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Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6.

Assessment (2010)

Fuel as Food, Food as Fuel

Csaba Zagoni

Centre for Alternative Technology REBE

24 February 2010

1. Introduction
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). Replacing
soil nutrients, pumping irrigation water, extensive pest control and mitigation of environmental
toxicity all require immense amounts of fossil fuels in order to maintain adequate crop production
levels (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 food
system (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 burns
increased amounts of carbohydrates and produces more carbon-dioxide as compared to the base
metabolic rate (Walsh et al., 2008). 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. Embodied energy of daily diets are compared between sustainable
manual farming, current UK and US practices, vegetarian and omnivore lifestyles are studied and
the overall findings are collated with driving a car.

2. Fuel as food
Until the global expansion of “modern” industrial agriculture, the human metabolism used to
be an integral part of the closed carbon cycle of the biosphere along with the other inhabitants and
systems on Earth (Coley, 2002). The energy gained from food came from indirect solar energy
through 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 land
area 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 (Eemb ) required to
produce one kg of final product is higher than its calorific value (Ecal ) . This embodied energy is
calculated using life-cycle analysis and it involves energy used in production, transportation, retail
and waste disposal of the product. Consumer preparation and storage, and indirect solar energy
through plant photosynthesis are not included (Coley, 2002). The Eemb /Ecal ratio can be calculated
for an individual’s daily diet, and it is highly dependent on food sourcing and dietary choices. By
examining the average ratio for a specific group or nation, the mean amount of fossil fuels required
to produce the average daily diet of such a group can be evaluated (Coley et al., 1998).

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Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)

3. Food as fuel [human metabolism]

According to the UNPD report (2008), the human population has almost tripled (2.5bn in
1950 to 6.9bn in 2010) since the appearance of modern industrial agriculture. At the present, the
human 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 food
production relies on intensive use of additional non-renewable energy sources with significant
carbon-dioxide emissions (Churkina, 2008). Human exercise, such as walking or cycling are
indirectly powered by hydrocarbon fuels and therefore they are not carbon neutral (Walsh et al.,
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 energy
expenditure of the individual activities with a given M ETi value executed for ti 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 on
assumptions, the latter are typified by UK and US national averages. Despite of these
inexactnesses, 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 amount
of hydrocarbon fuel energy required to produce an omnivore individual’s diet is 5.75 times the
food’s calorific value (Coley, 2002). The research carried out by Frey and Barrett (2007) showed
that the ecological footprint of a vegetarian diet is 40% less than the UK average, and it is
assumed 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 US
omnivore diet is 35000 kcal, while it is 18000 kcal in case of a vegetarian diet. According to the
recent FAO report (2009), the typical US diet is 3855 kcal, therefore the readjusted values are
38550 kcal and 19825 kcal respectively.
The hypothetical self-sufficient farmer is using sustainable manual farming methods without
additional hydrocarbon fuel energy. He/she works 8 hours per day on his farm and he/she is able
to produce all his/her food without excess. It is assumed that the relationship between the time
spent 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 working
hours is 2400 kcal (300 kcal/h), while the daily caloric intake is 4200 kcal (Appendix, eq. 2.).

Daily caloric Embodied energy E(emb)/E(cal) Production Hours of labour to

intake (kcal) of food (kcal) efficiency (%) produce diet (h)
Self-sufficient 4200 2400 0.57 175 8
UK omnivore 3421 19671 5.75 17.4 66
UK vegetarian 3421 11802 3.45 29.0 39
US omnivore 3855 38550 10.00 10 129
US vegetarian 3855 19825 5.14 19.4 66

Table 1. Comparison of calorific value and embodied energy of a daily diet

Sources: 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
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Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)

British omnivore diet requires slightly less energy than the US vegetarian, however a vegetarian
diet 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 the
American. 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 129
hours 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 and
presumes 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 by
the burning of the fuel, not including fuel production. The findings are then compared to the method
when fuel production is involved in the calculations.

Riding a bicycle at a speed of 15 mph has a MET value of 10 (Ainsworth, 2002), and
therefore 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 UK
is 33 mpg. Given that there is 34680 kcal energy in a gallon of gasoline (ORNL, 2009), the
efficiency calculated is 1050 kcal/m (Appendix, eq. 4.). When comparing the amount of energy
provided when the fuel (food) is burnt, cycling proves to be 21 times more efficient than driving a
car. This does not include fuel production and manufacturing of the vehicles.

In case of British and American individuals, cycling would presumably replace light activity
with a MET value of 2, thus riding 15 miles in one hour would increase their daily caloric intake by
600 kcal. The extra energy required to produce this additional food energy can be calculated using
the 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 cycling
15 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 used Efficiency Efficiency

15miles (kcal) (kcal/m) (mpg)
Self-sufficient farmer 840 56 774
UK omnivore 3450 230 188
UK vegetarian 2070 138 314
US omnivore 6000 400 108
US vegetarian 3086 206 211
UK average car 19695 1313 33

Table 2. Energy required for cycling 15 miles in one hour

Source: 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 riding
a bicycle than a person driving a car. However, an American omnivore individual riding a bike can
be less efficient than driving a car with four or five person occupancy because of low food
production efficiency in the US. Depending on dietary choices, cycling in the UK utilizes 6-10 times
less energy than driving a car. This compared to the theoretical efficiency of cycling, which is 21
times 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 annual
energy requirement to produce an American omnivore diet is equivalent to burning approx. 405

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Csaba Zagoni REBE CAT 0941436 - Module 6. Assessment (2010)

gallons of gasoline or driving 13400 miles (that is 1.1 gallon per day or 36 miles per day). This is
almost 1.5 times more than the average annual milage of a car in the UK (9200 miles - DfT, 2003).
On the other hand, the annual energy demand of the self-sustainable food production method is
comparable to the energy content of 25 gallons of gasoline or a typical SUV tank when full.

6. Conclusion
Modern industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels to maintain
artificially high crop yields per land area. The situation is further exacerbated by food processing,
overpackaging, transportation, storage and retail. The amount of energy used to produce an
individual’s daily diet is greatly dependent on dietary choices and food sourcing, although by
analyzing the embodied energy to calorific value ratio of a nation’s average daily diet, the mean
amount of hydrocarbon fuels used can be calculated.
Cycling is in theory a 21 times more efficient way of transport than driving a car. Although,
because of the inefficient and therefore highly energy intensive food supply chain, the energy used
to produce the extra food to meet the cyclist’s increased caloric intake can be close to driving a car
in some cases. In the US, more than one gallon of gasoline is used to produce the average daily
diet, and consequently, riding a bike can be less efficient than driving a car with four or five person
occupancy. Depending on dietary choices, cycling in the UK is 6-10 times more efficient than
driving a car.
The findings of this work suggest that self-sustainable manual farming, still widespread in
many “developing” countries, can be more efficient by an order of magnitude than “modern”
industrial agriculture and food production of “developed” nations.

6.1. Limitations of the essay

• it is hard to find scientific research investigating the requirements of self-sufficiency

• in some works, there is no clear indication of whether “vegetarian” means “no animal flesh” or
“no animal derived products at all” (i.e. veganism) - although there could be major differences
(consumption of dairy products and/or eggs)
• life-cycle analysis of food produced by using renewable energy is very hard to come by
• MET values given by different sources greatly differ
• driving statistics in the UK and the US are not up-to-date

6.2. Implications for existing orthodoxy

• cycling is generally considered as a carbon neutral or “environmentally friendly” means of

• modern industrial agriculture is usually considered a solution to eliminating hunger, without
consideration of the effects of its unsustainablility, as unrestraining human population growth
to go beyond the carrying capacity of the planet
• this work demonstrates the wastefulness of the US and the UK, two iconic nations of
consumerism - commonly associated with being extremely wasteful
• this work also points out that 25 gallons of gasoline can provide enough energy to feed a
person in a developing country for a whole year - not frequently remembered when filling up
a tank of an SUV
• the findings are in line with the presently spreading notion that vegetarianism has a greatly
reduced impact on the environment

6.3. Future research

• comparison of CO2 emissions of cycling as opposed to driving a car

• analyzing differences between food sources in the UK (direct purchase from farmer, famers’
market, supermarket, box schemes, etc.)
• effect of shopping practices on embodied energy of the food purchased (cycling to local
market, driving to distant supermarket, etc.)
• accounting for embodied energy in the manufacturing of the vehicles
• effect of cycling speed on efficiency.

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7. Afterword
The aim of this paper is by no means to discourage cycling, on the contrary, it is to promote
the importance of conscious dietary choices and food sourcing among those who are committed to
reducing their impact on the environment. Cycling, without doubt, has further advantages over
driving including health benefits, reduction of noise levels and congestion, even so the discussion
of these aspects are beyond this work’s limits.

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A. Appendix

(eq. 1.) Daily caloric intake :

�n BM R[kcal] �n
i=1 ( 24h ∗ M ETi ∗ ti [h])[kcal] where i=1 ti = 24h

(eq .2.) The farmer’s daily caloric intake can be calculated as :

8 hours of MET 1 - including sleeping and resting
8 hours of MET 2 - light activities
8 hours of MET 4 - farming

Caloric value of daily diet :

Ecal = 75 kcal
h ∗ (1 ∗ 8h + 2 ∗ 8h + 4 ∗ 8h) = 4200kcal

The energy required for production of a daily diet:

8 hours of MET 4 - farming

Embodied energy in daily diet :

Eemb = 75 kcal
h ∗ (4 ∗ 8h) = 2400kcal

Produce of one hour of farming in food caloric value:

E1hr = 4200kcal
8h = 525kcal

(eq. 3.) Energy required for riding a bicycle at 15 mph for 1 hour :
1 hour of MET 10 - cycling @ 15 mph
Ecyc = 75 kcal
h ∗ (10 ∗ 1h) = 750kcal

The efficiency of cycling :

ηcyc = 750kcal
15m = 50 kcal

(eq. 4.) Efficiency of the average UK car :

ηcar = 34680kcal
33m = 1050 kcal

(eq. 5.) The farmer’s new daily caloric intake can be calculated as :
8 hours of MET 1 - including sleeping and resting
(7-x) hours of MET 2 - light activities
(8+x) hours of MET 4 - farming
1 hour of MET 10 - cycling @ 15mph
(when the farmer works x hours more per day on the farm instead of carrying out light
activities, to meet his increased energy need)
Ecal2 = 75 kcal
h ∗ (1 ∗ 8h + 2 ∗ (7 − x)h + 4 ∗ (8 + x)h + 10 ∗ 1h)

Produce of (8+x) hours of farming in food caloric value:

E(8+x)h = 525kcal ∗ (8 + x)h

The farmer’s daily caloric intake equals the produce of his farming:
Ecal2 = E(8+x)h
Extra working hours needed per day :
x = 1.6h
New daily caloric intake :
Ecal2 = 75 kcal
h ∗ (1 ∗ 8h + 2 ∗ 5.4h + 4 ∗ 9.6h + 10 ∗ 1h) = 5040kcal
Increase in daily caloric intake caused by cycling :
Ecyc(f arm) = Ecal2 − Ecal = 5040kcal − 4200kcal = 840kcal

(eq. 6.) Efficiency of the average UK car, with gasoline production efficiency of 80%:
ηcar = 34680kcal∗1.25
33m = 1313 kcal

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8. References

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Hendrickson, J., 1996. Energy Use in the U.S. Food System: A Summary of Existing Research and
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