Last night, I attended Michael Pollan‘s lecture at UT’s Bass Concert Hall. My friend, Katie, had called me that morning to ask if I would be interested in joining her for the lecture – she knew that I had read three of Pollan’s books on food and had also found out that there were $10 student tickets to be had for the lecture. Long story short, at 740pm I found myself zipping down Guadalupe with Katie for my first Bass Concert Hall event in my tenure at UT.
Pollan’s lecture was interesting, engaging and funny. This was not surprising to me, after having read his books. The bags of groceries that he brought from the Fiesta across I-35 brought in the usual laughs (“Venom” who knew it was a drink??) and groans (Twinkies… ahh, the infamous Twinkie). But, of all the things that he said last night about “food-like substances” and the problems with the Western diet, the thing that stuck in my head was the following….
10 calories in, 1 calorie out
According to Pollan, for every calorie of food that is produced in the United States, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are put into the system to grow that food. By no means a break-even system.
I was chewing on this factoid as we left the lecture last night – just after Q&A started so we could miss the mad rush for the book signing line – musing through how our agriculture industry works today. We grow food – corn, wheat, sugar – and, while some of it ends up on our tables in their whole form, the majority of this food is sent to a plant for processing into what Pollan likes to call “food-like substances.”
For the purpose of this post, I won’t get into what is and is not food – but I would like to discuss the concept of putting more energy into our food than we are getting out of it.
10 calories in…. 1 calorie out…
To get food to my table, I will (on average) spend 10 calories for every 1 calorie that I consume. And, if I am like the rest of the US, my household will throw away 1.5 pounds of food each day – and all of the energy that it took to grow that good. Today, the food that Americans throw away uses approximately 2% of the energy we use in this country. That’s enough energy to power two Switzerlands.
And, this food is more likely to be sweet, fatty, and well… more than it was a few decades ago. More calories, more food. In the United States, our eating habits have changed significantly in the last few decades and while there have been some decreases in the consumption of certain types of food, the overall trend is MORE. More protein, more sugar. More.
As a result, we are spending more energy on our food – and our returns are pretty small (10 calories in… 1 calorie out).
Doesn’t sound very sustainable to me. How can we change this?
According to Pollan, we can save ourselves a lot of diabetes and heart disease if we eat more whole foods, more local foods. I wonder how much energy we could save by doing this.
On the 8th, I mentioned research done by Dr. Michael Webber and former Webber Energy Group member Amanda Cuellar on the energy we waste when we waste food. This work is now featured on the UT Austin main website in the article titled “Eat Your Leftovers: How America’s Wasted Food Could Power Switzerland for a Year.”
If you find some time this afternoon, I would recommend checking out this article on UT’s website – found here. It is a very nice summary of the research and its potential implications.
In the United States, about 10% of the energy we consume is used for food production. Each year, we throw away about 27% of the food we produce. On the surface, this means that the energy that we throw away in food each year is the equivalent of the electricity (kWh’s) used in 24.4 million homes – and this value doesn’t include the energy we spend to move food around and preserve it until we are ready to eat.
One month ago today, in the 10/8/10 installment of Science Friday, Michael Webber (my advisor at the University of Texas) was interviewed about an article he wrote with Sheril Kirshenbaum for New Scientist about the energy we throw away with our food waste. This article discussed how enormous energy savings could be realized if we could reduce the amount of food that we throw away each year in the United States. A short excerpt from the article:
IT IS no secret that meeting the world’s growing energy demands will be difficult. So far, most of the focus has been on finding oil in areas that are ever more difficult to access – think BP’s Deepwater Horizon well – bringing new fossil fuels such as tar sands online and increasing energy efficiency.
Yet we have been overlooking an easier way. We could save an enormous amount of energy by tackling the huge problem of food waste. Doing so is likely to be quicker than many of the other options on the table, while also saving money and reducing emissions.
The energy footprint of food is enormous. Consider the US, where just 5 per cent of the global population consumes one-fifth of the world’s energy. Around 15 per cent of the energy used in the US is swallowed up by food production and distribution.
This article, and last month’s Science Friday interview with Dr. Webber, stem from work previously done with Amanda Cuellar – a former Webber Energy Group member who is now studying at MIT. Their work at the nexus of food and energy estimates the amount of energy that is wasted when we throw away food if we include not just the energy invested in food production, but also transportation and preservation. They found that, we throw away closer 2,030 trillion Btu’s of energy each year in food waste – or the equivalent of the electricity used in almost 50 million U.S. homes each year. Their findings were published by Environmental Science and Technology on July 21, 2010 in a paper titled “Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: The Embedded Energy in Food Waste in the United States” which is available here.