Fossil Food

Posted in Energy, Reviews at 17:16 by RjZ

I’ve only just begun reading a book handed to me: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan but it looks like such promising blog fodder that I figured I’d start writing about it even before I finished. (I’m on page 47 now–I’ve got a little while.)


Today’s news; the Federal Reserve Chairman, Berneke released today that inflation would remain at bay with the exception of food and fuel prices which are rising. Are these connected? In more ways than we realize. Only a century ago, yield for an acre of corn was nearly 20 times less than it is today. To what do we owe this increase in production? In part it’s due to scientific advancement and hybridization which has enabled corn to be harvested more easily and be grown in tighter and tighter spaces. But even rich Iowa soil wouldn’t be able to support such an increase in natural production without a little help.

Naturally, energy to grow corn comes from the sun. The sun powers the photosynthesis that produces the stalk, leaves, silk, cob and kernels. The sun powers the the bacteria that live on the soybean roots and combine nitrogen in the air with water in complex chemical reaction to make amino acids. Bacteria don’t live long though so their nitrogen enriches the soil that the corn to grow in the next time it’s planted. Unfortunately, soybeans can only foster so many bacteria per area of soil and only so much nitrogen is removed from the air, combined with hydrogen and made useful to the plants.

That’s where fossil fuels come in. Fossil fuels are essentially old dead plants and animals. Millenia long, dinosaurs and ferns lived and died and were buried and crushed by the weight of new soil, ferns and dinosaurs. Today we uncover these remnants as coal, oil and natural gas, but really, it’s stored up solar energy. And this stored up energy, for example as natural gas, can be used to create high temperatures and pressures that create usable nitrogen, which we usually just call fertilizer. Bacteria use enzymes and biological processes to create this fertilizer at lower temperatures and pressures, but our method is quicker.

Unfortunately, our method may be quicker, but there is loads of demand for that fuel, so it isn’t cheap. And as it get’s scarcer it won’t be getting any cheaper. Even Iowa soil can only provide so much nourishment for Iowa corn on its own. Add some super concentrated sun in the form of natural gas to create fertilizer and suddenly 2 million subsidized farmers can feed a nation of 250 million.

The beauty of physics is that one really only need to memorize a few laws and everything else follows. In this case, it’s conservation of energy. We can grow more food per acre, but the energy to do so has to come from somewhere. According to Pollen it takes about 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn, or about two calories of fuel for every calorie of food. Doesn’t it seem ironic, then, that we’re considering growing corn 50 gallons per acre, to plant, grow, harvest and deliver, in order to make ethanol to power our cars?

1 Comment »

  1. Kate (Outdoorsie) said,

    August 16, 2007 at 9:00

    Ha! Ok, you’ve moved off my link bar I keep forgetting I have and into my new spiffy Google Reader. Maybe I’ll actually comment now. :)

    My hubby and I listened to this book last winter while driving back and forth through the midwest for the holidays. It was one of the biggest eye-opening ‘reads’ I’ve had in a REALLY long time. Enjoy it, and learn from it!

    One of the best things I’ve found about living in Colorado is the abundance of local organic farms, ranches and CSAs. You just have to know that you can find them. This summer, our diets have been radically different, and it’s been a great experience.

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