How Much Food Is In Your Gas Tank?

Have you heard the expression: “There’s more fruit in a rich man’s shampoo than on a poor man’s plate?” It’s not really true. There’s very little fruit in those shampoos. But here’s a similar expression that is true: “There’s more food in a middle-class American’s gas tank than in a hungry person’s weekly diet.”

A compact car will generally have a gas tank in the range of 13 to 15 gallons. If we take a figure on the low end of that range, the 13.2 gallons of the Honda Civic, we have about 50 liters of gas in a tank. A large pickup truck often has a gas tank volume of twice that figure (about 26 gallons or more) [Source].

In the U.S., gasoline can have up to 10.2 percent ethanol, which is a biofuel made from corn (maize). But let’s take the 10% figure: 10% of 50 liters is 5 liters. It takes about 2.5 kg of maize to produce 1 liter of fuel ethanol [Calculation here]. So a 50 liter gas tank in a compact hatchback car contains, in effect, about 12.5 kg of corn (27.5 pounds).

The food value of that amount of corn (125 Hg) is over 1015 grams of protein and total 45,250 kcal — enough protein and kcal for about 15 to 20 days [See the according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for the exact values].

So there is more than twice as much food in a middle class American’s compact car than in a hungry person’s weekly diet. And a large pickup truck contains more than twice that much gasoline and ethanol, exceeding the protein and carbs of one month’s diet. There is two weeks or more worth of food in a compact car’s gas tank, and one month or more worth of food in a large pickup truck’s gas tank.

Some commentators are recommending that the percent be increased to 15-20 percent ethanol in gasoline. At 15%, a compact car would have 50% more ethanol, and at 20% the amount would be doubled. At double, there would then be 30 to 40 days’ worth of protein and kcal in a compact car, and twice that amount (60 to 80 days) in a large pickup truck. That’s one to two months’ worth of food used for fuel.

How often do you fill your tank? If you fill your compact car once every 15 to 20 days, your car is using the same amount of food as a hungry person (in terms of calories as well as protein).

If we use the figure of 2500 kcal/day per person, we need about 700 grams (0.7 kg) of corn to meet that caloric need. The amount of protein in those 700 grams of corn is just over 56 grams: about a day’s worth for an adult male. So 700 grams of corn is one day’s worth of calories and protein, or about 280 ml worth of ethanol.

In 2011, the U.S. produced about 14.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol (54.9 billion liters), from about 127.5 million MT (5.011 billion bushels) of maize [USDA ERS]. That’s enough protein and kcal to feed 500 million persons for a full year.

Now I’m not suggesting that the hungry be fed solely or mainly on corn. But the land used to grow that corn for biofuel could have been used to grow a range of different healthy foods. Just the land in the U.S. used to grow corn just for ethanol would be enough land to feed 500 million persons. And the U.S. produces about half of the world’s biofuel. So, as a rough calculation, the world land and agricultural resources used to grow biofuel would be sufficient to feed one billion persons. The FAO estimates the current number of hungry persons in the world at 868 million.

“There’s more fruit in a rich man’s shampoo….” That’s a stupid expression. You couldn’t feed the hungry on the fruit used in shampoos (too little protein, fat, and carbohydrates). But you could literally end world hunger if all the land used to grow biofuel worldwide were used to grow a variety of different healthy foods. See my book Hunger Math for all the calculations.

There’s enough food in all the biofuel in all the gas tanks of the world to end world hunger. #$%^!!!


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