The American Diet: High in Calories and Rich with Fossil Fuel
Michael Pollan, author and environmentalist, published a letter earlier this month in the New York Times arguing that food policy should share an equal billing at the top of the country’s agenda with national security and rising health care costs. In the letter, which is addressed to the next president-elect, outlines why food policy is so important and what the government and citizens can do to improve our quality of life. He states that while the candidates have not addressed food policy thus far, many issues that have come up during this campaign are directly related to how we make our food and what kind of food we eat. Those are: energy independence, health care and global warming.
For now, I want to take a closer look at one of those aspects—energy independence—and explain how what you eat can affect our ability or inability to reach this goal.
I know we have all heard so much about energy independence these last few months that we can hardly stand to hear the chant “Drill, baby, drill!” or any phrase beginning with “green.” But the fact of the matter is that our current dependence on oil now significantly shapes our foreign and economic policies. Reducing our use of oil is one of the best ways that we can solve this problem. However, some people are still unaware of all the places petroleum products are used.
Until recently, Americans have always gotten a pretty good deal on gas. Unbeknownst to many of us, though, the flow of cheap gasoline and other petroleum products has been embedded into the workings of our food policy. Our food system makes up for 19 percent of our fossil fuel consumption. That comes in second only to transportation.
How did all that petroleum get into your burger and fries? Let me give you some numbers. About one-fifth of it gets used during the agricultural process. This can come in the form of chemical fertilizer and pesticide production (made from natural gas and petroleum, respectively). Or, it can be in the gasoline used to power farm vehicles to plant and harvest the corn used to feed the cattle, which eventually becomes that moist brown patty that fits so perfectly in that sesame seed bun (which—not so coincidentally—also couldn’t be possible without corn). The other 80 percent of energy use is either directly or indirectly related to the transport and processing of the food. After the grain is harvested, it must be sent far away to be processed and packaged. Surprisingly, corn can be made into many different products depending on where you send it. It can become food for livestock, a sweetener for sodas and candy, corn oil for frying, or a few dozen strange-sounding additives—xantham gum and cyclodextrins, anyone?
Last but not least, at least in terms of your health, modified petroleum can actually be used as food additives, like tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ for short) which is used as a preservative. (Pollan likens TBHQ to lighter fluid and notes that it can be toxic to anyone who consumes one gram’s worth.)
After the food (or as Pollan describes it, “food-like substance”) is neatly packaged in uniform, sterile plastic wrappers, it needs to be shipped to distributors. In the end, the average food product travels almost 1,500 miles before it hits your dinner table or your car’s center console.
Given that semi-trucks do most of the hauling and that they get–at best–9 miles to the gallon, that’s a whole lot of greenhouse gases. But I’m not here to talk about the environment (not right now anyway). Everyone knows why we need to wean ourselves off of foreign oil. The cost of remaining dependent on foreign oil could seriously compromise our national security, as the greatest oil producers in the world also happen to be our biggest enemies. Sending them money for oil only gives them more leverage. But in order to rid ourselves of this nasty addiction, we can’t just rely on driving hybrid vehicles or riding the bus more often. Knowing that the second biggest polluter of our economy is food production, it is clear that we need to change our dieting habits as well.
Pollan suggests that the next “Farmer in Chief” support funding for year-round farmers’ markets, like our very own Pike Place Market in Seattle. But we cannot depend on the government, federal or otherwise, to make the first move. Anyone, as a consumer, can make the change happen from the ground up. To reduce the amount of petroleum used to transport food, look to your local farmers for relief. To reduce the amount of oil and pesticides used in the farming of the food you eat, be sure to buy from small, organic farms. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and demand answers about the way your food was produced. If you simply go out and make an effort to frequent your local farmers’ market, buy local and organic when possible, you will help the country take the first steps to get our food system to end its own reliance on fossil fuels.