[permaculture] Eating Oil
saor at ycbtal.net
Sat Mar 25 16:09:50 EST 2006
Tomgram: Chad Heeter, Breakfasting on Valvoline
This post can be found at http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=71299
Part of every spring, I venture out to the Graduate School of Journalism
at the University of California, Berkeley and get myself attached, as an
editor, to a group of young journalists. In the course of a semester,
they learn something about writing -- and rewriting -- from me, while I
learn much that's surprising about our world (and technology I'll never
be able to handle) from them.
The initial set of pieces my class has produced, covering a remarkable
range of subjects, will appear this Sunday in the Insight section
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/artlist.cgi?key=IN&directory=Pink> of the
San Francisco Chronicle, a thrill for everyone involved. As last year, I
get to preview two <http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2323> of
the pieces <http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2318> that fit
best with Tomdispatch's obsessional interests. The first of these is
Chad Heeter's exploration of just how much the phrase "you are what you
eat" (even for breakfast) catches our "peak oil" moment.
While attending journalism school, Heeter has also been a researcher for
Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, who appeared
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2173> in an interview at
Tomdispatch a year ago. (By the way, Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's
Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
debuts in a couple of weeks and, given how much I liked his last one, I
plan to be at the head of the line when it hits my local bookstore.)
Now, get your spoon ready -- or should it be your dipstick? -- and,
before you dig into your first meal of the day, check out whether or not
you're low on oil. Tom
My Saudi Arabian Breakfast
By Chad Heeter
Please join me for breakfast. It's time to fuel up again.
On the table in my small Berkeley apartment this particular morning is a
healthy looking little meal -- a bowl of imported McCann's Irish oatmeal
topped with Cascadian Farms organic frozen raspberries, and a cup of
Peet's Fair Trade Blend coffee. Like most of us, I prepare my breakfast
at home and the ingredients for this one probably cost me about $1.25.
(If I went to a café in downtown Berkeley, I'd likely have to add
another $6.00, plus tip for the same.)
My breakfast fuels me up with about 400 calories, and it satisfies me.
So, for just over a buck and half an hour spent reading the morning
paper in my own kitchen, I'm energized for the next few hours. But
before I put spoon to cereal, what if I consider this bowl of oatmeal
porridge (to which I've just added a little butter, milk, and a shake of
salt) from a different perspective. Say, a Saudi Arabian one.
Then, what you'd be likely to see -- what's really there, just hidden
from our view (not to say our taste buds) -- is about four ounces of
crude oil. Throw in those luscious red raspberries and that cup of java
(another three ounces of crude), and don't forget those modest additions
of butter, milk, and salt (another ounce), and you've got a tiny bit of
the Middle East right here in my kitchen.
Now, let's drill a little deeper into this breakfast. Just where does
this tiny gusher of oil actually come from? (We'll let this oil
represent all fossil fuels in my breakfast, including natural gas and
Nearly 20% of this oil went into growing my raspberries on Chilean farms
many thousands of miles away, those oats in the fields of County
Kildare, Ireland, and that specially-raised coffee in Guatemala -- think
tractors as well as petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.
The next 40% of my breakfast fossil-fuel equation is burned up between
the fields and the grocery store in processing, packaging, and shipping.
Take that box of McCann's oatmeal. On it is an inviting image of pure,
healthy goodness -- a bowl of porridge, topped by two peach slices.
Scattered around the bowl are a handful of raw oats, what look to be
four acorns, and three fresh raspberries. Those raw oats are actually a
reminder that the flakes require a few steps twixt field and box. In
fact, a visit to McCann's website illustrates each step in the cleaning,
steaming, hulling, cutting, and rolling that turns the raw oats into
edible flakes. Those five essential steps require significant energy costs.
Next, my oat flakes go into a plastic bag (made from oil), which is in
turn inserted into an energy-intensive, pressed wood-pulp, printed paper
box. Only then does my "breakfast" leave Ireland and travel over 5,000
fuel-gorging, CO2-emitting miles by ship and truck to my grocery store
Coming from another hemisphere, my raspberries take an even longer
fossil-fueled journey to my neighborhood. Though packaged in a plastic
bag labeled Cascadian Farms (which perhaps hints at a birthplace in the
good old Cascade mountains of northwest Washington), the small print on
the back, stamped "A Product of Chile," tells all -- and what it speaks
of is a 5,800-mile journey to Northern California.
If you've been adding up percentages along the way, perhaps you've
noticed that a few tablespoons of crude oil in my bowl have not been
accounted for. That final 40% of the fossil fuel in my breakfast is used
up by the simple acts of keeping food fresh and then preparing it. In
home kitchens and restaurants, the chilling in refrigerators and the
cooking on stoves using electricity or natural gas gobbles up more
energy than you might imagine.
For decades, scientists have calculated how much fossil fuel goes into
our food by measuring the amount of energy consumed in growing, packing,
shipping, consuming, and finally disposing of it. The "caloric input" of
fossil fuel is then compared to the energy available in the edible
product, the "caloric output."
What they've discovered is astonishing. According to researchers at the
University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, an average
of over seven calories of fossil fuel is burned up for every calorie of
energy we get from our food. This means that in eating my 400 calorie
breakfast, I will, in effect, have "consumed" 2,800 calories of
fossil-fuel energy. (Some researchers claim the ratio to be as high as
ten to one.)
But this is only an average. My cup of coffee gives me only a few
calories of energy, but to process just one pound of coffee requires
over 8,000 calories of fossil-fuel energy -- the equivalent energy found
in nearly a quart of crude oil, 30 cubic feet of natural gas, or around
two and a half pounds of coal.
So how do you gauge how much oil went into your food?
First check out how far it traveled. The further it traveled, the more
oil it required. Next, gauge how much processing went into the food. A
fresh apple is not processed, but Kellogg's Apple Jacks cereal requires
enormous amounts of energy to process. The more processed the food, the
more oil it required. Then consider how much packaging is wrapped around
your food. Buy fresh vegetables instead of canned, and buy bulk beans,
grains, and flour if you want to reduce that packaging.
By now, you're thinking that you're in the clear, because you eat
strictly organically-grown foods. When it comes to fossil-fuel
calculations though, the manner in which food's grown is where
differences stop. Whether conventionally-grown or organically-grown, a
raspberry is shipped, packed, and chilled the same way.
Yes, there are some savings from growing organically, but possibly only
of a slight nature. According to a study by David Pimentel at Cornell
University, 30% of fossil-fuel expenditure on farms growing conventional
(non-organic) crops is found in chemical fertilizer. This 30% is not
consumed on organic farms, but only if the manure used as fertilizer is
produced in very close proximity to the farm. Manure is a heavy, bulky
product. If farms have to truck bulk manure for any distance over a few
miles, the savings are eaten up in diesel-fuel consumption, according to
Pimentel. One source of manure for organic farmers in California is the
chicken producer Foster Farms. Organic farmers in Monterey County, for
example, will have to truck tons of Foster's manure from their main
plant in Livingston, Ca. to fields over one hundred miles away.
So the next time we're at the grocer, do we now have to ask not only
where and how this product was grown, but how far its manure was shipped?
Well, if you're in New York City picking out a California-grown tomato
that was fertilized with organic compost made from kelp shipped from
Nova Scotia, maybe it's not such a bad question. But should we give up
on organic? If you're buying organic raspberries from Chile each week,
then yes. The fuel cost is too great, as is the production of the
greenhouse gases along with it. Buying locally-grown foods should be the
first priority when it comes to saving fossil fuel.
But if there were really truth in packaging, on the back of my oatmeal
box where it now tells me how many calories I get from each serving, it
would also tell me how many calories of fossil fuels went into this
product. On a scale from one to five -- with one being non-processed,
locally-grown products and five being processed, packaged imports -- we
could quickly average the numbers in our shopping cart to get a sense of
the ecological footprint of our diet. From this we would gain a truer
sense of the miles-per-gallon in our food.
What appeared to be a simple, healthy meal of oatmeal, berries, and
coffee looks different now. I thought I was essentially driving a Toyota
Prius hybrid -- by having a very fuel-efficient breakfast, but by the
end of the week I've still eaten the equivalent of over two quarts of
Valvoline. From the perspective of fossil-fuel consumption, I now look
at my breakfast as a waste of precious resources. And what about the
mornings that I head to Denny's for a Grand-Slam breakfast: eggs,
pancakes, bacon, sausage? On those mornings -- forget about fuel
efficiency -- I'm driving a Hummer.
What I eat for breakfast connects me to the planet, deep into its past
with the fossilized remains of plants and animals which are now fuel, as
well as into its future, when these non-renewable resources will likely
be in scant supply. Maybe these thoughts are too grand to be having over
breakfast, but I'm not the only one on the planet eating this morning.
My meal traveled thousands of miles around the world to reach my plate.
But then there's the rise of perhaps 600 million middle-class Indians
and Chinese. They're already demanding the convenience of packaged meals
and the taste of foreign flavors. What happens when middle-class
families in India or China decide they want their Irish oats for
breakfast, topped by organic raspberries from Chile? They'll dip more
and more into the planet's communal oil well. And someday soon, we'll
all suck it dry.
Chad Heeter grew up eating fossil fuels in Lee's Summit, Missouri. He's
a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and a former high school
Is Whole Foods Wholesome?
The dark secrets of the organic-food movement.
By Field Maloney
Posted Friday, March 17, 2006, at 1:34 PM ET
It's hard to find fault with Whole Foods, the haute-crunchy supermarket
chain that has made a fortune by transforming grocery shopping into a
bright and shiny, progressive experience. Indeed, the road to wild
profits and cultural cachet has been surprisingly smooth for the
supermarket chain. It gets mostly sympathetic coverage in the local and
national media and red-carpet treatment from the communities it enters.
But does Whole Foods have an Achilles' heel? And more important, does
the organic movement itself, whose coattails Whole Foods has ridden to
such success, have dark secrets of its own?
Granted, there's plenty that's praiseworthy about Whole Foods. John
Mackey, the company's chairman, likes to say, "There's no inherent
reason why business cannot be ethical, socially responsible, and
profitable." And under the umbrella creed of "sustainability
Foods pays its workers a solid living wage--its lowest earners average
$13.15 an hour--with excellent benefits and health care. No executive
makes more than 14 times the employee average. (Mackey's salary last
year was $342,000.) In January, Whole Foods announced that it had
committed to buy a year's supply of power from a wind-power utility in
But even if Whole Foods has a happy staff and nice windmills, is it
really as virtuous as it appears to be? Take the produce section,
usually located in the geographic center of the shopping floor and the
spiritual heart of a Whole Foods outlet. (Every media profile of the
company invariably contains a paragraph of fawning produce porn,
near-sonnets about "gleaming melons" and "glistening kumquats.") In the
produce section of Whole Foods' flagship New York City store at the Time
Warner Center, shoppers browse under a big banner that lists "Reasons To
Buy Organic." On the banner, the first heading is "Save Energy." The
accompanying text explains how organic farmers, who use natural
fertilizers like manure and compost, avoid the energy waste involved in
the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. It's a technical point that
probably barely registers with most shoppers but contributes to a vague
sense of virtue.
Fair enough. But here's another technical point that Whole Foods fails
to mention and that highlights what has gone wrong with the organic-food
movement in the last couple of decades. Let's say you live in New York
City and want to buy a pound of tomatoes in season. Say you can choose
between conventionally grown New Jersey tomatoes or organic ones grown
in Chile. Of course, the New Jersey tomatoes will be cheaper. They will
also almost certainly be fresher, having traveled a fraction of the
distance. But which is the more eco-conscious choice? In terms of energy
savings, there's no contest: Just think of the fossil fuels expended
getting those organic tomatoes from Chile. Which brings us to the
question: Setting aside freshness, price, and energy conservation,
should a New Yorker just instinctively choose organic, even if the
produce comes from Chile? A tough decision, but you can make a
self-interested case for the social and economic benefit of going
Jersey, especially if you prefer passing fields of tomatoes to fields of
condominiums when you tour the Garden State.
Another heading on the Whole Foods banner says "Help the Small Farmer."
"Buying organic," it states, "supports the small, family farmers that
make up a large percentage of organic food producers." This is semantic
sleight of hand. As one small family farmer in Connecticut told me
recently, "Almost all the organic food in this country comes out of
California. And five or six big California farms dominate the whole
industry." There's a widespread misperception in this country--one that
organic growers, no matter how giant, happily encourage--that "organic"
means "small family farmer." That hasn't been the case for years,
certainly not since 1990, when the Department of Agriculture drew up its
official guidelines for organic food. Whole Foods knows this well, and
so the line about the "small family farmers that make up a large
percentage of organic food producers" is sneaky. There are a lot of
small, family-run organic farmers, but their share of the organic crop
in this country, and of the produce sold at Whole Foods, is minuscule.
A nearby banner at the Time Warner Center Whole Foods proclaims "Our
Commitment to the Local Farmer," but this also doesn't hold up to
scrutiny. More likely, the burgeoning local-food movement is making
Whole Foods uneasy. After all, a multinational chain can't promote a
"buy local" philosophy without being self-defeating. When I visited the
Time Warner Whole Foods last fall--high season for native fruits and
vegetables on the East Coast--only a token amount of local produce was
on display. What Whole Foods does do for local farmers is hang glossy
pinups throughout the store, what they call "grower profiles," which
depict tousled, friendly looking organic farmers standing in front of
their crops. This winter, when I dropped by the store, the only local
produce for sale was a shelf of upstate apples, but the grower profiles
were still up. There was a picture of a sandy-haired organic leek farmer
named Dave, from Whately, Mass., above a shelf of conventionally grown
yellow onions from Oregon. Another profile showed a guy named Ray Rex
munching on an ear of sweet corn he grew on his generations-old,
picturesque organic acres. The photograph was pinned above a display of
conventionally grown white onions from Mexico.
These profiles may be heartwarming, but they also artfully mislead
customers about what they're paying premium prices for. If Whole Foods
marketing didn't revolve so much around explicit (as well as subtly
suggestive) appeals to food ethics, it'd be easier to forgive some
exaggerations and distortions.
Of course, above and beyond social and environmental ethics, and even
taste, people buy organic food because they believe that it's better for
them. All things being equal, food grown without pesticides is healthier
for you. But American populism chafes against the notion of good health
for those who can afford it. Charges of elitism--media wags, in
otherwise flattering profiles, have called Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck"
and "wholesome, healthy for the wholesome, wealthy"--are the only
criticism of Whole Foods that seems to have stuck. Which brings us to
the newest kid in the organic-food sandbox: Wal-Mart, the world's
biggest grocery retailer, has just begun a major program to expand into
organic foods. If buying food grown without chemical pesticides and
synthetic fertilizers has been elevated to a status-conscious lifestyle
choice, it could also be transformed into a bare-bones commodity purchase.
When the Department of Agriculture established the guidelines for
organic food in 1990, it blew a huge opportunity. The USDA--under heavy
agribusiness lobbying--adopted an abstract set of restrictions for
organic agriculture and left "local" out of the formula. What passes for
organic farming today has strayed far from what the shaggy utopians who
got the movement going back in the '60s and '70s had in mind. But if
these pioneers dreamed of revolutionizing the nation's food supply, they
surely didn't intend for organic to become a luxury item, a high-end
It's likely that neither Wal-Mart nor Whole Foods will do much to
encourage local agriculture or small farming, but in an odd twist,
Wal-Mart, with its simple "More for Less" credo, might do far more to
democratize the nation's food supply than Whole Foods. The organic-food
movement is in danger of exacerbating the growing gap between rich and
poor in this country by contributing to a two-tiered national food
supply, with healthy food for the rich. Could Wal-Mart's populist
strategy prove to be more "sustainable" than Whole Foods? Stranger
things have happened.
Field Maloney <mailto:fieldmaloney1 at hotmail.com> is on the editorial
staff of The New Yorker.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2138176/
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