According to a new study of food waste in the U.S., it takes the equivalent of 1.4 billion barrels of oil to produce get a year’s worth of food to the market, but about 350 million barrels of that goes down the drain in the form of wasted food. The study, reported by The American Chemical Society, is noteworthy not only for what it includes about food-related energy, but also for what it leaves out.
Save Food, Save Energy
Food production consumes a big chunk of energy in the U.S., ranging from 8 percent to almost 16 percent according to some estimates, so achieving even a modest percentage of energy conservation in this sector could yield significant results. Actually, there is a lot of room for improvement, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that about 27% of food is wasted in the U.S. The authors of the study picked apart the data to calculate the figure of 350 million barrels, which translates into about 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption. That might not sound like much but it’s on par with, or better than, other important energy conservation measures.
Food and Energy
The researchers based their calculations on energy consumption in agriculture, transportation, processing, food sales, storage, and preparation. Interestingly, by relying on the Department of Agriculture’s figure of 27% waste, the analysis errs on the side of caution. That figure basically includes only food that makes it to the market. It leaves out food that is wasted while still on farms, fisheries, and processing plants. In addition, although the estimate is fairly recent some of the data is at least 30 years old, and based on rising production and consumption the researchers note that they expect the embedded energy in food to have increased since then.
Save Food, Save Energy
Cutting down on food waste is just one way to conserve food-related energy. Reclaiming energy from food waste is another way. For example San Francisco is converting food waste into biogas by sending it to a biogas facility at a sewage treatment plant, instead of sending it to a landfill. Researchers are also looking at ways to convert recovered waste grease from sewage treatment plants into biofuel, and then of course there’s always the potential for converting more food waste into compost.
Agriculture and Food Waste
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, water use has actually declined slightly in the past 25 years, even though the population has increased by 30%, mainly thanks to water recycling in power plants and agricultural water conservation. That could serve as an indicator of the potential for a significant reduction in farm food waste, either as compost or biogas. It’s already starting to happen: farmers are beginning to install biogas equipment (and take in food waste from nearby communities, too), and researchers are beginning to look at orange peels and other food waste as a biofuel feedstock.
The name of the study, by the way, is “Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: Embedded Energy in Food Waste in the United States.”
Image: Food by 46137 on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.