Before I start this diatribe I should point out that I have worked in the oil and gas industry all of my life. I love what I do and the industry has been good to me so this isn’t intended to demonize the oil industry. It is, however, intended as an eye opener for what has happened to our food supply.
Oil- The world has become so dependent on products derived from oil that I am increasingly skeptical that we are capable of breaking the dependency cycle. An example how interwoven oil is into our life is found in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” (everyone should read this book). The industrial food machine comes a lot of oil. Most of the following is paraphrased from a couple of chapters os the book.
Every acre of corn grown requires at least 50 gallons of oil and there a lot of acres that are planted every year. Everything from the fuel required for planting, tending, harvesting, and transporting the crop to the fertilizers and pesticides that are applied to the crop consumes oil. More than 1/2 of all the synthetic nitrogen made is applied to corn. Synthetic nitrogen is derived from natural gas. Hybrid corn is “designed” to convert nitrogen to food at greater speed. The trade-off (among many) is that it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food. As a form of insurance most farmers over fertilize. (On a personal note: In my hay farming days I would read the soil report and kick the recommended application rate up a little to make sure that I got a good crop. It turned out that rain was a bigger determinant for yield than fertilizer applied.) The irony is that plants have a limited capacity for taking in nitrogen. What they don’t take up evaporates into the air where it acidified rain. Ammonium Nitrate is transformed into Nitrous Oxide which is one of the greenhouse gases that everyone is so excited about. Some seeps into the water table (along with pesticide residue). The rest is washed into creeks and rivers during the spring rains. During the spring rains, some cities actually have something called blue baby alerts that warn parents not to give their babies water from the tap. The nitrates in the water (from fertilizer runoff) convert to nitrite, which binds to hemoglobin, which compromises the ability of blood to carry oxygen to the brain.
More than half of the world’s supply of nitrogen is man-made. The excess fertilizer has made it to the Gulf of Mexico where the nitrates poison the marine ecosystems. Google earth shows the locations of marine dead zones, some of which are caused when the excess nitrogen stimulates algae growth, which smother the fish, which creates a hypoxic zone as big as the state of New Jersey. Prior to the invention of fertilizer the local farm ecology was a sun-driven cycle of fertility. Legumes fed the corn. The corn fed livestock. Livestock manure fed corn. The loop was closed.
Corn is cheap protein. That hasn’t always been true. At one time the US had farm programs designed to limit production and support prices (and farmers). In the Nixon era the programs were redesigned to increase production and drive prices down. When the book was written the price of a bushel of corn was about a dollar less than the real cost to grow it. In a strange twist of economic madness, the farm programs that are in place now drive production up and prices down. A farm family needs a certain amount of cash flow every year to support itself (don’t we all), and if corn prices fall, the only way to stay even is to sell more corn. Desperate to boost their yields, farmers degrade their land, plowing and planting land with marginal soil, applying more nitrogen, anything to squeeze out a few more bushels from the soil. Yet the more bushels the farmer produces the lower the prices go thus stimulating the spiral of overproduction. This is where the free market seems to fail. Most farmers work second jobs to support their families. If you want to see an example of the “abundance” of corn go to an elevator at harvest time and see the waste. Not to worry though, big agriculture is working tirelessly to create new and different uses for corn. Things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (probably the most significant contributor to the health problems of today). Government subsidies for things like ethanol synthesized from corn will make sure that the excess corn, 10 billion bushels when the book was written, has a use. 3 out of 5 kernels of the corn produced ends up on the factory farm where hundreds of millions of animals eat it and convert it to meat. It might surprise most people to know that the cow, a major player in this enterprise, is not by nature a corn eater.
With the advent of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations the market has seen the advent of cheap meat. Not so cheap however when you look at the contribution to environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, new and deadly pathogens.
Steers bound for C.A.F.O’s start out on grass pastures. At about 500 – 600 pounds they are weaned from their mothers, taught to eat from a trough, and gradually acclimated to eating corn, a food that they are not designed to eat. Once the steer has been acclimated it is shipped to a feedlots where it is finished on a diet of crushed, steamed corn flakes, liquefied fat (beef tallow from the processing plant in many cases), protein supplement consisting of molasses and urea (synthetic nitrogen), antibiotics, and growth hormones. They used to use rendered cow parts from the processing plants but mad cow disease put a stop to that. However the FDA ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants makes an exception for blood products and fat. Things like feather meal and chicken litter (bedding, feces, and discarded feed) are permitted feeds.
The addition of antibiotics to the feed is necessary to keep the cow healthy enough to make it to slaughter on it’s unnatural diet of corn and other “products” that are used for feed. The cow spends it’s remaining days standing in it’s own waste (and the waste of those before it). It eats 25 pounds a day of corn and on average will reach a weight of 1,200 pounds. In it’s lifetime it will consume the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil, nearly a barrel for the 100 million cattle being fed in America at any given moment.
The process of milling corn for its components is a water and energy intensive operation. About 5 gallons of water is used to process each bushel. For every calorie produced in a wet milling operation ten calories of fossil fuel energy is burned. About 530 million bushels of the annual corn harvest is turned into 17.5 billion pounds of high fructose corn syrup yet we can’t seem to figure out why obesity is an epidemic.
Did you know that there is almost no chicken in a chicken McNugget? Of the 38 ingredients in a McNugget, 13 can be derived from corn: the corn fed chicken; modified corn starch (binds the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (these are emulsifiers. They are used to keep the fats and water from separating); chicken broth (restoration of flavor); yellow corn flour and more modified corn starch (batter);cornstarch (filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid (preservative). There is some wheat in the batter and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton, depending on market price and availability.
There are also some synthetic ingredients in a McNugget. The quasi-edible substances are derived from a petroleum refinery or chemical plant, not corn. These chemicals are what make modern processed foods possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. First there are the leavening agents: sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats in the nugget from turning rancid. Then there are anti-foaming agents like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules to produce foam during frying. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it’s also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or inside the boxes it comes in to “help preserve freshness.” According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (ie., lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly on our food: It can comprise of no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget, which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” Ingesting 5 grams can kill.
The average processed food item travels 1,500 miles before it is consumed.
And that’s just food. I doubt if you can find a single thing in your environment that hasn’t been touched by oil in some way. When people discuss alternatives to oil they forget about the things that the big fans on the prairie, dams on the rivers, and atom splitters can’t do.