The energetic evolution of the US food system

by Eric Garza

In the energy cost of food I detailed how incredibly energy intensive the US food system is, particularly noting how it likely requires at least 15 calories of industrial energy inputs to produce, process and distribute 1 calorie of consumed food. It hasn’t always been this way; before 1900 the US food system likely delivered more calories of food than it required as energy inputs in the form of fuel and labor [1-3]. Only as our food system industrialized after 1900 did today’s energy deficit emerge. 

EEUSFSThe reasons for the meteoric rise in US food system energy intensity are multifaceted, and include the substitution of industrial fuels for human and animal labor through mechanization, as well as the rise of the food processing industry and the expansion of food distribution networks. Households use far more energy per unit of consumed food today too, if only because the refrigerators, microwaves and other appliances unheard of in 1900 are today commonplace, and are all powered by electricity.

In the energy basis of food security I make the case for reducing the energy intensity of food systems to sever the link between energy prices, which are rising and highly volatile, and food prices. If we use history is our guide though, the energy intensity of the US food system is on a steep upward trend that even the Arab Oil Embargo couldn’t permanently derail. Given that energy prices have again reached commanding heights – enough to hinder economic growth, according to most economists – I expect that investments within the food sector are already being made to enhance system-wide efficiency. The million dollar question is whether those investments will be enough to make a real, a permanent, difference, or whether they’ll be targeted towards shortsighted measures that amount to putting bandaids on a mortal wound.

It takes energy to get food. It always has, and it always will. The US food system, and those of many other countries, has risen to commanding heights in terms of its energy intensity. Rising energy prices will eventually end that trend, or make food so expensive that those of lesser means take to the streets in protest. How we adapt to this reality will define us as a species over the coming century. Food activism is rising up like a wellspring around the world, creating an opportunity for us to ponder whether our food system’s development path is a viable one over the long term, and hopefully the facts and figures I’ve offered here can lead people to engage with their food system’s evolutionary path and lead it towards a better outcome.

Notes

  1. Patrick Canning et al. (2010) Energy Use in the US Food System. Report by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
  2. John Steinhart and Carol Steinhart. (1974) Energy use in the US food system. Science, Vol. 184, Pages 307-316.
  3. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System. United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Estimates of food availability corrected for waste and spoilage are called ‘loss-adjusted’ by the USDA, and are used as a proxy for food that’s eaten by a person.