How Food Prices Are Affected by Fossil Fuels

We don't just drive or heat with fossil fuels—we are eating them.

An image of wheat being unloaded in bulk
Wheat being unloaded.

Timothy Hearsum / Getty Images

Oil and gas prices are at record levels, and this is going to have a big impact on our diet in very short order because we don't just drive or heat with fossil fuels—we are eating them.

In Michael Pollan's 2006 classic, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," he explained how if you eat a typical American diet, you are made of corn. It is in everything from animal feed to Cheez Whiz. A Mcdonald's meal, writes Pollan, "might have looked like a hamburger, chicken nuggets, and a salad, but it was engineered overwhelmingly from corn…representing enough bushels to overflow the trunk."

And if you carry it a step further, it means that you are made of fossil fuels. Pollan says corn is the SUV of plants, writing: "Growing it the way we do requires it to guzzle fuel in the form of fertilizer, about a quarter to a third of a gallon of petroleum for each bushel."

In September 2021, we noted natural gas prices had soared to all-time highs and fertilizer plants were shutting down because of the cost of the feedstock. I wrote: "This will all get worse when the weather gets cold and the furnaces and boilers are turned on. Consultants are already predicting that we face the possibility of winter blackouts and the certainty of very high gas and electric bills." And nobody had a war with Russia on their dance card.

In my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I tried to look at the carbon footprint of everything we do, including diet. I wrote about the Haber-Bosch process, explaining: "Fertilizer is made from ammonia, which is made from hydrogen, which is made from natural gas. That makes it a fossil fuel product; for every molecule of ammonia produced, a molecule of CO2 is a co-product, so when we eat food made with nitrogen fertilizers, we are essentially eating fossil fuels."

Some, like writer and teacher Vaclav Smil, believe this is a very good thing—the highest and best use of natural gas. He wrote in "Energy and Civilization: A History" that it is a small price to pay:

"No other energy use offers such a payback as higher crops yields resulting from the use of synthetic nitrogen: by spending roughly 1% of global energy, it is now possible to supply about half of the nutrient used annually by the world’s crops. Because about three-quarters of all nitrogen in food proteins come from arable land, almost 40% of the current global food supply depends on the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis process. Stated in reverse, without Haber-Bosch synthesis the global population enjoying today’s diets would have to be almost 40% smaller."

Now, thanks to the war in Ukraine and the disruption of trade with Russia, the fertilizer supply is at risk. Bloomberg reports European fertilizer makers are cutting output because of natural gas prices, which represent 80% of their costs. Russia is a major exporter of every major kind of crop nutrient. Bloomberg also reports that "virtually every major crop in the world depends on inputs like potash and nitrogen, and without a steady stream, farmers will have a harder time growing everything from coffee to rice and soybeans."

And corn? Arguably the staple of the North American diet? In Iowa, which is corn central, Attorney General Tom Miller is looking into price rises, complaining:

"Since January 2021, anhydrous ammonia has increased 315%. Urea has increased by 214%, liquid nitrogen by 290%, monoammonium phosphate (MAP) by 171%, and potash by 213%, according to the most recent data supplied by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services."
Drought Monitor

United States Department of Agriculture

Notwithstanding the years of worrying about high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils, their use has never stopped growing. If you eat a diet of processed foods, you are still made of corn and fossil fuels. If you eat a lot of bread, you are in trouble too: According to the Financial Times, last year's harvest was poor and there is a worsening drought in breadbasket states like Kansas.

Not only is Russia the largest exporter of wheat in the world—Ukraine is the 5th largest—but Russia is also the supplier of 22.4% of the fertilizer imported into the U.S. And don't forget what runs all the equipment; as Financial Time reports: "The price of diesel, which farmers need to fuel their tractors, trucks and harvesters, has soared to almost $5 a gallon."

When we worried about all this last September, we spoke with futurist Alex Steffen, who told Treehugger: "We're living in a planetary emergency. One of the most severe symptoms of that emergency is the loss of predictability – the need to prepare for a wider variety of foreseeable disasters. To be caught catastrophically unprepared by the unexpected is a failure of leadership."

Food price increases were predicted then and we still had Russian fuel, wheat, and fertilizers. And we are, indeed, catastrophically unprepared.

In my book, I noted the whole food system needs an overhaul, thinking primarily of carbon dioxide emissions, and quoted recommendations from a study (also discussed in Treehugger) calling for global food system changes—all of which would reduce the fossil fuels being used for food:

  • Adopting a plant-rich diet such as a Mediterranean diet or the EAT-Lancet diet (also called the Planetary Health Diet), “moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and meat”
  • Reducing the amount that we eat: “adjusting global per capitacaloric consumption to healthy levels”
  • Improving yields through crop genetics and better farming practices
  • Reducing food loss and waste by 50%
  • Reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizers through more precise use

I continued: "Clark and his team note that other benefits accrue if these kinds of changes were made, including reductions in pollution from fertilizer runoff, improved biodiversity, decreased land-use change, and “if dietary composition and caloric consumption are improved, reduced prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature mortality.” It all sounds like a win-win situation to me."

If I were writing this today, I would point out more strongly that all of these measures reduce the amount of fertilizer going to feed cows, the amount that goes into food that gets thrown away, and generally reduces the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed—perhaps even to the point that someday we can make it with green hydrogen.

food recommendations

US Food Administration

Meanwhile, the one thing we do know for sure is that this year, food is going to be very, very expensive. All of those recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over a century ago make just as much sense today.

View Article Sources
  1. Clark, Michael A., et al. "Global Food System Emissions Could Preclude Achieving the 1.5° and 2°C Climate Change Targets." Science, vo.l 370, no. 6517, 2020, pp. 705-708., doi:10.1126/science.aba7357