Before 1900 the US food system likely delivered more calories of food than it required as energy inputs in the form of fuel and labor. Only as our food system industrialized did today’s energy deficit emerge.

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The Energetic Evolution of the US Food System

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In The Energy Cost of Food I detailed how incredibly energy intensive the US food system is, particularly noting how it likely requires at least 15 calories of industrial energy inputs to produce, process and distribute 1 calorie of consumed food. It hasn't always been this way though; before 1900 the US food system likely delivered more calories of food than it required as energy inputs in the form of fuel and labor [1]. Only as our food system industrialized after 1900 did today's energy deficit emerge.

The reasons for the meteoric rise in US food system energy intensity are multifaceted, and include the substitution of industrial fuels for human and animal labor through mechanization, as well as the rise of the food processing industry and the expansion of food distribution networks. Households use far more energy per unit of consumed food today too, if only because the refrigerators, microwaves and other appliances unheard of in 1900 are today commonplace, and are all powered by electricity.

What contributed to the decline in food system energy use after 1970? The Arab Oil Embargo, for the most part [2]. In the 1970s, due to political conflicts, several Middle East oil producing countries conspired to drive oil prices up to astounding heights, forcing many sectors throughout the US economy, including the US food sector, to invest in efficiency improvements and lay off workers as the country sank deep into recession. As oil prices relaxed after 1980 and the recession abated, the energy intensity of the US food system resumed its upward trajectory, which continues to this day.

In The Energy Basis of Food Security I make the case for reducing the energy intensity of food systems to sever the link between energy prices, which are rising and highly volatile, and food prices. If we use history is our guide though, the energy intensity of the US food system is on a steep upward trend that even the Arab Oil Embargo couldn't permanently derail. Given that energy prices have again reached commanding heights - enough to hinder economic growth, according to most economists - I expect that investments within the food sector are already being made to enhance system-wide efficiency. The million dollar question is whether those investments will be enough to make a real, a permanent, difference, or whether they'll be targeted towards shortsighted measures that amount to putting bandaids on a mortal wound.

It takes energy to get food. It always has, and it always will. The US food system, and those of many other countries, has risen to commanding heights in terms of its energy intensity. Rising energy prices will eventually end that trend, or make food so expensive that those of lesser means take to the streets in protest. How we adapt to this reality will define us as a species over the coming century. Food activism is rising up like a wellspring around the world, creating an opportunity for us to ponder whether our food system’s development path is a viable one over the long term, and hopefully the facts and figures I've offered here can lead people to engage with their food system's evolutionary path and lead it towards a better outcome.

Notes

  1. US food system energy use data are from the 2010 USDA report by Patrick Canning et al. entitled Energy Use in the US Food System, from the 1974 article by John and Carol Steinhart entitled ‘Energy use in the US food system’ (Science, Vol. 184, Pages 307-316), and from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
  2. Aside from the Arab Oil Embargo, it's possible that methodological differences between the Steinhart & Steinhart article and the USDA report may also create part of the discontinuity seen between 1970 and 1996, although the USDA report's authors attempted to duplicate Steinhart & Steinhart's methods.

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