Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Finding the low-carbon diet

Clearly, we cannot keep eating this way.

Eat local! If you grew your own food or bought it directly from local farms, it would curb one-third of your family's carbon emissions, according to recent studies.


Creators Syndicate

When you hear the words "peak oil," the long lines at gas pumps during the energy crisis in the 1970s may spring to mind. However, the continuous decrease in the world's oil reserves more likely will result in longer bread lines than gas lines.

Collectively, we Americans eat almost as much fossil fuel as we burn in our automobiles. American agriculture directly accounts for 17 percent of our energy use, which is the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil consumed by every man, woman and child per year, according to 1994 statistics.

How did this come about? We have seen a major leap in farm productivity in the past 50 years, with food production doubling and, in the case of cereal grains, even tripling. This amazing leap did not come from new farms or farmlands, because we have lost more than half our small farms in that same period. Farmlands are also in decline and being gobbled up by urban sprawl. These massive gains in food production are caused by the use of synthetic fertilizer and, to a smaller extent, better plant hybrids. "Two out of every 5 humans on this earth would not be alive today" without the widespread use of chemical fertilizer, says Vaclav Smil, a Canadian professor, author and energy expert.

We are eating fossil fuels in the forms of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These marvelous inventions can be traced directly to chemist Fritz Haber. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 for "improving agriculture" through his invention of nitrate fertilizer. Unfortunately, Haber's invention also was used by the Nazis to create Zyklon B, the gas used in the infamous death camps.

Today a formulation based on Haber's is spread "in quantities of over 50 million metric tons per year" on American farms as insecticides, according to author and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins. That is 20 times more than what was used when Rachel Carson wrote her compelling book "Silent Spring," which warned of environmental catastrophe occurring from the overuse of pesticides.

The unpalatable truth about our oil-based food system is that "it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to make 1 calorie of food energy," according to a study by David Pimentel and Mario Giampietro. This scary statistic only takes into account the production of the food itself. If you factor in the processing, packaging, transportation, refrigeration and all the other petroleum-intensive processes, that statistic can inflate to 87 calories of fuel per calorie of food. Why so much? Most of our food travels an average of 1,500 "food miles" to get from the farms to our forks. Once these "fossil foods" get to our houses, we spend even more energy on refrigerating and cooking, until each bite we eat is soaked in oil.

Clearly, we cannot keep eating this way. As oil reserves dwindle, our children and grandchildren will face drastic losses in food productivity. Some experts are predicting massive "die-offs" when grain prices soar. We must start the transition now from the "SUV diet" to a "low-carbon diet." But how can all of earth's people be fed without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides degrading the environment?

What sustainable agriculture advocates call "organic farming practices" was simply the right way to do it for many centuries. This "new" model could double yields in highly populated countries, without significant expenses or resources. It is based on ecosystems' regenerative capacity as a result of different plant associations; some of you gardeners may call it companion and rotational planting.

Want to lower the carbon in your diet? Follow our first lady's example and maintain a garden in your backyard instead of a lawn. Visit farms and farmers markets in your region. Money spent at a local farm is twice as effective at stimulating the economy as money spent in a chain grocery. To find farms, visit or Host a "locavore" potluck, and ask the guests to source ingredients for their dishes within a 100-mile radius.

Celebrate Earth Day this year by going on a low-carbon diet. Reduce your carbon emissions by one-third by eating local and in season. If we all changed our eating habits, we could cure our national eating disorder and stimulate our local economies, as well as our appetites.

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