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Oily Food

Steven L. Hopp

Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars. We’re consuming about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen-about 17% of our nation’s energy use-for agriculture, a close second to our vehicular use. Tractors, combines, harvesters, irrigation, sprayers, tillers, balers, and other equipment all use petroleum. Even bigger gas guzzlers on the farm are not the machines, but so-called inputs. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides use oil and natural gas as their starting materials and in their manufacturing. More than a quarter of all farming energy goes into synthetic fertilizers.

But, getting the crop from seed to harvest takes only one-fifth of the total oil used for our food. The lion’s share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your plate. Each food item in a typical US meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing (drying, milling, cutting, sorting and baking), packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food.

A quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it. More palatable options are available. If every US citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels. Small changes in buying habits can make big differences. Becoming a less energy-dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast.


Reprinted from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins 2007), copyright Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver. The authors of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle retain all rights to this reprinted piece and it may not be copied, reproduced or re-published without permission.

Oily Food

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