The food-energy nexus

Michael Webber explains how food affects energy and energy affects food.

On the Catalyst with Shayle Kann podcast this week:

Last time we talked to Michael Webber, we dug into the nexus between water and energy. This episode we’re diving into food. The connections are myriad.

Food itself is just a means of energy storage, and a particularly good one at that. While photosynthesis is remarkably inefficient — averaging only 0.3% globally, compared to 90% or more in an electric motor — it stores energy for weeks to years.

In the U.S. we use around 12% of our energy to produce food, in the form of inputs like diesel, fertilizer and electricity. Meanwhile, the food system itself provides fuel to the rest of the energy system, through ethanol and other forms of bioenergy.

So how do all these things fit together? 

In this episode, Shayle talks to Michael Webber, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas–Austin, and chief technology officer at Energy Impact Partners, where Shayle is a partner. They cover topics including:

  • The Green Revolution, which added more energy to food production, improving yields while reducing the amount of people required

  • The categories of energy consumption, such as fertilizers, on-site fuel, transportation, the cold chain and cooking

  • Food waste, which in the U.S. affects about 30-50% of edible food

  • Why buying local is not necessarily good for the environment

  • Why we should not use food for fuel, unless it’s waste byproducts from food production

  • How climate change affects the food system, for example by reducing the efficiency of photosynthesis and requiring more refrigeration to reduce spoilage

  • The viability of indoor agriculture

Recommended resources:

  • Climavores: Bursting the eat local’ bubble

  • Catalyst: The 3 pathways to alternative proteins

  • Catalyst: From biowaste to biogold’

  • Catalyst: How well does soil actually store carbon?

Catalyst is a co-production of Post Script Media and Canary Media.

Are you looking to understand how artificial intelligence will shape the business of energy? Come network with utilities, top energy firms, startups and AI experts at Transition-AI: New York on October 19. Catalyst listeners get a 10% discount with the code pspods10.

Catalyst is supported by Antenna Group. For 25 years, Antenna has partnered with leading clean-economy innovators to build their brands and accelerate business growth. If you’re a startup, investor, enterprise or innovation ecosystem that’s creating positive change, Antenna is ready to power your impact. Visit antennagroup.com to learn more.

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