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Energy Efficiency and Saving in the Agri-food Industry

The agri-food industry comprises an integrated complex production chain which ranges from the primary agriculture to the mature food and beverage sector. It is considered as one of the largest sectors  worldwide with significant contribution to the economic advancement of nations and major social impact. While food corporations and individual farmers adapt their production to consumer expectations, international and governmental institutions promote the respect of the environment, protect medium- and/or small-sized farms and help agri-food producers. The industry’s future sustainability and effectiveness is considered to depend upon the mutual implementation of the following actions:

  • Making the healthy choice easy for consumers,
  • Developing value-added food products (e.g. superior quality, quick to prepare, cheap),
  • Assuring safe food that consumer can trust,
  • Achieving sustainable food production,
  • Achieving effective management of the food chain, and
  • Comply with environmental rules and directives. 
Introduction top

Sophisticated technologies define the whole chain of agri-food production. Agricultural machinery, originally led by tractor manufacturing, has practically eliminated human labour in many areas of production. Biotechnology is an important driver for change within the sector as it applies to agrichemicals, plant breeding, and food processing. Technology derived by information technology advancements is also a central force, with computer networks and specialised software providing the support infrastructure to allow global movement of the plethora of components involved.

In the agri-food industry, energy comprises only a small part of the total cost of production (approximately 3%) and is not considered a core business (Sandberg and Soderstrom, 2003). As a consequence, until recent years, factories have had a poor energy metering and have allocated few resources to energy management. Today, even if the food industry remains a non-intensive energy industry, higher energy prices and increased environmental awareness have increased the focus on energy efficiency. Energy management involves many actors with different visions and expectations. Energy is the absolute prerequisite for the processes required for food freshness and safety. Thermal processing and dehydration are the most commonly used techniques for food preservation, and require significant amounts of energy. Process heating uses approximately 29% of total energy in the food industry, while process cooling and refrigeration demands about 16% of total energy inputs. Foods that have undergone energy intensive processing have become increasingly popular in global markets. Consumers spend less of their food budget on meat, eggs and dairy, and more of their food budget on higher value-added foods and cereal and bakery products. Higher value-added foods include prepared foods, nonalcoholic beverages, table spreads, and confectionery products. In total, at least 40% of the industry shipment value is added through energy intensive manufacturing.

Feasibility of technology and operational necessities top

The agri-food industry is facing a number of challenges that require a re-evaluation of current practices in production and trade, co-operation between enterprises along the vertical supply chain, the influence of governments on enterprises’ management activities and environmental awareness. In order to respond to the above and similar demands, the industry is coping with how best to transform itself, thereby constantly seeking to optimise its potentials in the face of the new patterns of intensified competition. The challenge of increasing food production to keep pace with demand, while retaining the essential ecological integrity of production systems, is colossal both in its magnitude and complexity (see

Recent increases in energy costs and concerns about global warming are encouraging the food industry to optimise their use of energy. Waste and energy use can be decreased through process optimisation, operating techniques, and scheduling. Wastewater can be processed and reused and waste can be converted to by-products and reused or sold (Okos, et al., 1998). Changes made to improve quality or safety often results in energy savings. While certain energy requirements cannot be avoided, such as heat to be removed from products in chilling or freezing, or added in cooking, the manner in which the process is carried out can make substantial efficiency savings. Energy reduction can best be achieved by understanding the interaction between the energy inputs (refrigeration or cooking plant, heating, lighting, etc.) and the food.

Status of the technology and its future market potential top

Agriculture and food production is a complex business, calling for technologies from a wide spectrum of sophistication. Every country has a variety of traditional food industries based on well-established indigenous processing technologies. These traditional technologies have been improved by the application of modern scientific knowledge. In this sense, there is clearly a process by which traditional technologies are combined with modern ones, creating a hybrid of the two (Chamarik and Goonatilake 1994). Advanced technology is common throughout the industry, right from the farm to the consumer. Farmers, processors, wholesalers and retailers today use modern equipment and systems, including computers, to work in fields, barns, greenhouses, nurseries, processing plants and retail food stores. Sophisticated technology is as important to the agri-food business as it is to any other industrial sector. Information and its use is vital to the agri-food business. Communications through electronic and computer technology is becoming a normal part of business for farmers. Management decisions are made based on quick access to markets, prices and production information. Technological advances in production have dramatically improved the turnaround time of certain products from the research table to the consumer.

Biotechnology has created much more exact methods for breeding better livestock and crop varieties that are more disease-resistant or better quality, and to improve foods, feeds, fertilisers, disease vaccines and pest control products so they have more desirable traits that they had before. Biotechnology uses biological processes to produce substances that help agri-food production, the environment, industry and medicine. Already, the benefits of the use of biotechnology in the agri-food sector are being felt: 80% of the world’s cheese is produced using the enzyme chymosin. Identical to the rennet traditionally harvested from calf stomachs, chymosin is produced by modified bacteria; but being purer than rennet it is more effective, easier to handle and cheaper to produce. New biotech vaccines and diagnostic kits are starting to be used in animal disease management programmes. Novel functional foods are being marketed to treat a range of conditions and crops with added vitamins and minerals are being developed to counter nutrient deficiencies (a new rice variety with added vitamin A was introduced in 2007). Generally, with biotechnology consumer demands for fresh, nutritious and safe food, public concerns about animal welfare, and societal requirements for sustainable and environmentally friendly production and processing can be addressed. Consumer acceptance and approval of these technologies, however, will be crucial to their success. The recent and much publicised objections to certain genetically modified crops affect just one aspect of biotechnology, but other biotech procedures and products could by association, and because of a lack of understanding of the benefits, become the subject of similar concerns.

In recent years, scientists have worked with farmers, processors and retailers to develop and demonstrate new techniques. This is expensive and often time consuming, but results in better quality products for consumers. The application of the concept of sustainable development to the effort to ensure food security requires systematic attention to the renewal of natural resources. It requires a holistic approach focused on ecosystems at national, regional and global levels, with co-ordinated land use and careful planning of water usage and forest exploitation. The goal of ecological security should be embedded firmly in the mandates of relevant world organisations.

The agricultural systems that have been built up over the past few decades have contributed greatly to the alleviation of hunger and raising of living standards. They have served their purposes up to a point. But they were built for the purposes of a smaller, more fragmented world. New realities reveal their inherent contradictions. These realities require agricultural systems that focus as much on people as on technology, as much on resources as on production, and as much on the long term as on the short term. Only such systems can meet the challenge of the future.

How the technology could contribute to socio-economic development and environmental protection top

The world population will grow from six billion in 1999 to almost nine billion in 2050, which requires a larger food production, as stated by UNEP. This puts greater pressure on land use and the amount of arable land per person, which has diminished already from 0.24 hectares in 1950 to 0.12 hectares today. In many countries the situation is becoming critical: for example, Pakistan has only 0.08 hectares of grain producing land per capita, with a projection of less than 0.03 hectares per capita by 2050. More importantly, the whole agri-food chain, which involves the production of agricultural products, of food transformation, food distribution by the retails chain, and food consumption have major environmental impacts. The depletion of natural resources, land degradation, land contamination, CO2 and air emissions as well as toxic wastes have dramatically increased environmental awareness in the agri-food industry (Borray and Requier-Desjardins, 2004). In this regard, supranational organisations and individual countries have adopted various measures in order to tackle environmental concerns. EU policies are increasingly aimed at reducing the risks of environmental degradation, while encouraging farmers to continue to play a positive role in the maintenance of the countryside and the environment by targeted rural development measures and by contributing to securing farming profitability in the different EU regions. In other industrialised countries, such as USA and Canada, a part of the agri-environmental strategy is largely aimed at enhancing the sustainability of agro-ecosystems. There are several projects in a regional or national level attempting to improve the quality of the sector and increase its sustainability (see video example below)

See video

Video 1

Society is demanding greater environmental sustainability and the food sector can contribute substantially to that demand. In addition, dwindling fossil fuel supplies add a national security dimension (in the USA in particular) as the bio-economy starts to emerge. In general, agriculture occupies a large and important part of the environment. This makes the agricultural community a chief manager of extensive natural resources, owner and architect of much of the landscape, and protector of a precious soil resource. Sustainable agriculture protects the natural resource base, prevents the degradation of soil, water, and air quality, and conserves biodiversity. From a socio-economic perspective, sustainable agriculture contributes to economic and social well-being, ensures a safe and high-quality supply of agricultural products, and safeguards the livelihood and well-being of agricultural and agri-food workers and their families.

Below are some examples of the agri-food sector's contributions to environmental sustainability:

  • Agriculture bio-energy: sustainable energy sources using ethanol from grains, methane from manure,
  • Crop diversification: sustainable agriculture, healthy soil and nitrogen-rich crops,
  • Animal welfare: humane treatment of animals in handling and food production,
  • Environment climate change: changes to air quality related to agricultural crops, and
  • Sustainable communities: landscape architecture using citizen participation.
Contribution of the technology to social development top

The whole industry is viewed as a key driver for economic development and social welfare, since, among others, it can create employment opportunities, improve the quality of life, enhance environmental sustainability and contribute to the economic growth of both urban and rural areas.

Generally, food security is a prerequisite for sustainable, equitable economic development and indeed a critical factor for economic and social stability. Food security simply means access for all people at all times to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a healthy and productive life. It depends on the availability of and access to food, and on proper food use. In developed countries food supply is generally considered adequate. However, in developing countries food security is one of the high priority issues. The following figure shows the development in the number of undernourished people worldwide.

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Figure 1: Number of Undernourished People in the Developing World


Experiences documented so far show that hunger reduction is possible, even in some of the poorest countries in the world. Among the developing regions today, the greatest challenge is the one facing sub-Saharan Africa. It is the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with one in three people deprived of access to sufficient food, generally in the rural areas that hunger is concentrated. On the other hand, urban poverty tends to be fuelled by people migrating towards the cities in an attempt to escape the deprivations associated with rural livelihoods. Partly due to the rural decline, the world is urbanising at a fast pace and it will not be long before a greater part of developing country populations lives in large cities. Therefore, according to FAO (2009), urban food security and its related problems should also be placed high on the agenda in the years to come.

Contribution of the technology to economic development (including energy market support) top

Important benefits for the sustainable development targets can be achieved through a better management of the energy use of agri-food sector. In the beginning of the 1990s, the food industry consumed 7% of the total electricity used by the global manufacturing sector; 94% of which was purchased and 6% produced through co-generation by the individual food industries themselves (Okos, et al., 1998). Electricity consumptions constitutes 15% of the food industry’s energy needs. Fossil fuels are also used, with natural gas being the most widely used. The table below shows the eight industries that consume approximately half of the total energy used by the food industry.


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Figure 2: Shares of agri-food industry (Source: Okos, et al., 1998)


As mentioned above, the food industry uses energy for food preservation, safe and convenient packaging, and storage. Safe and convenient packaging is extremely important in food manufacturing and is also energy intensive. The newest packaging techniques require aseptic techniques and electro-chemical changes. Proper storage is also energy dependent. Freezing and drying are the most crucial methods of food storage. Freezing operations require a large portion of electricity used by industries. Drying procedures usually depend on fossil fuels. Older dehydration systems were designed to operate with maximum throughput, disregarding energy efficiency. Newer systems are designed with recirculating dampers and thermal energy recovery equipment to cut energy use 40%. Approximately half of all energy end-use consumption is used to change raw materials into products (process use), which include process heating and cooling, refrigeration, machine drive (mechanical energy), and electro-chemical processes. Less than 8% of the energy consumed by manufacturing is for non-process uses, including facility heating, ventilation, refrigeration, lighting, facility support, onsite transportation, and conventional electricity generation. Boiler fuel represents nearly one-third of end-use consumption. This energy can be transformed into another energy source. For example, boiler fuel can be used to produce steam, which can have end uses.

Processing uses 78% of electricity in the agrifood sector, with 48% used for machine drive and 25% for process cooling and refrigeration. Non-process uses account for 16% of electricity use. Lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning accounted for about 12 of the 16%. Distillate fuel oil is used mainly for boiler fuel (42%) and non-process uses (42%). Onsite transportation consumes the most distillate fuel oil in the non-process category. Processing consumes 9% of total distillate fuel oil, mostly by process heating. Like residual fuel oil, natural gas was mostly consumed as boiler fuel (62%).

Contribution of the technology to protection of the environment top

The agri-food industry is still a major contributor of industrial waste. For example, in the UK the food and drink sector produces between seven and eight million tonnes of waste per year, second only to the construction industry, and it consumes approximately 900 million litres of water each day, enough to supply almost three-quarters of all customers’ needs in London daily. The impact of the sector on climate change has made both the competent authorities and corporate decision makers to find solutions so as to cope with GHG emissions. 

Climate top

Although carbon dioxide is the major GHG emitted by other industries, agriculture is a main emitter of methane from livestock enteric fermentation and nitrous oxide from inorganic fertilizer and manure use. The main GHGs emitted in agriculture are methane and nitrous oxide, which underlies the need to become climate and not just carbon-neutral.  This is mainly due to meat production. Cattle, water buffalo, sheep and other ruminants are animals with a special stomach that allows them to digest tough plant material.  Digestion produces methane, which the animals get rid of by releasing it at either end. For instance, the annual methane emissions from the burps and farts of a cow amount to 3,500 kilograms, according to UNEP

Agriculture is in a unique position because of its ability to 'capture' atmospheric carbon in growing crops and then store a portion of that carbon in soil organic matter. This process is carbon sequestration or carbon storage. Agricultural soils can be a source (by emitting carbon dioxide) or a sink (by storing carbon dioxide) for carbon dioxide depending on soil management practices. As an example, the Canadian Prairies occupy over 54 million acres of Canada's farmland, agriculture can make a significant contribution to meeting Canada's GHG reduction targets.

Conservation farming practices, such as direct seeding and good fertilizer placement have increased soil organic carbon levels, which helps to 'offset' GHG emissions, thereby reducing the industry's net GHG emissions. Reducing GHG emissions simply means that crops and livestock are raised more efficiently, thus reducing on wasteful losses of inputs such as nitrogen (nitrous oxide) and energy (methane). Adoption of conservation practices will help to reduce GHG emissions. 

Financial requirements and costs top

In the main, suggestions as to where and how to decrease energy consumption (and the consequent investment opportunities) in the food system can be divided into three categories (Hendrickson, 1996). The first is largely technical and involves the application of more efficient engines, fuels, and materials. The following list provides examples of this type of potential energy savings:

  • Improved irrigation pump efficiency,
  • Basic efficiency and conservation measures in food processing plants,
  • Better tires and regular air pressure control, use of diesel gasoline, etc., in semi-trucks, and
  • Aluminium rail cars and other railroad efficiency measures.

A second set of conservation measures involves the substitution and refinement of techniques and processes. Examples of this type of energy savings include:

  • Solar drying of crops (rather than using electricity),
  • Increased use of manures (green and animal) and crop rotations rather than inorganic fertilisers,
  • More timely and appropriate use of pesticides,
  • Conservation tillage, no-till, and reduced tillage,
  • Pasteurisation and sterilization by cold pasteurisation and electron beam sterilisation,
  • Evaporation and concentration by supercritical extraction and protein separation,
  • Drying by vapor recompression supercritical extraction extractive drying,
  • Chilling, cooling and refrigeration by controlled atmosphere packaging,
  • Route optimisation and capacity loading in freight shipments, and
  • Reduction in food waste throughout all sectors of the food system.

Although these first two categories certainly imply social and economic choices and changes, the third category of energy savings is profoundly social. Many of these measures reflect awareness that, as fossil energy resources are depleted, difficult political and structural choices may need to be made. Some examples include:

  • Decrease consumption of beef, sugar, and highly processed foods,
  • Organise campaigns to educate target groups and share technical information about key issues,
  • Decrease consumption of ‘luxury’ agricultural items (tobacco and pet food), and
  • Increased reliance on local food production and limiting consumption of imported foods.

How these energy savings can be achieved is, of course, extremely political. Few would argue with the energy conserving measures possible through the use of more efficient technologies whereas the suggestion that people consume less meat creates controversy. Many analysts argue for a reduction in the use of inorganic fertilisers, but there also many experts who argue that such fertiliser use is critical to maintain high yields and feed growing populations. Regardless of one’s stance on these issues, it that some of the greatest saving can be realised by:

  • Reduced use of petroleum-based fertilizers and fuel on farms,
  • A decline in the consumption of highly processed foods, meat, and sugar,
  • Set standards for environmental quality, fuel quality, emissions, fuel use, zoning and licensing,
  • Economically intervene by issuing taxes, subsidies or creating markets for pollution rights,
  • A reduction in excessive and energy intensive packaging,
  • More efficient practices by consumers in shopping and cooking at home, and
  • A shift toward the production of some foods (such as fruits and vegetables) closer to their point of consumption.

Finally, the food products industry also generates biomass from agricultural residues (e.g. rice husk) which can be used by other industries instead of fossil fuels. Also from this perspective, the agrifood industry could contribute to overall GHG emission reduction.

In general, it can be concluded that there are many opportunities for improving energy efficiency in the agri-food industry through evaluation and addition of effective governmental energy policies and voluntary process analysis and improvement. The costs of the sector vary between countries, which justifies several investments in order to render the sector more competitive (see Figure below)

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Figure 3: Operational costs of agro-food industry (Source: ECORYS-NEI and Business Mobility Internatinal, 2004)

In order to support a sustainable development of the agri-food industry there have been several initiatives on a global, regional and national scale. International initiatives are either undertaken by NGOs, or by (groups of) multinationals, thereby supported by several national governments. These initiatives are not necessarily restricted to the food chain though. In Europe, an initiative may come from the European Commission, such as the European Consultative Forum on the Environment and Sustainable Development. This forum advises the Commission on environmental matters, and consists of all parties that may be affected when decisions are made. Many initiatives in Europe focus on the safety of food. This has largely been stimulated by recent accidents in the food sector and the drop in confidence of the consumers in the food industry. Specific parties in the food chain have joined forces on a European level, such as EurepGAP, where a group of major European retailers aim at raising the standards for the production and safety of food. Another example, but from the beginning of the food production chain, is EISA, which is composed of national initiatives from six countries (FARRE, FIL, FLN, L’Agricoltura Che Vogliamo, LEAF, Odling i Balans) and mainly focuses on promoting Integrated Farm Management in their home country and on increasing the public awareness of its benefits. Also, supported by the EU, the European Technology Platform on Food for Life aims to bring together stakeholders in the food and drink sector to achieve major advances in R&D.

References top

Borray, G.R. and Requier-Desjardins, D., 2004. Environmental impact of panela food-processing industry: sustainable agriculture and local agri-food production systems. International Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol 7(3), pp. 237-256.

Chamarik, S. and Goonatike, S., 1994. Technological independence – The Asian experience, The United Nations University, Japan. Available at:

Hendrickson, J., 1996. Energy Use in the U.S. Food System: a summary of existing research and analysis, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin: Madison.

Okos, M., Rao, N., Drecher, S., Rode, M. and Kozak, J., 1998. Energy usage in the food industry: a study, Report nr. IE981, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Sandberg, P. and Soderstrom, M., 2003. Industrial energy efficiency: the need for investment decision support from a manager perspective, Journal of Energy Policy, Vol. 31, pp. 1629-1634.