You may not be aware, but our fragile food system relies heavily on non-renewable energy sources.
It’s not a matter of if, but when these resources will be depleted.
When that happens, the way we produce food will change!
As non-renewable resources become harder to obtain, goods produced by the conventional, energy-intensive agricultural system may soon be unaffordable.
For the past decade, I’ve been working to make it easier to for people to identify the foods and meals that contain the nutrients we need to thrive without excessive energy intake. In short: a way to get the most “bang for your buck” nutritionally!
Not only are nutrient-dense foods better choices for your body, they’re also better for our fragile environment.
These foods require less external energy inputs to grow and help regenerate our natural resources instead of depleting them.
Are you interested in learning more? Then read on!
Meet Howard and M. King Hubbert
To learn about how this article began, let me tell you a story.
It all started when Moni (my wife) was looking for some fresh local veggies on Facebook Marketplace. It connected us with our neighbours a few doors down, Chanel and Howard, who we soon learned had the most stunning backyard vegetable garden.
After showing us around, they kindly let us taste some of their produce. We could not get over how unbelievably rich and full of flavour they were compared to what we were buying from the store!
So… what was the difference?
In contrast to conventional farming, these vegetables were grown in nutrient-rich soil that had been carefully tended to and nurtured to yield crops that were vibrant and full of life (and taste!). We felt like we had discovered a nutritional pot of gold in our backyard!
Over the past year, we got to know this lovely couple with lots of extended chats (and vegetables, of course!).
Chanel is a gynecologist from China studying English to practice medicine in Australia. Howard was a fuel station owner who retired after getting cancer. He then pursued his doctorate and is now an environmental scientist.
Over the years, Moni and I have tried to grow our own vegetables. While we’ve had some success, our yield has never been as successful as Howard and Chanel’s.
We developed an urban farming coalition: we give Howard and Chanel our compost and mulch, and Howard drops off extra leafy produce at our front door. It’s a win for all of us!
Howard and Chanel remain great friends, and our families have continued to learn from one another, as you will see.
Coming from a career in the oil industry, Howard is exceptionally familiar with fossil fuels. After turning to food as medicine to manage his cancer and regain his health, he also has grown conscious of food quality. Coupling these two fields together has given him an interesting perspective on food production.
Recently, I popped over to Howard’s with my daughter, Jaz. She is close to entering university and is considering a career in environmental management and government policy. She wanted to pick Howard’s brain on how she might forge a career in this area.
An hour later, we emerged from an enlightening conversation with a stack of books. Howard also shared his thesis with us, titled: Peak Oil, Agriculture and Energy Use: a Comparative Analysis of Organic and Non-Organic Dairy Farms in Australia. It’s a riveting, dystopian thriller about the future of life on earth and the survival of the human race. I was captivated. I consumed it cover to cover in every spare moment!
Howard’s work has fueled my fascination with the intersection between nutrition, sustainability, and energy use.
The stars of Howard’s thesis are U.S. geologist M. King Hubbert and his peak oil curve. In 1940, Hubbert predicted that the availability of oil from the world’s reserves would follow a bell-shaped curve without any intervention from technological advances.
The red line in the chart below is the forecast U.S. crude oil production curve that Hubbert made in 1956. The green line shows actual oil production. As you can see, Hubbert’s predictive line matches the production line pretty well until about ten years ago.
With the input of technology over the last decade, the availability of crude oil has made a comeback. However, we still have not exceeded the peak production rate of 1970 despite these technological advances.
Some of the modern technologies that we are using to extract limited oil reserves include:
- pumping seawater into the ground to push more oil out under pressure;
- seeking out new oil fields in more remote corners of the globe; and
- using natural gas to power technology to extract oil.
The scary irony is that we’re often using two units of energy from gas to extract one unit of energy in the form of oil. We’re rapidly depleting one resource in the quest for another.
The Days of the ‘Bubbling Crude’ Are Over!
As a kid, I remember watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies where Jed Clampet’s stray bullet yielded a ‘bubbling crude, black gold, Texas T‘ from the ground. Jed’s discovery prompted them to sell up their family farm for a fortune and move to Beverly Hills, California.
Well, folks, times have changed. Creative future innovations might enable us to squeeze more oil out of the ground and stave off Hubbert’s forecasted downward trend for a little while, but we can only prolong the inevitable for so long!
We all have grown up in an era where energy has been easy to obtain. Unfortunately, the easy-energy party that we’ve enjoyed for the past few generations just can’t continue.
As oil has become harder to obtain, in recent years, we’ve come to rely more heavily on natural gas. As shown in the chart below, the availability of natural gas follows a similar pattern to crude oil.
We have moved to shale gas reserves in even more recent years as natural gas has become depleted. So, the supply of energy from gas has made a comeback for the time being. But, it’s likely that this non-renewable resource will also become harder to come by with time.
By now, you’re probably asking, “how is this relevant to nutrition?”
I’m glad you asked!
Let me explain:
“Food is energy. And it takes energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established the biological limits to the human population and always will.” (Heinberg, 2005)
In the United States, agriculture accounts for seventeen per cent of all indirect and direct energy consumed (Fleay, 1995 & Pfeiffer, 2006). Four per cent of the energy is used to grow the food on the farm, and thirteen per cent is used to transport your food from farm to plate.
- The industrialised modern farm relies heavily on synthetic fertilisers, irrigation, tillage, and harvesting. Synthetic fertilisers are created using the Harber Bosh process fueled by the non-renewable natural gas methane.
- Irrigation also requires large amounts of electricity that is generated from non-renewable coal.
- Tillage and harvesting both utilise diesel that is derived from non-renewable petroleum.
As you can see, there is a heavy reliance on coal, crude oil, and natural gas in industrial farming processes. While these resources were once abundant, they’re becoming scarcer as we continue to use them at an increasing rate. Unfortunately, they’re not replaceable, at least not quickly.
Photosynthesis is the process where plants transform sunlight into energy. This process allows plants to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic molecules that give them life. When these organic substances are subject to heat and pressure for hundreds of millions of years underground, we get fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, these series of reactions are difficult to replicate and hard to expedite. Until recently, we have used these resources as if they were infinite to supercharge our agricultural system (and everything else in our economy). The production and manufacture of our food are now heavily reliant on inputs from energy from oil, gas, and coal.
While these external energy inputs have turbocharged our food production, our food costs are now tightly tied to the price of energy.
Food has become cheaper and cheaper because the energy costs of industrial agriculture have decreased since farming was dependent on manual labour. As a result, we’ve been able to afford to eat more per person, and we’ve been able to fuel a growing population like never before.
Humans have continued to develop ingenious ways over the millennia to get the energy we need to survive, thrive, and procreate as a species. What started as simple stone tools from the paleolithic era to extract nutrients from scavenged animals soon evolved into crafting spears to hunt our prey.
Around ten thousand years ago, we began to tend to crops to increase food security. This historical transition in our species from “hunter-gatherers” to “farmers.” We no longer had to move around as often to find new food sources, and larger populations could prosper.
The introduction of farming undoubtedly has had a significant impact on the human population. However, the agricultural revolution is nothing compared to the entry of “easy energy” from oil and natural gas in the early 1900s. Since then, our population growth rate has increased exponentially.
Since we started using non-renewable fossil fuels to assist food production, the human population has increased dramatically.
- Before the introduction of agriculture, our population grew at a rate of approximately 0.0015% per year.
- After the introduction of farming, it increased to 0.01%.
- With input from fossil fuels and associated technologies, the growth of our population has peaked at a whopping 2.1% per year!
Notice in the chart below how the increase in population growth coincides eerily with Hubbert’s peak oil curve, both topping out around 1970.
Easy access to non-renewable energy has paved the way for unprecedented population growth and food security. But the combination of “easy energy” availability and “advances” in agricultural technology have created something else remarkable: easy calories! This has fuelled both a growing population in number and size, with rising obesity rates and metabolic diseases.
The chart below (from The biggest trends in nutrition) shows the overlap between historical events, calories available per person, and increased obesity. This data was compiled from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service and the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As you can see, calories available per person and rates of obesity have dramatically increased since the 1960s.
Large-scale, mono-crop agriculture refers to growing one crop year after year on the same plot of land. This practice was implemented alongside synthetic fertilisers to compound agricultural yields. Crops like soybeans, corn, sunflower seeds, and rapeseed are common mono-crops.
In 1903, Proctor and Gamble patented the process of hydrogenation, which allowed food manufacturers to take some of the mono-crops listed above and extract fats for commercial use. These processes have allowed for a steady increase in the supply of industrialised fats into our food system.
As shown in the chart below, the fat content in our food system has increased by an average of six hundred calories per day per person in the last century!
Most of that fat comes from “salad and cooking oils” produced synthetically by industrial agriculture and hydrogenation.
As if an increase in fats weren’t enough for our expanding waistlines, the industrialisation of agriculture has also given us an influx of refined carbohydrates to add to the refined fat.
During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, there was a massive increase in the farming of grains like rice, corn, and wheat. Not only do these industrialised grains require more resources like fertilisers and pesticides, but they also undergo heavy processing that removes micronutrients to make them more palatable. This has left us with foods low in protein, vitamins and minerals and high in calories and chemicals.
When we look at the combined increased intake of industrial seed oils and refined grains, we are now producing more than one thousand calories per day of food per person than we did just half a century ago!
As if things could not get any worse, the combination of processed fats and carbohydrates has set us up for an additional nutritional downfall: a lowered protein intake. Protein is essential for blood sugar stabilisation and satiety. When we neglect protein, we’re more likely to give in to eating processed and unhealthy foods. It’s a vicious cycle!
It’s interesting to note that the combination of processed carbohydrates and fats triggers a ‘supra-additive’ release of dopamine. The rare availability of carbohydrates and fats meant that we were in a period of food abundance in more primitive times. Fat and carbs together are unique and only really occur in autumn to prepare for winter. As a result, the brain utilises its dopaminergic (reward system) to drive us to eat more. As a result, we love to eat these foods, and food manufacturers love to sell them to us.
With the use of non-renewable fossil fuels to fertilise crops, we also see fewer nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals per calorie (lower nutrient density) in our food.
This problem here is twofold: we are planting crops very quickly and not putting nutrients back into the soil to replace what previous crops have used. Mono-crop farming diminishes the nutrient availability in soils for successive harvests. In a balanced system, the soil is given time to regenerate its mineral content between crops in a process known as crop rotation. However, when the same mono-crops are planted on the same land for successive seasons, the crops demand the same nutrients from the soil. When this soil isn’t given a chance to rejuvenate its nutrients with natural fertilisers from plant and animal wastes, it becomes impossible to regain nutrients.
Fossil fuels like methane used in synthetic fertilisers are used to make a plant grow more quickly. However, they do not add to the nutrient uptake of the food itself. This creates a crop that looks like a fruit or vegetable you’re accustomed to but lacks the nutritional profile that the same produce item may have had sixty or seventy years ago.
Our ingenuity has provided food security and allowed our population to grow at an unprecedented rate! However, every rose has its thorn. Technological advancements in food production have led to expanding waistlines, higher incidences of metabolic diseases, and less nutritious food.
We have also set ourselves up for an ominous date with destiny if/when we no longer have easy access to energy to continue to grow enough food to support the a population of ten billion that was made possible by our exploitation of non-renewable resources.
I’m aware that Hubbert’s ominous forecast is not settled science. There are plenty of opinions on how many oil accessible oil reserves we have remaining.
So what if Hubbert and Howard are wrong?
Although we can learn from the past and observe long-term trends, we can’t predict the future. There are many unknowns.
- Maybe technology will save us, and we will be able to continue eating the way we have become accustomed to over the past 50 years.
- Maybe we’ll keep finding more oil and natural gas reserves to fuel the growth of a larger population… and even larger people.
- Maybe we’ll work out how to power farms and agricultural equipment with alternative energy sources (e.g. solar, nuclear or wind).
- Maybe Elon Musk will work out how to mine asteroids for mineral resources and energy.
- Maybe we can move to a spaceship to orbit the earth until the world regenerates, like in the dystopian Wall-E.
- Maybe we will fuel our continued growth in diabetes and metabolic syndrome that is forecasted to bankrupt us.
But one way or another, something has to change.
It’s not just nature that moves in cycles; many things go through boom and bust patterns driven by fear and greed.
You may remember the 2008 stock market crash when the Dow Jones fell fifty-four per cent from its peak. Its demise was fuelled by collapsing subprime mortgages that no one understood and very few people saw coming.
If you’re unfamiliar with what happened leading up to 2008, I recommend checking out The Big Short. It’s the story of the autistic hedge fund trader Michael Burry who was the only one who analysed the numbers long enough to see what was about to unfold. For the years leading up to the crash, he kept shorting the market. Eventually, he walked away with billions when the market imploded and everyone else lost their investments trying to exit simultaneously.
I suspect we’re headed for another crash, but this time in our food system. Sooner or later, we will have to change how we produce our food.
Unfortunately, we can’t print food out of thin air the way we can print money to temporarily prop up the economy.
There is only a finite amount of non-renewable natural resources to be extracted. Once they’re gone, they will take a very long time to replenish!
“Out of adversity comes opportunity” – Ben Franklin
Under the pressure of adversity created by increasing costs of fertilisers, pesticides, and patented seeds and fuel, innovative farmers are devising creative ways to lower their use of “easy” energy.
Instead of passively relying on unlimited access to non-renewable resources, they’re actively reducing their energy usage and working with nature to grow food for the rest of us.
Howard’s thesis details his energy audit of organic vs conventional dairy farms. He found organic farmers actively replenish and nourish their farms to sustain production while working with nature. Compared to conventional dairy farms, organic farmers import less energy for irrigation and fertilisation and operate with thirty per cent less external energy inputs.
In contrast, farmers are primarily focused on production maximisation in the present moment – how much can we produce now?
The conventional farmers Howard interviewed said their land is worth more to sell for real estate development once it comes time to retire. They don’t have the same long-term perspective as the organic farmers as they’re not looking at long-term production.
Whether you call it organic, regenerative, or low energy input, many farmers are already moving towards one of these formats to reduce energy input costs to avoid bankruptcy. Not only is this beneficial for the farmer and the environment, but it also benefits you! The food tastes better, and it’s better for you because it’s more nutrient-dense, grown in a diverse and thriving ecosystem. In addition, food grown with low energy inputs is actively replenishing the health of the soil and sequestering carbon!
One way or another, agricultural methods will change when non-renewable resources we have come to become harder to come by.
Food may not grow quite as quickly with less input from fossil fuels, but I’m not sure if there is another way (unless mining for energy and nutrients on asteroids works out).
One thing is sure: innovative farmers and observant consumers are investing in a future that will be less reliant on “easy” energy.
There’s been a lot of recent discussion about food sustainability. But, unfortunately, the conversation is typically clouded by arguments about whether we should eat plants or animals.
Plant-based proponents like to point out that cow farts contain methane, which negatively affects the environment. Unfortunately, this point turns a blind eye to the massive quantities of methane leached into the atmosphere during the extraction of fossil fuels for synthetic fertilisers required to grow plant foods at a large scale. It also ignores the large amounts of energy used and the pollution generated in the irrigation and transportation of mono-crop plant agriculture.
“Cow farts,” or carbon gases released into the atmosphere by exposed animal wastes, definitely are a problem. However, the real issues here once again come from systems at the industrial scale.
Animals raised on this agricultural model have little space to roam. Too much manure coupled with overgrazed land releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The combination of the two is how agriculture leaves a carbon footprint.
On the other hand, sustainable regenerative agriculture can reduce our carbon footprint. On this system, livestock roams freely, allowing animals to spread out grazing and wastes. This works in tandem with the plant life in animal pastures by maximising the amount of carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere by growing plants while minimising carbon loss from animal wastes covered and stored within the soil.
Our climate crisis may be helped by simply bringing animal and plant based agriculture back together again.
But, unfortunately, many organisations profit from the plant-based narrative. Companies that are shrewdly guiding this platform by promoting things like the EAT-Lancet diet are the same fertiliser, pesticide, and pharmaceutical companies that have profited from the last fifty years of industrialised agriculture. Once this connection is made, it is no surprise that these “plant-based” agriculture products are deemed to be more “efficient” and “sustainable”!
The division of meat-eaters vs. plant-eaters or carnivore vs. vegan is just a messy distraction from the real problem. I don’t care if you eat more plants or more meat and seafood, so long as you get the bioavailable nutrients that you need to thrive!
Nutrient deficiency is arguably at the root of all diseases. Our analysis has repeatedly shown that a balanced micro and macronutrient profile comes from a mixture of plants, animals, and seafood. If you don’t get enough nutrients per calorie from your food, your body’s appetite will increase to get you to eat more energy than you require to meet these micronutrient requirements.
One thing’s for sure, eating more than you would otherwise need to is not good for you or the planet’s limited resources.
Most of you reading this don’t run a farm and are not in a position to grow a flourishing backyard vegetable garden (though, it’s not a bad idea).
So what can you do to help the planet while selfishly helping yourself by getting better food?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Avoid foods with a long list of ingredients on the label.
Foods with an extensive ingredient list often rely on refined hydrogenated oils, flour, sugars, and artificial flavours and colours to make up for the lack of nutrients.
These food-like products are grown to maximise profit using large amounts of non-renewable resources with a minimal nutrient density.
If your kid can’t pronounce the ingredients list, they probably shouldn’t be eating them (and neither should you).
- Seek out a range of foods that provide you with all the nutrients you require without reliance on massive external inputs.
It’s harder to grow foods that naturally contain nutrients. This is because nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables gradually take up nutrients and inherently require a longer time in the ground. These foods are likely to be produced with a lesser reliance on non-renewable energy.
- Buy local.
As we mentioned earlier, the majority of energy costs from agriculture come from transportation. Buying your food from local producers reduces transport energy costs and supports your local economy. It also builds a resilient ecosystem of food producers in your local community.
- Buy the best quality food you can afford.
Be selfish about your family’s health!
Low-energy input food systems combine modern technology and older farming practices to optimise natural food production.
Those who invest early in a low-energy input food system now will help to build a food system that is more financially accessible to others later when resource availability has a more dramatic impact on the cost of food for all of us.
- Get to know the people who produce your food.
If you want to level things up, visit your local farmers’ market and get to know the people that grow your food!
Invest in farmers who care about the quality of the food they produce and invest in their sustainability. By doing so, they can continue producing food that nourishes you and the planet.
We have been working for the past decade to make it simpler for people to optimise nutrient density.
I dream that Nutritional Optimisation will grow into a movement of people investing in nutrient-dense foods.
On a personal level, these foods empower you to control your appetite and eat less, thereby using fewer resources. In addition, these foods require less energy from non-renewable resources to produce and support a sustainable future by regenerating the planet that we all rely on.
Before you go, I’d love to hear your suggestions and thoughts on promoting low-energy input food that will help support our world! Please leave your thoughts and comments below.
If you’re also interested in learning more about this topic, some pertinent articles are:
- Can Nutrient Density Save the World? (with Robb Wolf)
- Why regenerative agriculture will save the planet (and yourself)
- How to eat to save the planet (and yourself)
- Should you EAT Lancet?
- Why our food system is screwed (in charts)
- The biggest trends in nutrition
- Do we need meat from animals?