Saturday, September 04, 2010

U.S. food industry using more energy

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to climate change, it is essential to reduce energy use in the U.S. food system. A USDA report this Spring described trends in exactly the wrong direction.

USDA economist Patrick Canning and colleagues estimated that energy use in U.S. agricultural and food industries increased by 23% -- from 11.5 to 14.1 quadrillion British thermal units --  from 1997 to 2002, the most recent data available [typo corrected Sep. 7].  The increase is so large that it accounted for 80 percent of all increased energy use in the United States.

Only one quarter of the increased energy use in the food system is due to population growth.  Another quarter of the increase is due to increased food spending per person.  Fully half of the increase was due to adopting more energy intensive technologies in the food system.

At a time when one might expect that Americans would adopt more energy efficient technologies, we did the opposite.  We continued to move from labor intensive to energy intensive methods throughout food production and manufacture.  A fascinating accompanying article (.pdf) in the USDA magazine Amber Waves gives the example of adopting high-technology energy-intensive hen houses in the egg industry, increasing energy use per egg by 40%.

Consumers, similarly, were splurging on energy rather than economizing.  We purchased more dishwashers, microwave ovens, self-cleaning ovens, and second refrigerators than ever before, so our own household food systems were also becoming more energy intensive.

In some circles, there is a temptation to hope that technological improvement will solve our energy and climate change problems, making it unnecessary to change consumption habits.  This research casts some doubt on this hope.  Consumption change remains important.

A popular way to reduce the energy impact of our food choices is to buy local.  The energy used in transportation varies greatly by food group.  For example, shipping rice long-distance by ship or grain by train is fairly innocuous, while shipping fresh produce from across the country and overseas may be a more spendthrift use of energy.  Packaged food and restaurant food are both more energy intensive than home-prepared food from real ingredients.  The USDA article emphasizes food from animals as another important consumer choice:
Based on 2002 energy technologies, if households choose to substitute a portion of their at-home meat and egg consumption with expanded fish and fresh vegetable consumption, for example, there could be substantial savings in energy usage.
Reread this sentence.  This is a bold conclusion for a USDA magazine article.

Click for larger image.


Linda Watson said...

Thanks so much for the great post. One question: are microwaves a sign or more or less energy usage, after the energy of producing and transporting a new appliance? My understanding was that microwaves can be one of the most efficient way to cook, since no pre-heating is required and only the food is heated, not the container or surroundings. I use my microwave all the time to cook fresh vegetables and to reheat beans and other meals that I cook in batches. Always willing to learn, though!

Parke Wilde said...

Good question.

In a kitchen already equipped with a stove and a microwave, I'd be willing to believe that a microwave would use less energy for many tasks. It will be interesting if some reader knows the details on this. The issue is energy use per cooking occasion.

I'll be more surprised, though, if it saves energy to buy a microwave for a kitchen that also has a range. The issue is energy use per cooking occasion plus equipment manufacture.

Anonymous said...

The USDA article mentions consuming less meat as a way to save energy, and that's a statement I often see. Thus I was interested in the idea that if we changed the way meat is raised it might be a reasonable food choice: From Grist: "Could vegans be wrong? RT @ethicurean: Meat eating can be an environmentally friendly choice, argues Geoge Monbiot"

Parke Wilde said...

I read that Monbiot article today with great interest.

It strongly corroborates Canning's implicit suggestion about eating less meat.

All the sources in your link -- Bonnie Powell, Monbiot, and Fairlie -- support eating less meat for environmental reasons. Monbiot is going back and forth in his own internal philosophizing about strict vegan diets, with no meat at all, but that is not even an issue in Canning's article.

Janie Appleseed said...

In some ways, your discussion of the Monbiot article represents the way in which the USDA is not changing. Yes, it is a huge jump to recognize meat consumption as serious environmental contributor, but it still overlooks how much products vary. Driving away the environmentally conscious crowd from all meat could have large consequences for grass-fed meats and future changes in the industry as whole.

Overall, this still raises some serious questions about where our agriculture is heading even with environmental awareness increasing. If we want to see wide spread changes like we saw with organic produce, we need a way to clearly communicate to consumers the emissions that their food creates.

Parke Wilde said...

I can see the environmental merit of increasing grass-fed beef production on range land at the expense of feedlots. And I can see the environmental merit of encouraging lower beef consumption. The two principles go very well together.

On my recent drive across the United States, I was particularly interested in the boundary where irrigated corn and soybean production in eastern Nebraska shifted to cattle farming on grass in western Nebraska and Colorado.

If the boundary between these regions shifted eastward, there might be a number of environmental benefits simultaneously. But supporters of this change should agree that there would be less beef to go around, rather than seeing this change as encouraging meat consumption.

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Janie Appleseed said...

You're right, changes like switching to grass fed beef probably do mean lower production levels, increasing their environmental benefit while creating market challenges. With the demand for meat rising internationally, it will be interesting to see how these changes play out. Of course, there's never an argument against a fully informed consumer!

The Almond Doctor said...

Do you know if the costs (fuel/energy) of transporting the food to local markets has been taken into consideration in this report? Is it more expensive for a grower to take his/her produce to 10+ markets, some being over 2-3 hours away? I have no idea if anyone has ever looked at the carbon footprint of farmer's market- especially since it usually involves 10-30 different vendors. I would suspect that it would be higher than we like to think.

I am not advocating a centralized system, but there has to be a reason why this system was developed. Usually a system develops because of a cost savings benefit. Any ideas?

myventuri said...

Im really psyched to read this and thanks for posting it. I think one of the serious take-homes from this, apart from the meat issues, of which there are so many and extremely complex, is the astounding fact that only a 1/4 of the increase is attributed to population growth.
We need to see more in-house energy production in a landscape where this is so feasible it should be law. Incentives both front-end and long-term should be handed out like free ice cream for converting your waste to fuel; capturing wind and solar on-farm or within industrial parks. That closed geothermal systems isn't status quo for all new buildings where hydro-geologically appropriate is ridiculous. Digging a circulation well should be standard operating procedure when pouring the concrete foundations.
Take one of those gigantic abattoirs, it should easily be not only the dumping ground for the animals going to slaughter, but also efficient power generators for themselves, possibly others.
The whole thing is a no-brainer but we have to put our money where its going to work.
Building this energy infrastructure locally also MAKES JOBS and staunches the rural social capital bleed going on in the US.

Janie Appleseed said...

myventuri- you make a great point, there are a lot of opportunities for improvements outside of changing the way we eat. I think you'd really like looking over another recent ERS publication The Role of Agriculture in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. It has a fairly comprehensive discussion of what can be done to make improvements, as well as a short list of policy approaches for doing it.

Tamesha said...
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Andrea Wilson said...

I agree that purchasing locally grown food should be encouraged, for several environmental advantages (not just energy savings). However, It's difficult to tell a low income family to purchase local produce and meats. Most simply cannot afford to incur the cost.

When we discuss a shift from purchasing conventional foods to local, we need to address food markets.

Great post. I just wanted to lay down my puzzle piece.

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