[permaculture] Eating Oil

Saor Stetler 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 
in California.

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 
science teacher.

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 
<http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company/sustainablefuture.html>," Whole 
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 
lifestyle choice.

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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