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Why Energy?

In a food system seemingly filled with challenges, from climate change to soil erosion, from shortages of fresh water to epidemics of diet-related disease, I'm often asked why I focus so heavily on the energy side of the picture. This is a fair question, one I'll dedicate this post to answering.

Perhaps the biggest reason why I focus on energy is that it mediates all biophysical transformations. When matter changes from one form to another, this change is accompanied by the conversion of energy from a state of higher order, such as electric energy or kinetic energy, to a state of lower order such as heat. Without this all-important energy conversion, nothing happens.

It's been long recognized that energy conversions play a foundational role in physical, biological, and economic processes. It's challenging to trace the origins of this recognition to their original source, but many modern scholars attribute it first to the 18th century Physiocrats, particularly François Quesnay, who also attempted to articulate the Natural Laws that a governed physical and economic processes. Other notably scholars who contributed to this line of thought include German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, English radiochemist and nobel laureate Frederick Soddy, American mathematician Alfred Lotka, US ecologists Howard Odum, Robert Costanza and Charles A. S. Hall, and economists Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly, among many others.

Beyond this theoretical basis for focusing on the energetics of systems, the reality of modern society is that most energy used to drive economic processes is sourced from nonrenewable sources, including 'fossil' fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas as well as fissionable isotopes such as Uranium-235. Since the production, distribution and use of these energy sources account for a variety of negative impacts, quantifying energy use can serve as a proxy, if sometimes imperfect, for negative impacts both throughout economic systems more generally and within food systems in particular. More energy use, more impacts. Renewable energy has impacts associated with its use too, of course.

A few years back at the 4th Annual Biophysical Economics Conference, Chris Martenson gave a fantastic keynote address wherein he articulated four criteria he uses to help craft messages aimed at changing people's behavior: (1) Frame the message so it's immediately relevant to the target audience, (2) frame it so it's concrete and definitive rather than abstract and statistical, (3) frame it so the points you're trying to make are confirmed by people's everyday experience, and (4) frame the message so that people have a sense of agency in the matter [1]. Another reason, then, for my focus on energy is that an energy-centric message fulfills all of the above requirements. Reducing energy use saves money, making it abundantly relevant to most people in these challenging economic times. There's enough background research on the embodied energy of various goods and services that I can do an energy input-output audit that's thorough and fairly precise, painting a picture of energy use for an enterprise or even within a supply chain that's concrete and definitive, and not at all abstract. The impacts and risks associated with high energy use are readily confirmed by people's experience thanks to today's high and volatile energy prices, and finally energy use is something people have control over.

I'll be the first to admit that focusing on energy isn't always adequate to solve certain problems. Specific issues, such as soil erosion or water shortages, have facets to them that can't be handled by focusing on energy and require a broader approach. Further, there's more to food than just its calorie content or the number of calories needed to produce it. Truth be told, some issues associated with food production, such as anthropogenic climate change, have become so thoroughly politicized that it's nearly impossible to talk about them without dragging the discourse towards mudslinging, conspiracy theorizing or doomsaying. Since energy is so foundational in making food systems work, I argue that while food system analyses should never end with studies of energy intensity, starting there can work wonders and open many useful avenues of discourse. This, let it be known, is why I focus on energy.


  1. Watch Chris Martenson's Keynote Address at the 2011 Biophysical Economics Conference.

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