(This is the first article in a series by Cole Gustafson on agriculture energy efficiency. For part two, please see: Lifecycle analysis emerging as agriculture energy standard.)
With gasoline prices trending to $4 per gallon, consumers nationwide are again becoming more energy conscious. Not only are they concerned about what mileage their vehicles get, but consumers increasingly wonder how much energy it takes to produce and deliver goods they purchase at retail stores.
In response to these customer queries, retail stores are developing educational programs and new product labeling to provide this information. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, is one of the leaders in developing this program. In September 2009, Wal-Mart announced that it will begin requiring all of its suppliers to document the energy consumption and carbon footprint of products it buys.
Since Wal-Mart ranks among the largest food retailers, there likely will be ramifications of its decision throughout the U.S. food supply chain and agriculture. Suppliers will begin to request more detailed information from food manufacturers who, in turn, will begin asking agricultural processing firms and producers to provide an accounting of their energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Information on farm and ranch energy consumption and carbon emissions are related topics. While consumers are concerned about all the energy consumed, they are especially interested in the use of fossil energy. Using fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide and other gases that are classified as greenhouse gas emissions and linked to climate change.
I am working with two North Dakota agricultural commodity organizations that are proactively responding to the signals Wal-Mart and consumers, in general, are sending to farmers and ranchers. In particular, they are striving to document how much energy is utilized in farm and ranch production activities.
If consumers are sincerely committed to changing their buying habits and purchasing low-fossil energy or low-carbon agricultural products, these two agricultural commodity groups see a marketing opportunity to sell premium products in the marketplace. In turn, this would enhance profits to participating farmers.
Europe is farther along in consumer awareness, marketing of new low-fossil energy agricultural products and documenting on-farm or ranch energy consumption. Energy prices have been historically higher in Europe compared with U.S. markets, which has motivated change.
How do agricultural producers begin to measure how much fossil energy is consumed or carbon is released during commodity production activities? While I was a student, I asked producers to measure each gallon of fuel going in their tractors or read their power meter hourly. Today, we have lifecycle analysis.
Lifecycle analysis is a new integrated tool that energy scientists have adopted worldwide as the standard method for making energy and carbon assessments. A unique aspect of the analysis is that it evaluates all of the energy entering the process and tracks where it ends up (air, soil, water or human products) at each process stage.