and Mario Giampietro published by the Carrying Capacity Institute. This scary statistic only takes into account the production of the food itself. If you factor in the processing, packaging, transportation, refrigeration and all of the other petroleum-intensive processes that statistic can inflate to 87 calories of fuel per calorie of food.


Why so much? Most of our food travels an average of 1500 “food miles” to get from the farm to our fork. Once these “fossil foods” get to our house we spend even more energy on refrigerating and cooking until each bite we eat is literally marinated in fossil fuels.
      We must start the transition now from the “S.U.V. diet” to a “low carbon diet.”  But how can all earth’s people be fed without fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides degrading the environment?

 What sustainable agriculture advocates call “organic farming practices” was simply the right way to do it for many centuries. This “new” model could double yields in highly populated countries without significant expense or resources. It is based on ecosystems’ regenerative capacity as a result of different plant associations; some of you gardeners may call it companion and rotational planting. In the Sahel (Africa), yields could be doubled by combining millet cultivation with acacia planting,” illustrates Marc Dufumier of the National Agronomic Institute.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery, NY.


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