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Food ENERGY: Processing

This is part 4 of our serialization of Chapter 4 (Energy) from the latest Resilience guide, "Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems". This excerpt focuses on strategies for reducing the energy footprint of processing food. 

Read Part 1, Read Part 2, Read Part 3, Read Part 5

It is difficult to say whether our eating habits are driven by changes in the food system or vice versa. While we may follow all of the loss-leader promotions right into the gaping mouth of the supermarket’s aisles of processed food for economic reasons, the way we schedule our lives around eating also impacts our food habits.

As we continually decrease the time that we spend cooking and cleaning in the American home kitchen, the processing of our food occurs increasingly in commercial facilities. Those facilities, in turn, look for labor efficiencies that can increase net profits. In an effort to cut costs and maximize standardization, many of those processors opt for mechanization over human labor. Food processing uses energy in the transformation process and also in the movement of materials and ingredients from facility to facility. The energy impact of those decisions is quite clear, as the gross energy demands for food processing have risen more than in any other sector of the food system, as shown in figure 4-6.

It’s not immediately clear just how local food systems can begin to address this rather astounding growth in energy use in food processing. Upon reflection, however, several responses emerge. The first and best is that we simply need to depend less on processed foods, both because of the high-energy inputs and the packaging with all of its embedded energy and increased waste—not to mention the health implications. Buying fresh, lightly packaged foods directly from farmers and local distributors makes sense for not only calories invested but also calories derived. That is to say, less-processed foods tend to be less energy intensive to produce and not as calorically loaded as their highly processed counterparts. (Remember that food processing also uses energy in the movement of materials and ingredients from one facility to another—often hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.)

State and federal governments can also offer financial incentives for processors willing to invest in energy-efficiency infrastructure and innovations. So another response is to advocate for such policies on behalf of businesses that comprise our own community fabric. The impact of increasing energy prices on net profits will probably be the most significant impetus for energy efficiency in the processing sector, however. At some point, processors will be forced to embrace the renewable resources available in their respective locales. Processors in sun-drenched areas will capitalize upon drying techniques, solar ovens, photovoltaics, and solar hot water systems. Food entrepreneurs in colder climes may finally adopt so-called polar power systems that utilize frigid outdoor temperatures as a common resource for enhancing refrigeration efficiency. If businesses will adopt these kinds of technologies prior to the inevitable spike of energy costs, not only will they be well positioned in the marketplace, but they can help bring more confidence and expertise into the marketplace.

Richard Travers is one Vermont entrepreneur who saw the potential for capitalizing upon climate in this regard. As he describes it,

We were sitting around our dining room where we had an old restaurant refrigerator. The compressor went on, and it made so much noise, you couldn’t hear the other person talking across the table. It was 20° below zero outside, one of the coldest nights of the year. I got to thinking—why not take that cold air from the outside?15

That winter-evening inspiration turned into a brilliant business opportunity. Travers went on to develop the Freeaire Refrigeration system, which pulls cold outside air into commercial refrigeration units. Perhaps we need to modify the motto a bit: “Think locally; act accordingly.”

15. “About Us,” a history of FreeAire Refrigeration; (accessed October 2, 2012).

Local Dollars, Local Sense cover Power From the People cover Rebuilding the Foodshed        
Food aisle image via shutterstock.


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