How Not to Eat oil

I did not comprehend our utter dependance on oil in food production. I have been listening to “The Ominvore’s Dilemma”, by Micheal Pollan. The beginning of the book discusses the utter dependance of animal feed and processed food on the abundance of corn. This is probably slightly different in Alberta, as there is more wheat than corn, but the ideas are the same. The diagram below illustrates the entire convoluted relationship. The book is worth a read or listen for a deeper understanding how we are essentially eating petroleum. Plastic pollution makes this statement more literal.

Dynamics of Corn Production

What I was struck with was the need for petrochemicals. I had always thought that fertilizer was something that was used to improve production, but with careful farm practices and enough organic compost, it was an unnecessary evil. The purpose of fertilizer is to provide nitrogen. The only other source of nitrogen is form the air, either from lightening strikes or fixated by bacteria living in the roots of leguminous plants.
With the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process, the fertility of the earth was no longer restricted to the nitrogen content of the soil.

also called  Haber ammonia process,  or  synthetic ammonia process,   method of directly synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen, developed by the German physical chemist Fritz Haber. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for this method, which made the manufacture of ammonia economically feasible. The method was translated into a large-scale process using a catalyst and high-pressure methods by Carl Bosch, an industrial…

Since the major source of the ammonia is from natural gas, the major energy input in modern agriculture has shifted form primarily solar to petrochemical. Cheap corn or grain is then fed to livestock. In the case of steers, it reduces marketing time form 4 years (on only a grass fed steer), to 18 months. The time saving comes at a cost of antibiotic resistance, poor cow health, water contamination, rise of pathogenic e.coli. The energy cost of switching from grass to grain means moving into an even greater energy balance. Pollan estimates it takes nearly a barrel of oil to raise a steer to market.
Our current food producing systems are highly dependent on cheap energy at all stages , production, processing, and distribution. The story of corn is illustrative of this dependance. But, it also illustrates something deeper.

In our mechanized, factory inspired culture, we have lost the knowledge of what it truly means to survive. As a culture, we have created our own environments, our own rules and our own food, abstracted from nature. It is this abstraction from what is real that will be fatal.

The real danger of the modern food production system is that it disguises the nature of our food. It takes an animal, with bones, feathers, and life and compress it down into something completely abstract, like a chicken nugget. Pollan describes the ingredients of a chicken nugget. There is some chicken meat in it, but it is more an abstraction of fat, and salt around some breast meat, with added chicken flavour (why do you need to add chicken flavour to chicken meat ?) coated with petroleum products (butane) and other suspected carcinogens. This tasty combination is perfectly fitted to be eaten quickly with fingers and has no nasty bones of shapes reminiscent of the beast it came from. Not unlike the cuts of meat in beautiful wrapped plastic are one step removed from the butcher shop, where the meat at least arrived whole.

People realize on an intellectual level that there food comes from living creatures, plants or animals, but I do not think they realize this on a visceral level. The creation of processed food has seduced us with our own ingenuity. We can preserve our food longer and need not be concerned about the vagaries of nature. Food wil always be plentiful thanks to our ingenuity in reaping bounty from the land.

But, of course this has nothing to do with reality. Ultimately, food production relies on the delicate interaction of sun, soil and rain. We have been able to “fool the system” with intensive farming, added pesticides and fertilizers, but ultimately we are losing quality and health(the health of the land and our own health) and trading it for quantity.
We are just beginning to understand the complexities of macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients and our vegetables. Vegetables grown on organic, small scale farms in polyculture tend to taste better have better nutritional value in addition to having less chemicals used to grow them. This type of careful, slow, productive farming can not meet the needs of the industrialized food system.

But, is the industrialized food system meeting the needs of society in the long term ? Industrialized farming as it is currently leaves the soil poorer quality, creates vegetables that are of lower nutritional quality and require tremendous inputs of petroleum. Industrialized meat production has introduced greater levels of cruelty all in an effort to unnaturally produce meat. In times past, people were growing food, not commodities, and animals not “meat on the hoof”.

The shift from raising animals to growing meat occurred as a result of trying to place biological systems into an industrial machine. The path to where we are today and where we came seems long and tortuous, yet each step was made to meet the logical of the machine. After learning about animal production, seeing slaughter plants (chicken, pigs, cows) and viewing feed lots, I was subtly disturbed. Certainly not disturbed enough to stop eating meat – that had to wait another 6 or 7 years. But, I felt that things were not quite right.
What did I really know though. I was raised in the city and loved meat. The casual cruelty – overcrowding, farrowing crates, indoor housing stinking of feces and ammonia, mutilation (pigs, chickens), cows sitting in pens of dirt and feces, chickens being raised so quickly that they would die even if they could live longer , layers crammed in cages, never seeing the sun and dying after their production fell. The terms “meat on the hoof”, “protein conversion units”, summarize the worst of reductionist meat farming. Everything seemed so wrong, but I thought this was the way things were done and not too many other people had any objections to it. Or at least objected enough to stop eating meat.

My eventual response was to stop eating meat, especially after reading [“The Food Revolution”}( But, Pollan, describes a different way of farming on Joel Saldin’s Polyface farms.

Joel Saldin grandfather was a man who saw that the road carved by experts was unsustainable and ultimately crafted to support industry rather than farmers. He believed enough in his own knowledge, and understanding to return to older, slower methods of farming, with some added innovations that made grass-farming and raising animals more important that slotting into the industrialized food producing machine.
Joel Salatin, calls himself a grass-farmer. The by-products of growing grass properly are cows, pigs,chickens and rabbits.

The family raises “salad bar beef,” a natural, grass-fed beef production system with intensive rotational grazing, premium chickens and turkeys on pasture, pastured rabbits and turkeys, feature “pigaerator pork,” whereby the pigs root around to create compost, and layer chickens that are moved around the farm in an eggmobile. As if that’s not enough, there’s the on-farm processing of chicken broilers that the whole family participates in and cutting of firewood from their forests for cordwood sales. A band-saw generates revenue from lumber and custom sawing.

The key to Polyface farm is rotational grazing. Cows graze on the grass enough to stimulate growth and fertilize the fields with manure. Chickens follow Note (Joel Saladin goes his own way), 14 Oct 2007, 05:08the cows, aerate the soil with their scratching, remove any parasites from the cow feces and in turn fertilize the land with nitrogen rich feces. The movement of cows and chickens is highly dependent on the quality of the pasture and what the land can support. By mimicking a natural eco-system, the use of antibiotics, and de-worming is eliminated.

Joel has spreadsheets of data in an effort to understand what his land can support. This type of farming calls for more time, more understanding and a dependance on seasonality. This type of intimate understanding of the land would likely be found with traditional hunters or farmers having to grow crops without the addition of petroleum products. This is the essence of farming, learning to live the land and to use the qualities of nature to help things grow rather than trying to enforce human will depleting the land of its nutrients, beauty and ultimately its live giving qualities.
The farm is viable economic enterprise.

Polyface Farm’s retail sales plan worked and dispels the popular myth that farming families can’t make ends meet. Their diversified operations, structured as a non-public corporation, gross over ,000 a year, netting about ,000 before paying four full-time salaries of family members and apprentice stipends. Some of Polyface Farm’s premium products command retail prices two or three times more than typical grocery store prices, and others approximate typical name-brand prices.

It is quite possible to raise meat and eggs in an humane manner, that enriches the land and is economically viable. The Salatin’s farm is almost an entire ecosystem. There are still inputs of chicken and pig feed. But, without the use of pesticides, antibiotics and fertilizers the dependance on oil is markedly reduced. Joel Salatin wants to create a local food economy. This is the only way for farming to remain sustainable, and accountable.
In the buzzword of the day, sustainable economic production is the only way societies are going to remain secure. The most important unit of this economic production is secure, sustainable food production. Weaning ourselves off the energy of petroleum back to the sun is the only way to regain this control.

Little thought has been given to trying to sustain our population with farming and transporting practices that limit or eliminates the need for petroleum additives and the assumption that animals need to be treated like meat production units rather than being allowed to express their natural physiological tendencies.

Our modern thinking has molded itself to the machine and the wonders of factory farming. To be sure these advances have given us material abundance at fire-sale prices. Modern defenders would argue we need to continue current production methods to ensure cheap, abundant food for everyone. But, that is not the true cost of things.

Our current farming practices require more energy to grow food that the energy gained by eating this food. The high energy costs of petroleum fertilizer, and pesticides and the incredible distances food is transported have created a monolithic system of energy drain. Agricultural subsidies promote overproduction and falling commodity prices and hide the cost of production.

The true cost of production is never realized. What is the environmental cost of oil extraction or protecting oil production. What is the cost, of continuous monoculture with its needs for fertilizer, heavy irrigation requirements ? What are the health costs of eating food with pesticides, nutrient and taste poor food ?

What are the social and moral costs of raising meat production units rather than treating animals with respect. In the reductionists view, the method of animal production is completely separate from the way business treats the population. Using a holistic approach, cruelty from animal production flows into other areas of life.

It was not that long ago that humans were rounded up and shipped in railway cars for slaughter. Lest the holocaust be thought of as an abbernt event, it is important to remember Rwandan, Sudan, Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan. Our society can not admit to itself the casual cruelty of modern meat production, so myth of the family farm lives on. It is also the reason for plastic packaged body parts and the creation of the chicken nugget – they are abstractions that meat truly comes from living creatures kept in happy conditions. It is this distancing from the truth of the matter that creates the blissful ignorance of modern society and allows degradation and slaughter of human and animals to continue.

The notion of animals as meat production units also fits in with the ideas of workers as a commodity. It ignores the underlying relationships between people and between people and animals. But, farms like Polyface comes back to an older notion of balance and respect. The farm allows animals to root, dig, forage, interact and enjoy the feel of the sun. What the animals consume is returned to the earth and the land does not carry anymore animals that it can tolerate. On Saladin’s farm the chicken blood and bone and viscera that are left after processing on site are composted. This is as close to a natural ecosystem the the human mind can create. I suspect that those companies(and countries) that value their workers and spend money and energy providing an education and an environment that fosters interaction and dialog rather than rules from the top down will produce more and “live” longer.

The life that we have created on never-ending resources and oil has led us to the factory production of food, goods and people. There is great emphasis placed on uniformity and control and no value given for valuing the relationships between people and animals. In this quest of uniformity and security, we have created improvised food, lacking taste and important micro nutrients, mercurial fashions and cheap goods that will not last, and improvised citizens whose goal is to accumulate as much wealth as possible without any real thought to spiritual and mental development.

The era of the free lunch (cheap oil) is coming to an end. We have to return to a more sane, sustainable, and ultimately enriching method of food production and of life. The first step is to stop drinking the kool-aid and find out what the real cost is. The second step is to make those changes or support those companies heading the right direction.


3 responses to “How Not to Eat oil

  1. dlnorman November 15, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    this is what keeps me awake at night. we’ve artificially inflated the carrying capacity of the earth through the use of oil (as you mention, petroleum is now the dominant source of energy, not the sun). when cheap oil is gone (and we’re approaching $100/bbl now) what happens? the “natural” carrying capacity is about 1 billion humans. 5 billion people could starve without cheap oil. and the remaining 1 billion will have hell on earth.

  2. niransab November 18, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I don’t think anyone has really absorbed this. I read your words Darc, and I know what they mean. Everything is obvious on an intellectual level. But, viscerally I think “that can’t happen”. The fact that the worst case scenario is a possibility is no believed as a possibility, given the lack of media time on the subject. There is always the false promise of biofuels (which cost more energy to produce) or some other mysterious discovery that will save “our way of life”. I think it is the human condition to mentally plod in the same rut until we can no longer move and then decide to change. On a grander scale, evolution is working against one more animal that can not adapt to changing circumstance.

  3. Pingback: More Bad Meat « Incredible Visions

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