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Beyond Food Miles: Some Types Of Food Take More Energy

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 17th, 2011

Source: PostCarbon Institute

Image: renatamiyagusku via flickr CC

From “Beyond Food Miles” by Michael Bomford:

NOTE: The following article is concerned strictly with the energy equation of the food system and is intended to stimulate questions about how best to grow, transport, store and prepare (ideally local) foods. There are many reasons to favor local food, including supporting local economies and building local food security.

A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.”[1] What better diet could there be for an energy constrained world? After all, feeding Americans accounts for about 15% of US energy use,[2] and the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork.[3] It seems obvious that eating locally will go a long way to reducing food system energy use. Yet cracking the case of America’s energy-intensive food system demands that we look beyond the obvious.

A local diet can reduce energy use somewhat, but there are even more effective ways to tackle the problem. Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective.[4]

If you realize you’re spending too much money, the first thing to do is figure out where it’s going. Cutting back on pizza won’t make much difference if you’re spending most of your money on beer. Similarly, the first step in reducing food system energy use is to figure out where all the energy is going. That’s what a team of economists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did last year, in a report called “Energy Use in the US Food System“.

The report contains some surprises. Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie. Even farming isn’t a particularly big contributor. The big energy users turn out to be food processing, packaging, selling, and preparation. Our kitchens command the biggest slice of the pie, using twice as much energy as the farms that grew the food in the first place.


Read the full article by Michael Bomford at the Post-Carbon Institute for more information and access to the end-notes included above.


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