Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Reading Omnivore

I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma (by Michael Pollan) last night. It was fascinating!

I found the corn section the most compelling because I'd never really thought about how much corn goes into all sorts of foods (because it doesn't all say "corn" but says "xantham gum" and such). I thought Pollan's discussion of the ways food companies have endeavored to get folks in the US to eat more (relatively) cheap corn calories, by super sizing, for example, was fascinating. It's gotta be a sort of brilliant marketing, and just scary at the same time.

I was equally fascinated by Pollan's discussion of the oil energy needed to process foods, especially corn products, and also to transport food. He talks, for example, about eating 4500 calories between three people at lunch, and how those calories took at least ten times that many calories in oil (117). So, ten fossil fuel calories per edible calorie. I would have been interested to see Pollan continue that level of discussion about the ways fossil fuels contribute to feeding us because that seems important in all sorts of ways.

I know some folks who are pretty concerned to try to eat locally and to make less of an impact on fossil fuels in all sorts of ways, including in their food uses. And I find that process thought-provoking, clearly ethical. But I also find it frustrating because I live in a part of the world where, eating only locally, I could get fresh fruit from, say June to November (the first berries at the co-op were in this week, and the last apples seem to come in early November). I'd have more choices among veggies, but there'd be a serious lack of some of my favorite veggies, artichokes! Still, in the past year or two, I've tried to eat a bit more thoughtfully in terms of food travel and such. I'm not fully informed, nor as careful as one might be.

Pollan's section on organic farming says a lot about how industrialized organic farming has become in some areas, and how labor intensive really good farming seems to be. Here, the information that getting a box of organic salad from where it's grown in California to the east coast takes something like 4,600 calories of fossil fuel, or what comes to 57 fossil fuel calories per edible calorie (167). Wow, that's a lot! Even more than the ten to one ration for his corn meal.

I was thinking about fossil fuel costs when he talked about people who drive over 100 miles (one way) to pick up chicken at an organic farm (242). Surely the pollution they're adding basically negates any benefits of eating organic chicken in the big picture?

Pollan seems to have a rather romantic attitude towards the foraging thing, especially with mushrooms. So, I couldn't help myself but do the math for basic fossil fuel and the morel mushrooms he talks about foraging (381-390), because, yes, I'm a nerd. They got 60 pounds, Pollan says (390).

So, they drove from the Bay Area to the Sierras. Let's say 300 miles round trip (a conservative estimate, from the east Bay), and let's imagine the SUV gets 25 miles / gallon of gasoline (hey, maybe it's a really tiny SUV; it makes the math easy). So straight up, just counting gasoline, we're looking at 12 gallons.

I looked up the number of calories in a gallon of gasoline, and found that there are 31,000 KiloCalories per gallon. (This is important because dietary "calories" are really KiloCalories, and that's what I've been using, and what--I think--Pollan uses throughout.)

So, 12 gallons of gasoline makes 372,000 calories (going with dietary calories).

Now let's look at the other side of the equation, the mushrooms.

According to this food site, a serving of Morel Mushrooms is 4 grams weight, and has 15 calories (per serving).

Basic math: .27 calories/gram * 453.6 grams/pound = 122.5 calories / pound

So, 60 pounds of Morels makes 7350 edible calories. That's a ratio of about 50 gasoline calories per edible calorie. Which is five times as much as the corn fed dinner he talks about (117).

I'm guessing, from reading about the guys' marketing of those morels, that they're going to fancy restaurants in the Bay Area, which means that more fuel goes into transporting them around there, and that they're going to be described as locally gathered or whatever, and sold at a premium.

Running even those few numbers makes me realize that the whole ethical eating, or slow eating, or whatever is even more complex than it appears (and that's plenty complex).

So, now I'm going to drive my bike over to the trailhead so I can get some exercise, because I'm full of contradictions.

But I think I'm going to learn more about local eating and such, and try to make some small changes.

NB. I think it's worth saying a good old thanks to Mr. M from my high school chemistry class. Because of his great explanations, I understand the whole canceling things to work out basic math. Actually, Mr. M was one of the best high school teachers I had, great at explaining, not overtly sexist (hey, it was the 70s!), and even fun. I really enjoyed my HS chemistry!


  1. You've made me really want to read that book now.

    I've often been tempted by the eating locally thing. I should have done it back when I lived in New Zealand, or Germany, or anywhere other than this desert country, though! And I have the other ethical dilemma here that I disapprove of the way Australia tries to grow crops that wouldn't grow here naturally: both because they rip out native stuff to plant it, and also because the food crops they grow require them to screw with the environment (piping in water, irrigating, killing off native pests like kangaroos, etc) in order to make it work. Australia wasn't designed to grow thirsty crops in it, yet they persist and then complain about drought and empty lakes.

    So is it worse to buy locally-grown Australian food, which is killing off the local environment, or to buy it from places it grows more naturally (e.g. NZ produce, fruit from Polynesia, etc) and contribute to high carbon emissions?

    Ideally I guess I'd eat bush foods, but the European settlers stripped out so much of the native plant life that that might be hard to come by :)

  2. Wow - this is a fabulous post.

    That we can sit and discourse about the ethics of eating is testimony to our affluence. In reality, eating is survival, and those who eat to survive have no choices. Still, I really like the idea of going back to eating local foods. This is, after all, the entire basis of Italian regional cooking. My Roman friends scoffed when I asked if they cooked a certain Northern Italian dish in their home - Why would they make something that requires ingredients from the North if they are in SOuthern Italy? They truly understand that when one begins to eat foods grown afar, something is lost in terms of flavor.

  3. Some great food for thought there. ;)

    I think that regional cooking is much easier in warmer climates. I grew up in Alaska. If we did regional cooking, we'd never eat anything but reindeer, moose, dried berries and dried squash all winter (hm.. 8-9 months of the year) long. We'd only live to 40 before we succumbed to scurvey and diseases exacerbated by vitamin deficiencies.

    At the same time, it does seem a bit silly to transport individually styrofoam wrapped fuji apples from japan all year long.

    There has to be a happy medium somewhere.

  4. Great post. This topic is something I've been thinking about for a long time. I think the key to being successful at reducing our oil/calorie usage (in the sense that you've been calculating) is to do the best we can. Add as much local food as we can, but don't sweat it if we eat a grape now and then. If everyone reduced their indirect fuel consumption by half, we'd probably be at a sustainable level. (And we should reconstruct the railways so we can transport food that way instead--much less fuel intensive.)

    I just looked back, and saw what I had written about the book here.

  5. Great post. I haven't read the book yet, but your post is more than enough to work on until I do.

    I've been thinking about the local foods thing and have been trying to implement some parts of it. Any movement that banishes tomatoes, avocados, and limes from my diet in favor of, say, rutabagas, though, isn't one that I can wholeheartedly embrace.

  6. StyleyGeek, Oh, I bet things are way complex in Australia!

    TBTAM, thanks :) Yep, only someone who's incredibly privileged has the time/energy to think about food ethics!

    MWAK, Yes, somehow there's got to be a better happy medium than we have now, for sure!

    Ianqui, I remember reading your post! I totally agree about the railroad reconstruction. But I also ride rails to trails trails all the time...

    Undine, I don't think I'd know a rutabaga if it bit me! But I have come to love rhubarb and strawberry pie! So that's a start :)

  7. great article, thanks for posting. I recommend everybody try to eat locally both for health and the benefit of the local economy.