Food system energy
By Michael Bomford
A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.” What better diet could there be for an energy constrained world? After all, feeding Americans accounts for about 15 percent of domestic energy use, and the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork. It seems obvious that eating locally will go a long way to reducing food-system energy use.
Yet cracking the case of America’s energy-intensive food system demands that we look beyond the obvious. A local diet can reduce energy use somewhat, but there are even more effective ways to tackle the problem. Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective.
If you realize you’re spending too much money, the first thing to do is figure out where it’s going. Cutting back on pizza won’t make much difference if you’re spending most of your money on beer. Similarly, the first step in reducing foodsystem energy use is to figure out where all the energy is going. That’s what a team of economists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did last year, in a report titled Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.
Where the energy goes
The report was revealed some surprising information.
Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie. Even farming isn’t a particularly big contributor. The big energy users turn out to be food processing, packaging, selling and preparation. Our kitchens command the biggest slice of the pie, using twice as much energy as the farms that grew the food in the first place.
Dissecting that little transportation component of the system offers more surprises. The distance food travels between farm and fork has little impact on how much energy it takes to get there.
How food travels is far more important than how far it goes. Big boats, like freighters and barges, can bring vast quantities of food thousands of miles using less energy per ton than a small truck or car uses to transport smaller amounts of food a few miles. Over land, freight trains are more energy efficient than big trucks, which are more efficient than small trucks. Worst of all are airplanes, which use a disproportionately large amount of fuel for takeoff and landing. In almost every case, flying food uses more fuel than other means of transport, regardless of the distance it travels. Fortunately, air freight still accounts for less than one percent of U.S. food transport.
Since the distance food travels has little impact on total food-system energy use, obsessing over “food miles” probably isn’t helpful when we’re looking for ways to reduce energy consumption. When food is purchased from a major grocery or fast-food chain, the distance to the farm where it grew is probably just a small fraction of the distance it has traveled overall. For every mile between farm and plate, an average food item travels more than three additional miles—though some travel much more and others much less. This means “place of origin” labels give consumers little clue as to how far food has actually come before purchase.
The USDA’s report offers some insight into what kinds of food are made with all the energy going into the system. More than half of that energy it is used for highly processed and packaged “junk food,” like chips, doughnuts, soda pop, and beer. About a third is used for animal products, like meat, eggs and dairy. A measly sixth goes to the grains, fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a balanced diet. In other words, the relative energy we invest in each food group reflects the opposite of how we should be eating. Eating well doesn’t necessarily require a lot of energy; eating poorly does.
Buying from the local farmers’ market offers great opportunities to cut down on food-system energy use, but it’s not because the food there has traveled less than the food at the grocery store. It’s because the aisles of a typical grocery store are mostly filled with highly processed and packaged food, while farmers markets offer mostly whole or minimally processed foods. Grocery stores are artificially heated and lit, with plenty of electricity-hungry coolers, freezers, checkouts and other conveniences. By contrast, farmers’ markets tend to be held in the open air with few electric gadgets. The farmers’ market saves energy by carving out the processing, packaging, and retail segments of the food chain, which are much larger than the transportation segment. From this perspective, the backyard garden offers all of the advantages of a farmers’ market, and then some.
There are even some cases in which growing food locally requires more energy than importing it. For example, produce grown out of season in heated greenhouses usually takes far more energy than field-grown vegetables trucked or shipped from a region where they are in season. Growing produce under artificial light can demand even more energy than heating a greenhouse. Energy demands are the downfall of popular futuristic schemes of “vertical farms” in urban skyscrapers.
Highly processed and packaged foods simply require far more energy than whole foods, regardless of how far they travel. Choosing imported whole foods over local processed foods almost always reduces food system energy use.
The way that food is grown usually has a bigger impact on energy use than the distance it travels. The proportional impact of farming on food system energy use is substantial for whole foods, but trivial for highly processed foods. Since organic farmers reduce agricultural energy inputs by about a third by eschewing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, choosing organic over local can make sense for whole foods. It makes little difference for highly processed foods, however. Organic soda pop is still soda pop: Far more energy goes into the aluminum can than was ever used to grow the corn for the corn syrup, organic or otherwise.
Choosing local food is one way to reduce food-system energy use, but even more effective ways include:
1. Choosing whole foods over processed foods.
2. Getting a small, energy-efficient refrigerator and getting rid of extra refrigerators.
3. Replacing animal products with grain and vegetable-based proteins;
4. Drinking tap water instead of processed beverages.
5. Choosing food that was grown in a region well-suited to the crop, using methods that build soil and rely primarily on sunshine for energy and rainfall for water.
By combining tactics we can eat well using much less energy than we currently do. An understanding of the food system helps put our various food choices in context. Following a single, hard-and-fast rule—even a seemingly obvious one like “always eat local food”—can lead us astray.
Michael Bomford is a research scientist and extension specialist at Kentucky State University, an adjunct faculty member in the University of Kentucky Department of Horticulture, and a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute.