This episode explores how our food networks have been enabled by the utilization of oil and gas. After all, food doesn’t come from the back of the grocery store, or from the trunk of the delivery guy’s car.
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Welcome back to the RARE PETRO podcast! This is another episode of Hydrocarbon History, and I strongly urge you to watch the podcast on YouTube if you aren’t already. I have a ton of fun editing these videos, and I think you will have a ton of fun watching them. Just search RARE PETRO on YouTube, and you should be able to find what you are looking for. That is all I’ve got for housekeeping, so it’s time we kick things off!
Most of you might know this, but I am an Iowan with family in the farming business. I got the idea for this episode when looking at commodity prices. You see, I’ve got this app that tracks oil prices, and I like it a lot. Very simple design, and gets me the data I need quickly. I’ll be sure to link it below. This app also covers commodities. When you hear that word you might think of your typical future contracts revolving around oil and metals, but there also exists a market for grain futures. Not only that, but orange juice, cattle, hogs, sugar, and many other things that you might be surprised to find in an app called “Oil Price Live.” When you think about it, these things hold value in the same way hydrocarbons do. They are units of energy. The way a car runs off of gasoline, you run off of fat, protein, and carbohydrates that you find in different sources of carbon energy: plants and animals. The thing is, we didn’t always have a global market of futures guiding the value of these perishable commodities, and the grocery stores that distribute them, so how did we get here? Well, that’s the topic of today’s episode. We will be looking at food security.
You see, way back when humans led simple lives several thousands of years ago, people lived in rather nomadic societies. Similar to the way birds fly to warm weather, humans would move to regions that were rich with resources whenever they could. Historians often describe these societies as hunter gatherer societies because that was the job of most in the community. If you were able bodied, you would either gather forageble materials like nutritious bark, leaves, and berries, or you would be a hunter of animals. Humans are exceptionally great at travelling long distances and were actually able to tire out their prey before bringing them back to their community. This form of sustenance was sufficient for most communities, and is even still practiced by an estimated 10 million people worldwide today. So what changed from then to now? Well, it all started with one of mankind’s greatest traits: ingenuity. Someone, through accident or careful observation figured out that some foods could be put in soil, and they would reproduce. Some anthropologists estimate that it started somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 years ago. At that point, communities were able to plant peas, lentils, and barley to supplement some of their hunting needs. They also figured out that much like people and plants, oxen and goats reproduce as well. Eventually, a fraction of the effort of sprinting after or hauling food could be spent sowing seeds and tending to livestock. Again, the energy efficiency is what drove this transformation and allowed nomadic societies to settle into safe and more permanent locations.
So we know how we started cultivating food, but how did we start cultivating enough to support billions of people? This was a question that English scholar Tomas Malthus was concerned with. In the late 1700s, he hypothesized that population growth would unavoidably supersede food production. He was wrong, as today (from a macronutrient perspective of course) we have more than enough food to feed everyone in the world. How did this come to be? Well, communities that were able to farm realized that they may not have had everything they might need or want to advance as a civilization, so they began to trade. Eventually, food had to be transported to nearby communities. Sometimes it is from a perspective of need. For example, if all the agricultural land in New York state was devoted to feeding New York City’s entire population, only half of the city would eat. The solution? Trading food with those who have an abundance. Sometimes food is traded from a perspective of logistics. If someone in Massachusetts wants to eat a mango, perhaps they could trade someone in Florida for some cranberries, since each has their respective agricultural strengths. As you can see, there are many reasons to trade food, and that is exactly what humans do, even today.
I can already tell some of you are growing more and more confused. This is the fourth episode of hydrocarbon history, and all we have talked about is anthropology, agriculture, and markets. Where does the “hydrocarbon” part come in? Well, it has been right under our noses the whole time. That trading aspect I mentioned is heavily dependent on the uses of hydrocarbons. Let’s perform a short exercise together. Imagine a food item in your fridge with me. Doesn’t matter what specifically. Just picture some produce, meat, drink, or whatever that you are excited to eat soon. Where did you acquire that item? Likely the grocery store. Where did the grocery store get it? From a delivery truck. Where did the truck pick it up? From some processing facility. Where did that facility get it? From another truck… You probably see where I’m going with this. We could do this all day, and eventually we would work our way back to the original hydrocarbon source: the sun. Through the whole journey from the sun to your belly we encounter a slew of oil and gas products. The fuel in the combine that harvests the grains. The fuel in the machine that ground the grain. The oil in the packaging materials surrounding the peanut butter. The electricity consumed in the store and in your fridge to refrigerate your bag of carrots. Our expert use of hydrocarbons has allowed us to enjoy wine from California, wagyu beef from Japan, and a side of La Strada potatoes from Spain should we want it. Still that meal I described is very expensive thanks in part to its transportation cost. This is where we encounter a concept of “food miles,” or just how far the food travels from where it is produced, all the way to your plate.
Food miles were originally a concept concerning the energy use involved in the transportation of food. Rather than importing an item from overseas, it’s better to snag some items from the local farmers market. While there is often truth to this statement, it is not always the case. A study from Iowa State titled “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions” looked at three levels of food sourcing: global conventional, Iowa-based regional, and Iowa-based local. The study found that the local food system used more energy and emitted more carbon dioxide than the regional system because the trucks were smaller and required more trips. Rather than demonizing hydrocarbon based delivery systems, the researchers suggested that there are efficiencies in aggregating sufficient volumes of supply or backhauling a different good from point B to point A that just aren’t observed on local levels.
This sort of report establishes an argument of “self reliance”, versus “self sufficiency.” Let’s hold all things constant, but eliminate our use of hydrocarbons. Firstly, food production would plummet as we would have to go back to less dense uses of energy, like horse drawn plow, and human labor. Let’s say somehow we were able to surmount that and provide the same food output. Remember that New York Statistic I mentioned? Without hydrocarbons it is difficult to have food transportation networks larger than the regional level, and we already mentioned that situation would leave half of New York City and the rest of New York State unfed. Sure, the state of Wyoming could use all of its land to easily supply for its 600,000 people. This would leave them self-sufficient, but if something was to threaten their food security, say mad cow disease, that could leave them crippled. This is why many researchers argue for self reliance where as much food as possible is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience. Yes, it’s good to be able to buy local food, but it is also good to have a bunch of different methods and levels of food sourcing so you aren’t caught with your belly empty.
So far we have explained how hydrocarbons allow us to grow more food and transport it greater distances, but is there a more direct relationship to be observed? Well, to answer that we need to revisit the oil crisis of 1973. Back then, a much smaller OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo on countries that were perceived to be supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The United States was one of the countries, and oil prices rose 300% by the end of the embargo. The sun to belly situation I previously described was devastated by the shortage of cheap and abundant oil. Gasoline for tractors, trucks, and food processors became more expensive. Packaging for food became more expensive. The delivery of goods ever increasing in scarcity became more expensive. If anything, this just highlights the incredible importance of being able to produce your own hydrocarbons, or even better yet, be self reliant by tapping into global trading markets. Rather than viewing our food networks as dependent on oil, we should really be viewing them as enabled by oil, because many more people would go hungry in the world. Many more than the ones who already do today.
Now, what did we learn? I’m not trying to scare anyone with doom and gloom threats of oil dependence. I’m trying to highlight the fact that oil and gas has enabled us to consume a far more diverse number of foods for a much lower cost. If anything, this has strengthened our food security and provided food for many hundreds of millions of people that would not have had it without global trade networks established by our development of energy. People have been predicting that food sources would diminish as population continued to grow, but hydrocarbons save us work and time and prevent that tragic downfall. Rather than toiling in a field for 365 days a year, you are able to take a saturday afternoon to drive to the store to pick up the necessary ingredients for chicken tikka masala. Less than a century ago, it would have been ridiculously expensive just to acquire the spices necessary for that dish. Ideally, our food networks will continue to expand and evolve in ways that hopefully include many more in the equation, and eliminate a threat of food insecurity for more people as time progresses. By all means, support your local food networks and butcher shops, just be thankful that you have the ability to buy from places all over the globe rather than forage for seeds. After all, food doesn’t come from the back of the grocery store, but even that cornucopia of human energy is powered by oil and gas. I’ve put all of my resources in the description of this video and podcast, so please read through to learn more for yourself! I’m Tavis Kilian with RARE PETRO, and until we see you next time, take care everybody!