Posted June 9, 2016
As we highlighted last week, energy has revolutionized American farming – helping to fill our dinner tables every day. American energy also plays an important role in starting your day off right, and full.
Recent op-eds in the New York Times notwithstanding, there really is nothing like a good breakfast to start your day. According to parents and athletes everywhere, breakfast still has a strong claim to most important meal of the day.
I’m a big fan of breakfast, especially a long, leisurely weekend brunch with eggs, bacon and mimosas. But, most days, my breakfast is a bit quicker: a piece of fruit, a bowl of cereal (with milk, of course) and a cup of that nectar of the gods—coffee.
And I’m not alone. While restaurants, particularly fast-service restaurants are increasing their breakfast offerings, 70% of breakfast meals still are eaten at home. The average annual number of breakfast occasions per person in 2015 was 361, which was up 11 occasions from 2010.
While my humble, weekday morning repast provides more than enough fuel to get me through the long day ahead, it actually takes a lot of energy--from a variety of sources--to get this simple breakfast from the fields to my table.
Let’s start with my cereal. Ready-to-eat cereal is by far the largest breakfast food category with dollar sales amounting to about 9.01 billion U.S. dollars in the United States in 2014. It’s estimated that Americans buy around 2.7 billion boxes of cereal each year, which amounts to about 14 pounds of cereal that the average person consumes annually.
My go-to is Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes because, well, “they’re grrrreat.” Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes happens to be the third ranked ready-to-eat cereal brand of the United States with about $417.5 million worth of sales in 2016.
A whole lot of energy went into making my Frosted Flakes. In fact, almost 16 percent of U.S. energy goes to supplying Americans with food, split roughly equally between crop and livestock production and food processing and packaging.
The corn used to make my Frosted Flakes are the perfect example. It was planted and harvested with the aid of tractors and combines; those silky ear stalks were irrigated with water pumped from other, sometimes distant, sources. Then there’s the chemistry it takes to produce nitrogen-rich fertilizers and manufacture the needed pesticides and herbicides, and the fuel to transport the harvested corn to the Kellogg’s processing plant in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Then, there’s the processing, as this “How It’s Made” video illustrates. Corn kernels are cooked in an oven, ground up by a worm screw, crushed in a flake roller, dried in a dryer unit (not once, but twice) and sprayed with vitamins and sweetener before heading to packaging. All of these steps require significant energy—everything from natural gas to run the dryer unit to electricity to power the sprayers.
Next, my Frosted Flakes go into a plastic bag (made from oil), which in turn is inserted into a printed paper box made out of wood pulp—another energy-intensive process. This video from Container & Packaging Supply takes a satirical look at a world without cereal boxes.
Only after all that does my cereal leave Battle Creek and travel 592 miles by truck to my grocery store in Washington D.C. and finally, to my bowl.
But I don’t just eat my flakes without some accoutrements, including milk. Everyone knows milk comes from dairy cows, but cows have energy needs, too.
According to research (PDF) by Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes about 14 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of milk protein on a conventional farm. Those energy needs include housing the animals in barns, which require energy to properly insulate and light.
It also includes feed. Dairy cows eat. A lot. A cow that is milking eats about 100 pounds each day of feed. And their preferred feed is a large variety of mixed grains—animals consume 95 percent of the oats and 80 percent of the corn produced in the United States, and we already discussed the energy needed for modern agriculture production.
Most cows produce an average of about 70 lbs. of milk per day, or about 8 gallons per day. That sort of output requires modern technology via milking machines, which use electricity to milk the cows and carry the milk down stainless steel pipes to store it in a large refrigeration units. The milk is then collected from these coolers and carried away by special milk tanker trucks to be pasteurized and packaged in a carton box made of paperboard coated in waterproof plastic.
Maybe you use a milk alternative on your cereal, and that also takes energy, as Slate notes: “The calcium in soy milk has to be artificially added, and you won't get anything remotely looking like milk from soy until you've ground up the beans; removed a fiber the Japanese call okara; and added water, vitamins, minerals, and sugar…” Not only do the other ingredients in soy milk need to be shipped from elsewhere; the process of adding them requires energy as well.
And almond milk, while super delicious, relies on tons of almonds, which are primarily grown in California. It takes 1.1 gallons (5 litres) of water to grow one almond and that irrigation system likely runs on electricity and generators. Then there’s the chemical additives, stabilizers, packaging…..all of which requires energy to grow, produce and moooo-ve (pun intended).
Plus, unlike dairy farms, which dot many of our rural areas, soy and almond milk travels much further to get from the field to our store shelves. Think about it: when’s the last time you drove past a soybean milk farm?
I like a sliced banana on top of my flakes as well. Bananas may grow on trees, but the banana-making process is anything but low energy. Latin America is by the far the world’s biggest exporter of bananas, in particular, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia. But in these tropic and sub-tropic climates, disease and pests are a constant hurdle requiring the large scale use of pesticides and herbicides derived from chemicals.
And while the bananas are transported from the fields to the processing plant via a pulley system and donkeys as seen in this Dole video, once they get to the processing facility, they move along conveyor belts powered by electric motors and are washed by sprayers—all machinery requiring massive amounts of energy. Once packaged—in cardboard boxes loaded onto pallets--the bananas are loaded onto trucks and taken to the port to take the long container ship trip from Costa Rica to a temperature-controlled ripening warehouse in the United States.
Speaking of Costa Rica, that’s where the best coffee comes from as well, in my opinion. The tiny nation of only 4.8 million people produced over 1 million bags of coffee in 2014/2015, the smallest crop in 38 years due to less-than-ideal weather conditions and a plant-choking fungus known as “coffee rust.”
More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day. While coffee is the necessary fuel to rev up a lot of people’s early mornings, conventional coffee processing itself is also pretty energy intensive. At the farm level, fertilizers represent the highest energy inputs on the farm, in particular, fertilizers and chemicals used to counteract any soil leaching and degradation.
After the coffee is picked, coffee cherries are transported via trucks to gathering centers. There, the pulp and the mucilage must be removed, which requires two separate processes that run, primarily, on electricity. The coffee must be dried and the parchment removed, and finally the coffee must be sorted. All of these steps require energy, although the electricity required for drying represents nearly 80 percent of the electricity required for processing coffee, according to the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica.
Then there is, of course, the transporting and shipping of the coffee from Costa Rica to the Port of Miami (1256 nautical miles) before the beans are loaded on a truck and sent to a retailer for further packaging before eventually landing on the shelves of my local Trader Joe’s. Coffee exporting alone is a $20 billion dollar industry. U.S. imports of agricultural products from Costa Rica totaled $1.5 billion in 2015, with unroasted coffee making up $168 million of that total (right behind our other breakfast item, bananas).
When you think about all the steps and energy resources involved in making your daily breakfast, it really does give you quite a bit of fuel for thought.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.