Sunday, May 08, 2011

u.s. squanders energy on food chain


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CNBC | Between 1997 and 2002, in fact, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.

And estimates for 2007 suggest the U.S. food system accounted for nearly 16 percent of the nation’s total energy budget, up from 14.4 percent in 2002, according to the report, which measured both the direct energy used to power machines and appliances (like trucks and microwave ovens) as well as the “embodied” energy used to manufacture, store and distribute food products.

“This is what they call a fossil fuel party,” says Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. “We’ve created a food system that relies heavily on fossil energy, and it’s become so globalized that there are literally grapes from South Africa in the grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s a long-distance shipping economy, which makes all of us vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain and other unforeseen emergencies.”

That’s particularly troublesome, he notes, when so much of the U.S. — particularly the Midwest — has such potential for primary production.

“We have the best soils and a great climate and yet, most of what we eat is imported,” says Enshayan. “You have to step back and say, ‘Wait, why is a region like Iowa not feeding itself?”

The environmental consequence of relying so heavily on a national and international network of suppliers is even greater, he notes.

“It dulls our imagination and prevents us from paying attention to what sustains us,” says Enshayan. “The loss of water and soil quality is right in front of us, but since our food doesn’t come from it, why worry?”

And then, of course, there’s the impact on our climate.

“The production and distribution of food has long been known to be a major source of green house gas and other environmental emissions, and, for many reasons, it is seen by many environmental advocates as one of the major ways concerned consumers can reduce their carbon footprints,” writes Christopher Weber, an environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in a 2008 paper called “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the Unites States” that he co-authored with H. Scott Mathews.

According to the report, the average household’s climate impact related to food is estimated to be 8.1 t CO2/yr, or tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, a common measure for determining how much global warming a type of greenhouse gas may cause.

To put that figure into perspective, driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon roughly 12,000 miles produces 4.4 t CO2/yr.

Why So High
One of the reasons energy use in the food system is growing so rapidly is that there are more of us to feed.

The U.S. population grew by more than 9.7 percent to 308.7 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

A second culprit is higher food expenditure for the amount of food marketed to U.S. consumers, which boosted food system energy use in America by 25 percent, the USDA report notes.

By far, though, the use of energy-intensive technologies as a substitute for manual labor is the biggest contributor.