A report from The European Commission's Joint Research Centre has warned that the whole of the European food sector – from farmers, to manufacturers, and consumers – must but more focus on creating a system that uses less energy and gains more power from renewable sources.
By analysing the energy content of a typical 'European food basket' composed of 17 largely consumed food products, the report provides an estimate of the amount of energy needed to cultivate, process, pack and bring food to European citizens' tables.
The analysis of energy use in the EU food industry found that energy required to ensure food supply in the EU amounted to around 26 % of the EU's final energy consumption in 2013.
According to the report (found here), the share of renewable energy in this mix remains relatively small at just 7% of all energy used by the industry – when compared to its part in the overall energy mix (15%).
“The food sector is a major consumer of energy: the amount of energy necessary to cultivate, process, pack and bring the food to European citizens’ tables accounts for 17 % of the EU’s gross energy consumption in 2013, equivalent to about 26 % of the EU’s final energy consumption in the same year,” noted the report’s executive summary, which added that the ‘limited penetration’ of renewables “is largely a reflection of the high reliance of the food sector of fossil fuels.”
While the report calls on the industry to do more to focus on sustainable energy consumption, it does note that the overall the food industry's energy consumption did decline between 2005 and 2013 – both in absolute terms as well as in terms of energy intensity, producing more while using less energy.
“EU policies such as the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive have helped set the stage for a transition to a more sustainable food system, but do not directly target the food production process,” added the report. “The EU's Common Agriculture Policy also plays an important role, in particular through incentivising investments in more sustainable farming methods, as well as the rural development programme which aims to ‘facilitate the supply and use of renewable sources of energy’.”
Decarbonisation: From farm to fork
The EC report noted that progress in the decarbonisation of the food sector is challenging – claiming that while farmers and industry have made relevant efforts to improve their energy profile, consumers can also play their part by reducing meat consumption, buying locally and seasonally, and reducing food waste.
The report noted that agriculture, including crop cultivation and animal rearing, is the most energy intense phase of the food system—accounting for nearly one third of the total energy consumed in the food production chain.
“Energy, especially in the form of indirect energy used for fertilisers and pesticides or irrigation, remains a crucial input for cultivation success but huge improvements are possible,” said the report. “More efficient fertiliser production technology and avoiding unnecessary fertiliser applications through properly designed cultivation practices are expected to complement each other and play a major role in decreasing indirect energy inputs to agriculture.”
Meanwhile the second most important phase of the food life cycle is industrial processing, which accounts for 28% of total energy use. Indeed, together with logistics and packaging, these three phases of the food life cycle ‘beyond the farm gate’ are responsible for nearly half of the total energy use in the food system, said the report.
“The EU food industry is also making important contributions to make their activities more sustainable, through both increased investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements,” said the report.
Indeed, it cited several measures that the food processing industry is exploring, including the possibility of recovering the energy contained in food residues on site through biogas production or in dedicated combined heat and power plants.
However, the EC analysis also noted that in some cases energy trade-offs will need to be considered.
“While it is generally true that food travelling long distances embeds more energy than locally originated food, several studies reveal that the issue needs to be carefully assessed on a case-by-case approach,” it said. “For example in [the] case of vegetables. Scientific literature reports cases where efficient transportation from warm countries resulted in less energy use in comparison with vegetables locally grown in greenhouses.”
The full report builds on these figures, and analyses ‘the way ahead’ – highlighting the main challenges to be faced in decreasing the energy use and in increasing the renewable energy share in the food sector, in addition to presenting potential solutions offered by science and technology.