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Food Blog no. 9 – Thinking about how fossil fuels subsidize food production

Could you imagine having to grow your own food?

Industrial agriculture has, in the recent past, brought us wine and milk lakes and butter mountains. This industrial approach to agriculture is the main reason why the per capita food production continued to increase during the 1990s and early 2000s. Though there is concern that this upwards trend may now be declining.

The downside of industrial agriculture seems to be most often expressed in arguments for organic foods. What is very rarely mentioned, however, is that our ability to engage in industrial agriculture is primarily due to fossil fuels.The energy value of the apple that we buy in the store is about 60 kcals. The total energetic cost of producing that apple, is far higher. Energy was burned in the form of gasoline that drove the tractor, and in the production of the fertilizers. While financial subsidies to Europe, via taxpayers' money, are often a hot topic of debate, in general as a society dependent on fossil fuels, we are generally not considering the energetic subsidy from fossil fuels of food production.

The energetic cost to a Medieval peasant, working the land, of producing a kcal was explained to some of us in an excellent lecture in 2008, by Professor Verena Winiwarter. There was a very high human energy input, but the relative production efficiency was actually much better than it is today! If you saw any of the excellent TV series, the Victorian Farm, you may have been aghast to learn, as I did, that 100 years ago, a ploughman might walk, on average, 14 miles a day behind his horse and plough. And, that plough was a modernized steel version that was a direct product of the industrial revolution. No wonder he would sit down to a Ploughman's lunch.

Even WITH fossil fuels to run our tractors, bailers and harvesters, food production is HARD work. As a doctoral student in Oxford, I had to put in my time on the University Farm, with sheep dipping and bailing. Could you imagine what would happen without  fossil fuel energy replacing human (peasant-style) labour? Recently in Colorado USA, John Harold, a local onion farmer  decided to bring in less migrant labour for the harvest, and to offer the jobs to local unemployed people. But, they either did not apply, or if they did, could not hack the physical work involved... as reported in a recent New York Times article - "Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All" (Oct 5th 2011).

Dawn Bazely   

Buying Locally Produced Foods

Did You Know?
The majority of the money spent on grocery-store food goes to suppliers, processors, middlemen and marketers. Only 3.5 cents of each dollar actually goes to the farmer. (approximately, I've read other figures but generally it's in this area) If you buy food from a farmers market or farm stand, you can be sure that most, if not all, of your money is going directly to the farmer.

Communities reap more economic benefits from the presence of small farms than they do from large ones. Studies have shown that small farms re-invest more money into local economies by purchasing feed, seed and other materials from local businesses,x whereas large farms often order in bulk from distant companies. Large factory livestock farms also bring down local property values with the intense odors they emit.

Food transported short distances is fresher (and, therefore, safer) than food that travels long distances. Local food has less of an opportunity to wilt and rot whereas large-scale food manufacturers must go to extreme lengths to extend shelf-life since there is such a delay between harvest and consumption. Preservatives are commonly used to keep foods stable longer, and are potentially hazardous to human health. Industrially-produced foods are also difficult to grow without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones, all of which can be damaging to both the environment and human health.

A large amount of fossil fuel is used to transport foods such long distances. Combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change, acid rain, smog and air pollution. Even the refrigeration required to keep your fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats from spoiling burns up energy.

A typical carrot has to travel 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table.

In the U.S., a wheat farmer can expect to receive about six cents of each dollar spent on a loaf of bread-approximately the cost of the wrapping.xiii
Farmers markets enable farmers to keep 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the consumer.
Cheap energy and agricultural subsidies facilitate a type of agriculture that is destroying and polluting our soils and water, weakening our communities, and concentrating wealth and power into a few hands. It is also threatening the security of our food systems, as demonstrated by the continued e-Coli, GMO-contamination, and other health scares that are often seen nowadays on the news.
If you are concerned about genetically-modified foods, you can select local farms that grow food from heirloom seeds. And you can support organic practices in your region.

Local Food: Where to Find It, How to Buy It
This 30-page booklet was developed by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture for consumers who are interested in supporting rural communities by buying locally grown food, but don't know how to begin. You can get the full free PDF version here:


The Big Green Purse! AKA The Sustainable Shopping Bible Pt. 4/4

Pt. 4 - Sustainable Food Shopping, and Other Notes


  • Styrofoam used to store food (i.e restaurant leftovers) can't be recycled or reused after its been tainted by food or coffee. It is also classified as a possible carcinogen by the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services
  • The EPA cautions everyone (especially kids and pregnant women) against eating tuna, due to contamination from mercury that precipitates out of air pollution generated by industrial smokestacks
  • Avoid American BEEF - the European Union officially does not accept meat from the US because of large amounts of growth hormonoes used in the cattle
  • Choosing Sustainable Seafood
    • Shop for seafood sold under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label - certifies those fish come from sustainable sources
    • Avoid large predator fish when dining out (i.e. shark, tuna, swordfish) bc they play a critical role in marine ecosystems, and also concentrate the most toxins. Therefore best to pick smaller fish i.e. tilapia


  • Rainforests - Disappearing at a rate of 6 soccer fields a minute
  • 40% of Central American rainforests have been converted into pastures for beef production, 90% of which is exported to the U.S. primarily for use in the fast food market or pet food.
  • Chapter 6 focuses on ways to trim meat from your diet as a way of protecting rainforests from the grazing that leads to their destruction
  • According to Environmental Defense, the burning of tropical forests accounts for at least 10% of the greenhouse effect Forests in North America
  • According to the Center for a New American Dream, U.S. paper consumption is the world's highest, devouring 12,340 sq miles of forests each year.
  • Saving paper o The Center for a New American Dream estimates that recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, 7000 gallons of water, and 380 gallons of oil
  • According to a U of Washington study, women are more susceptible than men to air pollution and the heart problems it causes bc among other reasons, our blood vessels are smaller.

Air Pollution

  • Everyone is susceptible to asthma from air pollution (I have asthma so this is a big issue for me)
  • Environmental Protection Agency: we all may suffer as many as 554,000 asthma attacks each year bc of air pollution

Remember: The Big Green Purse Shopping Principles:

1. Buy less 2. Read the label 3. Support sustainable standards 4. Look for third-party verification 5. Choose fewer ingredients 6. Pick less packaging 7. Buy local

As a supplement to these notes, please visit for a guide on smart environmental shopping choices.

The Big Green Purse! AKA The Sustainable Shopping Bible Pt. 3/4

Brief notes on how to go Green with your clothing choices, and some things you didn't know...

What most of us don't know:

  • Manufacturing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas at least 300x more potent than carbon dioxide
  • Dry cleaning relies on a toxic solvent ("Perc") to get the job done - which is known to cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness. It is also linked to reproductive problems. More info in the Big Green Purse


  • One of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world
  • Cotton seeds contain residues of tons of toxic chemicals, is fed to cattle and pressed into oils = we EAT the toxic residue!

Some eco-friendly clothing fabrics as alternatives to conventional cotton:


  • Naturally resists pests so you don't need any pesticides!
  • Needs little bleaching
  • Needs 1/20 as much water to grow and process as cotton


  • Naturally resists pests and many bacteria
  • Antimicrobial


  • Much stronger than cotton = lasts longer
  • Generally uses far less pesticides than growing conventional cotton

Some eco friendly online clothing retailers:

Africa’s Overlapping Crises

UNEP has just released a visually stunning and deeply disturbing atlas of Africa's changing environment. Using an array of satellite images, ground photographs and maps, the nearly 400-page publication depicts a sobering portrait of environmental destruction on a massive scale. While Africa's population has certainly increased in the 20th century, much of this damage is occuring due to continued unsustainable resource extraction or straight out plunder as in the case of many of the continent's bloody but underreported brush wars. The resulting widescale dislocation of populations as well as rapid urbanization have also taken their toll (Independent).

However, the transformation of African Agriculture has perhaps carried the biggest environmental and human impact. As noted economist Walden Bello has noted, a combination of ill-advised agricultural and economic policies have successively destroyed "the local productive base of smallholder agriculture" in favour of Western-style agriculture. These developmental disasters have been further compounded by unfair global trade that has broken the back of African farmers, even has the conversion of ever more land to cash crop production has claimed forests while only producing massive food insecurity.

Indeed, at the time of independence, Africa was a net food exporter, a situation that has been turned on its head under World Bank tutelage and IMF structural adjustment. Now famine perpetually stalks the land, while the African people's age-old coping mechanisms for drought have long overwhelmed by their economic weakness. As Bello argues, biofuels have only provided the coup de grace to a global food system that has been heading towards the current disaster for decades.