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Food for Oil

08.29.2005 09:50 | DISPATCHES

Forget, for a moment, how much it's going to cost to fill up your tank and heat your home this winter. The rising price of oil poses a bigger but related problem: Food.

As it begins to dawn on Americans that the energy question--and bad U.S. energy policy--is at the nexus of so much that worries us, the relationship between the coming oil crunch and food costs deserves priority. Although we've come to take abundance for granted, both cheap food in the rich world and the "green revolution" in the developing world remain dependent on a steady supply of reasonably priced oil. As oil grows scarce and prices rise, it becomes more urgent to conserve what oil is left and use it more wisely. That, and figure out other ways to power and feed a planet of six-billion and counting.

Here are a few basics worth keeping in mind as prices surge past $70 a barrel:

  • Modern agriculture is dependent almost exclusively on oil. More than 17 percent of all oil consumed in the United States goes to producing, distributing and refrigerating the food that ends up on our tables.
  • One-third of the world's agricultural land has been converted from growing food grains for people to growing feed grain for cattle and other livestock.
  • It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef.
  • The boom in yields achieved in the 20th-century is sustained by the use of oil-based petrochemical fertilizers. For every gallon of gas we waste powering inefficient cars or feeding cows, we are left with one less gallon with which to grow staple crops for a growing world population.

The bottom line is that as the price of oil rises, the price of food will also rise, threatening the ability of millions, perhaps billions, of people to afford enough calories to survive. The next time you see a story about the price of oil--or our failure to respond adequately--don't just think about your car, think about your belly.


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