The Oil-Fired, Grain-Fed Global Food Crisis

April 12, 2011 • Farming Practices, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Jack Alpert for this article.  See

The Oil-Fired, Grain-Fed Global Food Crisis

Paul Chefurka
February 17, 2011

In other articles I have made the claim that because of our industrial food system, oil, food and population are inextricably linked. I have also claimed that a contraction in the world oil supply would cause a similar contraction in the world food supply, threatening the human population. This article fleshes out those claims a little more, drawing on some of my recent investigations.

Food Systems

According to Wikipedia, a food system includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population: the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items.

Another article gives the percentage of various countries’ total energy consumption that is used by the food system. The estimates range from 10% to 14%. This gives a good starting point for investigating how vulnerable food systems are to oil supply disruptions. Of course, the estimates are for “total energy”. The interesting question for our purposes is, what proportion of the energy used in the food system comes from oil?

After thinking about it for a while I’m reasonably confident in saying that about two thirds of the energy used in the average food system likely comes from oil. The reason is that the heavy energy consumption in the food system comes from the mechanization of production and the transportation of raw materials, raw food, finished food products and waste. Natural gas is used for fertilizer and crop drying, but that only consumes a percent or two of the total energy supply. The rest is electricity for lighting, processing the food and some production processes like irrigation. Estimating that two thirds of the energy used comes from oil seems reasonable to me.

So by picking the middle of that 10% to 14% range and multiplying 12% by 2/3, I conclude that 8% of the world’s primary energy supply is used in the global food system as oil. This is not terribly accurate, but I think it’s in the right ballpark.

However, that 8% isn’t drawn from the complete pool of primary energy, because it only comes from oil. That means that our 8% comes out of the world’s oil supply, not from the total pool of primary energy. The oil supply constitutes only 35% of the world’s primary energy. The necessary arithmetic shows us that the operation of the world’s food supply consumes about 23% of the world’s oil. Almost a quarter of our oil is used to feed us. Or, in Dale Pfeiffer’s language, we eat a quarter of our oil. It seems unbelievable, but there it is.

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