How an efficient food system can change the world

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U.S. Food System
Americans enjoy a diverse abundance of low-cost food,
spending a mere 9.8% of disposable income on food.
However, store prices do not reveal the external costs
—economic, social, and environmental—that impact
the sustainability of the food system. Considering
the full life cycle of the U.S. food system illuminates
the connection between consumption behaviors and
production practices.
Patterns of Use
Agricultural Production
Farmers account for about 1% of the population, and the average age of farmers is rapidly increasing.
Large-scale family farms account for 9% of all farms and 66% of agricultural production.
Just 16¢ of every dollar spent on food in 2011 went back to the farm; in 1975, it was 40¢.
In 2011, farmers were reliant on income sources outside the farm to make up 83% of their household income, on average.
In 2001-2002, 53% of the hired agricultural labor force lacked authorization to work in the United States.
From 1997 to 2007, total cropland acres decreased from 455 million acres to 408 million acres.
Many parts of the U.S., including agricultural regions, are experiencing groundwater depletion (withdrawal exceeds recharge rate) at
increasing rates.
In 2008, 91.2 million acre-feet of water were used for irrigation—more than 550,000 gallons per acre; groundwater sources
supplied more than half this amount.
Nutrient runoff in the agricultural upper regions of the Mississippi River creates a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The average size
of the region was more than 5,684 square miles from 2007 to 2012.
Despite a tenfold increase in insecticide use between 1945 and 1989, crop losses due to insect damage nearly doubled.
In 2007, the U.S.
agriculture sector used 877 million pounds of pesticides.
Less than 20% of corn and soy plants were genetically engineered in 1996; by 2012, 88% of corn and 93% of soybeans were genetically
In 2007, 1.73 billion tons of topsoil was lost to erosion, equal to about 200,000 tons each hour.
Agricultural activities were responsible for 8% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. Livestock are major contributors.
Consumption Patterns
In 2006, the U.S. food supply provided 3,900 calories
per person per day.
Accounting for waste, the average
American consumed 2,534 calories per day in 2010, an
increase of 17% from 1970.
In 2010, 191 pounds of meat per person were available for
consumption, which is up 30 pounds from 1960.
34% of
grains grown are used to feed animals (down from 50%+
in past years).
The average American consumes 23 teaspoons of added
sugars and sweeteners per day; the American Heart
Association recommends between 5 and 9 teaspoons daily
for an average adult.
More than 68% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese
(body mass index 25+), and 17% of children age 2-19 are
Diet contributes to heart disease, certain cancers, and
stroke—the three leading causes of U.S. deaths.
In 2008, the cost of obesity-attributed medical
expenditures in the U.S. was close to $147 billion.
An estimated 26% of the edible food available is wasted at
the consumer level.
This waste accounts for roughly 15%
of the municipal solid waste stream and represents a loss
of $390 per person each year.
One estimate suggests
that 2% of total annual energy use in the U.S. is used to
produce food that is later wasted.
Material Flow in the U.S. Food System
(1995, flows in million pounds)
The Food System Life Cycle

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