Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite

Edward F. Redish

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How much gasoline is in the food we eat?

According to Michael Pollan in his 2005 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, in our industrialized food system, every calorie you consume has used approximately 7 calories of energy from fossil fuels to get it to you. (This is not just delivery of the food. Fertilizer and other chemicals used in food production are obtained from processing fossil fuel.) Given the fact that a gallon of gasoline contains about 1.3 x 108 J of energy, make an estimate of the average number of calories consumed by an American every day, and from that, estimate the total number of gallons of gasoline used in a year by Americans as part of the production of their food. (Note: You may use the web for estimating the number calories consumed by an individual American per day, but you may not just get that number off the web. Justify the number you choose by making connections to things that anyone can easily check, for example, by looking at nutrition labels -- such as the number of calories in a bottle of soda or a big Mac.)

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Page last modified January 13, 2008: G28