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Food Production Uses More Energy Than You May Think | Serving Up Science

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Energy is inherently related to every significant challenge of the 21st century: water scarcity, inequality, national security and agriculture. On this episode of Serving Up Science, Sheril Kirshenbaum speaks with Dr. Michael Webber, the Chief Science and Technology Officer at the global energy and infrastructure services company ENGIE.

Webber is also the Josie Centennial professor in energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin, and he recently authored the book Power Trip: The Story of Energy.


What are some obvious and not so obvious intersections of energy and food?

I think the land and water parts of the food equation are a little more obvious. Because as we're driving through the country, we can see all the land dedicated to crops or livestock and that kind of thing. We can also see the water because we all learned early on that you need water to grow plants. And we see the irrigation happening in these fields and farms and crops. The energy part, even though it's right in front of us, is a little more hidden; it's a little less obvious. And that is in the electricity for the pump that sprays the water on the field, or it's in the diesel for the tractors that works the fields or the other equipment like combines and harvesters.

It's the energy from natural gas that's used to make the fertilizers or the pesticides and insecticides and the fungicides or the things that they spray in the crops to keep them more productive. And then it's the energy to dry the crops and silos like propane for drying. And then it's the diesel in the trucks to move the crops or the food to the factories and the warehouse where it’s processed and stored. And then as the energy in the electricity for the refrigeration in the freezing for the food preservation. And then it might be the electric stove top or the natural gas oven or whatever you're using to cook at home and the energy to prepare your food – chop it, wash it, clean it, cook it, boil it, whatever you're doing – and then the energy to take away the food waste to the landfill when we're done. So, there's energy all up and down the supply chain. And it's there for you know, to look for it, but it's not always real obvious.

How much energy do we use?

In a nation that's heavily industrialized, like the United States, about 10% or so of our energy consumption is in the food system. In less industrialized nations, it might be higher. So, the United States 10% is still a pretty big number, because we consume so much energy as a whole as a nation. So, 10% of a big number, and 1% is in the food itself – the food itself is a form of energy. And we need energy in our bodies just to keep ourselves functioning as humans as living animals. And so, of that 10% – or 1% of national energy consumption – is in the food. And then another 9% is to rapid process it, millet, grinded, cook it, boil it, move it, refrigerate it, that kind of thing. So, there's 1% in the food and the other 9% in the food system.

Of that 10%, how much are we just throwing away, and why is it important?

It's important because waste is always bad. We don't want to waste land or water or time or energy or food. We don't want to waste nutrition, but we can think of it just from the energy lens. If the food system is so energy intensive, 10% of our natural energy in the food itself, then we waste food. That means we're wasting energy. The food waste numbers vary, but anywhere from like 25 to 50% of our food is wasted. Meaning we throw it away, we don't eat it. And that means 25 to 50% of the energy in the food system is also wasted. So that means two and a half to 5% of national energy consumption is embedded in the edible food we throw away. That's really an incredible number. And it's important because if we care about conservation – that means things like turning off the lights when we leave a room, it means things like more efficient light bulbs – that also means things like reducing our food waste; that is a pathway to saving energy.

Why are you hopeful about our food and energy future?

I am hopeful about our food energy future for a few reasons. One is I really like the pathway that innovation is on. I see a lot of innovations and new technologies that can be helpful for us that improve our quality of life while reducing our impacts of that high-quality life, so that's really exciting.

I'm also excited about millennials and post millennials who seem more culturally attuned to the food and energy system. They think more about where they get their food from, what kind of food they're eating. They think more about where they're shopping, what kind of farmers markets are open air markets are going to. It doesn't mean they're moving back to the farms from the cities. I think they're more aware than Gen Xers and baby boomers are. If you look at the baby boomers and Gen Xers, it was a 50/60-year trend of movement away from the farm and away from the food system and becoming less attached and less knowledgeable about our food in our agriculture. But I feel like that's reversing a little bit – that younger people today are a little more interested in understanding where the food comes from. And that means, as a part of the conversation, there will be questions about the energy for that system and also the impacts. So, I'm pretty hopeful about younger people who care more about this, as well as the innovation pathway we seem to be on.

As managing editor, Karel Vega supervises news reporters and hosts of news programming, and is responsible for the planning and editing of WKAR's news content.
Serving Up Science host Sheril Kirshenbaum is a history buff, science writer, and curious foodie.
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