by Richard Manning / Harper’s Magazine –
The Oil We Eat
Richard Manning / Harper’s Magazine (February 2004)
A short list of stunning facts.
1. Humans capture 40 percent of primary productivity.
2. Monoculture is a time bomb.
3. Farming disrupts annually a naturally developing ecosystem.
4. It takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to replace one year’s worth of lost fertility per acre. In 1997 we burned 400 years worth of ancient fossilized productivity.
5. By 1960 the supply of unfarmed arable lands stopped increasing. Between then and now world population doubled.
6. Green revolution led to heavy use of fertilizers and took a heavy toll on water supplies.
7. In 1940 the average farm in the US provided 2.3 calories of food energy for each calorie of fossil energy. In 1974 the balance reached the brake-even point.
8. “We muster our weapons to secure oil, not food today”, but the title of the article “The oil we eat” shows that this amounts to the same thing. Some observations also on “real-politik” of George Kennan.
9. David Pimentel (Cornell University) says that if the entire world were to eat the way Americans do, we would exhaust all known world fossil-fuel reserves in 7 years. His detractors say he is off about 30 percent. “Fine. Make it ten years”.
10. Nitrogen pollution is the biggest pollution worry from our present farming methods. Dead zone at Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi effluent.
11. Corn, wheat, hay and soybeans cover 82 percent of American farmland and they are not food as such, but commodities and require heavy outlay of more energy to become food.
12. Sugar consumption increased by 500 percent in England between 1860 and 1890. Afternoon tea. One sixth of nutrition came from sugar, the same as Americans today.
13. Archer Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose corn syrup in the early 70’s as the key ingredient in 3/4 of all processed food. Plague selects the poor, who eat the most processed food.
14. Ethanol is an energy sink and its cleanliness is questioned.
15. The difficulties associated with eating products higher in the food chain. Tuna, chicken, etc.
16. Does eating soyburgers help? Perhaps not, if fossil fuels are used extensively.
17. Eighty percent of all grain in the US goes to feed livestock.
18. Seventy eight percent of our beef comes from beef lots. So do most of our chicken and hogs.
19. “Factory farm system is a continent wide monument to Rube Goldberg”
20. Present trends: Mexico fed 5 percent of its grain to livestock in 1960; today it is 45 percent. For Egypt these numbers are 3 percent to 31 percent. In China, 8 percent to 26 percent. The observation, that the prairie grasses could support more bison before the prairies were brought under cultivation than beef farming today on the same area of land, if true, is noteworthy. Add to this that bison provided food for many other species than man. There may also be other gems that I missed.
Compiled by S. Korpela
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