While the United States is home to just five percent of the global population, we consume a whopping 20 percent of the world's energy. With a seemingly endless appetite for fuel and concern over the stability of import supplies, everyone seems to be looking for a practical domestic solution. While presidential candidates, political pundits and the nation's top engineers debate options such as offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, renewables and the Keystone pipeline, they're ignoring one obvious way to save energy now: reduce the amount of food we waste.
Consider: the production and distribution of food in the U.S. currently accounts for at least 10 percent of our energy consumption. That's because energy is consumed with every step of the process. We move water for irrigation, disperse fertilizer and pesticides, and work the land with industrial-size machinery. Then there's the processing, packaging, sorting, stocking and transportation. In fact, according to the most recent estimate, each item of food travels, on average, over 1,500 miles to your plate by land, sea or air.
Here's the important part: between one-quarter and one-third of what's produced gets discarded before reaching us. In other words, a lot of food never completes that long journey. Wasted food is wasted energy.
There's food that spoils in restaurants, and in our own refrigerators. There are the edible and nutritious, yet superficially blemished, fruits and vegetables deemed unsuitable for display at the grocery store. And then there are the left-overs from our unnecessarily super-sized portions, regularly emptied into trash bins.
It all adds up. According to a recent article out of the University of Texas at Austin — where I work — at least 2 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States was simply thrown away in 2007 in the form of food waste. That's equivalent to the energy contained in hundreds of millions of barrels of oil.
Let me repeat that. A very conservative research study estimated we threw away 2 percent of the amount of energy consumed in this country. Really. Furthermore, what gets wasted is costly as well. The average U.S. family spends about $600 a year on food that will not ever be consumed.
Of course, we can't recover all that's lost. We can't even come close. But the numbers should force us to recognize that it's time to change the way Americans produce and distribute food. That means investing in better farming practices, increased agricultural research and dedicated programs to educate consumers about food choices that will save them money.
Will it be easy? Of course not. But the tremendous international efforts currently undertaken to keep us powered up — energy exploration, research, and development — aren't exactly a piece of cake either. So, if we truly value energy in this country, we have to figure out how to save more and waste less.
Guest blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum writes frequently on the relationship between science and culture. She is also director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. You can keep up with what she's thinking on Twitter and on the Web.