What Everyone Should Know about the Link between Our Food and Fuel Supplies
Food is fuel. It powers us through our daily routines, from breakfast to bedtime. Food is a given easily taken for granted, day in, day out, that gives us no great cause for concern. But it should.
The consumption of food and traditional fossil fuels are inextricably linked. Their production is nearing capacity, and shortages in both are a very real near term possibility. Rising prices at the pump become increased costs (or decreased portions) at the grocery, and the combination effectively shrinks already stretched paychecks for millions of Americans. Without a concerted effort to develop both component and systemic solutions to agricultural and energy shortcomings, we will be faced with a global crisis.
As daunting as the outlook is, there is hope on the horizon. Our goal is to bring together like-minded groups to foster awareness through open dialog and educational outreach, and act as a catalyst for the development and funding of real solutions to the impending food/fuel crisis.
Only by thinking and working together can we cultivate the change that fuels our future as a Sustainable America.
The Food/Fuel Crisis Is Real. And It's Closer Than You Think.
Our global oil system is operating near full capacity. And that can’t last—for our wallets or our stomachs.
As many Americans feel the financial squeeze when they go to the gas pump or to a lesser extent, the grocery store, there is not always a good understanding of the larger forces at work. Supply and demand imbalances exist for the two consumer staples most vital to sustaining daily American life: food and oil. Both industries are currently operating near capacity and forecasts indicate that this situation will only get worse due to increased demand on a relatively fixed supply.
A Voracious Appetite
20,000,000 Barrels of Oil Consumed In The USA-Every Day
Though the food and fuel markets have always been somewhat connected because oil is an input into the agricultural process, this connection has grown as we have begun to turn food into ethanol to supplement our oil supply. The growing imbalances and this connection have several consequences. At best, we can expect higher prices which in turn affect the economically vulnerable the most because they spend the highest share of their income on food and fuel. At worst it could lead to physical shortages, as both markets are volatile; oil because of political upheaval and food due to sensitivity to global weather patterns and drought. The link between these two markets also means that any change in one will alter the other so prices will rise (or fall) in unison.
More Than Our Fair Share?
The U.S. accounts for 24 percent of global consumption, while having only 5 percent of the world's people
GLOBAL CALORIC DEMAND EXPECTED TO GROW BY 50 PERCENT BY 2050
The food market (which includes commodity markets for grains, sugar, dairy, proteins and other key nutritional inputs) is a global market today, similar to the market for oil. Global demand for calories is expected to grow by almost 50 percent over the next 40 years, due to population growth and increases in per-capita consumption.
STOCKPILE-TO-USAGE RATIOS AT LOWEST LEVELS IN 30 YEARS
The challenge of meeting accelerating food demands is a chief concern as a broad range of factors tightens supply and creates an unsustainable relationship between food usage and production. World grain usage has exceeded production in recent years, with a capacity utilization of more than 100 percent, driving stockpile-to-usage ratios of corn and wheat to their lowest global levels in 30 years.
FOOD STAPLE PRICES UP BY 200—300 PERCENT SINCE 2000
The increased cost of essential staple items has a direct impact on the purchasing power of a paycheck. Tight capacity utilization, along with rising demand, have contributed to many main food commodities like sugar, cereals and dairy doubling or tripling in price over the last 10 years.
A connection we can afford to break—Before it breaks us.
This interconnectedness has broad, negative consequences, especially for low-income populations. Tight global supply and disruptions in either market will continue to drive up food and fuel prices. Food, and in many cases, fuel, are non-negotiable expenditures. Price increases on these staple items strain already-tight budgets with little if any leeway because these items make up a much greater proportion of their total income. In 2010, the lowest quintile of earners spent a combined 43 percent of total income on food and gasoline, whereas the top quintile of earners spent only 9 percent on these items.
A Big Bite
The Lowest 20 percent of Earners Spend a Combined 43 percent of Total Income on Food and Gasoline
Beyond affecting the most disadvantaged economically, these price shocks hamper economic growth as a whole. Each of the last six recessions in the U.S going back to 1972 have been preceded by an oil price spike that increased the percentage of consumer spending that was devoted to energy. The unsustainable use of resources responsible for these shocks has significant national security implications and environmental costs as well.
The worst possible outcome is that this tight balance of food and fuel could move beyond higher prices and weakened budgets to something with which U.S. society is currently unfamiliar: actual physical shortages. This would be a massive detriment to social well-being and economic productivity, but when armed with this realization we can view the possibility as a call to action. We must work together, in measures small and large, to break the connection between food and fuel.
Together We Can Shape the Future. Short term goals for long term gains.
The big picture of the Food/Fuel Crisis can seem overwhelming, but with small steps we can foster great change. The challenges we face today will be overcome through increased awareness of the problem and encouraged innovation toward new solutions. Fortunately, the U.S. has the resources, both societally and technologically, to lead the world in developing ideas and infrastructure for sustainable systems. Sustainable America aims to reduce U.S. oil consumption while increasing U.S. food production.
Simple starter ideas for sustainable societal change.
Food For Thought
- Reduce food waste at all levels
- Grow and eat more locally sourced food
- Foster more Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives
- Make more sustainable use of food resources and diversify supplies
Fuel for Change
- Develop and use oil substitutes like Solar Electricity (EV), Natural Gas (NGV), and advanced biofuels
- Encourage shorter commutes or increased rideshare and public transportation use
- Diversify fuel supplies and reduce consumption
- Launch a comprehensive public education campaign on precarious state of food and fuel systems
- Communicate these possible solutions and motivate positive behavior changes for sustainable lifestyles
- Foster new entrepreneurs and investors in sustainable food and energy innovations
- Build human and financial capital in these new fields
- Create jobs through new industries
Get Connected. Connect with Others. Community Building Through Communication.
The first step toward a Sustainable America is an open discourse and common language. Stay up to date and in touch with Sustainable America through our newsletter. Tailor the information you’d like to receive based on the Components of Change most important to you.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
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To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
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