Beyond Food Miles

This is a guest post by Michael Bomford, a research scientist and extension specialist at Kentucky State University, an adjunct faculty member in the University of Kentucky Department of Horticulture, and a Fellow of Post Carbon Institute. This article was originally published on the Post Carbon Institute website.

"There is nothing as deceptive as an obvious fact." -Sherlock Holmes

A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.”[1] What better diet could there be for an energy constrained world? After all, feeding Americans accounts for about 15% of US energy use,[2] and the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork.[3] It seems obvious that eating locally will go a long way to reducing food system energy use.

Yet cracking the case of America’s energy-intensive food system demands that we look beyond the obvious. A local diet can reduce energy use somewhat, but there are even more effective ways to tackle the problem. Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective.[4]

If you realize you’re spending too much money, the first thing to do is figure out where it’s going. Cutting back on pizza won’t make much difference if you’re spending most of your money on beer. Similarly, the first step in reducing food system energy use is to figure out where all the energy is going. That’s what a team of economists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did last year, in a report called Energy Use in the US Food System.

Where the energy goes: Energy used in the food system as a proportion of total energy used in the US in 2002.[5]

The report contains some surprises. Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie. Even farming isn’t a particularly big contributor. The big energy users turn out to be food processing, packaging, selling, and preparation. Our kitchens command the biggest slice of the pie, using twice as much energy as the farms that grew the food in the first place.

Dissecting that little transportation component of the system offers more surprises. The distance food travels between farm and fork has little impact on how much energy it takes to get there.

How food travels is far more important than how far it goes.[6] Big boats, like freighters and barges, can bring vast quantities of food thousands of miles using less energy per ton than a small truck or car uses to transport smaller amounts of food a few miles. Over land, freight trains are more energy efficient than big trucks, which are more efficient than small trucks. Worst of all are airplanes, which use a disproportionately large amount of fuel for takeoff and landing. In almost every case, flying food uses more fuel than other means of transport, regardless of the distance it travels. Fortunately, air freight still accounts for less than 1% of US food transport.[7]

Since the distance food travels has little impact on total food system energy use, obsessing over ‘food miles’ probably isn’t helpful when we're looking for ways to reduce energy consumption. When food is purchased from major grocery or fast food chain, the distance to the farm where it grew is probably just a small fraction of the distance it has traveled overall. For every mile between farm and plate, an average food item travels more than three additional miles[8]—but some travel much more and others much less. This means “place of origin” labels give consumers little clue as to how far food has actually come before purchase.

The USDA’s report offers some insight into what kinds of food are made with all the energy going into the system. More than half of that energy it is used for highly processed and packaged ‘junk food,’ like chips, doughnuts, soda pop, and beer. About a third is used for animal products, like meat, eggs, and dairy. A measly sixth goes to the grains, fruits, and vegetables that are the foundation of a balanced diet. In other words, the relative energy we invest in each food group reflects the opposite of how we should be eating. Eating well doesn’t necessarily require a lot of energy; eating badly does.

Inverted food pyramid: Daily per capita energy input to the US food system exceeds 17,000 Calories before food reaches the home.[9] This is more than eight times the average Caloric requirement for a healthy diet.[10] Most of this energy is used to provide highly-processed, high-Calorie foods.

Buying from the local farmers’ market offers great opportunities to cut down on food system energy use, but it's not because the food there has traveled less than the food at the grocery store. [11] It's because the aisles of a typical grocery store are mostly filled with highly-processed and packaged food, while farmers markets offer mostly whole or minimally-processed foods. Grocery stores are artificially heated and lit, with plenty of electricity-hungry coolers, freezers, checkouts, and other conveniences. By contrast, farmers’ markets tend to be held in the open air, with few electric gadgets. The farmers’ market saves energy by carving it out of the processing, packaging, and retail segments of the food chain, which are much larger than the transportation segment. From this perspective, the backyard garden offers all of the advantages of a farmers’ market, and then some.

There are even some cases in which growing food locally requires more energy than importing it. For example, produce grown out-of-season in heated greenhouses usually takes far more energy than field-grown vegetables trucked or shipped from a region where they are in season. Growing produce under artificial light can demand even more energy than heating a greenhouse. Energy demands are the downfall of popular futuristic schemes of ‘vertical farms’ in urban skyscrapers.

Highly-processed and packaged foods simply require far more energy than whole foods, regardless of how far they travel. Choosing imported whole foods over local processed foods almost always reduces food system energy use.

The way that food is grown usually has a bigger impact on energy use than the distance it travels. The proportional impact of farming on food system energy use is substantial for whole foods, but trivial for highly processed foods. Since organic farmers reduce agricultural energy inputs by about a third by eschewing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, choosing organic over local can make sense for whole foods. It makes little difference for highly-processed foods, however. Organic soda pop is still soda pop: Far more energy goes into the aluminum can than was ever used to grow the corn for the corn syrup, organic or otherwise.

Daily per capita energy input to the US food system, by food group and production phase, excluding household energy use.[12]

Choosing local food is one way to reduce food system energy use; but even more effective ways include:

1. Choosing whole foods over processed foods;

2. Getting a small, energy-efficient refrigerator and getting rid of extra refrigerators;

3. Replacing animal products with grain and vegetable-based proteins;

4. Drinking tap water instead of processed beverages;

5. Choosing food that was grown in a region well-suited to the crop, using methods that build soil and rely primarily on sunshine for energy and rainfall for water.

By combining tactics we can eat well using much less energy than we currently do. An understanding of the food system helps put our various food choices in context. Following a single, hard-and-fast rule—even a seemingly-obvious one like “always eat local food”—can lead us astray.

Michael Bomford is a research scientist and extension specialist at Kentucky State University, an adjunct faculty member in the University of Kentucky Department of Horticulture, and a Fellow of Post Carbon Institute. His work focuses on organic and sustainable agriculture systems suitable for adoption by small farms operating with limited resources. His projects examine practical ways to reduce food system energy use and meet farm energy needs using renewable resources produced on-farm. Michael has a Master of Pest Management from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD in Plant and Soil Sciences from West Virginia University, where he conducted research on one of the nation's first land grant university farms operated entirely according to national organic standards.


[1] New Oxford American Dictionary.

[2] Patrick Canning, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, Karen R. Polenske, and Arnold Waters. Energy Use in the US Food System. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (ERR-94) 39 pp, March 2010.

[3] Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews. 2008. Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States Environmental Science and Technology 42: 3508-3513.

[4] This article is concerned strictly with energy. Other reasons to favor local food include supporting local economies and building local food security.

[5] Graph by Michael Bomford, based on data in Canning et al, 2010, Figure 7, p. 20.

[6] Weber and Matthews, 2008, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Graph by Michael Bomford, based on data in Canning et al, 2010, Table 6, pp. 22-23. ‘Fruit & vegetable’ group presented here sums fruit, vegetable and processed produce categories from original. ‘Meat & eggs’ group sums beef, fish, poultry, pork, other meat, and egg categories. ‘Dairy’ group sums milk and dairy categories. ‘Beverage’ group sums alcohol and beverage categories. ‘Oils, sugars, snacks & baked goods’ group sums oil, sugar, baking, and snack and processed food categories. Pet food category and household energy use excluded. Units converted from BTU per year to Calories per day.

[10] Stacey Rosen, Shahla Shapouri, Kathryn Quanbeck, and Birgit Meade. Food Security Assessment, 2007. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (GFA-19) 55 pp, July 2008

[11] Steve Martinez, Michael Hand, Michelle Da Pra, Susan Pollack, Katherine Ralston, Travis Smith, Stephen Vogel, Shellye Clark, Luanne Lohr, Sarah Low, and Constance Newman. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (ERR-97), May 2010.

[12] Graph by Michael Bomford, based on data in Canning et al, 2010, Table 6, pp. 22-23. ‘Fruit & vegetable’ group presented here sums fruit, vegetable and processed produce categories from original. ‘Meat & eggs’ group sums beef, fish, poultry, pork, other meat, and egg categories. ‘Dairy’ group sums milk and dairy categories. ‘Beverage’ group sums alcohol and beverage categories. ‘Oils, sugars, snacks & baked goods’ group sums oil, sugar, baking, and snack and processed food categories. Units converted from BTU per year to Calories per day. 

Very interesting. So much for the food miles idea. I just hope this isn't used to denigrate the idea of locally grown.

I don't think it does away with the food miles idea at all. It just suggests (and this is only one study) that this is not the only criterion that we should use in eating conscientiously--as if we didn't know that already.

Really not much here, and the selection and presentation of data is clearly intended to spin the topic in a particular direction.

But big ag absolutely hates that anyone gives a moments thought to any of this, and as we have in the past, we will continue to see 'studies' like this that present their twist on the issue. The last 'study' I remember that was widely bruited about was a claim that a lamb raised in NZ and put on a very slow boat to the UK was more energy efficient than one grown in the UK. To me the obvious lesson there (assuming the study was accurate--very slow shipping can be very energy efficient), was to not eat much lamb if you live in the UK, and instead eat more things that can be grown efficiently at or closer to home. (But don't beat yourself up for the occasional leg 'o lamb from NZ, either.) But that report, like this, was presented in a way that implied that the whole foodmile concern was muddled thinking rubbish--a term better applied to these so called studies.

I just do find it odd that TOD considers it their duty to highlight this particular perspective.

I don't think it does away with the food miles idea at all.

Indeed, it does not, but focuses on how we can reduce the several other areas that are also energy drains. Heavily processed food, food that requires excess cooling (frozen foods), and foods that require a long time to cook (or require cooking at all).

So local foods can indeed be a much better way to reduce energy costs, as long as we don't simply dwell on solely one aspect.

Excellent article, kudos to TOD.

"So much for the food miles idea."

That's not a useful conclusion to this post. Your response exemplifies the challenge of talking about these multi-faceted topics, as I so often respond to the overgeneralizations around 'Renewable Energy Sources'. We keep trying to boil down conversations to broad-strokes, which to me harkens to a Silver-Bullet Mindset.

The article said:
"Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective."

That is like the claim that people who support Renewables think that this one facet alleviates the whole problem. I suppose SOME people do take those Tunnel-vision positions, but the fact that they are so deluded does not undermine the importance of the Tool that they advocate, or the work of the rest of us, who include these as important, but not singular components in a VERY complex set of evaluations.

Food Miles isn't just about 'energy spent per pound of food', that seems to be the way an economist might approach this problem, but it is also much more importantly about energy dependency of your food's routes, which is to say that the shipping companies, the fuel companies and the highway systems, the economics of mega farms to name a few items, all that compounded into the distance and thus the degree and sum of such vulnerable industries and companies and counties and borders upon which the umbilical of our sustenance must wend its way through.

Food, like our other basic necessities, have far too much been put onto this hyper-involved and financially and technologically driven conveyor system, which would put just terrifying numbers of us in clear danger if the wrong cog broke. The Local food movement IS multifaceted, and is very much looking at the big picture, including seeing that we have a robust and varied diet being produced close enough to each of our populations so that we have the resilience to continue functioning if there was some 'unexpected' disruption. Maybe the PR doesn't trumpet this point, but as we all know, you get called all sorts of awful names if you dare to suggest that our system should have some safety measures built nearby, in case this Marvelous Gadget should somehow break.

Don't forget that Travel and Travail have the same linguistic root.

And that root goes back to an ancient term for torture.

May just also add to your excellent points that the argument here is basically like that sometimes put forward in defense of flying. Since all flying only represents a small slice of the total energy used in the world, the point it made or implied that it's not big deal to hop on a plane and zoom around the world a few times.

But this is exactly like saying that since very little of total global pollution comes from burning chips from tires on a backyard grill, there is no harm in me carrying on this practice.

In other words, that claim and this study is a lie parading as research.

I might not go that far against the study itself, but as I outlined better below, I'm disappointed by the perpetual framing of this to put the 'initiative' on the defensive foot. Debunking has gone Berzerk.

I don't disapprove of having to show your math and challenge your assumptions, and that the upstarts always have a fight against them to lodge in where the incumbents are sitting.. but so often it has been misrepresented in the extreme.. and with the regular challenge that 'Since this doesn't save the most energy of all the routes we've looked at, that our attentions should only be on the big winners.

That strikes at the 'Silver Bullet' mentality that believes that the #1 and maybe #2 options are the only factors worth considering. We're not in that world any more, and we have to understand the complex contributions of issues like distant food travel its relationship to energy, to money, to infrastructure, to system balances and vulnerabilites.

I would go further and suggest that "food miles" is an analogue for a whole set of decisions about food.

For example, about half of my food comes from within 60 metres of my suburban kitchen. I would guess that, because we don't buy processed foods and because we eat vegetarian, our kitchen energy use is a bit higher than average, but in eating them we delete all of the processing, transport, marketing, handling and disposal costs associated with high-mile foods.

We make all our own breads, cakes and biscuits (from flour imported to the property) all our own soft drink (yes we have to buy the sugar in but we are about to shift to our own ginger and other sources for the beer, apple and lemon cordials) and we are increasingly making our own alcohols (cider, plum wine etc)

None of those foods is wholly free of imported resources, including energy, but their ability to cut energy consumption is much more than just cutting down on transport.

Because we use only raw ingredients, we also only go to the supermarket about once a fortnight because one of the most energy intensive tasks is the trip to the store.

Consider also that those who think, and act, on food miles, will probably also be undertaking other measures in the same way. Its a good point to make, but lets not imagine that any of this stuff, on either side of the thinking model, operates in isolation.

I find it interesting that of all the studies that have come out recently, TOD chooses this one to post on.

As has been pointed out frequently, just because you make a pie chart out of your data, it doesn't make that data valid or well interpreted.

The most valuable part of the article is the inverted pyramid. It shows that whether you eat them locally or not, grains and vegetables are the most energy efficient basis for a diet, and the healthiest as well. Meat and dairy, and, even more, oils and sugars, are the least energy efficient (again, no matter how far you ship them) and the least healthy. I do find it disappointing (though not surprising) that juice rates low on its shipping energy efficiency, as I love a glass of OJ in the AM '-)

But really, localization is not exclusively about energy efficiency. It is about freshness, health, local economy, resilience, relationships, community...

I do think that a greater emphasis should be placed on the amount of energy used in processing, and how cooking can be done in many cases with much less energy--using pressure cookers, pre-soaking grains and beans, and insulating pots with towels after bringing them to boil...(not to mention solar cookers...)

But since none of the latter is mentioned, this comes off as a snide smear and "locavores" implying that they are responsible for most of the energy use by cooking their own food at home.

Of course, if one grew and processed all their food with maximal efficiency in your garden and kitchen, 100% of the energy would be from home. But would that be preferable to shipping everything an average of 1500 miles?

The main point is, if there is no advantage to shipping something from afar, why do it? Or when the energy cost outweighs the benefit. Most analyses that I've seen estimate about 150 times more energy to grow and ship iceberg lettuce than the calories it provides. Shouldn't that make us think twice about buying it? If other items can be shown to ship much more efficiently, then that's good news. But in general, we should all be getting used to mostly eating things that can mostly be grown efficiently in our immediate area or at most our region. Basing the diet of an entire region mostly on foods that can only be grown hundred or thousands of miles away from that area seems absurd on the face of it, no matter what any particular study says about it.

"The main point is, if there is no advantage to shipping something from afar, why do it? Or when the energy cost outweighs the benefit. Most analyses that I've seen estimate about 150 times more energy to grow and ship iceberg lettuce than the calories it provides. Shouldn't that make us think twice about buying it?"

Perhaps it should, but the ratio of energy to make something and the calories you get from it is really not a good yardstick by itself. If I have a windmill pumping irrigation water into my field, adding the energy from the windmill to the food's total energy production would be misleading.

I find the negative reaction to this article (so far in the comments) bemusing. There's some great research here. If it turns out a mass of energy is being used in kitchens, shouldn't that interest us? It potentially means easy energy wins. On "if there is no advantage to shipping something from afar", the point was made that there can be advantages: the example of local, energy intensive greenhouses was a good one.

We still don't understand all the issues here: it's very complex. You seem unreasonably dismissive.

Also: what are other studies you mentioned? Would you be able to link to some of them?

"There's some great research here. If it turns out a mass of energy is being used in kitchens, shouldn't that interest us? It potentially means easy energy wins."

That is certainly what they seem to want you to take away. But no such conclusion can be drawn.

As I point out above, if %100 of the energy to grow and process food comes from your garden and kitchen, that does not show that it is more efficient use of energy than if you got all of you food from McDonalds.

This is clear from a moments thought, but these kinds of studies are designed to get you NOT to think, but just to absorb the implied message that mother industrial ag is the best and only thing that you should ever consider and all else is silly crunchy idiocy.

Industrial ag is about to crash and burn under the weight of PO, GW, peak fossil water, peak farmers, and a general stampede away from an insane food system that fails to deliver safe, tasty nourishment while destroying the landscape, rivers, wildlife and rapidly expanding swaths of the ocean.

Again, that TOD chooses to highlight such blatant propaganda speaks volumes about their 'new direction.'

"... just to absorb the implied message that mother industrial ag is the best and only thing that you should ever consider and all else is silly crunchy idiocy."

That wasn't at all the message I got. They argue that food processing is very energy intensive: that hardly suggests support for large-scale agri-systems, which are a tangled mass of processing networks (and still growing, cf. transport intensity in the food sector.) They also made a pretty strong case for farmer's markets. I can't see how you conclude that backs big ag...?

Out of interest, are you able to give evidence to refute the finding that most energy gets spent at home? If not, on what basis are you dismissing it?

Inasmuch as I'm being dismissive of the post as well, I'll drop in my two bits..

The post 'Beyond Food Miles' opens with a couple highlighted points for setting up the topic..

"There is nothing as deceptive as an obvious fact." -Sherlock Holmes

A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.”

The first highlights 'deception'.. the second defines an extreme example of this group.

I don't believe the author was intentionally calling the locavore movement deceptive, but it's simply become a very tiresome series of article that frames any of the efforts at grassroots or alternative solutions to our global resource problems in an extreme position, and then sets about 'Debunking' that extreme.

Renewable Energy got a series here not long ago, called 'The Fake Fire Brigade', making a very similarly pointed set of challenges, while putting all their nuances and exceptions deep in the article, if they existed at all, while the Fundamental Titling and Framing of the subject seems to get it's Spicy Headline with the familiar vehicle of 'Why XXX is a failure..' 'What the YYY Lobby doesn't want you to know!'

Yes, it is very useful to understand where we are using a lot of energy, and how we can reduce or consolidate our systems to clean that up.. but THAT should be the subject, and not more 'Debunking the Upstarts'

... It's just less 'convenient' to put the KICK ME sign on the big guys in school who are actually causing the bullying problem..

"I don't believe the author was intentionally calling the locavore movement deceptive"

I hope not, because that would cast doubt on your comprehension ability. The "obvious fact" is being called deceptive, not the movement.

Like Dan, I don't understand your attitude. The article's reasoning provides stronger support for farmers' markets and for local food -- provided it's not produced in energy-intensive ways -- than the food miles ex-fact. (It provides even more support for the "raw food" movement -- but we won't go there. ;-) )

So this post promotes redundancy and resilience in our food system, in ways that make sense to accountants. It's on your side, Bob.

But I have a big question there.

Did they include ALL processing energy inputs to work out energy cost of food type?

Seems to me that if you buy root veg and cereals the processing energy input to that point is low BUT you then have to process significantly at home (the lest efficient place) to get them into an edible form. That's together with wastage etc.

A processed meal can be nuked in the microwave, which is more efficient, and has less food waste (though more packaging waste).

So what's the all up cost, to the plate?

"home (the lest efficient place)"

Not necessarily.

"Again, that TOD chooses to highlight such blatant propaganda speaks volumes about their 'new direction.'"

Would just like to express my support to TOD in response to this rubbish. A very well reasoned article based on good solid analysis and backed up by plenty of hard data. Please keep the debate going and keep posting views from all sides for open debate.

"this rubbish"

Just give some critical thinking skills a try as you re-read the article. It may take a little more thinking than you're used to applying to text, but it is possible.

Just try not to swallow whatever is fed you hook, line AND sinker.

Dohboi it appears to me that you're just having an emotional reaction, and instinctively rejecting whatever contradicts your present view. You have called this study "propaganda", "slanted", "spin", "so-called studies", "lies", supported by big ag, etc. However, you haven't successfully disputed any of the content within the study, or shown where any of it was wrong. In fact you haven't even addressed the content. You've just rejected it out of hand using name-calling.

"Just give some critical thinking skills a try as you re-read the article."

Dohboi, what you're doing isn't critical thinking. In fact you really haven't criticized the content of the article at all. Instead, you've just rejected the new information. Just rejecting information isn't "critical thinking," but rather emotionally laden closed-mindedness.

"It may take a little more thinking than you're used to applying to text, but it is possible. Just try not to swallow whatever is fed you hook, line AND sinker."

Dohboi, that kind of comment is very childish. It reinforces my view that you're simply having an emotional reaction to something which contradicts your cherished notions, and you're responding by lashing out.


tom_p, I wasn't going to react, but if I had, I couldn't have put it any better.

So if a Jew protested about Nazi propaganda in Germany in the thirties, presumably you would accuse them of having an emotional reaction.

If you are uncomfortable with people who have understood something that eludes you, perhaps it is your own emotions that need to be examined. Better yet, read over jokuhl's and my posts, re-read the original post with an open mind to those criticisms, and see if we don't have a point--that is unless you have become too emotional to carry out this kind of sober, impartial analysis.


While I admire you as an idealist with your head and heart in the right place, I must take exception with some of your comments.

First off,as I see it, the general goal of this site is to examine energy related issues from all valid points of view, so that the members and visitors might become better informed, rather than to advocate any specific alternative lifestyles..

I have a certain amount of expertise in agricultural matters, and while I am not willing to vouch for the figures given in this aticle being "on the money" they are certainly in the ball park, and likely within the foul lines.

Personally I belive in local agriculture, and it would not bother me, if I were young again, to get out in the fields all day and raise huge amounts of food that would be consumed locally. As a matter of fact, I have very fond memories of doing just that growing up.

But the simple facts of the matter are that local ag is not what affluent consumers in general want;they want the supermarket experience, tons of variety all the time, in a one stop shopping experience.

Believe me, I live in an area where average incomes are low, but everybody has a car, and it is a very tough go making a farm market work, even with a great location, and fresh local produce at prices often substantially below supermarket prices.

About the only way you can make a go of it is to stock a substantial variety of stuff HAULED IN from many long miles away-otherwise when you are out of green beans from a local grower, you are OUT of green beans-and there are damned few places where the local variety of crops is adequate, and harvest extends over a long enough season , to run successfully on local stuff exclusively, even for four or five months out of the twelve.

I have shopped in, and visited farmers markets in lots of places. One of my favorites, years ago, used to be the one in Shockoe Bottom in Richmond;I took my female friends there on double dates as part of the experience of dating a country boy in the city.

While the girls were oohing and aahing over the famous Hanover tomatos, and all the supposedly local produce, my buddy , another country boy at VCU (his Dad delivered horse drawn wagon loads of his own sweet corn and green beans, grown on river bottoms where a tank farm sits today, right off I95, into the Manchester nieghorhood between the big wars) , would be talking shop with all the guys selling, and having a quiet laugh at the girls expense because most of of the trucks making June deliveries had Georgia , South Carolina, or Florida plates.

Small scale ag works for people who can cut out a bunch of middle men, if they can find customers willing to buy considerable quantities in season and preserve it.

My Momma used to sell hundreds of bushels of peaches every summer to local women who would get together , come get a carload, and can or freeze them. We sold as many more to local markets.The remainder went out on small trucks to guys who sold on street corners in nearby towns.

We sold ten thousand bushels of apples a year the same way, with only a small portion going on tractor trailers for points unknown.

Nowadays I find it very very hard to sell ten bushels of really prime tree ripened peaches for seventy five cents a pound at the exit to the parking lot of a factory with five hundred men and women working there, on payday. Thier usual idea is that peaches are something to be bought in maximum quantities of maybe four or five pounds-occasionally.The savings to be had dealing with me just don't matter, they are too busy.

Inferior shipped peaches at local chain supermarkets are generally fifty percent higher, at least.

We farm as a hobby and for our own use these days-when Daddy is gone, we will convert the orchards, except for a few trees for family use, to pasture and hay and raise a few cows-much less risky, much less work, and a far steadier market.

Now none of this is to say that trendy fresh food marketing in prosperous nieghborhoods doesn't sometimes work like a charm; the idea has caught the imagination of middle and upper middle class people with the money and the liesure time to make such shopping an enjoyable and trendy experience.

I hope farm markets and CSA groups continue to do well, where they have caught on.There is a hell of a lot to be said for them, which having been said well by others, does not need repeating.

As far as industrial ag crashing and burning is concerned-I an quite convinced that industrial civilization as we know it is at high risk of that very thing, but such a crash is not a foregone conclusion-at least not in the near to medium term, and perhaps not at all in such places as the USA.

It is concievable that we can transition to a coal and natural gas economy without going stone age, while we burn the last dregs of oil, and thereby gain enough time to make a further transition to an economy keyed to conservation, efficiency, and renewables.

But everybody can bet the rent money of this:industrial ag will be one of the very last bastions of bau;an authoritarin govt will put cops on scooters , if that is what it takes, to keep the farms running, and the delivery trucks rolling, although I do not doubt that many if not most highly processed convenience foods will disappear farm store shelves.

I used to think of myself as a conservative, as to me the term means someone who is a hard headed thinker.Nowadays, I refer to myself as a realist here in this forum.

Our current society has about the same chance as a snowball on a red hot stove of voluntarily switching over to small scale sustainable agriculture, barring a long extended wartime level emergency-one playing out over a couple of decades at least.

This is not to say that people such as you, Todd and Ghung are not wisely engaged in preparing to sail thier personal ships thru the coming storms; I myself am making substantial progress in implementing a survival plan for own my family.

It behooves all of us to think and act seriously and expeditiously in respect to our future food, water, shelter, medical care, and physical security.

But such initiatives aren't going to save us-any more than renewables are going to save us-not in the short to medium run.

Thanks for your thoughtful (as always) reply.

One point for now. RE your point, "local ag is not what affluent consumers in general want"

This may be true in your neck of the woods, but in much of the rest of the nation, this is a very fast growing segment--farmers markets are cropping up all over the place. My concern is that articles like this will discourage people of good will who bother to go to farms and to farmers markets rather than to the big chains. This article, and others like, frame the discussion in a way that is dismissive of people trying to do exactly the things you bemoan the passing of.

Your last point is very apropos. This article is exactly like articles that are all to frequent that basically say or imply that since renewables can't preserve BAU, they are essentially silly and useless.

I know of no one who thinks that either renewables or localization or anything else in isolation or together are going to save BAU. And I know of now one that plans to eat only local foods forever.

These are strawmen, and when they are used, they indicate either profound ignorance or an attempt to mislead people. This kind of presentation is too clever to be ignorant, so I have to conclude that it is intentionally deceptive.



You as usual have made some good points well;I didn't make my own quite so clearly.

When I used the term "affluent consumer" I meant the typical American with enough money to buy plenty of food at a supermarket, including lots of junk food, but not enough money and free time to go out of thier way to pay boutique prices in specialty markets.

I do realize that there are farmers markets where the customer can buy at least a portion of the goods available at less than typical supermarket rates.

I probably should have just used the term "typical consumer"; I have a global pov, and to me typical Americans are affluent.

Inso far my opinion in of renewables is concerned,I feel the same way about renewables that you do, for the most part.

I advocate a flatout build out to the extent that the money can be found.

Where we part ways is that I do not believe that we can under any forseeable circumstances make enough progress with renewables to prevent a major economic crash in the near to mid term; this is what I mean when I say that renewables are not going to save us.

Rather than attempting to mislead people, I am, according to my own estimation of the possibilities, trying to prevent people from becoming the victims of complacency in respect to believing renewables can come on fast enough to save our economy.

I do believe that at some time, several decades away at least, we will have a much smaller economy, supporting a much smaller population, based on mostly renewable energy.Some time after that, we will be depending almost entirely on renewables, but that time is probably at least a century or two away.

We will be using some fossil fuels for hundreds if not thousands of years into the future.

Most Americans won't change their ways until they are forced to do so by prices or circumstances beyond their control.

Lately, circumstances are starting to change. Today's 'USA Today' has a story describing how homeowners in New England are abandoning $4 per gallon oil heat for wood pellet stoves. Gasoline prices are bringing small cars and electric vehicles back to the foreground. Etc.

Our cultural food habits are deeply entrenched, patterned by decades of advertising, shopping convenience, hectic schedules and long work hours away from home. Aside from homesteaders and foodies, most of us simply don't have the time to do the attentive shopping and cooking that 'fresh and local' ingredients demand. Neither do most of us have the the time, place and company with which to best enjoy a home-cooked meal.

Ironically, it may be our emerging subculture of the chronically unemployed who are in the best position to spend their days at the farmer's market and in the kitchen. They've got plenty of time.

Amen farmermac. I own such a market on a great road, surrounded by 20 acres of truck garden, and I see all that you have outlined. I'd like
to believe it will someday be better than a hobby, but i'm certainly glad that I have other income, and I don't plan on walking away from that
anytime soon.

What is telling to me is when in the Fall, I try selling the "cool temperature vegetables", and there is little to no interest in "local", "organic",
"modestly, green raised" (the truck farm is solar powered, and uses stored rain water for irrigation), and the neighbor kid has a job, much better
to buy those vegetables trucked in for mexico!

I knew all this in advance, but I do find it entertaining.

What a wonderful comment from someone who has two feet planted squarely on the ground!

A couple of days ago, I attended an Ag forum sponsored by Boulder County in which six local farmers participated in a two hour Q&A session about some of the issues facing them. Two of the panel were organic "eat local" producers. Interestingly, even those who used the systems of more traditional industrialized methods described their markets to be quite local, too, even if it was big agribusiness. One of the challenges mentioned was finding good help. Today, farmers have opted, and continue to opt for paying for expensive equipment in lieu of labor. They also emphasized that it is all ultimately up to the consumer. If the consumer votes for eating local with their food dollars then these producers "might" make it.

The bottom line in our food system today is this: 1) Today's production is all about efficiency. Efficiencies of scale have put and continue to put all else out of business. Farms of today continue to trend larger around the planet. 2) People are lazy. People are too lazy to farm the way they used to (except for some of you, of course). They are too lazy to cook their own food. They are too lazy to plan ahead. 3) In addition, most people want cheap costs to accompany their laziness. That's why the current system isn't going away anytime soon, barring catastrophe. People reward the efficiencies in the way they choose to vote with their dollars.

Of course, I don't mean to overlook policy. That also dictates how food is produced and how much it costs, varying from nation to nation. Since policy is never and will never be optimal, that means our food system will never make perfect sense. If it did, then WHAT we eat would play a much larger role.

I could go on, but I'll stop at that.

"it is all ultimately up to the consumer. If the consumer votes for eating local with their food dollars then these producers "might" make it."


That is why articles like this, which spin and misrepresent the data and the motivations for localization are so exasperating. It purports to be an objective analysis, but really it is cleverly designed to make those who care about the localization you so cherish look foolish. And it is carefully designed to dissuade potential local consumers from bothering to consider it as a rational option. That is exactly what makes this agribusiness propaganda.

Why not join with me in critiquing it if you say you are on the side of farmers hoping for more local customers?

That is why articles like this, which spin and misrepresent the data and the motivations for localization are so exasperating.

Sorry, I don't see this article as "spin" at all. The USDA report by Canning came out a year ago which was when I first read it and the many articles surrounding it. I happen to think that Michael Bomford did a very fine job of dispelling some prevailing myths by carefully excerpting parts of the lengthy report to make a point.

In actuality, there are many myths about Ag and food production. Anyone paying attention must realize by now that Lester Brown has been wrong for thirty years and counting, much as I admire him. We have plenty of food to feed everyone on the planet plus much more, we are increasing production most every year, there is enough energy to continue to produce and transport food for now and for some time into the future, there is a lot of slack in the whole system, and there are some promising productivity and nutritional gains on the horizon, if we're lucky.

That doesn't mean we like the loss of ecosystems or biodiversity, the overpopulation issues, Ag's abuses to the environment, that we endorse agribusiness, or that we approve of biofuels policies. It doesn't mean that Ag isn't facing some tough challenges ahead, made even tougher by some wrong choices being made today. Nor does it mean that we never worry about supply shocks, supply chain disruptions, or economic follies. One would be a fool not to take some insurance measures, if at all possible.

Luckily, people who want to grow their own food are free to do so, we do at our house, always have. I think the eat local movements are wonderful, providing healthy know-where-your-food-comes-from options for people who want that and I'm at my local farmer's market most Saturdays. Canning's report is presenting energy facts, nothing against eating local.

Again, that TOD chooses to highlight such blatant propaganda speaks volumes about their 'new direction.'

So long as TOD has a comment section - the comments can work to dispel "blatant propaganda"

Make the case in the comments.

(The "old direction" had "clunkers" for articles too.)

Basing the diet of an entire region mostly on foods that can only be grown hundred or thousands of miles away from that area seems absurd on the face of it, no matter what any particular study says about it.

How much would the meat and dairy produced from grass fed animals shift lower on the inverted energy pyramid? I suspect a fair degree. The majority of meat and dairy is produced with large grain inputs, the animals are concentrators of the goodies in kernels, but this also ups the final products' energy footprint. There are producers out there who are 100% grassfed. I'd like to see some studies that separate out different management techniques rather than just lumping "meat" and "dairy" into simply groups.

Likewise, a detailed study of practices for row crops could be illuminating since fixing N is natural gas intensive and organic producers don't use it, but they do have to cultivate more...

Finally, meat and eggs from pastured animals is not "less healthy" than grains. The so called science that links animals fats with human disease is just plain shoddy work. Ancel Keys seminal study that set off the whole cholesterol scare we've been worked up over for more than 50 years was bogus. He dropped data collection sites from his study so that he could draw a nice line correlating CAD with dietary cholesterol. There isn't room to get into it all here but and Gary Taubes' book Good Calories, Bad Calories have more information about the topic.

great comment Eddd

Not only that but livestock are integral to healthy soil, an important part of the rotation.

and yes pastured meat and eggs are very healthy and a necessary part of the diet for anyone being very physical such as farmers.

Fats are perhaps one of THE most important calorie groups consumed. Read;

"Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill: The Complete Guide to Fats, Oils, Cholesterol and Human Health"

Great, but as the vast majority of meat and dairy are not produced this way, most people are eating very unhealthy meat and dairy that is also very energy intensive.

There will never be any great lack of meat eaters, but the amount of meat that is eaten by the average American (and now across the world) is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.

By all means, if you choose to eat meat, eat the best quality grass fed, locally grown stuff you can find.

Meanwhile thank all the vegetarians (and the only-very-occasional meat eaters) for keeping the price of your meat down.

Ultimately I'm not surprised that home processing energy use is so high, I would guess that most of this is refrigeration, but it would be great to focus there and
see how it is distributed between things like ovens, microwaves, stovetops, etc. There are some strategies on quick heat then insulate, wait 3 hours which make
sense especially if it is a lot of energy.

What would be useful would be to remove the American (and other) view that they should eat the same (read that favorite) fresh vegetable(s) 12 months out of the
year, and being able to acquire it instantly by a drive to your local store. Putting away bushels of vegetables when they are naturally harvested into your root
cellar equivalent (insulated corner of a basement for instance) and eating what is seasonally (locally) available in the cool times (kale, spinach, swiss chard, brussel sprouts, etc)
would be a much better strategy. Following Eliot Coleman's unheated greenhouse strategies should get one 12 months of veggies in Pennsylvania, but trivially and easily
I can get 9 months, with an 8x8 6mil greenhouse on a 6x6 organic raised bed. I'll get to 12 months in this coming winter.

The USDA report, if I'm reading it correctly, counts food-related travel (e.g. driving to the grocery store) as part of the household component. They also include count embedded energy in the purchase of major appliances, and the embedded energy in the purchase of cars and car parts, scaled by the percent of total travel that is represented by food-related travel.

It shows that whether you eat them locally or not, grains and vegetables are the most energy efficient basis for a diet, and the healthiest as well. Meat and dairy, and, even more, oils and sugars, are the least energy efficient

Some big brains figured all that out? Oh darn those brains were big because their antecedents got a lot of energy from meat for a few million years. It was far more energy efficient for me to go out an and shoot a deer and carry it home on my back (don't live in deer country anymore) than any other food gathering activity in which I have ever engaged was. Its hard to eat much more locally than that, and you get a lot of bang for the buck or is it buck for the bang <?- )

Those deer did get a lot of their mass from the local alfalfa fields from time to time though so the energy foot print might be tricky to work out<?- )

Just had to throw all that in. This article says simply--don't treat 'eat local' like a religion--if it is your religion you of course will take offense. I'm not a big fan of our giant monocultures but, unless one of your goals in life is to establish what grains will do best in your locale, there is far to little time in life not to use the grains mass produced by such. You will a get greater return on your eat local energy using a pragmatic approach than by using a dogmatic one. That is what I took away from the piece anyway.

Meat and dairy, and, even more, oils and sugars, are the least energy efficient (again, no matter how far you ship them) and the least healthy.

Oils are the least healthy? My, my that's a pile of BS.

You need oils for your diet. And one doesn't need expensive tech.

And the leftovers - critter feed.

The main point is, if there is no advantage to shipping something from afar, why do it?

If you read the article carefully, the author does cite an example of shipping something from further away. It's if you have the choice of buying organic produce from afar or conventional produce grown locally. Now look at his credentials at the bottom of the article.

The article is actually making some good points and is useful, provided that it is looked at from the perspective of "Hey, this is complex. 'Food miles' are just one part of the picture". Give it to a talk-back radio host, though, and you'll get line "All this rubbish about 'food miles' is just muddle-headed leftie propaganda, so forget all about it".

A couple of interesting things that come out are:

(a) Unprocessed food is better for the environment than processed food;

(b) "Food miles" matter more for unprocessed food than for processed food; and, most importantly,

(c) A focus on "food miles" (provided it is not single-minded) can lower the energy input of one's diet indirectly by sending you to a farmers' market instead of the supermarket than it would lower it directly through the distanced travelled by the food.

Good stuff. Thanks!

In defense of 'eating local', though -- I think we're in store for not just more-expensive & smaller supplies of fossil energy, but also LESS RELIABLE SUPPLIES of what we do get.

In light of this uncertainty, growing most food locally (or as much as possible) gives significant resilience benefits -- i.e. local food may just be the ONLY food avaliable in some increasingly-common situations around the country.

I think this should be a bigger factor in our food-system planning than it is, and would shift the mix more towards local food than you suggest.

An excellent report.
A lot of the 'locavore' nonsense has provided a huge distraction from straightforward focus on energy reduction.

IMO most 'greenies' are obsessed with the food issues rather than ANY reduction in energy.

Anyone familiar with the food processing industry will not be surprised at the huge amounts of the energy (and investment) wasted by harmful food processing(sugar, starch, oils, preservatives and chemicals)with the net effect being to produces a less nutritious diet and more harmful food than simple fruits and vegetables.

Obsessed with food? Imagine that. Have you eaten today?

A great many people have too little awareness about energy, but show me the Greenies who don't very quickly tie 'Local Food' in with both Pollution and Energy Dependency. Just because we all have been handed a range of cultural blindspots around the many energies we expend hardly makes a useful case about Environmentalists being somehow 'especially hypocritical' on this score.

We ALL have all sorts of 'invisible' low-hanging fruit to pick. Much of it local!

A great many people have too little awareness about energy, but show me the Greenies who don't very quickly tie 'Local Food' in with both Pollution and Energy Dependency.

That's what's so weird.

They'll drive 20 miles to eat a pound of fried food and drink a glass of locally grown wine at an organic restaurant or demand the right to raise noisy, smelly and unsanitary chickens in a coop behind their houses.

Besides, as awful as our foods are with the exception of red meat(heart disease is caused by eating too much animal fat mainly from red meat)they just aren't all that bad--we just eat too much of them. Type 2 diabetes which affects 20 out of 300 million americans has probably more to do with low exercise and obesity than bad food. Cancer is rarely caused by food, not so with smoking or alcohol.

It's amazing the amount of pseudoscience they preach and how little gardening they practice. Often they rely on some local farmer who they 'trust' and who sells them produce but produce only amounts to 10% of their diet.

It's all marketing BS.

They'd be better off quietly preparing vegetables from their own gardens and drop the drama.

Even back before WW2 and today's obesity epidemic doctors knew that people ate too little vegetables which are the source of most minerals and vitamins.

(heart disease is caused by eating too much animal fat mainly from red meat)

Read the posts above about the meat vs carbs debate. A statement like this adds nothing to the debate except a knee-jerk reaction based on no serious reading or research into the matter. There are a slew of books lately based on detailed study and re-assessment of what passes for research in the world of human nutrition. It is the poorly done research that has led us down the wrong path for so many years.

Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes
Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, Gary Taubes
Life Without Bread, Allan & Lutz

Do some homework.

blather, Majorian. You're outdoing yourself in Cliche' today. Or should I say Drama?

"They'll drive 20 miles to eat a pound of fried food and drink a glass of locally grown wine at an organic restaurant or demand the right to raise noisy, smelly and unsanitary chickens in a coop behind their houses."

You gonna tell us about the Welfare moms in Harlem with their Caddies next?

Here's a wee snippet about Animal vs. Vegetable fats..

Butter consumption was declining while the use of vegetable oils, especially oils that had been hardened to resemble butter by a process called hydrogenation, was dramatically increasing. By 1950 butter consumption had dropped from eighteen pounds per person per year to just over ten. Margarine filled in the gap, rising from about two pounds per person at the turn of the century to about eight. Vegetable oil consumption had more than tripled – from just less than three pounds per person per year to more than ten. [14]

By 1950, coronary heart disease was the leading source of mortality in the United States, causing more than 30% of all deaths. What's wrong with vegetable oils? This summary is from renowned researchers Russell Smith and Edward Pinckney: [15]

Diets high in polyunsaturates:

• Are highly subject to rancidity, and so they increase the body's need for vitamin E and other antioxidants.
• Are damaging to the reproductive organs and the lungs – both of which are sites for huge increases in cancer in the US.
• In test animals, inhibit the ability to learn, especially under conditions of stress.
• Are toxic to the liver.
• Compromise the integrity of the immune system.
• Depress the mental and physical growth of infants.
• Increase levels of uric acid in the blood.
• Cause abnormal fatty acid profiles in the adipose tissues.
• Are linked to mental decline and chromosomal damage.
• Will accelerate aging.
• Are associated with increasing rates of cancer, heart disease and weight gain.
• Interferes with the production of prostaglandins leading to an array of complaints ranging from autoimmune disease to PMS. Disruption of prostaglandin production leads to an increased tendency to form blood clots, and hence myocardial infarction, which has reached epidemic levels in America.

Not only do corn and soy oils provide the oxidized fats that cause heart disease, they raise cholesterol levels in the process. [16]

demand the right to raise noisy, smelly and unsanitary chickens in a coop behind their houses

Hate much?

That comment is so filled with feeling and so lacking in fact that I felt compelled to reply.

How about some info to back up that. (admiteddly this is a quick search, but this is work hours)

Hens are relatively quiet as compared to pet dogs, though hens often vocalize after an egg is laid for a few minutes. The noise level during this squawking period has been measured at around 63 decibels, or about the level of two people talking. Other than post-laying squawking, normal hen sounds are not audible at 25 feet.

Odor concerns can be addressed by limiting the number of chickens that a household can own. Unlike large commercial operations, where thousands of chickens are kept in close quarters and thus build up enough ammonia to create a powerful odor, small backyard operations are no worse than having a dog.

The average dog produces 12 ounces of solid waste per day. The average chicken produces 1.5 ounces per day.

Bird flu and salmonella are the two biggest concerns some health experts worry about causing illness to people. The risk for catching bird flu is low, according to Mark Slifka, Ph. D. Infectious Disease Expert with Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR. He states this is especially true if the hens are kept in a closed environment, since they wouldn’t be exposed to other birds.
Salmonella is mostly associated with undercooked chicken meat. People who have weak immune systems, such as the elderly, very small children, and those with various medical conditions, are most at risk. By thoroughly washing your hands after handling a chicken or going into a hen house, you can eliminate all threats of catching this disease.

From a decently sourced wikipedia article:

"IMO most 'greenies' are obsessed with the food issues rather than ANY reduction in energy.'

IMO you don't know much about 'greenies.'

A very welcome contribution.

I am very glad you have included the concept of healthier eating.
Processed 'organic' foods can be just as heavily laced with saturated fat, salt and sugar, as non-organic.

The numbers must differ considerably for different countries and agricultural systems in the world outside the USA, but the trend toward more meat eating continues world-wide for those who can afford it. Similarly, the recent trend is toward being fat (Barry Popkin is researcher of so-called 'nutrition transition' who has also published popular accounts ).

I would like to see calculations for energy components (particularly fossil fuel) in the diet in say, for example Bangladesh, at least for the segment of the population that has adequate food.

Similarly, the water component may prove to be the more significant input rather than 'energy' for food in much of the world.

To me, the benefit of locally/regionally sourced food chains (other than the obivous health and community building aspects) is how they will mitigage the risk of supply chain disruptions due to potential future currency volatility/reform and resultant sharp drops in trade. I.e. its not energy shortages per se that necessitate locally integrated food distribution, but the fact that fossil based ag systems are a product of globalization, which has overshot on its aggregate claims on the future creating food/water etc risks on things that are relatively simple and don't use huge energy.

Towards that end we are organizing a seminar of food/ag/distribution scientists (and I've invited Mike Bomford) to address how a city of 20,000-30,000 might be fed with all local/regional inputs into its supply chain (i.e not only the food, but packaging, storage, delivery etc.)

mitigage the risk of supply chain disruptions due to potential future currency volatility/reform and resultant sharp drops in trade

Global trade of cocoa, wheat, oil, etc... has not been affected by currency reform - it has been affected by weather, finite resources, and government instability. It is not a future risk either.

I agree that eating local does reduce complexity. It will almost certainly become normal. This is happening naturally through the current increase in small farmers, victory gardens, and community gardens. The trend cannot be stopped for a number of reasons including peak oil and climate change.

....has not been affected by currency reform

um. we haven't had currency reform yet.
And the last time there was major currency breakdown (1930s) international trade virtually stopped

Have you written anywhere regarding just how close to currency reform you think we are and how that might play out?

not in public forum

I don't think currency disruption is inevitable but its highly possible (and certainly non-zero) and institutions/governments need to be looking at mitigation scenarios (that can't be undertaken on individual/community level.

"(i.e not only the food, but packaging, storage, delivery etc.)", waste disposal, quality/safety control and regulation, legislation, subsidies, health, FDA, DOA ......... layers on layers of complexity.

Grow your own; eat it raw.

A local restauraunt owner told me he couldn't buy my eggs anymore (pastured hens, organic feed) because his attorney told him I couldn't be sued if someone got sick. What does this cost us?

"What does this cost us?"

Judging by the mood of many locals, the growing concensus answer seems to be: "a few bullets." I can't believe

THANKS Nate for the future studies you allude to here. And thank you and Michael Bomford for this very thought-provoking article.

Grow your own; eat it raw.

Let me preface the following comment by stating that I have a large (~1 acre) garden and grow a meaninful amount of my own food (~30%). And I think the more people that are responsible for (at least part of ) their own food supply the more resilient society will be.

But 70% of global food calories come directly or indirectly from grains. In the US I think its 74%. How many states/regions can even grow grain to support their populations? Ie we are still gonna need cross (state) border transfers to feed anything close to 300mil

True that, but why all the fuss against folks that like their farmers markets, which are fun outdoor places with fresh off-the-farm local food?

I am tired of all the arguing over it. Conventional food seems to have some obvious problems in terms of quality, variety, and healthiness.

I eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat because of the farmers market experience. I like my money to stay in the local economy and I do not trust eggs and chickens from large growers -- having seen the squaller that they raise those chickens in, especially most recently in Iowa. Look at those pig farms in Mexico where they are breeding the next big strain of influenza. Total squaller.

In terms of energy, I think using my bare hands to prepare foods is far less energy intensive than paying some machine electricity to cut them up. It is my time, but well it is time to think. I eat mainly rare vegetables and fruits anyway. Why process good produce?

A crock pot uses the same amount of electric power as a couple of light bulbs.

A prepared meal bought at the store has to be cooked/frozen/re-thawed again. Freezing and thawing and re-cooking uses tons of energy and it is completely wasteful.

How can these pre-cooked meals ever make sense from an energy perspective? They simply cannot.

The energy of running a mechanical chopper (blender, cuisinart, what have you) is a fraction of cooking energy. You run those motors for just a few seconds to do their work, where a stove or oven is on for many minutes.

If it were not for the freeze+reheat issue (which is enormous), it is quite possible that prepared foods could be more efficient -- economies of scale and attention to process might do that for you (for instance, be sure to pre-heat the cooking water using the waste heat from your freezer, use the minimum amount of water, reuse cooking water. Thawing slowly in a refrigerator conserves the cold, and cuts the heat needed roughly in half (60 cal/g H2O heat of fusion -- that same amount of energy gets liquid water at 0C all the way up to 60C, or 140F).

And if you wanted to heat food efficiently, clearly, you want to put the food inside the hot side of a heat pump (powered by its own personal bat-N-bird-friendly windmill, naturally :-).

Avoiding (grain-fed) mammal flesh is a biggie -- those handy pie charts obscure the fact that not all food energy costs are uniformly distributed.


Of course, you can use mechanical kitchen equipment only and call it working out! I wonder if pre-frozen food kept in an efficient freezer and defrosted in the fridge and then maybe cooked in a microwave, is in fact much more energy intensive than home bottling, which involves boiling and sterilizing jars, which are reusable but nevertheless cost money? All food preservation has costs, except maybe air drying.

Certain foods have always been transported large distances, at least since the beginning of urbanism, and the grain ships heading across the Mediterranean from north Africa to Rome and Constantinople, as well as the ships conveying olive oil and wines, were a commonplace of ancient trade. They were wind powered of course.

Sorta off topic but we all know who Nate is -we can take his word for it when he says he grows a third of his food in his one acre garden.

That is in the opinion of this old white haired, horny handed, stiff backed deaf and opinionated farmer what can be considered pretty good results, taken all around, in real world terms -real climates with real winters, people with lives to live and jobs to get to, etc.

Anybody planning on being able to grow a large part of thier own food should take this VERY seriously.

The difference between what is POSSIBLE , given great soil, great climate, great skill, and a hell of a lot of backbreaking work-and what is PRACTICALLY ACHIEVABLE for most people is HUGE.

Well, at least now his customers are "safe".

Can't have it both ways, or at least not for long. This is blowback from the "consumer" movement ideologues spending the last forty years scaring the bejeezus out of people over nothing. But they found they couldn't really talk very many people into hating corporations, not when so many like to have complex products that can't possibly be produced in the basement shop (e.g. the PDAs that seem to come as virtual implants in under-25s, utterly blinding them to their immediate surroundings.) So they tried scaring people instead, and that has been effective enough that we now have plenty of folks eagerly chomping down hard on the hands that feed (and fuel) them. Within another five or ten years the mindless hysteria may cost us the existence of farmers' markets and the like, as well those eggs.

Paul. Time to Reload, you're shooting blanks.

The blowback has more to do with the current Peanut Butter recall and its ilk, than it does the consumer rights movement. Massive Food-Corpse efficiencies have done some wonderful end-runs around the Ralph Naders, and some poor suckas are dying early from Toxic Spinach..

Fasten your seatbelt and take a long draught of clean water, because it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Ghung, I've been a reader of TOD for some months now but your comment spurned me to register and reply. That attorney should be shot, or strung up while s/he is presented the facts. Potentially contaminated eggs are not produced by organic, free range hens but those crowded in super-coops with nowhere to move and dead/dying cousins around them. Meanwhile they eat GM feed and stand/sit in filth. Send this J.D. quack a copy of Food, Inc.

It has to do with State law (or did at the time). If I sold him 32 dozen or less per week, no inspections are required and I can't be held liable. The attorney was just doing his job. The Chef was from South Florida and a careful guy. It's not about the quality of the product; it's about who pays if something goes wrong. Breakfast in America.

The seminar sounds very interesting Nate.

I have been looking very closely at this for several years. The fact is that most regions produce only a few percent of the food they consume. Even very productive regions only produce maybe 10% to 20%. To increase this even just to 50% would be a massive undertaking for most areas and imposable for some.

Again the fact is we are totally reliant on the existing food system for the foreseeable future.

Instead of putting the focus on farmers markets, IMO a huge waste of time, energy, and farmers time, we should focus on pooling the production of dozens or more local producers and distributing it to area supermarkets and institutions where the other 99% of the population get there food.

Granted there are efficiency gains to be reaped here but whether we like it or not supermarkets are where people get their food nothing and nobody will change that.

This also addresses what I call the "Economics of Localization". Farmers markets are just an outdoor store with a big sign on it that says, PAY MORE FOR LESS You will never grow something by asking people to pay more for less.

Locally produced anything is always more expensive than what can be purchased at the store...until its not. Everyone I have talked to, I mean everyone believes that eventually prices for locally grown should/will eventually come down to prices at the supermarket. I tell them that prices will eventually be the same but it will be because prices at the market will soar to match local grown. That goes over well...not!

By the way great post Michael.

Yair...Nate...I have been posting for years that most of the seasonal vegetable requirements of most Australian towns and cities could be grown within a one hundred kilometer radius of the local CBD.

Up every country road and hidden valley there are pockets of land (in small parcels} which with suitable methods could be bought into profitable production.

We are developing low input production systems to utilise these recources. Progress is slow as it all takes money but within twelve months our latest simpler and less expensive model should be ready for release.

Our existing version here:-


That is an awesome adaption of center pivot, mazel tov. i have several small fields i'd love to install that in. Let me know where I can send the check.


you are on it!!! Don't let anyone take it out from under you--I've a feeling that the tech rights couldn't be in better hands than yours.

Yair...thanks for comments folks. There seems to be a bit of interest here in what is a pretty radical concept. The thing is, it works and once we can get the various picking attachments developed it will provide comparable mechanization to that available to large scale producers.

We also see it as a platform for an affordible robotic production the spatial positioning is provided by the mechanical connection and there is no need (as in other systems) for little GPS guided rovers to find their way up and down the rows.

As mentioned we have a simpler system in the pipeline and will post on this forum when we have something to show.


Something that didn't come to mind first time I looked at your pics.

Since the tilled sections are circular many non tilled sections border the circles if several are farmed contiguously. It would seem properly encouraged native plants in the untilled areas might encourage pollinators and have other benefits. Just a thought--as this is for smaller scale farming that might not be that big an issue.

Thanks for 'showing your work' <?- )

On another point you often to mention. I've lived extended period rationing electric-though it was all diesel powered-and its not that hard to work a routine around. That said I've been on the grid quite a while now and have grown pretty used to that flipping on any switch I want any time I want. I'm pushing for a fair sized regional hydro system to keep that going into the future. But rationing power for home use is no show stopper, that's for sure.

Yair...Luke H. I caught you comment by chance. Some of these threads get so long I run out of time. You are spot on with your comment.

Some folks see circles as "wasting land" in-as-much as a circle is in area about eighty per cent of a quare of the same diameter. We take a different view and see the advantages you mentioned plus minimising erosion and, of course at 1800mm clearance, the unit can pass over small animal shelters, dwarf fruit trees, berry crops and vines...I think it fits very well with the concept of small to medium scale "sustainable" farming.

I do bang on a bit about societys preoccupation with the necessity uninterrupted power and, coming from a rural background I though my experiences in the real world may have been of use to others. I am pleased you share my views.

Regional Hydro? that would be the ultimate.


Thanks for the come back. Six footers only just have to duck--that rig has pretty fair clearance.

The hydro I mention has been kicked around before but the timing might be right now. Just a 700 ft. tall dam generating 600MW for starters--partially shrinking glacier fed. Future precip patterns are always uncertain especially these days. But the Alaska Range is a goodly fence just above the North Pacific--siting could be much worse. The proposed dam could later be raised a couple hundred feet and a second dam constructed at the end of the canyon downstream, that would triple the hydro project's output capacity.

That's a great move nate. Half of my motivation to do the truck farm and market is what you are talking about, the supply chains are scarey. We'll be seeing what those supply chains look
like on the electronics industry following the quake in Japan, but we may see what what that looks like in food itself due to destruction of a Tokyo refinery, destruction of a portion of their
LNG port facilities, the roads, the railroads, the ports, and the disconnection of 5 nuclear reactors. Hopefully not.

Here in Pennsylvania where corn is so important, what you are talking about would be very very interesting as a Hybrid/GMO supply chain disruption would mean that all the fields would go to weeds.
I have about 10 lbs of heirloom lancaster dent in my freezer, and that might take care of my family and my 40 chickens, maybe. Given my situation I plant winter wheat, and then use it as
seed, I can't imagine he corn situation ever fixing itself.

Farmermac can probably speak to this better, but just trying to assemble the equipment and knowledge to do things at these scales is a challenge, I've had to find craftsmen who will refurbish
equipment from the 50's and 60's such as my PTO combine, and "old timers" to walk me through how to operate it. Knowledge for the $400k, 15gallon/hour combine that needs 5 acres to
turn around is readily available, unfortunately the fields aren't all like that.

I remember my father taking me to the (closed) abattoir in his hometown of 2000 souls in the 60's, all the gear was still there. Now the building is gone, and there are none near me, just a
friendly butcher in my network who will take the couple of grass fed cattle we buy with some friends from a friendly dairy farmer who does it for his high school buddy on the side....talking
about a weak supply chain....

I wonder how home processed foods compare energywise to industrially processed foods.

I'm sure eating a boiled egg cooked for 4 minutes is more energy efficient that eating a cake or a mister Kiplings pie.

But would buying whole (or minimally processed) foods such as flour, eggs sugar currents baking powder etc. and cooking a cake yourself be more energy efficient than buying a ready made cake?

Is the energy spent cooking at home, less than the energy spent processing things in a factory?

Or do we all just have to stick to salads?

Also how much processing do you need to be considered processed, are dried tomatoes or raisins processed for example?

Is the energy spent cooking at home, less than the energy spent processing things in a factory?

Almost certainly.
Would you bother cooking starches, producing corn syrup or blending in thickening agents, adding too many preservatives like salt to just extend shelf life, etc.
The sheer amount of work would completely exhaust you.
Mass production has made all this much cheaper to do and has resulted in Cheap Food
which is analogous to cheap energy.
It would be one thing if Cheap Food was actually healthy but it isn't.

I've always felt that the biggest energy savings in the food system would be simply carving out all the processed and packaged foods. Just eliminating half the packaging in all the things we buy would produce enormous energy and resource conservation benefits.

Also, obesity in the United States has its locus at the top of that inverted food/energy pyramid. Eliminate most of the top row and the diabetes epidemic, the stroke epidemic, the heart failure epidemic in the United States would evaporate. Not only would we conserve energy in the food system, but we would cut energy out of the healthcare delivery system, not to mention avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in direct healthcare spending.

Why cook veggies and fruits which are often great raw?
Why do we need to add sugar or corn syrup to these perfect items produced in Nature?

These are the questions.

Sure we buy olive oil or raw suger, but the processed foods are filled with these unnecessary sugars and fats that fruits and veggies rarely need.

A little seasoning and olive oil goes a long way if you are going to cook certain fruits and veggies.

Think of all the unnecessary bars, chips, processed drinks, processed meat, canned veggies and fruits laced in corn syrup.

LMAO. How are these things actually good?

Why do we need to add sugar or corn syrup to these perfect items produced in Nature?

Except these items are not 'produced in Nature' they have been hybridized over the centuries to be much higher in sugar than anything you will find 'in Nature.'

Many vegetables are better cooked than raw, especially the more nutrient rich vegetables:
beets, beans, brussel sprout, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, eggplant, french endive, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard greens, parsnip, peas, potato, pumpkin, rutabaga, salsify, sweet corn, turnip, and winter squash.

Green beans can be eaten raw, although kidney and navy beans are best cooked. Cabbage is often eaten raw, but only after being slathered with other stuff to turn it into cole slaw. Cauliflower is often served raw, but eating it without a dip is fairly nasty.

Vegetables that are often eaten raw generally are those that are watery and low in carbs (with some exceptions, such as carrots and zucchini). I think that you could actually starve to death eating iceberg lettuce.

Yes, cooked (but not to death) vegggies often have the bioavailability of nutrients increased. Also consuming them with fat aids this process. (organic grass-fed butter!)

Blanched is best.

Some time ago one of my ancestors made the technological breakthrough of treating raw foodstuffs with fire to make it more nutritious/delicious/less dangerous. I consider it part of my cultural heritage and don't want to give it up. After multiple bouts of move your pillow and blanket into the bathroom 'cause you're not coming out until next Thursday type food poisoning/amoebic infestations food preparation and preservation is probably one of my favourite ways to use energy. I am happy taking a luke-warm 3 minute shower, but I will not eat broccoli unless it is boiled.

"I consider it part of my cultural heritage"

Like the white southerner, much of what we consider to be our cultural heritage will have to be jettisoned.

Besides, it would be difficult or impossible to eat some foods raw. Many starches need to be gelatinized, at least to some degree, before you can digest them and absorb their calories. For example, potatoes are basically inedible if they're not cooked.

Also, cooking breaks down some fibers and allows you to gain more calories from the food than if you had eaten it raw. This was an evolutionary advantage for early humans. Cooking isn't only part of our cultural heritage; it's also a part of our evolution as homo sapiens.


The author of 'Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human' makes a good case for pre-humans having developed the use of fire for cooking and we current humans evolved the way we did because of this.

Your typical raw food consuming great ape spends up to 6 hours a day chewing.

"But would buying whole (or minimally processed) foods such as flour, eggs sugar currents baking powder etc. and cooking a cake yourself be more energy efficient than buying a ready made cake?"

Hard enough to figure out in general, but then add seasons. In the winter the waste heat from the oven is not wasted at all. In the summer if you bake during the day and use the AC to relocate the heat, then it's a double hit.

I do most of my canning outside on the propane burner from a turkey frier for just that reason.


> I wonder how home processed foods compare energywise to industrially processed foods.

Cooking in larger batches is more efficient, because it causes less heat loss per unit of food during cooking. Heat loss is a function of the surface area of a pot/pan/etc, and quadrupling the volume of a pot will only double its surface area.

That said, the most important things for energy conservation are: 1) not to eat much meat, especially red meat, and 2) not to cook things on a barbecue or grill. Barbecues radiate more than 90% of their energy into the atmosphere without affecting the food.


Insulation is important too. I use a large pan as a steam generator and I initially had problems as the steam was transferring heat to the sides and lid thus loosing that heat and condensing. I loosely wrapped aluminium foil around the pan held by some wire at the top. This trapped the heat spilling around the side of the pan from the burner. The top was simply a covering cloth. Huge difference in the output. I expect you could do the same with a canner to trap what would be waste heat around the outside and prevent heat loss from the inside.


The food system is completely messed up. We have BAD food, BAD health, earth is suffering for our procedures. The system is completely messed up, we need to give up the present and start again. There are many things to learn from current errors. First, MONEY cannot drive our decisions. With this in mind everything is more easy to solve.

dohboi, excellent comments.

Thanks, rgiusti.

We do need good, well founded studies that don't misrepresent the data or create obnoxious stereotypes. Unfortunately, that is not what the wise moderators of TOD have presented to us here.

Transporting the food is far more critical than almost all other "energy" concerns.

"Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie" 4% of food (0.6%/14.4% )
Part of the 145 (2%/14.4%) for Agriculture probably includes tractor fuel.

Lloyds of London (2010) is already warning of liquid fuel shortages in 2012-2015 time frame.

No transport - little food.

Attendance at religious activities and travel to athletic events and practices each account for several percent of gasoline consumption.

There are lots of similar non-essential activities that can be curtailed before transportation of food is significantly affected.

Wow, you're going to be real popular in the US.

I'm sure all the X'ns will be thrilled to hear that you want to take their Jesus away.

And as to sports fans, they make religious fanatics look like sober, reasonable rationalist.

There doesn't seem to be an authoritative census of the number of churches in the US, although numbers greater than 300,000 are frequently cited. At any rate, churches are sufficiently numerous and well distributed that the great majority of the population lives within walking distance of a church.

The only thing that makes X'ns drive miles to some distant church is their intolerance of the religious views of their X'n neighbors.

As for the sports fan, they can watch on TV or the internet.

So which uses the least energy?

  1. 12 ounces of canned peas bought at the grocery and heated on the stove,
  2. 12 ounces of frozen peas in a plastic pouch heated in the microwave,
  3. 24 ounces of fresh peas in the shell imported from wherever they grow peas this time of year cooked in the microwave, or
  4. 12 ounces of peas from the buffet at the restaurant.

5. The peas growing in my garden, eaten raw in a salad.

Here that is an invalid option, since peas are planted at about St Patrick's day. Peas cannot be grown locally for a few months in the winter, and a couple of months during the summer are very difficult.

Greenhouses have their own energy problems.

We're still eating peas from last year, kept frozen with PV powered refrigeration. I suppose I'll need to factor in the energy to produce the PV system, the freezer, and the plastic bags (which we reuse)...... :-/

You should have canned them in Mason jars boiled over a wood fire so the only thing used would be the new rubber sealing rings.

Canned peas suck....we tried that (and reusable lids are available). Since, at some point, all of the energy inputs are impossible to account for, common sense must prevail. That said, I don't garden, freeze, can, etc. to save energy. I do it for all of the other reasons I can think of. Further, I don't begrudge others sourcing their canned or frozen veggies from the supermarket. I just find the complexities of our food systems troubling. Mine seems more managable in a resource constrained future, and sharing food that I produced myself feels more ....... human ;-) And, yes, we still do buy stuff at the grocery store.

My recollection is that peas are not acid and fairly difficult to can safely.

Of the four practical choices available to most people most of the time, my guess is that the total energy cost is the lowest for microwaved frozen peas.

A tin of peas is probably second, since the energy embedded in the can, the energy used in cooking, and the added weight of the can in transportation probably outweigh the costs of freezing and refrigerated distribution. But it might be about the same, particularly if you heat the canned peas in the microwave instead of the stove. In fact, using the microwave as much as possible is a good thing, since they are typically under 1300 watts, while an electric stove burner is 1200 to 2500 watts and used for a longer time to heat the same amount of food.

The fresh peas in the shell are probably an inefficient choice, especially if they have been air freighted. But even if they have been shipped by reefer trains or trucks they probably come from irrigated, heavily fertilized fields, treated with pesticides, and are picked with a lot of labor and associated transportation costs.

The embedded energy in the restaurant meal probably dwarfs that of the other alternatives, partly because of the transportation costs to go to the restauant, but also the energy costs of HVAC, lighting, signage, equipment, etc. in the restaurant. The restaurant also gets its food from a less efficient distribution system than the large supermarkets.

So the best way to minimize energy consumption associated with food is to stop driving to restaurants and eating out.

Fresh is way overhyped.

Peas are not very nutritious but canned peas are cheap and last.
In winter canned fruit(in light syrup) or beans,spinach, etc is cheap and just as nutritious considering how much vegetables you need to eat for daily recommended dose of vitamins and minerals.
The price of fresh vegetables and fruits is expensive and highly variable. At one time canned food was considered a delicacy.

If you don't have a yearround garden and you want a bargain, canned goods are

You must live in New England where all the produce is fairly nasty -- even the imports have been quite ugly after the long haul from California.

It is about the quality of the food as well. Put a price tag of taste.

You can use the sun and a modified All American canner (The All American uses no rubber gasket for the pressure cooker itself.)

Or a Scheffler-Reflector

problems, always problems..

Damrosch and Coleman grow veg year-round on the North Side of Penobscot Bay, in Maine. They still grow greens that are seasonally chosen, so you can eat, but might not get to have your pick on any veg you can name. They use unheated greenhouses, while solar and compost heating support is also possible if you want to grow more out-of-season foods.

Polycarbonate glazing and extruded aluminum frames for greenhouses are not exactly energy-free.

Lots of people live in rented dwellings. Lots of people live in northern climates. Lots of people own dwelling units that are in unsuitable places for gardening.

1. "not exactly energy-free..."

You're reaching now. A greenhouse, built once, supports growing for years, and as mentioned, offers an extended growing season, up to a full year, even in New England (or are we not Northern?).. The energy balance is RADICALLY different than systems that require more fuel for every picking, and the maintenance of fleets of vehicles, paving of great stretches of highway.

Certainly many people can't grow their own. Can they go to a farmers market that has dozens of folk that do? We're in a small city. We grow a tiny little bit on the porches, some more in a Community Garden Plot, we trade cutting board-cuttings for eggs with an immediate neighbor, belong to a winter and a summer CSA, and have a farmer's market or three in easy reach, one of them by foot.

Again, you are focused on where you can't not where you can.

'Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say? ... Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? And well you should not, for my Ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is!' Yoda


I would assume that option #3 uses the least energy (fresh peas from wherever they grow them, in the microwave).

The other options could use a lot of energy. For example, canned peas must be cooked at very high temperatures to prevent botulism, and the cans require aluminum extraction or steel making to produce the can which are very energy-intensive compared to cooking.

Frozen peas obviously require continuous freezing, often for weeks, which is very energy-intensive.

Peas from the buffet at the restaurant were probably either canned or frozen.

Large, well-insulated industrial freezers don't require much energy to keep food frozen. As the size of the freezer increases, the volume of food goes up as the cube of the size, while the area of the walls through which heat enters goes up as the square of the size.

Fresh peas also have to be refrigerated, typically in refrigerator trucks on the interstates. Frozen peas don't require rapid transport, so they can be moved in refrigerated rail cars with thicker walls and better insulation.

Frozen peas would typically come from midwestern fields, where they are grown in the summer using conventional agricultural techinques. The combines leave the vines and pods behind on the fields as organic material. The shelled peas are trucked to the plants for washing, freezing and packaging. All this uses a lot less energy than growing peas in the south on irrigated fields during the winter and then trucking the pods north.

Bargaining again.

What is the cost when the food is no longer being transported to your locale, and your locale has not made plans for the lack of imported food? (no, FEMA is not available, your governor is calling and getting a busy signal)

In other words, what will your charts look in a post-peak world if we cannot depend on current supply lines of multiple necessary resources needed to transport the food - or transport resources necessary to grow food locally?

This is a good article for my colleagues' "sustainable development" class where they currently are learning to make radios with microphones out of nothig but wood, and how to build runways in the forest for airplanes with supplies that will never arrive.

We are very busy planning our own Cargo Cults right now in real time.

This is something that has occurred to me as I was canning up all the tomatoes from my garden, and watching the giant blue gas flame while waiting for that big, big pot of water to boil. I am no historical authority, but I think that in earlier times, the cooking was done more communally, and I wondered if this wasn't because there was some sort of energy savings involved. (I know that sometimes things happen for no good reason, but sometimes I think we go down the "path of least resistance".) I would think that all of us having our own kitchens, and making our own meals for the few of us that live under our own personal roofs, would be energy intensive compared to one kitchen making dinner for thirty or forty people. I can't make a pie chart on this, but households were bigger in the bad old days. You don't have to go back to thinking about hunter gatherers exactly, but even in the seventeen hundreds (in the west) a person might rent a room, and meal might be provided, or they would go to the cookshop to eat. Eating out wasn't exactly entertainment like it is now, but what people did, because they had no kitchen of their own. The wealthy had very large households including all the servants and so on, and I bet they fed way more people than they meant to. There was a firewood scarcity, so energy was surely part of the equation. I know this doesn't excuse using this study as a political move to support big ag, bit I think it is something to think about when planning to be as resilient in your community as possible in the future.

After canning you can let the warm pot cool in your kitchen to warm it, thus using the heat to wam your home.

You can can at night when the heat is needed. You can can in volume so that you only heat up the water 1x for many rounds of canning. But yes canning uses energy. No doubt about it.

Canning used to be done with several folks at the same time when I grew up to save energy. I totally agree that would be optimal.

Of course! I make several things to can all at once, to get the maximum use out of my huge pot of hot water. But think about this. If it's warm enough to ripen my toms, it's probably too warm to really want to save that heat in my kitchen. Oh, and I haven't found anyone else near me who is really interested in canning, either. It would be nice to have someone to talk to during all that food prep.

An interesting and informative examination of the energy inputs of our industrialized food supply. It opened my eyes to a number of previously unconsidered issues. You present an intriguing explanation of why commercially produced food is an energy intensive product. It is because corporations are able to harness and direct energy that they become successful; I suppose their products would represent this as well.

Most of the daily 2500+- required calories in the american diet comes from fat ..
including vegetarians.

some say a 80-10-10 diet is optimal

FOR ALL: Wasn't going to read this post but it's a slow day. Glad I did. Again one of the great aspects of TOD is the diversity of knowledge/opinions. So I'll take a chance on irritating everyone here and remind folks about the undeniable dynamic of food consumption in this country. First, for the great majority of our citizens eat what they want to eat. Doesn't matter if it energy efficient, healthy, etc. Second, if they can afford the price of what they want to eat they'll buy it. Doesn't matter in the least to most if it's cost efficient or not. I grew up I New Orleans and if you know NOLA then you know I grew up eating beans most of my life. And oddly I still enjoy a good pot more than a nice steak (most of the time). I'm always amazed how folks go on about the cost of feeding their families. Yeah...when you're hitting a fast food joint a large percentage of the time. I can feed a large family a nutritious meal for the price of one Big Mac combo.

It's nice to share "what ifs' with a group of smarties like we have here. But IMHO it matters not with respect to how our society will continue down the PO road. For a populace that still whole hearted embraces the V-8 engine...they're going to contemplate the inefficient delivery of calories by of shipping a head of lettuce from CA to Chicago? I have serious doubts to say the least.

Again, I'm sure some folks are as tired of hearing it as I am saying it: we have met the enemy...he is us. The best idea/plan in the world is worthless if it isn't applied. I suspect one day the majority will "get it". But I seriously doubt it will be in time to change matters very much.

Rockman, you are right, but I think some out there want to piss on the folks that like their farmers market, when we all know that they are doing a great service to the community and these things are healthier and better for the world.

I totally agree that no one can tell an American not to eat Little Debbies or bubble gum or a 12 pack of Coke every 3 days.

We are doomed to waste energy in this respect, but leave the nice farmers markets alone. LOL.

A weakness of the whole vs processed food conclusion is that it ignores the energy used in the kitchen.

If I buy crisps and eat them, then the processing energy is included in your methodology.

If I buy potatoes and turn them into crisps in my kitchen, the processing energy is ignored, but is probably a lot higher.

Most food is processed somewhere. 4.1% used for household processing against 2.8% used for industrially processed food suggests the opposite conclusion. There are energy savings to be made by buying more ready processed foods.

I still cannot believe we are talking about crisps. What about comparing a diet of local produce eaten fresh and raw and unprocessed versus a diet of crisps, fried chicken, beef and Coke.

Well that to me is the more apt comparison for why local fresh and unprocessed is superior to the current cultural norm.

So frame the argument this way and then you will see the issue from the other side.

You only say that because you've never had my homemade Twinkies.

(The only trick is keeping bits of the rubber gloves from burning off and sticking to the Styrene expeller..)

Great post, but conclusions are not obvious. The last chart needs to be redrafted to make it easier to compare the energy content of different food varieties. The main conclusions I can see are:

1) OECD agriculture is not really threatened by peak oil, with only 2% of total energy being used there - we knew that already.

2) Americans eat loads of junk - we knew that already. But is the junk more or less energetically efficient that "healthy" food? And when we get into local produce, you need to factor in all the energy used by the extra bodies used to grow the food.

What's missing is an explanation of why food is growing scarce - as evidenced by high prices. The established view is climate change (natural or manmade), bio fuels and eating more meat. And of course too many people and not enough land. Top soil erosion, and running out of phosphate.

It would be really interesting to see a similar food energy budget for a country like Egypt - where I gather they use much higher % of income on food.

Food scarcity rationed by price will penalise poor countries that import food. Better watch out UK.

Nate and Michael,
Thanks for the great article. In the context of peak oil probably its more important to know the oil use rather than energy use of different parts of the food system. I would think that processing would be using NG and electricity. Does household energy use include transport to and from supermarkets/ farmers markets?

The statement about it takes more energy to make an aluminum beverage can than to make the beverage inside it. Is there an energy advantage to buying beverages in a plastic bottle?

All those trucks carrying beverages between the bottler and the retailer are mostly carrying water which already is supplied to the retailer via the local utility pipes. Some retailer offer the choice of using a beverage fountain which combines a small amount of syrup and CO2 with water from the pipe. A few retailers will sell you a reusable plastic cup and offer you a discount for using it instead of a one use paper or plastic cup. In spite of the price advantage few people take advantage of it. While using a reusable cup instead of an aluminum can doesn't save much energy per use but when you multiply that by hundreds of millions per day the energy saved really adds up.

Processed beverages are an utter waste of energy. No doubt about it, but we won't stop drinking them. LOL. As Rockman says, Americans like V8s but not homemade V8.

So pleased to see this article as I have felt for a very long time that far too much emphasis is put on transport distance compared to other energetic factors, well done guys. It doesn't apply just to food, same for many other products as well (e.g. that aluminuim can which is made with a huge amount of electricity is far better transported from places with a surplus of hydro than made locally).

One interesting point about oils though: a lot of oils throw off highly energetic by-products, e.g. olive and palm, and a big chunck of the energy used in processing these oils actually comes traditionally from those by-products (olive cake, palm kernel shells & empty fruit bunches, same for sugar cane/bagassse). In fact in a lot of cases mills have installed CHP and are even exporting a small surplus of power. I'm not suggesting they are overall net energy positive, they're not, but some additional factors there that I suspect means they should sit a little lower in your inverted pyramid.

I would like to see a TV cooking show where exotic ingredients and animal products were limited to 10% and the other 90% came from gut fillers like potatoes, pumpkin, corn and beans. Better still all the cooking has to be done on a wood pellet stove. I've seen cooking shows where a single chef or contestant uses about 5 kilowatts of thermal power at a time. They use gas appliances, resistive electric, microwave, forced convection and quick freezing. I'd call it 'energy porn'. Maybe we watch it because it's not like that at home.

A topic I've discussed with interstate visitors is how much land and water do you need to become say 40% self sufficient in food. This is perhaps something for the Campfire series. However I believe in places like Las Vegas US and Perth Australia the basic water allowance is just not enough. Once again we watch TV shows on home gardening and we think we can do it but we can't. Maybe when the suburbs and golf courses are bulldozed to make local community farms they will get the water allowance instead. Homeowners will have to take Navy showers and turn swimming pools into cellars.

A topic I've discussed with interstate visitors is how much land and water do you need to become say 40% self sufficient in food.
Is it really necessary for all cities to be 40% self sufficient in food? What is the objective of setting such a target? Perth is close to farmland that provides a vast surplus of food with good rail connections. If society cannot set aside <1% of energy use to move food a few hundred km from farmland to the cities I cant see any other infrastructure functioning. Surely there would be enough NG, biogass of renewable energy to provide the very limited transport needs of moving food into cities.

When mineral phosphate is gone the train would have to carry 'night soil' out to the farms. Western Australia could be a bellwether for both Peak Phosphorus and climate change. The WA wheat belt used to grow 40% of Australia's wheat but it is drying out. Since WA has plenty of gas we could run farm tractors on it and still make N-fertiliser. That only leaves H2O and P as the missing ingredients.

There is an assumption which does not hold. Animal sources for food are actually very economical, when done sustainably. Ranchers and farmers who raise animals on GRASS and NOT GRAIN, provide foods with necessary healthy fats for very low cost-input. Grass fed animals on a biodiverse farm reduce carbon emissions and actually promote a prolific natural environment.

This assumption of animals as a burden on the food chain is a huge flaw in the logic of food production. Factory farms have skewed our perception of "animals" and how we manage and care for them. I personally need to eat less meat when I eat from grassfed animals off of smaller farms. And I thrive on raw milk, which healed my body and so many others from chronic illness. What could be more sustainable? Please let's look closer at the underlying assumptions of what it means to have animal food sources.

Animals are also a means of storing food.

The grass that the lamb ate in the summer pasture is available as fresh meat in the winter. Hay is also relatively easy to cut, dry using solar energy, and stack and store for the winter (at least compared with the energy and labor to grow harvest and can vegetables). The cow eats the hay and provides milk, cheese and butter during the winter months.


So what would happen if everyone in the world started eating a diet as meat and dairy filled as the average Americans?

Hint--there is not enough grass land in the world to support that amount of meat eating.

There will always be meat eaters. That is not something to worry about.

But most people in the world have to start eating a whole lot less meat on average if we are going to have anything resembling a sustainable food system going forward. And most have to start eating a whole lot more locally. And less processed....

But instead, the trends, in meat eating, at least, are going the other way. And people are now starving, partly because of it.

The very defensiveness of these comments speaks volumes. Many seem to be defensive about their meat eating habits, I suspect, because it is a deep part of their self definition--around her, probably their definition of themselves as men.

"Real men don't eat tofu" seems to be a general theme behind many of the comments here.


Many people probably eat too much meat, but there is a happy balance to be made. Which also takes advantage of the reality of available land types. The fact is you cannot grow wheat or barley on hill farms in the U.K. The only thing they can be used for is to rear sheep, turning useless grass, which you cannot eat, into animals that you can eat when very little else is growing. Wool for clothing is also important.

The above article points out that a farmer in Kenya using animal fertilizer and no tractor is better than growing beans closer to home using artificial fertilizers etc.
The idea of food miles is very simplistic and appeals to people who are too lazy to look at the merits of every individual food. Coffee growers on hill farms in Kenya would be out of work and starve if Green morons had their way.
The main point of the piece is that food production accounts for around a quarter of total energy consumed. We should be looking at the other three quarters at where we can make massive savings and not pick on the most vital sector which is farming.
That said, I believe farming should follow certain codes, which is why I buy free range and organic as far as possible.

Your post is just chalk full of false dichotomies.

Besides animal and artificial there is human fertilizer, or 'humanure.'

Careful use of this resource has been crucial in maintaining fertility in one of the longest-farmed areas of the world, namely China.

Everyone I know who cares about these things look at 'the other three quarters' as well as food. Why should we turn a blind eye to food production?

The fact that you use terms like "Green morons" and "too lazy" shows that you have some kind of ideological ax to grind here that is getting in the way of clear thinking.

And grass, especially native varieties, are never 'useless'; they serve a number of crucial roles in the ecosystem, including sequestering carbon.

Take your blinders off.

In Colombia the coffee trade helps keep farmers away from growing coca by providing income. If they cannot sell the coffee then they look for other income from another crop.


If only the cocaine traffickers knew they are causing global warming with their (food miles). The Columbian cartel members would never sleep another restful night until they stop. :-).

But seriously the food mile police do not give a damn about these real issues they are so tunnel visioned that any negative consequences to their dictates are simply brushed aside. That is why they always talk about population IE people as the problem. In fact it is corruption, crime, ignorance and war which are the real evils.

Now its the 'Food Mile Police'.. and THEY are the hyperbolic ones?

I had talk with some friends of the Earth members on a stall and they said one thing everybody could do to help save the planet is not to buy food grown abroad.

I asked them if they understood the consequences of such a policy, they said it would help reduce global warming. They actually did not care that many people who work producing, Coffee, tea, bananas, spices etc etc would be put out of work. These people's ability to feed their families would be destroyed.

The fact is fuel used in private cars is thirty times that used in transporting food around the world.(look at the graph)
That is where the change must happen.

So what would happen if everyone in the world started eating a diet as meat and dairy filled as the average Americans?

Hint--there is not enough grass land in the world to support that amount of meat eating.

There will always be meat eaters. That is not something to worry about.... The very defensiveness of these comments speaks volumes. Many seem to be defensive about their meat eating habits, I suspect, because it is a deep part of their self definition--around her, probably their definition of themselves as men.

"Real men don't eat tofu" seems to be a general theme behind many of the comments here.

Some of us have done our due diligence research on what constitutes a healthy diet and have discovered that meat (and fat) are nature's primo foods, while carbs and especially refined carbs and sugar are not all that good for you. In this scenario, the agricultural 'revolution' ca 10K years ago was a big mistake.

It may very well be that it is not possible for all humans on the earth to have an optimally healthy diet because the ecological cost meat incurs eating higher on the food-chain, but this is not a reason to lash out with ad-hominems at those who choose to eat meat as part of a healthy diet. Just the calculation that a grain/vegetarian diet will allow 'us' to feed more people does in no way automatically anoint vegetarianism as the healthiest diet.

Wow, it's a rough crowd out there tonight on the ole Drum :-)

My issue came much earlier and I hope you guys can fill me in: A quote at the start of the article says, "and the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork." The "average" food item? Over 5000 miles?!!

That must mean that the U.S., despite its reputation as a major food producer and agricultural nation MUST be importing vast amounts of food. Think of it this way: Los Angeles to New York City is about 2900 miles. That's coast to coast, but let's make it tougher, let's go from corner to corner: Seatle, Washington is about 3300 miles from Miami,Florida. So the "average" food item must be being imported from very far away indeed!

Can anyone check those numbers? Re other thoughts, I like the idea of more local grown food just because it tastes so much better. I recently stayed at a hotel//inn in Anniston AL (the Victoria Hotel The chef there believes in the so called "farm to table" movement of fresh grown cuisine...and let me tell you, it was delicious beyond words. My grandmother harvested about everything I ate as a child on the farm (eggs, milk, butter, pork, beef, chicken, vegetables and plenty of wild game and rainbow trout caugh from a stream less than an a few thousand yards from the house) and I have not eaten food that good since my grandparents left the farm, ANYWHERE. Honestly, the food we eat from stores and restuarants is faux food, pretty much chemical flavoring applied to a neutral base, not real food in any known sense of the word (it is really a product of the chemical engineering industry more than food, no one born before the last 60 years would even recognize it as food). I am a modernist at heart and believe in luxury, but food is one area where luxury and quality have declined more with each passing year. My grandmother would not have fed what we call food to a dog.



If you read this it may explain some of US food miles also

You have raised a point which I think a lot of Americans underestimate, and that is the amount of Ag which we are importing. In dollars, we currently import about 70% of the amount that we export.

I reported on our imports here:

U.S. Agricultural Imports
U.S. Agricultural Imports - Part II

Note that not included in the above USDA statistics is seafood, of which we import 84% (2009), or $13.1 billion mainly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ecuador, and Chile.

It seems to me that the most straightforward way to compare the energy inputs into the various types of peas would be to simply compare the cost of them.

Couldn't you say that all the energy inputs into a product, whether they be fuel for transportation and farm equipment, packaging, heat for processing, refrigeration, etc. etc. would simply be included in the price you pay?

According to this analysis, the peas with the least energy cost would be the cans of peas that I buy 2 for a dollar at the dollar store (which I walk to).

The difference between the dollar store "house brand" and say Green Giant peas at $1.19 per can is only advertising and profits. I would argue that advertising and profits will be spent on energy. Those adverising executives travel to conferences and meetings, and spend their income on energy-laden products as do shareholders with their profits.

I know for a fact that I can't grow peas in a garden at less cost than the canned ones I get at the dollar store. If I add my time and labor to the mix I have to consider the other things that I could be doing with my time. One can-equivalent of peas that I grow in my garden might work out to costing me 15 minutes of time from planting to preservation. Instead, I could be working at my job at $20/hour which could allow me to puchase 10 cans of peas for that same 15 minutes of work.

If you bring in quality, nutritional value, etc, you're bringing intangibles into the equation. The whole exercise becomes too complicated. You could spend all your time comparing alternatives and then arguing about it on message boards and not produce anything!

That would be a dangerous assumption.

SOME of the cost would be reflected in the transp energy that brought it, but a lot of Cheap Food is cheap like any other industrial good, by the focused cheapening of every input that the manufacturer could find. Labor might be getting paid pennies and not have decent safety or appropriate facilities (See some stories on Chicken Processing ) ... Cheap growing, which might be totally healthy, or it might represent a shortcut that affects the health/nutritiousness of the food item, or it might simply be undercutting the resilience and hence stability of that producer. (EG, the standardized dosing of feed animals with Antibiotics, or feeding them the ground up carcasses of other animals that weren't accepted for the human food stream.. hence BSE, 'Mad Cow'.. etc)

My main objection to evaluating Food and Food Miles just in terms of total amount of energy spent over a volume of food is that it misses a central piece of the 'Food-Miles' argument, which is that an overcentralized food system is not resilient against technology breakdowns, energy supply interruptions or unexpected and drastic energy price swings. It isn't just about 'KW per Cheeseburger' In a way the article makes the same point, but it also does so with the 'vehicle' of turning Food Miles into the Deceptive Error that this movement, 'with best intentions', gullibly fell into. The first comment that came out of it was illustrative of how this Correction became an Overcorrection. 'Well I guess that does it for Food Miles' , or whatever was said.

OK, I get it. The cost we pay at the dollar store doesn't necessarily reflect the costs that were transferred to the environment, to others in the production chain, or to ourselves for getting inferior products.

Sheesh, nothing is simple. Back to muddling along.

I'll just remind the people of the US of A about who controls your back yard food. Yuppers - the Federal Government - just because you grew it for your own use doesn't mean it doesn't affect Interstate commerce. And Interstate Commerce is the Federal Government's place. Ask Roscoe Filburn. (He's dead but his court case is "law of the land")

First, a confession: I did not read all the comments this post generated. So forgive me if I raise points previously raised.

Energy inputs are only one factor in the local food production equation.

We live in a time when food supplies can and are interrupted by other causes. One need not look farther than the news coming from Japan to find proof of this.

I see no way to force localized production on communities from the top down. But when things fall apart, and they will in time, local production will become the preferred, if not only option.

You'd best be making strides in the direction now on an individual or small community level, or suffer the consequences of inaction later.