Fuel as Food, Food as Fuel
Centre for Alternative Technology REBE24 February 2010
Modern industrial agriculture is unsustainable in many ways, leading to erosion of soil,draining of natural water supplies and environmental pollution (Deumling et al., 2003). Replacingsoil nutrients, pumping irrigation water, extensive pest control and mitigation of environmentaltoxicity all require immense amounts of fossil fuels in order to maintain adequate crop productionlevels (Pfeiffer, 2003). In addition to this, post-production, including processing, packaging,transportation, storage and retail, can account for 80-90 percent of total fossil fuel use in the foodsystem (Hendrickson, 1996). As a consequence, “modern food supply is in many ways a means of converting fossil fuels to edible forms” (Green, 1987).Cycling is generally considered as a “zero carbon” (Chapman, 2007; BBC, 2008; WAG,2007) or “environmentally friendly” (Dickinson et al., 2003; Sustrans, 2007) means of transport.However, as the human metabolic rate associated with physical activity increases, the body burnsincreased amounts of carbohydrates and produces more carbon-dioxide as compared to the basemetabolic rate (Walsh et al., 2008). Given that the food consumed by the cyclist was the produceof the modern industrial agriculture, the bicycle is essentially powered by fossil fuels.This paper aims to investigate the effect of dietary choices and food sourcing on the energyrequirements of cycling. Embodied energy of daily diets are compared between sustainablemanual farming, current UK and US practices, vegetarian and omnivore lifestyles are studied andthe overall findings are collated with driving a car.
2.Fuel as food
Until the global expansion of “modern” industrial agriculture, the human metabolism used tobe an integral part of the closed carbon cycle of the biosphere along with the other inhabitants andsystems on Earth (Coley, 2002). The energy gained from food came from indirect solar energythrough photosynthesis of the plants, which had a natural control over the growth of the population.With the appearance of modern industrial agriculture, between 1945 and 1994, crop yields per landarea increased 3-fold by the intensive use of fertilizers, irrigation and pesticides (Pimentel et al.,1994). At the present, yields are artificially maintained high by various additional energy inputs,mainly provided by hydrocarbon fuels. The total energy consumption of the food supply is 21% of total energy use in the UK, including agriculture, food processing, packaging, transportation, retail,and home preparation (Lucas et al., 2006).Given the high energy intensity of food production, the embodied energy
required toproduce one kg of final product is higher than its calorific value
. This embodied energy iscalculated using life-cycle analysis and it involves energy used in production, transportation, retailand waste disposal of the product. Consumer preparation and storage, and indirect solar energythrough plant photosynthesis are not included (Coley, 2002). The
ratio can be calculatedfor an individual’s daily diet, and it is highly dependent on food sourcing and dietary choices. Byexamining the average ratio for a specific group or nation, the mean amount of fossil fuels requiredto produce the average daily diet of such a group can be evaluated (Coley et al., 1998).
Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)page 1 of 8