Agriculture energy use has risen in step with the need to feed billions of people around the globe. Both small-scale and industrial food production are energy-intensive, which is why it is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gases.
Energy is used in every step of the food production process. Images of a lone farmer on a tractor or driving a combine in a rich, green field of corn might harken back to the agricultural ideal, but it’s a far cry from the modern industrialized way we grow and process food. Farmers today are as reliant on gasoline for their tractors as they are on petrochemicals for their fertilizer, just as processing facilities rely on oil for the plastic packaging that covers so much of our food.
How is Energy Use in Agriculture?
Energy is involved in all four elements of food production:
- Agriculture. The process of planting and cultivating plants, as well as the rearing of livestock. Both plants and animals require energy for the production of fertilizers, planting, feeding cattle, and harvesting crops.
- Transportation. Harvested crops and butchered cattle are often transported hundreds or thousands of miles to be processed and reduced to more basic components before being added to processed foods like cereal and TV dinners. Even produce is often transported to a sorting facility and washed before distribution to grocery stores. Most transportation is done via trucks, though some locations use rivers and canals for this step in the journey.
- Processing. One at the facility, foods are processed to be turned into compounds that are easier to add to processed finished foods. This can involve adding chemicals, washing, drying, baking, curing, and many other ways to reshape food. These facilities use energy for all of these processes, as well as in the packaging of foods to make them safe to handle and easier to market.
- Handling and More Travel. Foods are sent, again in trucks, to grocery stores around the country and across the globe. Processed foods can travel thousands of miles to a shelf along distribution channels that can stretch across continents and oceans. It’s important to question the ethical decision to buy fruit from Argentina in northern Minnesota; imagine the carbon footprint associated with the production and transportation of a product that traveled thousands of miles to be sold for $3.99.
How Agriculture Technology Can Help
Luckily, scientists have already developed several ways to use technology to reduce agriculture’s outsized energy footprint.
The first step is to use technology to better measure the use and application of fertilizer to reduce the amount use and target amounts in plants where it is actually needed. In addition to relying on petroleum, fertilizers are damaging to the environment and can cause considerable harm in ecosystems where they are used. Simply by applying smaller amounts of fertilizer in a more targeted way, we could reduce agriculture’s carbon emissions by 23%.
Next, the industry can reduce its energy needs by increasing efficiency in the facilities and modes of transportation. By making the switch to electric tractors, combines, and trucks, we could substantially reduce emissions. Facilities that store or process must also be made more efficient, especially large-scale refrigeration facilities that store dairy and meat products. Both transportation and facilities need to incentivize exclusive use of renewable energy as well.
Finally, we need to cross-breed crops to use less fertilizer and also exhibit more positive traits, such as the ability to process more CO2 and therefore pull more carbon out of the atmosphere.
Energy Efficiency in Agriculture
All of these steps include investment on behalf of the agricultural industry. However, those costs will be offset by both immediate savings from energy efficiency and increased savings as energy costs rise. Additionally, we may see the more federal, state, and local incentives to support these kinds of improvements, and possibly even fines for those who exceed certain emissions levels.
At Keen, we offer businesses from any industry the expert information, insight, and recommendations they need to make the best decision for their company. Invest in your future with energy efficiency upgrades in lighting, HVAC, refrigeration, irrigation, and more.