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American food production requires more energy than you’d think

Written by Save On Energy Team

Last updated 06/16/2022


Monty Rakusen/Image Source/Getty images

Let’s face it, Americans love good food. But have you ever thought about the resources needed to produce the food we eat? As it turns out, it takes a lot of energy to get our food from the farm to our dinner table.

In 2018, the U.S. consumed a total of 101.1 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units) of energy. You read that right – quadrillion. Roughly 10 percent of that enormous number came from the food system (about 10.11 quadrillion Btu).

It’s hard to conceptualize such a huge number, so here’s some context. The U.S. consumes more energy each year growing, preparing, and transporting food than the United Kingdom does to power the whole country.

What’s more, the food system uses almost exclusively non-renewable energy sources. Nearly 20 percent of the fossil fuels used in the U.S. power the stages of food production. As a reminder, burning fossil fuels emits harmful greenhouse gases into the environment and contributes to the climate crisis.

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How are we using so much energy?

There are four main parts to the food production process: agriculture, transportation, processing, and handling. Each step requires its own forms of energy.

Agriculture:

Agriculture uses approximately 21 percent of food production energy – which equals 2.1 quadrillion Btu of energy each year. That energy is consumed through growing and harvesting crops, as well as raising livestock. About 60 percent of the energy used in agriculture goes toward gasoline, diesel, electricity and natural gas. The other 40 percent is used to produce fertilizer and pesticides.

Transportation:

It takes a lot of energy to move food from the farm to the table – 1.4 quadrillion Btu of energy, to be precise. The transportation sector includes air freights, container ships, railways and road transport. Altogether, transportation makes up 14 percent of the energy used for food production.

Food Processing:

There are many kinds of foods that must be processed before we consume them. Food processing basically means turning raw ingredients into the finished products. Think about all the ingredients that go into a single Oreo! Processing those raw ingredients and producing the finished food product requires 1.6 quadrillion Btu of energy per year, or 16 percent of the total energy consumed for food production.

Food Handling:

Food handling is easily the largest sector of the food production process. It involves a lot of different aspects, including restaurants, food retail, packaging and refrigeration. So, it’s no wonder this sector consumes the most energy. Food handling uses 5 quadrillion Btu per year, or a whopping 49 percent of the total.

Greenhouse gas emissions and food production

The food production system runs primarily by burning fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. However, fossil fuels aren’t the only emitter of greenhouse gases in the food system. Farm animals produce methane. Trucks and delivery vehicles need gasoline or diesel to run. And large production facilities rely on coal and natural gas power plants – which emit carbon dioxide. Each step of food production leads to gas emissions and energy use.

The issue with food waste

Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in America is wasted, according to the USDA. In 2010, Americans wasted approximately 133 billion pounds of food – the same weight as around 10 million elephants. This added up to about $161 billion of wasted grocery money.

Considering the food production process consumes 10.11 quadrillion Btu of energy, this amount of food waste can negatively impact the environment in several ways. When that bag of salad goes bad in your fridge, it’s easy to forget how much energy went into producing it in the first place.

Additionally, spoiled food tends to end up in landfills and produces a large amount of methane – a greenhouse gas that is even more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming and the current climate crisis.

Food waste also has serious consequences for our water supply. Agriculture and the food production process consume roughly 70 percent of the water used throughout the world. MoveForHunger, an organization working to reduce food waste, explains, “By throwing out one kilogram of beef, you are essentially wasting 50,000 liters of water that were used to produce that meat. In the same way, nearly 1,000 liters of water are wasted when you pour one glass of milk down the drain.”

What can be done?

It’s a little daunting to think about how we can solve the issue of food waste – and, by extension, energy waste – in America. But by making small changes to your food habits, you can make a big difference!

Energy efficient foods

There are certain foods that require more energy to produce than others. For example, it takes a lot of energy and resources to produce a steak. Cows drink a lot of water and eat a lot of food, but the process of turning a cow into a steak also consumes a ton of energy. In fact, it takes approximately 107,482 Btu to produce a single pound of beef.

Most animal-based products require more energy to produce, although beef is the most inefficient. It takes about 42,992 Btu to produce a pound of pork and 15,013 Btu to produce a pound of chicken.

The most energy efficient foods are those that do not require much processing, such as beans, fish, eggs, nuts and corn.

A shift towards more energy efficient foods can dramatically cut down on energy use. This doesn’t mean you have to adopt a strict vegetarian diet, but reducing the amount of meat (especially red meat) and other animal products in your diet leads to a lower impact diet.

Meal-planning

Meal-planning has become all the rage online. It’s definitely trendy, but it can also help you cut back on the amount of food you waste each week.

Planning out your meals for the week helps you only buy the food you need at the grocery store. This decreases the chance of you throwing out that unused bag of spinach at the end of the week, saving the money you spent on it and the energy used to produce it.

Locally-sourced food saves on energy

We get it – going to the closest grocery store is super convenient. But if you buy your produce from local farmers markets, you can save the energy it would take to transport that produce from across the world. And as a bonus, you’ll also be supporting local farmers. Win-win!

The number of farmers markets in America has grown in the past 30 years. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center estimates there are now approximately 8,720 farmers markets in the U.S., generating about $1 billion. With this USDA farmers market tool, you can find your nearest farmers market just by entering your zip code!

Energy-efficient food storage

By investing in energy-efficient appliances, you can cut down on your energy use and your monthly energy rates! EnergyStar refrigerators use 20 to 30 percent less energy than traditional fridges.

Additionally, it’s important to store your food properly so that it will stay fresh until you eat it. For example, did you know apples ripen 6 to 10 times faster when stored at room temperature? SaveTheFood is a helpful resource that provides a lot of information on proper storage techniques for your food and other tips about reducing food waste.

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