There's A Lot Of Energy Behind Agriculture (And That Thanksgiving Feast)
Have you ever stopped to wonder about the everyday energy that goes into the food you buy at the grocery store? Or maybe even behind a Thanksgiving feast? Behind that turkey leg you're dreaming about right now?
"Food is energy, it's just converted into a different form," Bright Agrotech CEO Nate Storey points out. "I mean when we eat a salad, we are consuming diesel and we're consuming electricity and we're consuming nuclear energy. It's an energy industry."
Up to a fifth of the nation's total energy use goes into growing, transporting, processing and eventually preparing our food. Often, the energy inputs behind agriculture are hidden.
There are few places where the connection between energy and food is more obvious than at the Bright Agrotech warehouse in Laramie, Wyoming. A vertical farming company that manufactures towers for high-density urban farming, you'll find a small farm in one corner of their warehouse. The hum of electricity is palpable as rows and rows of greens and herbs grow in white vertical towers under dozens of bright LEDs.
"We're always thinking about energy, because it costs us money," Storey explained.
Conventional farmers also pay for energy — for fuel to run their tractors, electricity for irrigation and fertilizers made from natural gas. Here in this brightly-lit warehouse, the energy inputs are more quantifiable: electricity comes in, food goes out. In Bright Agrotech's case, the kale and microgreens and edible flowers are a direct product of coal, which supplies most of Wyoming's electricity.
Burning coal to grow food isn't as green as Storey would like it to be. He points out fossil fuels are hidden throughout the food supply chain, from the trucks that carry produce thousands of miles across the country, to the plastic packaging and refrigerated coolers in the grocery store.
"We've got this incredibly huge industrial complex surrounding the production of the things that we eat," Storey said.
An infrastructure that is huge and growing. One of the few studies to look at all the energy inputs into the U.S. food system shows that between 1997 and 2002, food-related energy consumption grew six times faster than overall energy consumption. But it wasn't new vertical farms like Storey's that drove most of that change — instead, it was the often-forgotten steps in between a grower and one's dinner plate, like food processing, as report author and U.S. Department of Agriculture economist Pat Canning explained.
"Instead of, for example, buying a head of lettuce, taking it home, cleaning it, cutting it, you're paying a processor to cut it, to clean it, to bag it and then all you have to do it open it, put it in a bowl and eat it," said Canning.
The biggest energy consumer of all is also the most hidden (and one where we spend a lot of time during Thanksgiving). Our own kitchens.
"Really each home kitchen is a small restaurant, with a very specific clientele," Canning said.
Estimates vary, but approximately one-third of all the energy used to produce food is consumed in our homes — by the hundreds of millions of stoves, ovens, dishwashers, microwaves, blenders and extra freezers.
In effect, in our modern food chain we've replaced human labor with energy-hungry machines. That's just something to chew on as you have a second helping of mashed potatoes or another slice of pie.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.