Our local food system explained, Part 1
Research assistance from Seth Nickinson
October is Eat Local Month in Santa Barbara, and as part of this month of increased awareness of our local food system, CEC has been talking with the top local food experts in the area. This is the first of two blog posts that will explore the Santa Barbara food system, the system's biggest energy impacts, and simple steps you can take to reduce your food footprint.
Our local food system can be simplified into six components seen in the graphic above.1 The food system in the U.S. accounts for around 15% of national energy consumption, so this system must be addressed as a part of our long-term energy strategy.2 Each part of the system has significant energy impacts -- from fertilizing the soil to growing crops, from refrigerating and cooking food to disposing of food scraps. Some of these impacts can be reduced with simple lifestyle choices, and some require larger scale systemic and regulatory changes.
Growing and Harvesting
20% of energy used in the food system
Growing and harvesting is often perceived as one of the largest energy users in the food system, but in actuality, this stage uses about 20% of the total. The energy used in this area powers farm equipment and facilities, produces synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, irrigates crops and dries grains.
Despite only accounting for only 20% of the energy use,, agriculture and ranching emit 83% of food system greenhouse gases. This is primarily because of the climate-changing power of nitrogen (from those fertilizers) and methane (from cows and other livestock).
Make an impact: Buy organic.
Consumers can have some influence on this section of the food system by buying organic. Organic farming does not use synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, and consumes less energy than conventional farming methods. A study comparing conventionally grown crops with organically grown crops showed that organic corn required 31% less fossil fuel inputs than conventional corn, and organic soybeans used 17% less fossil fuel inputs than conventional soybeans.3
Processing and Packing
23% of energy used in the food system
Much of the food we eat is processed at a factory, and virtually all of it is packaged in some form before it reaches consumers. Anything you can buy in a can, jar, packet, or bottle is processed in one way or another. Americans continue to eat more and more processed food each year: the amount of energy used to process food in the U.S. has been increasing by an average of 8.3% per year since 1997.
Make an impact: Buy whole, minimally processed foods.
Buying whole, minimally processed foods shrinks your food footprint, as pre-consumer food processing requires 16% of the energy in the food system. For example, an apple pulled straight from a tree requires significantly less processing and packaging than pre-sliced apple slices commonly found in grocery store produce departments.
15% of energy used in the food system
Transportation of food from the farm, to the factory (in many cases), to the store, to your home consumes 16% of the energy in the food system. Santa Barbara County is in the top 1% of agricultural counties in the US, and yet 95% of the food we eat in Santa Barbara is imported. Local growers produce plenty of food to feed Santa Barbara County residents, yet we still import much of our food, often from thousands of miles away.
Make an impact: Buy local food.
Choosing local food is a good way to maintain a small food footprint. Eating locally reduces "food miles," the distance your food travels to reach your plate, and cuts down on energy use. With so much food available in Santa Barbara, eating a low-impact diet is easy. Join our Eat Local Month Facebook group for tips and tricks on eating locally.
Next time, we'll explore the parts of the food system that occur after you purchase food and take it home to eat a meal. Read Part 2 →
1Graphic adapted from the original at: http://www.nourishlife.org/teach/food-system-tools/
2Canning, P., Ainsley C., Sonya H., et. al. (2010). Energy Use in the U.S. Food System, ERR-94, U.S. Dept. of Agri., Econ. Res. Serv.
3Pimentel, D., Hepperly, P., Hanson, J. (2005). Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems. BioScience, 55(7), 573-582.
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