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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Food is Fuel

Air Date: Week of

Too many of these aren’t good for your waistline, or the planet. (Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell)

The food we eat is more than just energy for our bodies. Its production is responsible for almost 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Professor David Pimentel of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University about his new study which calculates the fossil fuel calories of the food we consume.


GELLERMANL: Well, trains, planes and automobiles, whether they’re clunkers or not, account for about 13 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases. Food from farm animals, on the other hand, is responsible for 18 percent of global warming emissions.

So now, the head of the United Nations climate change panel is urging people to go one day a week without eating meat. After all, the stuff you put in your gas tank is just like the stuff you put in your mouth: it’s just energy in a different form.

Now, researchers at Cornell University have calculated the fossil fuel calories in the foods we consume. Dr. David Pimentel is a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences there, and lead author of the study. Professor, thanks for joining me.

PIMENTEL: I’m pleased to be here.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Pimentel, with the old adage you are what you eat, it seems that Americans are a lot of gasoline. How much gas does the average American diet include?

PIMENTEL: Okay. The total energy per person used in the food system in the U.S. is 500 gallons of oil equivalents. And it is second only, as far as our use of oil in the food system, to the amount of fuel that we use per person in our automobiles.

GELLERMAN: So basically, the average American is eating about 500 gallons of oil a year.

PIMENTEL: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: So if I was following the food and drug administration’s recommended diet, how many calories I should take in a year, how much fuel, how many gallons would that be?

PIMENTEL: Well, if you focus just on the food that we consume directly, then instead of 3,800 calories per person per day, we should be eating about 2,500 calories per day.

GELLERMAN: The average American now consumes 3,800 calories?

PIMENTEL: That’s right and, of course, this is creating lots of problems for the American population.

Too many of these aren’t good for your waistline, or the planet. (Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, not only are we too heavy, but we’re eating our way into a kind of fossil fuel bankruptcy.

PIMENTEL: This is right. We, that is the people in the U.S., by altering the foods that they consume, the way we produce it, the packaging, the processing, we could, in fact, reduce the total energy consumption in the food system by – we estimate – by 50%. So if we can’t do it in our automobiles, maybe we can do it in our food system.

GELLERMAN: What’s your diet for a small planet, then?

PIMENTEL: We eat probably three times, on average, what we should be consuming as meat, milk and eggs according to the National Academy of Sciences.

GELLERMAN: Do I have to become a vegan, you know a granola eating, you know, lettuce chopping….


PIMENTEL: No. We don’t have to give up eating. I think we just have to be – well, we should eat a little bit less. But, in particular, be more selective about what we’re eating and certainly eating local foods in contrast to having strawberries shipped from California or grapes from Chile and so forth. And another thing also to show you: the waste in our system. We have data on the average number of times that people shop per week to get their groceries home, the size automobile, the quantity of groceries they bring home, the distance they travel and so forth. It takes almost as much fossil energy to get that can of corn home from the grocery store as there is energy in the corn that’s in the can itself.

GELLERMAN: I was drinking a diet soda as I was preparing for our interview. Is that a no-no or a good thing to do?

PIMENTEL: Yeah, soda’s a very good example of – in a way – waste energy. The average American is consuming 600 cans of soda, per person, per year. That’s about 2 per day, in any case. But look at the energy, if you take a can of diet soda for example, that has one calorie of energy – food energy – it takes 600 calories of fossil energy to produce the carbonated drink, and then it takes another 1,600 calories to put that drink into an aluminum can. So that we can drink one calorie of food energy in a diet soda, means that we invest 2,200 calories of fossil energy. I mean, that shows that we’ve got a lot of slack in our food system.

GELLERMAN: So as I understand you correctly, we could make small changes in what we eat, and we might not have to drill off the shore of the United States.

PIMENTEL: That is correct, yes. There are things that each individual – you and I – can do. In this case, not blaming somebody else, but what we do can have a major impact on the use of energy in our food system.

GELLERMAN: David Pimentel’s a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Thank you so very much, Professor.

PIMENTEL: Good. My pleasure. Thank you.



Dr. David Pimentel

Partners in Health


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