Energy Producers of the Future

The dietary preferences of populations play an important role in the energy efficiency of food systems. Several times per day we decide whether or not we will eat something nourishing to our bodies, but there are always so many factors that can play into that decision: cost of food, time available for preparation, one’s mood, and present company just to name a few. Perhaps not so surprisingly, yet again, that which is good for us is also better for the planet. When we choose whole foods instead of processed foods like candy bars, fast food, and anything that comes in a box or bag, we make a healthier choice for our body and also choose a product with a smaller carbon footprint. Processed foods require more fossil fuel energy to produce, process, and transport than whole locally-grown foods, and they also create non-recyclable or compostable waste such as plastic wrappers (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468).

Unfortunately, currently the food system in the United States is powered “almost entirely by non-renewable energy sources,” and only two percent of the population works to produce energy in the form of food (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468; Fridley 2012, 75). Contrast that figure to the year 1870 in which seventy percent of the population were farmers (Fridley 2012, 75). The recent trend is bent toward more people living in cities, globalization, and demographic changes which lead to fewer people living as energy producers and more people consuming energy at a faster rate (Pelletier et al. 2011). On average through our food system, Americans burn through 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents, nineteen percent of America’s total energy use (Pimentel et al. 2008, 459). In order to create thriving local food systems, we need to train and recruit at least forty-five million more farmers (Ackerman-Leist 2013). Among many school garden initiatives and farm to school activities which encourage students to steward the land and grow up food literate, the USDA (2015) also launched its beginning farmer programs to help support new farmers. The National Young Farmers Coalition is working to support young farmers in overcoming the barriers to entry into farming such as land acquisition and student loan forgiveness (National Young Farmers Coalition 2015). It is my hope that these cross-disciplinary collaborative efforts will help Americans to become the energy producers of the future.

Eating less processed food, more fruits and vegetables instead of animal products, and locally produced foods all help to reduce energy inefficiency in our diets (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468). When we choose local, that economic impact has a ripple effect in our community by staying many times longer in local hands. “Whenever possible, taking advantage of locally grown foods and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs will conserve energy” (Pimentel et al. 2008,468). We can support the budding farmers (energy producers) in our area by being regular customers for fresher produce. Not only is this food healthier for our body and healthier for the planet; it’s healthier for our body because it’s healthier for the planet. Healthy food comes from healthy food systems. You don’t need to read a label to know it is nourishing.

References:

Ackerman-Leist, Philip. 2013. Rebuilding the Foodshed. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Fridley, David. 2012. “Alternative Energy Challenges.” In The Energy Reader Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, 69-76. Sausalito: The Foundation for Deep Ecology.

National  Young Farmers Coalition. 2015. “Our Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles.” Accessed December 13. http://www.youngfarmers.org/about/our-work/.

Pelletier, Nathan, Eric Audsley, Sonja Brodt, Tara Garnett, Patrik Henriksson, Alissa Kendall, Klaas Jan Kramer, David Murphy, Thomas Nemecek, and Max Troell. 2011. “Energy Intensity of Agriculture and Food Systems.” Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2011. 36:223–46.

Pimentel, David, Sean Williamson, Courtney E. Alexander, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Caitlin Kontak. Steven E. Mulkey. 2008. “Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System.” Hum Ecol 36:459–471.

USDA. 2015. “New Farmers.” Accessed December 13. https://newfarmers.usda.gov/.

You Can Affect Change, if You Reach

While all sectors of the US food system are in need of energy use improvement, there is one sector, the household level, that has a unique power. There are several reasons for this strategic angle. According to Canning et al. (2010, 20) households are consistently the number one energy user in the food system. Households consumed twice as much energy as the agriculture and the wholesale/retail sectors and about eight times as much energy as the transportation and the packaging sectors in 2002 (Canning et al. 2010). Successful education geared toward household level energy consumption would probe residents to reduce their household’s consumption in a variety of ways: reviving the old fashioned ways via human labor or purchasing smaller and/or energy star appliances if new ones are needed, switching to more renewable products, and practicing energy saving techniques (like using proper fridge temperatures and reducing food waste) are just a few examples.

Demand could also spur change in people’s interest in finding out more about the products they touch in their daily lives. Residents acting on this curiosity helps build a community’s value chain. Value chains “are strategic collaborations and business relationships between farms, processors, distributors, and retailers that operate on the basis of explicitly conveyed values – shared values that create a collaborative business opportunity and, ideally, customer allegiance” (Ackerman-Leist 2013, 190). However, people only maintain the power of the purse if they are not living in poverty and have food access and energy choices. So, targeting the household sector also should ensure that people have adequate affordable housing with which to leverage choices (Jon Thaxton pers.comm.). Per capita use of water drops by over half in apartments and condos compared to single family homes (Pierce Jones pers.comm.). These types of resource savings are yet another reason affordable community enhancing housing can affect value chain improvement.

Now, I am no proponent of the “CFL light bulb solution to climate change,” or so they say in reference to household level changes. Policy and industry have a major hand to play in systemic positive changes in our society. The bridge is this: citizens influence policy and industry… if we decide to. So, in order for a household targeted approach to be effective, it must go beyond the ways in which residents treat the area directly under their roofs. We must also take our place in the drivers seat by acting as catalysts toward greater change in our communities through activism, political engagement, improving access, and ultimately affect cultural change of acceptable standards for the types of products and practices available or not available to us. Let’s hope we see ones with stories.

After today’s Sustainable Communities Workshop in Sarasota County, I am, more than ever, thinking about the holistic change that needs to happen in order to reach a renewable energy, equitable, accessible, healthy food system. It exists in cultural change. It exists on all levels and in all sectors. It affects all types of people. Mainstream demand at the individual and household level for better food is vital… and I think it’s happening.

References:
Ackerman-Leist, Philip. 2013. Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Canning, Patrick, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, Karen R. Polenske, and Arnold Waters. 2010. “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Economic Research Report Number 94, March.

Jones, Pierce. 2015. “Built Environment.” Presented at the annual Sustainable Communities Workshop, Sarasota County, Florida, December 3.

Thaxton, Jon. 2015. “Planning for a Sustainable Future: A Local Perspective.” Presented at the annual Sustainable Communities Workshop, Sarasota County, Florida, December 3.