The Oil I Eat (om nom nom)

Hello, TVE readers. You may have noticed that I recently moved by blog to the tumblr platform, here. The TVE tumblr is a mish-mash of documentary trailers, great quotes, photos, useful links and great ideas. This will be one of my last blogspot posts--a long and unusual entry. It’s a little project I did for my environmental history class which involved documenting everything I ate in one day and researching the involvement of oil in its production, packaging and delivery.

A few of the things I learned: Quinoa is grown in Canada. The bananas I buy in Canada and the U.S. will never be as good as those I ate in Uganda, because bananas are only grown in the tropics. Peanut butter has mold in it (but very low levels). Most raisins are sun-dried, except for the ‘golden’ ones which are treated with sulfur-dioxide and flame dried (made me kind of happy I don't eat that variety). Sesame oil was once used to make wine. Yes, wine. Unfortunately, not part of the day I documented.

Without further ado, what follows is the story of how this:

(sesame seeds being harvested, grapes, chickpea plant, chickpea pods, broccoli, green beans, quinoa)

and this:

became this:
banana slices with peanut butter and raisins
Hibiscus Cafe soup & salad special (vegan, wheat free, and organic)
ants on a log (aka raisins and peanut butter on celery)
+ an undocumented salad with home-made dressing

I racked my brain for all the roles oil can play in the production, packaging, and delivery of my food. Here's a list of the main ones I came up with...

This mostly comes down to organic/non-organic, i.e. whether or not NPK fertilizer was utilized in the growth process of whatever it is I eat. However, as Michael Pollan pointed out in Omnivore's Dilemma, organic farmers sometimes use enough fuel in the transportation of natural fertilizers to negate the carbon footprint savings of avoiding chemical fertilizers. Once food is grown, it needs to be harvested. Sometimes petrol-fuelled machines are employed in this process.
Another crucial aspect of production is "processing," basically anything that needs to be done to transform raw ingredients into the form in which they are consumed. This could be the roasting and grinding of sesame seeds, the drying or dehydrating of fruit, the baking of bread, the fermenting of soybeans into miso paste or tempeh, or the creation and addition of artificial flavours and preservatives. According to Richard Manning's article "The Oil We Eat,"processed vegetarian products are about as calorically efficient as eating chicken; both require about ten calories of fossil energy per food calorie.

Pretty simple. Plastic wrap, glass jars, plastic containers, milk cartons--all of these things take energy to produce, and the plastic wrap, containers, and coatings food products are sold in are petroleum-based (oil is distilled into ethane and propane, which are heated to produce ethylene and propylene, which are combined with other chemicals to produce plastic pellets which manufacturers heat and shape into containers and other forms using molds).

The fuel consumed in delivery of foods can be hard to track. For example, when an apple's sticker reads U.S.A. and you are buying it in New York, it's hard to know exactly how far it travelled to get to you--apples are grown commercially in 36 states (according to University of Illinois Extension). Massive amounts of oil are used to transport food around the world by land, sea and air. As Richard Manning pointed out, significant amounts of oil are also used by consumers driving around to discount stores on the edges of cities. Thus, in considering the delivery of food there are a few factors to look at: country/area of origin (distance from you), method of travel (fragile and perishable produce is often shipped by air, other produce and products by land or sea), and how it got from the store to your stomach.

I'm going to list the main ingredients in the food I ate on Tuesday and consider some of the roles of oil I mentioned above. Here it goes:

Breakfast: banana, peanut butter, raisins (all organic)

Bananas are grown only in the tropics, with most of the bananas I see for sale here in Toronto have travelled about 4800km from Ecuador and Columbia. Bananas are transported in refrigerated conditions in order to slow the ripening process. Like avocados and tomatoes, bananas are mostly picked prematurely, transported cold, and then treated with synthetic ethylene (the ripening agent they normally produce naturally) to ripen them. Synthetic ethylene is produced from natural gas or oil, and according to the USDA "acts like the natural form of the plant growth regulator by accelerating the ripening process through an exact mechanism that is not fully understood." Also according to the USDA, synthetic ethylene is currently approved for use on bananas by many organic certifiers. Even my organic bananas have oil on them!

As for the peanut butter, I guess you could call this a processed food--it's the result of roasting and milling peanuts which may have been grown in the U.S. or China. It's hard to know where our peanuts come from because we buy our peanut butter in bulk from a huge bin at a Kensington Market grocery store, but from what I've read peanut butter producers buy their peanuts from all over the world, including Asia and South America. I take the difficulty involved in tracing our food to be a bad sign--everything tasted much better when I lived in Uganda and 95% of our food could be traced from table to market/backyard to farmer simply by asking a few questions.

I guess this brings me to the raisins...these are organic and probably sun-dried. Almost definitely grown in North America. Again, it's hard to know the specifics but as far as foods go these are relatively unprocessed, just one step away from the juicy grape.

Lunch: soup and salad consisting primarily of: broccoli, quinoa, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, green string beans, tofu, garbanzo beans, almonds, unidentifiable organic crunchy noodles, wheat-free ‘cracker’, carrot, beet, kale, squash, and cauliflower (all organic; Hibiscus Cafe is an organic, vegan, wheat-free establishment and my favourite place to eat out)

The great thing about Hibiscus is that they get their produce from a placed called "4 Life Foods," which can be viewed from the front window of the cafe (read: it is literally across the street). 4 Life Foods is run by a man named 'Potts' who sells only local and/or organic ingredients; produce, beans, dried fruit, rice, etc. It is not uncommon to see an employee at Hibiscus pop out the front door only to return with a few bags of squash from 4 Life a minute later. Hibiscus only uses organic ingredients, and the squash, cauliflower, carrot, beet, kale, green beans and broccoli in their salad were probably grown in Ontario. This means that the distance their ingredients traveled from farm to supplier to restaurant were all relatively short, at least compared to pocky sticks and most junk/fast food. I walk to Hibiscus and the grocery store, which means that no fossil fuels are used in the delivery of food from point of purchase to stomach.
The two most processed ingredients in my Hibiscus lunch were tofu and the "cracker." The crackers at Hibiscus aren't really crackers, since there is no wheat in them and I've heard the main ingredients are apples and seeds. They're mildly sweet and thin as a sheet of seaweed and I'm pretty sure they're made in-house by the Hibiscus staff. Let's focus on the tofu. Tofu is made by grinding soybeans, mixing with water, coagulating the mixture and pressing the curds. The tofu I buy lists filtered water, soybeans, magnesium chloride (the same salts used to de-ice roads) and calcium sulphate as ingredients, with the later two being the coagulants. Hopefully the soybeans used to produce the tofu I eat come from Canada; according to StatsCan we are one of the world's top ten soybean producers (link here).
As for the other ingredients in my Hibiscus salad, the garbanzo beans could have come from India, Pakistan, Ethiopia or California (according to this Purdue University page). The quinoa was probably grown in Canada but exactly where, I couldn't say. The cranberries might have come from Quebec, one of the closest places they're grown. The almonds almost definitely came from the U.S., which produces most of the world's supply, primarily in California (a mere 1200km from Toronto). Alternatively, they might have come from Spain, Italy or Turkey. This map shows some of the places my sunflower seeds might have originated:
To sum up, the bulk of my lunch calories required little oil to produce and deliver (of course, it's all relative and this little is in comparison with the ingredients of a new york salad bar; compared to my average lunch in Uganda it would be a different story). Certain ingredients, such as almonds, sunflower seeds, and garbanzo beans almost definitely travelled long distances to reach my plate. Sources of protein such as peanut butter and tofu require the most processing of the foods I eat.

Dinner: peanut butter, celery, raisins, lettuce, avocado, red pepper, tofu, miso paste, tahini, brown rice vinegar (all organic).
I've already discussed most of these ingredients: local veggies, the production of tofu, processing of peanut butter, shipping and ethylene treatment of avocados and sun-drying of grapes are all things I've touched on. Tahini is processed in a manner similar to peanut butter; sesame seeds are harvested, normally by hand, roasted and ground into the paste I buy in a jar. Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans; brown rice vinegar is made from fermented rice. It's not surprising that I consume rice and soy only in processed forms; it's the most common way to do so. Ingredients like corn, soy and wheat in particular are largely consumed in processed forms and dominate American cropland. Fermentation and grinding are relatively simple (and pre-industrial) forms of processing that avoid the involvement of synthetic additives, and the number of ingredients which need to be assembled in order to produce the final product are few. Nevertheless, the processing and containers in which these products are delivered (and the plastic packaging of the tofu I buy) are energy intensive to produce in comparison with your average head of broccoli. Aside from the packaging, one of the biggest energy drains of processing food is probably transporting the raw materials from farms to factories to stores. The processing factories are like animals; they're an energetic step between the field and plate that isn't entirely necessary.

Richard Manning wrote that "food is politics," and that he 'voted' by killing an elk to provide his family with food. More and more people seem to be voting for sustainable agriculture by buying local and organic food. If we consider our consumer choices as statements, something as simple as frequenting an independent grocer over a supermarket or an organic vegetarian restaurant over a fast food one becomes meaningful. Another way to make a statement is by signing the Millions Against Monsanto petition. (A holistic nutritionist I met recently described Monsanto as "The Devil," the meaning of which is pretty unambiguous.) The North American food production and distribution system has grown to industrial scale on a framework of cheap oil, long-distance transport and high NPK inputs. It's not easy to avoid drinking and eating oil, but it's worth a try if only to discover how difficult it can be.


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