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Fuel as Food, Food as Fuel

Fuel as Food, Food as Fuel

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Published by quarentine
“Modern food supply is in many ways a means of converting fossil fuels to edible forms”.
Cycling is generally considered as a “zero carbon” or “environmentally friendly” means of transport. However, given that the food consumed by the cyclist was the produce of 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 energy requirements of cycling.
“Modern food supply is in many ways a means of converting fossil fuels to edible forms”.
Cycling is generally considered as a “zero carbon” or “environmentally friendly” means of transport. However, given that the food consumed by the cyclist was the produce of 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 energy requirements of cycling.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: quarentine on Mar 21, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Fuel as Food, Food as Fuel
Csaba Zagoni
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
3.Food as fuel [human metabolism]
According to the UNPD report (2008), the human population has almost tripled (2.5bn in1950 to 6.9bn in 2010) since the appearance of modern industrial agriculture. At the present, thehuman metabolism cannot be seen as an integral part of the closed carbon cycle of the biosphere,as the population is no longer limited by the natural carrying capacity of the planet, and foodproduction relies on intensive use of additional non-renewable energy sources with significantcarbon-dioxide emissions (Churkina, 2008). Human exercise, such as walking or cycling areindirectly powered by hydrocarbon fuels and therefore they are not carbon neutral (Walsh et al.,2008).The amount of energy required by a functioning human body can be calculated as follows.The base metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy required while resting, and it is 1800 kcal/day or 75 kcal/h on average, according to Durnin (1981). The metabolic equivalent (MET)expresses "the ratio of the work metabolic rate to the base metabolic rate” for a given type of activity (Ainsworth, 2002). The daily caloric intake can be calculated as the sum of the energyexpenditure of the individual activities with a given
value executed for 
duration (Appendix,eq. 1.).
4.Comparison of food supply system (in)efficiencies
The objective of the following comparison is to demonstrate the differences between self-sufficient farming in developing countries and modern industrial agriculture in consumer societies.The former is represented by a hypothetical self-sufficient farmer whose situation is based onassumptions, the latter are typified by UK and US national averages. Despite of theseinexactnesses, the following juxtaposition is a powerful means to illustrate the scale of disparity.In the UK, the average daily caloric intake is 3421 kcal per person (FAO, 2009). The amountof hydrocarbon fuel energy required to produce an omnivore individual’s diet is 5.75 times thefood’s calorific value (Coley, 2002). The research carried out by Frey and Barrett (2007) showedthat the ecological footprint of a vegetarian diet is 40% less than the UK average, and it isassumed that the energy requirement of such a diet is reduced by a similar degree.Pimentel and Pimentel (1996) found that the embodied energy of a typical 3500 kcal USomnivore diet is 35000 kcal, while it is 18000 kcal in case of a vegetarian diet. According to therecent FAO report (2009), the typical US diet is 3855 kcal, therefore the readjusted values are38550 kcal and 19825 kcal respectively.The hypothetical self-sufficient farmer is using sustainable manual farming methods withoutadditional hydrocarbon fuel energy. He/she works 8 hours per day on his farm and he/she is ableto produce all his/her food without excess. It is assumed that the relationship between the timespent working and the food energy produced is linear. Farming has a MET value of 4 (Ainsworth,2002), so the energy expenditure (which is also the embodied energy of food) during the 8 workinghours is 2400 kcal (300 kcal/h), while the daily caloric intake is 4200 kcal (Appendix, eq. 2.).
Daily caloricintake (kcal)Embodied energy of food (kcal)E(emb)/E(cal)Productionefficiency (%)Hours of labour toproduce diet (h)Self-sufficientfarmerUK omnivoreUK vegetarianUS omnivoreUS vegetarian
4200 2400 0.57 175 83421 19671 5.75 17.4 663421 11802 3.45 29.0 393855 38550 10.00 10 1293855 19825 5.14 19.4 66
Table 1. Comparison of calorific value and embodied energy of a daily dietSources: Coley, 2002; FAO, 2009; Frey and Barrett, 2007; Pimentel and Pimentel, 1996;
Table 1. (p. 2) shows the relationship between the calorific value and the embodied energy of a particular diet. Because of the highly inefficient US food supply system, the production of a
Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)page 2 of 8
British omnivore diet requires slightly less energy than the US vegetarian, however a vegetariandiet requires 40-50% less energy when measured against an omnivore diet of the same nation.The results also show that the British food supply system is around 50-70% more efficient then theAmerican. Remarkably, the hypothetical self-sufficient farmer has more than 17 times higher production efficiency compared to the US omnivore diet, although it would take him/her about 129hours of manual labour to produce the embodied energy of the latter.
5.A bicycle powered by fossil fuels?
The following comparison studies the energy efficiency of cycling as opposed to driving a car.The method does not take into account the energy used for the manufacturing of the vehicles andpresumes a single person occupancy - as this is the case for 61% of all car trips in the UK (DfT,2006). Firstly, theoretical efficiencies are analyzed, with the focus on the energy provided solely bythe burning of the fuel, not including fuel production. The findings are then compared to the methodwhen fuel production is involved in the calculations.Riding a bicycle at a speed of 15 mph has a MET value of 10 (Ainsworth, 2002), andtherefore it has an expenditure of 750 kcal/h and an efficiency of 50 kcal/m (Appendix, eq. 3.).According to the Department for Transport (2009), the fuel efficiency of the average car in the UKis 33 mpg. Given that there is 34680 kcal energy in a gallon of gasoline (ORNL, 2009), theefficiency calculated is 1050 kcal/m (Appendix, eq. 4.). When comparing the amount of energyprovided when the fuel (food) is burnt, cycling proves to be 21 times more efficient than driving acar. This does not include fuel production and manufacturing of the vehicles.In case of British and American individuals, cycling would presumably replace light activitywith a MET value of 2, thus riding 15 miles in one hour would increase their daily caloric intake by600 kcal. The extra energy required to produce this additional food energy can be calculated usingthe production efficiency values from Table 1. (p. 2.) for the different diets.As the farmer produces his/her own food, if he/she increases his/her caloric intake by cycling15 miles in one hour, he/she has to work more to produce enough food to meet the extra demand,which further increases his/her food consumption (Appendix, eq. 5.).If we take into account that around 20% of the energy in crude oil is used for the extraction,refining and transportation of gasoline (Brinkman et al., 2005), the efficiency of the average UK car is 1313 kcal/m (Appendix, eq. 6.).
Energy used15miles (kcal)Efficiency (kcal/m)Efficiency (mpg)Self-sufficient farmerUK omnivoreUK vegetarianUS omnivoreUS vegetarianUK average car
840 56 7743450 230 1882070 138 3146000 400 1083086 206 21119695 1313 33
Table 2. Energy required for cycling 15 miles in one hourSource: Ainsworth, 2002; Brinkman et al., 2005; DfT, 2009; ORNL, 2009
Table 2. (p. 3) shows that the self-sufficient farmer is more than 23 times more efficient ridinga bicycle than a person driving a car. However, an American omnivore individual riding a bike canbe less efficient than driving a car with four or five person occupancy because of low foodproduction efficiency in the US. Depending on dietary choices, cycling in the UK utilizes 6-10 timesless energy than driving a car. This compared to the theoretical efficiency of cycling, which is 21times higher than driving, shows the inefficiency of the British food supply system.To demonstrate the massive differences in a global context, it is worth noting that the annualenergy requirement to produce an American omnivore diet is equivalent to burning approx. 405
Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)page 3 of 8

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