Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Oil We Eat

I announced at the beginning of this bloggery that it would be to a large extent about “dirt” – that is, “what food is and where it comes from.” In this installment, I want to come back to that subject. In my usual round about way. First, an anecdote from John Muir.

In the spring of 1867, Muir began A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, setting out from his home in Indiana. In the book of that title, Muir reports from the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, “This is the most primitive country I have seen, primitive in everything. The remotest hidden parts of Wisconsin are far in advance of the mountain regions of Tennessee and North Carolina.  But my host speaks of the ‘old-fashioned unenlightened times,’ like a philosopher in the best light of civilization. I  believe in Providence, said he. Our fathers came into these valleys, got the richest of them, and skimmed off the cream of the soil. The worn-out ground won’t yield no roastin’ ears now. But the Lord foresaw this state of affairs, and prepared something else for us. And what is it? Why, He meant us to bust open these copper mines and gold mines, so that we may have money to buy the corn we cannot raise.“

Muir’s ironic comment: “A most profound observation.”

About this story, two things. First, the acknowledgement that food comes from topsoil. Second, early evidence of the tendency in American culture to deny or ignore the fundamental importance of that First Fact of Food in the belief that money (aka Providence) can provide anything we need.

Indeed, the commercialization and industrialization of food in America has provided a marvelously bountiful and cheap food supply. But too much of it processed in the form of what Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances.” So we are the best-fed and most obese population on the planet. Moreover, even before processing, the nutritional quality of commercial, non-organic fruits and vegetables in the U.S. has steadily declined over the last 50 or so years. See “Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient Levels in U.S. Food Supply Eroded by Pursuit of High Yields,” at

This is not to say we should be trying to do without money or markets. But there are two kinds of food markets. At a farmer’s market (or a farm) the price or cost of food matters, but there are no middle-men, processors, distributors etc involved, and the taste and nutritional quality of the food are likely to be more important factors. If the food leaves the farm to go on the commodity market, on the other hand, it is essentially converted into money, its appearance or marketability, including shelf life, being valued above its taste or nutritional quality.

Note that this is true even when the farm produce goes to a regional wholesale market, where much of it is purchased by local businesses usually called curb markets but often calling themselves “farmers markets.” And true of food produced in contract arrangements with large-scale distributors or supermarket chains.

Getting back to First Facts, food comes from topsoil, and what food is is carbon. In various combinations with 30 or more other important elements, but still, mostly carbon. As are our bodies and other living organisms, plant or animal. As they grow, plants take carbon (as CO2) out of the air to build their bodies. But the soil is also a rich store of carbon (again in combination with other elements), providing the habitat in which the microflora and microfauna work to make the soil fertile. See

Where does this carbon-rich topsoil come from? Well, it is a product of ancient sunlight. Just like its also carbon-rich cousins oil, coal and natural gas. Which have become in the last century or so an integral part of our industrial agriculture, supplying the energy needed to power our food supply system. And without which very little food would be grown, distributed, processed, stored, cooked . . . . .  or eaten. Scientific estimates of how much fossil energy it takes to put one food calorie on the table range up to 12:1.  Here is one of the more conservative estimates: 

Does it matter? Well, it took all of human history to about 1800 for global population to reach one billion. The fossil fuels have been major contributors to a human population explosion since then. We are now approaching 8 billion. And we are hooked on fossil-fueled food. How much longer will we be able to get our oil/food fix? Consider this chart showing oil discoveries since the last major oil-field discovery, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. . 

Sad to say, the soil is also a non-renewable "resource" that is dwindling. See my post on September 13, 2013. 

How does your garden grow?

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