Food and Energy

April 12, 2008

People have studied how much energy it takes to produce food. It’s interesting. You should read about this, too.The definitive book to read seems to be Food, Energy and Society, edited by D. Pimentel and M. Pimentel, published in 1996. They studied the energy cost of obtaining food in many, many different ways. The main result is that high-productivity farming (like the kind we practice in the US) uses a boatload of energy. Converting grain into meat by feeding it to mammals (cattle, pigs, sheep) uses many calories of grain to create one calorie of meat, so meat is even less energy-efficient. There’s a huge amount of information in this book, much of it interesting, some of it depressing. It will make you want to tear your hair out every time you hear someone talking about farming fuels; odds are, it just won’t work. Besides the fertilizer inputs, there’s also water, and the fertility of the soil. (People need to get serious about driving less, and driving much smaller cars, and they need to do this as soon as possible.)

This paper (which is more quickly accessed) builds on this to demonstrate just how much energy this is, and also studies the greenhouse gas effects (which are not 100% correlated with energy). Animals, and their manure, produce both methane and nitrous oxides. The difference in greenhouse gas emissions between a meat-heavy diet (generally, a typical US diet), and either a vegetarian, or poultry-light diet, can be as large as the difference between driving an SUV and driving a Prius.

It’s also interesting, and depressing, to study the behavior of what I can only call energy-gluttony-apologists. If we cannot get more people to understand what is (probably) going on, we are so screwed. Even one meter of sea level rise will do a lot of damage to coastal cities all around the country, never mind other countries. It’ll mess up drainage and mess up water tables, even if it doesn’t directly flood property.

What I find most incredible is the notion that we simply cannot cut back; that no car can have fewer than 100 horsepower (I learned to drive in a 45 HP car, a Saab 96 with a filthy 2-stroke engine); that our cars must be gigantic; that bicycling is not an option; that every meal must have meat. The stories that people construct in their head to justify not changing their behavior are ludicrous — somehow, amoral, profit-seeking corporations (the oil industry, the coal industry, the big ag business, and the auto industry) are giving us the straight talk, but people who spent years in school learning how to study experiments, data, and phenomena to figure out what’s going on — we’re all Bond villains, or something, intent on imposing our diabolical will on the world. Is it perhaps possible that these profit-seeking corporations are being every bit as deceptive and mendacious as the tobacco industry was? It sure seems that way to me. Seems to me that the Bond villains were on the good side of that issue, at least all the ones that weren’t in the employ of the tobacco industry.

And sure, energy gluttony is fun, but given how we produce energy now, it’s got costs. We’ve got to move our asses, right now, and cut back on some of our most-ridiculous overconsumption. Freezing in the dark is no fun, but driving a Civic instead of a HumVee, that is not much of a sacrifice. Chicken, instead of beef, is not much of a sacrifice. Cutting meat portions in half, is not much of a sacrifice. If you can afford to replace your old crappy leaky windows with new ones, that’s costly, but new windows are actually nicer. LED under-cabinet lighting is expensive, but you get a good light, it takes up no space, lasts a dozen or so years in ordinary use (7+ years if run continuously) you get your choice of (and can mix and match) color temperatures, and it doesn’t get fire-starting hot like halogens and incandescents. That’s not a sacrifice. Places where there’s lots of sun and not much freezing weather, should move to install solar hot water heaters, right now. In southern states that is low-hanging fruit.

Riding your bike a few dozen miles per week may sound like a sacrifice to people who have never done it, but it will help you live longer, and live healthier. I’ve tried dieting to keep weight off, and THAT is a sacrifice. Biking, I lost 20 pounds, and it stayed off. If I don’t bike, something goes wrong with one of my knees, and the doctors I discussed this with suggested that if I didn’t like surgery, perhaps I should keep on biking. Surgery, that’s a sacrifice.

More on this.

And from the National Corn Growers Association.

Two more from Pimental, including the alarming/surprising estimate that we consume more energy than plants create from sunlight.

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