The Oil We Eat

» 18 March 2004 » In Opinion »

February issue of Harper’s magazine features a great article by Richard Manning entitled The Oil We Eat that delivers an indictment against the modern day agribusiness and its contribution to the depletion of the planet’s energy reserves. Manning draws well-argued conclusions and after I was done reading I had to sit and think for a while about what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Some startling facts from the article:

1. Humans capture 40 percent of primary productivity of the planet.
2. It takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to replace one year’s worth of lost fertility per acre. In 1997 we burned 400 years worth of ancient fossilized productivity.
3. By 1960 the supply of unfarmed arable lands stopped increasing. Between then and now world population doubled.
4. Green revolution led to heavy use of fertilizers and took a heavy toll on water supplies.
5. In 1940 the average farm in the US provided 2.3 calories of food energy for each calorie of fossil energy. In 1974 the balance reached the brake-even point.
6. David Pimentel (Cornell University) says that if the entire world were to eat the way Americans do, we would exhaust all known world fossil-fuel reserves in 7 years. His detractors say he is off about 30 percent. “Fine. Make it ten years”.
7. Corn, wheat, hay and soybeans cover 82 percent of American farmland and they are not food as such, but commodities and require heavy outlay of more energy to become food.
8. Sugar consumption increased by 500 percent in England between 1860 and 1890. One sixth of nutrition came from sugar, the same as Americans today.
9. Archer Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose corn syrup in the early 70’s as the key ingredient in 3/4 of all processed food. This plague selects the poor, who eat the most processed food.
10. Eighty percent of all grain in the US goes to feed livestock.
11. Present trends: Mexico fed 5 percent of its grain to livestock in 1960; today it is 45 percent. For Egypt these numbers are 3 percent to 31 percent. In China, 8 percent to 26 percent. The observation, that the prairie grasses could support more bison before the prairies were brought under cultivation than beef farming today on the same area of land, if true, is noteworthy.

Everyone needs to read and understand this, whether you are a vegetarian, beef-eater, member of Greenpeace, or a rural farmer.

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