Counting Calories: The Energy Cost of Food

Eric Garza is an energy systems consultant ( and a Lecturer at UVM. This is the first in a series of blog posts from Eric on energy use in the food system.

Every time I visit my local food co-op or wander through my local farmers market, I’m faced with the reality that food prices are rising. They’re rising for staples, things like meat and potatoes, but they’re also rising for fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Food prices have been on the rise for most of the last decade, and have become particularly volatile over the past five years. Interestingly enough, food prices show a striking resemblance to trends in fuel prices over the same period.

Why a link between the prices of food and fuel? The answer is simple: it takes a lot of energy – carried by fuel – to produce, process, distribute, and prepare food. In the United States in 2002 it required just over 12 Calories of energy inputs to produce one Calorie of food once waste and spoilage are accounted for, and this figure has been trending upwards. By 2007 it took just over 14 Calories of energy inputs to produce one Calorie of consumed food, and if we extrapolate to the present day it’s likely around 15 Calories. As high as these figures might seem, the food system study from which they’re derived left out the energy costs of waste disposal, research and development, water procurement, and governance, among other important components, leaving even our 15 Calorie calculation a guaranteed underestimate. A more thorough assessment would probably put the energy cost of food in the United States in the range of 15-20 Calories per Calorie of consumed food, or higher.

To put these statistics into perspective, 15 Calories of energy inputs per consumed food Calorie equates to 1.2 gallons of gasoline embodied in the average American’s daily diet. That’s the equivalent of 420 gallons of gasoline per person per year, an amount on par with the 430 gallons the average American burns annually in their car. The reality is that it takes a lot of fuel to produce, process, distribute, store and prepare food in the United States, more than most people appreciate. These energy costs hit food enterprises hard, and as energy prices rise they must pass that added cost on to consumers, or go the way of the dinosaur.

How energy efficient must our food system be to relax the link between food and fuel prices? What changes must we make in our food system’s development path to achieve this level of efficiency? Is local enough? As a professional who audits farms and other food and biofuel enterprises for both direct and indirect energy use, it’s pleasing to see the growing awareness of how important energy efficiency is within these systems. And as Vermont and other states work actively, through initiatives such as Farm to Plate, to redevelop their local food systems, I hope that reducing the energy cost of food rises high on the list of priorities. Reducing the energy inputs needed to deliver food can help to control food prices, and make the local food revolutions brewing in many corners of the US more accessible to all.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental.