Energy and Waste in the Food System

Although estimates vary, we invest about 14 calories of fossil fuel-based energy and 15-20 calories of energy in general into every 1 calorie of food produced.  And (here’s the kicker) 30-50% of the food produced never makes it to a digestive track.  So those energy input numbers are actually low by any true measure of efficiency and productivity.

Calorie for Calorie

A recent report from the USDA ERS sums it up this way, “use of energy along the food chain for food purchases by or for U.S. households increased between 1997 and 2002 at more than six times the rate of increase in total domestic energy use. … The use of more energy-intensive technologies throughout the U.S. food system accounted for half of this increase, with the remainder attributed to population growth and higher real (inflation-adjusted) per capita food expenditures.”

Here is a similar idea, displayed in a slightly different way by the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems (this uses units of millions of pounds, not energy).

US Food System - flows in million pounds

And it isn’t all about energy efficiency and renewable energy and boring engineering BTU, calorie and bean counting (although I do like counting beans).  The food wasted post-harvest is a real loss that we can do something about. (NOTE: The report linked above where I take the 30-50% waste figure from was done by a UK engineering trade organization, IMECHE).

Some of the loss occurs in storage, and I think we all can agree that we can do better with our storage practices. Regardless of whether you are root cellaring, using a CoolBot(TM) or a commercial walk-in cooler, the principles remain the same. Some loss occurs in transport and distribution which speaks to the benefit of the broader food system considerations espoused by UVM’s Food Systems Spire and the Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative. Some, of course, occurs in the kitchen or in consumer storage and suggests we have some work to do with consumers as well.

As one grower recently said to me, “By the time we put food in our farm cooler, 99% of our cost is sunk into that product. We gotta pay attention to what goes on in there and make sure we get paid for it.

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