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Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System

Report No. CSS00-04
December 6, 2000
Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators
for Assessment of the U.S. Food System
Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian
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Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of
the U.S. Food System
Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian
Center for Sustainable Systems
School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
6 December, 2000
a report of the Center for Sustainable Systems
Report No. CSS00-04
Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian
The Center for Sustainable Systems, Report no. CSS00-04, Ann Arbor, Michigan, December 6,
59 p., tables, figures, appendices.
This document is available online:
The Center for Sustainable Systems
430 East University, Dana Building
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1115
Phone: 734-764-1412
Fax: 734-647-5841
© Copyright 2000 by the Regents of the University of Michigan
Preface ............................................................................................................................................ 5
Abstract........................................................................................................................................... 6
Introduction..................................................................................................................................... 7
Framework and scope..................................................................................................................... 7
Indicators for Each Life Cycle Stage............................................................................................ 10
Origin of Resource.................................................................................................................... 10
Economic.............................................................................................................................. 10
Social .................................................................................................................................... 11
Environmental....................................................................................................................... 12
Agricultural Growing and Production ...................................................................................... 13
Economic.............................................................................................................................. 13
Social .................................................................................................................................... 15
Environmental....................................................................................................................... 20
Food processing, packaging, and distribution .......................................................................... 26
Economic.............................................................................................................................. 26
Social .................................................................................................................................... 28
Environmental....................................................................................................................... 29
Preparation and Consumption................................................................................................... 30
Economic.............................................................................................................................. 30
Social .................................................................................................................................... 31
Environmental....................................................................................................................... 34
End of Life................................................................................................................................ 35
Economic.............................................................................................................................. 35
Social .................................................................................................................................... 36
Environmental....................................................................................................................... 36
Indicators for the Total Food System............................................................................................ 36
Life Cycle Materials: Food System Mass Flow........................................................................ 36
Life Cycle Energy: Food System Energy Demand................................................................... 39
Life Cycle Management: Consolidation in the food system..................................................... 42
Conclusions................................................................................................................................... 46
Acknowledgements....................................................................................................................... 48
References..................................................................................................................................... 48
Appendix A................................................................................................................................... 55
Appendix B................................................................................................................................... 56
Table 1: Life Cycle Sustainability Indicators for the Food System............................................... 9
Table 2: U.S. Average Production Costs and Returns for Various Agricultural Commodities... 15
Table 3: Farm Debt Holdings, 1985 & 1996 ............................................................................... 16
Table 4: Number and Size of Farms in the U.S. by Year ............................................................ 16
Table 5: Market value of some commodities produced under contract in the U.S. in 1997........ 17
Table 6. Average Estimated Erosion Rates for nonfederal rural land in the U.S. by Year and
Land Use Type.................................................................................................................. 21
Table 7: Agricultural Production contribution to criteria air pollutants ..................................... 24
Table 8: Greenhouse gas emissions from Agricultural production ............................................ 25
Table 9: Farm value as a percentage of retail price for domestically produced foods ................ 27
Table 10: Portion of Total Personal Consumption Expenditures Spent on Food and Alcoholic
Beverages Consumed at Home, by Selected Countries, 1994.......................................... 31
Table 11: Summary of Key Indicators showing Unsustainable Trends of the U.S. Food System46
Figure 1: What a dollar spent for food paid for in 1998.............................................................. 26
Figure 2: Energy inputs for a 455g can of sweet corn................................................................. 30
Figure 3: Life Cycle Materials – 1995 U.S. Food System Flow.................................................. 37
Figure 4. U.S. Agricultural Imports and Exports by Year........................................................... 40
Figure 5: Life Cycle Energy Use in Supplying US Food ............................................................ 41
Figure 6: Four Firm Concentration Ratios for Selected Agricultural Markets............................ 44
The impetus for this report came from a workshop organized by the Center for
Sustainable Systems entitled “A Life Cycle Approach to Sustainable Agriculture Indicators,”
held February 26-27, 1999. The workshop brought together 60 participants including organic
and conventional farmers, agri-business representatives, state and national level governmental
agents, non-governmental organization representatives, and sustainable agriculture and
agroecology academics. The objectives of the workshop were:
1. To introduce the concept of life cycle assessment as it applies to agriculture
2. To initiate a dialog among resource professionals, active farmers, government
agencies and faculty members in the Great Lakes/ North Central Region to begin to form
a comprehensive, interdisciplinary understanding of sustainable agriculture.
3. To develop an initial set of performance indicators to gauge the environmental,
economic, and social impacts of all stages of the agricultural life cycle.
The initial set of indicators became a framework for the development of this report. Proceedings
of the workshop are also available through the Center for Sustainable Systems
Dedicated to my grandfathers, Carl J. Heller and David R. Gordon, each gentlemen who made a
good living and raised a family in the oldest (and still challenged) of professions: farming.
- Martin Heller
Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System
Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian
Center for Sustainable Systems, School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
The United States food system, from field to table, is at a crossroads for change.
Improving the sustainability of this complex system requires a thorough understanding of the
relationships between food consumption behaviors, processing and distribution activities, and
agricultural production practices. The product life cycle system is a useful framework for
studying the links between societal needs, the natural and economic processes involved in
meeting these needs, and the associated environmental consequences. The ultimate goal is to
guide the development of system-based solutions.
This report presents a broad set of indicators covering the life cycle stages of the food
system. Indicators address economic, social, and environmental aspects of each life cycle stage:
origin of (genetic) resource, agricultural growing and production, food processing, packaging
and distribution, preparation and consumption, and end of life. The report then offers an initial
critical review of the condition of the U.S. food system by considering trends in the various
Multiple threats to the long-term vitality of the U.S. food system demonstrate that the
current system is not economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable. Key indicators
supporting this conclusion include: rates of agricultural land conversion, income and profitability
from farming, degree of food industry consolidation, fraction of edible food wasted, diet related
health costs, legal status of farmworkers, age distribution of farmers, genetic diversity, rate of
soil loss and groundwater withdrawal, and fossil fuel intensity. We suggest that the most
effective opportunities to enhance the sustainability of the food system exist in changing
consumption behavior, which will have compounding benefits across agricultural production,
distribution and food disposition stages.
Agricultural practices in the United States, as in much of the world, have changed dramatically
over the past century. Today, farmers account for less than one percent of the U.S. population
yet still manage to adequately feed and clothe America while exporting some $50 billion in
agricultural goods, more than six times (in real dollar value) what they did in 1940[1]. The
unprecedented yield increases of the Green Revolution era, however, were not gained without
cost to environmental health. Similarly, industrial-model consolidation within agriculture and
food processing in the U.S. has had a profound affect on the socio-economic face of the nation,
especially in rural areas. Numerous indicators show that U.S. agriculture is in a state of major
transition: farms continue to grow in size while the number of farm operators decrease; the
average age of farmers is on the rise; alternative methods of production, from biotechnology to
organic, rally for broader acceptance. Today, agriculture is challenged with a paradigm shift
from an emphasis on perpetual gains in productivity to one that embraces the concept of
Yet, despite more than a decade of developing and refining in the literature and broad use
of the term, a widely accepted, pragmatic definition of “sustainable agriculture” does not exist[2-
4]. Hansen (1996) provides a thorough review of approaches to sustainability and proposes that a
sustainability concept useful in guiding change in agriculture should be literal, system-oriented,
quantitative, predictive, stochastic and diagnostic. Among others contributing to the
development of a sustainable agriculture concept, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA)[5], there tends to be agreement that an appraisal of sustainability should integrate
economic, social and environmental dimensions. Given agriculture’s unequivocal link with
natural resources, however, it is not surprising that initial efforts to develop methodology for
assessment and to implement change have focused on ecological or environmental aspects[2, 3].
In general, a sustainable system is one that can be maintained at a certain state or quality
on a long-term time horizon. This “quality” of the system can often be evaluated by following
trends in certain indicators. When addressing sustainability it is critical to keep in mind the
ultimate societal need that is met by the system in question: in agriculture this is to provide
necessary food and fiber. The long-term future of agricultural production, therefore, can not be
assessed without consideration of the consumption patterns and processes that drive production.
In other words, a sustainable food system must simultaneously address production and
consumption impacts and demands. A life cycle framework offers a systematic means of linking
production and consumption. This report introduces a set of economic, social and environmental
indicators that were developed using a life cycle framework through a workshop organized by
the Center for Sustainable Systems. The report then provides an initial assessment of the U.S.
food system by examining trends with respect to these indicators.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is an analytical method used to evaluate the resource
consumption and environmental burdens associated with a product, process, or activity[6]. LCA
provides a systems-based accounting of material and energy inputs and outputs at all stages of
the life cycle: acquisition of raw materials, production, processing, packaging, use, and
retirement. This holistic assessment provides an environmental profile of the product system.
Since the standard LCA method has been applied mainly to manufactured products, bottlenecks
and methodological challenges arise in application to agricultural products. Many of these
challenges have been addressed by researchers[7-9] and the numbers of LCAs evaluating
agricultural and food production processes are increasing[10-13].
While our inspiration is derived from an understanding and appreciation of the LCA
method, the intention of this report is not to attempt a quantitative LCA of the U.S. food system.
Instead, we hope to encourage “life cycle thinking” in approaches to sustainable agriculture and
food consumption. A comprehensive LCA of the food system is not possible; yet, a life cycle
framework does provide a systematic basis for developing indicators.
Table 1 presents the full matrix of sustainability indicators proposed. The rows represent
major stages of the food system: origin of resource (seed production and animal breeding);
agricultural growing and production; food processing, packaging, and distribution; preparation
and consumption; and finally end of life, or disposal. Indicators for each stage are categorized
into the “triad” of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental. Also identified in Table 1
are the primary stakeholders involved or influential in each stage of the food system.
The LCA methodology focuses on the biophysical impacts of a product system: resource
depletion, energy consumption, water and air pollution, human health impacts, waste generation.
Where appropriate, these types of indicators have been included in the food system assessment.
While the standard LCA methodology does not specifically include a cost evaluation of the
system, other design-based approaches, such as Life Cycle Design[14], have incorporated
economic aspects. Indicators of economic sustainability in the food system are included in this
assessment, but as can quickly be seen in Table 1, these economic indicators go beyond cost
consideration. In many incidences, the division between economic, social, and environmental
indicators is somewhat arbitrary since particular indicators often address more than one aspect of
sustainability. The divisions presented in Table 1 are maintained throughout the report primarily
for organizational purposes.
Important in any systems-based assessment is a clear definition of the system boundaries
observed. In the following assessment, the system boundary considered is the food system of the
United States. Thus, while fiber and other biomass production can be a significant part of U.S.
agriculture, the focus here is on food production – providing human sustenance. Given the
national average level of much of the data used, however, the disaggregation of food from other
agricultural production is not completely possible. Similarly, it is extremely difficult to establish
rigorous geographic boundaries around the U.S. food system. U.S. agriculture exports a large
portion of its production. Agricultural imports are also significant. To be complete, many
indicators should be corrected for agricultural trade ratios: this has not been attempted here.
Furthermore, national balances on resource inputs such as fossil fuels also factor into an overall
assessment of sustainability. The role of U.S. agriculture in international relations and
economies should also considered in a rigorous assessment of the food system. Such discussion
is beyond the scope of this report. Population and carrying capacity are key parameters in
assessing the sustainability of the U.S. food system. Population growth imposes additional stress
on the system and there is increasing recognition of the limits in population (carrying capacity)
that can be sustained by the biophysical system. The present analysis, however, does not directly
explore such population dynamics.
The assessment of the life cycle food system is conducted at a national scale, providing a
directional overview of the sustainability of the U.S. food system. Thus, while there can be
significant regional and temporal variations in indicators, this assessment offers the general
Table 1: Life Cycle Sustainability Indicators for the Food System
Stakeholders Life cycle stage INDICATORS
Economic Social Environmental
Origin of (genetic)
resource – seed
production, animal
-degree of farmer/operator
control of seed
-diversity in seed purchasing
and seed collecting options
-degree of cross-species
-ratio of naturally pollinated
plants to genetically modified/
hybrid plants per acre
-reproductive ability of plant or
-% of disease resistant
Farm workers
Ag. Industry
Ag. Schools
Agricultural growing
and production -rates of agricultural land
-% return on investment
-cost of entry to business
-farmer savings and
insurance plans
-flexibility in bank loan
requirements to foster
environmentally sustainable
-level of gov’t support
-average age of farmers
-diversity and structure
of industry, size of farms,
# farms per capita
-hours of labor/ yield
and / income
-avg. farm wages vs.
other professions
-# of legal laborers on farms,
ratio of migrant workers to
local laborers,
% workers with health
-# of active agrarian
community organizations
-% of ag. Schools that
offer sustainable ag.
programs, encourage
sustainable practices
-# animals/unit, time animals
spend outdoors (animal
-rate of soil loss vs.
-soil microbial activity, balance
of nutrients/acre
-quantity of chemical inputs/ unit
of production
-air pollutants/ unit of production
-number of species/acre
-water withdrawal vs. recharge
-# of comtaminated or eutrophic
bodies of surface water or
-% waste utilized as a resource
-veterinary costs
-energy input/ unit of production
-ratio of renewable to non-
renewable energy
-portion of harvest lost due to
pests, diseases
Food processing,
packaging and
-relative profits received by
farmer vs. processor vs.
-geographic proximity of
grower, processor,
packager, retailer
-quality of life and
worker satisfaction in
food processing industry
-nutritional value of food
-food safety
-energy requirement for
processing, packaging and
-waste produced/ unit of food
-% of waste and byproducts
utilized in food processing
-% of food lost due to
Food service
Health pro-
Preparation and
consumption -portion of consumer
disposable income spent on
-% of food dollar spent
outside the home
-rates of malnutrition
-rates of obesity
-health costs from diet
related disease/conditions
-balance of average diet
-% of products with
consumer labels
-degree of consumer
literacy regarding food
system consequences,
product quality vs.
appearance, etc.
-time for food preparation
-energy use in preparation,
storage, refrigeration
-packaging waste/ calories
-ratio of local vs. non-local and
seasonal vs. non-seasonal
Food recovery
& gleaning
End of life -ratio of food wasted to food
consumed in the US
-$ spent on food disposal
-ratio of (edible) food wasted
vs. donated to
food gatherers
-amount of food waste
composted vs. sent to
landfill/incinerator/ waste water
direction in which the country as a whole is progressing. Many of the indicators – for example,
soil microbial activity per acre or quantity of chemical inputs per unit of production – are more
appropriately evaluated at the regional or farm scale level. Typically, data is not readily
available at this level.
The remainder of the report is organized as follows: the indicators in Table 1 are
considered on a stage-wise basis, further dividing each life cycle stage into economic, social and
environmental indicators. Attention is then turned to the food system life cycle as a whole.
Food mass flow through the system is demonstrated and discussed. A life cycle energy
evaluation compiles the energy use of the entire food system. Consolidation in the food system
is then considered as a system-wide life cycle management challenge. Finally, conclusions and
recommended future directions are presented.
Origin of Resource
For most of human history, subsistence activities have relied on hunting and gathering. It
wasn’t until the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago that humans moved from simply
collecting grain to planting it, and from hunting animals to herding them. The development of a
vast range of domesticated varieties of plants and animals, suited for local climates and growing
practices, has been the result of manipulation and control of the genetics of a select few species
of plants and animals by growers. The control of these genetic resources has undergone
numerous social and cultural changes over the course of human agricultural history. In recent
times, there has been a dramatic shift to legal, patent-like control of plant genetic resources, and
increasingly, it is corporations that maintain this control. The United States has three separate
intellectual property systems that cover plants. The intention of these proprietary systems is to
provide incentive for innovation in plant breeding for the betterment of society. The 1930 Plant
Patent Act provides 17-year patent protection to new varieties of asexually reproduced plants
(plants produced by budding, grafting and tissue culture). The 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act
(PVPA) was established to provide breeders with legal rights over the production, marketing and
sale of new, sexually reproduced (i.e. by seed) plant varieties. While PVPA allows farmers to
save enough seed from protected varieties for replanting on their own land, recent amendments
to the PVPA (1994) have restricted farmers’ privileges of exchanging protected seed with other
farmers, and breeders’ rights to use the genetic material of protected varieties in developing new
varieties. In 1985, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began issuing utility patents for all
plant “innovations” that met the standard industrial patenting criteria of novelty, utility and non-
The advent of biotechnology in agriculture has greatly increased the plant utility patent
application rate as biotechnology companies search for the strongest proprietary protection
possible for their transgenic plants. Preparing a U.S. utility patent application costs between
$10,000 to $20,000, and enforcing such a patent over its lifetime can cost upwards of
$250,000[15], thus limiting application to larger companies that can afford this investment. The
claims made are often very broad, covering entire species or even specific traits. The result has
been sweeping patent claims of many food and industrial crops: the company DNA Plant
Technology claims ownership of all transgenic pepper plants (genus Capsicum) and transgenic
garden pea plants; Calgene Inc. has patented all genetically engineered plants of the Brassica
family; Escagenics holds patents on all transgenic coffee plants[15]. Indeed, 79% of the plant
utility patents in 1995 were owned by corporations[15]. In the case of utility patents, there are no
exemptions made for farmers or plant breeders – all parts of the plant, including its seeds, tissue,
and cells are protected, as is the use of a plant’s seeds or pollen to create more plants.
Seed costs for U.S. crops have risen steadily in recent years. There was a 20% increase
in the seed price index from 1992 – 1997[16]. Seed cost increases add to the input costs of
agricultural production and raise questions to the effects on producers of market consolidation
occurring in the seed industry, which will be addressed in the next section.
Social Like numerous other segments of the food system, the seed industry has undergone major
restructuring and consolidation in recent years. According to a study conducted by the Rural
Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in 1998, the top ten companies now control 32%
of the $23 billion in global commercial seed trade[17]. In certain markets, this consolidation is
much higher: 40% of U.S. vegetable seeds come from a single source while the top 5 vegetable
seed companies control 75% of the global vegetable seed market; 69% of the North American
seed corn market is controlled by 4 companies[17]; a single company, Delta & Pine Land,
controls 71% of the North American cotton seed market[18]. The U.S. plant patent protection
systems mentioned above, along with the high capital cost of new plant breeding technologies,
have contributed to the development of such seed industry oligopolies. While it is difficult to
place a clear cut-off for the breakdown of competitive markets due to market concentration, a
four-firm market concentration ratio (the market share of the four largest firms) of 40% is often
adopted as a rule of thumb for the onset of oligopoly markets[19, 20]. This certainly may be the
case in various sectors of the seed industry. Such market concentration places decision-making
for new products, adoption of new technologies, and prices in the hands of a few firms. It
reduces farmers’ access to diverse genetic resource options and often leads to the elimination of
seed varieties specialized for local conditions. It also makes entry into the market by new
players increasingly difficult, limiting innovation. This barrier to entry is particularly strong
with genetically engineered seeds since two or three firms have control over much of the process
itself by which genetic manipulation occurs.
The large capital investment required to develop genetically modified seed varieties has
led companies to seek additional methods to maintain control of the resource and assure a
prompt return on their investment. Most genetically modified products have been granted utility
patents, making it illegal for farmers to save seed from their harvest. Monsanto, the principal
player in agricultural genetic engineering in the U.S., has made it a point to “vigorously
prosecute” farmers that violate the ownership rights given to the company. In addition to paying
a $6.50 per 50 pound bag technology fee, farmers have to sign a contract when buying
Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed which grants access to farmers’ fields for collection of
tissue samples. Monsanto has hired investigators to search out farmers that are illegally saving
patented seed and has created tip lines where farmers can report neighbors that have saved seed.
Furthermore, various companies are developing “technology protection systems” or “genetic use
restriction technology”, genetically engineering plants to produce sterile seed or to require the
use of an external chemical trigger to turn on or off a plant’s genetic traits. Such techniques
create genetic control of genetic resources, so that farmers cannot save the harvested seed for
replanting but must return each year to obtain seed from the biotechnology companies or, in the
case of the use restriction technology, to purchase proprietary chemicals. In 1998, Delta & Pine
Land Seed Co. (D&PL) and the USDA patented the original sterile seed technology, now
notoriously known as the Terminator. This new technology received immense worldwide
attention and disapproval from farmers, governments, and NGOs, including the United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organization, forcing Monsanto (who was developing Terminator
technology through a planned takeover of D&PL) to publicly pledge “not to commercialize gene
protection systems that render seed sterile”[21]. Since this time, however, Monsanto has
withdrawn its takeover bid of D&PL, and D&PL, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
is continuing with development of Terminator technology[18, 22]. Terminator is targeted
primarily for use in markets in developing countries, where legal enforcement of seed intellectual
property rights is logistically difficult.
In addition to the social and economic consolidation prevalent in the seed industry,
modern agricultural systems have also become increasingly genetically uniform. Only 10-20
crops provide 80-90% of the world’s calories[23]. In the US, 42% of the soybeans, 43% of the
corn, and 38% of the wheat grown in 1980 were dominated by the top 6 varieties[24]. Often,
these varieties originate from an even smaller genetic base. For example, the hundreds of corn
hybrids grown in the U.S. are largely based on about 12 inbred lines that originated from a few
open-pollinated varieties of a single race (although there are some 200 known races of corn)[25].
Repeated warnings have been sounded from the research community about the extreme
vulnerability associated with this limited genetic diversity[26, 27]. Lack of biodiversity in crops
leads to pest and disease susceptibility[28-30]. A recent large-scale experiment in China
demonstrates that mixing varieties of rice within a field significantly reduces the spread of a
major fungal disease[31]. Historic examples where insufficient crop biodiversity has led to
catastrophe include red rust on wheat in Roman times, ergot-tainted rye during the Middle Ages,
the Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century, and the corn leaf blight in southern U.S. in
1970[27]. Recent outbreaks of Fusarium head blight in wheat and barley in the Red River Valley
of Minnesota and the Dakotas is at least partly due to genetic uniformity[32]. What’s more, the
forces driving genetic uniformity – the quest for ever-increasing yields, as well as the proprietary
systems and industry consolidation mentioned above – also lead to abandonment and loss of
landraces, the locally adapted varieties that are the necessary resources to meeting future plant
breeding challenges.
Genetic engineering is seen by some as an answer to these problems since it allows
individual traits to be added to plant varieties (for example, only the genes for resistance to
disease could be added to a potato variety rather than going through extensive breeding routines
to incorporate resistance from a landrace into a high-yielding variety). Yet, genetic engineering
may actually exacerbate genetic uniformity because the high research and development cost in
creating a new genetically engineered organism favors using the same variety over a large area
rather than applying the technology to many regionally adapted varieties. In addition, numerous
potentially devastating ecological risks associated with genetically engineered plants have been
identified. These include transfer of introduced genes to wild populations or unmodified crops
(genetic pollution); the development of superweeds, either by the modified crop itself or through
transfer of a trait to wild populations; and development of resistant insects due to constant
resistance pressure (from plants modified to produce an insecticide such as the Bt varieties)[33].
The adoption of genetically engineered crops has been the highest of new technologies by
agricultural industry standards[34]. The major genetically engineered crops include soybeans,
corn, cotton, rapeseed, and potatoes. Globally, the acreage planted to genetically engineered
crops has risen from 6.4 million acres in 1996 to 102.5 million acres in 1999. In the U.S. alone,
which leads global acreage of genetically engineered crops with 69.1% of the 1999 total, acreage
has grown from 3.6 million acres in 1996 to 70.8 million in 1999[35]. This represents about 22%
of U.S. cropland. Despite the rapid growth, early indications suggested that acreage of
genetically engineered crops would be down in 2000 from 1999 values, due primarily to market
resistance in Europe and elsewhere. Interestingly, a report issued by the European
Commission’s Directorate-General of Agriculture does not find conclusive evidence of farm-
level profitability of genetically engineered crops that would warrant their rapid adoption[35].
Genetic engineering is also creating inroads into the hybridization of crops that, because
they are self-pollinating, have eluded commercial hybridization. For example, wheat has
remained an open pollinated varietal, despite the fact that it is the most widely cultivated crop on
the planet, with 219 million acres harvested in 1995. Now biotechnology is allowing the
commercialization of hybrid wheat with aggressive marketing and cash rebates to farmers who
try hybrid wheat seed in parts of the U.S.[36]. While hybrid wheat may bring improvements in
yield and performance, it also means growers are dependent on buying seed from seed
companies every year, as is the case with hybrid corn.
Consolidation and genetic uniformity have also become prevalent trends in livestock
breeding. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that domestic livestock breeds
are disappearing worldwide at an annual rate of 5%, or 6 breeds a month[37]. The highly
specialized nature of intensive livestock production has created a drive towards genetic
uniformity that has been made possible through reproductive technologies such as artificial
insemination, embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization, and now, cloning. As an example, over 90%
of all the commercially produced turkeys in the world come from three breeding flocks[38].
Similar conditions exist in hog, chicken, and dairy cattle genetics. But like plants, livestock
genetic diversity is crucial in sustaining productivity and animal health in the face of future
challenges such as disease and changes in environmental conditions. A genetically uniform
system is extremely vulnerable if, for example, a new strain of disease were to evolve for which
the animals have no resistance, as occurred with chickens in Hong Kong in 1998.
Agricultural Growing and Production
Farming involves the careful balance of the three classical factors of agricultural
production – land, labor, and capital. Thus, the land available for agriculture is an important
indicator of its stability. Land in farms has declined every year since reaching a peak in 1954.
In 1997, 931,795,255 acres were reported in farming , 16% below 1964 levels and 5.6% down
from 1982[39]. Farmland is taken out of production for various reasons, but of particular concern
is the rapid development and urbanization of rural land. A study conducted by the American
Farmland Trust demonstrates that development has been occurring disproportionately on high
quality farmland. Their study considers 127 ‘Major Land Resource Areas’ (MLRA), covering
76% of the nation’s land, but containing 95% of the prime farmland. Within these MLRAs, 22%
of the land was classified as prime or unique farmland, but a disproportionate 32% of land
developed from 1982 to 1992 was on prime land[40]. It is perhaps not surprising that
development is most likely to occur on prime farmland since agriculture was the basis for most
permanent inland settlements in the U.S.
The increasing mix of rural and urban land uses creates added social conflict and
environmental impact. Farmers are faced with complaints about odor, dust, or noise, and
perhaps experience more trespassing. Impermeable surfaces increase, directing rainwater to
sewer drains rather than to the soil. New chemicals – from road salt to lawn care pesticides - are
introduced into the environment. The total U.S. conversion of prime farmland to urban or built-
up land between 1982 and 1992 translates into 45.7 acres every hour over those 10 years. An
additional 266,000 acres (3 acres every hour) of unique farmland (soil and climatic conditions
suitable for production of specific high-value food and fiber crops) was also lost to
development[40]. As prime farmland is being developed, less stable non-prime farmland in arid
regions is being added to the base, leading to increased erosion rates and irrigation demands[41].
Industrialization of agriculture has made production extremely capital intensive. Thus,
the cost of entry into farming is quite high. Estimates say that it takes $500,000 in assets to
support a farm household[42]. This, combined with return on investment considerably lower than
can be received in other business ventures, is contributing to declining numbers of young farmers
(see agricultural production – social section). Rates of return on farm business equity in 1998
were reported at 2.15%, and have averaged –0.3% since 1980 (3.8% since 1990)[43]. Some
assistance programs have been initiated to help young farmers gain entry. For example, the
Agricultural Credit Improvement Act of 1992 created a beginning farmer down payment farm
ownership loan program and required USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) to target a
percentage of its direct and guaranteed farm operating and farm ownership loans to beginning
farmers and ranchers[42].
Providing cheap food for Americans has long been a central tenet in U.S. agricultural
policy. Yet, as food processing, handling, and marketing have increased, the farmer has received
smaller and smaller portions of the American food bill. USDA estimates that the farmer’s gross
return on a consumer’s dollar spent on food in 1998 was 20 cents[44] (in 1975 it was 40
cents[45]). The remaining 80% of the food bill is distributed among marketing labor, packaging,
advertising and other categories (see Figure 1). Indeed, the farm-to-retail price spread – the price
difference between what consumers pay for food and what farmers receive – has been steadily
increasing since the 1950s. The 1997 farm-to-retail price spread for a market basket of foods
(the average quantities of food that originate mainly on U.S. farms and are purchased for
consumption at home, excluding seafood and nonalcoholic beverages) increased 4.7% over 1996
values. In this same year, farmers received 4.4% less for the food they produced[45].
Table 2 demonstrates the production costs and returns for a few agricultural commodities.
Rising costs of production and falling commodity prices in recent years have lead to negative net
economic returns in major commodities. Admittedly, agricultural market economics are
complicated and commonly subject to annual fluctuations due to weather and growing
conditions; thus, a definitive trend cannot be concluded from the numbers in Table 2. Yet, the
returns are indicative of the general trends experienced in U.S. agricultural production since the
1996 Freedom to Farm Act effectively withdrew all price stabilization and price support
Nearly half (48%) of all farms reported a negative net cash return (net loss) in 1997. This
appears to be an increasing trend: in 1987, 43% of farms had net losses and in 1992 it was 44%.
Ninety-two percent of the farms reporting losses in 1997 were relatively small, with sales worth
less than $50,000[39]. Still, farm households in the U.S. receive incomes on par with average
Table 2: U.S. Average Production Costs and Returns for Various Agricultural
Value of production less operating costs1Value of production less total costs1,2
1996 1997 1998 1999 1996 1997 1998 1999
Corn ($/planted acre) 212.39 172.56 108.57 77.21 19.40 -28.92 -96.58 -130.60
Soybeans ($/planted acre) 129.56 199.31 143.85 101.67 22.59 32.94 -24.39 -71.02
Wheat ($/planted acre) 56.83 33.17 56.86 43.27 -28.19 -49.45 -50.92 -72.65
Hogs ($/hundredweight gain) 7.03 11.70 8.27 6.15 -12.76 -7.65 -11.10 -12.77
1Value of production excludes direct government payments
2Total costs include operating costs plus various allocated overhead such as opportunity cost of unpaid labor and
land, capital recovery of machinery and equipment, and taxes and insurance.
U.S. households. The 1997 average household income for farm operator households was
$52,300. However, 89% of this household income comes from off-farm sources[47]. Indeed,
50% of farm operators in 1996 reported that farming was not their principal occupation[39].
According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, government payments to farms were $5.1
billion in 1997[39]. However, the Economic Research Service of the USDA reports total direct
government payments in 1996 at $7.3 billion and in 1997 at $7.5 billion[47]. Values for 1992
(the next year reported by both the Census and the ERS) were $5.2 billion (Census of
Agriculture) and $9.2 billion (ERS). Apparently, part of this difference ($2.2 billion in 1997)
represents government payments to landowners that are not considered farm operators by the
Census[48], but may also include differences in definition of “government payments”. About
35% of the direct government payments in 1997 went to the less than 7% of total farms that have
sales greater than $250,000[47]. More than half of the farms specializing in crops were enrolled
in Government programs in 1995, accounting for three quarters of all the direct government
payments. About 20 percent of farms specializing in livestock received Government payments
in 1995[49].
Government payments to farmers have been rising sharply in more recent years.
Government payments in 1999 reached $20.6 billion[50] and are forecasted at $23.3 billion for
2000[51], two consecutive years of record high payments. This is a nearly 3-fold increase in
assistance payments over the 3 year period from 1996 to 1999. Much of the increased
government payments have come in the form of loan deficiency payments, forecast for 2000 at
$7.9 billion, up from $1.8 billion in 1998.
Farm business debt totaled $156.2 billion at the end of 1996, increasing from 1995 at a
rate slightly higher than the trend in recent years. Table 3 shows the distribution of farm debt
holdings. In general, such large debt holdings can limit ingenuity in agricultural production
since lenders often require conventional inputs to be included in the cropping system before
offering a loan.
Social The social demographics of U.S. farms have changed significantly over the past 50 years.
The general trends have been towards fewer numbers of larger farms (see Table 4). Since 1974,
the definition of a “farm” used by the Census of Agriculture has been “Any place from which
$1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold, or normally would have been
sold, during the census year."[39]
Yet, these average statistics do not reveal the full extent of farm consolidation. When
farms are classified by the total value of their gross farm sales, the trend towards very large
Table 3: Farm Debt Holdings, 1985 & 1996[47]
Real estate debt Non-real-estate
debt Total
Percent holdings
1985 1996 1985 1996 1985 1996
Farm Credit System 42.2 31.7 18.1 19.0 31.6 25.5
Banks 10.7 29.5 43.5 52.1 25.0 40.4
Farm Service Agency 9.8 5.2 19.0 5.4 13.8 5.3
Life insurance companies 11.3 11.4 6.4 5.9
Individuals and others 25.8 22.2 19.5 23.5 23.0 22.9
Table 4: Number and Size of Farms in the U.S. by Year
Number of farms (in 1,000) 2192 2201 2314 5388
Land in farms (in 1000 acres) 953765 994423 1017030 1161420
Average farm size (acres) 435 452 440 216
Farmland per capita (acres/person) 3.5 4.0 4.7 7.7
2[52] To qualify as a farm in the 1950 Census, a place of three acres or more had
to produce $150 worth of agricultural products for home use or sale. If less than
three acres, $150 worth of agricultural products had to be produced for sale only.
3 population statistics from [53]
farms becomes more clear. In 1997, 3.6% of the farms had market value of over $500,000 of
agricultural products; these large farms averaged 2633 acres, controlled 56.6% of the total
market value, and used 19.4% of the total land in farms. On the other hand, 73.6% of farms sold
less than $50,000 worth of agricultural products, but constituted only 6.8% of the total 1997 sold
product value and 28% of the farmland[39]. To put it another way, 9.5% of the farms and 38% of
farmland account for three-quarters of the market value of agricultural products sold[39]. The
farms that sold over $500,000 in products averaged $373,730 in net cash return (sales less
expenses). Those selling less than $50,000 in products averaged a net loss in cash return of
Individuals, families or partnerships own the vast majority of farms – almost 95% - and
the remaining are primarily family held corporations. Yet, the average incorporated farm is over
4 times larger (on an acreage basis) than the average family farm. An increasing trend of
contractual agreements between producers and both suppliers of inputs and buyers of agricultural
outputs presents additional changes in the organizational structure of agricultural production.
Nearly one third of the crops and livestock produced by American farmers was grown or sold
under contract in 1997[54]. These come either in the form of marketing contracts or production
contracts. Market contracts establish a price for a commodity before the commodity is ready for
marketing, but the producer retains management decisions and ownership of both production
inputs and output until delivery. Production contracts detail the compensation to the farmer for
services rendered, the quality and quantity of commodity, and who is to provide production
inputs. Often under production contracts, the farmer does not own the commodity in question
and agrees to particular production management conditions. For example, under livestock
production contracts, the farmer is paid to house and care for the animals until they are ready for
market, but the contractor actually owns the animals. Inputs such as feed and medication are
either supplied by the contractor or the farmer is obligated to purchase the inputs from
designated providers. Table 5 presents the extent to which certain commodities are produced
under contract in the U.S. Two thirds of farms with contracts in 1997 were small family farms
(here defined as sales under $250,000), but larger family farms (over $250,00 in sales) were
more likely to use contracting – 53% of all larger farms used contracts compared with 8% of
small farms[54].
Table 5: Market value of some commodities produced under contract in the U.S. in
Dollar amount under
contract ($ billion) Percentage of
total market value
marketing contracts
Fruits and vegetables 11 40
Cotton 1.9 33
Corn 1.7 8
Soybeans 1.7 9.4
Sugar beets 0.97 85
Cattle 4.0 10
Dairy products 11.4 60
production contracts
Poultry and eggs 15.6 70
Hogs 4.5 33
Cattle 5.7 14
Often contractual arrangements are praised as opportunities for farmers to reduce risks of
price swings, share production costs, and secure income. Such opportunities must be considered
in light of the growing consolidation within the food system, and among the “buyers” who are
offering contracts with farmers. As mentioned earlier in the genetic resource section, some
analysts question whether current agricultural market concentration allows for a truly
competitive market. A quote by Senator Byron Dorgan (democrat, ND) speaks to the
marketplace farmers are faced with today:
When Ronald Reagan became president, the top four beef
processors controlled about 36 percent of the market. Today the figure is
over 80 percent. A wheat farmer today is dealing with a grain industry in
which the top four firms control 62 percent of the business. This means a
marketplace with the power to say, "take it or leave it."[55]
This type of non-competitive market control is exacerbated by contractual agreements, which, in
many cases, also limit a farmer’s ability to make management choices that benefit the local
environmental, social, and economic condition.
Social and economic restructuring in the agriculture and food system has taken its toll on
agricultural communities with numerous examples from across the country. McPherson County,
Nebraska is by far the poorest county in the country, measured by per capita income. The people
of this rural agricultural based county earned an average of $3,961 in 1997. The next poorest
country, Keya Paha, also in rural Nebraska, averaged $5,666, while the richest, New York
county (Manhattan) had a per capita income of $68,686[56]. In 1920, McPherson County had
1,692 people; today it has fallen to about 540. It once had 20 post offices, 5 towns and 63 school
districts; now it has 1 post office, 5 schools, and (with generosity) 2 towns. The average age in
the county is in the late 50’s[56]. A rural sociologist comments on the degradation of rural
agricultural based communities that has resulted from restructuring in the food system:
“Increasingly, our agriculturally based communities, like regions with major poultry operations,
are looking like mining communities.”[38]
Another prominent trend on America’s farms is the growing age of farm operators.
According to the Census of Agriculture, the average age of farm operators in 1997 was 54.3
years, and 61% of the operators were 55 and over. In 1954, only 37% of farmers were 55 and
over. Comparatively, 11.7% of the civilian labor force was age 55 or above in 1997 (18% in
1954)[42]. Twenty percent of farm operators considered themselves retired in 1996, and the
farms they operated averaged a negative income[57]. While U.S. agriculture has typically been
characterized by older operators, there is a clear trend developing in the age of farmers. This
trend is exacerbated by fewer young farmers: the percentage of farmers under 35 years of age
dropped from 15% in 1954 to 7.8% in 1997[42]. There is, however, a known biasing in the
Census statistics resulting from the surveying methods used. The Census of Agriculture counts
only the principal operator for each farm, which, in most multi-generational family operations,
will be the eldest member. This shifts average ages higher and undercounts the number of
people involved in agriculture. Statistics on agricultural workers from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics differ considerably since their survey is concerned with persons in the workforce and
would exclude individuals that operate a farm but consider themselves retired. The Census of
Agriculture, on the other hand, looks for an operator of any “farm” that produces more than
$1000 worth of goods, even if the operator is in retirement. According to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, 38% of self-employed agricultural workers were 55 and over in 1999, and 21.5% of all
those employed in agriculture were 55 and over[58].
Farm labor has dropped significantly over the past 50 years, from 9.9 million in 1950 to
2.8 million in 1998[47]. Family workers, whether farm operators, paid, or unpaid workers,
accounted for 69% of the farm labor in 1998. The remaining 31% were hired farmworkers. The
average wage rate for hired farmworkers was $7.47 in 1998[47]. This can be compared with
1998 average wage rates in other private industries that can also involve hard labor: mining,
$16.91; construction, $16.61; manufacturing, $13.49; food and kindred products, $11.80[59].
However, real median weekly earnings (adjusted for inflation) for hired farmworkers increased
by 4% between 1990 and 1996, whereas median weekly earnings of all wage and salary workers
decreased by 4% over this period. Labor expenses (hired and contract) accounted for 12% of
total farm production expenses in 1997; this has changed very little over the past decade[39]. The
importance of labor does, however, vary significantly with farm type. Labor accounts for larger
proportions of farm expenses on horticultural specialty farms (45 percent), fruit and tree nut
farms (40 percent), and vegetable and melon farms (37 percent). At the other extreme, labor
comprises only 5 percent of total farm expenses on beef cattle, hog, sheep, poultry, and cash
grain farms.
Hired farmworkers (those that do farm work for cash wages or salary) are generally
younger and less educated than average U.S. wage and salary workers and are more likely to be
male, Hispanic, and never married. About 17% of hired farmworkers were less than 20 years old
and over half (52%) were under 35, compared to 6% and 43% of all wage and salary workers,
respectively[60]. Fifty seven percent had not completed high school, compared with 14% of all
wage and salary workers. While nearly a tenth of all wage and salary workers were Hispanic in
1996, this proportion grows to 36% of hired farmworkers. About three-fourths of Hispanic
farmworkers were not U.S. citizens. Overall, 28.4% of hired farmworkers were not U.S.
citizens, compared to 7% of all wage and salary workers[60]. Since 1996, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture has released quarterly estimates on the percentage of U.S. hired farmworkers that
are migrant workers. While these estimates vary with season (higher in July and October than
January and April) and have fluctuated somewhat from year to year, migrant workers on average
make up about ten percent of hired farmworkers[61].
The current H2A guestworker program allows aliens to enter the U.S. to perform
seasonal agricultural labor, given that growers demonstrate to the Department of Labor that
American workers are unavailable. Cumbersome paperwork and rigid requirements, however,
drive many workers to enter illegally. The most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey
conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that, as of fiscal year 1998, 52% of the
agricultural labor force lacked legal authorization to work[62]. Given the tight U.S. labor market
and low prices received for agricultural commodities, many U.S. farmers, especially those
growing delicate fruits and vegetables that require hand harvesting, are dependent on cheap,
illegal migrant labor to harvest their crops.
Farming has one of the highest work-related fatality rates of all occupations, according to
the U.S. Department of Labor. While the percentage of fatal injuries suffered by hired
farmworkers (as opposed to farm operators and their families) appears to be proportional to their
numbers in the farm workforce, hired farmworkers do receive a disproportionately high number
of the reported non-fatal injuries (68%)[63]. Farmers face greater public health risks from
pesticides than the average population. 2,4-D and other chlorophenoxy herbicides have been
implicated in cancer mortalities in wheat producing counties in Minnesota, North Dakota, South
Dakota, and Montana[64]. Studies showing that farmers appear to experience an excess of
several cancers (lymphatic and hematopoietic system, connective tissue, lip, skin, brain, prostate
and stomach) as well as other chronic diseases have become the impetus for a federally funded,
cross-agency Agricultural Health Study. The goal of the Agricultural Health Study is to
establish a large cohort that can be followed for 10 or more years into the future, to evaluate the
role of agricultural and related exposures in the development of cancer, neurologic diseases,
reproductive and developmental outcomes, and other chronic diseases[65]. Initiated in 1994, it
has already lead to numerous published findings (listed at [66]) as well as criticisms[67].
Publicly supported research in agricultural production methods has been in existence in
the U.S. for more than a century. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 and the Hatch Act of 1887
created the social contract that has maintained a federal-state partnership supporting agricultural
research at the country’s 105 Land Grant colleges and universities. As today’s agriculture
undergoes a shift in priorities, Land Grant schools are presented with a broad set of research
agendas from diverse stakeholders[68]. One of these agendas centers on a heightened concern for
sustainable agriculture systems. The development of approaches to sustainability, however,
needs to be made with ongoing participation from all parts of society. Increasingly, agricultural
research at Land Grants is being conducted in partnership with the private sector. The closeness
of this partnership with industry has generated public concern about “corporate driven” research
at public institutions[68, 69], and requires carefully monitoring.
Mounting concern for the welfare of farm animals can also be considered a social
indicator for the sustainability of agricultural production. A report by the Council for
Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) addresses the absence of appropriate indicators for
farm animal welfare and the need for a scientific research agenda[70]. There is a general lack of
understanding of how animals respond to the production environment and to stress, what their
social behavior and space requirements are, and what the best production practices and systems
for improving animal welfare are. Dispute between researchers and regulators over what
constitutes distress in animals is ongoing[71].
Agriculture is inextricably linked to the environment - soil, water, and sunlight are all
necessary inputs for production. Soil biota is essential for carbon and nutrient cycling. Yet,
agricultural management and practice focused on short-term yield increases and greater
productivity from a limited diversity of crops and animals is jeopardizing the very environment
on which agriculture is dependent.
Soil erosion has forever been a challenge in agriculture, to the point that Wes Jackson,
revolutionary agriculturist, calls it not a problem in agriculture, but the problem of
agriculture[72]. Indeed, tillage for the purpose of agriculture has led to unfathomable losses of
topsoil through countless civilizations, regions, and timeperiods. The National Resources
Inventory of the USDA reports that 1.9 billion tons of soil eroded from U.S. land in 1997, 0.84
billion from wind and 1.06 billion from sheet and rill (caused by water)[73]. The magnitude of
this number is nearly impossible to grasp: if one were to load the 1.9 billion tons of soil into
freight cars at their rated loading capacity, the resulting train would encircle the planet about 7
times. Remember that this is for the United States alone in one year. And the situation has
improved considerably – the number reported for 1982 is 3.07 billion tons[73]. 112 million acres
(30% of cropland) were determined to be excessively eroding in 1997 (erosion rates greater than
an erosion tolerance rate), totaling to 1.3 billion tons of eroded soil per year[73]. Average
estimated erosion rates from 1982 to 1997 are shown in Table 6. Eleven states had estimated
wind erosion rates higher than the national average in 1997, and 19 states had higher sheet and
rill erosion rates. Wind erosion rates on cultivated cropland in Nevada in 1997 were reported at
27 tons per acre per year, while Tennessee had the highest sheet and rill rate on cultivated
cropland at 7.7 tons per acre[73].
If the 1.9 billion ton of topsoil lost in 1997 were evenly distributed over all of the U.S.
cropland, the average rate of erosion would be 4.4 tons per acre per year (which approximates
the sum of the reported average rates for wind and sheet & rill). This translates into an inch of
topsoil lost from all U.S. cropland every 34 years. At the extreme rate of erosion reported for
Nevada, an inch of topsoil is lost every 5 ½ years. While under ideal situations where soil is
supplemented with large amounts of fertile organic matter, an inch of soil can be rejuvenated in
perhaps 30 years[72], it has been estimated that under normal agricultural conditions, it takes
between 200 and 1000 years to form an inch of soil[74]. It can be quickly recognized that this
practice is not sustainable.
Table 6. Average Estimated Erosion Rates for nonfederal rural land in the U.S. by Year
and Land Use Type[73]
CroplandYear cultivated non-cultivated Total CRP* land pastureland
Wind erosion (tons per acre per year)
1982 3.6 0.4 3.3 -- 0.1
1987 3.5 0.4 3.2 6.8 0.1
1992 2.7 0.2 2.4 0.6 0.1
1997 2.5 0.2 2.2 0.3 0.1
Sheet and rill erosion (tons per acre per year)
1982 4.4 0.7 4.0 -- 1.1
1987 4.0 0.7 3.7 2.0 1.0
1992 3.5 0.6 3.1 0.6 1.0
1997 3.1 0.7 2.8 0.4 0.9
*Conservation Reserve Program
To address this erosion problem, various soil conservation policies have been
implemented in the U.S. over the past 60 years. Early policy focused on keeping the soil on the
land to increase net farm income, but in the 1980s, policy goals began to shift towards reducing
the off-site impacts of erosion, such as water quality impairment[75]. Under the Food Security
Act of 1985, the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established. The CRP
allows the USDA to enter into 10-15 year agreements with owners and operators in order to
remove highly erodible and other environmentally sensitive cropland from production. The
contracts provide annual rental payments and cost-share assistance in implementing various
environmental practices such as filter strips, riparian buffers, grass waterways, shelter belts and
windbreaks, and wetland restoration. Approximately 2.5 million acres will be enrolled into CRP
in the year 2000, bringing the total CRP enrollment to about 33.5 million acres as of October
2000[76]. The data presented in Table 6 demonstrate that conservation programs, combined with
changes in agricultural practice, have reduced erosion rates somewhat. Still, soil erosion
presents a substantial social cost, estimated at $29.7 billion in 1997[75].
Agricultural practices remove nutrients from the soil in the form of harvested plant
matter: these nutrients must be replenished to sustain the practice. Historically, animal manure
and other farm refuse were used as nutrient sources, but today commercially manufactured
chemical fertilizers are by far the major source of applied plant nutrients in the United States.
Commercial fertilizer accounted for 6.4% of total farm production expenses in 1997, and was
applied to 25% of the total farmland (total farmland includes pastureland, rangeland, etc., which
typically receives little to no fertilizer)[39]. Commercial fertilizer use for particular crops, such
as corn, is very high: 98% of the acreage in the top 10 corn producing states received commercial
fertilizer[77]. Animal manure is still a major potential source of soil nutrients, but consolidation
of confined livestock farms into large specialized production facilities with little associated
cropland has made use of this source less economically feasible. The result has been not only
underutilized manure nutrient resources in high-density livestock areas, but also major problems
with soil and water pollution and stench. The economically available nutrients from manure are
estimated to be 10% of total available nitrogen, 24% of phosphate, and 22% of potash[77]. These
values are much less than what is physically available (economic availability is limited primarily
by transportation costs from areas of high manure nutrient densities to croplands), and greater
than what is actually applied. A recent study identified counties in the U.S. where manure
nutrient availability exceeds the potential plant uptake and removal from all agricultural land in
the county, including pastureland application. Using Agricultural Census data for 1992, the
study treated each U.S. county as a single large farm (boundries were placed at the county level)
and assumed that all surveyed cropland and pastureland in the county could be used for manure
disposal. Crop nutrient uptake was estimated by the nitrogen and phosphorus content of
harvested biomass plus a nitrogen utilization efficiency factor to account for nitrogen
consumption during plant growth; manure application on pastureland was at a rate appropriate
for plant growth assuming the land was being grazed. Ignoring current applications of
commercial fertilizers, the study found that 35 counties still had manure-based nitrogen levels
that exceeded potential plant uptake and 112 counties showed excess levels of phosphorous[78].
These reflect areas of the country with high livestock densities but insufficient cropland for
manure disposal. There has been a clear increasing trend in these numbers with time: statistics
from 1954 show only about 6 counties with excess nitrogen and 38 with excess phosphorous; in
1982 there were 17 counties exceeding uptake of nitrogen and 80 exceeding phosphorous. The
mounting impacts of manure build-up from large confined livestock operations became
nationally apparent when Hurricane Floyd flooded manure lagoons in North Carolina and
contaminated public water sources. Areas where manure nutrient availability exceeds plant
uptake can also contribute to ground and surface water contamination through leaching and run-
off. Soil erosion and nutrient leaching are among the primary sources of water pollution from
agricultural production. The National Summary of Water Quality Conditions reported that
agriculture is the leading source of pollution in the nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands[79].
Siltation and nutrients are among the top three pollutants/stressors in each of the water body
categories (rivers, lakes, wetlands). Pesticides were also indicated as a pollutant of rivers and
wetlands. Siltation alters aquatic habitat, can suffocate fish eggs and bottom-dwelling
organisms, and in extreme cases, can interfere with drinking water treatment processes and
recreational use of water. Agricultural runoff of nutrients contributes to accelerated
eutrophication, disrupting ecosystems and interfering with the health and diversity of native fish,
plant, and animal populations. The Mississippi River is a critical example of the effects of
agricultural nitrate runoff on aquatic ecosystems. States in the Upper Mississippi River Basin
(Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota) have the highest percentage of total land in
agriculture, the highest use of nitrogen fertilizers, and the greatest amount of artificially drained
soil (contributing to nutrient leaching to surface water) in the country. As a result of these
intensive agricultural practices, total nitrogen output to the Gulf of Mexico has increased 3 to 7-
fold compared to pre-settlement outputs. The Gulf of Mexico is now the third largest hypoxia
zone (oxygen deficient “dead zone” due to nitrogen input) in the world, with the area
uninhabitable by most aquatic organisms varying between 12,000 to 18,000 square kilometers in
The use of chemical pesticides has made significant contributions to the level and method
of agricultural production in the U.S. Estimates claim that each dollar invested in pesticide
control returns approximately $4 in crops saved[81]. According to the Census of Agriculture,
$7.6 billion were spent on agricultural chemicals in 1997, up from $4.7 billion in 1987[39].
Average application rates appear to have decreased somewhat, however, from a two decade high
of 1.8 pounds per acre in 1987 to 1.15 pounds per acre in 1996[82]. Interestingly, while pesticide
use is generally seen as profitable in terms of direct crop returns, it has not necessarily led to
decreases in crop loss. Even with a tenfold increase in insecticide use from 1945 to 1989, total
crop losses from insect damage have nearly doubled from 7% to 13%[83]. This rise in crop
losses is partly caused by changes in agricultural practices such as abandoning crop rotations and
increased crop homogeneity. Pimentel et al. estimated the environmental and economic costs of
pesticide use. They considered human health impacts, animal poisonings and contamination of
animal products, loss of natural pest enemies, the costs of pesticide resistance, honeybee and
pollination losses, crop losses, fishery and bird losses, groundwater contamination, and the cost
of government regulations to prevent damage. Based on available data, they estimated the cost
of pesticide use at $8 billion per year, $5 billion of which society pays in environmental and
public health costs[81].
Researchers have recently demonstrated that combinations of agricultural chemicals
(pesticides and nitrate) are capable of altering immune, endocrine, and nervous system
parameters in mice at concentrations of the same order of magnitude as current groundwater
maximum concentration levels[84]. These same researchers suggest that current testing protocols
for pesticide approval are deficient in six identified testing arenas and do not adequately address
the potential for biological effects under real world exposure scenarios (such as mixed and pulse
dosages). They further raise the question of whether pesticides and/or other environmental
chemicals might be associated with developmental concerns such as the surge in learning
disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and orthopedic problems exhibited by children in the
United States.
One response from consumers to this societal cost of pesticide use has been the rapidly
growing organic market in the U.S. Annual growth of organic food sales is expected to continue
at a rate of 20-24% over the next decade[85]. The acreage of certified organic cropland more
than doubled from 1992 to 1997, but still only represented 0.2% of total cropland in the U.S.[86].
While the U.S. ranked third in total land area under organic management (behind Australia and
Canada) in a recent world wide survey, numerous European countries have higher percentages of
agricultural land in organics including Austria at 8.4%, Denmark at 6%, Italy at 5.3%, Germany
at 2.4% and Britain at 1.8%[87].
Agriculture also greatly affects the quantity of water consumed in the U.S., primarily
through irrigation of crops and through livestock production. In 1995, 134 billion gallons per
day of freshwater were withdrawn for irrigation purposes (39% of total freshwater withdrawal),
49 billion gallons per day of this from ground-water sources. Water consumption for livestock
totaled 5.49 billion gallons per day in 1995, 41% of which was from ground water[88]. The
concern is that, in certain regions of the country, withdrawal from groundwater sources is
exceeding the natural recharge rate of aquifers. An excellent case-in-point is the Ogallala aquifer
in the High Plains states. Home of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the High Plains region receives
less than 12 inches of rain a year (compared to 30 in the midwestern Corn Belt). Yet,
mechanized irrigation from the vast underground water of the Ogallala aquifer has turned this
dry land into the “breadbasket of the world”. Today, it is widely recognized that this practice is
not sustainable. The Ogallala is largely a nonrenewable resource since its sources were
geologically cut off thousands of years ago. It is more than 3 billion acre-feet (an acre-foot
equals 325,851 gallons) of essentially fossil water that has been mined at rates that greatly
exceed recharge. Pumping from the aquifer is measured in feet per year while replacement,
trickling in from the surface, occurs at less than an inch a year[89]. More than a half-billion acre-
feet of Ogallala water were consumed by irrigation farmers between 1960 and 1990. As water
levels in the aquifer drop, pumping becomes more costly. Irrigation rates have decreased slowly
over recent years, but it is clear that current irrigation practices will lead to a day when Ogallala
water will no longer be accessible to High Plains farmers. As historian John Opie puts it, “At
worst, if Ogallala water becomes inaccessible over the next ten to thirty years, the region will
become unmanageable and revert to a deserted wasteland. At best, rethinking the Ogallala and
reworking High Plains agriculture could provide America with a model for sustainable
Air pollutants from agricultural production are shown in Table 7. Agriculture makes a
notable contribution to most criteria air pollutants. Of particular significance is ammonia
emissions, the majority of which (90%) is from livestock production. Also considerable is the
atmospheric deposition of pesticides (not shown in table). For example, approximately 30% of
the atrazine load entering Lake Michigan (amounting to nearly 3000 kg yr-1) is associated with
precipitation[90, 91]; farther north in Lake Superior, atmospheric inputs account for 95% of the
atrazine inputs[92].
Table 7: Agricultural Production contribution to criteria air pollutants (thousand short
1980 1997
Pollutant Emission from
ag. production percent of
U.S. total emission from
ag. production Percent of
U.S. total
VOC 575 2.2 640 3.3
oxide 1296 5.2 1144 4.9
monoxide 1550 1.3 847 1.0
Ammonia Na Na 2089 65.7
PM-10 300*4.1* 4791 14.3
PM-5 na Na 1000 12.0
Values compiled from [93]; includes emissions from agricultural chemical manufacturing.
* data from a significantly contributing category not available
Agricultural activities were responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas
emission in 1997[94]. The sources of these emissions are detailed in Table 8. Methane is
produced through enteric fermentation as part of the normal digestive processes in animals.
Ruminant livestock are major producers of methane in the U.S.: 19% of the total annual methane
emitted in the U.S. comes from livestock. Nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils,
accelerated by management practices, are also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas
emissions. Potentially significant greenhouse gas contributions not included in these data are
agriculture’s portion of electricity consumption and perhaps natural gas consumption in
irrigation pumps.
Increasingly, research is recognizing the important role biodiversity plays in
agroecosystems[27]. Biodiversity, referring to all species of plants, animals and micro-organisms
existing and interacting within an ecosystem, is responsible for various ecological services
essential to agriculture, including recycling of nutrients, regulation of microclimate and local
Table 8: Greenhouse gas emissions from Agricultural production (MMTCE)[94]
Emission and source 1990 1997
Methane 50.3 54.1
Enteric fermentation 32.7 34.1
Manure management 14.9 17.0
Rice cultivation 2.5 2.7
Agricultural residue burning 0.2 0.2
Nitrous oxide 68.2 77.3
Manure management 2.6 3.0
Agricultural soil management 65.3 74.1
Agricultural residue burning 0.1 0.1
Farm equipment 0.1 0.1
Carbon dioxide 7.7 8.9
Agricultural machinery, gasoline 1.2 2.2
Agricultural machinery, diesel 6.5 6.7
Total 126.2 140.4
hydrological processes, suppression of undesirable organisms, and detoxification of noxious
chemicals[95]. Modern agriculture has created an ecologically simplified system that is highly
dependent on inputs. Biodiversity has suffered in the wake of monoculture cropping of annuals
and heavy pesticide application. As mentioned in the genetic resources section, modern
agriculture relies on a very narrow genetic base for the world’s major crops. Diversity in the
species as well as varieties of plants and animals that we use for food can aid in buffering from
disastrous effects from pest and disease outbreaks, floods, droughts, etc. Polycultures (mixing
dominant plant species in a plot) often demonstrate lower populations of insect pests[96].
Vegetation adjacent to crop fields and certain weed populations can aid in insect pest
management by harboring and supporting natural enemies[95]. Soil biodiversity is extremely
important for soil fertility and plant health. A square meter of healthy temperate agricultural soil
may contain 1000 species of organisms. Disruption of this diverse web through tillage, nutrient
spikes, lack of organic matter, and pesticide applications can hinder the role of soil biodiversity
in nutrient cycling, suppressing soil-borne pathogens, supporting plant growth, and altering soil
structure. Researchers investigating soil quality indicators suggest that biological indicators –
the diversity and population of insects, for example – might prove to be a preferred measure of
soil quality. Insect communities respond relatively slowly to rapid changes in soil chemistry
(such as nitrogen content) but respond rapidly to the slower changes in physical characteristics of
the soil (such as carbon levels associated with organic matter)[97].
There has been recent interest in Government "agri-environmental" payment programs
which would compensate producers for maintaining beneficial agricultural practices or
mitigating adverse environmental impacts[98]. The effectiveness of such programs in providing
a net benefit will be greater if policymakers consider the full environmental impacts of modern
food systems. The indicators suggested here may provide guidance in designing programs.
Food processing, packaging, and distribution
Marketing of domestically grown and consumed food, including charges for
transportation, processing and distribution, cost an estimated $466 billion in 1998[44]. That
represents 80% of the $585 billion that consumers spent on foods originating on U.S. farms.
Marketing costs rose 54% from 1988 to 1998. Nearly 88% of the $186 billion increase in
consumer expenditures for domestically grown food resulted from increases in the marketing
costs[47]. The cost of labor composed nearly half of the 1998 marketing bill. The remainder of
the marketing cost is balanced between packaging, transportation, energy, advertising, business
taxes, net interest, depreciation, rent, and repairs (see Figure 1). The relative cost of marketing
different food items is reflected partly in the farm value as a percentage of retail price seen in
Table 9. As mentioned earlier, the farm-to-retail price spread has increased every year for the
past 30 years. While retail food prices rose 2.4% from 1996 to 1997, farmers received 4.4% less
for the food they produced[57]. In 1997, food manufacturers (including the tobacco industry)
received an after-tax profit return on stockholder equity of 19.8% (5.6% as a percentage of
sales), a culmination of 5 years of increasing profits. Food retailers averaged a 17.3% return on
stockholder equity in 1997 (1.6% of sales)[45].
Figure 1: What a dollar spent for food paid for in 1998
Consolidation and concentration in the processing, packaging and distribution stage of
the food system has been extensive over the past 3 decades. William Heffernan, Professor of
Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, likens the effects of this market concentration on
the food system to “an hour glass with thousands of farmers producing farm products which had
to pass through a relatively few processing firms before becoming available to the millions of
consumers in this and other countries” [99]. These processing firms may be able to exert non-
competitive influence on the market, influencing quantity, type, and quality of the product,
Table 9: Farm value as a percentage of retail price for domestically produced foods[47]
Items 1988 1998
Livestock products:
Meats 45 30
Dairy 40 36
Poultry 49 43
Eggs 53 42
Crop products:
Cereal and bakery 9 6
Fresh fruits 25 17
Fresh vegetables 28 20
Processed fruits and
vegetables 28 18
Fats and oils 24 22
location of production, and price of the product at the production stage and throughout the entire
food system (see consolidation section). Food retailing has, until the past few years, maintained
competition between firms of equal economic power. Major mergers in 1998 changed this: the
largest ten firms now control half of the retail trade[99], with the four largest firms controlling
almost 29% (up from 16% in 1992)[100].
Supermarkets represented 24% of the food retail store types in 1998, but accounted for
77% of retail food sales[101]. Even the nature of supermarkets have been changing under the
influence of consolidation. In 1980, 85% of supermarkets (73% share of sales) were categorized
as “conventional” (full-line self-service grocery store with annual sales of $2.5 million or more).
By 1997, conventional stores decreased to 44% (19% of sales), and “superstores” (supermarket
with at least 30,000 square feet, doing $12 million of business or more annually, and offering
expanded selection of non-food items) rose to 31% of stores (43% of sales)[101]. The structure
of food retailing is strongly aligned with the structure of the food distribution industry. Large
corporate chain stores are typically organized around regional or national food distribution, with
warehouses occupying the central position in the flow of goods. Retail stores are either a direct
subsidiary of the distribution corporation or operate under a contractual relationship with a
distributor. Warehouses often charge food processors a slotting fee for delivery and stocking
services, a relationship which creates a clear advantage for large food processors. Product
quality in a distribution-centered system is defined by shelf-life, packaging, and appearance.
While it may be argued that “superstores” make shopping more convenient and reduce trips to
multiple stores, they also displace local neighborhood groceries that would be accessible to more
people by foot, bicycle, or public transportation. It is likely that a distribution-centered system
also adds delivery and personnel efficiency. Yet, the sheer scale limits market access for smaller
food processors, and tends to concentrate capital as it moves up the ownership hierarchy,
removing it from the communities that generated that capital. Because of the sheer volume of
sales handled, distribution-centered superstores are less likely to buy direct from local producers,
instead relying on large concentrated processors and distributors.
On the other end of the retail food spectrum, the number of farmers’ markets, which
provide consumers direct access to locally grown produce, has grown substantially over the last
several decades. State reported farmers markets numbered 1,755 in 1993, and more than 2,746
in 1998, though some analysts claim that the total number, including those not reported, is more
than double that figure[47]. Still, only 0.3% of the market value of agricultural products were
sold directly to individuals for human consumption in 1997[39].
Social As mentioned earlier, labor is the dominant cost of food “marketing.” The total number
of food marketing workers in 1998 (which includes labor used by assemblers, manufacturers,
wholesalers, retailers, and eating places) was about 13.8 million[47]. This is an increase of about
17% from a decade earlier, and 4.9 times more than the number of farm workers in 1998. About
73% of the growth in food marketing employment over the 1988-1998 decade has occurred in
away-from-home eating places[47]. In 1997, eating and drinking places employed 56% of food
marketing employment, while about 25% worked for foodstores, 12% for food manufacturers,
and 7% for wholesalers[45].
Today’s consumer is presented with an overwhelming variety of food products. The
average supermarket maintains over 400 fresh produce items, compared to 250 in the early 1980s
and 150 in the mid-1970s. The assortment of processed foods has increased equally, if not more
dramatically, with an emphasis on convenience foods – snack foods, pre-cooked, and already
prepared meals. Prepared and convenience foods accounted for 12.5% of at-home food
expenditures in 1995[102] Often, processing of food removes important nutrients contained in
the whole food products. For example, more than 98% of the 150 pounds of wheat flour
consumed per capita in 1997 was refined flour, which loses most nutrients, including fiber,
vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, during processing[47]. Five nutrients (iron, niacin,
thiamine, riboflavin, and folate) are replaced by manufacturers in enriched flour from chemically
synthesized sources, but many others are not. Consumer preference is the main reason for this
processing: whole grain flour requires less processing, avoids the loss of nutrients and does not
require that the nutrients be supplemented from other sources. It should be noted that much of
the nutrient value in byproducts of food processing such as refined flour is not “lost” from the
food system but is typically fed to animals (see, for example, the mill byproduct flow in Figure
3). Interestingly, food manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money in advertising the
processed and convenience foods they market. Food manufacturers spent over $7 billion in
advertising in 1997, nearly 10% of the total mass media advertising market. Twenty two percent
of this was spent on prepared and convenience foods, another 15.5% on confectionery and
snacks, and an additional 10% on soft drinks and bottled water[102]. The connection between
advertising and the food we eat will be further considered in the “consumption” section of this
report. Though the U.S. food supply has been widely recognized as being very safe, government
officials, public health agencies, industry trade associations, and consumers are giving increasing
attention to food safety. The latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
estimates that 76 million people are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die annually
from food poisonings in the U.S.[103]. While the years leading up to 1997’s national interagency
Food Safety Initiative saw rises in foodborne illnesses[104, 105], monitoring by the Foodborne
Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) has found a 19% overall decline in the
incidence of bacterial foodborne infections[106]. Good estimates of how many foodborne
illnesses originate in the food processing, packaging and distribution stages are not available
(other points of contamination could be at the farm itself or during preparation, either in
restaurants or in the home). However, much of Government’s effort to improve food safety have
focused on new regulations for the processing industry. For example, in 1996 the Food Safety
and Inspection Service of the USDA initiated its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point
(HACCP) Systems for reducing pathogen contamination associated with meat and poultry
products[107]. A recent review of the changing patterns of infectious disease both in developed
and developing countries points to food-borne disease as a high priority in the coming
century[108]. Changes in technological and industrial practices throughout the food system are
highlighted as contributing to contemporary concerns with food-borne disease. These include
the feeding of antimicrobial agents to livestock as growth promoters, the feeding of rendered
materials to food animals, increased emphasis on longer food shelf-life and preservation by
refrigeration only, and the growing consolidation within the food industry[108].
The continuous supply of the diverse selection of foods that consumers have come to
expect in the United States and in other developed countries relies heavily on processing and
packaging to preserve food as well as transportation of fresh foods from production areas to
those areas with limited growing seasons. An immediate indicator of the impact of this practice
on the environment is the energy consumed. The energy required for processing foods is
included in the Life Cycle Energy analysis in a later section. The energy consumed by the food
and kindred products manufacturing sector accounted for 4.7% of the total energy consumption
in the U.S. in 1991[77]. In general, this energy is much greater than the food energy provided by
the product. As an example, the energy inputs for producing a can of corn are shown in Figure 2.
The energy requirement for processing and packaging alone is much greater than the food energy
contained in the corn. Breakfast cereals, which contain about 3600 kcal of food energy per
kilogram, require on average 15,675 kcal/kg to process and prepare. A 12-ounce can of diet soda
requires a total of 2200 kcal to produce (over 70% of which goes toward the aluminum can) and
may provide only 1 kcal in food energy[109].
More than half of the energy consumption in food retail is used in refrigeration. While
food retail only accounts for 2.6% of the total commercial building energy consumption, it is
very energy intensive: food retail uses 214 BTU/sq. foot whereas the average commercial
building uses 90.5 BTU/sq. foot[101].
Packaging is second only to the cost of labor in the food marketing bill: 8.5% of the food
dollar goes into packaging. Thirty three percent of the total packaging expense is due to
cardboard boxes, used extensively for shipping processed foods (i.e., packaging that does not go
home with the consumer)[45]. While recycling efforts across the country have greatly increased
in the past decade, food packaging is still a major contributor to municipal solid waste. About
10.3% (22.3 million tons) of the total municipal solid waste generated in 1997 can be directly
attributable to food and beverage packaging; 30% of this was recovered[110]. This number is an
underestimate, however, because some of the packaging categories that could not be specifically
attributed to food and beverages but likely contained food packaging materials (such as plastic
wraps and corrugated boxes) were omitted. A 1993 study found that the food retail industry
generated 25.4 million tons of grocery packaging, and in that year, grocery packaging was more
than one third of the total containers and packaging found in the municipal solid waste
stream[101]. Recovery of grocery packaging, however, has also increased: in 1970, only 860
thousand tons of grocery packaging waste was recovered whereas by 1993 it had increased to 8.4
million tons[101].
Figure 2: Energy inputs for a 455g can of sweet corn
Recreated from [109]
0500 1000 1500 2000 2500 3000 3500
home preparation
food energy in corn
energy (kcal)
Food waste, or food discards, can also be substantial in the food processing and
distribution stage. A study by the USDA Economic Research Service estimated food losses
throughout the food system. They reported that 5,449 million pounds of edible food, or 2% of
the total edible food supply, were lost at the retail stage in 1995[111]. Nearly half of the retail
losses came from perishable items such as fluid milk and other dairy products and fresh fruits
and vegetables. The report mentions potential losses during processing and wholesaling due to
frequent handling and spoilage, but these farm-to-retail losses were not measured. As mentioned
earlier, however, the food processing industry does a reasonable job at finding value in
byproduct streams, most often as animal feeds, so it is expected that true “losses” in food
processing will be relatively small.
Preparation and Consumption
The system described up until this point has a single primary function: to provide
necessary nutrition to our society. Agricultural policy in the U.S. has rested on providing an
abundance of food cheaply to U.S. citizens. To this extent, U.S. agriculture has been very
successful. In 1996, the average U.S. consumer spent only 10.7% of their disposable personal
income on food[57]. Forty days of earnings is sufficient for the average American to pay for his
or her family’s food bill for the entire year. This can be compared with the 130 days of earnings
necessary to pay off federal taxes[112]. And the cost of food to Americans has been decreasing:
11.6% of disposable income was spent on food in 1990; in 1970 it was 13.8%, and in 1930 it was
25%[57]. Indeed, food in the U.S. is more affordable than in many other countries, as can be
seen in Table 10.
Table 10: Portion of Total Personal Consumption Expenditures Spent on Food and
Alcoholic Beverages Consumed at Home, by Selected Countries, 1994[113]
country Food 1/ (%) Alcoholic beverages (%)
United States 7.4 1.0
United Kingdom 11.2 6.1
Sweden 14.6 2.7
France 14.8 1.9
Australia 14.9 4.4
Germany 17.3 2/ 2/
Japan 17.6 3/ 2/
Israel 20.5 0.9
Switzerland 24.4 3/ 2/
Mexico 24.5 2.5
South Africa 27.5 6.5
Greece 31.7 2.9
Venezuela 38.2 2/ 2/
India 51.3 0.5
1/ food includes non-alcoholic beverages
2/ alcoholic beverages included in food
3/ food includes alcoholic beverages and tobacco
There has also been a clear increasing trend in away-from-home food. Away-from-home
meals and snacks accounted for 46% of the U.S. food bill in 1997, up from 38% in 1977[57]. A
combination of increased discretionary income and lack of time and skill to prepare foods at
home is likely responsible for this trend. While increases in away-from-home meals have fed a
thriving restaurant industry that provides 7.6 million jobs[45], eating away from home makes it
more difficult to monitor personal nutritional intake. Food consumed away from home typically
has a higher content of fat, saturated fats, and cholesterol.
Social Relatively cheap food in the United States is of social benefit because it makes food more
accessible to poorer members of society. In addition, federal nutrition assistance programs,
aimed at improving access to food for children and needy families, appropriated a total of $35
billion in fiscal year 2000, reaching one out of every six Americans[47]. As a result of affordable
food and food assistance, more than 90% of U.S. households were food secure, meaning they
had assured access at all times to enough food for an active healthy life. Still, 9.7% of U.S.
households – about 10 million – were food insecure over the 1996-1998 period. In other words,
these households did not always have access to enough food to meet basic needs. Included in
these were the 3.5% of households in which one or more household members were hungry at
least some time during the year due to inadequate resources for food[114].
A sustainable food system must be founded on a sustainable diet. In the most general
sense, this would be a diet that matched energy intake with energy expenditure while supplying
necessary nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. However, consumers make dietary decisions based
also on economical, physiological, psychological, sociological, and even spiritual
considerations[115]. Eating becomes more than just a biological necessity, often being a focus of
social, business, and family events or a simple act of pleasure. Nutritional problems of a century
ago that resulted in deficiency diseases such as scurvy and rickets have been replaced with
problems of nutritional overindulgence: obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension. A
recent report, entitled “America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences,” compiled by the
Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture[116] provides a good starting
point for understanding the complications of dietary choices. Certainly, a life cycle evaluation of
a sustainable food system must also include the effects and impacts of the dietary choices that
drive that system.
Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys of 1977-80 and 1988-
1994 demonstrate that the prevalence of obesity is on the rise throughout the American
population. The 85th percentile of body mass index (BMI, is the body weight in kilograms
divided by the square of the height in meters – kg/m2) has previously been set as the definition
for overweight. The number of overweight individuals rose over the time between surveys from
25.4% to 34.9% among American adults, from 7.6% to 13.7% among children ages 6-11 years,
and from 5.7% to 11.5% among adolescents[117]. Under an updated definition presented in the
2000 Dietary Guidelines, a BMI greater than 25 is considered overweight and a BMI over 30 is
obese[118]. By these standards, 60% of males and 46% of females 20 years and over were
overweight in 1994-1996[119]. Increasingly, scientific studies confirm that America’s diet of
high fat intakes and low intakes of whole, fiber-containing foods such as whole grains,
vegetables, and fruits has a significant impact on our health, quality of life, and longevity. Diet
is a significant factor in the risk of coronary heart disease, certain types of cancer, and stroke –
the three leading causes of death in the United States. Estimates of diet-related medical costs,
loss of productivity, and value of premature deaths reach $71 billion annually[120]. Estimates of
the direct health care costs of obesity alone range from $39 billion[121] to $52 billion[122]
annually. The prevalence of overweight and obese Americans was highlighted as a major
agenda issue at the National Nutrition Summit in May of 2000[123].
Multiple sources suggest that there has been a slight increase in food energy consumption
by Americans over the past 20 years. The food energy available for consumption, based mainly
on national disappearance of food, increased by about 15% from the 1978 value to 3800 kcal per
capita per day in 1994[124]. However, this value includes food that is wasted at the retail and
consumer level and the increase in per capita food available could partly reflect increases in food
wastes. The Agricultural Research Service of the USDA also conducts the Continuing Survey of
Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII) to gain insight into what Americans are eating. The
surveyed caloric intake rose from 1854 to 2002 kilocalories between the 1977-1978 and 1994-
1996 surveys [119], an increase of only 8%. Survey-based data on food intake are typically
plagued with underreporting by participants, and some of the increase in dietary intake may be
due to improvements in the ways that data is collected[119]. Increases in food energy intake
alone do not easily account for the considerable change in the number of overweight Americans.
The population also appears to be engaging in less physical activity: there has been a shift by a
large portion of the workforce from manual labor to white-collar jobs that “require nothing more
active than pushing keys on a keyboard”[117]. Establishing trends in physical activity and energy
expenditure in a population is very difficult, however, due to lack of a reliable means of
measuring such things. Methods of surveying personal energy expenditure demand increased
attention since this provides this missing element needed in designing a sustainable food system
approach where food production matches necessary intake.
Marked changes have occurred in U.S. food consumption patterns over the past 25 years.
While some of these changes reflect dietary recommendations presented by professional science
and health groups, others appear to arise from changes in lifestyle: faster paced life, more women
in the workforce and single parent households, increased discretionary income. Consistent with
health recommendations, Americans now consume two-fifths more grain products and a fifth
more fruits and vegetables per capita than they did in 1970. They also eat leaner meat and drink
lower fat milk. But while red meat consumption decreased by 15% between 1970 and 1997,
poultry increased by 90%. Total annual meat consumption (red meat, poultry, fish) in 1999
reached a near record high197 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 20
pounds above 1970 levels[47]. While the health implications of such high meat consumption can
be debated, the environmental and resource burdens of a meat-based diet greatly exceed those of
a plant-based diet (this will be further addressed under environmental indicators of
consumption). Average annual use of added fats and oils remains near record-high levels. Per
capita consumption of cheese increased 2 ½ times between 1970 and 1998.
Per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners – mainly sucrose and corn sweeteners –
continues to increase. Each American consumed a record average 154 pounds of caloric
sweeteners in 1998 – 53 teaspoons per person per day. Of course, some of this is wasted in the
food system or at home, but even if an assumed 40% is lost, the remaining 32 teaspoons still
greatly exceeds the recommended maximum intake of 18 teaspoons for a person consuming a
2800 kilocalorie diet (6 teaspoons for a 1600 kilocalorie diet)[47]. Corn sweeteners (especially
high fructose corn sweeteners) continue to replace sucrose (made from cane and beets),
increasing from 16% of total caloric sweeteners in 1970 to 57% in 1998. Sugar has become
America’s number one food additive, accounting for 16% of total caloric intake. Carbonated
non-diet soft drinks, for which per capita consumption rose 51% between 1986 and 1998,
account for more than a fifth of the refined and processed sugars in the American diet[47].
As mentioned earlier, large sums of money are spent on advertising of food in the United
States. Food manufacturers spent $7 billion on advertising in 1997, whereas the U.S.
Department of Agriculture spent only $333.3 million on nutrition education, evaluation and
demonstrations[102]. Foods that are intensely advertised tend to be the ones that are
overconsumed relative to dietary recommendations. Confectionery and snacks, prepared and
convenience foods, and soft drinks are all heavily advertised (relative to their share of the food-
at-home budget). On the other hand, fruits and vegetables, for which Americans consume lower
than recommended amounts, receive very little advertising.
There is ongoing debate as to how best inform consumers of the health effects of their
dietary choices. Policy changes in the mid-1980s allowed manufacturers to explicitly link diet to
disease in advertising and labeling. It is unclear whether this has lead to market-driven
improvements in consumers’ dietary knowledge and choices, or has added to confusion[125].
Measuring consumer awareness of both nutritional knowledge and knowledge of the
consequences of food production is a complex and difficult task. General observation, however,
suggests that Americans are not well informed of the health and environmental effects of the
food that they buy. Inconsistent information presented by diverse stakeholders (food producers,
food manufacturers, government, special interest groups) certainly can hinder understanding by
creating confusion.
Perhaps even more deeply polarized is the debate around product labeling to provide
consumers with information regarding such things as the geographic origin of food, means of
production, or genetically engineered content. Although some food manufacturers and retailers
volunteer the place of origin of their products, this is rare. Rarer still is sufficient information to
allow consumers to make educated choices on the environmental and social impacts of the origin
of their food. While the organic foods market continues to grow in the U.S., a consistent
definition for this claim on production methods still has not been developed. The national
organic food standards proposed by the USDA in 1998 received record numbers of public
comments identifying problems in the standards. Numerous interests throughout the food system
must be considered in establishing such national standards. Still, the lack of a clear
understanding of the organic claim, complicated by related claims such as ‘natural’, ‘chemical
free’, ‘free farmed’, or ‘Amish grown’, creates confusion for the consumer trying to understand
the impact of production methods. A number of polls have indicated that a majority of American
consumers support labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, as is
presently required in Europe[126, 127]. Bills on both the house (HR.3377.IH) and senate
(S.2080.IS) floor would require such labeling. But proponents of genetically engineered food
(including biotechnology companies, food manufacturers and retailers, and farmers’
organizations protecting the interests of the farmers planting genetically engineered crops) feel
that labeling would be equivalent to placing a “skull and crossbones” on genetically engineered
foods. They argue that government regulatory bodies have agreed with claims that approved
genetically engineered food is “substantially equivalent” to non-engineered food[128].
Consumer choices have major influences on the environmental impact of the food
system. A recent study by researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists named food as one
of the most environmentally harmful consumer activities, second only to transportation by cars
and light trucks. According to this study, the second most effective environmental choice that a
consumer can make is to eat less meat and poultry (second to driving less and/or driving an
energy efficient car). Following this, the authors list buying organic produce as a very effective
environmental choice[129]. The authors suggest that such food choices make a greater
environmental impact than household operations such as installing efficient lighting and
appliances, and certainly more impact than rather benign choices like ‘paper versus plastic’ or
the occasional disposable cup. Indeed, when one considers the fossil energy inputs alone
required to sustain a meat-based versus a vegetarian diet, the differences are surprising. Pimentel
calculates that providing a 3600 kcal diet with 1000 kcal from animal products requires about
35,000 kcal of fossil energy whereas a 3600 kcal vegetarian diet (with more than sufficient levels
of protein) takes about 18,000 kcal of fossil energy – almost half that of the non-vegetarian diet.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (including milk and eggs) requires around 25,000 kcal of fossil
energy[130]. If we return to our can of sweet corn (Figure 2) which took 3065 kcal of energy to
produce, providing the same 375 kcal of food energy with beef would require 13,497 kcal of
fossil energy– most of which (96%) goes into producing the beef as opposed to processing,
packaging, etc[109]. From an energy efficiency standpoint alone, choosing a vegetarian diet, or
at least one greatly reduced in animal products, significantly reduces the environmental impact of
our food system. Replacing poultry and red meat with nutritional equivalents of grains and
pulses would also significantly cut food-related land use and common water pollution.
Containers and packaging generated in the U.S. municipal waste stream in 1997 totaled
71.8 million tons, or 33% of the total generated waste stream. As mentioned in the previous
section, about 16.9 million tons of this can be directly attributed to food and beverage
packaging[110]. However, there are many categories in the municipal solid waste
characterization (such as paper or plastic bags and sacks or plastic wraps) that are used
extensively for food packaging that may also be used for packaging other goods and have
therefore not been included. Containers and packaging have maintained a relatively steady
fraction of the total municipal solid waste stream since 1970, but recovery of packaging has
greatly increased. In 1970, a reported 7.7% of total containers and packaging was recovered
while in 1997, this had increased to 39.4%[110].
A large portion of food loss occurs at the food service and consumer level of the food
chain. The Economic Research Service of the USDA attributed 94% (by weight) of 1995 food
loss to the food service and consumer stage. At 90.8 billion pounds, this amounts to 26% of the
edible food available for human consumption in the U.S. Fresh fruits and vegetables accounted
for 19% of these losses, and an additional 18% was fluid milk[111]. This is roughly enough milk
to serve everyone in the U.S. one-third of an 8-ounce glass every day. Examinations of
household garbage by researchers at the University of Arizona concluded that large quantities of
single food items – entire heads of lettuce, half-eaten boxes of crackers – accounted for a larger
share of household food loss than did plate scraps. They also found that specialty products such
as sour cream, hot dog buns, or impulse items had a higher frequency in household garbage than
did frequently purchased staples like bread, milk and cereal[111].
End of Life
According to a report issued by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, retail, food
service, and consumer food losses in 1995 totaled 96,266 million pounds, or 27% of the total
edible food supply[111]. This does not include pre-harvest, on-the-farm, and farm-to-retail
losses. In its annual report of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream, the EPA found that 10% -
44,260 million pounds – of the solid waste stream was food wastes in 1998[131]. The
discrepancy in these two studies is mostly attributable to differences in scope and definition: the
EPA report only accounts for food that becomes part of municipal solid waste. For example, the
USDA report included loss of 17 billion pounds of fluid milk that, in most cases, would not be
included in municipal solid waste. While the absolute amount of food waste in the municipal
solid waste stream has nearly doubled since 1960, the proportion of food in the total waste
stream has remained relatively constant[131].
Disposal of food waste generally occurs either through additions to landfill, incineration,
or by garbage disposals connected to sewer systems. All have associated costs. Nationwide, the
weight-averaged tipping fee for landfill disposal was $32 a ton in 1996[132]. If all of the 21,550
thousand tons of food waste discarded in 1998 were landfilled at this rate, the cost to Americans
would be $690 million annually. However, about 10% of municipal solid waste is incinerated,
with an average tipping fee of $63 a ton[132]. This brings the estimated cost of discarding food
waste nationwide to $756 million. This only accounts for the food that is disposed of through
municipal solid waste channels. Large amounts of food are fed to garbage disposals and treated
along with municipal sewage. Food in sewage contributes to biological oxygen demand, adding
to the burden of wastewater treatment.
Social The USDA Food Loss report did not estimate the share of food loss that was recoverable
for human consumption (unrecoverable food loss would include diseased or otherwise unsafe
produce and meat, spoiled perishables and plate waste from foodservice establishments)[111].
However, if a mere 5% of the 96 billion pounds of food loss were recovered, this would be
enough food to feed 4 million Americans every day. Recovering 10% of the edible food loss
would feed the entire population of New York City! While not yet at these levels, significant
food recovery efforts are made in the U.S. Second Harvest, the nation’s largest domestic hunger
relief charity, provides more than 1 billion pounds of food and grocery products annually
through 45,000 local charitable agencies. Another national recovery network called Foodchain
collects surplus prepared and perishable food from restaurants, corporate cafeterias, caterers,
grocery stores, and other foodservice establishments. In 1997, Foodchain distributed more than
150 million pounds of food. The Society of St. Andrew, the nation’s leading field gleaning
organization, rescues over 20 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables yearly that would
normally be discarded at packing and grading sheds or directly from farmer’s fields. Mickey
Weiss’ Charitable Distribution Facility distributes more than 2 million pounds of fresh produce a
month from the wholesale produce industry to emergency feeding programs throughout Southern
California. The project is being emulated nationwide through a program called From Wholesaler
to the Hungry[133].
Food losses can also be recovered through composting. A 1997 nationwide survey found
214 commercial composting sites for food wastes, 3.7 times the number found in 1995. The
sixty-eight projects reporting tonnage data in this survey totaled to 360,000 tons of food residuals
processed annually[134]. The EPA reports 580,000 tons of recovered food waste in 1998, though
this number includes recovery of paper for composting[131]. Model programs highlighted by the
EPA demonstrate the enormous potential for waste reduction through food discard recovery[135].
For example, the New York State Correctional Facilities recovered 6,200 tons of food discards
and other organics (90% of the food discard waste stream) in 1997 through on- and off-site
composting. Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont recovered 90% of their pre-consumer food
discards, amounting to 90 tons in 1997[135]. Still, food wastes are characterized by low levels of
recovery: in 1998 less than 2.6% (by weight) of food wastes were recovered, making food wastes
the second largest single source of discards (waste remaining after recovery) in the municipal
solid waste stream[131].
Life Cycle Materials: Food System Mass Flow
Material and energy flow analyses provide a means to assess overall system
efficiencies and the distribution of consumption across life cycle stages, and to identify areas for
improvement. The flow diagram in Figure 3 gives an overview of the material flow throughout
food production and consumption in 1995. The mass flow analysis here concentrates on feed,
& consumer
Stored grains &
grains 611,340
2860 exports
milk &
feed grain
animal waste,
live animals
processing &
water losses
(111,700) by
processing &
water losses
(36,770) by
red meat 43,680
poultry 30,742
eggs 9760 LOSSES
dry beans,
lentils, nuts
eggs 7920
stored grains &
Crop production
Feed to livestock
& poultry
(in equivalent feeding
value of corn)
soybeans 130,460
vegetables 37,920
sugarbeets 56,130
fruits 64,450
feed grains
to animals
oilseed cake &
mill byproduct
Figure 3: Life Cycle Materials
1995 U.S. Food System Flow
(flows in million pounds)
feed grains 147,260
wheat & flour 73,620
oil seeds (inc. soy) 52,020
feeds & fodders 29,400
protein meal 14,120
fruits, nuts &
preparations 8340
& preparations 6910
rice 7220
other 16,630
bananas & plantains 8530
veg. & preparations 7830
fruits, nuts &
preparations 5860
sugar & related 4370
veg. oils 3440
other 11,360
caloric sweeteners 38,830
meat & poultry 51,470
fats & oils 20,250
dairy products 76,280
grain products 45,600
fruit (46% fresh) 48,340
vegetables (59% fresh) 63,080
food and food products and does not include other inputs into the food system such as
chemicals, fertilizers, mass of fuel consumed, or packaging materials. The left side of Figure 3
represents the plant-based production in 1995. A large fraction of this is used to feed animals
(light green section) and is thus converted to animal products (orange section). After exports
(light blue section, including both raw and processed exports) and food-crop based industrial
products (purple section) are removed, the remaining portion of the plant based production (by
difference), along with the addition of food imports (dark blue), makes up the food consumed in
the U.S (pink section). The following paragraphs detail this food mass flow model.
Over half of the grains (corn, sorghum, barley, oats, wheat, rye and rice) grown in the
U.S. get fed to farm animals in this country. A large portion of the “biomass” that gets fed to
animals exits the system through respiration and manure or is used to maintain the live animal
population. Manure is recoverable as soil nutrient amendment, but as discussed in the
agricultural growing and production section, concentration of animal production facilities has
made this recovery less feasible. The rough animal food products resulting from the year’s
production amount to about 25% of the weight of feed given to the animals. This efficiency
estimate is somewhat complicated by the fact that water consumed by animals is not explicitly
included as an input in this mass flow model. Most of the water fed to animals (5.49 billion
gallons per day) simply exits the system again through animal respiration and manure, but part of
the weight of the animal food products shown will be water, especially in the case of raw milk.
While much of the plant material fed to livestock is not appropriate for human
consumption (pasture, roughages), strong arguments can be made for improving the
sustainability of the U.S. food system through reducing animal based food production. As
mentioned earlier, fossil energy demand for producing animal protein through current grain-
intensive means is nearly twice that for a pure vegetarian diet. In addition, livestock production
as it is widely practiced today also has a significant impact on land use, water use and water
quality, and air emissions. Reduced animal protein scenarios are undergoing life cycle based
systems research by the Protein Foods, Environment, Technology and Society Programme
(PROFETAS), a research project of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global
Environmental Change (IHDP)[136], with the end result being policy options. This is not to say
that livestock management should be excluded from the food system. However, reducing meat
consumption (and thus production demand) and replacing input intensive row crop grain
production with carefully managed, integrated pasturing systems can have positive effects on
many of the sustainability indicators presented here.
Nearly 40% of the food and feed crops produced in the U.S. were exported in 1995.
While the U.S. is the second largest grain producer in the world and boasts the world’s largest
grain surplus, grain exports from the U.S. amount to only about five percent of global production
and go primarily to feeding animals in Europe and Japan[137]. Interestingly, feed grains (grains
fed to animals) are both the largest export and import by weight in the U.S. While it is
recognized that international trade is complex and dependent on many factors, a simple
assessment would point to this as an unnecessary inefficiency. The second largest agricultural
import (by weight) into the U.S. is bananas. Agricultural imports experienced a 26% (by weight)
increase from 1995 to 1999, with larger increases occurring in red meat and poultry (37%), fruits
and nuts (46%), vegetables (36%), and cocoa and cocoa products (49%)[138].
While the previous year’s stored grains and beans are greater than those stored in 1995,
this is a bit of an anomaly. Over most years, the incoming and outgoing stored grains are closer
in value. While there are a number of agricultural crops (such as cotton or industrial grade
rapeseed) that are grown specifically for an industrial market and are thus not included in this
food system diagram, a portion of the food and feed crop is also utilized by industrial sectors.
Over 34,800 million pounds (622 million bushels) of corn were consumed for industrial uses in
1995/1996, including industrial starch and fuel and manufacturing alcohol[139]. Some edible oils
and fats also are routed to industrial uses. Current efforts are underway to increase plant/crop-
based fuel and industrial products, replacing petrochemical-based feedstocks with renewable,
plant-based ones[140]. The diagram also shows two “processing losses” (from both animal
products and plant products) that are arrived at by difference: these losses are not characterized,
but it is anticipated that much of the weight loss is water. For example, the 10 pounds of fluid
milk required to produce 1 pound of cheese would show up primarily as a water loss.
Finally, the annual edible food available to the U.S. population represents about 20% of
the biomass inputs into the system. This amounts to 3800 kilocalories of food energy available
per capita per day, nearly 15% more than what was available in 1970[124]. This available food is
reduced 27% (by weight) due to spoilage and waste at the retail and consumer level[111]. Food
loss at the consumer level is one of the larger losses in the entire food system. Inexpensive food,
a desire for convenience, and perhaps the devaluing of food in our culture has led to a situation
where edible food is considered disposable, despite the vast resources consumed to produce it.
When the connection between consumption practices and production is made, great opportunities
arise for reducing the environmental burden of agricultural production and the whole food
system, as well as reforming economic and social stresses, simply through reducing demand by
minimizing food loss.
Figure 4 shows the value (in present dollars) of agricultural imports and exports over the
past 65 years. Growth in U.S. agricultural exports has largely exceeded the growth in imports,
leading to a positive trade balance. However, agricultural imports have grown significantly in
recent years. U.S. imports of agricultural commodities and products are projected to reach $39
billion in fiscal 2000, a 72% increase from 1990[141]. This growth is attributed to the strong U.S.
dollar combined with slower growth or recessions elsewhere in the world. As a result, more and
more of the production of the food that Americans eat is being moved outside the country.
Life Cycle Energy: Food System Energy Demand
Agriculture is ultimately a process of energy conversion: converting solar energy, along
with various chemical and fossil energy inputs, into food energy that will sustain a human
population. A series of technological changes in agriculture over the past century have greatly
increased yields, but have also increased the amount of energy that is consumed in this
conversion process. Many of the tasks that were formerly performed by the plant (extracting
nutrients, restraining disease and insects) or by animals (self-foraging of feed) have been taken
over by the farmer through the input of external energy (fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels)[142].
What’s more, human labor in the agriculture of developed countries has been largely replaced by
fossil fuel driven machinery. As a result, modern agriculture has developed a strong dependence
on industrial inputs and industrial (largely fossil) energy. Pimentel calculates that the energy
ratio (output energy divided by input energy, including inputs from human and animal labor) for
producing corn in the U.S. has decreased from 5.8 in 1910 to 2.5 in 1983[143]. Thus, while
agricultural technology has allowed greater yields in terms of bushels per acre as well as bushels
per man-hour of labor, more primary energy is consumed in producing the same amount of food.
Figure 4. U.S. Agricultural Imports and Exports by Year
1935 1945 1955 1965 1975 1985 1995
million 1999 dollars
Trade Balance
Yet, it is not only agricultural production that is a large consumer of energy in the U.S.
food system. Figure 5 provides an estimate of the (industrial) energy that goes into supplying
food in the U.S. Indeed, processing and packaging of food and household storage and
preparation both require energy inputs of near or greater magnitude than agricultural growing
and production. Details of the data compiled in Figure 5 is included in Appendix B.
By our estimates, agricultural production of food in the U.S. accounts for only 20% of the
total energy consumed in the U.S. food system. Given that nearly 40% of U.S. agricultural
production is exported, this fraction should likely be smaller (energy consumption data was not
adjusted for exports). The manufacturing of chemical fertilizers and pesticides makes up almost
40% of the energy allocated to agricultural production. Another 25% is diesel fuel consumption.
Energy use in agriculture reached a peak in 1978, but declined by 25% from 1978 to 1993, due
primarily to reduction in direct use of energy (gasoline, diesel, natural gas) on farms[77]. Over
the same period, the value of U.S. agricultural output increased by almost 47% (in 1987 dollars),
causing the ratio of energy use to agricultural output to fall by 50% between 1978 and 1993[77].
By this measure, agricultural production has become more energy efficient.
The transportation component of Figure 5 is composed of energy in transporting raw and
processed foods from manufacturing and distribution sights to areas of retail distribution as well
as the estimated energy consumed in household food shopping trips. Transportation energy in
the food system is a strong function of the distance between areas of production and areas of
consumption. A Cold War era study estimated that the average food item in the U.S. travels
1300 miles[144]. Fresh produce in the U.S. travels an estimated 1500 miles[145], primarily
because 90% of all fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. are grown in the San Juaquin Valley
of California[146]. In addition, the large quantities of off-farm inputs used in today’s agriculture
(seed, fertilizer, pesticides, animal feed) contribute to the energy consumed in transportation.
Given the volatile nature of current energy prices, transportation and distribution are extremely
vulnerable sectors of the current food system. While a recognizably simplified analysis, locating
areas of production and handling of food physically close to areas of population density has great
potential in reducing energy consumption and therefore improving the sustainability of the food
The “packaging material” component of Figure 5 represents the energy that goes in to
making packaging for food and beverages. The value presented here is based on food related
packaging material as it shows up in the Municipal Solid Waste stream and is most certainly a
conservative estimate because it does not include a number of packaging categories that can not
be exclusively attributed to foods. While the recycling of glass, steel, and aluminum containers
aids in reducing the energy requirements for making food packages out of these materials, food
grade plastics must be virgin material and thus require large amounts of petroleum based energy
as feedstock.
Figure 5: Life Cycle Energy Use in Supplying US Food
(see Appendix B for sources and methodology)
3800 kcal per
capita per day
10.2 quads
Food energy
1.4 quads
household storage
and preparation
commercial food service
food retail
(food and kindred products)
(raw and processed products)
packaging material
Energy consumption in commercial food service in 1995 totaled 332 trillion BTU, 6.2%
of the total commercial building energy consumption. Nearly a third of this energy was used for
cooking. Food service is the most energy intensive user in the commercial building sector,
consuming 246 BTU/ square foot of building space[148].
Household storage and preparation energy includes operation of refrigerators and
freezers, energy for cooking (stoves, ranges and microwave ovens), operation of dishwashers,
and the heating of water for dish washing. Over 40% of the food related household energy
consumption is used in operating refrigerators. Improvements in appliance efficiencies have
decreased refrigerator energy consumption over the past decade, but the number and size of
refrigerators in American households continues to grow[149]. Cooking at home accounts for
about 20% of the household food related energy use, while hot water heating (primarily for
dishwashing) is estimated to be another 20%.
In total, providing the 3800 kilocalories of food energy available per capita per day in the
United States is estimated to consume 10.2 quadrillion BTUs annually. This represents about
10% of the total energy consumed in the United States[148]. By our estimates, therefore, it takes
about 7.3 units of (primarily) fossil energy to produce one unit of food energy in the U.S. food
system. This estimate is somewhat lower than others presented. Pimentel[130] and Hall[150] both
put the ratio of output food energy to input energy at 1:10.
The food system’s dependence on industrial energy inputs is closely linked to the
system’s sustainability. Current agricultural and market practices heavily rely on the availability
of cheap (relative to the cost of labor) concentrated energy, typically from fossil sources.
Estimates of the remaining availability of crude oil vary somewhat[151-153], but it is certain that
petroleum based fuels are a finite resource that can only continue to rise in price. Reliance on
this unstable energy source makes the food system increasingly vulnerable. This vulnerability is
further exacerbated by the centralization and consolidation trends in agricultural production and
other stages of the food system. Consolidating farms, animal production facilities, meat packing
plants, and food processing operations, and distribution warehouses often places further distance
between food sources and buyers or consumers and requires added transportation energy for
distribution. Energy consumed in managing and storing food in the household is also greatly
affected by the current food distribution system. Many prepared or processed food items rely on
refrigeration for storage (as opposed to dry goods). The replacement of neighborhood grocers
and markets with “superstores” encourages people to stock the refrigerator rather than making
daily purchases of fresh foods. Indeed, household refrigeration has become an assumed luxury
where capacity often greatly exceeds need. Home refrigerator size continues to increase[154]
while at the same time, fewer meals are eaten at home. It should be noted that great
improvements in the energy efficiency of the food system could also be made by reducing
demand through minimizing food loss, as mentioned in the previous section.
Life Cycle Management: Consolidation in the food system
The food system is managed by a diverse set of actors including farmers, the agriculture
industry, food processing industry, retailers, and government. Market consolidation throughout
the food system, however, is rapidly concentrating management decisions. Consolidation or
concentration in food and agriculture is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the past century,
there have been periodic concerns about a small number of non-farm businesses gaining
excessive power in the market place. Indeed, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was passed in
part because of farmers’ concerns over concentration in the packing industry. These concerns
were echoed three decades later, resulting in the passing of the Packers and Stockyards Act in
1921. Again in the 60s, national concern led to a comprehensive study by the federal
government of competitiveness in food processing and retailing. Concentration in agribusiness
firms has once again come to the forefront of agricultural policy: trepidation of non-competitive
market practices spurred recent legislation (H.R. 1906) that will require mandatory reporting of
prices paid for livestock by packers. With each passing decade, issues of market control and
consolidation have become more complicated and difficult to address. Today’s markets are
global in scope and often dominated by multinational corporations; vertical integration has made
it increasingly difficult to define market sector boundaries; an increasingly non-agrarian society
is removed from the effects of consolidation on rural America and more tolerant of a
concentrated agribusiness sector that may appear to provide immediate short-term, price-based
benefit to consumers. A life cycle approach to assessing our food system should also consider
how farms and agribusiness are organized and how they relate to each other. Here we will
briefly consider the organization of the food system and how trends towards concentration may
impact sustainability.
Evidence of consolidation arises in nearly every stage of the food system. Consolidation
in the seed industry (see origin of resource: social section), food processing, food distribution,
and food retailing has been discussed in previous sections. Consolidation is occurring in
agricultural production (farms) as well, with larger farms greatly increasing their market share.
Still, production agriculture remains close to the purely competitive economic model. That is,
large numbers of independent producers compete in the same market, driving low costs, low
prices, and relatively rapid innovation. However, agricultural producers are faced with input
markets (seeds, chemicals) and buying markets (meat packers, grain mills, food processors) that
are increasingly concentrated and dominated by a few firms. Disperse producers have little
bargaining power in the market, even through association with large co-operatives, and become
price-takers, not price-makers. This imbalance of market power can be further exacerbated
through market and production contracts, as discussed in the Agricultural growing and
production: social section of this report. The underlying fear in this imbalance is that long-term
profit opportunities in the food sector will tip mostly away from producers and towards the large
agribusiness firms. Given the economic recession that American farmers are experiencing in the
wake of prosperity by much of the rest of the country, this may be a warranted fear.
There is no clear way of determining the extent of “competition” existing in a particular
market. Market structure can be further complicated by the increasing number of alliances,
partnerships, contracts, and less formalized relationships that exist between firms. One
straightforward indicator still in use is the concentration ratio – the percentage of market power
held by a certain number of the largest firms. As a rule of thumb, when the top four firms hold
more than 40% of the market, competition begins to degrade and oligopolistic control is
possible[19, 20]. Figure 6 shows the four firm concentration ratio for a number of agricultural
markets. Many of the big buyers of U.S. agricultural products – beef packers, flour milling,
soybean crushing – are highly concentrated by this indicator. What’s more, concentration within
these markets has been a steadily growing trend. According to one report, the concentration of
economic power that has been occurring in the meat packing industry among the four largest
firms is the most rapid increase ever experienced in the history of any American industry[155]. A
federally appropriated study of market concentration in the red meat packing industry was
conducted for the 1992-1993 year as seven separate projects, primarily by land grant university
Figure 6: Four Firm Concentration Ratios for Selected Agricultural Markets
researchers[156]. The study recognized that the market structure in the packing industry is
complex and dynamic and required continual monitoring, but did not present strong, conclusive
evidence of market power abuse. Interestingly, the analysis initially proposed to the
Appropriations Committee emphasized the need to look at all of the segments of the market
chain simultaneously in order to fully understand the impact of packer’s actions on livestock
prices. After compromising to opposition brought forth from meat packing industry lobbyists,
the Appropriations Committee funded an approach that lost the holistic look at the market to
independent studies of specific aspects[155].
Equal concern should be placed on another recent structuring trend in the food system:
vertical integration. Vertical integration refers to the concentration of control along the supply
chain, from gene to supermarket shelf. If one looks at the top firms in the various markets
represented in Figure 6, the same names reoccur in numerous markets. ConAgra’s market share,
for example, is second in flour milling, second in dry corn milling, third in cattle feedlots, second
1977 1982 1987 1992 1997
concentration ratio (% of market)
beef packers
pork packers
broiler production
turkey production
flour milling
wet corn milling
soybean crushing
in beef packers, third in pork packers, and fifth in broiler chicken production and processing[38].
Through its United Agri Products business, ConAgra is a leading distributor of crop protection
chemicals, fertilizers and seeds both in the U.S. and in many international markets. ConAgra
ranks second behind Phillip Morris in food processing, selling well known labels such as
Armour, Swift, Butterball, Healthy Choice, Peter Pan Peanut Butter, and Hunt’s. Another food
system giant, Cargill, ranks first in grain elevator companies and animal feed plants, second in
wet corn milling, dry corn milling and soybean crushing, third in flour milling, and fourth in
turkey production and pork packing[38]. Until recently, Cargill was one of the largest seed firms
in the world; although it has sold off its seed business, Cargill has maintained a connection to the
gene and seed sector of the food system through joint ventures and alliances. Still another food
system “integrator” is Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Quaintly known as the “supermarket to
the world” to National Public Radio listeners, ADM ranks first in flour milling, wet corn milling,
soybean crushing and ethanol production, second in elevator companies, and third in dry corn
milling[38]. A recent book by labor lawyer James Lieber details the federal government’s 1996
price-fixing criminal case against ADM and some of its top executives, revealing the type of
market control that this large food system corporation holds[157]. ADM now appears to be
nurturing connections with Novartis, a Swiss-based, leading global firm in agrichemicals, seed,
animal health, and human nutrition products.
Thus, it appears that there is a small number of dominant food chain “clusters” emerging.
Much of the business world argues that such integration leads to increases in efficiencies that
benefit both producers and consumers. Vertical integration raises a number of other issues,
however. First, the mergers, joint ventures, alliances, agreements and other relationships
between firms that form the “clusters” make the food system exceedingly complicated and
difficult to describe. This limits society’s ability to recognize non-competitive market practices.
Secondly, vertical integration is eliminating many of the open markets within the food
chain. When firms control all sectors of the system - from seed and production inputs to grain
buying, shipping and processing to animal production and processing to final on-the-shelf food
items - there is little to no price discovery for intermediate products. In other words,
intermediate products do not sell on the open market where prices are publicly known, but pass
from one business entity of the firm to the next. Ninety five percent of the broiler chickens in the
U.S. are produced under contract by fewer than 40 large farms. There is essentially no national
competitive market for chicken feed, day old chicks or live broilers[38].
A third implication of both horizontal (within a market) and vertical integration is that
decision making is concentrated to a small number of core firm executives. Independent
farmers, family mills, and smaller processors are forced to resign their decision making – how
and what to grow, when to buy and sell - to the food chain “cluster.” As the Organization for
Competitive Markets highlighted in a written testimony to the Senate Agriculture Committee,
this contradicts economics lessons learned:
In 1945, the Noble prize winning economist Frederick Hayek pointed out
that a free enterprise, market economy is most efficient as long as the
economic decisions about what to produce and how to produce are made
by those closest to the economic circumstances of time and place. In other
words when economic decisions are disbursed [sic] among many
independent resource owners, in the aggregate, their decisions will result
in the most efficient use of resources. Hayek went on to say that the more
resources and economic decisions are concentrated in the hands of a few,
whether they be government bureaucrats, as in the former Soviet Union, or
powerful corporate executives of large companies with substantial market
power, the less productive and the less efficient the economy will be[155].
Indeed, the tangible benefits that may arise from consolidation and concentration often
reappear as externalized social and environmental costs. The indicators considered in this report
point at many of these costs. Concentration in the food industry seems to magnify the risk of
such external costs. Take, for instance, the rather simple example of hamburger that gets
contaminated with E. coli. If the contamination occurs in a huge centralized beef packing plant,
the losses and liabilities connected with the recall of millions of pounds of hamburger, as well as
the number of people at risk, are far greater than if a similar contamination were to occur in a
locally owned, diversified butcher shop. A recent research conference organized by the
Economic Research Service of the USDA entitled “The American Consumer and the Changing
Structure of the Food System” explored many elements of the increasing consolidation in the
food system. Proceedings from this conference provide further investigation into this
Numerous indicators considered in this assessment demonstrate that the U.S. food system
is not economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable. The key indicators leading to this
conclusion are summarized in Table 11.
Table 11: Summary of Key Indicators showing Unsustainable Trends of the U.S. Food
Economic Social Environmental
Production Rapid conversion of
prime farmland
84% of farm
household income
earned off-farm
Increasing number of
farms report a net loss
(48% in 1997)
52% of farmworkers
are illegal
age of farm operators
increasing; declining
entry of young farmers
depletion of topsoil
exceeds regeneration
rate of groundwater
withdrawal exceeding
recharge in major
agricultural regions
losses to pests
reduction in genetic
Consumption Costs of diet related
diseases increasing Obesity rates rising
Diet deviates from
26% edible food
Total system Marketing is 80% of
food bill
Industry consolidation
in food system threatens
market competition
Relation with food and
its origin has been lost Heavy reliance on
fossil energy
7.3 units of energy
consumed to produce
one unit of food energy
The current system continues to rely on limited genetic resources that are rapidly moving out of
public control and are managed by corporate interests. Farmers are shrinking in number and
growing in age, with large percentages of agricultural producers unable to survive economically
on income from farming ventures. Where field practices have not been completely mechanized,
producers are forced to use cheap, illegal labor. Production is highly subsidized both by the
government and by off-farm incomes of producers. Soil erosion continues at rates greatly
exceeding soil regeneration, and global declines in fresh water availability threaten the
sustainability of irrigation farming. Food related illnesses and deaths appear to be on the rise,
demanding a reevaluation of the food processing and distribution system. The health and social
costs of diet related diseases are accumulating, and a surprising amount of the edible food
available in this country is lost at the consumer level, primarily due to easily preventable
wastage. Heavy reliance on non-renewable energy poses additional environmental burdens and
leaves the food system vulnerable to supply side price increases in fossil fuels.
Addressing these challenges through a life cycle based approach to the food system as
presented in this report serves many important roles. First, a systems approach aids in
reestablishing the connection between consumption behaviors and production practices. This
connection has been largely lost from the American social consciousness. Food comes from the
supermarket and little thought is given to what is involved in getting food to the market. The
environmental movement has succeeded, to some extent, in establishing the link between
consumption behaviors and environmental health, resulting in such behavioral changes as
increased recycling. Establishing the link for the general public between food consumption and
the related environmental and social burdens can create “only produce what we consume”
attitudes and lead to reduced food wastage. A reduction in food consumption and wastage can
lead directly to improved health and a corresponding reduction in the environmental stress of
agricultural production, food distribution, and disposition. Benefits are compounded; for
example, one calorie of food saved can result in a seven-fold reduction in the energy use across
the life cycle. Direct marketing methods, especially those operating on the community supported
agriculture model[159], help foster a recognition of the link between production and
consumption. However, maintaining the connection between production and consumption is
important at all levels of food planning and policy.
A life cycle perspective also assists in identifying particular areas within the food system
where priorities should be placed. Often these areas are not the obvious or traditional portions of
the system that receive attention. For example, discussion of the food system’s dependence on
fossil energy often focuses on the consumption of fuels in operating tractors and equipment for
agricultural production or the energy consumption in fertilizer manufacturing. Yet, the data in
Figure 5 suggest that food related energy consumption in the home is of equal if not greater
significance. As part of the European Union funded SusHouse (Strategies towards the
Sustainable Household) research initiative, researchers in the Netherlands, Hungary and the UK
have been focusing on how households obtain food, cook, and deal with kitchen waste.
Normative scenarios of possible developments in shopping, cooking and eating in the year 2050
that utilize both technological and cultural innovations are being formulated and evaluated for
their decreased environmental burden, economic burden, and acceptability to consumers[160].
The life cycle indicators presented here are useful in communicating the full impact of
providing food in the U.S. This is not an end in itself, however. Further development and
refinement of a methodology for measuring progress through such sustainability indicators is
needed. It is our hope that the life cycle framework will be used by researchers, business
analysts and planners, and policymakers in addressing the challenges at hand and moving the
food system towards sustainability. Sustainability requires a long-term time perspective in
seeking solutions, as well as attention to the balances and tradeoffs seen throughout the food
system. Thus, research, planning, and policy must proceed with an integrated systems approach
in order to arrive at sustainable solutions. Work on Food Consumption and Production Systems
initiated by the European based Global Environmental Change Programmes[160] takes an
important step in this direction. The words of Rick Welsh, a policy analyst with the Henry A.
Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, serve as encouragement to the seemingly daunting
task of reorganizing our food system. He reminds us:
that the structure of agriculture in this or any other country is not an evolutional or
inevitable process, but a socially constructed arrangement of institutions, rules
and relationships. The organization of agriculture today has resulted solely from
decisions made by people, and can be altered and reorganized if enough people
wish to alter or reorganize it[161].
Many of the indicators presented in this report were identified in a workshop on “A Life
Cycle Perspective to Sustainable Agriculture Indicators” organized by the Center for Sustainable
Systems in February, 1999 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The workshop was funded through a grant
from U.S. EPA region V. Over 50 participants from academia, federal and state government,
farmers, and food industry representatives contributed to this workshop.
Guntra Aistars and Jonathan Bulkley of the Center for Sustainable Systems had a primary
role in organizing the workshop. Dennis Keeney, Ron Meekhof, Michelle Miller, and David
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Appendix A: Source and Methodology used in Creating Figure 3: Life Cycle
Materials: 1995 U.S. Food System Flow.
Figure 3 compiles data from a number of sources. This appendix documents
those sources and explicates concern or necessary clarification in the data. Data for the
1995 year is used throughout and was chosen because data on losses from the edible food
supply were available for 1995.
Plant based production, feed to livestock, animal - Agricultural Statistics 1999,
National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1999, U.S.
Government Printing Office: Washington, DC;
Import/ Export - Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States (FATUS). 2000,
Economic Research Service, USDA;
Data from Tables 2 and 3.
Industrial Uses - Industrial Uses of Agricultural Materials: Situation and Outlook.
Economic Research Service, USDA, Washington, DC; IUS-6, August, 1996;
Edible Food Supply and Losses - Kantor, L.S., K. Lipton, A. Manchester, and v.
Oliveira, Estimating and Addressing America's Food Losses, in Food Review.
20(1). Jan-Apr 1997, Economic Research Service, USDA: Washington, DC.
Notes: Feed to livestock, taken from Table 1-74 of Agricultural Statistics, is reported in
equivalent feeding value of corn. In other words, the weight of “harvested roughage”
presented is the amount of corn that would have the same feeding value as the harvested
roughage fed to animals. In real numbers, these roughages (harvested roughage and
pasture) would be much larger (perhaps double the value). The numbers are presented in
Table 1-74 in this fashion because they are back-calculated from the number of animals
fed using feed ration conversions (Allen Baker, ERS, personal communication). Flows
into “Feed to Livestock & Poultry” (“feed grain imports”, other byproduct feeds”, “feed
grains to animals”, oilseed cake & mill byproduct feeds”) are not in equivalent feeding
value of corn.
The flow “other byproduct feeds” is the difference between “byproduct feeds”
from Table 1-72 and the total of “oilseed cake and meal” and “mill products” from Table
1-70 in Agricultural Statistics. This difference should be primarily animal protein feeds
and mineral supplements.
Appendix B: Sources and Methodology used in creating Figure 5: Life Cycle Energy
Use for the U. S. Food System
This appendix details the source and calculation methodologies for the energy
data presented in Figure 5. A noted omission from this compilation is the energy
consumed by the seed industry in research, development, and production. Energy in food
disposal (land fill, garbage disposal/ sewer treatment) is also not included.
Agricultural production - Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators,
1996-97. Economic Research Service, USDA, Washington, DC; agricultural
handbook no. 712, July 1997, .pg. 136.
The values presented by the ERS represent primarily direct energy used on farms
and indirect energy consumed in the manufacturing of fertilizers and pesticides. The
values are back-calculated from expenses data that have not been explicitly collected
since 1993 (electricity use has not been recorded since 1991) (Mohinder Gill, ERS,
personal communication). Energy use expenses in agriculture are now
estimated/reported as an aggregate of many types/sources, making it difficult to back out
use due to differences in prices. Values for different fuel types were extracted from
Figure 3.3.1 in the ERS report and multiplied by fuel specific factors that account for
energy consumed in the production of those fuels (see pre-combustion factors at end of
this appendix). According to the 1994 edition of the Agricultural Resources and
Environmental Indicators, the reported fertilizer and pesticide energy includes the energy
used in production, packaging, transportation, and application (see text box “What is a
BTU?,” pg. 107). A pre-combustion factor was not applied to the fertilizer and pesticide
value. Other indirect energy inputs into agriculture, such as the manufacturing of farm
machinery and equipment, is not included here.
Transportation -1997 Economic Census: Transportation. Commodity Flow
Survey. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Washington, DC;
EC97TCF-US. Single-mode ton-miles (truck, rail, water) were compiled for all
agriculture related shipping identified in the census (live animals and live fish; cereal
grains; other ag. products; animal feed and products of animal origin; meat, fish, seafood,
and their preparations; milled grain products and preparations and bakery products; other
prepared foodstuffs and fats and oils; alcoholic beverages; fertilizer). The Commodity
Flow Survey does not cover shipments of agricultural products from the farm site to the
processing centers or terminal elevators, but does cover the shipments of these products
from the initial processing centers or terminal elevators onward. Multiple mode transport
was considered insignificant (single mode accounted for greater than 89% of all ton miles
in each agriculture related category) as were single modes with small contributions (air,
parcel). Ton-miles were then multiplied by BTU/ton-mile estimates from Franklin
Associates, Ltd. (Franklin Associates Ltd., Energy Requirements and
Environmental Emissions for Fuels Consumption. 1992: Prairie Village, KS).
These BTU/ton-mile numbers include pre-combustion energy for fuel acquisition. Truck
transport was assumed to be diesel and 80% tractor trailer. Water transport was
estimated at barge energy consumption levels.
Transport of food from retail outlets to homes has been estimated as follows:
According to the DOE Transportation Energy Book (Davis, S. C., Transportation
Energy Data Book: Edition 19. 1999, Oak Ridge National Laboratory for U.S.
Department of Energy: Oak Ridge, TN. ORNL-6958.), U.S. households average 775
person trips for shopping a year, with an average vehicle occupancy for shopping of 1.7.
This comes out to 8.7 vehicle shopping trips per household per week. The Food
Marketing Institute ( reports that U.S.
households averaged 2.2 trips to the grocery store per week in 1999. We thus estimate
that approximately 25.3% of shopping trips are for groceries. The Transportation Energy
Book reports a total of 2.7786 x 1011 vehicle-miles for shopping, and 5822 BTU/vehicle-
mile for the average automobile. Thus:
0.253*(2.7786x1011)*5822 = 4.09 x 1014 BTU
This value was then multiplied by the gasoline pre-combustion factor.
The energy consumed in transporting agricultural products from farms to
processing centers has not been explicitly included here due to lack of data. Some of the
fuel consumed for this transport may be included in the agricultural production estimates.
Processing (food and kindred products industry) - 1994 Manufacturing Energy
Consumption Survey. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy,
Washington, DC; Table A10: Total Inputs of Energy for Heat, Power, and
Electricity Generation by Fuel Type, Industry Group, Selected Industries, and
End Use, 1994; <
Totals from food and kindred products (SIC Code 20) were used here. Energy
use is divided into fuel type in Table A10, and appropriate pre-combustion factors were
applied to each fuel type.
Packaging – The embodied energy in food packaging materials was compiled from
Municipal Solid Waste data (Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and
Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998. 2000, EPA Office of
Solid Waste and Emergency Response: Washington, DC. EPA530-F-00-024)
to estimate usage and Life Cycle Inventories for Packaging (Life Cycle Inventories for
Packagings: Volume I. 1998, Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and
Landscape: Berne, Switzerland. environmental series no. 250/I) to estimate the
energy consumed in preparing packaging materials.
Only those packaging materials in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream that
could be specifically attributable to food packaging were included in this estimate: glass
packaging, steel food cans, aluminum beer and soft drink cans, milk cartons and folding
cartons, plastic soft drink & milk bottles. Other pieces such as corrugated boxes and
plastic wraps which have packaging uses both in food and in other products were not
included because the MSW characterization does not differentiate use of these materials.
The following table contains the data used to generate the packaging energy value.
Table B1: Food Packaging Production Energy
Packaging material Generated in MSW
(thousand tons) energy for production
(million BTU/ton) assumptions
Glass 10610 10.6 energy ave. of green,
brown, & white glass
steel 2860 23.1 50% recycle without
aluminum 1530 82.1 50% recycle
paper (milk &
folding cartons 5880 45.7 liquid packaging board
plastics 1430 73.8 polyethylene, general
Food retail and commercial food service - 1995 Commercial Buildings Energy
Consumption Survey. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy,
Washington, DC; Table 1. Total Energy Consumption by Major Fuel, 1995;
Food sales and food service values from Table 1 were used, multiplying by pre-
combustion factors.
Household energy useHousehold Energy Consumption and Expenditures 1993.
Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy, Washington, DC;
DOE/EIA-0321(93), October, 1995; <
While 1997 data is available from DOE for household energy consumption, it
does not sub-categorize the data as far as the 1993 document. Included here is electricity
consumption for refrigerators, freezers, electric range/stoves, microwave ovens, and
electric dishwashers, from Table 3.1 (pg. 10) of the above document.
Natural gas use in appliances is not broken down into types of appliances in the
Residential Energy Consumption Survey. Estimates from Michcon (natural gas
distributor) suggest that cooking consumes about 57% of appliance natural gas. This
fraction was then applied to the total appliance natural gas consumption reported in the
1997 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (A Look at Residential Energy
Consumption in 1997. 1999, Energy Information Agency, U.S. Dept. of Energy:
Washington, DC. DOE/EIA-0632 (97).)
Energy consumed in the heating of water that is used for cooking and food related
cleaning was estimated as follows: The Energy Outlet, an energy conservation resource
center, characterizes a typical household hot water demand
( They report that 12% of
hot water goes to the tub, 37% to the shower, 26% to clothes washer, 14% to
dishwashers, and 11% to sinks. Based on these estimates, we speculated that about 25%
of water heating energy could be allocated to food preparation (sinks plus dishwasher).
This factor was then applied to both the electric and natural gas consumption for water
heating (Table CE4-1c in A Look at Residential Energy Consumption in 1997.
1999, Energy Information Agency, U.S. Dept. of Energy: Washington, DC.
DOE/EIA-0632 (97).)
Food energy available for consumption - Chapter XIII: Consumption and Family
Living, in "Agricultural Statistics 1999", ed. U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, National
Agricultural Statistics Service. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC;
Food available for consumption per capita per day in 1994 was multiplied by the
U.S. population in 1994 and by 365 days per year.
Pre-combustion factors:
In order to account for energy consumed in acquiring and supplying a particular
fuel type, pre-combustion factors from Franklin Associates (Franklin Associates Ltd.,
Energy Requirements and Environmental Emissions for Fuels Consumption.
1992: Prairie Village, KS, Table A-5) were used.
Table B2: Pre-combustion energy factors for various fuels
electricity upstream factor 3
natural gas upstream factor 1.12
diesel upstream factor 1.18
LPG upstream factor 1.27
gasoline upstream factor 1.21
coal 1.02
residual fuel oil 1.17
... Generally, an assessment of methods of production using alternative techniques of agriculture by small farms may be almost four times energy efficient than large farms that employ conventional use of technology. The high use of synthetic chemicals, use of fuel for farm machines, use of pumped water, and other external inputs are factors that infer the low energy efficiency by conventional systems (Heller and Keoleian 2000). ...
Cultural or indigenous practices refer to long-standing traditions and ways of life of specific communities or locales. These practices are place-based and often location- and culture-specific. Plants are integral to livelihood especially in indigenous communities within the Global South. Ethnologists including ethnobotanists continue to enumerate the interface between nature and culture, which addresses the need to provide quality information for plant conservation and their sustainable utilization. Plant conservation is the wise use of plant resources by the present generation so that future generations can benefit. Traditional conservation ethics protect plant diversity and natural resources because local communities consider themselves as the major stakeholders. Globally, support for contemporary plant conservation approaches exists whereas none exists for traditional methods. Some traditional systems used for plant conservation through their utilization include taboos, totemism, rituals, domestication, reserves, secrecy, selective harvesting, sacred groves, etc. Totemism is the practice-based consciousness of the supernatural link that exists between people and specific objects including plant species, natural resources and or objects made from these items whereas taboo is the forbidden practice of using or consuming some plant species, natural resources and objects or their parts (totems). Sacred groves are described as patches of land considered sacred and conserved by indigenes through sociocultural, economic and religious observances and include traditional sacred groves, temple groves, burial and cremation grounds, etc. like the Asanting Ibiono sacred forest, Nigeria; Anweam sacred grove within the Esukawkaw forest reserve, Ghana; sacred Mijikenda kaya forest, Kenya; Kpaa Mende sacred grove, Sierra Leone; Thathe Vondo holy forest Limpopo, South Africa and Kwedivikilo sacred forest, Tanzania. These largely informal conservation and utilization practices have several ecological, sociocultural and economic relevance. They have contributed towards the protection of plant species like Lippia javanica, Milicia excelsa, Adansonia digitata, Spathodea campanulata, Ziziphus mucronata and Ficus thonningii. However, growing pressures from human population boom, reduced environmental quality, and neglect of sociocultural norms and traditional belief systems are undermining the relevance of these practices. Therefore, it is essential to document these practices, enlighten future generations of their importance and institute legal instruments to promote the sustainable management and application of these cultural heritage and natural resources for societal development.KeywordsCultural practicesEthnobotanyPlant conservationTaboos and totemsGlobal SouthSustainable development
... Fresh produce and fruits, on the other hand, have to rely on faster transportation modes such as trains, trucks, and planes (Morawicki, 2012). On average in the U.S., the energy used to transport foods represents only14 percent of the total energy used to produce, process, distribute, and prepare the food at home, restaurants, and institutions (Heller and Keoleia, 2000). Another factor to consider in the debate of local vs. ...
Blue economy refers to the economic activities geared towards advanced sustainable management and conservation of maritime resources and coastal resources and sustainable development in order to foster economic growth. The challenges of meeting the food demand of the world's rising populations require sustainable food supply chains anchored on coastal communities and sustainable food production. Moreover, marine resources are vital to ensuring food security, accounting for two-thirds of the world's fishery production, 80% of the world's aquaculture production, and per capita supply of fish is 65% higher than the world average. As the world population grows, the volume of food needed in the future will depend on these intrinsic factors and human choices. The chapter explores the current status of sea resources and proposed some ways forward based on existing opportunities and challenges using secondary data to accelerate the sustainable use of the sea resources and analyzes some of the human actions that may affect the sustainable future of the food supply chain, food waste.
... Roughly 6% of energy used in the food system is used to move food, mostly its transport by truck. That figure is low, as it does not include delivery from farm to processor, diesel truck trailer refrigeration (Heller and Keoleian, 2000) or transport from store to home or restaurant, also referred to as the "last mile" (Wakeland et al., 2012). These studies neglected to investigate how changes in distribution could potentially change energy use downstream, such as with home refrigeration and wasted food (Verma et al., 2019) or fuel and labor waste from traffic congestion (TTI, 2017). ...
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Improving the regional organization of food flow requires an understanding of system constraints. System transformation is necessary if the system is to include regional, independent wholesale food suppliers and to distribute food in an equitable and sustainablemanner. Regional suppliers play a pivotal role in overall food systemresilience, an emerging issue in wake of the numerous failures in conventional food supply chains exacerbated by COVID-19-related disruptions. Yet alternative supply chains that link local producers with towns and urban centers regionally, represent a small fraction of our nation’s food suppliers. They struggle to compete with larger distribution networks that can supply products in-and out-of-season by global procurement. The upper Midwest harbors numerous local and regional food supply chains consisting of farms, processors, trucking companies, wholesalers and other firms that share a commitment to sustainability and local economic development. A constellation of challenges hamper their emergence, however, even as larger scale food supply chains flounder or fail to effectively serve communities. Informed by Donella Meadows’s work on leverage points for systemic change, a collaborative, transdisciplinary and systems research effort examined conventional food supply networks and identified key opportunities for shifting food supply chain relationships. System concepts such as stock and flow, leverage points, and critical thresholds helped us to frame and identify challenges and opportunities in the current system. The second and third phase of our collaborative research effort occurred over 4 years (2013–2016) and involved twenty-six people in co-generation of knowledge as a loose-knit team. The team included farmers, supply chain practitioners, students, academic staff and faculty from multiple departments and colleges. Our primary method was to host public workshops with practitioner speakers and participants to identify dominant narratives and key concepts within discourses of different participants in distribution networks. The literature review was iterative, based on challenges, ideas and specific questions discussed at workshops. Our research exposed two meta-narratives shaping the supply chain: diversity and efficiency. In addition to these high-leverage narratives, we identified and examined five key operational thresholds in the Upper Midwest regional food system that could be leveraged to improve food flow in the region. Attention to these areas makes it possible for businesses to operate within environmental limits and develop social structures that can meet scale efficiencies necessary for economic success.We iteratively shared this co-produced knowledge with decision-makers via local food policy councils, local government, and national policy circles with the goal of supplying actionable information. This phased action research project created the environment necessary for a group of food system entrepreneurs to emerge and collaborate, poised to improve system resilience in anticipation of food system disruptions. It forms the basis for on-going research on food flow, regional resilience, and supply chain policy.
... Furthermore, studies such as Heller [75], highlight that up to 80% of the materials and energy used in the agri-food systems occurs beyond the farm gate, i.e., in the processing, transport, retail and service provision sectors. Some of these interconnections are recognised in initiatives such as the EU Farm-to-Fork Strategy [76] but MS and the EU still have a strong policy focus on growth rather than the much less popular ideas of moving towards sustainable consumption, when this actually means less consumption. ...
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The paper presents insights from carrying out a pan-EU sustainability assessment using Farm Accountancy Data Network (FADN) data (the old wine) with societal metabolism accounting (SMA) processes (the new bottles). The SMA was deployed as part of a transdisciplinary study with EU policy stakeholders of how EU policy may need to change to deliver sustainability commitments, particularly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The paper outlines the concepts underlying SMA and its specific implementation using the FADN data. A key focus was on the interactions between crop and livestock systems and how this determines imported feedstuffs requirements, with environmental and other footprints beyond the EU. Examples of agricultural production systems performance are presented in terms of financial/efficiency, resource use (particularly the water footprint) and quantifies potential pressures on the environment. Benefits and limitations of the FADN dataset and the SMA outputs are discussed, highlighting the challenges of linking quantified pressures with environmental impacts. The paper concludes that the complexity of agriculture’s interactions with economy and society means there is great need for conceptual frameworks, such as SMA, that can take multiple, non-equivalent, perspectives and that can be deployed with policy stakeholders despite generating uncomfortable knowledge.
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Food is required by all living things without which life processes will be on halt. Food security defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security is a condition in which people have access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food at all times that meet their dietary needs for a healthy life. The importance of biodiversity in the conservation of African foods for the sustenance of healthy and nutritious diets cannot be overemphasized. It is crucial for improving food security, conservation, livelihood, human well-being, and ecosystem services in Africa, and can be said to be a basis the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1 and 2. However, there has been a steady decline in species biodiversity for food and agriculture at the level of genetic composition, species, and ecosystem levels resulting in deteriorating diet quality and subsequently increase in the risk of malnutrition. The natural resources which may serve as for food include diverse vegetation, various species of sea life, including fishes, crabs, prawns, and shrimps, as well as animals. All of these have been depended on by mankind since time immemorial. Some African countries have been using some biodiversity friendly approaches, yet their usage needs to be amplified to increase the potentials of food security and biodiversity across Africa. These approaches can increase the plant and animal sources by increasing their ability and ensures sustained production for the long-term survival of mankind. However, the biodiversity that underpins much of modern agriculture is fast disappearing as our reliance on plants and animal species has led to increased biodiversity loss which puts food security livelihoods and health at risk. In this chapter, some biodiversity friendly approach as it enhances food security in Africa is expounded. Biodiversity conservation strategies practised in Africa, plant and animal sources of biodiversity, and the application of biodiversity friendly approaches to food production are also discussed. Likewise, the peculiarity of Africa potentials towards the biodiversity of food and animals is well captured in this chapter.KeywordsAgricultureConservation strategiesFood securitySustainable Development GoalsWest Africa
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En este capítulo trataremos el sistema alimentario, veremos qué hace diferente el uso de energía en la producción de alimentos comparado con otros sectores, así como cuáles son las principales fuentes de energía, tecnologías y usos finales para diferentes tipos de sistemas agrícolas y para otras etapas de la producción de alimentos como el procesamiento, almacenamiento y el transporte. También estudiaremos de qué formas se analiza el uso de la energía en el sistema alimentario. Los conceptos útiles para estos análisis, tales como energía directa e indirecta; de “eficiencia”, como relación de salidas/entradas, que es distinto de la eficiencia en sentido estricto; contenidos energéticos de los insumos en la producción de alimentos y de los alimentos propiamente. Haremos una revisión de las tendencias históricas en el consumo de energía en la agricultura con ejemplos de México y algunos a nivel internacional. Debido a las particularidades del uso de energía en la producción de alimentos, se han propuesto otras maneras para su análisis más allá de la eficiencia de entradas o salidas, además de agrupar las diferentes etapas bajo el concepto integrador de sistema alimentario. La sección se cierra con una discusión y recomendaciones concretas para hacer el sistema alimentario más eficiente y sustentable.
There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy. Alfred Henry Lewis (1906) Figures 5.5 and 6.1 and Table 6.1 show that households use 15.7% of U.S. energy and are responsible for 19.3% of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2018. Therefore, Chapter 7 considers the sustainability challenges of households. Likewise, the energy use (37.3%) and CO2 emissions (36.3%) of transportation motivated Chapter 8. This chapter considers agriculture as an import example of industry and commerce (the other two sectors in Table 6.1).
Electrification is a promising approach to most carbon-emitting sectors of economic sectors of human activities such as transportation and industry sectors. Electrifying the machinery and different systems used in a farm can mitigate the carbon footprint of the agriculture sector if renewable energy sources are coordinated with the agricultural loads appropriately. This paper presents a road-map that: 1) presents greenhouse gases emitting activities in the food supply chain, 2) the potential impact of vertical farming on the agriculture sector, 3) discuss the carbon footprint of different activities in the food supply chain, and 4) presents a road-map to decarbonize greenhouse gas emitting activities in farms. This paper estimates that electrification of farms in an appropriate process with renewable energy resources can decrease the carbon footprint of farming 44–70% depends on the type of the farm.
Provides a systematic presentation of the economic field of industrial organization, which is concerned with how productive activities are brought into harmony with the demand for goods and services through an organizing mechanism, such as a free market, and how variations and imperfections in the organizing mechanism affect the successful satisfying of an economy's wants. Of the three market mechanisms (tradition, central planning, and free markets), the field of industrial organization deals primarily with the market system approach. This book primarily emphasizes the manufacturing and mineral extraction sectors of industrialized economies, with less discussion of wholesale and retail distribution, services, transportation, and public utilities. Beginning with a discussion of the welfare economics of competition and monopoly, the structure of industries in the U.S. and abroad and their determinants are described, including motives for mergers and their effects. Extended analysis of pricing, product policy, and technological innovation then follows. Antitrust, price fixing, related restraints, structural monopolies, regulation, and price discrimination are examined, as are the complex policies governing pricing relationships between vertically linked firms. The role of advertising in product differentiation and the roles of market structure and product variety are identified. Innovation, patents, and their relation to market structure are explored. Overall, this analysis seeks to identify attributes or variables that influence economic performance and to build theories about the links between these attributes and end performance. (TNM)
Energy is equally important to land, water, and human resources in U.S. crop production. In addition to human energy, sunlight and fossil energy are the primary energy resources utilized in agricultural production. Because all technologies employed in agriculture require energy resources, the measure of energy flow in crop production provides a good indicator of the technological changes that have taken place in this sector. Energy values (kilocalories) for various resources and activities remain constant, and this is a major advantage in assessing technological change in agriculture, in contrast to economic values that are continually changing depending on the relative supply and demand of various resources and services. Another advantage of using energy as a measure of change in agricultural technology is that it can help assess the substitution of different forms of energy for various practices, as well as the substitution of land, water, and labor resources for energy.
The environmental profile of goods and services that satisfy our individual and societal needs is shaped by design activities. Substantial evidence suggests that current patterns of human activity on a global scale are not following a sustainable path. Necessary changes to achieve a more sustainable system will require that environmental issues be more effectively addressed in design. But at present much confusion surrounds the incorporation of environmental objectives into the design process. Although not yet fully embraced by industry, the product life cycle system is becoming widely recognized as a useful design framework for understanding the links between societal needs, economic systems and their environmental consequences. The product life cycle encompasses all activities from raw material extraction, manufacturing, and use to final disposal of all residuals. Life cycle design (LCD), Design for Environment (DFE), and related initiatives based on this product life cycle are emerging as systematic approaches for integrating environmental issues into design. This review presents the life cycle design framework developed forthe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a structure for discussing the environmental design literature. Specifying environmental requirements and evaluation metrics are essential elements of designing for sustainable development. A major challenge for successful design is choosing appropriate strategies that satisfy cost, performance, cultural, and legal criteria while also optimizing environmental objectives. Various methods for specifying requirements, strategies for reducing environmental burden, and environmental evaluation tools are explored and critiqued. Currently, many organizational and operational factors limit the applicability of life cycle design and other design approaches to sustainable development. For example, lack of environmental data and simple, effective evaluation tools are major barriers. Despite these problems, companies are beginning to pursue aspects of life cycle design. The future of life cycle design and sustainable development depends on education, government policy and regulations, and industry leadership but fundamental changes in societal values and behavior will ultimately determine the fate of the planet’s life support system.