What is in this article?:
- Fuel for food โ energy use in the U.S. food system
- Food processors showed largest increase
- Future trends hard to predict
- In 2007, the U.S. food system accounted for almost 16 percent of the nation’s energy budget.
- Between 1997 and 2002, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.
- Population growth, higher per capita food expenditures, and greater reliance on energy-using technologies boosted food-related energy consumption.
Food processors showed largest increase
Although households used the most food-related energy, food processing had the largest growth in energy use between 1997 and 2002. Both households and foodservice establishments increasingly outsourced manual food preparation and cleanup to manufacturers. In 2002, food processors used 2.67 qBtu of energy, up from 1.79 qBtu in 1997.
Since the late 1990s, consumers have demanded more convenience foods that involve more processing and preparation services by a processor, services that would otherwise be done by households. “Single serving” and “quick” have ranked among the top 10 claims on new packaged food products since 2001.
Foodservice establishments also are looking for convenience and are purchasing ready-to-heat soups, entrees, and other foods that require more processing services by manufacturers. The number of food preparation jobs in the foodservice industry declined by about 16,000 between 1996 and 2000.
To accommodate the foodservice industry’s growing demand for processing services, the food manufacturing industry added only 4,800 new food preparation jobs but substantially increased energy consumption. Between 1997 and 2002, food processors’ energy use (direct and embodied) grew 49 percent, a larger increase than any other segment of the food system. This increase amounted to 2.7 million Btu per person, or roughly the heat energy equivalent of an additional 24 gallons of gasoline per person annually. As a result, the food processing industry surpassed the wholesale/retail industry, moving into second place behind households as the largest user of energy in the food system.
Big energy jump: foodservice establishments
Although the foodservice industry outsourced much of its food preparation services between 1997 and 2002, industry energy use increased 47 percent—the heat energy equivalent of roughly 16 gallons of gasoline per person. The proliferation of coffee shops and eating places—with buildings to construct or renovate, equipment to manufacture, new kitchens to run, and buildings to light, heat, and cool—has added to energy use by the food system. In 2002, 479,000 food and beverage service establishments operated in the United States, up 7 percent from 1997. By 2008, this number increased to 546,000.
At other points along the U.S. food supply chain, changes in energy use were more moderate. The share of total food-related direct and embodied energy use by agriculture rose to 14.4 percent in 2002, up slightly from 14.0 percent in 1997. Agriculture ranked fourth among the seven food system industry groups in increased food-related energy use over the 5-year period.
Packaging and freight services are energy intensive but still use considerably less energy than other food system industries. Energy use by packaging and freight service firms over the 5 years increased 22 and 24 percent, respectively. The trend toward fewer and larger farms and processing plants led to greater use of freight services and substantial increases in the average distance per domestic shipment of all foods between 1997 and 2002. Longer average shipping distances translate to more transportation fuel per unit of food.
In contrast to all the other food-related industries, energy use by wholesalers and retailers declined over the period. Foodservice industry growth may have cut into the demand for retail services. At the same time, rapid consolidation of grocery store chains in 1997-2002, resulting in fewer stores with larger square footage of retail space, coupled with more energy-efficient lighting, heating, and cooling equipment, also may have contributed to declining energy use by food retailers.