Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


October 18, 2005

Extra Virgin Valvoline: Energy Cost of Food

Category: Big Things,Conservation,Organic & Local Food,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 7:33 pm

When I added up the direct cost of my family’s annual energy expenditures I found that only a small percentage of our total annual expenditure goes to things we think of as using energy: heat, hot water, lighting, gasoline and so on (around $4,600, least year). But when I added up things we eat, the number was greater than four times more (About $20,000, last year). This is well correlated with my increasing waistline.

Where does all that food come from — how did it get made? I don’t have a plot out back; much of it came from America’s incredible farming and food production businesses. And guess what, that business uses a lot of energy to get me that food. There’s a great article to read called Eating Fossil Fuels, which goes into great detail. Here’s a quote from this report:

In the United States, 400 gallons of oil equivalents are expended annually to feed each American (as of data provided in 1994). Agricultural energy consumption is broken down as follows:

  • 31% for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer
  • 19% for the operation of field machinery
  • 16% for transportation
  • 13% for irrigation
  • 08% for raising livestock (not including livestock feed)
  • 05% for crop drying
  • 05% for pesticide production
  • 08% miscellaneous

Energy costs for packaging, refrigeration, transportation to retail outlets, and household cooking are not considered in these figures.

I have to say that I am pretty shocked by this data, and perhaps I should make a garden for next year. But my goal on this site is not to raise alarms: many people are doing this. Instead, my goal is to find a way to reduce my family’s dependence on oil by 5%. Two figures leap out at me from these numbers:

  1. 400 gallons per person! Let’s be generous and say my wife and I are average consumers and our 8 year old boy and 4 year old girl together count as a third person (in several years, the boy will be counting as two, but that’s another matter). 1200 gallons for us, and again, generously $2.50 per gallon is about $3,000/year of energy cost
  2. About one third of this energy cost is from inorganic fertilizer and pesticides. So, 1/3 of $3,000 is about $1,000/year spent on fertilizer and pesticides.

So here’s an opportunity: organic food, which I had only ever really thought was for “earthy crunchy granolans” doesn’t use inorganic fertilizers or pesticides. I am not sure the math here works out quite as cleanly as all that, but we could certainly start shifting our consumption towards organic food.

Another opportunity, which I’ll look into more deeply at some point is the disproportionate energy cost of meat compared to all other foods. I’ll have to check some of the numbers I have seen, which seem a little suspect, but they suggest that about 70% of our agriculture resources go towards the production of meat.

So two thing to do: buy organic foods (even naturally raised meats), and reduce overall consumption of meat. This may end up costing us more; natural foods are more expensive. But I think the incremental cost will be small.

1 Comment

  1. […] to climate change than packaging. True and very, very important; I have been writing about the energy cost of food for a […]

    Pingback by Relative Energy Cost of Food vs. Food Bags | Five Percent: Conserve a Little Energy — November 4, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

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