Food is energy. Food provides energy. Food requires energy. Food and energy are virtually synonymous. They even share a common unit of measure. But that doesn’t mean that they are in balance. To the contrary. And nowhere is that imbalance more evident than in the United States.
As soon as one opens wide and espouses the need for a food system that’s balanced in terms of health, equity, and ecology, it becomes apparent that much of the discussion is about how to extract one’s ecological footprint from one’s mouth. The problem is that, in terms of energy, our ecological footprints are estimated to be somewhere between seven and ten times the size of our mouths. In other words, it takes seven to ten calories to produce and deliver the equivalent of a single calorie of food in the United States. These food system calories eventually add up to an estimated 19 percent of America’s total energy consumption. (It is important to note here that we typically measure calories in our diet as a “small calorie,” the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. When we measure energy on a larger scale, we call it a “kilocalorie” or a “large calorie” and denote it with a capital C, as in “Calorie,” since it is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.)
Do we simply go retro? Techno? Heck, no. A total historical reversal to preindustrial conditions is just as unlikely as a technological absolution for our modern-day petroleum-based gluttony.
The energy behind human civilizations was once a product of the food supply. But we are at a point in human history in which food is predominately a result of nonhuman energy inputs. The prospect of bringing food and energy closer to a one-to-one ratio of calories invested to calories derived is extraordinarily complex, and it has direct links to the call for creating more sustainable and resilient food systems. Today in the United States, these food and energy questions comprise a quandary that most of us can ponder in relative comfort, without the imminent threat of being unable to feed ourselves due to costs, energy constraints, or shortages. And yet, even as we relish the extraordinarily low cost of food in the United States, certain threats do lurk in the background. The energy supply that feeds our food system is at short-term risk of disruption by natural disasters, international conflict, and economic turmoil. The long-term impacts of worsening climate change, dwindling petroleum supplies, and increasing global population pressures are looming realities that we may try to ignore but ultimately cannot avoid. We have already seen how spikes in food prices can create social unrest with the seeming velocity of the flick of a match.
Such inquiries into food security should not be viewed as mere intellectual exercises or myopic self-preservation interests. Perhaps the most compelling reasons to grapple with our precarious food/energy imbalance are sheer justice and altruism. People who are “food insecure” are generally far too busy trying to convert their own personal energy into food dollars to spend much time researching and thinking about the national food and energy dilemma. The onus is upon those who are concerned enough to care and are able to do something about it. As actor Alan Alda once said during a graduation speech to a group of medical students, “The head bone is connected to the heart bone—don’t let them come apart.”