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Americans enjoy a diverse abundance of low cost food, spending a mere 10% of disposable income on food items. However, store prices do not reveal the external costs that are economic, social, and environmental. Considering the full life cycle of the U.S. food system helps us see the connection between consumption behaviors and production practices. The statistics below are just for you to educate yourself, and think about ALL the factors involved in the system of food production.
Food and the Environment:
- Many parts of the U.S., including agricultural regions, are experiencing groundwater depletion (withdrawal exceeds recharge rate) at increasing rates. In 2013, 88.5 million acre-feet of water were used for irrigation—more than 520,000 gallons per acre; groundwater sources supplied more than half this amount.
- Although pesticide active ingredient usage declined 1.4% annually from 1996 to 2007, herbicide use increased significantly (more than 30%) during the same period.
- Nutrient runoff in the agricultural upper regions of the Mississippi River creates a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The average size of the region was over 5,742 square miles from 2007 to 2013, that is the size of the state of Connecticut!
- The environmental cost of food waste goes further than just methane emissions created farming livestock. Producing food is a costly affair for the environment—an estimated one third of global carbon emissions come from agriculture.
Food and the Economy
- The United States is a major player in the global trade of agricultural products. In 2010,exports of agricultural products were worth some 116 billion U.S. dollars. The most important countries of destination were China, Canada and Mexico. On the other side, imports worth around 82 billion U.S. dollars made their way into the United States. Principal countries of origin were Canada, the European Union and Mexico
- Farming also involves significantproduction costs. In the United States, expenditure totaled more than 287 billion U.S. dollars in 2010. A closer look at the composition of these costs shows that feed makes up the largest share, followed by farm services, livestock and poultry.
Food and Fuel
- Water Consumption – Most forms of agriculture are water-intensive. Pumping and moving large volumes of irrigation water requires energy.
- Farm Equipment – Modern agriculture relies upon machinery that runs on gasoline and diesel fuel (e.g., tractors and combines), and equipment that uses electricity (e.g., lights, pumps, fans, etc.).
- Transportation – Because the food industry has been consolidated, fewer companies now control production. Food is often transported long distances from a select few locations, requiring additional energy to power planes, trains, cars and trucks.
- Industrial Livestock Farms & Energy – Most meat, eggs and dairy products are now derived from livestock raised in industrial farming operations. Such farms require tremendous quantities of feed produced by industrial crop farms using the energy-intensive processes described above.
- Reliance on large fossil fuel inputs makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. Consolidation of farms, production of animal feed and fertilizer, and distribution warehouses often place further distance between food sources and consumers where large vehicles must drive long distances to bring food to your grocery store.
Food and Land Fills
- An estimated 26% of the edible food available is wasted at the consumer level, 50% more than in 1970. This waste accounts for roughly 15% of the municipal solid waste stream and represents a loss of $455 per person each year. One estimate suggests that 2% of total annual energy use in the U.S. is used to produce food that is later wasted.
- The level of food waste suggests that curbing hunger isn’t a matter of producing more food so much as better preserving and distributing the food currently being produced. As the United Nations noted in itsreport on world hunger recently, there is actually enough food to feed all seven billion people living in the world today.
- In 1980, food waste accounted for less than 10 percent of total waste; today, it makes up well over a fifth of the country’s garbage. Americans, as it is, now throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, or glass.
The Reality: These statistics are not meant to scare you, they are used to highlight some of the issues related to food production and consumption. We have over 320 million people living in the Unites States and over 7 billion living in the world; the fact is we have to eat if we want to stay alive! However, there have been some decisions made and unfortunate developments in food production that have not always had sustainability as a driving factor. These are some statistics that highlight some of the issues, and we have the ability to address some of these problems. In the end, there is a delicate balance to this entire ecosystem, and we are a part of that system.