Most of the places I’ve lived, I’ve had a small garden adjacent to my home. I’ve been able to walk right out my door and harvest fresh herbs, greens, sometimes tomatoes, peppers, or fruits like strawberry, raspberry, or cherries. This experience is very different from the food supply most people in the United States experience, and which I also partake in.
Most food in the U.S. is consumed when people go to the supermarket, purchase the food, and then take it home. Behind the scenes though, a lot of things needed to happen in order for that food to reach the supermarket: the store had a whole infrastructure supporting it. Larger supermarkets often have central supply and distribution centers, which collect the food and then ship it out to smaller stores. Trucks deliver the food. Food is shipped around the world on barges and across continents on railroads and by long-distance truck lines.
The disparity in gasoline or petroleum usage in these two models
There are many differences between the model of growing your own food, and buying it at the store, but one of the most striking ones, and the one that I will focus on here, is their difference in gasoline or petroleum consumption.
Growing food outside your own home takes minimal fuel; it can be accomplished with no fuel at all, and if it uses any fuel, it is only in driving to the garden center to buy plants or driving to the store to buy some tools–and these trips only occur at most a few times.
On the other hand, the model of food production and distribution that gets food to the supermarket is petroleum-intensive. Fuel needs to be burned at each stage of the shipping process, and since most people drive to the supermarket here in the U.S., fuel is also burned in that last stage of the process. There is typically even a lot of fuel used in the production itself, to fuel large agricultural machinery, as well as shipping of supplies to the large commercial farms that produce the food.
Commercial agriculture is more sensitive to gasoline prices or oil prices
Considering the massive disparity in fuel usage, it is obvious that large-scale commercial agriculture is much more sensitive to gas prices than home gardening or small-scale local farming. In many cases, you can even observe this influence in the price of various goods on the shelf in the supermarket. When oil prices go up, certain food prices tend to go up, and vice versa when prices fall.
If we want to support small-scale local food production
There are numerous, compelling reasons to shift food production in our society away from large-scale commercial agriculture and towards more small, local production. These include greater economic self-sufficiency, greater sustainability, reduced pollution, reduced dependence or oil, diversification of local economies, increased freshness of food and the health benefits that come with it, and increased knowledge and experience with plants, farming, and agriculture that comes with more people being closer to and more involved in the food production.
I see two takeaways from this: the first is that rising gas prices create a strong incentive for smaller-scale, local food production. The second is that supporting this more traditional system of food production, even if it is with something as simple as having a garden at your home, can help us to become less dependent on oil and help our food supply to be less sensitive to gasoline prices.
A hidden benefit of the federal gas tax
The federal gas tax has historically been unpopular, but there has been growing support in recent years to raise this tax as a way of funding the unsustainable costs of road and highway maintenance and construction. The dependence of commercial agriculture on petroleum illustrates another hidden benefit of raising this tax–the creation of stronger incentives for local food production.