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The Energy Cost of Food

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At the grocery cooperative nearest my home I can buy kale from California, grapes from Argentina, olive oil from Italy, miso from Japan, and apples from New Zealand. I can enjoy a diet that's utterly dissociated from Vermont's Champlain Valley where I live, one that renders my local climate, the character of the local soil and geography, and even the passage of seasons irrelevant to my food choices. I can eat as if I lived in a tropical paradise where summer never ends, while living in a temperate paradise where summer lasts just a few short months.

As I walk out of my co-op I'm reminded of the source of this modern food miracle: a nearby service station sells gasoline for $3.67 per gallon, and diesel for 30 cents more. This is pricy compared to what these fuels cost a decade ago, but they still provide astonishingly cheap energy. And it's this cheap energy that powers the globalized, industrial food system that delivers food to my co-op from the four corners of the Earth, regardless of weather, regardless of the season.

Just how much energy does it take to fuel the US food system? A lot. It required just over 12 Calories of fuel to produce one Calorie of food in 2002, once waste and spoilage were accounted for.1 Of these, 1.6 fuel Calories were used in the agricultural sector, while 2.7 were used to process and package food. Distribution, which includes transportation, wholesale and retail outlets, and food service operations such as restaurants and catering services, used another 4.3 fuel Calories. Finally, food-related household energy use added another 3.4 Calories to the tab. This figure has been on an upward trend; it took just over 14 fuel Calories to deliver a Calorie of consumed food in 2007, and if we extrapolate this trend the US food system requires about 15 Calories of fuel to deliver a Calorie of consumed food in 2013.  


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