Food processing is the third largest energy user in California, the top agricultural state in the nation. Plants that process food, beverages, and tobacco emit more than 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t particularly like that. In fact, in a perfect world, the government would like to see processors use little to no electricity and natural gas—just resources from Mother Nature. It’s a tall order. Maybe even an impossible one. But in January the USDA hired Alleyne, a 35-year-old post-doctorate researcher from UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, to see if it’s even remotely doable.
Mostly known as a regulatory agency, the USDA has a team of 30 scientists cloistered in a big building on Buchanan Street [in San Francisco], to focus on making agriculture and food production as sustainable as possible. The group, called the Processed Foods Research Unit, is one of only a handful that the USDA has dotted around the nation. Given that agriculture in California is a $45 billion business, producing 400 commodities and half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in this country, it makes sense to have one of the units here.The idea seems simple--convert the processing industry from its reliance on natural gas and electricity to using only solar energy. Of course, nothing is ever simple, but it certainly feels like a move in the right direction. This is one of those cases where your tax dollars really do seem to be at work for the best.