Thursday, May 12, 2011


With fossil fuel prices rising rapidly these days, the energy scenario is being revisited to identify areas where energy can be saved significantly. That food processing and retailing system has come in for some attention in this regard is not very surprising. While the industry is continuously developing mechanized and automated processing plants to keep human intervention to the minimum, this is accomplished by using more energy. Similarly with free trade regime taking hold of global food business, foods travel over long distances to reach the retail markets. In many developed countries agricultural land is diverted for industry shrinking their production base continuously, necessitating more and more imports from developing countries. Thus food accounts substantially for energy consumption directly as well as indirectly. Here is a commentary on this vital issue based on data from the US that may be relevant to most of the countries in the world.

From the diesel fuel tractors that harvest our crops, to the refrigerated trucks that transport products cross-country, to the labor-saving technology found in the home such as toasters and self-cleaning ovens, the U.S. food system is about as energy inefficient as it gets. And it's only getting worse. A fall 2010 report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, ERS, called "Fuel for Food: Energy Use in the U.S. Food System," found that while energy consumption per capita fell by 1 percent between 2002 and 2007, food-related energy use grew nearly 8 percent, as the food industry relied on more energy-intensive technologies to produce more food for more people. 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.

While energy consumption is one facet of the problem, environment degradation due to high CO2 emission from all activities connected with food production, processing and marketing, is another aspect that is worrying the planners. Since food is essential there is no way to avoid such emissions but it can always be pared down to unavoidable minimum for which industry, both production as well as processing and consumers will have to work hard to achieve. Probably local markets, farmers markets, organic food production and other efforts, though constitute a minuscule part of the current food landscape, do provide some options. Energy auditing and carbon foot print assessment for every food item consumed by human beings as well as reared animals need to be done for sensitizing the consumers and hopefully there will be natural weeding out of "guzzlers" eventually.


No comments: