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Will our grandchildren eat bananas? Scientist-turned-entrepreneur weighs in on food vs. fuel.

I worry that my three teenage children will face phenomenal challenges buying food and fuels when they are in their 50s. I worry that the cost of energy will cripple their budget and put foods like bananas, also called the world's most perfect fruit, on top of the list of luxury items. In fact, I'm pretty certain that my grandchildren won't be able to afford to eat bananas at all.

A single banana travels 5,000 kilometres from the dusty banana plantations of Costa Rica to little Timmy's lunchbox in Calgary. A tractor trailer loaded with 20 tonnes of bananas zooming along the pot-holed TransAmerica Highway through Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, through the USA takes up a litre of diesel per kilometre. Over 5,000 km per a 20 tonneload of bananas uses up to 5,000 litres of fuel. In reality, we spend at least as much energy bringing a banana home than we get out of it.

Okay, that seems little but everyone along the distribution chain puts a markup on bananas. At $10 a litres of diesel, we're looking at bananas being eight times more expensive than their current market price. Here is when it gets interesting: a banana offers 95 calories.

Before going to bananas, we need to seek even more wisdom from the Big Mac sandwich.

I'm like Bill Clinton before his heart attack, I like the Big Mac. I also like McDonald's Corporation and I own the stock. But the Big Mac sandwich is a phenomenally energy-intensive food.

A Big Mac sandwich weighs 0.23 kilograms with the bread, beef patty, cheese, dried onions and condiments tallied up. According to Wikipedia, there are significant country-to-country variations in the composition of a Big Mac sandwich. For example, a Big Mac, purchased in Australia contains 480 kilocalories which is 20 per cent lower than the Mexican version at 600 kcal, and features 24 per cent less salt. In India, where Hindus do not eat beef, the Big Mac sandwich was renamed the Maharaja Mac and is made from chicken (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Mac).

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To figure out how much energy is spent to put a Big Mac together, two scientists from Sweden and Switzerland, with a lot of time on their hands, went through the painstaking trouble of compiling the life cycle energy inputs that goes into a Big Mac. They took apart the sandwich by components and assessed what amount of energy was needed for each of these components. For example, the life cycle energy input for the beef patty included computing the energy input in the forage crop that was used to feed cattle, the slaughtering method, the freezing of the meat and so on. Like I said, they had a lot of time on their hands.

The point is that creating a balance sheet of the life cycle energy inputs of a Big Mac is a complex project. They found out that a Big Mac requires up to 4,800 kcal of energy to put together, all for 480 kcal of food energy. We spend 10 times more energy making a Big Mac than what we get from it.

The Big Mac isn't in a class of its own: pretty well every processed food we eat requires an energy investment that is 10 times the actual energy content of that food. Bananas have a low energy budget because they are in their natural state.

I don't have a crystal ball and can't predict the future. But there is a solid trend: the price of energy is going up. The price of food will catch up a little later because, as we saw with bananas, energy costs are important contributors. By the time my children are 50, gasoline and diesel fuel might well be as high as $10 a litre. Bananas and Big Macs should be about eight times more expensive. There are three corollaries from this: firstly, no one but the very rich will be able to afford pet monkeys. Secondly, food will be much more expensive. People who are struggling to make ends meet now would struggle even more so in the future. Thirdly, poverty in developing countries will become even more of an issue than now.

And to make things worse, emerging economies are shifting from basic foods to processed foods. For example, there is a Chinese middle class eager and with enough cash to want and afford process foods.

Okay, how do you deal with this?

There are movements afoot to promote consumers to purchase food that is from within their geographic areas--eat like the pioneers did. Not a bad idea since transport is becoming a strong component of the cost of food.

Another alternative is to begin growing your own food. You don't have to move to a farm, set up your lawn as a garden or join a community garden. There is nothing new about gardening. Many immigrants to Canada have turned their front lawns into vegetable and fruit gardens. It meets one simple necessity: grow cost-effective food.

Like I said, I don't have a crystal ball. But there is no doubt that the price of food is increasing because the cost of their energy input. This is an immediate opportunity for the North and in my next column I'll show how the food-versus-fuel debate of the biofuels industry has little significance in the North.

Luc Duchesne, PhD, is President/CEO of Forest BioProducts Inc. and SITTM Technologies Inc. in Sault Ste. Marie.
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Title Annotation:FORESTRY
Author:Duchesne, Luc
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Words:921
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