Sustainable agriculture is a good thing to think about when facing the possibility of peak oil, dwindling healthy soil, and the (hopeful) declining use of pesticides, herbicides and all the other -cides in commercial farming.
The consumer trend is up: people all over the country and other parts of the world are utilizing more local options for accessing quality, organic food at farmer’s markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares and choosing local / organic produce from box stores when possible. In fact, the USDA reports that the utilization of Farmer’s Markets alone has had a steady incline since 1994, with a 16% jump from 2009 to 2010 and almost a 250% increase since 1994.
One might conclude that by the increased use of Farmer’s Markets alone would decrease the overall energy cost of the food-related energy use in the United States, but somehow, food-related energy use had actually increased during the dramatic rise of Farmer’s Market expansion. A study performed by the USDA to figure out how much energy we spend in food production from farm to table includes the following data:
A projection of food-related energy use based on 2007 total U.S. energy consumption and food expenditure data and the benchmark 2002 input-output accounts suggests that food-related energy use as a share of the national energy budget grew from 14.4 percent in 2002 to an estimated 15.7 percent in 2007. Although energy prices were high and volatile over the 2002-07 period, households and the foodservice industry continued to outsource food preparation through the purchase of prepared foods with high energy-use requirements.
Only one quarter of the increased energy use in the food system is due to population growth. Another quarter of the increase is due to increased food spending per person. Fully half of the increase was due to adopting more energy intensive technologies in the food system.
At a time when one might expect that Americans would adopt more energy efficient technologies, we did the opposite. We continued to move from labor intensive to energy intensive methods throughout food production and manufacture. A fascinating accompanying article (.pdf) in the USDA magazine Amber Waves gives the example of adopting high-technology energy-intensive hen houses in the egg industry, increasing energy use per egg by 40%.
The true cost of food is one of all things considered. So the next time we reach for the out-of-season or in-the-box produce, it’s a good time to think about all the energy that was harvested to bring it to us in the first place and how that factors into sustainable agriculture.