The Energonomics of Eating

29 January 2009 at 2:12 am 2 comments

Our Green Sanctuary Committee at the UU Church in Haverhill chose to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals as our “book group” choice, and I’m finding it to be a seminal text of energonomics.  Pollan traces the energetic source of four different meals:  a fast-food meal, an “industrial organic” meal, a truly organic meal, and a meal that was “hunted and gathered.”  Of course, everything ultimately gets traced back to the solar energy of the sun itself–even twinkies!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today:  the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer.  Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing:  linking us, through what we eat, to the fertilility of the earth and the energy of the sun. It might be hard to see how, but even a Twinkie does this–constitutes an engagement with the natural world.  As ecology teaches, and this book tries to show, it’s all connected, even the Twinkie. (7)

It turns out that the industrial food chain links us indirectly to the sun via fossil fuels used to catalyze the production of chemical fertilizer, which means that “the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. . . . Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum” (44-45).    Processing the corn grown with these synthetic fertilizers also binds us to Mid-Eastern oil:  “Wet milling is an energy-intensive way to make food; for every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel are burned” (88).  The energy-dense foods now produced by this industrial food chain constitute the core of our dilemma as omnivores:

Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite.  Yet in nature–in whole foods–we seldom encounter these nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed foods:  You won’t find a fruit with anywhere near the amount of fructose in a soda, or a piece of animal flesh with quite as much fat as a chicken nugget. (106-7)

Organically grown food isn’t necessarily better, if it relies on the industrial processes that the industrial food chain developed.  As Pollan notes,

A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. . . [whereas] growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4, 600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. (167)

Put another way, “the food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today, it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate” (183).

Throughout the book, as you can see, Pollan continually references energy as the forgotten factor in our daily accounting.  The implications of his book point to our need to manage energy much more efficiently if we are to negotiate the coming challenges that the planet faces in the 21st century.  The UUA‘s Study-Action Issue for 2008-12 is “Ethical Eating,” and this book definitely calls us to consider all that is behind every food choice that we make.

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Entry filed under: books, energonomics, Unitarian Universalism. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike  |  2 March 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

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    Don’t pay for your electricity any longer…
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  • 2. Local Food and Energy Management « Scholaris Erratus  |  30 April 2009 at 10:52 pm

    […] posts with these materials.  I already did a post on Omnivore’s Dilemma called “The Energonomics of Eating” a few months ago.  As a result of reading this for our Green Sanctuary Committee book group […]

    Reply

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