« Back to Home Page

Sign up for the 3p daily dispatch:

Michael Pollan at Bioneers: How Much Oil Are We Eating?

| Saturday October 17th, 2009 | 3 Comments

burgeroilBy Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact

The 20th Bioneers, a three day conference celebrating breakthrough sustainability solutions, kicked off on Friday in Marin. The agenda is chock full of speakers on a wide range of topics, from the arts, indigenous knowledge and restoring our ecosystems to youth and women’s leadership.

I was excited to hear Michael Pollan speak, a leading critic of our industrial food system and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire (you can listen to his talk here). For those of you who aren’t attending, you can catch some of the keynotes via live webcast.

Strolled On Stage With a Burger

He strolled onto the stage to present a keynote on the growing national movement to redesign the food system with a McDonalds takeout bag in his hands and proceeded to unpack a double quarter-pounder with cheese.

The gist of his message:  the food system is broken and we can’t address the important national issues of health care, climate change and energy independence without address the food system, which contributes upto 33 percent of our carbon footprint.

He illustrated his point by asking the audience to guess,

How much oil are we eating?

Next to the burger, he began to pour oil from a bottle into small glasses.  He filled the first glass, then the second, then the third and needed a fourth to hold the 26 ounces of oil it takes to make a conventional burger. “A disgusting way to eat,” he commented as he licked his oil laden fingers. As the audience moaned, he confessed it was actually chocolate syrup!

For each hamburger made, thirteen pounds of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere, the equivalent of driving 13 miles, in part from the fertilizers needed to grow the corn and soy that farm raised cows eat and the pesticides used on these crops.

And while of course we are not directly eating this oil, as a nation we are eating way too much junk food. According to Pollan, $500 billion of our annual health costs are linked to diet.

Articulating a Framework

He spent the remainder of his time articulating an overarching framework for weaning the American food system off of fossil fuels.  While it is difficult to do his eloquent talk justice in a few bullet points, here are a few key points of the framework:

  • Farms:  We need to start providing farmers incentives to diversify their crops and we need more farmers.
  • Marketplace: There is a need to create more local foodsheds and rebuild distribution.
  • Edible Education: We need to teach kids to grow food, cook food  and take time for lunch in schools.

Then They Fight You

In his opening remarks he stressed we have come a long way in the past few years, but still have a long way to go.  And he concluded by reminding the audience not to underestimate the level of pushback we are going to see from industry. He called up Gandhi’s wisdom on the steps of a revolution,

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. –Gandhi

For some details on how the industry is fighting back, see BC Upham’s post from last week.

To Learn More

PBS just launched a beautiful web site on the Botany of Desire with lots of great information and resources. Mark your calendar for the October 28th, 8pm to watch their 2-hour documentary.

And for readers interested in how to bring some of these concepts alive in food service contracts, check out The Low Carbon Diet, a program offered by Bon Appétit Management Company.  According to Bon Appétit, “The typical American diet consisting of a high percentage of red meat may contribute more to global warming than driving a typical sedan.”


Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges. She is a LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.

You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at Deborah@greenimpact.com.


Newsletter Signup
  • http://GlobalPatriot.com Global Patriot

    Very interesting measurement, regarding the oil that is required to make our food, which begs the question…”Should we require this figure to be part of all food product labels?” That would be an eye-opener!

  • http://www.back2tap.com Lydia Chambers

    I loved hearing about Michael Pollan’s oil demonstration at Bioneers – we use a similar measure when we speak to people about the wastefulness of bottled water. We have a disposable plastic water bottle that is filled 1/4 full of “petroleum” (actually just brown sesame oil). It astounds people that it takes that much oil to manufacture a bottle of water. These powerful visuals speak louder than words!

  • http://www.naturalstepusa.org Chas Martin

    I like the demonstration. It’s too easy for the hidden costs to be overlooked. But, until we realize how many invisibles we consume through the food and products we buy, nothing will change. See: Does Bottled Water Leave a Bad Taste? It’s Fossil Fuel.

  • Pingback: Michael Pollan speaks at Bioneers « Eating in Raleigh, NC()

  • Pingback: Mark zuckerberg kills his own food()

  • Pingback: Bioneers: Morph or Die--The Transformation of Journalism and Media()