Energy and the US Food System

Gil Kornberg
December 19, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Cattle grazing (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When examining the energy use associated with agriculture, it suggests that the energy use for the industry is not significant. (See Fig. 1.) A report by the Congressional Research Service from 2002 states that agriculture denoted only 1% of the total US energy consumption. [1] However, the food system includes not only food production, but distribution and manufacturing as well. The USDA estimated that food-related energy use comprised 15.7% of the national energy budget in 2007. [2] On a larger scale, the global food system is responsible for a significant portion of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. According to Gilbert, it represents as much as one-third of human-caused emissions. [3] In addition, 36% of Earth's land that is potentially cultivable is currently used for agricultural purposes. [4] There is no shortage of reasons to take interest in our food system, its energy and land uses as well as its environmental effects. In this essay I will examine the inefficiencies of the system from an energy wastage standpoint, and how innovations in the industry combat them.

Inefficiencies and Energy Waste

Following the general trend of urbanization in the country, the average household's disposable income is increasing, and as a result people eat more high-energy, or carbon intensive, foods. [5] A study comparing climate impacts of different food products found that the carbon intensity of red meat products is at least twice that of the next highest polluter, dairy products. [6] Red meat production serves as a good example of the inefficiencies in food systems. Instead of grain being consumed by people, it is fed to cattle to produce meat products then eaten by people. Hunger is generally considered a problem of distribution and not one of production, and this is exemplified in the instance of red meat. Though there is more than enough crop production of the "Big 3" crops (corn, wheat, and soy) to easily feed the world's population, hunger is still increasing in sub-Saharan Africa where over 25% of the population is still undernourished. [7] If the production process of especially carbon intensive foods was made more efficient, we could focus on improving our ability to distribute food to combat problems such as malnourishment on a global scale. In addition improving that efficiency would greatly mitigate our food system's energy use.


The shortcomings of the domestic food system are representative of those of the global one as well. Inefficiency with respect to energy use is a problem that has been met with several innovations such as the green revolution of the middle of the last century. The revolution entailed developments in crop genetics that have led to significant yield increases while allowing the amount of land used for agricultural purposes to remain mostly constant. [8] The advancements have meant less energy use for components of the food system such as fertilizer production as well as food distribution. [9]

© Gil Kornberg. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Schnepf, "Energy Use in Agriculture: Background and Issues," Congressional Research Service, RL32677, November 2004.

[2] P. N. Canning, "Fuel for Food: Energy Use in the U.S. Food System," U.S. Department of Agriculture, Amber Waves, September 2010.

[3] N. Gilbert, "One-Third of Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come from Agriculture," Nature News, 31 Oct 12.

[4] J. Bruinsma, World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030: An FAO Perspective (Routledge, 2003), Ch. 4.

[5] H. C. J. Godfray et al. "The Future of the Global Food System," Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 2769 (2010).

[6] C. L. Weber and H. S. Matthews, "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States," Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 3508 (2008).

[7] "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015).

[8] P. L. Pingali, "Green Revolution: Impacts, Limits, and the Path Ahead," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 109, 12302 (2012).