Energy in Food System. March 2010. USDA

Canning, P. 2010. Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.  USDA Economic Research Report Number 94

Another great review of this article is Beyond Food Miles 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

Food system energy USDA 2002







In 2007 the U.S. The United States economy used 100 quadrillion Btu of energy: 85% from fossil fuels, 8% nuclear fuel, 6% hydroelectric, 1% biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind.

Pimentel et al., 2008, “Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System,” Human Ecology 36., reported that food used 19% of the  national energy budget.  Other researchers come up with different figures, because calculating energy use is complicated.  This report concluded 14.4% [my summary below makes it clear why every report comes up with a different number, it’s an insanely complex system with so many components and variables to include or exclude, that no report will have the same figure].

Energy is used throughout the U.S. food supply chain, from the manufacture and application of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and irrigation; through crop and livestock production, processing, and packaging; distribution services, such as shipping and cold storage; the running of refrigeration, preparation, and disposal equipment in food retailing and food service establishments; and in home kitchens.

In addition, life cycle analyses were also done on the energy

  • imported food (energy used by ships, barges, trains, trucks, fertilizers, etc)
  • municipal waste disposal
  • Water required: sewage systems and water services

The energy used to EXPORT food was NOT CONSIDERED IN THIS STUDY.

Energy used in a salad mix bought on the East Coast grown in California

The lettuce mix is just one of the 45,000 items sold in 140,000 supermarkets and 537,000 food and beverage service establishments in the USA in 2007. nationwide.  Each of these purchased,
stored, prepared, cleaned, and disposed of food items.

  1. The farm California used a precision seed planter months before attached to a gas-powered farm tractor.
  2. Fertilizers and pesticides were trucked to wholesalers by diesel powered trucks.
  3. Local farmers drove in gas-fueled trucks to buy these fertilizers and pesticides.
  4. A diesel-powered broadcast spreader applied fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to the lettuce
  5. These nitrogen-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, were all made with natural gas and electricity
  6. The farms used electric-powered irrigation equipment throughout much of the growing period
  7. At harvest, field workers packed harvested vegetables in boxes produced at a paper mill
  8. The boxes were in gas-powered trucks to ship to a regional processing plant, where specialized machinery cleaned, cut, mixed, and packaged the salad mixes.
  9. Utility services at the paper mill, plastic packaging manufacturers, and salad mix plants use energy to produce the boxes used at harvest and the packaging used at the processing plant, and for processing and packaging the fresh produce.
  10. The packaged salad mix was shipped in refrigerated containers by a combination of rail and truck to an East Coast grocery store
  11. The grocery store kept the lettuce under constant refrigeration.
  12. To purchase this packaged salad mix, a consumer probably got there by car or mass transit.
  13. At home, the consumer refrigerated the salad mix a while before eating it.
  14. Dishes and utensils used to eat the salad may be placed in a dishwasher for cleaning and reuse—adding to the electricity use of the consumer’s household.
  15. Leftover salad may be ground in a garbage disposal and washed away to a wastewater treatment facility, or disposed, collected, and hauled to a landfill

Household measurements

26.7%: Electricity for cooking, cleaning, and food storage, 6.6% cooking (i.e. electric range, oven, microwave, toaster oven, and coffee makers), 14% refrigeration,  3.6 freezers; 2.5% dishwashers,

3% (in 2001) Cooking heat other than electricity (natural gas and liquid petroleum gas (LPG)

2% roughly Auto fuel for food-related personal transportation

Embodied energy in purchases of food storage, preparation, and serving equipment

Part of the embodied energy in purchases of automobiles, parts, and auto services (insurance and accessories were not included)

Table 5: Freight industry 

Average miles 2007    Commodity

  • 374 Fresh produce, oilseeds, and other horticulture
  • 243 Meat, fish, and preparations
  • 262 Milled grain products and preparations, and bakery products
  • 230 Other prepared foodstuffs and fats and oils

Freight mode:
BTU’s 2007 Energy use by freight mode

23,260    Energy use per truck mile
14,990    Energy use per freight car rail mile
Sources: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from the U.S. Department of
Transportation (, and U.S. Department of Energy (

Agriculture mechanization grew 10%, labor declined 30% between 1996 – 2006

With farm machinery use on the rise and use of agricultural chemicals roughly constant, energy services for the production of farm inputs may have increased steadily over the past decade.


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