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WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Counting the cost of food.

And not merely the price any of us pays when we buy food at a market, but the energy cost of that food. In a 2004 article that's even more pertinent now than it was then, Richard Manning looks at the true cost of what we eat: The cost of producing agricultural chemicals and transporting food from one place to another — often from one end of the earth to the other. The financial and environmental costs from how industrial agriculture depletes the soil and puts nitrogen where it shouldn't be, like in the 'dead zone' at the mouth of the Mississippi. The human cost as grain is used to feed cattle rather than feed people. And how all those costs eventually can be traced back to oil.

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it's about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food.

About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning it is milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial uses. More than 45 percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners, the keystone ingredient in three quarters of all processed foods, especially soft drinks, the food of America's poor and working classes. It is not a coincidence that the American pandemic of obesity tracks rather nicely with the fivefold increase in corn-syrup production since Archer Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the early seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor, who eat the most processed food....

There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the food from the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by millions of people driving to thousands of super discount stores on the edge of town, where the land is cheap. It appears, however, that the corn cycle is about to come full circle. If a bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers has their way—and it appears they will—we will soon buy gasoline containing twice as much fuel alcohol as it does now. Fuel alcohol already ranks second as a use for processed corn in the United States, just behind corn sweeteners. According to one set of calculations, we spend more calories of fossil-fuel energy making ethanol than we gain from it. The Department of Agriculture says the ratio is closer to a gallon and a quart of ethanol for every gallon of fossil fuel we invest. The USDA calls this a bargain, because gasohol is a "clean fuel." This claim to cleanness is in dispute at the tailpipe level, and it certainly ignores the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, pesticide pollution, and the haze of global gases gathering over every farm field. Nor does this claim cover clean conscience; some still might be unsettled knowing that our SUVs' demands for fuel compete with the poor's demand for grain.

On a more day-to-day level, writer Chad Heeter looks closely at the energy cost of his breakfast, and finds that [metaphically, at least] he's eating Valvoline, not driving a Prius.

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 Web site illustrates each step of cleaning, steaming, hulling, cutting and rolling that turns the raw oats into edible flakes. Those five essential steps require significant energy.

Next, my oat flakes go into a plastic bag (made from oil), which in turn is inserted into an energy-intensive, pressed wood-pulp, printed paper box. Only then does my breakfast leave Ireland and travel 5,000 fuel-gorging, carbon-dioxide-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 suggests 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.

From Harper's and San Francisco Chronicle, via MetaFilter.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:36 AM | Get permalink




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