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!