Energy consumption and the industrial organic meal

As he concludes the story of his industrial organic meal from Whole Foods, Michael Pollan turns to the question of whether this meal is better for the environment than its conventional counterpart. While he believes that it is, the industrial meal  leaves much to be desired:

But perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as its conventional counterpart. Asparagus traveling in a 747 from Argentina; blackberries trucked up from Mexico; a salad chilled to thirty-six degrees from the moment it was picked in Arizona (where Earthbound moves its entire operation every winter) to the moment I walk it out the doors of my Whole Foods. (183)

Notably absent is any reference to the energy that went into bringing his chicken or ice cream to market. Instead, Pollan gives us a comparison of organic and conventional foods, concluding “growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally…though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site or nearby” (183).

The focus on the transportation of the fruits and vegetables might lead a reader to believe that it is moving the food around that accounts for most of the fossil fuel consumption required to bring the meal to market. It’s an idea that is reinforced when Pollan explains, “growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around” (183).

Checking the source that Pollan cites (page 41), one finds that the situation is a bit more complicated. Pollan’s figure for the proportion of energy consumed agriculturally is about right, but it turns out the other eighty percent covers more than just “processing the food and moving it around.” In fact, the largest component is household preparation and storage, with a little more than thirty percent of energy used. Transportation accounts for only about fourteen percent and processing about seventeen percent.

I raise these points about the lack of mention of the chicken or ice cream and the emphasis on transportation because I think they serve to obscure the very substantial environmental consequences of raising food animals like the chicken and the cows for Pollan’s organic meal.

Particularly relevant here is a 2008 study from the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, which compared reductions in greenhouse gas emissions attained by reducing meat consumption with those attained by sourcing food locally. Greenhouse gas emissions certainly aren’t the same as energy consumption, but they’re something an environmentally-concerned reader probably cares about. The study found that forgoing meat and dairy one day a week would achieve a larger carbon footprint reduction than sourcing all of one’s food locally.

I’ve often heard vegetarians misuse this study in trying to discredit locavorism. The way this study calculated the reduction in emissions achieved by eating local food was by assuming that food traveled zero miles but not allowing for any difference in production energy. It makes a good case against buying meat from a local factory farm, but it isn’t necessarily applicable to the locally pastured animal products that locavores will tend to seek out.

However, Pollan has already told us that the cows that produced the milk for his ice cream were corn-fed, and told us that his hen came from a facility that was “more animal factory than farm” (140). Pollan’s chicken and ice cream are organic, but since he’s told us that organic need not be much better, this study should say something about a meal like Pollan’s.

Of course, Pollan can’t be faulted for not picking up this specific study, which was published after The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I chose that one because I think it best clarifies the analysis for a reader deciding what to eat today. However, there certainly were studies on the environmental impact of meat production when The Omnivore’s Dilemma went to press, including this one by David and Marcia Pimentel (whom Pollan cites numerous times).


  1. […] While the food might not travel as far as, say, the Mexican blackberries that Pollan enjoyed in his Whole Foods meal, there’s a certain efficiency to moving things in large quantities, even if it means moving […]

  2. […] numbers of cars traveling long distances to the farm. (This omission comes even after he’s told us about the fossil fuels used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, […]

  3. Travis said

    Pimentel is another food elitist who deserves extreme scrutiny – a man who, more often than not, cites himself as as a source of expertise…the arrogance and ignorance of the man is astounding.

    He claims that 1 calorie of energy input can produce 4 calories of corn – can someone please tell me when the laws of thermodynamics were deemed null and void?

    • Adam Merberg said

      I don’t see it as problematic that he cites his own work, so long as there is a reader gets a trail back to the calculations.

      Energy input refers to fossil fuel energy and does not include solar energy, so there’s no problem with the laws of thermodynamics. (Aside from that, you’d have to know what molecules the corn is assembled from to apply the laws of thermodynamics correctly.)

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