“From farm to plate, the modern food system relies heavily on cheap oil. Threats to our oil supply are also threats to our food supply. As food undergoes more processing and travels further, the food system consumes ever more energy each year.”
Oil is the Most Energy Dense Form of Liquid Fuel
More often than not we hear commentators discussing oil in terms of barrels. A barrel of crude oil is 42 U.S. gallons or 158.9873 litres. A barrel of oil contains about six gigajoules of energy. This is equivalent to six billion joules or approximately 1667 kilowatt-hours. This equates to 5.8 million Btu, or British thermal units. This one barrel of oil with its astronomical 6.1 gigajoules of energy has the ability to do the work of approximately 2000 horse power hours. A healthy strong person doing physical work for eight hours generates around 75 watts of energy or one tenth of the energy a horse can deliver. Therefore as a rough guide, one barrel of crude oil has the ability to do around 10 years of human labour based on a 40 hour work week. Yet it seems many of us take this precious substance for granted, oblivious to how this liquid fuel has changed our lives, our economy and the way we live.
Oil a Finite Resource
Due to its high energy density, ability to be easily transported, and relative abundance, oil has been the world’s most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. A whopping 90% of all global transport is fuelled by crude oil. The density of energy v’s cost, weight, and storability have enabled petroleum to remain the dominate fuel for transportation for the last several decades. While most associate petroleum with a fuel source, there are over 6,000 items that we use each day made from petroleum waste by-products. Some of the more familiar ones include: fertiliser, linoleum, perfume, insecticide, soap, vitamin capsules, computers, mobile phones, CDs, clothes, tires, dyes, food preservatives, paint, shoes, lubricants, food packaging, lounges, antiseptics, and pharmaceuticals.
Oil Has Helped Fuel Agricultural Productivity
One of the most influential uses oil has had since the 1940’s is on agricultural productivity through the use of energy-intensive mechanisation, fertilisers, and pesticides. These have dramatically changed the nature of farming, resulting in an increased reliance on fossil fuel based inputs needed for broad scale farming. As Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute points out:
The growth in the world fertiliser industry after World War II was spectacular. Between 1950 and 1988, fertiliser use climbed from 14 million to 144 million tons. As the world economy evolved from being largely rural to being highly urbanised, the natural nutrient cycle was disrupted. In traditional rural societies, food is consumed locally, and human and animal waste is returned to the land, completing the nutrient cycle. But in highly urbanised societies, where food is consumed far from where it is produced, using fertiliser to replace the lost nutrients is the only practical way to maintain land productivity. It comes as no surprise the growth in fertiliser use closely tracks the growth in urbanisation, with much of it concentrated in the last 60 years.
While some countries are using less fertiliser inputs, the average growth rate for global fertilizers demand, according to a United Nations report, suggests demand between 2011 to 2015 will grow by around 2%.
Time to Rethink Food Production
This reliance on fossil fuels for fertilisers accounts for around a third of all agricultural energy consumption. The use of hydrocarbon-fuelled farm machinery and irrigation systems means industrialised farming consumes 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture. In extreme cases, agriculture’s energy consumption has increased one hundred fold or more. It’s estimated that 95% of all our food products require the use of oil. Just to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil, enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles. (1) Petroleum products are used directly to power tractors, machinery, and irrigation. It provides the energy to transport, transform, and package agricultural products. They are also used indirectly to manufacture fertilisers and pesticides and prepare seeds. Thus, food production is extremely energy intensive. It takes approximately 2,000 litres of oil equivalents per year to feed and supply the average American. This accounts for about 19 per cent of the total energy used in the United States. (2)
We Need to Rethink Food, by Liam Scheff
excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
(1) Caroline Lucs, Andy Jones and Colin Hines, Peak oil and food security Fuelling a food crisis, Pacific Ecologist Winter 2007. http://pacificecologist.org/archive/14/peak-oil-part-one.pdf
(2) Andrew Martin, Rethink…Your World, Your Future…Oneness Publishing, 2015.
Cover Image: flickr