top of page
  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Energy and Food Production

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Tom Mast – Founder of Solve American Gridlock

Reference: How the World Really Works, by Vaclav Smil

The purpose of this article is to emphasize the importance of energy, particularly fossil fuels, in the food chain all the way to our dinner plates and the incredible complexity of making significant changes to reduce carbon emissions. This isn’t written to be negative, but to show the need for understanding, realism, thought, and planning in replacing fossil fuel usage because we all have to eat.

The population of the world has increased from just over 1 billion in 1820 to almost 8 billion in 2020, two hundred years later. Despite this huge growth, overall the world’s people are better fed now than in 1820, an amazing feat. This happened primarily due to man’s harnessing energy to substitute for the labor of humans and animals. The population growth and the more impressive improvements in the food chain generally tracked the industrial revolution and the use of energy, mostly based on fossil fuels. For example, the human labor to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 lb.) of wheat fell from 10 minutes to 2 seconds – reduced to 1/300th over 200 years.

In addition to the production of foods including planting, fertilizing, treating for insects and disease, watering, and harvesting, they must be processed, transported to markets, stored, refrigerated, marketed, cooked, and much more.

The vital role of fertilizers in feeding the world is very poorly understood. Without artificial fertilizers, most of the world would be under nourished or worse. Ammonia is very important to this process, and natural gas is basic to its production. Its importance in the world’s get-along may well be the most overlooked topic in the mitigation of global warming.

Food production in the USA uses 1% of all of the country’s energy, but the total amount of energy to not only produce foods (crops, meat, seafood, etc.), but bring them to our plates ready to eat is in the range of 16-20%. This is what Vaclav Smil means by How the World Really Works! Stated a different way, reduction of carbon emissions is not as simple as closing coal-fired power plants or dictating what year the replacement of internal combustion vehicles must be completed. It affects not only our comforts, but our very lives. It is very complicated – and important.

Smil has done the hard work of reducing the total energy to get certain foodstuffs all the way to our dinner plates. He has converted the total energy required to equivalent cups of diesel fuel per kilogram (2.2 lb.) of ready-to-eat food.

Bread Approx. 1.0 cups of fuel per kilogram of bread

Chicken Approx. 1.4 cups of fuel per kilogram of chicken

Seafood Approx. 2.9 cups of fuel per kilogram of seafood

So, what is the punch line of this brief message? It is really quite simple.

The complexity and importance of just segments of the climate change/global warming issue has to be obvious to all of us. It is not practical to expect members of Congress to master even a tiny fraction of it, especially given that they have many other critical matters on their plates (no pun intended.) We must develop a way to get experts steeped in the various greenhouse mitigation skills who have the requisite time and expertise to craft written plans for our CO2 mitigation and then governments can pass those plans into law.


bottom of page