Weak links in food systems: How we can all fuel a movement towards sustainable supply chains.
How often do you think about the energy we spend on moving food from farms and fisheries to our tables? Whether it be production, processing, or distribution, taking food where it needs to go gets quite energy intensive. How intensive you ask? Let's see, we'll use a cup of cold coffee as reference.
To heat our 1 cup of "morning joe" we'll need on average, 78 BTUs of energy. (British Thermal Units) Not bad. It's the equivalent output that a lighted candle can produce per hour. In 2018, the U.S consumed 10 quadrillion BTUs (that's 10 with 15 zeroes) to power our current food system. Now that... would heat a lot of coffee.
What's more, is that system remains almost entirely reliant on non-renewable resources. Indeed, close to 20% of all fossil fuels burned in the U.S power some stage of food production. It's a challenge ripe for innovative solutions. In this article we'll briefly look at where the energy generated is spent, a few companies reinventing our approach and how the restaurant industry and it's consumers can help accelerate progress.
How we spend our energy
"Many current food systems are unsustainable because they cause significant resource depletion and unacceptable environmental impacts. This problem is so severe, it can be argued that the food eaten today is equivalent to a fossil resource" - Professor of Biosystems Engineering Nicholas Holden
Our system for moving food can be broken down into 4 main categories, each using a portion of the 10 quadrillion BTUs needed each year. The different sectors rely on varied forms of energy generating resources to operate, as shown in this illustration by saveonenergy.com.
Below, we'll list these in order from least power hungry to most, and see where the restaurant industry fits in -
Transportation : Air freight, container ships, railways and road transport make up 14% of the energy consumed at 1.4 quadrillion BTUs
Food Processing : Transforming raw products into the foods we know and love eats up 16% at 1.6 quadrillion BTUs
Agriculture : Producing fertilizer or pesticides along with the gasoline, diesel, electricity and natural gas needed to farm represent 21% of the share at 2.1 quadrillion BTUs
Food Handling : Within this broad spectrum we have a range of industries from packaging and refrigeration to the restaurant industry itself. The "wheels" of this sector are churned using by far the largest portion of the total at 49%. 5 quadrillion BTUs
So then, we see there are a vast number of opportunities to lower our usage but the true challenge is making those innovations accessible and cost effective for food businesses of all types. Today, there are more and more companies trying to do exactly that through different approaches.
Powering the move away from "fossil food"
Warehousing and Distribution
The energy needed to heat, cool and light a large food storage facility or distribution warehouse is enormous and the majority of our foods are, at some point in their journey, held at and sent through these sites.
One change being widely embraced by food warehouses is motion sensor enhanced LED lighting, which ensures energy won't be used on areas not in use. Simple and effective. Yusen Logistics recently completed a full retrofit of a 486,000 square foot food warehouse in Carson, California which will decrease total energy consumption by 65%.
Americold Logistics has fitted 45 cold food storage facilities with similar systems across the U.S, saving 14million kWh per year. In fact, these sites are so efficient, they have the ability to reduce power for a period of time without affecting the storage temperatures. Those down periods are often enough to stop the local utility company from to firing up additional coal burning stations in times of large power demand, such as during the summer.
Making the most of the distribution spaces we have can also make a large impact on the efficiency of any energy used, that's the idea behind FlexE. They're an online marketplace for on-demand warehousing solutions. Here's an example of what they do. When large grocery stores have extra space at their local food warehouse, it often goes unused and the energy to power it, wasted. FlexE can enable that space to be offered online, to competing grocers or restaurants who currently have an overflow of inventory that need storing. Somedays, they can have 3 or 4 different businesses storing products in one warehouse. Shared networks like these can reduce the need for new power drawing facilities and make the most of the ones we already have. Good for business and good for the planet. By supporting businesses paving the way with sustainable initiatives like these, the restaurant industry can encourage more warehouses to follow suit.
Transportation is a key element in any supply chain, of course, but it takes on added importance in the food and beverage industry, especially with products that must be refrigerated. And as we know, over-the-road hauling consumes large amounts of fuel and in refrigerated trucks, releases tons of HGCs(a "super pollutant") into the atmosphere. Luckily, alternative energy vehicles used for the task are always being made more effective, responsible and accessible.
This is a fantastic direction for the industry but it doesn't end there. There are also companies who reduce the miles these vehicles drive by taking a less direct approach.
Such innovations involve machine learning enabled Transportation Management Systems. This is software that creates truck routes, in real time, based on the vast amount of data it collects during each and every delivery. The programs account for thousands of constantly updating factors, organizing and optimizing deliveries for maximum energy efficiency.
Ginsberg’s Foods, an independent food distributorship in Hudson, New York, can serve as a microcosm for how an efficient transportation management system (TMS) cannot only greatly reduce its carbon footprint, reduce emissions and more, but also improve the bottom line.
Like most food distributors, Ginsberg’s Foods has used traditional fixed route dispatch and routing practices, delivering loads to the same customers the same day each week. The system was complicated and inefficient because many customers don’t have standing orders, and require the distributor to adhere to a four-hour delivery window. Organizing their 35+ truck fleet in a way that kept fuel consumption at a minimum was no simple task.
After switching to the fully integrated system, the results were almost immediate. In 1 year, delivery stops were up 5 percent, cases per route up 2 percent, stops per route up 6 percent, routes per day down 4 percent and miles driven down 6.7 percent. The distributor is on track to save more than $571,000 annually, and recovered its technology investment by the end of the first year of operation. For the restaurant industry and it's consumers, it'll be worth keeping an eye on the growth of these technologies and to seek collaboration with companies that are building a more responsible future.
The role of food businesses and their consumers
As we've seen in just the few example companies within this article, innovations continue to be made everyday. It's an exciting time. Still, there remains work to be done if these innovations are to be widely adapted, which up until now they have not been. A large part of that work consists of raising visibility and awareness.
The more visible the effects of the supply chain are made, the more food businesses and communities have a reason to support change. To do this, we need transparency from all distribution companies, retailers, restaurants etc. Something sorely lacking across the industry today.
So how can we encourage transparency? Food businesses can seek out the supply chain companies contributing to sustainable systems and making visibility a priority while customers can choose to eat or shop at establishments taking the initiative to show support for such companies today. Only in this way can innovative companies grow and influence the future version of our food systems in the face of the industry leaders that got us here today.
At The Automat, contributing positively through innovation is part of our mission and it is a privilege to be writing about these commendable efforts being made in the food supply chain through the Bite for Byte blog. Subscribe so you won't miss what we cover next!