The energy basis of food security

by Eric Garza

Food security requires that food is available, accessible and well utilized. Utilization refers to the ability of individuals to prepare the foods they have access to in a way that yields a nourishing product they’re willing to eat. Access refers to individuals’ ability to physically acquire food, which might mean growing or raising it, bartering for it, or having enough disposable income to purchase it. Finally, food availability refers to the capacity of food producers, distributors and/or governments to make food available to consumers. If food isn’t available it can’t be accessible, and if food isn’t accessible it can’t be well utilized. 

EBFSFigThese elements of food security – availability, accessibility and utilization – are influenced by a range of factors, but in a world where most people access food through economic markets one of the foremost factors underlying food security is the price of fuel. Why? Because food production in today’s food systems require huge direct and indirect energy inputs, so much so that food prices have no choice but to trend right along with fuel prices as the latter rise and fall.

Just how energy intensive are modern industrial food systems? Based on data from the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2007 it required 14 calories of energy to produce, process, distribute and prepare one calorie of food in the US once waste and spoilage are accounted for [1, 2]. As high as this figure might seem, it’s surely an underestimate. The USDA analysis failed to include several important segments of the US food system, including research and development, waste disposal, food system governance, and water procurement and treatment, and among others. A more expansive assessment of the US food system that accounted for food’s entire life cycle, from soil to consumers and back to soil, would certainly find the total to be higher – perhaps much higher – than the above estimate.

To put this in perspective, 14 fuel calories per consumed food calorie equates, in thermal energy terms, to the average American washing down their daily food intake with 1.1 gallons of gasoline. That’s 400 gallons of gasoline per year, an amount on par with what the average American uses to fuel their car over that same period. Industrial food systems effectively turn non-renewable sources of energy – fuels derived from crude oil, natural gas, coal and uranium – into food, and do so very inefficiently. It’s this extraordinary level of conversion inefficiency that so tightly locks food and fuel prices, and robs us of any meaningful sense of food security.

Rising fuel prices are driven by a variety of factors, but high among them is the reality that the many energy companies are finding it more challenging to access, mine or extract new resources, sending costs of production skyward. As costs of production increase, the market prices of fuels must increase to cover those costs. Escalating fuel prices exert upwards pressure on food prices, leading to negative consequences such as social discontent, hunger and, in some cases, food riots. As long as food systems demand high fuel inputs to function, food security will elude us.

It’s a shame so many people who work in the realm of food security remain unaware of the energy intensity of food production and the role of energy prices in driving food price volatility. Hopefully this essay drives home the importance of looking at food security through a wider lens, and particularly the value of investing effort to radically increase our food systems’ energy efficiency. Only by severing the link between food and fuel prices can we truly achieve a meaningful sense of food security.

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. 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.