Saturday, September 18, 2010


The "Locavores" movement started in the US for encouraging people to shun foods brought from far away places and in stead consume those that are grown locally seems to be based on unsubstantiated premise that the former is responsible for large consumption of fossil fuel energy. A recent study debunks this theory and in stead blames the house holds as the biggest culprit in this energy saga. Though one cannot accept the stand that people should consume more of energy efficient commercially produced industrial foods for cutting down energy waste, there is a point in that more needs to be done for cutting down on house hold energy consumption through more optimized kitchen operations and improved designs of kitchen appliances. While energy experts focus only on the narrow aspect of energy consumption, there are other issues like the impact of industrial foods on consumer health.

In his recent The New York Times op-ed, "Math Lessons for Locavores" -- debated at length in our"Food Fight" feature -- Stephen Budiansky shows that transportation and "modern" (i.e., highly mechanized and chemical-intensive) farming make up relatively small parts of industrial food's energy footprint. Consumers in their kitchens, in Budiansky's view, are the real energy guzzlers -- so locavores should stop worrying and learn to love industrial food.Those points are addressed broadly by a recent article in Amber Waves, the publication of the USDA's Economic Research service. On page 13 of this lucidly written report, we find that in 2002, U.S. households used nearly 4 quadrillion BTUs of energy in the kitchen, more than any other sector of the food system. By contrast, transportation -- think of the vast fleet of trucks that ferries the food we eat cross-country, to supermarket chains and eateries -- consumed about 0.6 quadrillion BTUs. And agriculture, with its gas-dependent combines and other machines and fossil fuel-sucking fertilizers and pesticides, used just 2.1 quadrillion BTUs.

The energy consumption by the agriculture sector in most developed countries is a matter of concern but very little can be done to reduce the consumption without affecting land productivity. Possibly some alleviation measures can be thought of which includes extraction of energy from farm wastes through anaerobic digestion or bio-fuel production so that the net energy utilization comes down significantly. Both these technologies are at a ripe stage for utilization in large farms provided necessary resources are made available to install large scale facilities in the coming years. .


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