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The Energy Cost of Food

By Manuela Zoninsein

Attending Jewish sleep-away camp for nearly a decade’s worth of summers taught me some invaluable life lessons, such as how to sweep sand out of a craggy floored cabin, how to rap the Birkat HaMazon, and the value of tikkun olam — the Jewish commitment to repairing the world. I learned that we are all responsible for one another, even in a cabin with 14 girls hiding behind each other when “spin the bottle” took a turn for the worse.


That interdependence remains relevant today, as we humans in the larger global community continue to use resources at unsustainable rates. Admittedly, the world at large might be a bit more unwieldy than a summer camp — 700 Midwestern Jewish teens confined to 80 acres in northern Wisconsin can’t quite approach the complexity of nearly seven billion people of all shapes, colors, beliefs and lifestyles wandering the globe — yet if each of us can seek to integrate into our daily routines the idea of coexisting with 6,999,999,999 others, we can move in the right direction.


Today, part of repairing the world means ensuring that we can reduce our individual consumption to sustainable levels, especially as the world gets more crowded. If people in developing countries such as China continue to respond to increased prosperity by eating more resource-intensive foods, namely meat and dairy, then a worldwide population increase of just two billion people by 2050 may double the demand for food production.


But when it comes to farming, more of the same isn’t going to work, because agricultural production as we know it is flawed.


“The industrial agriculture system consumes fossil fuel, water, and topsoil at unsustainable rates. It contributes to numerous forms of environmental degradation, including air and water pollution, soil depletion, diminishing biodiversity, and fish die-offs,” Leo Horrigan, Robert Lawrence and Polly Walker wrote in a report for the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Meat production contributes disproportionately to these problems, in part because feeding grain to livestock to produce meat — instead of feeding it directly to humans — involves a large energy loss, making animal agriculture more resource intensive than other forms of food production.”


Here’s a simple explanation of the food-energy connection described by Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker: Through a series of chemical reactions, plants convert the sun’s energy into stored energy. Humans and other animals eat those plants, releasing their stored energy to power our bodies. Essentially, just as cars get energy from oil, we’re machines that process food for energy. The problem is that in our industrial agricultural system, our food also gets energy from oil.


Industrial fertilizers and pesticides are made from oil, combining to consume almost 40 percent of the energy allocated to agricultural production — the single most energy intensive aspect of our agricultural system. Packaging, processing and storing food consumes about 23 percent of the energy used in our food production system, according to Danielle Murray, San Francisco’s renewable-energy program manager and former researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. An additional 32 percent of energy is taken up at home, with refrigeration and cooking. On average, 7.3 units of energy are needed to produce one unit of food energy, according to conservative estimates from the University of Michigan.




The energy consumed in food production could be reduced greatly if we switched to a non-industrial system. For example, farmers could replace petroleum-based fertilizers with manure, a natural, time-tested option. But our monoculture industrial system keeps distinct aspects of agricultural processes consolidated, so even manure must travel long distances to arrive at the fields where it’s needed. However, switching to a small-scale agricultural system would allow for manure to be used on the same farms where it’s produced, eliminating the need for fertilizers to be transported across the country in trucks. Small-scale closed-loop farming systems may not offer economies of scale, but they do offer more efficient use of resources, including energy.


The beef with meat


The single-biggest thing we could do to lessen energy consumption could be quite an easy thing to achieve. Put simply, we have to stop eating so much meat. The production of beef, for instance, requires 35 calories of energy for every calorie of beef produced. Meat production contributes disproportionately to energy consumption, in part because feeding grain to livestock to produce meat, instead of feeding it directly to humans, involves a large energy loss as livestock convert the grain they eat into meat.


According to the United Nations, livestock is the single-largest contributor to climate change, responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That doesn’t include carbon wastes attendant to meat production, such as the effect of cutting down the forests for the farms, the effect of producing fertilizer to grow animal feed, and the fuel used to ship animals and animal products across the country and around the world. Indeed, animal agriculture is one of the largest factors driving global deforestation, and increasing deforestation diminishes opportunities for trees to sequester harmful carbon. Additionally, overgrazing helps lead to desertification and further loss of arable land. Livestock also produces about half of the world’s methane-gas emissions and about 70 percent of the world’s nitrous-oxide emissions. A potent greenhouse gas, methane is about 21 times more powerful a heat retainer than carbon dioxide. While atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations have risen by about 31 percent since pre-industrial times,  methane concentrations have more than doubled, largely because of substantial increases in meat production and consumption.


The proliferation of industrial animal agriculture also leads to pollution from high concentrations of animal waste and the extensive use of antibiotics, which may compromise their effectiveness in medical use. Animal fat is implicated in many of the chronic degenerative diseases that afflict industrial and newly industrializing societies, particularly cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The pesticides used heavily in industrial agriculture are associated with elevated cancer risks and are coming under greater scrutiny for their links to endocrine disruption and reproductive dysfunction.


Problem of distribution, not scarcity


Both affluent and poor countries could benefit from policies that more equitably distribute high-protein foods. The World Food Policy Research Institute estimated that hunger and food insecurity are problems not of resource scarcity but of insufficient political will or moral imperative to change the way food is allocated. The developing world alone is producing enough food to provide every person with more than the estimated average 2,500 calories per day, but if unsustainable agriculture remains the norm, and the rate of meat intake continues to rise, scarcity of resources could soon become a major factor in food insecurity.


For example, the amount of water used in agriculture is astounding, accounting for nearly 70 percent of water consumption worldwide. And irrigation is the leading cause of salinization of land, since non-rain freshwater typically contains small amounts of salts, which build up in the soil over time. The effect is most pronounced in arid and semi-arid regions. Additionally, irrigation permits fertilizer and pesticide residues to run off into both above-ground waterways and groundwater. As the population grows, and as a greater proportion of that population aims to enjoy meat the way Westerners already do, more and more water will be needed to grow grain to feed livestock.


Lessons for our daily bread


So what can we do? To start, buy foods grown locally. Since locally grown foods don’t have to travel as far to reach you, much less energy is used in their transportation. Farmers’ markets, food co-ops and community-supported agriculture groups are all good sources of locally grown food. To really connect to the land, consider planting your own garden, perhaps starting with easy-to-grow herbs, such as basil, oregano and rosemary — all of which can even be grown indoors.


Since so much petroleum goes into industrial fertilizers and pesticides, consider buying organic fruits and vegetables. Seek out farms that use closed-loop farming systems that account for all energy inputs and outputs, attempting to imitate natural ecosystem processes.


Avoid processed foods as often as possible, because processing requires more energy. Processed foods also tend not to be nearly as nutritionally efficient as whole and unprocessed products, and use far more packaging, which in turn requires energy to both manufacture and to handle the resulting waste.


Reuse packaging whenever possible. Simply put, it is more energy efficient to wash a glass jar and reuse it than it is to manufacture a new one. In increasing order by the amount of energy need to produce each material, choose glass, then steel, aluminum, paper, and finally plastics. Plastics are the most energy intensive to produce because they, like fertilizers and pesticides, are made out of oil.


Don’t just stand there with the refrigerator door open; choose what you want before you open the door. Order smaller portions, put on your plate only what you can finish, and preserve and reuse leftovers. And the importance of cutting back on meat cannot be overstated. As much as consumers may love it, meat is the least fuel-efficient food we have. Large quantities of energy are required to cultivate, harvest and ship animal feed, and large quantities of energy are required to house, transport and slaughter animals, process and package meat, and refrigerate it until it’s cooked. Just consider the impact: If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it's like taking your car off the road for five weeks. More broadly speaking, if everyone in the country ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles — or taking 7.6 million cars off the road, according to the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. Follow in the footsteps of Oprah and embrace Meatless Mondays — a once-weekly day without meat.


In terms of climate impact, the four worst meats to eat, according to the Environmental Working Group, are lamb, beef, pork and farmed salmon.


Consider Jonathan Safran-Foer’s argument in his book, Eating Animals: It’s true that we have certain traditions, but these traditions have changed before, and can change again. Reflect on whether it’s worth hurting the environment, your health and other living creatures, not to mention perpetuating an unequal system of consumption between haves and have-nots.


We’re no longer preteens at summer camp starting to learn important values for our lifetimes; it’s now imperative for us to think about the kind of world we want to leave for the next generation. Is it one in which they can breathe, drink and eat securely? If so, then we need to buy and eat conscientiously. Start today.



Manuela Zoninsein is an environmental journalist based in Beijing.

This piece is part of the Jewish Energy Guide, published in partnership with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.




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